Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Livestock and gardens work together to multiply productivity

Lincoln is still weeping here!

Today I'm going to write for a while about livestock in addition to gardens. Having livestock adds immeasurably to the productivity of my little farm. We produce our own milk (dairy goats), meat (rabbits and chickens), and eggs (laying hens). From the gardens, we produce tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, cucumbers, and zucchini. We have perennial plantings of raspberries, peaches, apples, jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes), grapes, and blueberries. How can these work together toward thrift?

First of all, think about the waste. The primary waste from the livestock is manure, and that feeds the garden soil, making for great growing conditions. Rabbit manure in particular is fantastic for the garden. It's a 'cold' manure, meaning it can be used in the garden immediately, without composting it first. So - no storage, no delay. I've also found over the past several years that rabbit manure is just amazing for retaining water in the garden. It acts almost like a sponge. This summer we have had long periods without any rain at all (not that I'm complaining... it was much worse other places!) and my gardens have done really, really well. There is one bed next to the driveway that doesn't have much rabbit manure yet, and it's the only bed I've had to water. And even so, I think I've watered it four times all summer. The manure from the barn is great, too, though I use it differently. It's hay and wood shaving bedding mixed with chicken and goat waste. I have used that mostly as a thick mulch, to keep weeds down, and to help reduce water loss from evaporation.

Next, consider the 'waste' from the gardens. Around here at least, the primary waste product is weeds. SO many weeds.... When I want to share some greens with the rabbits, I use two buckets - one for plants I can identify as safe for rabbits (pigweed, lambs' quarters, crab grass) and one for everything else. I did try just giving them everything I pulled out, but I noticed that a bunch of junior rabbits in growout looked bloated afterward, so now I am more selective. The rabbits each get a fistful of the weeds I know they can eat. The rest of the day's weedings I put in the pasture for the hens and the goats. For instance, I had dozens of volunteer cherry tomato plants this year. I've been working on getting them out of the way for weeks, it seems! When I dump those plants into the pasture, the hens come running, and the goats saunter along behind them. The hens gobble down the fruit, ripe or not, and then start on the leaves. The goats eat the leaves. Yes, I've read that nightshade-family plants can be bad, but in small quantities, my critters do fine. By the following day, all I have left are stems. As another example, I've had some mammoth lambs' quarters grow here. The goats ADORE them. If I want to give the goaties a real treat, I'll bring in some of those.

Combining livestock with gardens doesn't make for free anything, but it sure can reduce costs. I don't fertilize my gardens, and I almost never have to water them. I still buy feed for the animals, but every bite they eat from the waste from the gardens reduces the amount of purchased feed they need. It all helps! And the results are delicious, and in many ways much more satisfying than anything I could buy.

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