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Animals II: chickens, rabbits and fish

When people think about animals in the context of rural homesteading or backyard gardening, odds are the earthworms and bumblebees discussed in last week’s post won’t be the first thing that comes to mind. The reason for this is simple: they simply aren’t tasty enough. I recall a book I read years ago with the winsome title Butterflies In My Stomach: The Role of Insects in Human Nutrition that made a strong case for dining on insects, but I confess to never having put its recommendations into practice; and as for earthworms, I’ll leave them to those with bolder palates than mine.

No, the animals most often contemplated in this context are those that provide food a bit more directly, and palatably, for our species. This isn’t an unreasonable habit of thinking. Though the earthworms, bumblebees, and other wild creatures that interact with a garden or a farm probably play a more important role overall in green wizardry, domesticated livestock of various kinds have a crucial place in the backyard food economy. Their task is to take biomass that human beings either can’t eat or don’t find very nourishing and turn it into more edible and more nourishing forms.

Now of course this is not the way modern industrial agriculture generally does things. I’ve commented before that if an evil genius set out to design the worst possible way of producing food, his most diabolical contrivances would have a hard time competing with the way we grow food in America today. The animals we raise for human food in this country come out of millions of years of evolution that has fitted them to eat foods that human beings don’t, and turn them into foodstuffs like those that human beings evolved to eat. Do we feed them their proper foods by putting cows out to pasture, say, or letting chickens scratch for insects and vegetable scraps? Of course not.

Instead, we feed them on grains that could just as well be food for human beings, laced with chemicals and drugs, and “enriched” as often as not with the ground-up bodies of other animals that have been discarded as unfit for human consumption. We do this, mind you, in vast energy-wasting warehouse facilities so overcrowded and poorly managed that the manure, which would otherwise be a valuable resource for improving soil fertility, becomes a massive problem – and of course nobody would think of dealing with that problem by any means as sensible as industrial-scale composting. Meanwhile the meat, milk, eggs, and other products of this system are a sickly parody of the equivalents that can be gotten from healthy animals fed their natural foods in sanitary and humane conditions.

Plenty of people who object to the appalling conditions and ecological cost of factory farming have responded by swearing off animal foods altogether. This is certainly a choice, but it’s far from the only option, and some of the arguments that have been marshalled in defense of it simply won’t hold water. Those of my readers who find that a vegetarian or vegan diet suits them should certainly feel free to continue their herbivorous ways, but not everyone finds such diets appropriate to their needs, and those who find a place for animal products on their dinner tables are part of a long hominid tradition; our australopithecine ancestors ate meat, as indeed chimpanzees do today, and it may be worth noting that no surviving or recorded preindustrial culture anywhere on Earth has had a traditional diet that does entirely without animal products.

It’s important to remember, also, that there’s a middle ground between eating the products of industrial factory farming, on the one hand, and abandoning animal foods altogether. One way to pursue that middle ground is to buy animal products from local organic ranchers and growers whose operations are open to visits by consumers. Another, though, involves a glance back toward the household economies of an earlier time, when a henhouse in the back garden was as much a part of most urban households as a stove in the kitchen and a roof overhead.

Like food plant growing, in fact, animal raising can be done in one of two ways, extensive or intensive. The extensive approach, in preindustrial societies, is called pastoralism, and was the foundation of one of the two great human ecologies to evolve out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around the end of the last ice age. Where the early agriculturalists set themselves to domesticate plants they once gathered from the wild, the early pastoralists set themselves to domesticate animals they once hunted. Both new human ecologies had their growing pains and their catastrophic failures, but both worked out most of the bugs, and will be as viable after industrialism as they were before it. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion, for example, that the Great Plains four or five centuries from now will be inhabited by pastoral nomads whose raids against the agrarian towns of the Mississippi-Ohio basin will impose the same ragged heartbeat on the history of the future as their equivalents on the central Asian plains did for so many centuries in the past.

The cattle herds and nomad raiders of 25th-century Nebraska are a bit too far off for present purposes, though, and the closest modern equivalents are out of reach for anyone who doesn’t have enough acreage for the cattle and horses that will define those nomads’ lives. This is where the intensive approach comes in. Just as backyard gardens can produce a significant harvest of vegetables when worked intensively, a backyard henhouse or rabbit hutch can produce a steady supply of animal foods when handled in the same efficient and intensive way. This does not mean putting the animals in some small-scale equivalent of a factory farmingoperation; rather, it calls for a comfortable shelter and space adequate to the needs of the number of animals you have, along with ample food and clean water, provided by your efforts rather than the less generous habits of nature.

