Local and Urban Small Livestock and Poultry
By Angelika St.Laurent
Small livestock and poultry production could help Tompkins County address many of the food and materials challenges it will face as the cost of energy climbs.
Benefits of local and urban small livestock and poultry production
Today, most animal products come from the three species that are most easily confined in mass production units and can live on diets mostly consisting of corn, the grain most highly subsidized by government programs: cattle, pigs, and chickens, with turkeys a distant fourth. The products of other traditional livestock, such as rabbits, goats, geese, ducks, and sheep, have mostly disappeared from our plates. Exotic livestock, such as guinea pigs and emus, are even less present in our cuisine. Other animal products like wool and down in clothing and bedding are frequently replaced by synthetics.
This situation poses both a challenge and an opportunity. Products of lesser-known livestock have a smaller market, as many people are unaccustomed to different tastes and textures. On the other hand, there is less industrial competition for less popular livestock, which makes it easier to run a small business successfully. Moral concerns about animal well-being also benefit small-scale poultry operations, which run differently from factory farms and are closer to consumers who want to know about them. Several farms in Tompkins County already raise goats, sheep, alpacas, and free-range poultry. It is likely that under energy descent conditions, the prices for mass-produced animal products will increase, creating a wider market for alternative animal products.
Livestock and poultry provide us with easily digestible protein and fat; leather; fibers and feathers for clothing; manure for fertilizer; and last but not least, entertainment and enjoyment. Despite these benefits, opponents of animal-based agriculture often point out that a mostly plant-based diet feeds the most people on the least area of agricultural land. However, this requires that the agricultural soils are in good shape, and maintaining soil fertility in purely plant-based agriculture is time-consuming and dependent on fertilizer imports. Moreover, many soils in Tompkins County, especially in the south of the county, are shallow, sometimes poorly drained, acidic, and low in nutrient content. Raising animals is frequently the best use for these soils and is likely to result in long-term soil improvement. Small livestock in particular can safely and sustainably graze sloped areas that would erode under the hooves of cows or horses. The integration of animals in crop production helps maintain soil fertility and can reduce weed and pest pressure.
Some urban environments are too shady or otherwise unsuitable for crop or vegetable production but provide conditions good for raising rabbits or a small flock of chickens. Considering that a good laying hen produces four to seven eggs a week, even a small flock of five chickens can provide a household with all the eggs needed for their own consumption and some left over to sell. Urban animal husbandry could provide a valuable opportunity for low-income households to improve their diets and generate some extra income. Permitting small livestock in residential areas could help relieve poverty in times of economic hardship. Bedding for urban animal husbandry can partly be supplied by fall leaves; urban livestock owners eager to remove fall leaves from private gardens and public spaces could relieve town/village and garden owners of the responsibility.
Difficulties of local and urban small livestock and poultry production
In some urban and residential areas (for example, the City of Ithaca and the Village of Dryden), it is forbidden to keep any animals other than pets. Reasons for this general ban on livestock are concerns about noise, smell, rodents, and health issues. These are serious issues that need to be addressed if considering small-scale animal raising in residential areas.
In fact, small-scale animal husbandry is possible without causing these problems. Odor and rodent problems usually arise out of overcrowding, poor hygiene, or inadequate feed storage. Animal housing in sufficiently big coops and cages with regularly changed bedding does not stink, and feed storage in properly locking containers does not attract rodents. Hygienically kept animals are also healthy animals. It is in the interest of livestock and poultry owners to keep their animals under inoffensive, good, and hygienic conditions. Unfortunately, there are always some owners who lack this insight. Therefore, permitting livestock or poultry raising in residential areas requires some sort of supervision in order to protect neighbors and animals.
One possible way to insure hygienic livestock raising in residential areas and at the same time ease the development of small livestock businesses in rural areas would be to reinstate the position of County Veterinarian. A County Veterinarian could provide advice in difficulties, give seminars for aspiring livestock keepers, and inspect and judge facilities if neighbors raised concerns. The Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine could add the office of County Veterinarian to student rotations, which would provide more manpower for the job at hand and at the same time provide students the opportunity to become familiar with animals that are less prominent in the curriculum.
At present, only a small percentage of the population is familar with the how-tos of livestock raising, and the task of caring for an animal other than a pet might appear overwhelmingly difficult. Some hands-on experience for prospective livestock keepers could both develop a reasonable idea of the challenge and protect livestock from improper handling. The 4H program in Tompkins County already offers children and teens the opportunity to become familiar with livestock raising. Knowledge about raising small livestock could also be spread by integrating classes on animal husbandry in a degree program in sustainable agriculture at TC3. A K-12 program in livestock management for area schools could be developed at the New Roots School. And most small livestock owners are happy to share information and advise on a private level.
