The Ultimate Guide to Micro-Livestock for your Urban Farm



Read ahead to discover my all time favourite animals for small space urban farms & permaculture gardens.

In this guide we will discover which animals are best suited to small spaces. When putting this guide together I asked myself the following questions:

  • Can I meet the physical & social needs of this animal in my system?
  • Can I utilise the natural behaviours of this animal for the benefit of the system?
  • Can I provide a good life, and if necessary, a good death for this animal in a humane manner?
  • Is there a tradition of using this animal in sustainable food systems?
  • Is there good scientific data and best practice protocols I can follow to ensure the welfare of this animal in my care?
  • What outputs can this animal provide for my system?
  • Are there any drawbacks or cons to including this animal in my system?

The Bantam Chicken

Bantam chickens are hands down THE most useful, adaptable species you can include in your urban farm… provided you have the space for them. Not only are they adorable to watch, but they can provide us with an astonishing array of benefits just by being given the space to be themselves. Bantams can provide us with the ultimate trifecta which is meat, eggs and manure but that is just the beginning of their suitability for the urban life.

My bantam flock foraging in their suburban garden circa 2009

Benefits of bantams

Bantams only need half the space of their standard sized counterparts so you can easily fit 4 to 6 birds in a mini chicken tractor or mini chook dome. I have had tremendous success with so called “ornamental” (not for meat or eggs) breeds in terms of egg laying production. Bantams come in so many colours and shapes from svelte Japanese bantams to fluffy puff balls such as the silky and pekin, and the delightful polka dots of the fancy Belgian D’Ucle Mille Fleur. Like their wild ancestor the jungle fowl bantam chooks just want to forage & socialise all day long and we can put this to such good use in our gardens through strategic cell pasturing- ie placing the chooks in old garden beds that are ready to be thoroughly tilled, weeded, fertilised with manure and de-bugged before we move the chooks on and plant the beds out again with our next crop.

Japanese bantams are beautiful birds and fierce protective mother hens

The ultimate composters

bantams get five stars for their ability to turn ALL our kitchen scraps and paper waste into a wonderful garden mulch we can use to plant out all our veggies. Even foods they wont eat directly such as citrus, coffee grinds etc will get thoroughly pulverised and dispersed so they can be readily broken down into organic matter for microbes, worms and beneficial insects.

My bantam flock foraging under the watchful eye of Winston their rooster pictured top right corner

The ultimate gardeners

All chickens are masters at soil preparation and bantams are the Queens of ‘Tiny Footprint”. They love to scratch away at the surface of the ground foraging for seeds, worms and plant matter but unlike our heavy handed tilling tools and agricultural machinery they dont disturb the fragile vital network of fungal mycelium which lies beneath the mulch layer and provides a living energy and communication network for our plants, trees and even insects. Why do we humans insist on so much back breaking digging and tilling to ready our vegetable beds when we are only killing off the soil and injuring our lower backs in the process? Lets leave that to the mistresses of farming, our humble chooks.

Japanese bantam rooster Freddie, far left, escorts some belgian D’ucle & japanese hens for an afternoon stroll. Freddie was sub rooster No.1 to Winston the Pekin rooster.

Bantam housing

Bantams can be free ranged, or housed on the ground, or in raised garden beds provided we are regularly tractoring them around our system. They can of course be housed in stationary pens with a chook shed or other stable rainproof shelter but this tends to encourage pests such as lice, internal worms, flies etc to build up in their environment. Ideally we can avoid this by offering our chooks fresh ground every fortnight via a mobile pen which follows our vegetable planting schedule and use them to ready our garden beds before planting.

Culinary uses

Bantams offer great benefits to a food system in terms of their culinary uses. Most standard meat chickens also come in a mini or bantam size so yes you absolutely CAN cook & eat bantams. Good dual meat & egg breeds include the Indian Game (or Cornish hen as its known in the UK), australorps, cochins, rocks such as colombian or barred rock.

Nutritional benefits

The nutritional benefits of eating organic chicken meat and eggs deserves an entire post of its own but I will touch on some of the major aspects here. Both chicken meat and eggs are extremely nutritionally dense and contain many essential fatty acids and amino acids. They also contain lots of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C! There is C in the white flesh provided its fresh and not frozen, but it is of a greater density in the organs. For example, there is approximately 18.4 mg of Vitamin C per 100 grams of chicken giblets or liver(which is around 35% of your RDA for vitamin C). I prefer to eat chicken with the skin on so I can benefit fully from the fatty acids in the skin & because the skin tastes delish! Eggs of course are a nutritional powerhouse as they contain all the essential amino acids we need in the right amounts. they also include omega 3 fats, A, E & B12, anti oxidents and choline. Eggs are one of the few foods to contain vitamin D. Eggs truly are a complete superfood. Quail eggs are even superior in nutrients to chicken eggs and you can read about them further on in this guide.

