Resuming my highly personal notes on Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012), here’s Chapter Fourteen: Animals for the Garden Farm. Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.
About geese: “You should always keep both male and female geese. They are typically monogamous and mate for life, but if widowed, can usually be mated again after a period of mourning. Sometimes a gander and two geese will form a durable trio.” — Peter Bane
Note: Being a largely vegetarian household (with friends and/or local farmers who raise chickens for eggs and cows for milk and cheese), we don’t have and won’t have farm animals on our property, so I didn’t pay close attention to this chapter; mostly my notes reflect animal trivia, not the advantages and disadvantages of each animal in a permaculture setting, which Bane does delineate. If this topic really interests you, I recommend reading it yourself (buy the book, or read the chapter online).
Discussed are: honeybees, pigs, chickens, goats, cattle, ducks, rabbits, geese, turkeys, llamas, guinea pigs, quinea fowl, pigeons, and working dogs and cats.
Animals move the sun’s energy around, concentrating it and depositing it.
Bane advises against these animals as not suited to polycultures: horses (an indulgence); sheep (prone to parasites); and donkeys (prefer rugged terrain, don’t like confinement). [Several people in our town raise donkeys in large pastures with alpacas, goats, and sheep, and they seem to work well.] He also names two dozen others animals that could be “specialty crops” (p. 261).
Conserving heritage breeds: An advantage is that they can largely take care of themselves.
Ethical Dominion: Bane feels it’s justifiable to kill animals to help ourselves:
“I believe that we can justifiably take the lives of animals, either ourselves directly or in human community, in order to bolster our own vigor and prosperity against the vicissitudes of a difficult fate while remaining compassionate toward our animal companions. A proper ethical stance toward animal life requires that we use what we kill and that we provide a good life to the animals in our care. This means at minimum that they enjoy adequate healthy food and water, protection from predators and the hazards of confinement and a life of companionship with others of their own and compatible kinds, with as much of their natural sexual cycle, including reproduction, as can be accommodated.”
Bane says there is an opportunity for mindfulness and gratitude in raising and killing animals [my note: there is also the same opportunity if you eat only plants]. “Engaging with animals requires us to be present with our carnality.” If one is squeamish about sexual politics, have a few geese, which mate in pairs for life.
Qualities to look for in farm animals: docility, thriftiness (can grow and prosper in average conditions), vigor. “Eat the weak and wicked and … breed the strong and calm.”
“You may elect not to keep livestock. This is a completely legitimate approach; however, it will slow down soil building, require you to bring in manure from somewhere else or increase demand for fossil-fueled machinery.”
Honeybees: The “smallest livestock you are likely to keep.” Apis mellifera. Bees need access to water that they can reach without drowning, and they need sunlight on their hive. The queen bee can store sperm for up to 3 years and can lay 1000 fertile eggs per day. Worker bees are the sexually infertile daughters. Males are drones. The queen’s pheromones regulate all the activity in the hive. If the queen loses her fertilizing ability, the workers prepare to raises a new one. Bees forage for 2-3 miles in all directions (see Appendix 2 for a bee forage list). Bees make propolis (gum to seal cracks in the hive) and royal jelly from honey; they mix flower nectar with enzymes to make the honey, which they eat in winter. If the hive space is filled with honey and it’s still warm outside, the hive will prepare to swarm. Workers beat their wings around the queen all winter to keep the temperatures inside the hive at 92F. Mites and deadly bacterial diseases can be a problem. Never feed them honey from other hives, as it can be contaminated with foulbrood and other diseases; if needed, supplement food with sugar syrup.
Poultry: Pigeons, ducks, geese, chicken, quail, turkeys, guinea fowl. Use for food, pest control, to eat waste food, for eggs. They are easily tamed.
CHICKENS (4-11 lbs): Eat insects, worms, mice, voles, frogs, lizards, snakes. No teeth (like all birds; they have gizzards, so they need constant access to grit or small stones to digest food). Hens lay after 22-24 weeks. After 2 years, laying rate is about half what it was to start with. Can lay for 20 years. (There are four pages of info on raising chickens.)
DUCKS (7-9 lbs): Water management is very important for ducks. They also need space and cleanliness. Ducks can’t peck food apart, so it has to be chopped. They like table scraps. Never handle them by their legs. Muscovy ducks catch 87% of flies in a 400-square-foot cage in an hour.
GEESE: There are 4 major types of geese. Geese are true grazers — they love grass and forage. They’ll eat lizards and slugs but mostly they are plant eaters. Also excellent weeders and lawn mowers. Need water like ducks do. Typically monogamous, sometimes trios of a gander and two geese.
TURKEYS: Most turkeys are raised commercially in confinement but they can free-range and scavenge. In Mexico, it’s common to see them wandering through the village in day, returning to roosts at night as long as water is provided. They do well on legume or grass pasture seeded to alfalfa, bluegrass, ladino clover or bromegrass, or with annual plantings like soybeans, sudan grass, sunflowers, rape, kale, and reed canary grass. Shade from either plants or buildings must be provided when it’s hot. They are best suited for a woodland setting or forest garden with access to harvested field crops for gleaning. “Heritage breeds are likely to be hardier and more disease-resistant, but clipping their wings may be necessary to prevent flight.” Need protection from owls and dogs.
GUINEA FOWL: “[G]uinea fowl are also notably noisy, having a very loud and raucous call that announces the arrival of guests or any strange creature coming into the yard. While not burdened with intelligence, they are quite unintimidated by larger animals and will attack almost anything that threatens them, including venomous snakes, which they have been known to kill. This combination of traits makes them excellent watch animals for a poultry flock, and many times a guinea has saved the lives of less suspecting chickens, ducks or turkeys.” They’re never tame but they won’t leave your farm/yard if they are confined in a poultry yard until they are 12 weeks old. Though hardy in hot and cold climates, they won’t lay eggs unless temperatures exceed 59F; lay 60-180 eggs per year. Determined foragers of insects.
