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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

15. Closing Thoughts on Livestock

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.


Slaughtering Our Own

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 nineteen just-feathered young chickens to the weasel, or fifty 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 devestatingly 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.