Humane processing

Seeing as they are used so commonly as a food source there is a’lot of information and support for urban farmers on how best to humanely dispatch and process chickens. Rather than relying on old fashioned notions of animal slaughter that may or may not consider the experience from the animal’s point of view we can look to some good contemporary studies that provide us with the best possible methods in terms of animal welfare. Currently best practice for small scale farmers such as ourselves involves the use of a novel mechanical cervical dislocation device ( or NMCDD) which quickly ends the life of the chicken by instantly severing their cervical spine and is considered favourable to other methods such as exanguination (bleeding out). There also also small captive bolt devices shaped like a large pen such as the Ballista which will instantly render the bird unconscious and result in a very quick death.

Overall Suitability

So looking back at my initial questions I find that yes I can cater to all the social and physical needs of a bantam in my urban farm. I can protect them from predators and disease by carefully tractoring them in secure mobile pens through fresh ground even in a small backyard or patio.. I can provide for their social needs by keeping them in small flocks where they can develop natural relationships with a rooster and/ or besties. I can support their need to forage by providing them with kitchen scraps &giving them access to garden beds and weeds. I can provide a dust bath so they can keep themselves free of parasites and engage in social grooming behaviours. I can utilise their manure to fertilise my garden beds, I can allow them to turn my kitchen waste back into eggs and meat. With careful planning I can meet all their dietary needs from within my system without the need for store bought feed, helping me to ‘close the loop’ in my sustainable urban farm.

The one downside

The fabulous & charming pekin Rooster Winston, why may or may not be secretly & silently hiding out in a purpose built urban rooster “man cave”.

The ONLY downside I can think of is the fact that bantam roosters tend be quite noisy as their higher pitched crows are the perfect wavelength to carry long distances ( eg your neighbours bedroom at 3am) so breeding bantams in the city or suburbs is a tricky affair ( council regulations will vary from region to region and are easily accessible on your council website). However I wouldn’t say it’s impossible as a crafty DIY urban farming permie such as you and I may consider building a “man cave” for our rooster, rendering his crows silent at least throughout the night. Adding elements such as an automatic door on a timer and noise insulation and other features such as a ventilation extraction fan to our purpose built rooster chook shed can work in some circumstances and definitely worth considering if you want to breed bantams for meat. Most councils will ignore a livestock system which is silent and doesnt smell or bother neighbours but once they have been alerted via a neighbours complaint then they have to act. So take care of your hens. Keep them and their home in top condition so they dont produce an odour and or make too much noise. Providing neighbours with free fresh eggs to get them on side is also highly recommended.

Freshwater Fish

My second choice  in the list of micro species for urban farms is freshwater fish. They rate very highly for 4  reasons. The first is that farming your own fish at home takes pressure off global ocean fishstocks which have been plummeting for decades. Secondly they can be grown in a very small space, even as small as a cubic metre or two. The third reason is their incredible nutritional value to your diet. The fourth is they are so much fun to grow and a pond in the garden always looks awesome.

Aquaponics

Photo by Gregor Moser on Unsplash

Keeping fish in the backyard or even a small patio space has become a very accessible DIY hobby thanks to the proliferation of help, advice and amazing ideas from fellow DIYers around the world and fish are now grown in a wonderful symbiotic relationship with vegetables known as aquaponics.

The term aquaponics is a mixture of two other words( aquaculture and hydroponics) and its a brilliant combination of these two agricultural activities. Even  better than both those systems it can be a completely organic, chemical free endeavour perfect for the urban farmer.

The IBC Fish & Veggie Farm

A great way to kick off your own aquaponic obsession is by building your very own mini unit with an IBC container which is approximately a cubic metre in size. These standardised industrial containers are found all around the world. They are shipping containers for liquids and chemical products etc. There are different grades including food grade which is vital for your first system and they cost around $100. You will also need an inexpensive pump.  You can add additional ibc modules to your system and make a very large system indeed even in a small space.

A DIY aquaponics setup with modified IBC tanks on the left and established grow beds on the right

Building a system

Aquaponics systems at their most basic contain two components. A grow bed for plants and beneficial microbes, and a tank for the fish. Both these componenents can be made from one single 1000 L plastic IBC tank cut into one large and one small piece. The small  grow bed sits on the top and the fish live underneath in the large part of the tank. The IBC tank comes fitted with a very strong metal cover that serves as both a stand and a frame for the whole unit. Its an excellent example of recycling & re purposing industrial waste into something truly useful, sustainable and beautiful!

