The natural world is inhabited by a hugely diverse mix of both plants and animals. If the secret of sustainable food production is imitation of natural systems, I conclude that, if we possibly can, we should include livestock as well as plants in our food production program. Of course, many homesteaders do not have the opportunity to raise domestic livestock, either because of limitations of space, or restrictive zoning ordinances-which sadly are becoming more and more common. However, before giving up on the idea of raising a few animals of your own, check out the possibilities. You may find that ordinances are not quite as restrictive as you thought. Or that their enforcement is not as Draconian as they could be. Perhaps you could start a quiet little operation with zero “nuisance value” and with some points of interest for your neighbors’ children. Sharing eggs or other produce could be another part of keeping in your neighbors’ good graces. As long as they don’t complain, it may be that your mini-livestock operation will remain under Big Brother’s radar. It might be worth a try. Rabbits, for example, are extremely quiet and unobstrusive, as are pigeons. You might find no objection to keeping a small flock of laying hens, whereas the presence of a crowing cock might bring complaints. You might even consider guinea pigs-in parts of South America, Africa, and Asia, they are an important food source. They are easy to grow, even in the middle of the city.
The importance of pasture
The larger our property size and the fewer restrictions on livestock, of course, the more possibilities open to us. A couple of general principles apply to most species of livestock. Almost all livestock benefit greatly from access to pasture. We think of the ruminants-sheep, goats, and cows-as grazers, but actually most other common domestic species benefit greatly from pasture. I’ve already mentioned geese as grazers par excellence. Chickens, guineas, and turkeys also thrive on good pasture-they do eat a fair amount of grass and clovers, but they also forage a good deal of wild (“weed”) seeds, and animal foods such as worms, slugs, and insects-all of which is food of a quality you cannot hope to match. Although domestic rabbits have been bred for raising in cages, it is possible to adapt even their care so they can forage pasture grass. Pigs are usually thought of in pens, but the best-tasting pork I’ve eaten has always come from pastured pigs.
As to the other point about all livestock, I cannot do better than quote a longtime guru of mine, Joel Salatin: “If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure-you are smelling mismanagement.” That statement is surprising, because we’ve come to accept that livestock operations have to be “stinky.” It amuses me when people visit my poultry house for the first time. It’s always the same: If the visitor has ever been in a poultry house before, at some point she will stop, a questioning look on her face, then sniff. “Hey, why doesn’t it stink in here? ” I point out that she is standing on the answer-deep organic litter over an earth floor. The chooks scratch their poops into the litter, which becomes in effect a slow-burn compost heap, rife with microorganisms breaking down the poops and the high-carbon litter. There is no build-up of manure with offensive smells, serving as a vector for disease pathogens or breeding ground for flies. Indeed, byproducts of the metabolism of the microbes in the litter include vitamins K and B12 and natural antibiotics, which actually nourish the chooks and boost their immune systems as they ingest some of that material when going after little critters in the litter. And speaking of those little critters: A study by the Ohio Extension Service in the 1920s found that chickens on a mature 12-inch litter can obtain 100% of their protein needs from the litter.
This approach-making sure that livestock manure is constantly incorporated in a high-carbon litter or manure pack-can be adapted for other species in the winter housing as well. A litter over an earth floor which has been well aerated during the decomposition process can be used directly in the garden. Other litter should be treated like raw manure and either composted or run through earthworm bins before use.
Poultry are among the easiest of all livestock, and I commend them to beginning homesteaders. Even a small flock of laying hens will keep the family supplied with the best eggs they’ve ever eaten for much of the year. As said, I prefer to keep the birds on pasture during the green season. If your only option is to keep them in a hen house, I recommend bringing fresh-cut green forage every day of the year. Grass grains and crucifers are good cold-weather crops you can grow as cut-and-come-again forage for your flock. Dandelion and yellow dock stay green longer than any other plants where I live, and both are palatable and highly nutritious for poultry. I dig them by the roots with a spading fork until the ground freezes solid, and throw them to the chooks by the bucketful. If there is no greenery in winter where you live, you can sprout grains and other seeds for them. You don’t need to feed much greenery. Even a small amount will boost not only the vitamins and minerals they are getting, but the enzymes as well, resulting in more thorough utilization of whatever else you are feeding them.
