Animal poop is great for the garden! Why? Think about it- they eat up all the organic matter and then spit it back out into a compact form of nutrients that are already broken down! If you have a friend with a horse, cow, goats, etc. see if they will give you their manure. Most people with large animals have more than they know what to do with, and will give it to you free if you offer to get it yourself. Just remember to compost new manure for around six months before using it in the garden. This natural fertilizer is so hot it will burn your plants!
I try to avoid this at all costs! As long as you know and understand the deposit/withdrawal cycle and make good use of what's around you, you may avoid this altogether. If the soil is so depleted that you must bring in fertilizers to give it a jump start on the road to recovery while your compost matures, look into organic fertilizers. I like my dirt as natural as possible.
Now that you know which things are withdrawals and deposits, let's look at creating a cycle that can repurpose as many nutrients as possible to get the most out of them and wasting as little as possible. There are ways to introduce other components into your yard that will create systems of nutrient self-sufficiency!
Withdrawals- eating grass, eating bugs, laying eggs for you to eat, becoming meat for you to eat
Deposits- feed that you buy for them, poop in the yard, hay bought to put in the coop
Rabbits are amazing little composting machines! And an added bonus is that rabbits are one of the few animals whose manure you can put into the garden immediately- no composting or waiting necessary. While you can put your green plants in the compost to break down, a much faster way is to feed it to a rabbit. When I pull up old plants in the garden (broccoli, tomatoes, beans, you name it!) I feed it to my rabbits. Then I scoop out that manure from under the cage the next day and till it back into the garden where I pulled up the plants. That's a one day turnaround of green plant to nutrients in the soil for the next season of planting! On top of that you will buy rabbit feed as another deposit into the system. We grow our rabbits for meat (an added level of productivity), but if you don't want to go that far rabbits make great pets and will do the same job.
Withdrawals- Meat that you eat, eating garden greens
Deposits- Best poop for gardens, rabbit feed
I won't go into all the details of aquaponics here, but aquaponics is a system of using container raised fish (more specifically their poop) to fertilize plants growing in water rather than dirt. The plants clean the water which cycles back to the fish in a completely self-sustaining system that grows fish and vegetables with the only input of fish food! If you have never heard of it, do a little research- it's awesome!
Withdrawal- Fish to eat, vegetables
Deposits- fish food
Bees are sneaky little nutrient ninjas! They fly around and take all of your neighbor's pollen (I don't think they will miss it- besides, they do them a favor by pollinating everything) and then bring all of the bounty back to your house where they turn it into honey and beeswax. This system creates a lot of output for a little input while increasing the productivity of all of your plants by pollinating them.
Withdrawal- honey, beeswax
Deposit- your neighbor's pollen
Backyard dairy goats can also play a role in nutrient making. They will be a fats composter for leaves and tree branches in the same way that rabbits are for all things green. The food you buy is a deposit for the manure they create as well as the milk and/or meat that you will get out of the system.
Withdrawals- Making milk, meat, eating leaves
Deposits- Feed, poop
Rabbits can live healthy lives in captivity with up to 90% of their diet consisting of greens and natural materials. By feeding them greens, they have a more balanced, varied, and natural diet for your rabbits. Here are a few easy ways to cut food costs with minimal effort.
