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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

12. Livestock in the Homestead

In the final discussion of the plant kingdom we started talking about members of the animal kingdom. So let’s talk more about livestock in the homestead.

Almost anywhere we look, 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.

Manure management

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 1920’s found that chickens on a mature 12-inch litter can obtain 100 percent 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.