Integrating livestock into your gardens, orchards and back yard

Its nice to have a little butter with your kale, particularly if it comes from your own cow, and the soil the kale grew in was well cared for with composted cow manure.  Keeping a family cow or goat, a flock of chickens, a couple of sheep, pigs and even turkeys can bring many benefits to your family and farm.  The manure, when mixed with a carbon source like straw or hay makes fantastic compost, and animal manure brings many special qualities to your farm which you can’t get from plant based compost.  Livestock in an around your gardens can also be used to “mow” cover crops, eat insects, and pigs can even provide tillage.  Meat, milk and eggs from grass-fed animals are high in nutrients including beta-carotene, vitamins A and D,  omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

Chickens:  If you don’t want the year round commitment of livestock, you could set up a summer chicken raising project.  You can order chicks through the mail, start them in a brooder for 3 weeks, and then move them outdoors to a chicken tractor, where they can graze and fertilize your gardens and pastures.  At about 8 weeks, most modern breeds are ready to eat.  Supplies needed are organic poultry grain, a chick brooder box with a heat source, a waterer and a chicken tractor.

If you don’t like the modern fast growing meat breeds, then try some of the slower growing old style heavy layer breeds.  Start a batch of both male and female chicks in the spring, and by late summer you can put the males in the freezer and keep the females as your layer flock.

Turkeys: Turkeys take 16 to 20 weeks to mature, and usually don’t have enough feathers to go outdoors for 4 or 5 weeks after hatching.  Newly hatched turkeys can be more difficult to raise than chickens, so you can often buy them as older poults.  Turkeys are better grazers than chickens, and will need more space to run around and graze.

Our turkeys are moved from the brooder to chicken tractors, where they stay for a week or so.  After they are accustomed to being outdoors, we open the door of the chicken tractor and allow them to range inside a fenced turkey pasture.  They get moved to fresh pasture several times each week.  They can return to the tractor for shade, shelter from the rain and grain.  Some turkeys will stay in behind regular sheep electric net, but others will only stay in if you use the taller smaller meshed lamb and poultry net.  I’ve also seen ducks and geese raised in similar systems.

Layer Hens:  If you want eggs, you’ll need a chicken house or an eggmobile which is warm enough for the winter.  Chickens lay better in winter when provided with supplemental light, and some people sprout grains or feed them organic alfalfa meal to improve the nutritional quality of the eggs in winter when pasture isn’t available.  Layer hen chicks can be ordered through the mail, but won’t start laying for 4 to 6 months.