I live on about 1/3 of an acre of land and have been thinking about putting it to work for the purpose of raising small meat animals (mainly poultry and rabbit...I certainly don't have the room for a large grazer, much to my chagrin). I currently have a handful of chickens for eggs and come from a long line of farmers, but I personally have no experience with meat-raising. I've been doing quite a bit of research, but I'd love to ask my fellow PHers about their experiences. Here are my questions:
What would be a good "jumping off" point to get into things? Should I source a few chicks from a responsible farmer? Should I get a breeding pair of rabbits? How did you choose your first animals?
What sort of laws do I need to be aware of in regard to backyard homesteading? My city specifies a number of poultry limit, but doesn't say anything about whether I need a special permit to butcher animals on my property (or if I even can). How would I go about finding this information?
What was one thing you wish you knew about raising meat animals before you started?
Thank you so much for the info!
1) Talk to local farmers at farmers markets in your area. This is the best way to start, because different regions will have different ways of approaching back yard farming. We had chickens when I was growing up, and rabbits for a couple of years. I think chickens are a bit better personally, just because you get a steady stream of eggs coming in without having to do anything messy. It makes all the work seem "worth it" if you can eat the eggs every day. Rabbits were really easy to keep as far as upkeep goes, but they tunnel out REALLY easily. You want to build a very solid hutch with fencing that goes into the ground (or, you'll have to keep them inside the hutch all the time, which I don't think is very nice for them). We had some interesting experiences when we first got rabbits- they were pretty tame and would always come home after getting out, but it's more a risk of cats, dogs, eagles etc catching them and having them for lunch instead of you. You have to net the top, just like the chickens, if you live in an area with eagles.
2) Laws are region specific. Here, you can butcher on your property ONLY for your personal consumption- you cannot sell the meat or distribute it in any other way (except to friends/family as gifts, I mean you can't give it to a fundraiser or something random like that). Butchering chickens is time consuming and most people find it generally unpleasant- it can be pretty reasonable to get them butchered locally if there's the places for that, my parents usually found that it was worth it to get someone else to do it. It's a long, smelly day otherwise. Not terrible- I personally never minded it, but I always had pretty easy jobs being the youngest. The rabbits, now that I think about it, were butchered relatively archaically by my dad and uncle, but no local places do rabbits. You can't hold them upside down to calm them like chickens, so they would have to be knocked unconscious, then the rest of the process was what you'd expect. I would ask around to see if there are any butchers in the area, or anyone with experience in butchering. If you haven't done it before, it is a pretty huge learning curve. Nothing worse then getting into it and having something go wrong.
3) I think my parents, and myself as an extension, wish we had reached out and asked more questions. I've never heard my dad swear as much as his first time butchering a deer, and the rabbits were an adventure when it came to them escaping and figuring out how exactly to butcher them. My parents had chickens for their whole lives growing up, and my dad grew up farming lambs, so they weren't entirely inexperienced, but they still talk about all their mistakes like "why didn't we just ask so-and-so? We could have avoided that whole fiasco."
Lesson: the best advice you will get is talking to other people in your area. Even after having chickens, rabbits, ducks, sheep, and goats, I would feel lost if I wanted to start my own hobby farm. There are just a lot of things about starting up (what supplies are the best for this weather? who builds x the cheapest? what kind of protection from the local cougars/bears/eagles/dogs/cats is imortant? is buying my own cones/butchering supplies etc the best idea, or is it cheap to get them butchered locally? am I breaking any laws by doing x? ). Head over to your local farmers market and strike up a conversation. Most people will be able to give all the advice (and more) that you ever wanted.
We have the same amount of property and raise chickens and goats and have over fifty fruit trees (avocado and olives are fruits too). Together they provide us with a large part of our calories. If you can't source meat chicken chicks locally, you can get them here: Meyer Hatchery.
I agree that raising for eggs is somewhat easier, but getting chickens to lay consistently without supplemental grain is difficult to say the least. We compromise and give our hens a little grain. Pasture, kitchen scraps and manure pile diggings are 80% of their diet. If they'll be on pasture exclusively, get 2-3 times as many chickens as eggs per day you'll need. If you guess high, give the eggs away or butcher a few. If you coop your hens and feed them commercial chicken food, you'll spend a small fortune on food and the eggs will have a rotten fatty acid profile. May as well get them from the market.
We also raise dairy goats, and they provide us with a reliable source of animal fat/protein and probiotics in the form of raw milk kefir. The benefits of raw milk are many, and that's why we eat Weston-Price and not Paleo. Where do you think Kerrygold butter and whey protein comes from anyway? Since our milk is pastured and not pasteurized, it is full of all the good stuff our bodies need. Stuff like CLA, myristic acid, K2, D, E, B6, B12, A, etc. The stuff is a nutritional dream if you raise it yourself and do it right. Plus goats are really fun animals, and they taste good too. Yep, if one of our baby goats has the misfortune of being born a boy. . .
Feeding them is easy. Goats eat weeds, trees, brush, grass, T-shirts, and pretty much everything else not made of thick metal. We truck in tree-trimmings and green waste and they love it. After they clean off the leaves and bark, I cut the wood up, cure it and it heats our house. What goats don't eat the chickens do, and what neither of them eat we give to the worms. Every couple weeks we rake out the coops/pens and spread it around the orchard trees. We have a little permaculture system going and it works extremely well. Our urban homestead may smell a little 'goaty', but our garden doesn't mind.
If you want a small but high fat milk producing breed of dairy goat, look into Nigerian Dwarfs. They're creamy high fat milk is to die for; kinda like squeezing out half and half. I can provide you with endless goat resources if you go this route.
As for the rabbits, why raise 'em when a daisy wrist rocket costs about $15? Rabbits are every carnivore's go-to wild game, and those critters are EVERYWHERE. Much healthier, and much easier than confined critters eating 'rabbit chow'.
We're also investigating putting together a small scale talapia/aquaponic system.
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