The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Is it sustainable to raise livestock on storebought feed?

One acre farm (John Seymour)
"For myself, if I had an acre of good, well-drained land, I think I would keep a cow and a goat, a few pigs, and maybe a dozen hens....  Now the acre would only just support the cow and do nothing else, so I would, quite shamelessly, buy in most of my food for the cow from outside....  It will be argued that it is ridiculous to say you are self-supporting when you have to buy in all this food...."

--- John Seymour, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It

Despite the fact that our property is 58 acres, I'd say our homestead is closer to one acre in size since that's how large of an area we've carved out of the wilderness.  So I was struck by John Seymour's description of a one acre homestead, and specifically by his conclusion that it does make sense to keep a lot of livestock even if you have to buy hay and grain for them.  He argues that a cow produces high quality dairy for your family and for all of the other livestock while also making huge quantities of manure to improve the fertility of the land.

We're not going to be getting a dairy cow anytime soon.  There's not only the milking, fencing, housing, and so forth to consider, but also the roughly $1,400 worth of grain, hay, and bedding that would go into her with only a half acre to graze on.  (And the question of how to deal with 1,500 gallons of milk per year....)  However, Seymour's point is well taken, that perhaps I shouldn't beat myself up so much about buying all those bags of chicken feed --- after all, we do get quite a lot of benefit from the manure we capture in the coop.  And maybe I shouldn't veto other potential livestock just because they would also require storebought inputs of feed.

Looking at the problem of farm fertility through Seymour's eyes, livestock are to compost as cover crops are to mulch --- they're a way to grow your own.  I was amazed this year to see how much easier it is to plant fallow fall beds in winter oats rather than hauling in and then lugging around big bales of straw to mulch the bare ground.  But is there a type of livestock that would require little enough time and feed input to make it worthwhile in comparison to Mark's trips to the manure motherlode?

New Zealand WhiteMaybe rabbits?  One pair of New Zealand Whites will produce about 8 litters per year, with 40 surviving rabbits that dress to around 3.3 pounds apiece.  That's 132 pounds of meat and 2 cubic yards of manure for the price of 750 pounds of feed ($255) and perhaps $20 worth of straw for bedding.  Plus they're a whole lot less work than the goats I've been drooling over.  Maybe I should set my sights a little lower?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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We bought two Nigerian Dwarf goats in March. They are not that much work. It's less than we expected. Granted we are't milking right now. But it takes very little time to give fresh food, water and hay. The extra time is more to just spending time with them. They love it when we let them "escape" to play and browse in the yard. We only have an acre. It's not all cleared though.
Comment by HFCS Sat Oct 8 11:02:49 2011
Have you considered American Guinea hogs? We keep them on open pasture where they graze the clover, ragweed, and grass. They also get all the garden waste, cracked eggs, and a little store-bought food to round them out. If you have woodland they will do even better at self-sufficiency. Expect them to clear your undergrowth, but leave the ground mostly alone. They browse more than they root. Top size is maybe 250 lbs for breeding stock, but if you have a breeder near-by you could just bring in feeders for the growing season and take the winter off! You'll need a hot wire to keep them in. for more information...
Comment by Karen Sat Oct 8 12:09:03 2011
1500 gallons of milk? Why, lots and lots of cheese! If it made economic sense to buy the cow, you could make cheese and sell the excess at a farmer's market.
Comment by Edward Antrobus Sat Oct 8 12:14:06 2011

Rabbits have an efficient food to meat ratio and can be successfully raised in "pasture" or colony situations. You just have to take a few precautions so that the chickens don't pass coccidiosis to the rabbits. I found these blog posts to be helpful.

Comment by Barb in CA Sat Oct 8 12:51:37 2011

HFCS --- What's a lot of work with goats is fences. Since we don't have goat-proof fences, we'd either have to build a bunch (lots of startup time and money), or tractor them in cattle panels (low upfront cost but a time sink every day.)

One thing I'm very curious about with Nigerian Dwarf goats is their escape abilities. Are they jumpers? Escape artists? It sounds like you don't have a garden to keep them out of, but if you did, would you be tearing out your hair once a week?

Karen --- I love hearing about your American Guinea hogs --- fascinating that they're so small (relatively) and don't root. We'd have to do a lot of fencing to make them a reality, but that's definitely something to ponder as we get more established and have time for improvements like that. I do like the idea of just buying a couple of weanling pigs every year someday and killing them in the fall.

