I appreciate and welcome email correspondence with readers. In fact, probably the coolest part of the blog is the people I have met through it. There are a couple of themes that most emails follow and I would like to address one of those today: What to start with.
The typical letter I get goes something like this (please understand I’m having fun with this):
My wife and I really enjoy reading your blog (though we never leave a comment) and have been making plans to move to a few acres of our own. We would like to keep goats and a few chickens. Do you have any tips that would help us get rich from goat milk and chicken eggs on our two acre lot?
We have been all the way down Goat Road. I don’t find that goats are the easiest animals to keep and I’m not alone in that thinking. They are sweet. They won’t break your foot if they step on you. But they have specific nutrition requirements, need the best hay you can buy in the winter and they tend to turn half or more of their hay into manure-covered bedding. They are hard to keep fenced…and it is especially difficult to keep them fenced out of your orchard. They can jump over fence, crawl under fence and they have a built-in, natural resistance to electric shock. Really. Salatin jokes that he won’t keep them because he can’t keep an animal that is smarter than he is. Julie and I found the goats would stay put with a hot fence and plenty of brush to eat but when they run out of food the fence may as well not be there. Maybe it’s not that bad but they can be rough. And what do you get out of the deal? A quart of milk? Talk about a recipe for a fast homestead burnout!
Instead of focusing on what I wouldn’t do (herd of elephants) I would rather break down what I would do if I were homesteading all over again. Sound cool? I have to admit, I surprised myself with my choices as I wrote the posting. Stick with me here. This may not apply to you. It may not be what you expect. But it is where I am today.
I can’t imagine a homestead without three types of animals. Maybe four as time goes on…five if conditions are right. Feel free to disagree but if I was me (and I am me) and I was moving to a couple of acres to start fresh, goats just wouldn’t make the cut. Again, you are probably thinking of the ideal farmstead with cow, pig and chicken. Maybe include a duck or a goose or a cat like in the Little Red Hen. But this isn’t the Little Red Hen. This is a homestead.
This is not a zoo. Too many animals will damage your soil. Too many can put too much pressure on the land not allowing adequate recovery and requiring you to buy feed, draining your budget. Miss Coulton was talking of supplying additional feed to livestock saying,
…but these things are only required when you keep more stock than your land can support,—a fault very common to inexperienced farmers on a small scale.
So let’s keep it simple and pare it down to bare bones. Knowing what I know now, what would I do if I was homesteading on an acre or three? I want to keep my workload to a minimum, keep the infrastructure costs to a minimum and allow a maximum amount of time to be a Human Being not a “Human Doing”. You with me here? I want to improve my soils and enjoy my livestock but not wake up every morning dreading the day’s chores.
Since we are homesteading, I would want to put in a big garden and plant a few fruit trees appropriate for my climate but, though my diet will be positively impacted by growing my own broccoli, my budget really won’t be. In fact, growing my own veggies could add significantly to my total food costs. And I would need a source of fertilizer and something to do with all of my weeds and garden wastes. I need to partner with livestock to significantly impact my budget…raising and butchering my own meat and sourcing my own natural fertilizers. But I need animals that will work for me efficiently and that will require a minimum amount of my resources in terms of daily chores and protection from predation. Ready? Let’s go.
No surprise to long-time readers, pigs are on the top of my list. I hate it when we sell out of pigs. Usually I only make it a few days before I go buy more. I enjoy their intelligence, their curiosity and their ability to break down and convert waste products into bacon…and what’s better than bacon? The book Harris on the Pig breaks down what makes a pig worth keeping in the opening pages of the book.
The hog is a great eater. He can eat and digest and assimilate more nutriment in a time in proportion to his size than any other of our animals.
But more to the point, the pig assimilates what would otherwise go to waste.
…roots nuts and worms and other animal matter the natural food the hog.
We can in no other way utilize the refuse from the house and the dairy so advantageously as by feeding it to swine. On grain farms pigs will obtain a good living for several weeks after harvest on the stubbles and in some sections they find a considerable amount of food in the woods.
Our pigs get spoiled milk, apple drops, all the acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts they want. It’s fun to watch a pig try to eat a walnut…sounds like they are trying to eat marbles and keeps them entertained for hours. They get tomato vines and bad tomatoes, split watermelons, etc. from the garden and relish any weeds we can throw their way, especially lambsquarters. And as much as they will eat, they really don’t ask for much from us. They need shade, shelter, food and water and a place to dig. No problem. We need to go away overnight to attend a wedding? Put down some fresh bedding, fill the feeder, check the water and we’re good.
