Friday, October 31, 2008

The Next Species

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.

Worms (vermiculture)
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.


Anonymous said...

Bees and regular dairy goats are on my list, but worms I have. I bought them for my husband for his birthday one year. They live in the basement and they THRIVE on benign neglect! I would recommend putting a tub (like a small sweater storage tub) of them under the kitchen sink. They love carbohydrates like rice and pasta but also do great work on greenery, especially things our chickens won't touch like carrot and potato peels. We shred our recyclable paper and use it as their bedding. Yep they are quite boring but their castings are a great addition to the seedling potting soil and also as a fertilizer for my houseplants.

I know of one meat-rabbit producer. That's one efficient flesh-producing animal, considering input.

Anonymous said...

Gee, this looks just like my list! I am psyching myself up to do my first chicken slaughter next weekend, if it goes well I would also like to try meat rabbits. I have read books and looked at videos on youtube, but like you I have no nearby sources of human support! I am definitely getting bees this spring, thought. Look into "Kenyan top bar hives," you can build them yourself!

Kate said...

El, thanks for confirming that they do alright with benign neglect. I was thinking of putting them outdoors: sinking one of those sweater storage boxes into the ground in a shady spot, then covering them with haybales during the winter to insulate them. Depending on whether or not the raccoons catch on to the worm bar thing, I may need to put some cement blocks on the lid too.

I saw a large worm bed on a small farm in Scotland once. The farmwife was out there with rubber gloves on a rather chilly day, picking out worms for a garden center order.

My chickens do eat carrot peels. But now that I think about it a bit more, I realize that there are plenty of things, oniony things, that the girls would be happy to give to the worms.

We may decide to do the worms *and* one of the other species. We'll see.

Kate said...

Jessica, yes, it sounds like we're in exactly the same position. We plan to slaughter our laying hens in a few weeks. We want to see how we handle that before making any decision about rabbits. I think I'm mentally prepared for it. But we'll see how it goes.

It has surprised me that I have been able to enjoy the girls, care for them, and value them, and yet not see them as pets. I don't see them or feel about them in the same way that I feel towards my cat, who is definitely a pet.

If all goes well with the chicken slaughter, that will make us much more likely to consider meat rabbits for next year.

Thanks for the tip on the bee hive. I will look for it. Do you have a blog of your own?


Wendy said...

If I could only add one other species to our suburban homestead, I'd add bees. The honey and wax are both incredibly useful, and the bees contribute significantly to improving the harvest through their pollination efforts. Oh, and if you don't eat all of the honey, it would make a great gift ;).

We have laying hens, and I love having them (although at the moment, they're all molting, and we're not getting eggs). We also raised broiler chickens this past spring, and that was pretty cool to do.

We also have meat rabbits. You don't have to have any particular breed of rabbit, as you can eat them all. The larger breeds (which are the ones most favored for their meat) are more difficult to maintain (in my experience) than the run-of-the-mill "pet" rabbit, and the "pet" rabbits are easier to find (and cheaper by more than half the cost). If you're leaning toward rabbits, you should also consider that their "manure" will give your garden an increble "boost", and unlike the chicken droppings, you can put the stuff from the rabbit hutches right on the garden beds - no need to compost it. The garden will love it. It's part of what has improved our soil so much. We've had rabbits since we bought our house eleven years ago. Oh, and if you get an angora breed, you have the potential for yarn, as well.

Of course all of that said, if I could only have ONE animal species on my homestead, my choice would, without reservation, be goats. With the right breed, they can provide milk (and with some processing cream, cheese, yogurt, kefir, and butter), meat, fiber, AND manure for the organic garden. They are the most multi-purpose animal around - better than most other choices. The Pygora breed (a combination of pygmy - so they're small - and angora - for the fiber) will provide just about anything a farmer would want from an animal, and the fiber could create an income stream. Goats can be milked for nine months following breeding, and will give one quart of milk, or so, per day. You need at least two goats, because they are herd animals. Two goats would be plenty for the average family, I'd think.

But, as we already have chickens and rabbits, and my husband won't even talk to me about goats, bees would be my choice :).

Novella Carpenter said...

i have all of the animals on your list, plus turkeys, and i once had two pigs.
if i had to choose just one from your list, i'd go with the bees. they are intelligent, hard-working, *amazing* creatures. heck, it almost makes me feel a little religious. the honey is so good--we recently had some chefs make delish honey ice cream. we make mead as well, and there is the possiblility for a stronger honey liquor. we use it instead of sugar and maple syrup!
having said that, i love our two nigerian dwarf goats but they are a lot of work. they do also go into heat and can make bleating noises that may be annoying to neighbors.
happy farming!

trish said...

Hi Kate,
Funny, I read your entry and was going to suggest that you check in with Novella about rabbits and then I read the comments and found her there. We have hens and bees. We've considered worms but I too, think they're pretty boring and my hens do such a good job with the kitchen scraps that I'd have to put a lot of thought into how to feed the worms.
Many families made it through the depression eating rabbit. I think about it often and if there was a collapse of society one of the first things I'd do is find a trio of rabbits. For now, though, it won't work for me.
We seriously considered goats this year. We live in a very quirky community and are allowed as many goats as we want in our downtown backyard. They require very sturdy containment and like to escape, they don't smell so good, and the need to milk twice a day makes it awfully hard to see a movie, go to Grandma's for dinner or spend the day wandering at IKEA. I sure do love the idea of fresh milk though so I've not completely ruled out goats.
The bees are great. The initial outlay was significant. We began with 2 hives. Including books, a class at the local college, gear, and such I think we spent around $1200. A lot of cash if you ask me. They require a lot of knowledge but not that much work. It's real different than adding another critter to the farm. You can sell honey, wax, pollen, and propolis. Around here, honey sells for about $8 per pound.
My vote is for bees. We need more of them. They'll increase your fruit harvest too!