Edward --- And cream and ice cream! It sounds delicious, but unfortunately the most sustainable time to have peak milk production is also when the garden is in full swing. At that time of year, I barely have the energy to take care of all the garden produce, let alone make cheese!

Barb --- Excellent tip about the coccidiosis. The feed to meat ratio is what intrigues me so much about rabbits. (Well, plus them being so small --- I'm just a fan of multiple small animals instead of one huge one.)

Comment by anna Sat Oct 8 13:29:48 2011

I grew up eating rabbits, but I have never raised them as an adult. I believe the rabbit is the single most economical small livestock that can be raised. I have been weighing the pros and cons of pasturing vs. pen raising.

However the biggest single reason I am not currently raising rabbits, is also the same reason many others are not raising rabbits. The fuzzy cute factor, the lady of the house is having a hard time with the thought of eating something so "cute". But I'm slowly working on it, I hope to be raising rabbits again soon. Maybe I need to find an ugly rabbit to grow for eating.

Comment by Justin Sat Oct 8 16:43:39 2011

I love keeping rabbits. They are so easy to take care of and, of course, breeding them is easy also.

I think John Seymour is also the one who mentioned raising pigeons because they reproduce so readily and they're easy to handle. Instead of pigeons, I am considering bobwhite quail, though I haven't researched it much. While the idea of pasturing big livestock is kind of a homesteading dream, I'm in agreement with you that smaller animals might be the way to go for a small family operation. This is true for a lot of reasons, but especially for the fact that if you want to keep a sustainable operation you have to have breeding animals, and the idea of keeping healthy breeding stock (or using artificial insemination) for large animals is overwhelming to me.

Comment by Sara Sat Oct 8 16:46:04 2011

Justin --- Interesting to hear that you grew up eating rabbits! I've never eaten one, which I guess is a stumbling block, except that I've learned just about any kind of meat can taste quite good if you learn how to cook it.

The fuzzy cute factor isn't such a big deal for us. After killing chickens for a few years, you get over that and learn to think of meat animals as livestock. From my limited experience with rabbits, I'd say they're no more personable than chickens (though more pettable if you're into that.)

Sara --- Great to hear from another rabbit keeper! I've heard a bit about quail, but not enough to know how easy/efficient they are. I totally agree with your points in favor of small livestock, to which I would add two more:

  • You don't have all of your eggs in one basket. If you're raising a dozen chickens and one gets sick, it's much less of a big deal than if your cow keels over.

  • If you do need to transport them, it's much simpler.

Small animals also seem to be a lot easier and cheaper to fence.

Comment by anna Sat Oct 8 20:05:56 2011
If you have close to an acre of pasture, you could buy a yearly steer in the spring at a weight of about 700lb, costing you about $900. By fall, it would weigh around 1100lb and dress out to about 500lb of beef. If you take it to the local meat locker, add in another $450 (well worth it). You can hold that in a typical 20cuft freezer. Total deal ~$2.70/lb of the best grass-finished beef around. No need to worry about care and feeding over the winter and a great source of manure for fertilzer.
Comment by doc Sat Oct 8 21:17:09 2011
Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Oct 9 05:11:02 2011

Doc --- I should have been clearer. We don't have close to an acre of pasture. We have close to an acre of total garden, orchard, and pasture, primarily the first two. And no steer-quality fences. That's why I'm pondering whether it makes sense to have more livestock than pasture can handle.

Roland --- Ha! :-) I saw a photo like that somewhere, but with about a dozen goats all in the same sad tree ---can't remember where now....

Comment by anna Sun Oct 9 08:01:47 2011

coccidiosis does not transfer between chickens and rabbits, from what i have been reading....apparently they are completely different strains.

The design for my chicken coop and winter run has the rabbits shelter within the area that the chickens will be in, with protection to keep the chickens from getting up on the rabbit caging. That way, I have the chickens handling any insect problem and wasted feed from the rabbits.