If I had limited space available I would confine the pig or pigs on deep bedding. I know, confinement. But this is exactly what Salatin does when he puts his pigs in the cow shed. Feed, water, shelter and a place to dig. That’s it. The pigs will decide to manure in one specific place and that’s the place to pile on extra bedding. When the pig ships, heap up all the bedding, let it cook through and age then add it to your potato bed. I might even suggest you overwinter a small group of pigs in an area you want to break sod and turn into a garden. To keep it simple you might pick up four 16′ combination panels then put a cover over one corner and hold everything in place with T-posts. That’s your $50 hog confinement facility. Add in a watering nipple for $2 and a feeder pan and I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Finally, I have to add that pigs can be an excellent centerpiece to your farm even beyond providing your own meat and scrap conversion. This is a business line you could grow into over time, building on skills as you go and can fully utilize your acreage, rotating through over time while keeping infrastructure costs low.
This may be something of a surprise but after getting a pig on my farm I would set up 4 cages, get 2 males and 2 females and start building a rabbit tractor or two to grow out the bunnies. Not unlike pigs, bunnies relish weeds and require little of the owner, though, as with pigs, we haven’t gotten around using a bagged feed. You have to work to keep them cool in the summer but they can produce a terrific amount of meat in short order and are easy to dress out. My great-grandpa Brown kept meat rabbits in his garage in Indianapolis and, apparently, my great-grandma Brown made rabbit-skin coats. I realize fur isn’t fashionable right now because we would rather save the world with polyester but some day we’ll return to utilizing natural resources…or at least I can hope.
Rabbits also produce copious amounts of manure…the kind you can put directly on your garden without composting and it acts like a time-release fertilizer capsule. But if you choose to compost it you’ll only make things better. Maybe make a compost pile with alternating layers of leaves and rabbit manure in the fall. But to keep odors down you’ll need to either clean and haul the rabbit manure regularly or cover the pile with sawdust regularly. Your nose will tell you…but if you wait to hear from your nose the rabbits will suffer. Be proactive about manure management.
After meat, fur and manure we are left with the offal. If you aren’t into eating rabbit livers (pretty good, really) you can save them for dog food. Same with kidneys and hearts. In fact, the head isn’t a bad thing for a little pooch or for your pig. Yup. The pig will eat every part of the rabbit you don’t…they are omnivores. We typically compost the heads, feet and intestines.
I know what you are thinking…Chickens didn’t make the top 3? Nope. Worms did. I was surprised myself. There are some things you just can’t convince a pig to eat. There are some things that you are better off not taking to the pigs. Our kitchen generates coffee grounds, banana peels and citrus waste in small portions. Pigs really aren’t interested in those but worms LOVE them. And worms do a thorough job of composting everything at a low temperature for use in our garden. After an initial thermophilic composting of pig bedding and manure we can give it to the worms for finishing, ending up with the best stuff in the world. Not to mention, worms we can sell or feed to other animals…fish, chickens…whatever.
Like the others, the worms don’t need much from us. Make sure they are damp, not wet. Make sure they have something to eat. Make sure they are not too hot or too cold. That’s about it. I highly recommend the book Worms Eat My Garbage for additional reading on the topic.
Let me pause here to say that you SHOULD be able to raise all three of my top 3 while still living in suburbia with less than $100 invested in infrastructure. Many places allow “pet” rabbits and pot-bellied pigs (often available for free) and there is no law against worms. You don’t need acres and acres of ground. You don’t need a huge amount of debt. What you do need is a plan to contain odors. You need a source of carbon. Do you live near a cabinetry shop? How about a sawmill? Do you have deciduous trees that you can gather leaves from? Can you collect newspapers from neighbors or buy some from the local recycler? If so, run composted animal wastes through your worms and sell the worm castings. Homestead at home. You’ll be amazed what you can do.
About a decade ago all the hog farmers around me who had sold out of hogs in the late ’90′s crash got caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. Don’t get caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. It strikes me that with a minimal investment in infrastructure, you can make superior compost for your garden using worms. This could be a serious money-maker but I’m really talking about a nutrient cycling resource.
So that’s my top 3. I’m as surprised as you are. But since we’re here, let’s talk about the rest as you may have your own ideas.
Need help mowing? Try Cows or Sheep
Cows are great at solving problems with surplus forage. You are probably going to have a hard time making a single cow happy as they are herd animals and you would probably have a hard time feeding a cow from a suburban yard (several yards maybe but watch for land mines). But on larger acreages…I mean, what else are you going to do with all that grass? You won’t save the Earth with a mower. Sheep may fit into suburbia but, again, you are better off in the stix to help you rotate away from parasites and avoid odor issues. In fact, I think you could make a case that a cow and 4 sheep count as one complimentary unit, utilizing pastures and breaking pathogen cycles, not to mention the cows keeping sheep predators at bay.
Not only do they take a low-value product (grass) and turn it into something better (steak or milk) but the grass sward improves because the cow tugged at the grass, salivated on it, urinated on it, stepped on it and manured all over it. If you want to build fertility in a hurry, if you are anxious to fix carbon and quickly save the world, hire a cow. The grass gets mowed and fertilized in one pass, nutrients are pushed into the soil and the mowers can reproduce themselves. Just add salt and water.
