How local can you go when it comes to sourcing the food on your plate? You can certainly grow at least some of it in your own backyard—or on a deck or patio. If you have even a small plot of land, you might even consider adding some livestock to your yard.
Tending bees and chickens can insure that your family receives a good supply of the most nutritious honey and eggs. And, if you choose, you can grow animals for meat as well—you'll know exactly how they were raised and what they were fed. Animals can also enhance your garden, in fact, creating nitrogen-rich manure for the compost pile. Some even keep garden pests at bay.
Before you delve into the possibilities, you'll want to check out your local regulations. Some communities place limits on how many and what types of animals you can have (if you can have them at all), and/or they specify the distance for their housing from nearby neighbors and whether the animals can be slaughtered. And, of course, no matter what the laws are, you don't want a rooster waking up the neighbors or quacking ducks or an influx of flies or odor upsetting them, either. Still, backyard livestock is becoming more and more acceptable, thanks in part to an appreciation of sustainable living.
Here are some possibilities. This is not nearly all you need to know about raising livestock in your yard, but it will give you an idea of what some of your options are. For more information contact the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office, which offers classes and resources for a variety of agricultural needs.
One backyard beehive can produce over 50 pounds of honey while pollinating crops for miles around.
Spring is the best time to start a new hive, because bees make honey from spring to fall, and store it to feed on during the winter. (Strong hives have more honey than the bees need; that's where your take comes in.)
For equipment you'll need hives (boxes), frames with a beeswax foundation, protective clothing, and a smoker. (Smoke calms the bees while you work on the hive, and they're less likely to sting if they're calm.) You can build your own or purchase ready-to-assemble hives and frames. For extraction, manual or electric extractors allow you to spin the honey from the combs using centrifugal force. And, of course, you'll need bees—about three pounds of bees (that's about 12,000 bees) with a queen for each hive. You can mail order these for delivery in the spring. (Yes, the post office will accept them for you, though they will also be happy when you come to pick them up.)
"The laying hen is the indisputable queen of urban stock," say Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen in The Urban Homestead.
Backyard spaces are adequate for chickens, who will return the favor of your care with eggs and fertilizer, and, if you choose, meat.
A good laying hen will average three eggs per week (one a day at her peak), though over time her production will slow. And no, you don't need a rooster unless you want chicks. Depending on the breed, backyard hens can provide you with beautiful eggs in an array of shell colors and sizes, with bright yellow/orange yolks.
Good foragers, chickens will eat bugs, weeds, and kitchen leftovers you toss their way. You'll need to provide them with plenty of water, feed bins, clean bedding and housing, which can be anything from an old shed or shack, to a portable coop with an open bottom, to a poultry barn. (Mature laying hens will need at least three square feet of floor space per bird in the housing.) You'll need to be diligent about protecting chickens from predators like dogs, snakes, raccoons, and hawks; they must be securely locked up at night. They need a bar for roosting and a nesting box for laying eggs. Young chicks in particular will need a heat lamp for warmth.
Most people raise hens from baby chicks (best purchased in the spring), but you can also buy five-month old pullets (young hens). (It takes about five months for a chick to reach egg-laying age.) Chickens are social animals, so don't buy one; three to six is a good number for a city flock. Standard chickens are six to 10 pounds, while Bantams are two to four pounds. Especially nice for small spaces, Bantams lay little eggs (three of them equal two standard eggs. You can purchase utilitarian breeds and their feed at feed stores. For more fancy breeds (there are hundreds to choose from), look online—or ask a breeder or small farmer. To support rare heritage breeds, check out The Preservation of Poultry Antiquities at www.feathersite.com/Poultry/SPPA/SPPA.html.
Grown for meat, rabbits are very good neighbors. They're quiet and clean and odor free (if you keep things clean, too). And they procreate like, well, rabbits. You'll need very strong fences or hutches to keep them safe from predators, and you'll need to provide good veterinary care.
Goats are efficient milk producers and fun animals. There are over 200 breeds of goats, with some being better milk—or angora wool—producers than others. Some will produce a gallon of milk a day from three to four pounds of grain and a few pounds of hay. Goats are also raised for goat meat (called chevron) and hides. (One buck can produce 25 to 40 pounds of meat.)
Goats are a bit labor intensive. You'll need to learn how to care for them when they're lactating and not. They need to be milked twice a day, every day. They're good at breaking down fences, and they need good veterinary care. They can also be noisy bleaters and if you're not interested in culling them when they're done producing milk, you'll wind up with lots of extra kids around over time!
Sheep are typically quiet, calm animals. One ewe can produce eight pounds of wool and 100 pounds of meat.
Because they're shy, they require vigilant protection from predators. They need to be shorn (not an easy task), and they need good veterinary care as well as more land than other backyard livestock. (You won't want sheep if you have a small backyard; you'll need a bit of a pasture for them.)
Some backyard homesteaders grow pigs for meat. In addition to feed, pigs will eat kitchen scraps, grains, roots, and greens from the garden—and gain one pound for every 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds of feed. Rather than buying newborns and raising piglets, many people will purchase weanlings in the spring and raise them through the summer.
Pigs don't need much room—though their pigpens are smelly, so proximity to your own and your neighbor's living quarters should be a consideration—and this is one case where good fences do make good neighbors. Pigs are notorious for rooting, and so fences need to be tight at the bottom to prevent them from getting out and into the neighbor's yard. Care consists of feed and water, cleaning out the pens and providing veterinary care.
Ducks and Geese
Some ducks are grown for eggs, some for meat, and others just for fun. A pond is nice, though a fence to protect them is all that's absolutely necessary. They'll produce one pound of meat per 2 1/2 to 3# of food they eat. If you're concerned about incessant quacking (your neighbors might be), you might want to look into Muscovies, a variety that doesn't quack but grows to 12 pounds, the largest domestic ducks.
Geese, on the other hand, honk. Grown for their meat, they're grazers, eating vegetation. They get along well with ducks, so you can grow them in tandem.
Adding livestock to your home is a step you'll want to take thoughtfully. But if you have the time, the passion, and enjoy household sustainability and connection with your food, you're likely to find it deeply satisfying—and fun.
If your interest is piqued and you'd like to learn more, two of the many good books are: The Urban Homestead, Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, by Coyne Kelly and Erik Knutzen (Process Media 2010) and The Backyard Homestead, by Carleen Madigan (Storey Publishing 2009). You'll also find animal-specific books, such as Ashley English's Keeping Chickens (Lark Books, 2010). And, of course, there's plenty of detailed information online.
New Leaf Market carries a wide variety of locally produced items including: Smoked Rabbit Sausage, Goat and Lamb from D&W located in Newton, Alabama; bacon, sausage and pulled pork from Thompson Farms Smokehouse in Dixie, Georgia; and local honey from T’s Honey and Honey Pax in Tallahassee, Florida and Bayhead Honey Farm in Youngstown, Florida.