Comment by Geoffrey Wendel Sun Oct 9 08:27:12 2011
Wow raising animals sure seems like a lot of work and requires tremendous planning. I got my hands on a rabbit hutch and 2 New Zealand rabbits earlier in the summer. After feeding them with store bought feed after a while, i began to question the return of meat for the investment of all the money spent on food and ended up getting rid of the rabbits all together. i then read that you can feed them home grown clover,alfalfa,etc. but one would still have to supplement with store bought feed after dedicating land to raising the food for them. Its amazing, animals somehow do very fine in the wild, but when raised by humans, it seems we can't help but give them store bought feed. I suppose it is because their diet is much more varied in the wild.It makes me quesiton if raising meat is ideal for small homesteads. Wouldn't you save money purchasing meat from local farms?
Comment by Jalen Sun Oct 9 10:23:07 2011

Geoffrey --- The chicken/rabbit combo is something that Joel Salatin does as well. I'm not too keen on the idea of raising rabbits in cages, though, and have been searching for info on pasturing them. There seems to be a lot less data out there than you would think --- a bit of good information from Joel Salatin's son, who raises rabbits in tractors, but nothing about pastures without tractors. I know that rabbits dig, but it seems like it should be feasible to include rabbits in a rotational pasture system. I guess I need to do more research....

Jalen --- In general, protein takes a lot of time and inputs to produce, but I think raising your own meat is worth it. You get the manure (essential for the garden) and can make the system as sustainable as possible --- tough to make your neighbor do that. :-) Joel Salatin's son raises rabbits for meat and says that his animals get 40% of their food needs from pasture, so presumably it's possible to make the system less dependent on storebought feed. The trick is figuring out the best way to make your system as sustainable as possible.

The reason people give livestock storebought feed is because it has more concentrated nutrients than what the animals can find on pasture. That higher protein feed means the animals reach full size much faster, which means less land area devoted to them. For example, you could probably raise chickens just by letting them run wild and get all of their food from the woods, but it might take an acre of land to support one or two chickens! Since there are so many humans on the earth, it's unrealistic to raise our meat animals that way.

Comment by anna Sun Oct 9 11:01:47 2011

In her article, "Raise Rabbits for Meat," Laura Little says they separate the bucks from the does into two fenced areas. The animals do burrow, but they haven't burrowed out.

"We have used welded wire fencing for the pen, then 4' h x 1" gauge chicken wire around the bottom of the fence to keep the little ones in. We have not had any rabbits burrow out. They are happy in their pen and if one somehow gets out, maybe under our feet when we enter or exit, they will sit by the gate and wait to be let back in."

They even allow their does to kindle in the burrow, so the kits aren't seen until they're a month old. Catching the rabbits is more difficult because of the burrow, but that's the trade-off for having them penned rather than caged. I don't want to give the idea that they pasture their rabbits however. They feed pellets. Still, it seems a more natural existance for the rabbits than hutches.

Comment by Barb in CA Sun Oct 9 15:37:42 2011

Thanks for posting that, Barb. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't followed your links yet --- too busy reading about Voisin grazing. :-) I've read and enjoyed them now.

To me, the biggest problem with the burrow isn't that the rabbits are hard to catch, but that I can't get at their manure! Perhaps there's a way to make them a simulated burrow that would be easily accessible for catching and manure removal?

Comment by anna Sun Oct 9 16:00:03 2011
I have always loved the drawing at the top of this post! If you get animals, there's no way that you'll be able to keep those picture perfect rows and beds, but it's such a quaint and interesting look. Remember that a lot of that milk in Seymour's writing was used to help feed pigs.
Comment by Cameron Sun Oct 9 16:46:08 2011

One thing leads to another.......

I found a great deal on some nice big pens from a neighbor this morning. 20 bucks for six nice big all wire cages. By this afternoon I had made two other stops and for another investment of 20 dollar I picked up six rabbits. The lady-o-the house has agreed to choose two pairs for breeding and eat the rest. I am still working out the details of pasturing them, but with winter fast approaching I felt I would need pens anyway.

I very happy to be producing some meat around here again.

Comment by Justin Sun Oct 9 18:41:07 2011

Cameron --- I know what you mean! It's so restful to imagine that farms really look like that. :-)

Justin --- How exciting! You'll have to keep good data and report back --- I'm dying to hear how your experiment works out.

Comment by anna Sun Oct 9 20:34:49 2011

I honestly hadn't considered the manure question, but I didn't think most animals would defecate where they sleep if given other options. I get the sense that Little's rabbits have a corner of their pen that they all use. A kind of generally-agreed-upon "bunny bathroom."

She said, "They have their own assigned area for defecation, and this just needs to be shoveled up and composted."