All that said, they are herd animals. What is a herd? Julius Ruechel says cows don’t really act like a mob until you have at least 500 in one group. I have also read numerous places (this is the most convenient) that you need one hired hand per 1,000 cows (commodity cows anyway)…which is the same as saying that you need 1,000 cows to pay the salary of one man…or one you. That’s a long way of saying, this is a low-margin, land-extensive enterprise. But it sure beats mowing.
I’ll forgive you if you include a dairy cow on your 1-5 acre farm. John Seymour includes a dairy cow in his homestead plans. Just know that milking isn’t for everybody. It just might be easier to drive 20 minutes to buy milk 6 gallons at a time once/week than to deal with 6 gallons/day from old Bessie. But, that’s why you have the pigs. Though it is only mentioned briefly, Eric Bende learned about this and shares his milking experiences in the book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Also keep in mind, milk cows don’t take any days off. I hope Paul Atreides will forgive this joke but the milk must flow. Every day you bring Bessie to the barn in the morning, brush her off, wipe her off, check each teat, milk her out then clean up the barn after filtering and chilling the milk, sterilizing the milking pail…the list goes on. Matron says it takes her 15 minutes to go from her door to the cow and back again…twice each day. So, again, I might suggest you should make that 20 minute drive once/week instead. Cow or no cow is a quality of life decision and I can see both sides.
Let’s round out the top 5 with Fish.
I know, right? Look. We have a couple of ponds. They came stocked with bluegill, crappie and bass and we threw a couple hundred catfish in for kicks. Those fish don’t need anything from me. But if I chose to feed them the feed conversion rate for fish is the best it can be. For every pound of feed eaten they gain a pound. Every year I threaten to put Japanese Beetle traps over the pond to feed the bluegill (who love Japanese beetles, btw). How many meals could I pull from an acre pond in a year? How many hours do I have to spend maintaining fence to keep the fish in? None. How many hours fighting raccoons to protect my fish population? None. That said, maybe fish have just displaced pigs on my list. Nah.
You can look into aquaponics, and I encourage you to do so, but I’m attempting to list things that can take care of themselves. Our first attempt at aquaponics was a dismal failure. Since I have a pond…well, that’s easier.
So, What about…
OK. Well. Not really a high-margin enterprise here. And everything likes to eat chicken. Everything. So, if you can keep them alive, you’ll get an excellent source of protein on a near-daily basis. Since the margins tend to be so tight (or negative) and we’re talking just a couple of acres here, it might be better to trade for eggs with your neighbor so they can go to war while you stay home. But if you want your own birds for household use you should plan one bird for each member of the household plus two birds…with a minimum of six birds. You could pickle surplus eggs or send cracked, checked or otherwise unwanted eggs to the pigs (you have to have pigs!). And I would buy the birds as ready-to-lay pullets so you don’t have to invest in brooding equipment, though chicks are cute and fun. Just understand, when you are coming home from Bob’s house after sundown on a Saturday evening and nobody was home to close up the chickens…well, you may have one less chicken and a fat skunk stuck in the fence. Good luck with that.
Chickens were the first livestock we bought and every step of the way has been more difficult than advertised. Numerous people have told me tales of the chicken wars recently. Here’s a real example.
Friend: “Well, we started with 15, got down to 1, bought 10 more and now we have 5.”
Me: “How many eggs have you gotten from those 25 birds?”
Me: “Maybe you would be better off with pigs, rabbits or worms.”
This is also a low-margin enterprise. If starting over, I would be tempted to find a farmer who raises broilers and work out a deal for the 50/year I need for my own household. 50 whole birds weighing 4 pounds at $3/pound is $600. Maybe you could trade him a fat hog or a litter of shoats for 50 frozen birds. Maybe you could just pay him the $600. There are big advantages to running broilers on your farm seasonally but there are also big expenses.
Sigh. I guess I would go ahead and raise my own birds. I enjoy the work and with 3 weeks in the brooder and 5 weeks in the field it is not exactly a life-sentence…the way milking a cow is. I would probably fit broilers in either spring or fall on my homestead…but I say that grudgingly. I’ll hold further comment on broilers for another blog post.
So that’s about it. There are any number of animals I have intentionally overlooked on my list. Please don’t be offended if you are a fan of geese. I think geese could be a good source of grass-fed meat on a farm but I don’t have any experience with them. Ducks are comical but I don’t really like them. You may have your own ideas for an ideal homestead starting lineup but that’s mine. Pigs, rabbits and worms…animals you could start with while you are still in town. Feel free to disagree…but if you are disagreeing before you have dipped your toes in the water, let me know when you dream up your revised list. You will ultimately have to follow your heart’s leading but whatever you do, start small. Start where you are. Minimize your expenses. Start slowly. Step into each enterprise carefully…but for Pete’s sake…take a step!