Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Growing your own meat

We became vegetarians in February 1989 when our first child was a toddler. Up until that point, I assumed (like most Americans) that meat came from animals who had spent happy lives wandering around in grassy pastures. But then I read an article about factory farmed chickens, and I wanted nothing to do with that industry. I began reading about eating a vegetarian diet and learned that in most cases, vegetarians are actually healthier than carnivores in our society, so we stopped eating meat and raised all three of our children as vegetarians.

When we moved to the country in 2002, we had no plans to start eating meat. We had chickens for eggs, goats for milk, cows for milk, and sheep for wool. If you've read Homegrown & Handmade, you know what happened. When you breed animals, you wind up with fifty percent males, and they don't lay eggs or make milk, and eventually you have some challenges. Intact males have a lot of testosterone running through their bodies. The roosters started killing each other, and it didn't matter how much space they had for roaming. If two roosters wanted a hen, it got ugly. We had become vegetarians for ethical reasons, but it didn't seem very ethical to let the roosters just kill each other, and the only real alternative was to lock them up in separate cages, which didn't seem very nice either.

We also realized we had more sheep than our pasture could handle. When we got started, I naively thought that we simply needed to be able to feed the animals, but it's a little more complicated than that. It is impossible for animals to have zero internal parasites when they are eating off the ground. However, they can usually tolerate a few worms in their body. Unfortunately, if they don't have enough pasture space, they will be constantly re-ingesting parasite eggs and larvae, and eventually it could kill them. And overusing drugs for parasite control has the same ultimate outcome as using antibiotics frequently -- you wind up with drug-resistance.

I know this somewhat contradicts my last post on dairy animals because I did say in there that as long as you can feed them, you can keep your older, retired animals. This is one of the short-comings of blogging. You don't always think of everything before something is posted! So, yes, in addition to feeding, you also need to make sure you have enough pasture space for the goats or cows. And although it appears that I might be playing favorites by butchering lambs but not butchering goats, I'm really not. There is a good market for pet goats, but almost no one wants pet lambs because of the annual shearing. I sold three lambs to a woman once as pets, and when I talked to her a little more than a year later, I learned that she had sold them because she didn't want to deal with shearing.

If you have too many turkey gobblers,
they will fight violently -- sometimes to death.
This particular tom lived out his natural life
on our farm as a breeding animal.
But I digress! Back to the meat discussion -- When I pulled out my dusty old books on vegetarianism, I realized that almost all of the problems with meat are with factory farmed animals. If animals are raised on pasture and fed a natural diet, it eliminates all of the problems with pollution, and the meat is actually healthier for you, being high in the good omega fatty acids and even lower in cholesterol.

Keeping animals in a healthy environment means they are not living in crowded conditions, and as the number of our hens and sheep increased, we realized our extra males had to go somewhere. When no one bought them, there seemed to be only one logical solution.

People who'd known me for years were surprised to learn that we were butchering some of our animals. "You're eating meat?" was the question, and I was always quick to say, "No, I'm not eating commercially produced meat. I'm only eating the meat that we raise." This often raised eyebrows.

"How can you eat an animal that you know?" was the next question.

My unspoken response is -- how can I eat an animal that I never knew? And I have only said it once or twice, but I'm always thinking, "How can you eat an animal that spent its life in filthy, unnatural, unhealthy conditions, being fed antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs on a daily basis to keep it alive?"

One of the reasons I wanted to move to the country was because I wanted to live a real life, an honest life. I wanted to know where my food came from -- and I only started eating meat because I knew that the animals lived a happy, healthy life. If you eat meat, you have to know that you are eating a dead animal. Maybe the reason that some people don't want to think about that fact is because then they would have to think about how the animal spent its life. And then they might not want to eat that fast food burger or the things they call chicken nuggets.

I have not eaten commercially-raised meat in 23 years and considering what I've learned in the past ten years, I definitely will not start eating it. I feel more strongly now than ever that raising animals in feedlots and big buildings is just plain wrong for the animals, the planet, and the health of the humans who ultimately eat the meat.

This post was shared on the Homestead Barn Hop!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Do dairy animals have to be slaughtered?

Star with her boys in 2006. They were sold to a pet home,
and I'm still in touch with the owners!
Recently I received an email from a vegetarian who would like to produce his own dairy products but is concerned about the fact that producing milk often leads to the death of dairy animals. As a former vegetarian myself -- and as someone who did not originally plan to eat any of our animals -- I can appreciate his question:

. . . [I]t looks like raising goats for milk involves killing the male babies, or selling them to someone else to kill. Some people actually kill the does too, when they no longer give enough milk. I am looking for some way to avoid this, so that if, for example, one considered that the goats were not "things" but actual beings with consciousness that prefer not to be killed, there might be a way we could do that. In my opinion, this would be very beneficial for humans too on various levels they are not yet aware of. However, I don't want to create a population explosion of the babies. Maybe this could be offset by the sheer fertilizer value of manure from a herd. Any thoughts from you, if and when you might have time would be appreciated. 

