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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on small livestock production on a sub-acreage farm?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on small livestock production on a sub-acreage farm.

Poultry and Rabbits

Poultry and rabbits will not take up as much space as will goats and sheep. Rabbit housing depends on the scale of the operation; rabbits can be raised on a commercial or backyard scale. Rabbit Housing (1) is a useful reference for designing housing, listed below. An experienced producer with a stable market may want to build a specialized building. Commercial rabbitries usually house animals in all-wire cages suspended above the ground. On a backyard scale, a hutch can be built to house a few animals outside.

Rabbits are ideally kept where the temperature can be maintained at 62°F. In any type of building, ventilation is very important in order to reduce ammonia buildup and to help the animals stay cool during hot periods.

While building or designing rabbit housing, remember that rabbits tend to gnaw, especially on wood. If plastic water lines are used to deliver water, attach them to the outside of the cage so the rabbits cannot chew them. Some farmers choose to put growing rabbits in a portable cage that can be moved around a pasture or yard to allow the rabbits to graze grasses in addition to their growing ration. Gestating does need to be confined to their cages until the kits are weaned.

Poultry is the perfect livestock for sub-acreage farms. A “chicken tractor” is a way to integrate poultry production with vegetable production. Andy Lee described his system in a popular book called Chicken Tractor (2). Birds are kept in small pens in a garden to provide fertility, tillage, and insect control. Lee uses a small floorless pen so the birds can forage and scratch. The pen is covered with wire and usually has a covered top or a small attached house. The pen is moved daily on fallow beds to add fertility and increase garden yields. The chickens also weed and till the beds and help control insects. Garden wastes are useful feed supplements. In addition to rotating the pen daily to a fresh spot, Lee suggests keeping the pen in one spot and adding fresh straw bedding daily to create a raised garden bed. Moving the pen after one month will leave a sheet-mulch on top of the beds to kill grass and weeds. According to producer Jean Nick, heavy broilers don’t really till the soil. “They just poop and stomp on it.” Layers are better at clearing weeds and bulbs and scratching the ground.

You can download plans and photos for chicken tractors from the following websites:


Scientific studies have examined the impact of poultry on fertility, integrating birds with vegetable and forage production. Jim McNitt, PhD, (3) at Southern University and University of Illinois graduate student Ben Lubchansky (4) have conducted such examinations. You can read Ben’s final report at

Poultry can also be kept in gardens, fenced with portable electro-netting. Chickens help prepare the ground for vegetable planting. After harvest, birds clean crop residues in market gardens in the fall— turkeys are especially useful for this purpose. According to Andy Lee, “from October through Thanksgiving the turkeys can clean every bit of weeds and spent plants from the garden and leave a rich load of manure behind.” “Fold” houses in the United Kingdom allow flocks of chickens to help glean fields after crops are harvested. (5) Chickens are not generally appropriate for a producing garden, because they scratch up seeds or eat crops. According to Vermont producer Walter Jefferies, “I don’t let them in early in the season when the seedlings are getting started or late in the year when they’ll peck ripe veggies. Chickens, guineas, and ducks all work with some plants such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes at the right states.”

For detailed information on small scale poultry production, I recommend ATTRA’s Range Poultry Housing.

Sheep and Goats

Sheep and goats require more space to raise them sustainably. These livestock can certainly be kept in pens with an associated shed for shelter, but this might result in muddy and defoliated conditions and might become a nuisance to neighbors. If you have the room, a system of small rotational grazing paddocks may be used to maintain vegetation and supplement the animals dry matter intake at least during the growing season.

Sheep and goats require about one acre for every 5 or 6 mature animals in a continuous grazing system. This stocking rate can be increased for more intensive grazing systems, such as Management Intensive Rotational Grazing. However, you will likely be limited to how intensively you can graze livestock on a sub-acreage farm. The best rotational grazing systems for sheep and goats have at least 10 paddocks to rotate the animals though, allowing the animals to graze for no more than two days per paddock. This allows adequate time for the grass to regrow before it can be grazed again. You may not find it feasible to subdivide a small space with electric fencing for just a few animals. Therefore, starting with a few paddocks and just 2 or three animals would be advised, and rotate them back and forth as the season progresses. If the animals begin to overgraze the paddocks, you can pen them and feed them high quality hay and a little supplement until the grass recovers. Grazing in a small space is something you will have to experiment with, and adapt according to rainfall, irrigation, grass growth response, and animal demand.

For detailed information on sheep and goats, I recommend the following ATTRA publications:

1. Sustainable Sheep Production
2. Goats: Sustainable Production


(1) McNitt, James. 1996. Rabbit Housing Manual. Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Baton Rouge, LA.

