Keeping livestock in your own backyard is being heralded as the new sustainability. I mean really, how much more local could your eggs get? It is a great idea, but one that needs some fine tuning. Keeping livestock in your backyard, livestock that is dependent on commercial, grain based feed, is not sustainable. I call this the longer tail-pipe phenomenon. Electric cars are no more sustainable than gasoline powered cars, if the electric car is recharged on a grid that has power supplied to it by a fossil fuel based plant (think coal). If you drive an electric car in Colorado Springs, and it is not charged with a solar panel, what you actually have is a longer tail-pipe. The same holds true for keeping backyard livestock. If you have to import their feed, feed that was produced and transported with fossil fuel, you have a little more to do in the name of sustainability.
Chickens are omnivores and will eat just about anything. Chickens require a diet of roughly 1/5 protein, the rest should be carbohydrates and fat. Chickens are one of the easiest backyard animals to provide appropriate food; the only problem is generating enough quantity to keep the chickens fat and sassy through the winter. I plant a “Three Sisters” garden of corn, bean, and squash for my birds. I also planted ten Siberian Pea Shrubs on my property. Siberian Pea Shrubs produce lentils in a pod, and these lentils make excellent poultry food. As a bonus, Siberian Pea Shrubs fix nitrogen into your soil, a plus here in Colorado.
Bees can be left to their own devices, which means on dry years there won’t be any honey for you. On wet years the bees will store enough honey on their own that you can skim some; dry years, not so much. Many bee keepers feed their bees mixtures of sugar and water, as well as pollen patties in the late winter. If the bees were able to store enough honey and pollen the previous year, feeding your bees is unnecessary. The best thing you can do for your bees is to plant flowers everywhere in your yard and beyond. Plant flowers that bloom early in the spring (dandelions are best), flowers that bloom in the summer, and flowers that will hold their blooms well into fall. These flowers are the food source for your bees (your livestock), so go all out. It doesn’t hurt that they look nice as well.
If you keep fish in an aquaponics system, you have a couple of options for feeding your fish from your backyard. Fish can be trained on composting worms, so if you have a vermiculture system you can pull a few worms a day to feed to your fish. Fish can also be fed vegetable scraps (depending on the type of fish), and some aquapons (person who practices aquaponics) even grow duck week in shallow pools to feed to their fish.
If you keep rabbits, plant Jerusalem artichokes and comfrey. Both plants are adored by rabbits, and comfrey is well known as a tonic for just about anything that ails a rabbit. Rabbits can eat the leaves and stalks of both plants, as well as the roots of the Jerusalem artichoke (see picture above). Feed the roots sparingly, as they can sometimes upset a rabbit’s stomach. The leaves of both Jerusalem artichoke and comfrey can be fed fresh or dried, allowing you to put up some winter feed. You can also grow sunflowers for your rabbits, but limit the amount you feed as the oily nature of sunflower seeds can give rabbits diarrhea when feed in large quantities. Meat rabbits require a diet fairly high in protein; without high protein they will not gain adequate muscle mass.
Goats can be more difficult to feed from your backyard – in our arid conditions a pair of goats will almost always overrun a backyard. In urban and suburban situations, goats are sometimes best owned jointly, allowing the goats to be moved from yard to yard. Goats can also be used for fire mitigation in sloped neighborhoods, allowing the goats to browse while they reduce the hazardous fuel load on the landscape.
Remember to never throw away fruit or vegetables from your gardens, mini-orchards, or mini-vineyards. This produce can often be fed to your livestock animals (do a quick internet search to double check each plant), and can round out an animal’s diet. Currently, in my greenhouse, I have many cool season plants growing (and overgrowing), that I pick and feed to my chickens. The birds love the fresh treats, and the nutrient density of the greens is quite high.
The act of feeding your livestock from you own backyard mandates that the landscape be balanced. It is no longer possible to overburden your property, if you expect to feed your livestock from your property. If you keep urban livestock, give some thought to how you can feed them from your own backyard. Sustainable is a condition that is not tied to commodity crops or fossil fuel, so the more you can do to sever that tie, the better off you will be. If you add in livestock feeding systems to your backyard farm, you will no longer be concerned with rising fuel costs, GMO grains, or supply problems. Your animals will be healthier, and you will have greater peace of mind.
Got a favorite backyard plant that you grow for your urban livestock? I’m always wanting to learn more on this topic, so leave a comment and let us know what works for you.