rotational high density grazing – small scale

2016/11/21 deej 0

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).

Pilgrim (or Settlers) Geese

2016/10/13 deej 0

Geese aren’t everyone’s idea of a great back-yard animal. I’ve heard all the stories – they’re noisy, vicious, aggressive, messy, horrible hellbeasts. But I have a confession to make: I’ve always kinda wanted to have geese. Since well before I saw the film Fly Away Home (about a little girl who rescues a nest full of orphaned Canada geese, and raises them, teaching them to fly and eventually leading them on an  epic microlight journey as she teaches them a safe migration route for their annual migration), I thought geese were adorable. I didn’t have any latent desire to have chickens (although since getting my first hens, I’ve discovered that I love keeping chooks, and I really miss it when I don’t have them around), but geese are different. I have no idea why 🙂

This week, my very first goslings hatched. I’ve had four Pilgrim Goose eggs in the incubator for the last month (goose eggs take 26 – 35 days to hatch), and three of them have hatched. Given that geese are well known for being difficult to hatch in an incubator, and even commercial farm advice is to hatch them under a broody mother goose or under a muscovy duck, that’s a pretty good hatch rate. I was desperately hoping at least two would hatch, because geese are flock critters and form very strong flock bonds – having a lone goose is cruel and very bad for the goose. So three is fantastic. It looks like at least 2 of them are girls, too (I can’t quite tell for the 3rd). Since geese can live well into their teens, sometimes longer, that means that if I have a pair of girls I can find them a good (unrelated) gander in a year or two and start breeding my own goslings.

The domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus) of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia is descended from the greylag goose (Anser anser), while the domesticated goose of East Asia (Anser cygnoides domesticus, commonly called the ‘Chinese goose’) is descended from the swan goose (Anser cygnoides). The two types of domesticated geese can interbreed, and many flocks include both types, and/or hybrids. There is evidence of domesticated geese in Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Pilgrim geese, sometimes known as Settlers Geese in Australia, are an autosexing breed – males are white, while females are darker, with grey and white or brown and white plumage. Pilgrim Geese were bred in the 1930s in America, and are probably derived from a few European breeds of autosexing geese. They’re generally mellow and calm natured, and for being good foragers and good parents (laying 20 – 50 eggs per year). Like all geese, they have good eyesight, good memories, and they prefer to have a set, calm routine. When there isn’t something riling them up, they aren’t usually that noisy, either.

Geese are grazing animals, more like sheep and goats than like chickens. With access to good pasture, they need little or no supplementary feeding, although if there isn’t plentiful pasture they can be fed grain like other poultry. They will (apparently) eat hay, but only if it’s wet, as the dry hay is difficult for them to eat. Goslings should be fed grass clippings from 2 weeks of age, to help with the development of their gut flora – feeding grass earlier than that is also ok, as long as gosling starter crumble is also available. Young geese grow very quickly, and need a high protein (around 28% protein) feed for the first 4 – 6 weeks). Feed for goslings cannot contain any medications or pesticides/herbicides, as their livers can’t process these chemicals. Adult geese will happily graze pasture or weed gardens (they avoid some cultivated plants, but cannot be trusted around lettuce and similar salad greens), or they can be fed grain or poultry pellets and grass clippings. If pasture is not available, geese must be provided with grass or greens such as lettuce. They also need plenty of fresh water – like ducks, they need to be able to submerge their entire heads to clean their nostrils. Geese do not need water to swim in unless you want fertilised eggs (they mate in the water).

Domestic goose breeds can weigh up to 10 kg at maturity, although there are smaller breeds (such as the Pilgrim Goose, which weighs from 5 kg up to 7.5 – 8kg), and they lay up to 60 eggs per year. Chinese Geese tend to lay more eggs than the European breeds. All geese (wild and domestic) are seasonal layers, and only lay in spring, usually starting in August or September in the southern hemisphere. A goose will generally lay an egg a day during the breeding season, and will go broody and sit on her eggs when the clutch reaches 5 – 15 eggs. If the goose-keeper steals the eggs, the goose will keep laying.

