Animal Husbandry at Dancing Goat Gardens

Husbandry is one of those things I never really though about when I lived in the city. You max out how many animals you are allowed to have and try to be sure each one is as productive as possible. Or your numbers are so small you write them off as pets who don’t need to earn their keep. But as you increase in numbers that feed bill suddenly becomes staggering and you start to look at things with a slightly different bent.

I’ve gone from eight-ish chickens and ducks (who counted?) to thirteen chickens, six ducks, two turkeys, eleven rabbits (with more on the way), twenty-five 3 week old roosters (if I can remember correctly), and four goats.

Of my thirteen chickens I have three biddies not laying, three roosters, and three too young to lay still. So I’m feeding thirteen and only four are producing. I have attachments to the biddies as part of our original flock. Two roosters are for the breeding program and the other follows me around like a puppy. He was the tiniest chick we named Peep so the fact that he’s become an endearing and quiet rooster (and possibly transgender I’m wondering…) makes me remiss to put him in the stew pot.

I keep finding new chicken breeds that I think would be good for us. I love the Delawares for their fast grow-out (think meat) and inquisitive personalities, though the eggs are smaller and their white plumage makes them stand out to overhead predators. I love the cuckoo and copper Marans for their large dark eggs but they take forever to grow out so don’t carry much meat. I love the Easter eggers for the fun way they contribute to the egg basket – always a surprise to those new to backyard eggs. I want to try Welsummers and barred rocks since I’ve heard they have fast grow-out as broilers and make consistent layers. And then there is the dependable Rhode Island Reds. For awhile the only hen laying was my decrepit RIR who was sleeping in a dog house without supplemental light. You’ve got to love that.

How many roosters do I feed all winter just so I can avoid buying chicks this spring? Sure it’s fun to try so many varieties but the feed bill does add up…

My first two ducks are Cayugas, laid back, amusing, good slug eaters with few bad habits. The next two were Runner Ducks – more like hyper, small dogs that yip and eat eggs if given the chance. I’m not at all fond of them but they are pretty and honestly have such a tiny amount of meat on them that they are not worth processing. The other two are ducklings just a few weeks old so not producing eggs or eating slugs yet but since Flip and Flap are aging they’ll be slowing down next year so I consider these my V3. More overhead in the feed and poop schlepping department.

The turkeys, Snoodle and Snella are young still, not quite big enough to breed or eat. I think I probably missed Thanksgiving dinner and if we eat them now I’ll have to buy hatchlings next spring. At least if I keep Snoodle and Snella all winter, their offspring will be raised naturally, learning to forage from their parents as they should. Less work for me next spring but a higher feed bill this winter. Perhaps I can sell turkey chicks next spring to offset their cost.

I’m still trying to determine the right number of rabbits to keep. Obviously I need a buck and should be keeping a backup buck because things do go wrong occasionally. As far as I know there is no bunny Viagra and there is always the possibility he may suddenly get sick. Without a buck there are no more bunnies. Each bunny needs to be about six months old to breed and is out of commission for part of the time while nursing and raising kits (bunnies). In order to have multiple litters going you need multiple does. How many? I’m not sure yet. All bucks need their own cages, and does do fight occasionally. Any doe and litter need a private cage. So in addition to the feed and hay bill there is the cost of separate water and feed containers, night cages, resting pads and bunny huts.

And then there are the goats – the reason I’m here, at Dancing Goat Gardens. Loud Mary from Greenwood (whose neighbors are still rejoicing that she’s gone, I’m sure) is settling down as lead goat. She’s lovely when she’s not being bossy and pushy and loud. Her teats and udder have been slowly improving throughout the fall and her milk is increasing, although it takes forever to milk her out and those teats are still not much bigger than a cat’s. I may be exaggerating but it takes so long to milk those tiny things out that my hands cramp. She’s an unregistered mini-Nubian so can never be bred to a full sized buck to increase udder/teat/milk and her offspring will never command a good price. But perhaps if I breed her she’ll come into a nice udder and good milk supply this spring and perhaps she’ll have some nice does (although her first birth was two bucks.) Should I breed her this winter? Or try milking her through now that she is producing and increasing in supply? Right now she is producing a half gallon a day which is pretty good for a first-time mini freshener this far into fall.

And speaking of Mary’s bucks, Starr is growing, eating and pooping. I’ll never get milk from him so he is either for pet or for meat. And we have an awful lot of pets around here already.

Then there is Val and Bells. I have been watching them both closely and rushed Val up to the buck in Snohomish several times, only for it to not be the right time. Val is so sweet and so calm and so mellow. Her udder and teats are a dream, she’s quick to milk out and was producing really well in September. Although that supply has dropped since then, she is also a first time freshener with the opportunity to improve this next go around. Bells is young still so I’ll be breeding her in December if I can catch the cycle right. And of course each one of these planned breedings means considering which buck. Do I go with one that has more Nubian or proven milk lines? Do I go with one that’s calmer and mellow and hope to breed quiet into the line?