1. Trees and Leaves
My rabbits love eating leaves from trees. We have several "trash trees" that grow little saplings around the edge of our yard. No matter what I do to cut them back, I can't seem to kill them for good. Once I got rabbits, I started cutting off the new shoots and small branches and putting them in the rabbit cages. They nibble off all the leaves, and then we put the wood through the mulcher to add to the compost. Not only does this replace pellet feed, it adds mulch to the compost, and keeps my icky weed trees in check. They can't grow faster than my rabbits can eat! Also, after a storm sometimes branches of bunches of leaves will fall out of my oak trees, and the rabbits love those. So I just gather them up and fill the cage :)
Weeds always annoy me because they take nutrients from my plants, are a pain to pick, and can't be composted unless you want them all to multiply. Lose, lose all around. But with rabbits, weeds can actually serve a purpose to replace feed. When I weed my raised beds, I put all of the weeds in a bucket, and then dump it into the rabbits cages. They LOVE eating weeds, and I love having a place to dispose of them where I know they wont end up back in the garden :)
3. Kitchen Scraps
I have always composted my kitchen scraps, but now I divide my scraps into to different containers- one for the compost pile (which usually becomes chicken food) and one for the rabbits to eat. Rabbits will eat carrot, radish, and turnip tops, any vegetable ends like celery, and some fruit rinds like watermelon and pineapple. Oddly enough, lettuce isn't good for rabbits, so just toss that in the compost. You may be wondering how your compost pile will ever grow if you feed it all to the rabbits, but trust me, rabbits compost these items MUCH faster than the compost pile would, and they make meat while they're at it!
At the end of a season when pulling up your plants, instead of tossing them in the compost, toss them to the rabbits. My rabbits favorites are the leaves and stalks of bean, peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers and peppers. The only thing I have found so far that they didn't like was green onions. Also, sometimes I have plants that get destroyed by bugs and can't be eaten or that have leaves at the base of the plant that turn yellow. I trim these leaves off and give them to the rabbits as well. Giving them too much of one kind of plant all at once can mess with their digestive systems, so I usually pull a few plants a day for several weeks instead of emptying the garden all at once.
5. Lawn Clippings
We have a lawn mower with a bag so we can collect our lawn clippings. We put most of it into the compost (where the chickens happily slurp up the trimmings), but we also put some in a bowl in each of the rabbit cages. They love grass (go figure) and will eat as much as I put in there.
At the end of each season, I cut back all of my plants, pruning, dividing, etc. This is a great time to find some treats for the rabbits. My rabbits eat banana leaves, ginger, and fruit tree trimmings just to name a few. I would look up some of the plants in your yard before giving it to them just to be sure, but most things make a great treat for the rabbits.
My rabbits love to hop around in the back yard and nibble in the grass. We try to take the rabbits out of the cages every so often and let them run around in the fenced in yard. We do have to stay out with them to keep an eye on them, but they love the freedom to hop around, play with the chickens, and nibble all the different things on the ground.
Now that we have been feeding our rabbits greens pretty regularly for a year now, we have noticed that they have become much more friendly and cuddly, especially our breeders. They ignore when we fill up the pellet container and wait at the cage door for their treats. The greens are what they really want! Now, raising the baby rabbits for meat on mostly greens will slow down their growth rate, so I would give them greens in moderation if you are on a time schedule, but for the breeders, the more greens the better!
Do you have some tips for cutting the cost of feed for your meat rabbits? Feel free to share!
So this week marks the end of what I would consider my first year of homesteading. While I had a small vegetable garden and got my first few chickens last year, the chickens didn't really start laying until this year, and we have expanded a lot in the last 12 months, so I would consider 2014 our first year of true urban homesteading.
I know what you may be thinking- I wish I could have a "homestead"! I wish I could have some land and grow some food and get some animals and be self-sufficient! Let me clarify our situation to encourage you. We do not have land (well, unless you count the 0.2 acre lot our house is on), and we do not live in the country (the exact opposite- we are smack dab in the middle of a city), and we are not self-sufficient (although more so than we were last year!). You can be a homesteader no matter what your living situation is. Don't wait until you buy a farm, start where you are with what you have.
To give you a little inspiration and celebrate how far we've come, I would like to share a little of our journey this year with you- how we started small and grew little by little, and how we can't wait to continue growing next year.
Our progression into homesteading has been slow but steady. Some of the things that we are doing are things I never thought I would consider a part of my daily life. Here is how it happened...
First I started a small raised vegetable garden a few years ago just to grow a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers- it's just sort of something you do in the south. It was 5' x 10', and later I expanded it to 5' x 15'. It was small, but manageable. I bought plants at Lowe's or Home Depot for $3 each. Some years we harvested a lot and other years we didn't get much at all. Monetarily speaking we usually broke even or ended up a little ahead.