Goose eggs are large and hard-shelled. They weigh 120 – 170g each, and are both edible and tasty; the flavour is slightly different to chicken eggs. Like duck eggs, goose eggs are richer than chicken eggs, and when cooked the yolk texture is slightly denser. If you want to hatch them in an incubator, it will take 26 – 35 days, at 37.5 degrees C. Once the goslings begin pipping and trying to hatch, it can take up to 3 days for them to emerge form their eggs – be very careful if you decide to help them out, since (just like chickens, and any other bird) if the chick is still connected to the egg, breaking those blood vessels can cause serious injury. (That said, I did help my gosling out of their eggs, by gently cracking the shell so they could get out more easily – I was afraid that the egg membranes would dry out too much during hatching and they wouldn’t be able to get out. I’m an anxious bird-parent.). The humidity requirements are complex, with two options:

  • For a wet incubation, the humidity should be 50 – 55% until day 27 (or until the first pipping), then increased to 75% until hatch.
  • For a ‘dry’ incubation (which means you can incubate chicken, quail, or guinea fowl eggs at the same time), keep the humidity at 20 – 25% for the first 14 days, before raising it to around 60%. From day 7 onwards, mist or sprinkle the eggs daily with tepid water; after day 15, every 2nd day you should submerge the eggs in warm water (37.5 degrees C) for 1 minute. Form day 7 the eggs should also be cooled (taken out of the incubator) for 5 – 10 minutes, increasing to 15 minutes per day after day 15.

Geese which are hand raised and regularly handled do, apparently, become very tame. They recognise individual humans (and dogs, etc.), and will raise an alarm if a stranger approaches while being perfectly happy to let ‘their’ humans approach. The only exception is egg laying season, during which the males will aggressively protect the nesting females from any intruder. Female geese may lunge at a person to protect goslings, or if on a nest full of eggs. Other than that, geese are fairly docile; they can be easily herded, as they tend to move directly away from an approaching human. There is no need to run (geese can injure themselves if forced to run) or make noises, just walk slowly towards the geese and they will move away as a flock. As an aside, when catching geese, never grab them by the legs, as their leg bones are easily broken; instead, grab the goose by the neck (gently), either by hand or using a shepherds crook. If picking up a goose, make sure to keep the wings controlled, as geese are very strong and can injure a person if they hit them in the face with their wings.

In spite of the fact that a goose is quite a large bird, foxes (or dogs or cats) can and will kill one if they get the opportunity. Because of the risk of predators, geese should be locked into secure housing at night just like any other poultry, and should be protected with secure fencing. Goose housing should have either a solid or slat floor, and a fox-proof door to lock the birds in at night. Fresh absorbent bedding such as wood shavings (in an 8 – 10 cm layer) will help maintain dry conditions and keep your geese clean and healthy (but do not use any scented bedding or anything containing eucalyptus, because it can kill goslings!), and you should provide nest boxes. Goose houses should allow 1 sqm per bird. Other than safe housing, geese need some shelter during hot, summer weather, and if you get snow or severe rain and storms, they’ll need shelter from those too. Aside from night time housing for predator protection, you can free range geese without a problem (remember that you can easily herd them, like chilled out sheep), or you can keep them in a fenced yard. If geese are kept in a yard, you should allow 2 sqm per bird, although larger is better. You should provide 15cm of feeder length per bird to prevent competition for food, and clean, fresh water deep enough for them to submerge their whole heads.

Goose used to be the festive roast of choice in Europe; the meat is darker, richer, and more succulent than turkey or chicken, similar to duck. Goose fat has historically been rendered and used to cook other foods (goose-fat potatoes are amazing!), and the technique is coming back into fashion – you can buy tubs of goose fat in most supermarkets now. Goose quills were the feathers used to make pens before the fountain pen and ballpoint became common, and goose down is still u sed to stuff pillows and duvets. Geese will mow your lawn (and fertilise it at the same time) and weed your garden, and they’re smart enough to make pretty good pets too if you take the time to tame them and teach them that you’re not a threat and are rather a source of treats and happiness. They don’t need much from you in return: a safe place to sleep, clean water, and a bit of food to supplement their grazing.