Hens and rabbits are not the only animals that can be raised this way, but for people who don’t have enough real estate to set aside a good-sized piece of pasture, they are among the best. Both can be kept comfortable and healthy in a relatively small space, thrive on an inexpensive diet, and produce abundantly and reliably if treated well. Hens are particularly good for those with tender feelings toward animals; you don’t have to kill them to be nourished by them, since half a dozen hens will keep a couple of humans amply supplied with eggs for most of the year. Rabbits don’t have that advantage, and neither do chickens raised for meat; most people I know who raise either one respond to the hard necessity of slaughtering by doing their level best to see to it that their animals have only one bad day in their lives.

To be healthy and productive, hens and rabbits need comfortable, well-ventilated, rainproof and clean housing, well enough insulated to keep off summer heat and winter cold. They need food, and in any sort of intensive setting they won’t be able to forage for themselves; you’ll need to keep the feeder stocked, whether it’s with food you grow yourself or with something from a local grower or a feed store. They need water, and they need to have their manure hauled away, though admittedly they repay this last bit of regular effort by providing some of the world’s best raw material for compost. (Animals concentrate nutrients, and a regular dose of chicken or rabbit manure mixed into your kitchen and garden waste in the compost bin will speed the composting process and boost your soil’s fertility dramatically.) Animals also need various kinds of incidental care at every stage of their life cycle from birth to stew pot.

What this means, ultimately, is that if you choose to raise small hens or rabbits, you or someone you trust will have to be there for them every day of the week, every week of the year. Other animals have other needs, but for all practical purposes, all of them require daily care. The precise requirements are too complex to cover in detail here; they can be learned from the many books available on the subject of each animal, and if at all possible supplemented by useful advice from someone who has actually raised the animals in question.

What are some of the other options for small-scale animal raising? Pigeons have been raised for many centuries on a backyard scale; if you have a little more room, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl can all be raised successfully. On the larger scale, too, goats and small pigs are good options; the Vietnamese potbellied pigs that were briefly fashionable as pets in America, for example, have gone on to become a staple of small-scale pork raising. There are more exotic options that can be found with a little searching. Perhaps the most intriguing of the alternatives, though, are fish.

Microscale aquaculture was a central focus of the New Alchemy Institute, one of the most innovative and inspiring of the appropriate technology groups back in the heyday of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Tilapia, one of the more popular farmed fish these days, was one of the Alchemists’ discoveries; their Arks, or integrated ecoshelters, included tanks for tilapia that provided water and fertilizer in the form of fish feces to greenhouse crops, as well as a steady harvest of fish. I’ve never worked with small-scale aquaculture and so have no practical knowledge to offer here, but the concept seems to have worked well in practice, and green wizards who are unfazed by the technical challenges could do worse than look through the papers of the Institute, which are available via several sites online, and start experimenting.

Whether finned, feathered, or furred, animals are a much greater challenge than vegetables. More biologically complex than plants, they are equally more fragile, and require a great deal more care; the same concentration of nutrients up the food chain that make them so delectable to human beings also make them equally prized by other predators, and the sort of hearty nip that most plants can shrug off without incident will put most animals at risk of infection or bleeding to death. Even among green wizards, they aren’t a suitable project for everyone, but those who decide that raising small livestock is a challenge they want to take up can contribute mightily to the larders of their households and, on a broader scale, to the resilience of their families and communities in a world where factory farming will be no more than an unhappy memory.

Resources

The standard Seventies-era book on backyard livestock, found on the shelves of every back-to-the-land homesteader of the naked hippie era, was Jerome D. Belanger’s The Homesteader’s Guide to Raising Small Livestock, which covers goats, chickens, sheep, geese, rabbits, hogs, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, and pigeons, in no particular order. An overview rather than a detailed guide, it needs to be supplemented with specific books on whatever animal you decide to raise, but it provides a good first glance over the options and some very good pointers as well.

The books I relied on back in the day when I tended chickens and rabbits were Leonard S. Mercia’s Raising Poultry the Modern Way, Bob Bennett’s Raising Rabbits the Modern Way, and Ann Kanable’s Raising Rabbits. They remain good solid texts, though there are plenty of newer books on the market, and the backyard animals I didn’t raise also have a literature of your own. Your best bet is to find someone who currently raises the animal you have in mind and ask for suggestions; in most cases you’ll find yourself with a new friend, and plenty of good advice.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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