I then decided to branch out and try a few plants from seeds- I was pretty intimidated by starting my own seeds! Carrots worked out, and beans and peas were so easy and produced a ton! I started experimenting with more and more plants from seeds until almost every plant in my garden was started by seed. Now the gains were much higher, because seeds produce many plants for a fraction of the cost of plants from the nursery. Plus, I now had a much wider range of plants to choose from! Click here for a handy vegetable starting guide.
One of the most expensive parts of gardening is the dirt! We starting composting all of our kitchen scraps and yard waste to make our own compost, and haven't bought any dirt since! I wish I could tell you how many pounds of nutrient rich "waste" I have composted instead of put in a landfill this year, but I know how much dirt we have made and used, and it has been significant! Composting is too beneficial and too easy not to do :)
I had been reading a lot about backyard chickens, and we decided to get a few to experiment. We talked about getting 3-4, but knew they wouldn't all make it so decided to get 5, and then somehow came home with 7 :) We built a coop ourselves from pieces leftover from other projects for pretty cheap. The chickens free ranged in our fenced in backyard which cut on feeding costs and make for a happy flock.
In the fall of 2013 we put in several fruit trees around the edges of the backyard. There was a mulberry tree there when we moved in, but we have added a satsuma, kumquat, lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate, grapevine, 5 blueberry bushes, 2 apples, and 2 pears over the last year. While this sounds like a lot of trees, placing them strategically around the edge of the yard or as a part of existing gardens and landscaping has made up hardly notice them at all! The price of fruit in the store is crazy, and we are loving the addition of fruit in our yard!
Around this time, we discovered something terrible. All of the vegetables that were our favorites, were also the chickens favorites, and the garden was the perfect place for them to dust bathe. Suddenly almost any gardening became impossible, and we rigged up some netting to keep them out.
This system worked for the rest of the season, but I wanted to make a significant expansion to the vegetable garden, and fence it in to keep out the chickens. We worked all fall of 2013 and were able to put in the first plants in March 2014. We made the new garden all raised beds and planted using the Square Foot Method.
After an unfortunate accident involving our flock of chickens and the neighbor's dog, we had to start a new flock. As it turned out, some of our hens in this bunch turned out to be roosters. We knew that crowing in the suburban neighborhood wouldn't go over well, and needed to get rid of the offenders quickly. That is how we happened upon our first meat chicken. Of our 12 chickens, 5 turned out to be roosters, and we quickly learned how to deal with the queasiness and process our own chickens. They turned out to be really delicious! At the same time, we began researching the inhumane treatment of chickens in meat processing plants. We decided not to buy anymore chicken from the grocery store and added meat chickens to our flock. While many people we know consider us raising our own meat to be mean, anyone who eats meat gets it from an animal somewhere! At least this way, we know that our animals had a happy, free ranging life before they had a second purpose of becoming nourishment.
Canning, Drying, and Preserving
With the expansion of our garden, we started really getting a lot of fresh produce. In some cases there was more than we could eat or give away, so I started learning how to preserve food for later. Drying herbs, canning, pickling, and freezing vegetables, and making jams and jellies quickly became normal, and our pantry was well stocked. You can read the review of our harvest from the spring season.
DIY Household Items
As soon as you figure out you can make your own food, you begin to look at everything differently. When I run out of something around the house, before I put it on the shopping list I ask myself, is this something we can make ourselves? We experimented with a lot of diy household items this year. Some have turned out great, like laundry detergent, and others not so much, like shaving cream. But slowly, we are buying less household products and making more of our own.
My husband had been researching other meat options, and started looking into raising meat rabbits. I dragged my feet for months before starting this project, because rabbits are so cute! It seemed strange to raise them to eat, but they were a lot more practical than starting a new flock of meat chickens every few months. We got two rabbits, and by the time they had grown to mating age, mated, gave birth, and raised the babies to eating age, I was ready to give the rabbits a try. Best decision on the homestead yet! We have now replaced all of the chicken in our diet with rabbit, and gone back to only laying hens.