In summary: geese are awesome, and goslings may be the cutest fluffs that ever fluffed. Ask me again in 6 months when my goslings are adults 🙂

For more info:

guinea pigs, the reprise

2016/07/08 deej 0

No, I haven’t gone and acquired some guinea pigs. Yet.

 

What I have been doing is some productivity calculations. My objective in keeping guinea pigs (aka cavies, aka cuy) is meat; if that squicks you, please stop now and don’t read any further.

 

Ok then. One young guinea pig (at 4 months old) weighs 0.5 – 1 kg, on average. That obviously includes the bones, organs, skin, etc. which aren’t really edible – although the organs are useful for feeding to cats (and the dog we will eventually get), and pet food is one of the primary drivers here. So at a guess, one guinea pig will produce 300 – 600g usable meat (using a 60% dress-out percentage, since the organs and smaller bones will be useful for cat food).

 

Guinea pigs reach sexual maturity at 3 – 6 weeks (3 – 5 for males, 4 – 6 for females), and they can breed year round. Females can become pregnant as little as 6 hours after giving birth, although it isn’t good for them. The gestation period averages 63–68 days (but can be anywhere from 59–72 days), and baby guinea pigs are able to eat solid food immediately, although they continue to nurse; they should be weaned by the age of 3 weeks. So, taking all of that into account, and assuming a break between pregnancies, there should be about 79 days between matings for any given female. In other words, a female guinea pig may have 4 – 5 litters per year (depending on the exact length of gestation, and the length of the breaks between giving birth and re-mating). Guinea pig litters normally consist of 1 – 6 pups, with an average of 3.

 

The recommended ratio for guinea pigs is one male (boar) per 5 – 6 females (sows). So if they were kept in a colony situation, you might keep 5 sows and one boar together, removing babies when they reached about 2 weeks old to a separate pen. Alternatively, you might keep the females in a group pen, and introduce a male when you wanted the females mated, to get more control over the timing of mating and birthing. either way, each group of females would produce somewhere around 80 babies per year. Assuming that you only kept babies as replacements for adults who were getting past their prime (in which case, those adults would be retired – and slaughtered), that means each group of females would produce about 24 – 48 kg meat per year. (Or you could think of each guinea pig as 6 meals for a cat, or 2 meals for a human.)

 

Since guinea pigs eat grass, hay, and other greens, like any other grazing animal, that’s pretty good. Each guinea pig needs about 6% of its body weight per day in food – slightly less in hay, slightly more in greens because of the water content, and must have greens every day because vitamin C is an essential nutrient for them. So each group (of 6 females and 1 male) would need 420g food per day. Additionally, each group would have an associated group of (on average) 36 juveniles (when the new babies are weaned at 2 weeks, the previous lot of babies will be 10 weeks old, so at any one time there will be 2 age groups of juveniles), which will require 1.6 – 2.2 kg food per day (younger and therefore smaller pigs will need less food than adults). So the total feed requirement for each breeding group of guinea pigs would be 2 – 2.6 kg per day. For comparison, a small bale of hay ($8 – $24, depending where you get it) weighs around 20 – 25 kg, and a (standard 10 L) bucket of cut grass or mulberry leaves would weigh approximately 1 – 1.5 kg. So, about a bucket of cut grass and/or leaves (from good fodder shrubs or trees) and a bucket of hay should be enough food for all those guinea pigs for a day.

