Adding Animals to a Home Food System
Many home-based food growers resist the idea of adding any form of livestock to their food system for fear of what might be involved. Fortunately, vast tracts of land, or degrees in animal husbandry, are not required to take more control of your food sources.
The addition of even a handful of insects, poultry, fish or small mammals on your property can greatly increase your food independence and the quality of home-produced food. Many beneficial animals can be added without significant changes in infrastructure or exorbitant upfront costs. Animals of all kinds can be used humanely to aid in food production. In most cases their manure alone is worth the investment. Many animals serve multiple purposes and benefits, and can live a happy, healthy life while doing so.
Incorporating Worms into Your Garden
Worms are one of the easiest animals to add to a food system with minimal investment. They will eat all vegetative food scraps and in their wake leave a nutrient-dense, rich soil amendment and fertilizer. They require no permits to purchase or keep, and can be raised discreetly even in a high-rise apartment in the city.
Red wigglers are one of the best types of worms to obtain for this purpose, known as vermicomposting or vermiculture. Avoid night crawlers and other worms found in the garden; these should be left to do their good work where they are found. Many pre-fabricated worm boxes can be found in stores and online. The do-it-yourselfer can easily construct a box suitable for raising worms. It is import to make sure there is some sort of tray on the bottom to collect any liquid that leaches through. This worm tea is pure gold for plants. It can be applied directly to the soil as an amendment, or diluted and sprayed on plants as a foliar feed. The solid wastes from worms can be incorporated into soil or potting media for a great boost of organic nutrients.
Worms can be raised year-round if they are kept in a spot that will not freeze and where they can continue to be fed, otherwise they should be raised seasonally. If raised inside the home, there is the potential (as with all animals and decaying matter) that they will not smell pleasant at times. A healthy and balanced system should not emit any kind of unpleasant smell, but it can happen and should be taken as a sign that there could be too much water, not enough circulation or too much nitrogen in the vermicompost system. If you have a heated garage, outbuilding or basement, you can keep worms there year-round. Healthy worms will reproduce, but even in a balanced system it might be necessary to replenish populations if the current ones are not sufficiently breaking down all the food scraps provided.
Should You Add Honeybees to Your Landscape?
Honeybees often get lumped into the same category as other stinging insects, such as wasps and hornets, and are therefore often dismissed as a possible addition to a home food system. In reality, honeybees are docile and sting only when they feel a threat to their colony and queen.
Unlike other stinging insects, a honeybee’s stinger is barbed, remaining in its victim after an attack. It essentially tears away from the insect and the honeybee then dies shortly thereafter. For a honeybee, stinging is a last-resort course of action. Other stinging insects have a stinger they can retract after delivering their venom.
If the possibility of getting stung fails to deter you from engaging in beekeeping (apiculture), the benefits to your food system can be realized almost immediately. The primary benefit to raising and keeping bees is the increased pollination of food plants, potentially resulting in a much greater yield. Honey is a fortunate by-product and a secondary benefit to raising bees. Adding a colony of bees to your food system can also help combat the protracted effects of colony collapse disorder in your area.
For those who would like to add bees but do not wish to engage in the actual practice of rearing them, there is good news. Local, state or provincial beekeeping associations often have beekeepers looking for additional locations to raise their bees. An arrangement can often be made where the beekeeper will pay rent in the form of honey.
There are a few obstacles when it comes to beekeeping. There is an investment required of not only the bees themselves (Italian and Russian strains are currently the most docile and productive strains commercially reared), but a proper hive, honey extracting tools and protective clothing will be required.
It is not wise to purchase any of these used, as they could inadvertently be contaminated with any number of common bee maladies and parasites. In addition, most municipalities require some sort of registration for hives, which could be subject to inspection. Fortunately, registration costs are generally nominal and the inspections are beneficial for everyone. For example, professional and experienced beekeepers and inspectors can identify early stages of disease and recommend a course of action to save the colony, or prevent diseases from spreading.
If the benefits of increased yields, the production of local honey and doing your part to fight the decline of honeybee populations outweigh the potential of an occasional sting, the unfounded fears of your neighbors and the general misconceptions that many have about apiculture, consider adding bees to your home-based food system.
Rabbits and Your Garden
Rabbits are not only a good family pet; they can be a great addition to self-sufficiency. Rabbit manure is an excellent garden fertilizer. Add it to your compost to let it break down before using directly on plants.