Depending upon a lot of factors -- where you live, your financial resources, how much milk you want to produce -- it is possible to produce your own dairy without killing any of the males. In fact, the longer I live this lifestyle, the more I've come to realize that there are a lot of problems created by large-scale agriculture that go far beyond the problems usually discussed, such as pollution and antibiotic and pesticide use. Just as chemical use becomes more prevalent as scale increases, so does the need to dispose of the animals that are not producing the food product, whether it is eggs or milk.

In Homegrown and Handmade, I talked about how it was possible to have chickens for eggs and not kill old hens, and it is definitely possible to have dairy animals and not kill any of the animals. When you keep animals to produce food for yourself, you do see them as living beings, and you get attached to them. The idea of caring for my old doe during retirement is definitely more appealing to me than the idea of paying more money for commercial milk. And an old doe on my farm is at least enriching my life in some way with her presence. I'm not sure if the same could be said if there were retirement farms with thousands of old dairy cows.

If you are only producing dairy products for your own family, the ideal would be to start with two dairy goats. If they give birth to does, they can grow up to be milkers for you. When they give birth to bucks, they can be castrated and taught to pull a cart, a garden plow, or do other draft work. If you leave a buck intact, you will have trouble with population control because it can be hard to keep a buck fenced in when he knows a doe is in heat. Accidental breedings happen on every goat farm at one time or another.

The key to this is to NOT follow the commercial practice of yearly breedings. Commercial dairies breed their cows, goats, and sheep every year to freshen annually. If your goal is milk production for your family, you don't have to do this. Goats and cows will continue to milk for more than ten months, although that is the standard in the dairy world. For example, a doe or a cow freshens in January. A cow will be bred again in three months so she will calve again in January; a doe will be bred in seven months to kid again in January. They are milked for 10 months and dried up when they have two months left in their pregnancy so they can give enough nutritional support to growing their baby (or babies). If you do not breed them routinely, however, they can continue to milk -- provided they have the genetics for it.

Why do commercial dairies rebreed every year if they don't have to? Because when an animal freshens, it reaches the peak of lactation at around six weeks, then production gradually starts to decline. Commercial dairies want that peak. In fact, they're even willing to inject cows with hormones to get more milk than nature ever intended cows to produce. It is all about maximum production and profit. But that comes at a cost to the animals, the environment, and the people who consume the milk. Mastitis is common in cows that are pushed to over-produce, and their useful life span is only a few years, compared to cows a century ago who could produce milk for a family for a dozen years or more. When I am producing milk for my family and myself, I want to keep my animals as healthy as possible, which means putting them under as little stress as possible, so they will live long, happy, and productive lives.

You may hear people talk about the "stress" of producing milk, but I don't think that milk production stresses a doe's body nearly as much as pregnancy and birth. The only thing I don't really like about extended milking is that the does tend to get overweight. And if they become obese, it can be hard to get them pregnant again, so you have to keep an eye on that. I've milked several does for more than a year, and all of them had weight problems as time passed.

I have one doe that I milked for 16 months without rebreeding. She kidded in July 2009, and I milked her straight through to November 2010 when she dried up because she was approaching three months pregnant. You can't usually do this with a first freshener. In fact, some first fresheners will only milk for six months before drying up. However, each year, their production goes up until they peak somewhere between three and five years of age, and then it plateaus a bit before starting to go down again. Goats can be productive until they are about nine or ten years old. I've personally never pushed them beyond that, so some might say they can go longer, but I kind of feel like they deserve to retire by then.

Star at age 10, enjoying retirement.
I don't really see myself butchering retired does. I'm very close to them because I'm with them when they give birth, and then I milk them regularly. I know them better than I know many of the humans in my life. I can see, however, that in a commercial dairy where you have thousands or even hundreds of milkers, you are only looking at your milk output records, and the animals are numbers. My first milk goat, Star, is still here and just celebrated her 13th birthday last month, even though she last freshened when she was 9 years old. She just hangs out in the pasture, usually with the kids, which she seems to enjoy. She's a healthy old girl, and the only real cost associated with her retirement is the small amount of hay that she eats during the winter. So, you can certainly keep your beloved does for as long as you can afford to feed them.

So, what to do with the males that are born? One of the things I like about raising Nigerian dwarf goats is that most of the males are sold as pets to people who have a couple of acres and want pasture ornaments or playmates for their grandchildren. With standard dairy goats, the "extra" males are usually sold for meat, but I've never sold a goat for meat. If you are concerned about finding a good home for them, however, you can keep them and use them for a variety of things, including those mentioned above. I know one person who has trained four goats to pull a cart. Goats can be used as pack animals also, and they can be rented out as brush clearers. I used to post articles regularly on my Antiquity Oaks blog about one place or another where goats were used to clear out the underbrush where heavy equipment could not access or was considered dangerous for one reason or another -- such as in one area where they were afraid they would kill endangered turtles if they brought in heavy equipment.

