Other Garden-Friendly Livestock

by Harold Schrock | Feb 1, 2023 | 0 comments

While the chickens we wrote about last month are by far the most common, they are not the only garden-friendly animals available for our use. This month I want to take a brief look at several other types of homestead livestock and their roles in gardens.

Turkeys are a natural extension of chicken raising and can be grown much the same way. Young turkeys can be placed in chicken tractors, but once they’re two and one-half to three months old, they would greatly prefer more space. Long-legged turkeys like room to move around. They are more efficient grazers than chickens but do not do as much scratching. Unlike chickens, turkeys are quite easy to herd. When I move chickens contained in electrified netting, I always use extra nets and set up a new area adjacent to the old one and chase the chickens through. When moving turkeys, I don’t bother to do that unless there is a sensitive area (such as a ripe blueberry patch) next to the location. I find it’s very easy to pull the netting away from the turkeys, set it back up at a new location, and then herd them back inside the fence.

There is an old joke in turkey-farming country that the only thing stupider than a turkey is the people who raise them. I’m sure most wild turkey hunters do not agree with this statement, and I certainly do not. I expect this sentiment comes from the observation of very young turkeys. Baby turkeys do seem to be related to the biblical ostrich you can read about in Job 39 whom “God hath deprived of wisdom.” I don’t recommend trying to raise turkey poults until you have a fair amount of experience with chicks. They are harder to keep alive in the brooder and need a little higher protein in their feed. However, once turkeys are five to six weeks old, they become almost “bullet-proof” and are one of the hardiest animals on the homestead. I find turkeys to be more personable than chickens; they are very curious birds.

As an important sidenote, all poultry require grit, small stones they retain in their gizzard to grind up their food. Baby poultry in the brooder need to have available some fine grit and need progressively larger sizes of stones available as they grow. Unless your garden is completely stone-free, poultry are likely to find all they need in the natural environment, but anytime they are confined indoors, properly sized grit should be provided along with feed.

Waterfowl can also be useful in the garden. Ducks and geese are very good grazers and can get a higher percentage of their diet from plants than do chickens and turkeys. They can also free range among some types of crops to keep them weeded. You can use waterfowl to weed potatoes, corn (once it is well over their heads), and strawberries (when there is no fruit present). There may be other crops as well that are not a preferred food source for waterfowl. For this in-season weeding service to be successful, you need to be careful not to overstock. If they run out of their preferred food source (weeds), they can damage the produce crop.

Geese can also serve as watchdogs in a couple of different ways. Mature geese give some level of protection against predators in a mixed poultry flock. Hawks and smaller four-legged predators that go for chickens don’t relish tangling with a goose. Also, if penned within sight of your driveway, geese typically give very reliable vocal welcome to any guests that arrive. For this reason, they may not be well-suited to suburban areas where neighbors may not appreciate the routine raucous racket of geese. There are some differences among varieties. White Chinese geese are very alert and noisy and make the best alarms.

Ruminant animals can also be useful in the garden, but require a larger land base and will probably not be regarded primarily as garden livestock. I would only consider using a cow in a garden setting if I had grown a very thick cover crop that would benefit from being processed through a rumen. The downside to an animal as large as a cow is the potential for significant soil compaction. This would be minimized in dry conditions or with very thick cover crops. Overall, small ruminants like sheep and goats are more useful for garden grazing. If held in one area too long or on wet soil, the smaller animals can also cause compaction, but the risk is much less than with a cow.

Sheep and goats can be held in place with electrified netting similar to poultry, or, if they are well trained to the electric fence, several strands of electrified poly wire could also be used. Another option for a single animal is a tether rope held by a screw-in ground anchor. If utilizing a tether, be careful that there are no other solid objects within reach of the rope that could catch the rope and present a choking hazard to the animal. Also, you would want to test the integrity of the ground anchor. In soft, healthy garden soil, you likely will need a larger anchor than would be necessary in a lawn with perennial sod.

Lastly, pigs can be very useful garden animals. They can be penned easily in a “pig tractor” that can be moved around as desired to different areas, and they are also easily trained to respect electric fence. One thing about electric fence and pigs is that it is very difficult to get a pig to move across an area where an electric fence existed even when the fence is taken away. Because of this, it is a good idea to have a wooden gate integrated into an electric fence line if it is a temporary setting that will be moved.

Pigs can be destructive to garden soil from excessive tillage. Their tendency to root around and till can be beneficial, but only in the right place at the right time. You can use pigs to break up sod to start new garden areas. Another good place for pigs is in very overgrown and weedy lots, particularly where there is Johnson grass or quack grass. Pigs love Johnson grass roots.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of pigs is their utilization of excess or poor-quality produce. In this case, they can be confined to a small area and fed rather than grazing their own forage. To avoid odors when not rotating areas regularly, keep pigs in pens that have enough height to use deep bedding. With enough carbonaceous material under them, odor is less of a problem. It also is a good idea to feed some hay along with a grain ration when you don’t have plenty of garden goodies to keep them content.

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