I don’t like the conventional static chicken run-within a week, it is de-nuded of the last blade of grass and looks like the surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops. In the absence of a living sod to “digest” the manure, as happens on pasture, they accumulate on the site, with the potential to transmit pathogens, and to be a point source for pollution of groundwater when it rains. If your only option for releasing your flock from the hen house is a chicken run, I recommend you make a covered run and utilize on it the same deep litter system we discussed earlier. That will avoid the negative effects of manure buildup and leaching. An exposed deep litter, however, would get sopping wet after rain. Not only is the resulting mess unpleasant beyond belief, the anaerobic conditions thus created foster growth of pathogens.
For keeping poultry on pasture, I strongly recommend electric net fencing. For many years now electronet has been a fundamental management tool for me-it allows the birds to free-range, but within the limits I set for them; and it protects them from anything on the ground with a nervous system. (A friend of mine has seen it turn back a bear on two occasions.) The initial investment in the netting and the fence charger (both AC and solar-powered units are available) is significant, but both will last for years with good care. Note that a key component of use of electronet is keeping the fence line mowed. As grass grows over the bottom charged wire, the charge in the net begins to ground out, and at a certain point the “spark” is not sufficient to stop a predator.
Another livestock option I can recommend is goats, “the poor man’s cow.” Goats are wonderful animals, sensitive and active and curious. Especially if you have children, the whole family will love the springtime, when the kids are born. Kids are infectiously playful, endlessly entertaining, and affectionate. Goats need either constant access to pasture (or good browse-unlike sheep, they are active consumers of non-grass browse-briars, bark of young saplings, tree leaves, poison ivy) or a daily supply of good hay. You may or may not wish to supplement with a little grain at milking time, but with any ruminant I recommend against feeding much grain-these species evolved digestive systems adapted to converting cellulose and lignin to nutrients, a trick you and I haven’t mastered as yet, and excess grain in the digestive system can have negative effects. Having a fresh supply of milk is a wonderful resource. Drink it fresh, make cultured milks like kefir from it, make cheeses both fresh and aged-and by the way, have you ever eaten goat milk ice cream? If you buy a cream separator, you can make cultured cream and butter, but a separator is a pain to clean, though absolutely must be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Male kids born to the does can be slaughtered at four to eight months of age or so-their meat is at least the equal of prime spring lamb. To paraphrase Robert Frost: “Good fences make good goats.” Don’t ever forget I told you that! There are versions of electric fencing designed for goats, though I have never used them. Do establish goat-proof fencing before bringing in your first goats. If you cut corners with fencing, you will regret it.
I mentioned that goat’s milk will not give you cream without a cream separator. If you prefer lots of good rich cream that’s easier to get, you might prefer a family cow. If your space is limited or the thought of managing such a big animal intimidates you, consider miniature breeds of cattle. Some breeds of mini-cows are naturally small, such as Dexter, while some have been miniaturized through selective breeding, such as miniature Jerseys. If you don’t need the full production of a cow, you can keep the cow and her calf over night in separate stalls, close enough for comfort but with no opportunity for the calf to nurse. In the morning, milk the cow for the family’s milk, then let the calf run with its mother and nurse throughout the day.
Whether you keep goats or cows, you may well find that you have more milk than your family can use. Remember that your milking animal can be the nurturer, the foster mother, of the entire homestead. Skimmed or soured milk is an excellent supplemental feed for chickens, and pigs thrive on it. So let’s see, you got a cow for a plentiful supply of milk, now you’ve bought pigs to fatten on the excess milk-you’re really feeling like a farmer! And seeing the logic of diversity on the traditional small farm.
Sheep are also an excellent livestock for the small holding. They want to graze more, browse less, than goats, so keep this in mind when providing forage. You might enjoy getting into the spinning, knitting, and weaving arts if you raise sheep. If you’re not so inclined, it might make more sense to get a hair sheep breed (bred as more of a meat than a wool animal), who do not have to be shorn yearly. Two or three lambs a year will go a long way toward the family’s meat supply. Sheep can be milked just as goats are, though most breeds have not been bred for the same level of production. There are dairy breeds available, however, if you are looking for a dual-purpose sheep.
Stacking livestock species
When thinking of livestock on the homestead, remember the concept of “stacking.” Say you have a pasture that can only support two cows. You graze a cow and her growing calf there, thus cannot introduce more cattle without overgrazing, that is abusing, that pasture. However, you can add a flock of chickens on the same pasture. They will use some of the greenery, to be sure, but not enough to compete with the cows. Their main resource will be insects and other animal foods, which the cows have no ability to use.