Each breeding means a stud fee and pre-breeding testing costs so there is more money spent. Now that the bushes and trees in the pasture have lost most their leaves and the grass is wet, the goats are inside most days, eating spendy hay. More money spent.

And somewhere in a spare bathroom there are twenty-five meat broilers. All roosters, started late in the season, using a heat lamp to thrive. I’m hoping to move them outside onto grass once they feather out but it’s so late in the season they will surely require more food to get to a decent dress-out weight. More feed, more wear and tear on the lawn since the grass is no longer growing, which also means it’s not as nutritious and bugs will be deeper underground and harder to find. More in feed, more money spent.

I’m experimenting, making mistakes, hopefully learning, and buying a lot of feed. What I’m not buying though is meat, eggs, milk, compost, straw, mulch or a lot of other soil amendments. So that feed bill comes back to me in many ways.

Although I’m not making much progress on the garden or orchard this fall, I need to step back and remember how many new animals I’ve created shelter and fencing and otherwise favorable conditions for. My goal here at Dancing Goat Gardens is to create a biodiverse farm where each animal can be healthy, thriving, content and contributing to create a group of experimental gardens that provide a well-rounded diet for many families, and for the web of life on this property.

So no more self-indulgent whining. I’ve accomplished a lot in the last four months. I just need to focus on getting my feed bill down (perhaps Carnation needs a new livestock feed Co-op?) and keep moving forwards before winter really sets in.

How about you? What are your fall plans and struggles?

5 Responses to Animal Husbandry at Dancing Goat Gardens

  1. I think it just takes a while to make everything work out, frankly. I had looked at every new creature as an investment and doing so means it’s at least a year’s commitment to get back what you put in. Sure; you can buy a goat who’s lactating but then there’s the next step of breed or milk through right about now. And turkeys do take a good year before they become sexually mature, as do chickens frankly in terms of who wants to go broody or not. So the only quick payoff you’ll ever have will be the bun-buns. But give it a spring or two and you’ll be swimming in milk, have poults to sell, and have your pick of broody girls to keep an eye out for…and you’ll never think of keeping a hay-burning wether or extra rooster on the payroll. We had Pekin ducks and frankly they fleshed out too: I think I butchered them at 10 weeks and they were huge. Too bad my husband hates messy waterfowl or I would still raise them.

    I can’t remember: are your turkeys Bourbon reds? Ours produce pretty well, and every year I am able to sell poults in the spring and at least 2 Thanksgiving birds in the fall. Monday is doomsday for the three youngsters. The hen will be about 8 pounds and the toms 14-17. Not that “big” but boy are they tasty, and they pay for themselves. Our pair is 4 years old now, and they are the only animals that free-range.

    Anyway, yeah, my plans are “more of the same.”

  2. Stabilizing the flock and herd initially is kind of tough. Old friends that don’t deserve the culling process, and some that have yet to prove themselves keepers. Getting your feed supply sorted out so it is reliable and high quality but not breaking the bank is probably the best thing to focus on for the short term.

  3. Annette Cottrell

    Thanks El – whenever I think maybe I’m on the wrong track and wasting money your comments are so helpful. The turkeys are bourbon red and I’m hoping to be able to sell some poults each spring but I’m not really sure what my market is out here. Most of my connections are back in the city or the large subdivisions nearby with totally restrictive HO regulations. Which is funny because here we are in the middle of the country and these people can’t have chickens. I somehow am suddenly swimming in milk (my fencing with the higher voltage electric box seems to be keeping the wether from drinking it all. The chicken and duck eggs are starting to stack up since my farm fail post. I don’t seem to be having any luck with fall and winter rabbit breeding but we’ll have plenty of meat with the broilers. What I really, really want is kale and I think I’m just going to have to buy that. Thanks as always for your thoughtful and grounding replies.
    Laura you are so right – I need to remember I’m shooting for stable but I’m not very good with that. As soon as it looks like things are going to be stable I add three new things into the mix! I think I’ve got a line on 40 bales of hay with delivery and just did a big bulk buy of animal feed to get the cost down so I just need to remember that I won’t be buying those again for quite awhile. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Sounds like you need an acre that is providing hay. Though I have no idea how to grow hay. If it is any consolation, my kale has really struggled this fall. I had Matt put a cold frame on it to help it along and protect it from something that has been eatting at it. I had to buy some at the store. Bummer all around…hang in there!

    • The problem with Hay in Western Wa is you need a good stretch of no rain for it to cure before harvesting. If you don’t get that then you get mold. So I doubt I could ever grow my own hay. And funny, I opened the hoop tunnel and found cabbage butterfly moths on my kale then I didn’t get them closed back all the way and left town. When I came back the ducks had eaten them all. Sometimes the cure is worse than the ailment…

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