In a rare fit of prior planning, my husband and I are weighing options for adding one more animal species to our budding suburban homestead next year. This year we added a tiny backyard flock of laying hens, and it's been a great success. We have almost wholly positive feelings and experiences from the girls. The eggs have been absolutely fantastic, and have helped us trim our food budget significantly. There are four candidate species for next year, each with pros and cons to consider. I would love to get some feedback from readers who have experiences either positive or negative with any of these animals.
Here's an exploration of the issues as I currently understand them. Since we do not have real experience with any of these species, please don't take what I have to say here as a reliable guide to your own decision making.
Work load: none daily, occasionally significant
Positives: Pollinators! A good food source without killing anything. Husband can make mead. Potential for some honey sales. Probably won't be considered a violation of local ordinance limiting us to four "outdoor pets." Maintenance will not be a daily activity. We know people nearby with expertise in beekeeping. Support for a species having trouble lately. Honey has a long shelf life. No noise/smell issues.
Negatives: Financial outlay for equipment may be significant. We don't eat all that much honey, so I'm concerned about using up the product. Potential for stings and freaked out neighbors. Maintenance and harvest will need to be done in a timely manner which may fall at particularly busy times of year.
Work load: minimal daily to semi-weekly
Positives: Easy to prepare for and care for. Equipment will cost very little. Incredible soil amendment value. Probably won't become an issue with the four "outdoor pets" ordinance. Potential for sale as fishing bait. Potential for use as feed supplement to chickens. No noise/smell issues.
Negatives: Boring. So boring I might slip into neglecting them, which I hope would be benign neglect. Would have to split compost and kitchen scraps between hens and worms. Don't know anyone who practices vermiculture. Doesn't produce anything we can eat directly.
Dwarf dairy goats
Work load: significant daily
Positives: Interesting, intelligent species. Will provide a steady supply of a food that is difficult for us to source locally. We know a local dairy goat farmer to turn to for advice. No need to kill the milk goat for several years. Male offspring may be sold or eaten. Potential for cheesemaking, yogurt, etc. Grazing will help keep our lawn maintained.
Negatives: Significant effort will be required to arrange/build housing, especially for the winter months. Housing and feed costs may be significant. Will add a significant daily chore that cannot be skipped under any circumstance. A minimum of two animals will be needed for the social well being of this species. Would definitely violate the outdoor pet ordinance limitations, unless we reduced our laying flock to two hens. Arranging for breeding may be a hassle. Arranging for their care if we go away will be a major hassle if the doe is lactating. Manure issues are unknown to us. Noise issues unknown.
Meat rabbits or hares
Work load: moderate daily, occasionally significant
Positives: Housing will be cheap to build from materials we have on hand. Steady supply of meat. Feed may be very cheap if they can partly or wholly subsist on our untreated lawn and damaged produce from our own garden/trees. Can be integrated into our rotational grazing system for the hens. Rabbit manure is an excellent soil amendment that requires no aging/composting. Daily labor will be minimal and can be done at the same time as for the hens. Possible secondary product of the pelt or fur? No noise/smell issues if properly maintained. Their grazing will slightly reduce our need to cut the lawn.
Negatives: Would definitely violate the outdoor pet ordinance limitations, unless we reduced our laying flock to two hens. We have to slaughter the animals to derive the primary benefit from them. We don't know anyone who raises rabbits for meat. I'm not accustomed to cooking with rabbit. Slaughtering and butchery will add to the work load and may need to happen on a fairly strict timetable. May have to go to some trouble to source the breed we want. Animals will be vulnerable to same predators as hens.
- So there are the arguments for and against each candidate species, so far as we understand them at this point. It's a lot to consider, no?
I became interested in the dwarf dairy goat idea after reading about two tiny, urban farms in California that include Nigerian dwarf dairy goats. Our lot is small, but bigger than either of these properties. We've already had a tour of the local dairy goat farm, which has a herd of normal sized dairy goats. It was enlightening and encouraging.
I'm pretty willing to flout the local ordinance limiting us to four outdoor "pets," because I don't think anyone would report us. We're considerate neighbors, and there are only two occupied properties close enough to ours from which someone might see enough to realize that we're over the limit of the ordinance, if they actually knew about the limit. No one has complained about the hens. I'm not wild about reducing our flock size below four hens. Even if we were reported, I'm pretty certain we could find good homes for the goats if need be. The rabbits could be slaughtered.
I am concerned about the increased work load that another species would add. I think the biggest daily increase in labor would be with the dairy goats. Vermiculture would offer the lowest return but also the lowest investment in labor and money. My husband will be away from home much less in the next year, so he may be able to help with the new additions to the homestead. But that's something we'll need to work out so that we understand the responsibilities we'll each be signing up for.
So what say you? If you've had any experience keeping any of these animals, I would love to hear your comments.