I have no idea how that gets "assigned" exactly, but I doubt she trained them. It sounds like something the rabbits just do automatically. I know our dog uses the same spot in the yard all the time and it's the farthest corner away from the house.

Comment by Barb in CA Sun Oct 9 22:12:35 2011
The bunny bathroom makes a lot of sense --- of course they wouldn't want to nest in their manure if they have a choice! I should have realized that, not gotten bogged down in my memory of poopy rabbit hutches I've seen. Lucy does the same thing.
Comment by anna Mon Oct 10 08:28:10 2011
My husband grew up eating rabbit, I did not. I have a hard time with new meats, but I'm getting over it. This year I added rabbit and caribou and love both. It does take learning how to cook it. I love vintage cook books for ideas. We are in the middle of figuring the cost of raising rabbits for meat. Hopefully next week we should know for sure if we have a litter on the way. We Have a pair of Flemish Giant and a female New Zealand mix. The Flemish are large boned and not as efficient at making meat so they are not that popular for meat in the US. Bred with a New Zealand they have a better meat to bone ratio. The Flemish are selling here for $75 each, so we may sell some to recover some costs. We have had one previous litter, but didn't keep records of the cost. I can say it was far simpler than the chickens, the mother's do most of the work, and the work and cost is spread out throughout the year and not that crazy mad rush we do for the chickens with only a few months to get it done in.
Comment by Homemade Alaska Mon Oct 10 12:57:59 2011

For me, the hurdle was learning to cook with meat at all. Once I got over that, individual types of meat haven't been all that hard to get to know. I just figure out if they need slow cooking or are tender enough to be cooked fast and go from there. Rabbit, I assume, would be a lot like venison in its lack of fat, but that doesn't sound too troubling.

I'll look forward to hearing more data on your blog as you raise the next litter!

Comment by anna Mon Oct 10 15:12:57 2011

I reckon pigeon (squab) might be one of the easiest sources of backyard meat. They'll range out during the day to eat seeds etc from surrounding land, and return to feed their young. They don't need much care, and all you have to do is harvest the squabs from the nests before they learn to fly.

Definitely something I want to experiment with down the track.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Wed Nov 2 23:20:33 2011
Good point about pigeons. I wonder if they fly down and bother gardens? It seems like books about the middle ages often have pigeons being raised for food, which means they're probably simple and easy for the small homesteader.
Comment by anna Thu Nov 3 11:12:08 2011

I've been considering adding rabbits to my place. I have raised rabbits before and I currently have poultry as I find them to be a suitable small plot livestock. I think people fail to consider the benefits of small livestock. Rabbits have numerous positive points in my view. (1) Their manure can help feed my red worms (2) they don't bark or crow or disturb my neighbors (3) they produce relatively high numbers of young for their living space (4) their space can be incorporated into the red-worm summer space with worm tubs under the hutches; (5) their contribution to the diet of the family (6) the income to the household from pelts and from sale of live offspring.

I have been also looking at rearing pigeons as they too are suitable "small space" animals. In Europe and the Middle East people even raise them in rooftop coops. Once they are familiarized to their coop, they can be allowed to fly out for exercise and will generally return to their own coop for roosting. Also they readily love grass seeds which we have PLENTY of on the upper midwest Prairie.

Having raised cattle on a ranch and been around milk goats and milk cows, I'm not keen to either personally. I'd rather trade for my cheese and milk. For this reason I choose to have other skills worth trading and having a husband who is a blacksmith helps.

I do however have a question. Everyone talks acres vs cow, but what is your location and grass availability? Cow/calf unit requirements differ from one part of the States to another. Also depending on your plant/grazing goats may be an ideal diary animal for you since they can graze on a greater diversity of plants. For that matter even as simply meet animals they may be a good choice if you have brush and "weeds" and not so much pasture land that a cow needs.

Just my two-cents worth from South Dakota

Comment by Anisah Tue Feb 28 15:10:59 2012

Anisah --- Great comment! I think we might try rabbits one of these days for the very reasons you suggest, and I agree that pigeons also are far too often overlooked. I suspect that part of the reason is the butchering to meat ratio --- it's easy to take a cow to a slaughterhouse and get gobs of meat without getting your hands dirty, but you'll need to pluck all of those pigeons yourself, and it will take a while.

You might be interested in my post about animal units in reference to your last question about number of cows (or other livestock) per acre.

Comment by anna Tue Feb 28 16:06:14 2012

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