Sustainability can be described as a “closed loop system”, meaning that there is no outside input and each part of the system sustains itself and supports other parts of the system. Small livestock are an integral part of self sufficiency by not only providing food but by also providing manure for fertilizer, waste reduction and in some cases pest management. Almost any household can include small livestock in their sustainability plan; rabbits, chickens, quail, guinea hens and even bees can be kept on small parcels.
Chickens are one of the easiest small livestock to keep and they provide a 4-fold bounty in return. Chickens have very basic needs and can survive in simple conditions as long as they have access to fresh water and feed, and are kept clean and safe from predators. In return a hen will give you about one egg a day. A flock of 3 or 4 laying hens will provide most families with plenty of eggs to meet their needs. In addition to eggs, chickens can provide you with meat. As your laying hens grow older they will begin to taper off their laying, and if you choose, you can butcher these hens and replace them with younger birds more vigorous in their laying. If you have a rooster, you can allow your laying hens to sit on eggs and hatch out either their replacements or chickens for the table.
Chickens like to roam about and scratch in the soil, and are notorious for digging up and eating bugs and insects. Many organic and sustainable orchardists use chickens in their orchard for pest management. They are also walking fertilizer machines, as your hens wander around they will leave droppings which make great fertilizer once composted.
Also, guinea’s can be raised similar to chickens and sometimes are even raised together. Guinea’s are widely known for their bug hunting prowess and have many of the same benefits of chickens when it comes to pest control.
Quail are another fowl that can be raised on small plots of land. While it’s true that it takes quite a few quail to make up a sizable flock for any significant meat production, quail are fairly quiet, easy to keep, and also provide eggs and meat.
Additionally, rabbits can provide fertilizer; however, rabbit manure is the only manure that doesn’t need to be composted before being added to the soil. Rabbits can be kept in smaller cages and are very prolific; you can normally breed a rabbit every 3-4 months. Usually a rabbit will kindle 5-10 kits, which could provide much rabbit meat for your freezer each year. Rabbits are easily fed pellet feed from your pet store and usually there are no restrictions in housing areas for keeping them.
In some cases even goats can be considered small livestock. Nigerian Dwarf or Pygmy goats can be a great addition to any urban or rural homestead. Although goats tend to require more input then a chicken or rabbit, they also can provide large quantities of milk and meat. A Nigerian Dwarf dairy goat can provide about 2 quarts of milk a day and have 2-5 kids each year. Goat’s milk can be made into cheese, yogurt, ice cream or as an ingredient in beverage milk. Also, goat meat is a delicious lean alternative to beef and is a high commodity in some ethnic markets. Once again, goat droppings and soiled bedding make a great fertilizer once composted.
An often misunderstood and overlooked small livestock is the honey bee. Many beekeepers consider honeybees their hardest working and most productive livestock on the farm. One hive can contain 60,000 residents and provide anywhere from 1-5 gallons of delicious golden honey each year, in addition to the natural honeycomb and pollination. Honey can be used as a sweetener, a barter item or medicinally. While getting started with honey bees can be somewhat costly, it is a one time investment that will last years. Tagging along with a local beekeeper is your first step to getting started with honeybees, he or she can talk to you about different hive options, required care throughout the seasons and how to get started.
Regardless of your choice in small livestock your return on the investment you make in quality animals from reputable and knowledgeable breeders will far outweigh the costs. Take time to learn about the care of each type of animal before you make a decision, to ensure that you can provide for them. Borrow books from your library like Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Backyard Homestead, The Barnyard in Your Backyard and the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, and try to find local livestock keepers to mentor you along the way.