Backyard livestock

So you already grow your own vegetables and fruits, make your own pickles, jams, juices and wine. Next as many are doing you could consider growing your own eggs and or meat. I grew up on a farm and know that keeping such as a few hens is not difficult. Be warned though- most books on the subject dwell too much on diseases and problems. In practice with backyard animals, especially fowls, few troubles ever arise. True you should be aware of potential difficulties but in practice these are rarely encountered.

The first real hurdle though is the attention required. The kitchen garden has a heavy workload but there are periods when you can leave it untouched for days if not weeks. Given a greenhouse then more regular attention is required but even so there are slack times from late autumn till late winter when your visits can be somewhat neglected to little detriment. But livestock requires daily attention, preferably twice daily, 366 days a year. If you want a break someone must be found to stand in for you. And it is the law- you MUST inspect and care for your animals daily or face charges. So do not undertake keeping anything breathing unless you are prepared to devote far more time than you might at first expect. However essentially it is not that difficult, just time consuming, as with pets; you have to put their needs first, even before those of your beloved garden.

There are several options for producing high grade protein and fats for the table but only a couple are really worth the effort. Obviously chickens are, to most, the preferable choice though other fowls and beasts bear some consideration. Chickens can be for meat but they’re also egg producers, and this makes them so much more valuable. Little obvious killing has to be done (some would argue that boiling a fertilized egg is murder) but more importantly egg production is almost continuous and in smaller usable units. Meat comes in lumps which have to be used or processed before they go off unless carefully treated. Eggs can be stored with no special provisions for weeks, or even months if they’re only intended for baking.

Chicken eggs are such a common option they’re too well known to describe. However hens do not lay all the time but in batches of a dozen or so over a fortnight then they take some time off before starting another batch. So you need a brace at least for continuity. Chicks hatched before Easter lay that winter when eggs are most needed. Young birds (pullets) will lay lots, old birds next to none, be ruthless and sell, give away or eat, hens older than three. (An enticing nest box, straw, dark and dry, will help prevent them ‘laying away’)

Although I have raised them all I cannot recommend the other fowls. Domestic ducks lay more eggs a year than hens, some such as Indian Runners and Khaki Campbells achieve staggering numbers. These eggs are useful in baking but not much fancied for frying or boiling, still having laying ducks will free up your hens’ eggs for breakfast etc. Geese lay eggs, huge ones, these make excellent cakes and puddings but are simply too large for breakfast use. (Being waterfowl duck and geese eggs should not be used for uncooked dishes, mayonnaise etc because of a higher risk of salmonella). (Oddly goose egg shells, if intact and blown carefully, are worth selling as they’re wanted by specialist painters.) One useful idea- if you have an uneatable surplus of duck or goose eggs use these to feed chicks and fatten other birds. Turkey eggs are rarely eaten as the offspring are too valuable but quail eggs are reared commercially -if you like them that ought to be easy. Indeed almost any bird could be kept for eggs, it’s just chicken eggs are convenient, the birds are cheap, robust and productive.

For eggs you do not need a cockerel as hens lay (unfertilized so will not hatch!) eggs even without a cock. Obviously if you want to replace your hens as they wear out then you need a cock but doing without one does save angst from neighbours. There is much to be said for having a cock anyway as he will keep the hens in order, and protect them. But if you are only getting a brace then he will add a considerable proportion to the feed bill and lays no eggs himself. Hens can raise two or sometimes three sittings a year with a dozen or so in each. (You lose not only the eggs sat on but the hen will not lay whilst rearing so you need other hens to keep laying eggs for the table) And remember- after the third year they are only good for the pot.

A brace of hens is ideal for most families because the household scraps will almost be enough for their needs. You are not allowed by law to let them have anything that has been in contact with meat products but stale bread, cakes, biscuits, vegetable and fruit peelings, and all the garden surplus and wastes can be offered to them. They will eat what they can, including a lot of weed seeds, and in the process they pre-process the unpalatable stuff before you compost it. Get more than a couple though and you will need to buy in feed (organic hopefully). Even so hens do not consume much, compared to a dog they are cheap (and as I quip- they do lay much much better eggs!)

As to meat. Chicken is said to be the only meat you can eat every day, day after day. Imagine a diet of unceasing beef, pork, lamb, rabbit, or even duck, goose or turkey (just think of all those post Boxing day sandwiches)… Thus although there is obvious merit in raising almost any fowl for meat (usually males as the females can be retained for laying) for your table you can only use so much of it a year.

In ease of meat production I’ve found chicken straightforward. Ducks are also reliable, do less harm to your garden than other fowl but as I said are less desirable in quantity, and geese and turkeys can be downright tricky (young turkeys are miffy, accident prone and suffer from death wish). Geese are a good choice if you have vast amounts of grass as they graze and can fatten on it almost unaided –all the other fowl need some bought in food especially to fatten. (Pigeons can be kept only feeding them in winter -especially if you live near allotments…..)

Four legged stock is a more difficult proposition. The bigger ones can be for milk, but even a tiny Dexter cow gives more daily than most families can ever use. Goats are still huge producers, and milking sheep is only possible for cheese. All worthy aims but huge workloads. And the amount of food, care and the sheer hassle, especially if grown for meat with the slaughter and processing , make all these much more suited to the smallholder than the gardener. Especially that last pair who dedicate their entire lives to escaping to destroy every bit of your garden and orchard. You think a couple of loose hens cause trouble….

However rabbits (and guinea pigs apparently if you’re not squeamish about cuteness) are far more sensible meat producers. Relatively easier to keep secure these are also somewhat slower to cause wholesale damage than their bigger brethren. Indeed no run is necessary as they can be hutched all the time, though I prefer a well wired movable run, rabbits do eat grass after all and are green lawnmowers. We eat rabbits as soon as they are weaned and the meat of domestic varieties such as New Zealand Whites is lighter than the gamey-ness of wild ones. Rabbit is highly esteemed by some, myself included but not sadly my family so I’ve had to give it up. Unfortunately in the UK eating rabbit meat is associated with poverty and serving it to some people results in ridicule with too many comments about ‘poor Tiddles’. (You can tell children, and most adults, it’s chicken if you don’t want to distress/inform them, it’s hard to tell the difference off the bone)

Rabbits really should be considered as a sensible addition to most kitchen gardens simply because of their conversion of waste vegetable matter into meat. Rabbits eat different garden produce than hens so do not compete for all the same foods. Indeed I have fed rabbits at times almost solely on grass and ‘weeds’ gathered from verges and wastelands. (Hogweed is particularly good). One buck can serve several does and is usually housed separately to prevent bullying or worse, and does not crow like a cock! You can get several litters a year with say half a dozen or more bunnies in each, and which are ready for the pot after only two months or so. Thus two or three does can supply a reliable source of meat, and almost year round if housed under cover. Remember- as with hens, once older than three they are not productive and need replacing.

To summarize then- everyone should have at least a couple of hens for eggs, for the larger or more carnivorous family a half dozen hens with a cockerel gives a fair supply of meat and plentiful eggs. But if more meat is required then rabbits may be a better answer.