Saturday, July 9, 2016

About livestock

In my recent posts about permanency, I touched on the subject of keeping animals. I suggested, necessary infrastructure on the land, comes first, before getting too carried away with livestock. I may have given the impression, however, you cannot have any animals at all.

It is possible to keep some animals before you've gotten all your building projects completed. After all, it could take years. But remember to keep permanency in mind, by practising some limitations too.

Black Pekin pullets - 2008

I personally didn't need to keep as many heritage breeds as I did, in the first few years. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about different breed traits. However (ironically) in the end, I realised I just wanted a healthy chicken, which could provide eggs.

Now I just keep layers of mixed variety. ISA Browns, to be specific, but we plan to keep a rooster and breed our own, Gully Grove variety. Which will simply comprise of whatever rooster we can get for free. We recently acquired one, which is part ISA Brown and part Leghorn. He's a lovely fellow. We'll keep one coop, several layers and one rooster at a time.

Bantam Orpingtons (blue rooster, black pullets) - 2009

I recommend this is how you should start with chickens on property, if you need to practice economic restraint. Attempt to find whatever chickens are available for as little cost as possible (free in some cases) in your area. As long as you can acquire a rooster, then you can incubate the subsequent eggs. That's if you don't have a broody hen, to incubate the eggs and do the rearing for you.

This simple set-up means you don't have to keep buying new hens, for reliable egg supply. You can breed your own - year in, year out. It's a wonderful way to introduce yourself (and any children) to keeping chickens too.

Limiting yourself from the beginning, ensures what you start with, has a better chance of succeeding. Or, if you discover you don't like keeping chickens, you haven't spent a great deal of money, to learn that lesson.

 Lavender Araucana rooster - 2009

The question of whether to build a permanent chicken coop, or mobile chicken tractor, can only be answered by what your land (and you) can provide. There were reasons we went with permanent coops, rather than the tractors, and everyone's reasons will vary.

I would however, recommend a permanent coop, if you don't have the time to move a mobile tractor around. After all, that is the key part of their design to keep chickens healthy, happy and productive. Or if, like us, you don't have enough flat land to run them on, a permanent coop is better suited.

 Newly constructed chicken tractor - 2008

Chicken tractors are more economical on building supplies, plus they allow chickens to be moved to fresh food. Which can ultimately, reduce the cost of feed you have to purchase. If you're just starting out and can use mobile tractors, it makes more financial sense to do so.

If a permanent coop suits your situation better however, you can reduce costs of building one, by searching for second hand materials, online, or at garage sales. You can even reuse wooden shipping pallets. These are often given away for free, by businesses who would otherwise have to pay to have them carted away. Heck, I even reused an old cot, in my first permanent chicken coop.

 Recycled, wooden babies cot - 2008

Of all the livestock you can keep, chickens are probably the easiest. But they're also the most prone to predators. So whatever accommodations you make, ensure they are offered as much protection as possible.

I have no experience with keeping larger livestock, such as goats, sheep, pigs or cattle. Simply because most of our energies and resources, have been spent, creating flat land. If you have the land though, and can dedicate some resources to keeping larger livestock - the same practice of limitations apply.

 Gold Lace Wyandotte pullet - 2009

Start by setting up a few animals, successfully, at first. Be conservative with building accommodations, but also make sure it's secure. Any design, which can incorporate free feed options, should be considered too. Even with a permanent coop, we have found pigeon peas to be an excellent, no hassle, free feed, for our chickens. So we incorporate them around our chicken coops and gardens. If you don't have the climate for pigeon peas, try growing easy greens instead.

Free feed can also be found, by giving chickens: garden weeds, fruit 'n veg past their prime, including the offcuts and their seeds. Even your leftover dinner scraps will do. Clean a roasting tray of fat, by using a piece of bread instead of kitchen towels, and give it to your chickens. They will love it. Ours do.

Barnevelder pullet and cockerel - 2009

By placing most of your effort on being conservative with your resources though, it will be an easier venture to manage over the life of it. Being enthusiastic about keeping livestock is great. Just avoid creating such an enormous chore, it starts taking away most of your time and resources. Especially, as you will be busy setting up, other aspects of your property.

So with that in mind, keep the numbers of animals, in check too. Make sure its only what you can afford to keep, and what you can realistically manage. Otherwise it could become a wasted venture, in the end. Only succeeding at delaying you, from reaching the goal of permanency.