There are many such opportunities for stacking various species on the homestead. Geese and sheep can share the same pasture. Both are grazers, but tend to “specialize” in different pasture species. Rabbits can be raised in cages suspended over chickens on deep litter. The chickens scratch in the poops and urine from the rabbit cages, keeping the whole scene sweet. (I have been investigating keeping both the rabbits and the chooks together at ground level, and may well give that a try at some point. I’ve corresponded with folks who have actually made it work.) In a hen house with sufficient “head room,” a pigeon loft can be installed over the chickens. Again, the chickens provide the service of dispersing the pigeon poops into the working litter.
Reflections on slaughtering homestead animals
I cannot leave the subject of raising livestock without addressing the issue of slaughtering one’s own animals for food. Likely no other aspect of home food production is so freighted with emotional intensity. I do not make any judgments on the choices people make in this matter. I have advised many people about poultry management who cannot bear the thought of slaughtering their own birds for the table. I never try to push them in that direction, even though in my own flock culling is a part of responsible management, that is, care of the flock itself as a developing, living entity. They know they can attend one of my butchering workshops if and when they are ready, so I leave it at that.
When we take on the duty of caring for other living creatures, we always get more than we bargain for. Keeping goats is joyful-but with the passage of enough springs you are going to be in the painful situation of having to decide whether it is more wise to intervene or keep hands off in a birth that is not going well; when you see the third of triplets stillborn because the doe was just too exhausted at the end to expel the kid fast enough; when you see a kid going into paralysis with lockjaw, and you must decide whether it is more merciful to continue fighting for her life or to put her down. You will learn to castrate and burn off horn buds, unpleasant but essential chores. You will lose hens to the fox, or 19 just-feathered young chickens to the weasel, or 50 broilers to neighboring dogs-friendly enough pooches, but when out on the razzle, a hunting pack. The moment of slaughter, should you choose to make that a part of wise use of animals on your homestead, is a similar moment of tragedy, of anguish as we come face to face with the naked facts of life and death.
Again, I make no judgment about the choice of someone who raises animals and never slaughters them. But I emphatically do not cede the moral high ground to anyone insisting it is more moral never to kill an animal for food. It is obvious to me that eating is an intensely moral act; but it is not at all obvious that a carrot is intrinsically and always more morally produced than a beefsteak. If there is anything our culture desperately needs to learn about the morality of food production, it is that carrots can be grown using methods devastatingly destructive and deeply immoral-monoculture, herbicides, insecticides, destruction of habitat by plowing to the ditch banks, fill in the blanks-and beefsteaks can be produced in a way that protects and nurtures the soil and the total fabric of life, a pretty moral thing to do, in my mind.
It may be that objections often raised to slaughtering one’s own animals focus too exclusively (and morbidly? ) on the moment of death as the definitive element in our relationship to the animal. I focus instead on the whole life that I enjoy with the animals in my care-on the giving and the nurture of each for the other. For my own part, I approach the slaughter of my animals with deep respect; and, when I encounter an animal again at the table, it is with profound gratitude, an awareness of personal indebtedness, that perhaps the person wolfing down a Big Mac or buying a shrink-wrapped package from the supermarket cooler is not privileged to experience.
Local food sources
It may be, of course, that for whatever constraints of location, property size, or time available, the homesteader is unable to produce her own meat, or eggs, or milk. For that matter, there may be other desirable foods-orchard fruits, for example-we do not produce ourselves. I think it is first of all essential to-relax! I’ve spent far too many years thinking I had to do it all, and am grateful that I am now looking to a local community of effort and interdependence for foods we don’t produce on our own place. This option is a key part of independence from the industrial food system.
Buying at the farm
Ellen and I do not at present raise goats or lambs, as we did in the past. We have established a close relationship with friends who do; and each spring we commit to them to buy a determined number of lambs and kids, for ourselves and a small buying group we’ve organized. In the fall, I pick up the animals and deliver them to the abattoir. Each family in the buying group specifies their own cutting and wrapping preferences. I’ve done my own slaughtering of kids and lambs in the past-and could again if necessary-but I like the fact that the abattoir is able to age the meat for me, and that they do a better job of packaging (shrink wrapping) than I can.