I've never tried to figure out how much our goats are worth in terms of garden fertility, but composted goat manure and straw is our one and only source of fertilizer in our garden. If you had more compost than you could use, you could also sell it. So, the bottom line is that there are a number of ways you can produce your own dairy products and avoid killing any of the animals involved, provided you have the financial ability to pay for their feed, as well as the pasture space so they can live in healthy, uncrowded conditions. And those animals can have productive lives contributing to your homestead in ways other than meat production.

It's interesting that I received this email when I did because I had been working on a post about eating meat from the animals that you raise. A lot of people don't understand how we can eat meat from our animals, but I'll explain how that came to pass in my next post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

And the winner is . . .

In case you haven't checked in on the comment section of the last post, we have not one but two winners for a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Small-Space Gardening! After I announced that random.org picked #19, which was Jean in MN as the winner, author Chris McLaughlin asked me to pick another number so she could give away another copy. And that lucky winner is the person who posted first! Yes, random.org picked #1, Deborah in Atlanta, as the other winner!

Jean in MN and Deborah in Atlanta, please use the contact form on this site to send me your full names and snail mail addresses, so we can get these books in the mail to you. Congratulations!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Herbs in Small Gardens

Thinking about gardening already? Can't wait to get outside and dig in the dirt as soon as the mud or snow clears? Well, today's guest blogger has some ideas for your garden, as well as containers, so you can get started right away! And if you leave a comment at the end of the post, you'll automatically be entered to win a copy of Chris McLaughlin's book! You can either post an herb question or tell us what your favorite herb is and how you like to use it, and we'll use a random number generator to pick the winner. Deadline is Sunday at midnight, central time zone. Anonymous posts are not eligible unless you include your name and email address. Be sure to check back here to see who wins!

excerpt from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Small-Space Gardening
by Chris McLaughlin

To be honest with you, I haven't found an herb yet that I haven't been able to grow both in containers and spaces with very little square footage. They're easygoing food plants and some of the most fragrant. To be certain that the fragrance is released, I purposefully plant them in areas near walkways and along bed edges so that people accidentally step on them. If your garden visitors don't seem to get any underfoot, just run your hand along them as you pass by.

Even if you have an herb garden elsewhere in your yard, it pays to have some of them potted up near the kitchen door so that you can easily step out and harvest fresh leaves for culinary dishes.

Herbs are pretty flexible when it comes to the sun. The majority of them, including rosemary, sage, and basil, thrive in full sun, but I've found that they tolerate light shade without a problem. This makes it a little easier to save some of the brightest areas of the yard for fruiting vegetables that truly need to soak up the sunshine.

Most herbs are just a natural fit for small gardens. Most of them don't grow overly large and, if they threaten to, a snip here and a harvest there easily keeps them in check. Herbs don't mind sharing space with ornamentals in flower beds and make great bedfellows with vegetables. They can be squeezed into some of the most unlikely places, such as the holes in the cinderblocks of a raised bed.

The majority of kitchen herbs also take very well to containers, which is pretty convenient considering that one of the best places to have an herb garden is as close to the kitchen door as possible. This usually means on a porch, deck, or patio, which means pots or other containers. They have no problem growing in hanging baskets, tubs, and Woolly Pockets; if you're game, they're game.

Some of the easiest herbs to grow together in a large container are the following:

• Parsley
• Dwarf basil
• Lemon thyme
• Chives
• Oregano
• Savory
• Sage

Rosemary is a must-have, but it's a shrubby perennial plant that likes its space. My solution is to simply give the rosemary its own container. And the easiest way to get your herb garden up and growing is to purchase little starts from your local nursery. A quick word about mints: Mints can be incredibly invasive and are capable of taking over a garden in just a season or two. It's best to take a
defensive approach from the get-go and grow them in containers exclusively.

If you're gardening on a balcony, try planting a short-but-wide container with a bouquet of varieties. You'll have a good selection of herbs while using less space. If you have only enough room to devote a very small space for a kitchen garden, plant those herbs that you use the most, such as parsley, chives, basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary.

As if herbs' usefulness in the kitchen wasn't enough, another good reason to grow them is that they're some of the most laid-back characters you can grow. They have some basic needs, but they aren't picky, and most of them are very forgiving. As far as stylistic use in the yard or garden, herbs are as well suited to a formal layout as they are a casual one.

The old-fashioned knot gardens that consist of herbs clipped into formal, geometrical shapes and intertwined hedges may not be realistic in a small-space garden, but they could certainly be placed into geometrical sections and clipped accordingly to give the same impression. Or you could go with a more relaxed version that still offers some light structure, such as an herb wheel.

Chris is a master gardener, freelance garden writer and author that's been gardening for over 30 years.  She's currently banging away at her fifth book, Vertical Veggies (Alpha, January 2013). Chris balances family, writing, gardening, animals, 4H, and sewing projects from their hobby farm in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter: @Suburban_Farmer. Chris' website: www.asuburbanfarmer.com
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