I’ve ruminated at length about the pros and cons of goats (adorable miniature milk goats, and there are even Nigerian Dwarf goats in Australia now!) and sheep (ah the possibilities of non-tree-eating ruminants). I’ve talked about getting a house cow (still in the long term plan) and considered the cost versus difficulty versus milk quality and quantity of various breeds of all these animals. I’ve considered alpacas (beautiful silky suri fleece to spin) but decided that in the short term they’re too expensive for the returns they offer, and not friendly enough to get one just as a pet.
As an aside, my (extensive) spreadsheet indicates that, for me, the best of these would be goats, for milk and meat production: Anglo-Nubians (or mini Anglo-Nubians), Nigerian Dwarf goats, or even Boer goats. A highland or Dexter house cow is also quite plausible, even including the cost of buying feed, and Dorper cross sheep are plausible too. Alpacas cost more to keep than the value of their products per year.
But cattle, goats & sheep aren’t small scale livestock. You could keep a pet sheep or goat in the back yard, if you have a reasonably large back yard and a sympathetic local council, but you really couldn’t graze said pet using only said back yard. You’d need to buy in feed in the form of hay, grain, and pellets or other commercially produced food, and probably supplement with weeds and prunings as well. Rotational grazing on a small scale requires small livestock. Guinea pigs or rabbits are a good choice, and their poo is very good for gardens and lawns (low nitrogen so it can be used without being composted first). My choice for small scale rotational grazing, however, is geese. (Although I am planning on getting some guinea pigs as well, as soon as we’ve built a guinea pig tractor to keep them safe from predators).
My adorable goslings (affectionately called “gooselings”, and named Tarragon, Cersei, and Jamie) are starting to get their adult feathers now. They still have baby-fluff, and they still make cute little baby-goose begging noises to encourage me to bring them food, but they’re getting big. Each one is easily 2 kg now, and they’re growing every day. We rotated them (i.e. moved their run) yesterday for the first time, and the spot where they were is grazed and trampled and covered in goose poop. So – success so far.
The three geese are enclosed in a 4 x 4 m run, originally sold as a dog run. It’s 1.8 m in height, fenced all the way around with chainlink fence, and has a heavy duty bird net as and add-on roof to keep aerial (and climbing) predators out. The floor is open, so at night the geese are locked into a goose kennel to keep them safe form digging predators like foxes. They currently have a 10 L bucket of water, but we have a small pond for them which will go in soon. They get to graze all day, plus they get an armload of weeds and fresh grass and kitchen greens every morning, and a small allocation of chicken scratch mix. They seem to be pretty happy. Geese, like other grazing animals, tend to spend most of their time grazing and digesting. Geese can actually digest at least some cellulose, although it seems to be by mechanical means as they don’t appear to have commensal bacteria like the rumen species of ruminants. Ducks are similar, although ducks make more of a mess with their water, dabbling and playing in it until they create mud muddles.
For the back yard grazier (person who keeps grazing animals), geese are a pretty good choice. Unlike chickens, they won’t scratch up the grass or destroy a garden bed (although they will eat vegetables if they can get to them,. and may strip bark from young trees if they’re bored or hungry), and they don’t create messy mud patches like ducks. They also don’t destroy trees the way goats and sheep can – geese can strip bark off young trees but are very unlikely to kill a tree, and can’t reach to eat the growing tips of the branches. They can be noisy, and aggressive if they feel threatened, but they’re reasonably smart and can be trained to be quiet on command. There are also Muscovy “ducks” (actually they’re more closely related to geese, and also eat grass and do not create mud puddles), which don’t make any noise louder than a quiet sort of hissing sound or a soft trilling coo like a pigeon. Muscovies not only eat grass, they also eat insects – including flies. So they’re a definite win for the smallholder or backyard farmer. Geese and muscovies lay eggs seasonally rather than all year round like chickens, but the eggs are edible and delicious. If you have males and females (and thus fertilised eggs) you could also let the mother hatch them for some more baby birds. Or hatch some in an incubator, although that’s a little trickier than chicken eggs because the humidity needs to be just right.
Basically, grazing poultry are a pretty good choice for people with relatively small areas to keep them – especially if you have trees to fertilise. They don’t produce milk or wool, but they do produce eggs in spring (and up to 3 times per year for muscovies), and of course they produce fertiliser in the form of goose poop, building up the soil and recycling carbon. If keeping animals for meat is your thing then that’s also an option. Both geese and muscovies are very well regarded as meat animals, producing a flavourful, dark meat. If you do decide to kill one of your birds, obviously do it humanely using either controlled atmosphere killing (with nitrogen, not carbon dioxide – carbon dioxide will cause the sensation of suffocation, whereas nitrogen is undetectable and the bird just falls gently asleep and doesn’t wake up) or another humane method (such as beheading with a very sharp axe).