Farmers markets are often a good source for superior locally grown foods. Don’t be shy: When you visit the market, talk with the growers. Find out where they farm, what methods they use, their fundamental approach to soil care and sustainability and food quality issues. Use your food dollars to support those with whom you feel the greatest agreement and connection.
Weston A. Price Foundation
If you are not a member of the Weston A. Price Foundation, I strongly urge you to check them out and become a member. Not only is the Foundation a fount of information on food quality, nutrition, and health issues, but local chapters can help put you in touch with growers in your area. Ellen and I are local chapter leaders, and one of our main functions is the maintainence of a local food resources list, which helps families concerned about food quality get in touch with small producers committed to growing superior food. In many cases, people come to have a close and treasured relationship with the people providing their food, and think of them as “our farm.” Trips to the farm to pick up foods such as broilers for the freezer can be a great outing for the whole family, and establish an ever greater connection to the sources of their food-an increasingly rare experience in our culture. Of course, it is always possible to put together buying co-ops of any size or complexity, in order to share the transport and distribution of foods, and perhaps to keep costs down.
Raw milk and milk foods
One food of special note is locally produced high quality raw milk and other dairy products. Our culture has become almost pathologically paranoid about the threats to health of unpasteurized milk. (In fact, as a vector for foodborne illness, dairy products of all types do not even come close to the number one threat in the field-green salads! ) Blinded by the fear we’ve assumed regarding raw milk, we fail to see the threats posed by pasteurization, homogenization, keeping cows confined and under enormous stress, boosting milk production by hormones, and other industrial voodoo. I urge you to inform yourself of the true history of the use of milk as a wholesome food-and the disaster which is industrial milk. And then to seek out a local source of high quality raw milk from grass-fed cows.
Aye, there’s the rub. In many states (including prominently my own state of Virginia), the sale of a wholesome food that has been the foundation of many cultures for thousands of years-has been made a criminal act. If you decide that raw milk could make a wonderful contribution to your family’s health and nutrition, be prepared for a shock-it may well be that Big Brother thinks otherwise. Concerns about nutrition and health may well morph into concerns about your fundamental rights as a free citizen.
One way people are obtaining quality milk in many states is through the use of cowshare programs. The householder buys a share in a cow on a local farm. Since you can drink all the raw milk you like from your own cow, the share owner is simply paying a fee to the farmer for the care and milking of her cow, and the receipt of an agreed quantity of milk each week does not represent a retail sale.
Ellen and I helped start a cowshare program on a farm near us. At present the farm has three fine Jersey cows which supply about 30 or 35 shareholders. We have helped educate newcomers to the program in the proper handling of raw milk, and its use for making a number of traditional dairy foods-cultured milk and cream, simple cheeses, butter, etc. Shareholders become passionately committed to the farm supplying their milk, and to access to milk and milk foods of a variety and quality unavailable in the supermarket.
Bringing it all together
The key to efficient and sustainable food production on the homestead is establishing integrated patterns, bringing into play synergies not available as long as we treat the homestead as a collection of disparate, atomistic parts. The traditional homestead was characterized by diversity and integration of its parts. Monoculture, putting all the eggs in one basket, was alien to the organization of the traditional homestead and small farm. There is nothing particularly mysterious about the goal-we are simply trying to maintain the complex, diverse, interwoven, inderdependent web of life in the homestead as elsewhere in the natural world. Remember that if we rip particular strands out of that web, we inherit their work.
An example is the production of orchard fruit and chickens. In the traditional homestead, the poultry flock free-ranged, meaning they ate insects which could damage the orchard, as well as dropped fruit which otherwise could be a vector for disease. At the same time, the poops from the poultry were “digested” by the orchard ground cover and their fertility made available to the orchard trees. The orchard was more disease and insect free. The birds were healthier, and better (and more cheaply! ) fed without additional inputs from the homesteader. Contrast current practices, in which the flock and the orchard have been separated. Multiple toxic sprays in the orchard to prevent insects and disease are both necessary and routine, as is annual fertilization with chemical fertilizers inimical to soil life. At the same time, our laying and broiler chickens are crowded in huge numbers into buildings requiring enormous inputs of energy for heating, cooling, and ventilation. Antibiotics are included with feed from hatch to slaughter in order to prop up highly stressed populations otherwise in danger of immediate collapse. Feed which is the opposite of the live food a natural flock would forage for themselves has to be trucked in from distant sources. And what to do with all those poops?