(2) Lee, Andy. 1998. Chicken Tractor. Straw Bale Edition. Good Earth Publications. Buena Vista, VA. 320 p

(3) Dr. Jim McNitt
Small Farm Family Resource Development Center
Southern University and A&M College
Box 11170
Baton Rouge, LA 70813-0401
504-771-5134 FAX

(4) Lubchansky, Benjamin. 2005. The Agricultural and Ecological Functioning of a System Integrating Pastured Poultry and Raised-bed Vegetable Production. NC SARE Graduate Student Grant. GNC04-028.

(5) Thear, Katie. 1997. Free-Range Poultry. Published by Farming Press Books, Ipswich, U.K. Distributed by Diamond Farm Enterprises, Alexandria Bay, NY. 181 p.



Permalink What information can you give me on developing city ordinances for poultry?


Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA with your request for information on urban poultry. In planning to try and change your city's ordinances in regards to poultry, it may be helpful to look at other urban poultry groups who have succeeded in changing their city's laws. Some of these groups include Mad City Chickens in Madison, WI, City Chickens in Seattle, WA, and Urban Chickens in Albuquerque, NM. The Urban Chickens website has a helpful section that shows the chicken related laws in many large U.S. cities.

Patricia Foreman, author of "City Chicks", a book about keeping urban chickens notes that 3 hens will supply enough eggs for a family of 4. "City Chicks" discusses many benefits of keeping backyard poultry and the author's struggle in attempting to change the laws in her city with regards to poultry keeping.

Welfare standards limit stocking densities to 1 layer/1.5 square feet (Humane Farm Animal Care). The stocking densities for meat birds are usually figured by weight, and the welfare standard limits 6lbs/1 square foot (Humane Farm Animal Care). A 6lb chicken is typically a broiler at 8 weeks or so. Although usually small-scale producers provide more space than this, and Patricia Foreman suggests 1 chicken/6-10 square feet. You may be able to find "City Chicks" at your local library or they can order it through interlibrary loan at no cost.



Permalink What can you tell me about controlling black knot in peach and plum trees?


Answer: Thank you for requesting information from ATTRA on controlling black knot in your 30 acre organic plum and peach orchard.

Black knot is caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. It can infect wild cherry and plum trees, which can be sources by which it may come into your orchard. You may want to check around the border of your farm if you have any wild Prunus tree species, to see if they are infected. You will need to make sure all sources of inoculum are removed as soon as possible, or nothing you do in your orchard will help stop it.

To control black knot organically, you must 1) identify and remove sources of inoculum, 2) prune out the infected twigs and branches in your plum and peach trees 3) burn, bury or use a flail mower to shred the infected prunings and disk them in lightly.

When pruning the knots out, make your cuts 2-4 inches below the beginning of the knot – the fungus infects the wood outside the knot region throughout the growing season. If the knot is on non-prunable wood like a scaffold limb or the trunk, you can also cut the knot out down to the wood, and dig out about a ½ inch outside the knot edges as well.

If you can't find the source of inoculum for your orchard, or you think the problem is severe enough that it will reoccur, then we recommend spraying with an organically approved fungicide, like lime-sulfur, starting at budbreak. If you are going to use a fungicide, it is CRITICAL that you also prune the knots out and use proper sanitation. Otherwise you will be poisoning your soil for no reason. The most critical time to apply the fungicide is right before a rain event, and particularly when the temperatures are going to be above 55°F. The fungus opens it's asci during the first spring rain and release the ascospores into the air, which get carried by water and wind currents, to land on fresh, green wood. If it stays wet, this is the perfect environment for the ascospore to "germinate" and begin an infection into the wood.

Make sure you scout your orchard at least once a year for these knots; they will not be very noticeable until at least one to two years after the infection.

Please see the Fact Sheet from Cornell University extension enclosed for further details.


Wilcox, Wayne. 1992. Black Knot of Plums. Tree Fruit Crops Disease Information Sheet No. 6. Cornell University Cooperative Extension.



Permalink What information can you give me on Walipini-style greenhouses?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on constructing a Walipini-style greenhouse.

The Walipini is an underground or pit greenhouse that utilizes nature’s resources to provide a warm, stable, well-lit environment for year-round vegetable production. (1) The word "Walipini" comes from the Aymara Indian language in South America and means "place of warmth". A Walipini is located 6'- 8' underground in order to capture and store daytime solar radiation.