PIGEONS: They range far afield to forage. “Because they require little space and thrive in urban environments, pigeons have considerable promise as city livestock.” Need continuous supply of fresh water for drinking and also for bathing weekly, and like all birds they need some grit to digest their food. A breeding pair can produce 12 to 16 squab (baby birds — the ones people want to eat) yearly. They don’t produce well in very cold climates. “Pigeons are prey to every imaginable predator; care should especially be taken to exclude rats from their nests.”
QUAIL (Coturnix coturnix): Another small bird for the city. There are 4 subspecies farmed for meat and eggs; the Japanese quail, the only cultivated type, crosses easily with wild quail, producing fertile hybrids. They live about 5 years, with peak egg production at about 6 months; they can lay 200–300 eggs per year, but that will age them faster. Quail meat is dark and gamier than chicken, but the small eggs have a similar flavour to chicken’s eggs. Have to be confined or will escape (no homing instinct at all). Resistant to Newcastle disease, which afflicts other poultry. They can each chick mash and be kept (6 females to 1 male) in a rabbit cage.
Small mammals: “Small animals are all of potential interest to the garden farmer because they can so quickly accelerate soil building. That they can turn wastes into meat, eggs, honey, fur and other useful goods is a wonderful bonus. Among mammals, first place goes to the rabbit, a species so prolific that permaculture teacher Dan Hemenway has written that rabbits would be the perfect domestic livestock if only they laid eggs.”
RABBITS: “Rabbits are among the most economical and productive of all livestock. A ten-pound mature female of a large breed such as a Satin, New Zealand, California or Flemish produces a litter after one month gestation and can raise eight bunnies to five pounds of gross weight each in 12 weeks. Such young rabbits dress out at 3.5 pounds for a total of 28 pounds of clean meat in less than four months. One doe can triple her body weight in live protein with each litter and can raise four litters a year without strain.” 40 different breeds. Drafts and heat will kill them, so need protection. Eat grass, leaves, crop residues, legumes, kitchen scraps, cowpeas, clover, vetch, field peas. They especially like twigs and leaves of fruit trees/shrubs, which provides good fiber for them (they can be prone to diarrhea with a diet too high in soft vegetation). You can also just trap wild rabbits (he describes a system).
GUINEA PIGS (aka Cavi or Cuy): Widely eaten in Peru and Bolivia. “Small, clean and extremely docile, these rodents are often kept indoors. They have great potential as urban livestock, even for households with little or no land. With no odor, minimal housing needs — they can be contained by a 4-inch board — and needing only kitchen scraps and weeds as food, as few as 20 females and two males could provide an adequate meat diet for a family of six.” A recipe for cooked cavi is given.
Pigs/Hogs: “Small farmers have always valued pigs because they can be fed on wastes, are self-reliant, friendly and loyal and are at least as smart as dogs. When people in the west country of Britain and in Ireland went visiting, they often made a point of calling on the family pig as much as on their human neighbors.” Woodland animals. Because they root, they are excellent at digging, stumping, and generally turning over soil. They mature at 4-6 months, with estrus throughout the year at three-week intervals (sort of like human women). Gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days, and they have have 6-10 piglets. Bane writes extensively about pigs.
Goats: Goats are more efficient milk producers than cows or sheep. Joel Salatin: “I won’t keep animals who are smarter than I am.” Goats eat tangled thickets and woody perennials (they like honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and poison ivy). Can climb trees. They’re escape artists so are often tethered. Need communal life; separating the flock members makes them neurotic. They hate getting wet. They like a regular and peaceful routine. They need salt and iodine; feeding them chicory is helpful. The does (female goats) go into heat as the light wanes in the year, and (if mated) the kids are born 6 months later, in April. Goats can’t be driven, like sheep and cattle can, only led.
Llamas: [And I would think, Alpacas, which are common farm animals where we live.] Guard animals. They are intelligent, alert, and fast learners. They can be bred anytime and have a 1-year gestation period. Young llamas should not be handled too much “to prevent them treating humans as they do other llamas. Animals in the herd jostle for dominance and to maintain a hierarchy of privilege. They will spit, neck wrestle, and males will butt chests against each other.” Llamas require basically just forage and have very few if any veterinary needs. Two to four per acre of pasture, with a fence 5′ high. Social animals; “should be kept in a herd of at least two if not used as a guard animal for a flock of sheep or goats.” For a guard llama, get one two-year old gelding and introduce him to the flock “in a separate but adjacent pen until the animals are accustomed to each other. As the largest animal [they can reach 450 lbs and 6′ tall], the llama will assume a dominant and protective role; it has strong instincts to repel predators.” The most common use for llamas is fleece for spinning and weaving.
Milk Cow: Beef cattle are not suitable because of their size and feed demand. For a cow to give milk, she has to be bred (41-week gestation) and give birth; the calf is part of the package. Lactation can run 300 days if milked 2x/day at the same 11- or 12-hour intervals. One cow creates 12-15 tons of manure per year. It’s a major undertaking to have even a small dairy cow.
Dogs and Cats: Two smaller dogs have an advantage over one larger dog (easier to train and feed than one large dog and can work together against predators or vermin). “Cats are a bit more troublesome.” If you have a cat, just have one, as they hurt birds and amphibians. Guard animals should not be pets; provide shelter in a barn or shed and be kind to them but remember they are there to work.
Featured image (top image) is guinea fowl at Wonderwell Buddhist Retreat Center, Springfield, NH, Oct. 2013.