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

S.J.MississippiAnswer: 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 RabbitsPoultry 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:1. http://www.backyardchickens.com/coopdesigns.html2. http://home.centurytel.net/thecitychicken/tractors.html3. http://urbanchickens.org/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 http://www.sare.org/reporting/report_viewer.asp?pn=GNC04-028&ry=2006&rf=1.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 GoatsSheep 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 References(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 504-771-2262 504-771-5134 FAX jmcnitt@subr.edu(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.