Selling the Extras
At the end of 2014, I was a part of a few craft shows, and decided to sell some of the extras that I had from our gardening adventures. These were things that I knew we would never get around to eating because we already had so much. I sold dried herbs, pickles, pepper jelly, etc. I was surprised how much people jumped all over locally grown food items that hadn't been grown with any pesticides or fertilizers! I made $63 in profit from just those few extras, and then I realized- now we are homesteaders for real! I already have people asking for more of certain items, so I will be ready with some more farm fresh products next year!
The Year in Review
While we still aren't self-sufficient, and are a long way from it, here are some things that were staples on our grocery shopping list last year, that we haven't bought at all this year!
- chicken broth
- laundry detergent
- most herbs (there is the random one or two that I don't grow)
- green onions, green beans, cucumbers, pickles (all of the other vegetables I still had to supplement throughout the year)
- bread (that's right, all homemade for one year now- woo hoo!)
This year we produced...
- 22lbs. meat (valued at $88)
- 87 dozen eggs (valued at $348)
- 12 lbs. fruit (not bad for the first year on our trees) (valued at $33)
- 85lbs. vegetables (valued at $226)
That's a total of $695 worth of food that we grew in our own yard with minimal effort and experience! (I'm basing these prices on regular grocery store prices, NOT what you would pay at a local farmer's market, which would be much more expensive.) Plus, add in the $63 we made from selling finished products and our total comes to $758. We spent $225 on feed, so our final profit value was $533.
Our average grocery bill last year was $50/week. So this adds up to almost 3 MONTHS of free groceries! We used what we had to make more of what we needed- that's homesteading!
We are looking forward to continuing to grow our homestead next year with new projects already in mind.
- We want to build an aquaponics system in the greenhouse to grow fish and vegetables in a coexistent relationship
- We are thinking about expanding from one female breeding rabbit to two for double the meat production
- I am getting a dehydrator to begin learning how to preserve fresh foods in a new way
- Not sure if this will happen this year, but our area recently made it legal to have bees within the city limits, so that is on the list for the future as well!
What about your homestead?
So what steps are you going to take this year to be a little more self-sustaining? Think about what you have and what you can do with it- you will be surprised at how much can come from just a little!
10 Reasons to Raise Meat Rabbits
1. Rabbits are quiet
They literally make no noise. If you live in the suburbans with temperamental neighbors who are bothered by the slightest disturbance, then rabbits are the right choice for you. I'm pretty sure we had our rabbits for six months before our neighbors even knew. When the chickens are squawking in the morning or singing the egg song, you will be grateful that the rabbits are mute!
2. Rabbits are delicious
For more on this, check out the post on the
. This is a lean white meat that can replace chicken in most recipes or even ground beef in much the same way that ground turkey can. It can also be used to make delicious sausage! whichever way you enjoy it, this is a great alternative to grocery story meat with unknown beginnings.
3. They multiply like...well...rabbits
The gestation period for rabbits is only 30 days, and each litter can easily have 8-10 kits. The kits can be weaned completely after 4 weeks and the mother is ready for mating again. At that rate of reproduction, a breeding pair of rabbits can produce 60 rabbits in a year. At 3 lbs. of meat per rabbit, you have just produced up to 180lbs. of meat for your family without large livestock!
4. They don't take up much space
While raising cows, chickens, or goats takes up a lot of land, our entire rabbit operation takes up only 45 square feet. We have a cage for the male, one for the female with the breastfeeding kits, and another cage for the weaned kits that are growing into processing age. Most of the meat for our family is raised in just a corner of the backyard!
5. They create garden fertilizer
We do compost most of our kitchen and yard waste, but rabbits can create amazing garden fertilizer a lot faster than the compost pile can. Rabbit manure is one of the best natural fertilizers for the garden because it is one of the only animal manures that do not need to mature before applying to the dirt. Cow and most other animal manures need to sit at least six months before going into the garden to avoid burning the plants, but rabbit manure can be shoveled straight from under the cage and into the vegetable garden. And they produce plenty of it! Your days of buying bags of Miracle Grow Soil are over!