 

The recommended minimum space requirements for guinea pigs are 0.7 sqm for 1 -2 individuals, or 1 sqm for males, and an additional 0.3 sqm per additional animal (some recommendations allow less space than this, suggesting 0.25 sqm per breeding pair, with an additional 0.1 sqm per additional breeding female). Either way, around 2 sqm is sufficient for a breeding group of 7 guinea pigs. For the 36 juveniles, a pen of 7.5 sqm (or another four 2 sqm pens) should be sufficient.

 

For those who are curious, yes: this does mean that I’m planning on building some guinea pig runs and then getting some guinea pigs in the near future. I really do have to wait til next year for sheep or goats, until the pasture is established, but these grazing animals are plausible much sooner.

June 8: animal profile – guinea pigs

2016/06/08 deej 0

Today is not a task-completion day. Everyone needs a day or two off every now and then, and the bed renovation had some bits & pieces to tidy up anyway. I’m aiming to start getting the cat furniture (climbing shelves and some whole-tree climbing toys made from trees removed during the house build) finished and installed over the next few days.

 

2 guinea pigsFor the moment, though, here’s another animal profile: Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus), also known as cavies or cuy, although ‘cuy’ is usually used to refer to meat breed cavies. Yes – guinea pigs are kept as meat animals by many people across South and Central America, and were originally raised not as cute, fluffy domestic pets but as a low-maintenance protein source. That’s also why we’re considering keeping them.

 

Cavies aren’t as efficient as rabbits in terms of meat production under most conditions. They don’t breed as often or have as many young as rabbits (both rabbits and cavies can have 4 – 5 litters per year, but where a meat breed rabbit might have a litter of 6 – 12 kits, a cavy sow’s litter will generally be only 2 – 6 pups) and they’re smaller at maturity (0.5 – 1 kg compared to 2 – 3 kg for a 10 week old rabbit). On the other hand, cavies are immune to myxomatosis, and there are no similar diseases which are likely to cause mass die-off of our stock. We didn’t have good luck with rabbits.

 

As a herd animal, cavies should never be kept alone. They need to have a social group, and the most effective breeding group is one boar per three to five sows. A group can include multiple boars, and they will establish a dominance hierarchy without damaging one another much – a bit of fur chewing, but nothing too serious. Boars can be sexually active from 3 – 5 weeks old, and sows from about 4 weeks; if a sow over 6 – 8 months of age has never carried a litter and becomes pregnant, there are significant risks of complications.

 

Broadly, adult cavies weight 700g – 1.2 kg. They may be black, brown, beige, white, cream, grey, speckled or ticked, or any combination of these colours in multiple patterns. There are several mutations giving rise to different fur characteristics, which have been bred up to create the various breeds of cavy (‘rex’ and ‘sheltie’ cavies, for example).

 

What cavies need:

  • Water – Cavies, like all other animals and birds, need clean, fresh water to be available at all times.
  • Food – The natural diet of cavies is grass; they must have hay or grass available at all times, and they must have fresh, green grass and/or vegetable scraps to provide them with vitamin C. Like humans, cavies cannot manufacture their own vitamin C, and will get scurvy if they don’t have a dietary source of it.
  • Shelter – Cavies don’t deal well with getting wet and cold – they get sick and often diue. They need somewhere dry and warm to sleep, and somewhere to hide from the rain.
  • Space – A single cavy needs a minimum of 70 square cm. Two cavies can happily live in 1 sqm, and a good rule is to allow 1 sqm per 2 cavies. Obviously, more is better if you can do it.
  • Warmth – Cavies will do fine in most weather, although they can become ill if they get wet and cold.

 

What cavies have to offer:

  • More cavies – 3 – 5 litters per year, of 1 – 6 pups (average of 3 pups per litter). Baby cavies are able to move around and eat solid food soon after birth.
  • Meat – Cavy meat tastes similar to rabbit or chicken, although it is a bit fattier than rabbit; it is mild flavoured, and roasts well. Also useful for feeding to cats or dogs, or other carnivorous companion animals.
  • Manure – Cavy manure is good fertiliser, similar to rabbit manure.

 

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Two_adult_Guinea_Pigs_(Cavia_porcellus).jpg