Kate said...

Wow, I really appreciate all the feedback!

Wendy, thanks for your comments about rabbits and the relative unimportance of special breeds. I would love to hear any comments about how you slaughter them and cook them.

Novella, I'm so glad you stopped by. Your comments about the goats confirm my impression of the work load based on our tour of a nearby dairy goat farm. Given our extremely quiet residential neighborhood, with elderly neighbors, I really don't want to risk adding an animal that will upset anyone with noise. My feeling is that I would love to have a few goats - someday. If we ever get our house built on that piece of farmland, it'll be a high priority.

Trish, it's great to have your feedback on the bees. I just about choked on that $1200 outlay though. We can't even consider paying that much for a bee setup. Honey sells for nowhere near $8/lb. here. Even if it did, we probably couldn't justify the expense. I was thinking we could maybe budget a few hundred dollars for bees. But even that figure makes the rabbits seem like a bargain.

Based on all the comments, and our own situation, we're thinking that we should add worms and one more species next year. At this point we're leaning most heavily towards the rabbits, though bees are still under consideration.

Thanks so much for all the input, and more is always welcome!

Wendy said...

My husband does the work of "harvesting" the rabbits. We bought the book Raising Rabbits by Ann Kanable. It's proved to be a very good resource, and includes a section on how to butcher them. The hardest part for him, initially, was humanely killing them, and I won't relate that story. Suffice it to say that we almost stopped before we'd begun after that first one.

Once you get beyond that, however, the skinning part is easy. I can give you a quicky explanation, but maybe you don't want that posted in your comments section.

For cooking, you can do with rabbit anything you'd do with chicken. Incidentally, rabbit does NOT taste like chicken. It's similar, but different, and there's no way to describe how it's different. You just have to eat it. Just like with chicken, however, the meat of older rabbits needs to be slow cooked or stewed. Our favorite way to cook the meat was probably barbequed on the grill. The key is to take your time, and just let it cook.

Oh, and one side note about keeping rabbits for meat ... you'll probably want to figure out what you're going to do with the skins, BEFORE you harvest the first one. Tanning the hides isn't hard, but it's a lot of work, and then, once the skin is cured, you have to decide what to do with it :).

babs60645 said...

We had all these creatures on our three-acre mini-farm when I was a kid. My parents were city kids that escaped the rat race to the country and learned everything through Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News, along with tips from our new neighbors. My take: skip the goats-too much trouble for ghastly-smelling and -tasting milk. Awful. Bees are good, but a good deal to learn to do it right and not anger the neighbors. Rabbits are perfect. Low maintenance, easy care. Your kids will love them provided that they realize cute bunnies will end up as Brunswick stew. Worms we tended for use as fish bait. The lake we lived near provided many delish meals and fun at the same time. Good luck with whatever you choose!

Anonymous said...

I'm going through rabbit raising with my daughter for the first time. It is interesting, to say the least, and the 10-year old now knows more about getting pregnant than anyone else in her class! Let's just say, the rabbits have been REAL conversation starters! lol

Anyhow, raising rabbits for meat have some real pros over chickens. For one, they're quiet. I never knew rabbits talked -- they do -- but they don't howl or crow which is a plus in suburbia. For two, they are cleaner and don't stink with the right husbandry. For three, I feed them grass hay (bought bales) instead of expensive feed and the hay goes a long way!

We started with a California buck, a French Angorra doe, and a generic black doe. The Angorra had our first litter -- six mixed-color babies -- and we lost one because of a cage flaw which I corrected. (Experience is the best teacher.)

My daughter really enjoys messing with them -- she's been great about doing her "rabbit chores" but she isn't emotionally attached to them because their personalities are nothing like her cats. The babies are really cute and fun, but she's decided the adults are a little dull and that if raising rabbits for meat means a steady production of babies -- so much the better.

If this first litter goes well and Dad performs his "harvesting duties" and the kids eat the meat, we'll but a few more does into production. They're really easy to take care of once you've got the hutches and rountine figured out.

BTW, you can get adult rabbits for free on craigslist -- ex pets. I'd stay away from the little, exotic breeds, but the rest are just fine. Forget the Angorra fur thing unless you're super into handspinning. The fur is more hassle than it's worth. Also, I've heard that some natural pet-food people want rabbit skins and heads for their dogs. We don't have a problem with byproducts -- our hounds take care of it in minutes.

Kate said...

Paul, we are leaning towards either rabbits or bees next year. Our objection to bees is the possible high start up cost, while our objection to rabbits is that we have no experience with slaughtering animals and we don't truly know whether we'll have the stomach for it. We were scheduled to slaughter our hens this month and thus learn whether we could hack it. But the hens got a last minute stay of execution, and have gone to a proper farm for the winter. I see the appeal of both species. Goats I think are too much work for us right now, but I've been told by many that milk from dwarf dairy goats differs significantly (sweeter and higher in fat) from that of standard dairy goats. We'll reserve judgment on that until we get a chance to try it ourselves. Thanks for adding your perspective. It's much appreciated.

Anon, It's nice to hear of your experiences with rabbits. I'm all for quiet animals too. I don't want to rile the neighbors. Our chickens rarely made any noise. They mostly burbled to each other, though there was a brief squawk or two when they were in the process of laying their eggs each day. Bragging? Or labor grunts? Who knows. I appreciate the feedback on the rabbits.