 Black Australorp Rooster - 2012

Don't be surprised if (like us) you have to reassess what you're doing, and change things to suit your circumstances. You haven't failed at keeping animals. The compass is set to keeping the land viable, under your tenure, is all. Only you can give yourself, the flexibility to achieve that.

While I've enjoyed sharing some photos of my old Heritage Breeds, in this post, don't be tempted to think, I got my money's worth. Not as it turned out. Because as gorgeous as all those birds were (I loved each and every one) at the end of the day, it was easier to just go with whatever bird was affordable, and preferably (in the case of roosters) free. Because it's only over time and compounded effort, the real cost is accounted for.

 ISA Brown x Leghorn cockerel - 2016
17 weeks old (free)

My hat goes off, to anyone who does dedicate their time to breeding heritage chickens, however. There's nothing wrong with that vocation, if you're set up for it. We had a lot more work, it turned out, setting up our property from scratch, than I initially anticipated. Which is why I eventually went with, whatever was the most cost effective approach.

There is no, good - bad equation to keeping chickens. Heritage Breeds. Cross Breeds. Or any other livestock, for that matter. Just remember to put what works for the land (and your efforts, setting up) first. Because that is what will keep the wheels of your entire venture, running, well into the future.

For one final bit of inspiration, I wanted to share a short 3 minute video, demonstrating a chicken coop, being made from pallets. It showcases what is possible with cheap (often free) materials. Or you can visit their website for more detailed information. All freely shared.


  1. Great advice Chris! We forked out for heritage breeds, thinking that they would lay more eggs. Now we just hatch whatever eggs we have and the hens lay just fine. We call them BEAVIS browns (our last name). Another aspect is considering from the start what you will do with old hens and if you will eat the roosters.

    1. That's a great name, lol, Beavis browns. As long as they're healthy, well fed hens, they lay, I have found. Although Heritage breeds certainly have their advantages, it's just not cost effective enough, if you have to stick to a budget, or have restrictions on land to breed.

      That's why I switched to a bitza mix. We don't have enough flat land, to raise separate lines to avoid inbreeding. Much easier to bring new blood in, with a completely different rooster. Being a bitza mix, it doesn't matter what the next generation looks like. Just so long as they lay eggs, and are healthy. ;)

  2. Thanks for that info, Chris. I need to see that video on slow motion. LOL! I will check out the website and get some inspiration hopefully...or at least get my husband to read about it as he has the wood and just needs the motivation to get going.

    1. If you open up the Youtube website, by clicking the Youtube icon, at the bottom of the screen, you can see the comments under the video. It links to several of the website pages, detailing the build more specifically.

      I hope you get that new coop soon. :)

  3. Hello Chris, what a great amount of info you have on your blog! I'll be telling others about it for sure. We are lazy chicken keepers because our steers, cows and pigs require more of our time but still I have my favorites. We raise Freedom Rangers for meat butchering every fall and we collect eggs wherever we find them. No official chicken coop yet but they have tons of places to go for shelter, they are so free range I'm jealous.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your experience with livestock. I admire people who can keep larger livestock, like you, because their sizeable manure advantage can improve land fertility quicker.

      I can understand the advantage of putting chickens last on the commitment scale, when you can run larger livestock instead. As the energies you placed there, have a higher return.

      But chickens work perfectly on our more challenging terrain. It takes a lot more energy and resources to make it workable to keep larger livestock. We both demonstrate, different parcels of land, require different choices. May we both enjoy our lengthy, but completely worth it, commitments to land tenure. :)

  4. What a great idea to use bread instead of a paper towel to clean the grease from a pan! Must be why I tossed all those odds and ends in the freezer. :) Moving our compost bins into the chicken yard was one of the best things we ever did. Not only do the chickens get loads of kitchen scrap delicacies, but they truly facilitate gorgeous compost.

    You are so right about livestock. I think we jumped the gun, which is a sad consequence of starting homesteading after the kids are grown and on their own. There just doesn't seem to be enough time to do everything that needs to be done.

    1. It makes sense to marry chickens with a compost pile. Plenty of free protein available, and they can turn the compost for you. Although I imagine they like to spread it out, rather than pile it up. ;)

      I think we're all tempted to go overboard with livestock. We enjoy the companionship and learning new things. So long as we remember, we're the ones to set the balance right though, we can re-evaluate and make changes. :)

      I think you're doing a great job with your livestock management. You've changed where you've seen the need to.


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