Rabbits have a variety of other useful attributes, even if you would never consider raising them for meat. Rabbits can be used to keep the grass and weeds at bay. Don’t, of course, allow them into a vegetable garden. A mobile pen provides protection from the sun and predators to allow rabbits outside during warm weather. Move it daily or more often depending on how voracious their appetite is. On a small lawn, you may be able to eliminate the need for mowing altogether. Rabbits will leave behind a nutrient dense and organic fertilizer, free of charge!
An additional benefit to the raising of some rabbits is their coveted fiber. There are four main varieties of Angora rabbits that can be sheared or brushed for their fur. This needs to be done regularly to help keep a healthy coat. The fiber can be used for a variety of useful crafts, or sold to defray any cost of the rabbits’ upkeep. Rabbits are native to a wide range of the world and come in numerous varieties. Make sure to select a breed conducive for your environment and climate. They are a relatively inexpensive animal to keep that can provide in numerous ways. Consider segregating males and females because they reproduce like, well, you know.
Chickens and Your Garden
Raising small flocks of chickens and other game fowl has been growing in popularity in urban and suburban areas exponentially in the last few years. They provide numerous benefits to the small-scale food producer. Knowing a few basic facts about rearing chickens will help to keep you and your neighbors on speaking terms.
Chickens can be raised individually or in flocks. They will be happier and therefore more productive if they have company. They do not require much space, but should be allowed to roam in as large of an area as you can provide. A garage or shed is a good place to convert coop space for them to go at night and during unfavorable weather, with an attached, enclosed space to run about freely looking for insects and weeds to eat. A heat lamp can be added for warmth during winter months.
Chickens, like rabbits, can be used for their manure, their foraging of grasses and weeds (insects, too) and their meat. Unlike rabbits, most small flocks are raised for their eggs. Letting chickens run through your garden area in the late fall is a great way to get things cleaned up and fertilized for the following year.
Make sure there is adequate fencing wherever they roam. They will return home each day to their roost. The fencing is not to keep them in, but rather to keep predators like coyotes, raccoons and dogs out. An enclosure that also protects them from above will help to keep avian predators such as hawks away and keep cats out, too.
Select a breed of chicken that is compatible with your environment. Chickens, like rabbits, are bred all over the world, so there are breeds for all climates. The decision to raise fowl for meat, eggs or both will dictate the breed as well. Some chickens are prolific layers, but don’t make suitable broilers; some do reasonably well at both.
Contrary to the belief of many, roosters are not needed for hens to lay eggs. They are only needed to fertilize the eggs, a concern only if you intend to incubate the eggs, which is another level entirely of raising chickens, and not easily done by those with limited space.
Consult zoning laws in your area before attempting to raise chickens. Some areas have limits on numbers in a household flock and some do not allow roosters past a certain age if at all. There are also limits imposed in some areas about building a coop or run within so many feet of a neighboring property line. If your municipality allows chickens, they are a rewarding animal to breed and offer great benefits to the home food system.
Adding Fish to a Garden
Fish can be one of the easiest animals to incorporate into small-scale food production or one of the more difficult, depending on your set-up and approach. They are a great addition to an existing hydroponic system and an easy addition for those with outdoor reservoirs. For those toying with the idea of adding animals to their property, fish should be considered only if your water feature is already established, lest you are able to commit much time and treasure to setting up an appropriate environment for them.
Tilapia, perch, carp and trout are the most common fish to add to a system, but others such as catfish can be incorporated as well. The addition to a hydroponic system to engage in aquaponics can create a closed-loop system where the fish wastes can feed the plants, and the plants can feed the fish. Much attention is required in this type of system to ensure the health of both flora and fauna. Research and other due diligence should be done before attempting.
Stocking an outside pond with food fish can be a great measure in achieving food independence. Check with local, state or provincial wildlife authorities about which types are best suited for climates and water types. The benefits of fish are many; so long as your water source is of adequate depth and the fish have sufficient food to survive the winter. Again, it is best to always consult a professional or government agency before investing time and money.
Raising even just a few small animals can add to your independence from industrially produced food and is a rewarding and highly beneficial practice. In addition to nutritional benefits, it is a great activity for families and a great lesson for children about where their food comes from.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.