6. They are a healthy source of very lean meat
Not only is rabbit meat delicious, but it also is very healthy for you. Rabbit meat has less fat, calories, and cholesterol than beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, and it has the highest percentage of protein. According to many studies, it is considered the most nutritious meat out there! So, yeah...delicious and very good for you :)
7. They are inexpensive to feed
While chickens can forage for up to 15% of their diet, rabbits can forage for up to 90% of their diet, which significantly cuts the cost of food. We feed our rabbits all of the leftover greens from our garden, such as beet, radish, turnip, and carrot tops, potato vines, and leaves of greens that have been chewed up by bugs. We also give them grass, weeds, tree leaves, etc. They will eat anything green and in many cases prefer it to the bagged feed. Our average price of feed per pound of meat produced is right around $2.50. That is much cheaper than any meat you can find in the grocery store, and you can rest assured knowing that it is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
8. Easy to process
My husband does all of the meat processing. He has frequently processed chickens and rabbits. On average it takes him about 45 minutes to process a chicken (with my help to defeather), while a rabbit takes him around 15 minutes to process from live rabbit to meat in a freezer ziplock bag. No feathers to deal with, the skin peels right off, and you also don;t have to withhold food from the rabbits before processing.
9. They grow quickly
Rabbits can be processed at only 8 weeks of age. Since we feed our rabbits so many greens, we usually wait until 12 weeks to process them, but it still doesn't take long to raise a litter from newborn to dinner. It also keeps the turnover quick so that you can have another litter right behind it waiting for production.
10. Rabbits make great pets.
You obviously won't be eating your breeders, and they will become your pets. (And if you can't bring yourself to eat the babies, then you will end up with LOTS of pets). Rabbits are really sweet and cuddly, and they make great pets. Our breeders love to be petted and held, wait for treats, and even free range in the backyard occasionally.
4 Reasons Not to Raise Meat Rabbits
1. Rabbits are cute!
The hardest part about raising rabbits for meat is that they are so adorable and sweet! I have to make an effort not to get attached to the babies. One of the best parts of raising rabbits is getting to see the entire life cycle, from hairless newborn and to first opening their eyes to learning to eat on their own and growing from hamster phase to full-size rabbit. It is enjoyable to be a part of, which makes it that much more difficult when it is time for them to become dinner. It makes it easier when you think that there is always another batch on the way to start the process over again!
2. Rabbits have a lot of bones.
Lots of little bones. The legs are good, and have a lot of meat on them without too many bones, but once you get to the back, you really have to be careful. Be especially cautious if you are feeding the meat to children!
3. They need daily attention.
They drink a lot of water and food, especially when you have an entire litter sharing a cage. Sometimes we even have to refill the food and water twice a day when they are close to processing age. For this reason, you can't take a trip without having someone to check on them regularly.
4. They have claws.
They have back claws that will draw blood if you try to pick them up. They are fine being petted, but once you lift their four feet off the ground, the hind legs start kicking and they only have one motive- to be put down again. For this reason, they are difficult to move or hold unless you handle them a lot when they are young. You may start off doing well with the socialization, but truth be told, soon they are multiplying too quickly to handle them all well enough to avoid getting scratched up every now and then.
Want a great rabbit recipe? Click on one of the recipes below!
1 whole rabbit
1/2 cup butter
1 green or red bell pepper
3 ribs celery
1 tbsp. minced garlic
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
12 oz. whole grain angel hair spaghetti noodles
12 oz. Velveeta cheese
Boil rabbit in a pot of water for 20 minutes on medium high heat. Once finished, debone the rabbit and cut into 1 inch pieces. Cook the spaghetti noodles according to package instructions. Chop the vegetables and saute them in butter in a skillet on medium high heat. Add the cream of mushroom soup and Velveeta to the vegetables and stir until completely melted and mixed together over low heat. Strain the spaghetti noodles and mix in to the sauce. Mix in the meat and put into a greased 9x13 casserole dish. Cover with grated cheese if desired. Cook for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.