For a vegetable gardening guy to be talking about animals may seem inconsistent to some, but since both provide food they are closely related, so I will discuss the general topic a bit here.
From age 12 until I left home for college I had the full responsibility for a cow, to which were added chickens, rabbits, pigs, and even a goat at various times. These all contributed significantly to and were important to our family’s food supply.
However, I didn’t understand at that time that it requires between 10 and 30 times as much land to produce a pound of protein from an animal source as from a plant source, and looking back I realize that our vegetable garden produced much more with fewer inputs than did the animals.
Dr. Jacob Mittleider, who taught me almost everything I know about gardening, had a special perspective on this issue because as a Seventh Day Adventist he was a strict vegetarian. While I am not a vegetarian I also believe that we are healthier when we limit meat in our diets, and our personal family diet is usually less than 10% meat.
And both Dr. Mittleider’s and my own experience around the world confirm that most people have very limited space in which to produce their own food, thus making vegetable gardening the best choice for the greatest return on investment.
I submit that a Mittleider-Method garden, when cared for properly and consistently, is the best use of your time, efforts, space and money, and that excess food grown in your garden can usually be sold or traded for milk, eggs, and meat more efficiently than raising your own animals.
Nevertheless, there are other issues to be considered. Vegetables can’t begin to compete for the special feeling you may get from caring for animals, and those of you who DO have space may still want some animals.
If animals are in your plans, I encourage you to keep their living spaces clean, separate them from your garden so they don’t destroy it, and whenever possible feed them your excess plant residue as soon as the crop is harvested.
Chicken tractors (Google it), can be used for both chickens and rabbits, but must have a wire floor on them if you raise rabbits, because they will dig their way out quickly. If used efficiently chicken tractors can help you keep your yard clean and organized. Each time the tractor is moved remember to till the chicken or rabbit droppings (both of which are excellent fertilizers), etc. into the soil for natural composting without making a mess. And the same goes for all other animal manure. Get it into the soil and let it compost naturally, rather than having it smell bad and attract pests.
For those who have more space – and are willing to accept the responsibility for at least twice daily care (milking, feeding, etc.) – larger animals may also be an option.
Goats are one possible choice, as they are fairly small, don’t take a lot of space to house or graze, and will eat a wide variety of plants, but they don’t give a lot of milk, are not easy to milk, and many people don’t care for the taste of their milk.
My personal preference for a milk-producing animal is one or two Miniature Jersey cows. They are about 1/3 the size of full-size cows; they are very friendly and docile – even the bulls; they produce from 2 to 4 gallons of milk daily when fresh; and they only require a fraction of an acre for grazing.
Many websites have details about the miniature Jerseys. They are a rare breed so far, and will be expensive to buy, but after the initial investment, if you use the best breeding stock, you may be able to recover your initial capital outlays by selling excess calves.
Meanwhile, I will continue to focus on VEGETABLE GARDENING, but encourage those of you who have the interest, the commitment, and the required space for animals to consider the most efficient ways to benefit from them.