Even in the best of circumstances they are an ongoing source of pollution of groundwater, rivers, and bays. Even when used as fertilizer, the surrounding farms can only use so much before accumulating unhealthy levels of nutrients like phosphorus, and the manure has to be trucked greater and greater distances to be spread on crop land. And we haven’t even begun to talk of arsenic in the feed and its residues, the release of antibiotics via the droppings into the environment, pesticide residues in fruits, etc. Indeed, we have made most peculiar choices here in trying to take over the work of natural systems-and we’re doing a pretty sorry job of it.
Your own homestead is an opportunity to heal the many breaches, to take up the work of nurturing wholeness, striving for balance, closing natural cycles. Each homesteader will find his own ways of doing so, but here are a few illustrative examples.
I’ve mentioned that I now use a good-size vermicomposting operation in lieu of classic compost making. In addition to the abundant worm castings for garden fertility, however, I also anticipate being able to make regular “harvests” of worms from the bins to feed my poultry, boosting their access to live food of a quality I cannot purchase, and helping make my homestead more independent of outside inputs.
I use chicken flocks to till in cover crops or take off a weed cover in preparation for planting, even for tilling in an established sod-a laborious job if I do it, even with a power tiller-when developing new garden ground. I simply place a pasture shelter and a water supply on the area, surround it with an electric net fence, and leave the birds in place until their chore is done. Not only do I get the work done without heavy labor, the birds are gathering a good deal of nutrient-dense nutrition on their own. I have found as well that the birds help “sanitize” the area for weed seeds and slugs, and I am less troubled with both throughout the entire season. At the same time, of course, they are boosting the populations of soil microbes with their droppings, leading to gains in fertility.
In my area, squash bugs are one of the most difficult insect competitors of all to control. But I have found a solution both 100% effective and 100% organic-guinea power! I plant my winter squashes and monitor daily as they grow and start to vine. At about the time of the first flowers, I see the first squash bug. I set up an electronet around the squash patch, put in a few guineas (only a few are needed, maybe a trio, no more than five)-and that first squash bug I saw turns out to be the last.
I know a successful small farmer-Joel Salatin, who led the way re-introducing farm-size poultry flocks to pasture in this country-whose success has been greatly dependent on finding the sorts of synergies I’m talking about. In the huge loafing shed for his over-winter herd of breeder cows, the cows eat hay (only-he feeds no grains) all winter as the poops and spilled hay accumulate in a manure pack four feet thick. A great fertility source, but inhibited from proper decomposition by anaerobic conditions in the pack, until aerated by a tractor equipped with a frontend loader and- But wait! Joel is a bit smarter than that: Throughout the winter, from time to time he scatters whole kernel corn over the accumulating pack. In early spring, when it’s time to spread compost onto the fields, he turns in his “pigaerators.” You should see those 200-pound pigs going after the fermented corn buried in the pack-a feeding frenzy which turns and aerates every cubic foot. Labor-saving bacon-that’s what I call using your head.
Another strategy on the Salatin place is following pastured beef cattle with laying hens. All of us who have been on cow pastures have seen the lush, intensely green clumps of grass around cowpies, in contrast to the shorter, paler surrounding sward. Those clumps are the result of what Joel calls the “repugnance zone” the cattle allow around their own manure. That is, they have the instinctual wisdom to know that the manure is a potential vector for pathogens, and avoid it. In Joel’s system, the cattle graze sections of the pasture intensively, controlled by single-strand electric fence, and are followed by a large flock of laying hens centered on the Eggmobile, a mobile henhouse which is moved by tractor. The chooks scratch apart the cowpies for the fly maggots growing in them-a significant protein boost for them-in the process scattering the poops over a wider area, dispersing their fertility to the entire sward, as well as exposing any pathogens to sunlight and air, nature’s antibiotics. Both species benefit from the services of the other, and the farmer realizes higher production for less labor.
I pointed out some of the failings of our contemporary food system, some of the reasons that might encourage us to strive to become more self-sufficient for our food needs, but my own reasons for embracing the homestead life are not primarily negative, and I assume that will be true for you as well, if you try to shape your little piece of Eden into a more bountiful source of food for you and your family. It has been observed that “you are what you eat,” but I’m increasingly certain as well that “you are where you eat.” If you work with your piece of ground with a reverent and nurturing and grateful mind, you will become more attuned to the spirit of your homestead and its place in the world. In the words of Wes Jackson, you will become more “native to your place.” Good luck!