Typically pit greenhouses are used in areas with very cold winters. The insulative properties of the ground allow enough heat for seed germination and plant production and, depending on your location, may not require any supplemental heat. These insulative properties hold true in the hot summer months helping to keep the greenhouse cool. Potential problems with an underground greenhouse are wet conditions from the water table seeping through the soil on the floor and the entry of surface water through gaps in the walls at the ground level. To minimize the risk of water rising through the floor, you can build the underground greenhouse in an area where the bottom is at least five feet above the water table. To prevent water from entering the greenhouse from the outside, digging drainage ditches around the greenhouse can direct water away from the walls. Also, the walls can be sealed with waterproof materials such as plastic or fine clay and insulation panels can be added for extra insulation.

Referenced below are construction plans for building a Walipini. Although the design plans are specific to the La Paz area of Bolivia, the information contained in the plans are applicable for other geographic and climatic conditions. In addition, I am including a list of resources that discuss pit-style greenhouses. These resources are not specific to the Walipini, but may be of assistance to you.


1. Benson Agriculture and Food Institute. 2002. Walipini Construction. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.


Bellows, Barbara. 2008. Solar Greenhouse Resources. ATTRA Publication. Butte, MT: NCAT.

Geery, Daniel. 1982. Solar Greenhouses, Underground. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books.

McCullagh, James. 1978. The Solar Greenhouse Book. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Oehler, Mike. 2007. Earth Sheltered Solar Greenhouse. Bonners Ferry, ID: Mole Publishing Company.



Permalink What information can you give me on composting poultry litter?


Thank you for contacting ATTRA with your request for information on composting poultry litter. I understand you are interested in composting existing poultry litter in empty broiler houses. I’ve compiled some information on the composting of poultry litter as well as composting in general that should help you in developing the best system and management of turning poultry litter to compost.

ATTRA’s publication, Poultry House Management for Alternative Production contains an appendix which discusses the composting of poultry litter and is included below:
Composting Poultry Litter (Appendix 2 in Poultry House Management for Alternative Production) -- Poultry litter is an excellent feedstock for composting. Composting is controlled decomposition, the natural breakdown process of organic materials (Cooperband, 2002). Raw materials are transformed into biologically stable, humic substances that are an organic matter source with a unique ability to improve the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of soil. In compost, nutrients are present in the same amounts but in a less soluble form, and compost has less odor than raw litter. However, some nitrogen (N) escapes during composting, so the phosphorus (P) is more concentrated in compost. Due to the action of microbes, volume of compost is reduced compared to the original litter. "Water and carbon dioxide lost during composting reduce the litter volume by 25-50 percent and the litter weight by 40-80 percent." Composting occurs through the activity of microorganisms naturally found in soils, which colonize the material and start the composting process (Cooperband, 2002). During the active phase of composting, the temperatures in the pile get high enough to kill pathogens. The pile should be at least one cubic yard in order to retain heat. During this phase, oxygen must be replenished by aeration or turning of the pile. During the curing phase, temperatures lower, organic materials continue to decompose and are converted to biologically stable humic substances. Optimal conditions for rapid composting include a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25-35:1, moisture content of 45-60 percent, available oxygen of more than 10 percent, particle size of less than1 inch, bulk density of 1,000 lbs/cu yd, pH of 6.5-8, and temperature of 130-140 F (Cooperband, 2002). If the carbon to nitrogen ratio is less than 20:1, the microbes have surplus nitrogen (N), which can be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia gas. Also the pH should be less than 7.5 to prevent ammonia formation. In order to compost poultry litter, additional shavings or carbon source may need to be added. If conditions are not optimal, anaerobic decomposition may occur, which produces foul-smelling sulfur and takes longer to compost. Composting bird carcasses (mortalities) is usually done in a bin.

Referenced below is the publication, The Art and Science of Composting. The Art and Science of Composting was put together by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and introduces some general points that are critical in properly managing compost. A publication entitled On-Farm Composting of Poultry Litter developed by the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service is also referenced, and includes information specific to compost poultry litter. ATTRA's publication, Farm-Scale Composting Resource List is another good resource.

Some states have regulations on large-scale composting operations. For more information you can contact Jim Warram at the OK Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management Division (405) 745-7100. Compost testing can be done at most soil testing labs. The Soil, Water, and Forage Analytical Laboratory at Oklahoma State University provides compost testing as one of their services. They can be contacted at 405-744-6630, and also found on the web at


Cooperband, L. 2002. The Art and Science of Composting: A Resource for Farmers and Compost Producers. Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. 14 pg.

Walker, Forbes. On-Farm Composting of Poultry Litter
. University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service. 9 pg.



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