Unfortunately, raising animals, or food in general, on a home scale also carries a certain socioeconomic stigma as a sign of poverty. At present, this stigma creates a strong motivation to oppose animal husbandry in residential areas. Some private trend-setting is crucial to help overcome this perception. Every clean backyard chicken coop, every clutch of home-produced eggs or batch of locally-produced goat cheese brought to a potluck, every showing of crafts made from local wool is a step toward making small-scale animal husbandry fashionable.
Frequently, the cost of the animals' accommodations vastly exceeds the price of the livestock or poultry itself. While the first benefits of a small livestock or poultry operation can be reaped usually within a couple of months, breaking even on initial investments can take years. Allowing animals to forage for part of their food can bring down feed costs substantially, spare a fair amount of labor cleaning coops and cages, and improve the quality of the product. Nevertheless, fencing is essential for safekeeping of both animals and neighboring gardens. Good fencing material comes at a substantial price. Shelter is a second big unavoidable investment. Recycled old fencing and building material can bring costs down a bit. Sheds, garages, screened-in porches, and even old car bodies can all be turned into acceptable animal housing.
One additional difficulty in raising poultry close to old buildings is the potential lead contamination from old paint. Poultry can ingest lead-containing particles that make eggs and meat unfit for human consumption.
Action items for local residents to increase local small livestock and poultry production:
Support your local farmers: Buy locally produced eggs, goat cheese, and meat.
Looking for gifts for the holidays? Consider mittens, scarves, or hats made out of local alpaca wool.
Be a trendsetter: Serve your guests a dish containing unusual animal products. They will be surprised how tasty your dishes are.
You have a big lawn and don't really like mowing it? Consider renting out the space to someone who keeps sheep.
Lobby for the right to keep chickens and other small livestock in residential areas.
Offer a chicken owner the opportunity to rake and take away your fall leaves.
You own an old barn/shed? Consider keeping it in shape, it might become useful once again.
Enroll your children in 4H livestock programs.
Action items for local governments to increase local small livestock and poultry production:
Consider reinstating the office of County Veterinarian. A County Veterinarian could be very helpful for starting up small farms.
Consider allowing poultry and small livestock in urban areas. Keep the ban on noisy poultry like roosters, guinea fowl, and peacocks.
Notes on particular livestock and poultry choices
Rabbits are probably the livestock best suited for urban environments. They are winter hardy, do not require much space, and make very little noise. Rabbit manure composts easily and is far less smelly than that of poultry. Cages and hutches can be built cheaply, often with recycled materials. Being kept in cages, rabbits are not affected by heavy metal contamination in the soil. Rabbits are considered pets; thus, there are no legal restrictions on raising a small herd of rabbits for home consumption in an urban setting. Rabbit meat is very lean, and probably healthier than many other meat choices. The greatest challenge for a rabbit-raising business is that not many people are inclined to eat an animal they are used to considering a pet.
Chickens are the classics in backyard poultry keeping. The time investment in a small flock of hens is about 10 minutes a day for feeding, watering, and egg collection, plus 30 minutes a week to clean the coop. Hens lay eggs without roosters, and egg production is therefore possible to accomplish without much noise. There are many elegant ways in which chickens can be incorporated into gardening (e.g., chicken tractors). Keeping chickens and other small livestock is currently not allowed in the City of Ithaca and the Village of Dryden. Also, lead contamination may make poultry keeping inadvisable in some gardens.
Ducks grow very fast and have the most economic conversion ratio of feed into body mass. Even though they grow to a slaughterable age faster than chickens, their meat remains tender for much longer if slaughter is delayed. Smaller varieties also lay plenty of big eggs, which are excellent for baking. Ducks are very winter hardy, quiet, easily confined, and rarely bothered by diseases. Ducks are unique in their taste for slugs. (In slug-plagued northern Germany, small businesses rent out ducks to "deslug" gardens.) Compared to chickens, ducks are more labor-intensive, are more vulnerable to predators, need more space, and always require a source of liquid water.
- Sheep and goats
Sheep and goats are too big to be kept in an urban setting, but a large suburban property could be big enough to accommodate them. Sheep and goats need substantial investments in barns and fencing. The time investment for a small flock can vary from 5 minutes a day (free roaming in a large garden during the summer) to an hour or more if animals are stabled. Besides the obvious products, they can contribute to landscaping as "lawnmowers." Many landowners like the view of closely cropped grass; with higher energy prices, sheep or goats grazing might become more appealing than the use of a riding lawn mower. Sheep and goats both feast on poison ivy, offering an option for environmentally sound weed removal.