The nitrogen cycle

By taking advantage of the natural nitrogen cycle we can filter amonia that is excreted out of the fishes gills into the grow beds via a water pump, which plants & benefical microbes use as their food to grow into yummy veggies for us to eat. This completely automatic process removes the amonia and other wastes out of the fishes water and transfers clean water back to the fish tank. Its an amazing symbiotic relationship between plants, fish and people. Its a great idea & great fun to learn how to grow food for your fish from your own system so you can close the loop and have a truly self sustaining eco -fish farm. Perfect for small spaces!

Strawberries grown in a home aquaponics system

Fish species

In Australia we are blessed with many hardy freshwater species that do beautifully in aquaponic systems. From the Murray Darling river system we have natives such as murray cod and various perch species such as silver, jade and golden perch. In warmer areas barramundi are a popular breed and in the southern states you could try a cool species such as trout .

In the UK cold water species such as trout and catfish and even salmon can be grown. Tilapia is also a hardy fish used in aquaponics throughout the USA and the UK. Its important to work out which species is going to suit your region and climate best. Its also a good idea to find out which fish are legal in your state as some are considered noxious pests. For example in Australia its illegal to farm tilapia in most states.

Other aquaponic species

If it lives in fresh water, you can bet someone somewhere is trying it out in their own aqauponic system. Crustaceans such as the stunning blue yabby, freshwater prawns and even mussels can be added to the system and to your menu. Yum!

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

What about the plants?

These days most fruits and veggies can become part of an aquaponics system. There are different techniques to suit different plants including a dual root system which enables soil to be used as a growing medium for certain plants that might not cope well in a gravel filter bed. As well as the standard horizontal grow bed you can install vertical pvc towers for fruits such as strawberries and even floating rafts for fresh micro greens. There is a style of aquaponics to suit every kind of urban farmer and every kind of diet.

Not just fish and salad

Aquaponic systems can be combined with other urban farming projects so you will never get bored and be stuck eating only fish and salad. More and more urban farmers are experimenting with microlivestock and aquaponics to bring a blend of poultry, eggs, fish, veg even rabbit and guinea pig to the table… which brings me to my next critter in this Ultimate Guide for Microlivestock.

Guinea Pigs

Photo by Dawn on Unsplash

Arguably the cutest creature ever to be domesticated by humans you may be surprised to discover that cavies, or guinea pigs, which are neither pigs nor come from guinea, are one of our earliest examples of animals domesticated and farmed for consumption by humans. In fact we have been eating guinea pigs continuously since 5000 BC . Interestingly this date roughly corresponds with what is known as the Neolithic Revolution ( the first human farmers) and currently we consume 65 million guinea pigs a year. We have been farming & eating cavies continuously for seven thousand years! That alone tells you they are worth investigating as a food source.

Most of these are consumed in South American countries, where guinea pigs or their Spanish name ‘Cuy’, are referred to as ‘the chicken of Peru’, as they are such a staple part of the diet. The people of the Andes have been consuming cuy as part of their traditional customs and their use can be traced back to the the Moche people of ancient Peru, who included guinea pigs in their artworks, statues, religious ceremonies and healing practices and these customs continue today.

Machu Picchu in the Andes where guinea pigs were worshipped as sacred beings and first utilised for meat and medicine.
Photo by Adriana Aceves on Unsplash

Cuy are also extremely popular with urban farmers in Cuba. Cities such as Havanna are home to thousands of urban farmers who produce cuy and other microlivestock to feed the population. Cuba was cut off from fossil fuels by the US when the Soviet Union collapsed during the 1990’s and without petrol all their agricultural machinery lay motionless in the field. There was no fuel for cars or equipment. President Castro responded by providing every citizen with free bicycles and poured money and resources into urban farming initiatives urging everyone to begin to grow their own food at home lest the entire population starve. Ordinary citizens responded with an incredible zeal and ingenuity and Cuba is still the clean, green, sustainable model we turn to for successful urban farming inspiration.

But why on earth would we in the West choose to eat a guinea pig? Well there are many reasons why they are the animal of choice for urban farmers everywhere. They can be easily housed and fed on grass or vege scraps and their feed to weight ratio is extremely efficient. Pound for pound the humble grass fed cuy will produce twice the amount of meat as beef and also take very little skill to instantly and painlessly dispatch and process.

Guinea pig or ‘cuy’ farm in Lima, Peru.

Being such easily handled and friendly little creatures guinea pigs can be dispatched processed & cooked in roughly around 20 minutes without the need for transport or regfrigeration. The embeded environmental savings are massive. Many ecologists and climate change activists are enthusiastically promoting the farming of guinea pigs worldwide to reduce greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel use.

Its very easy to house, breed and process good numbers of guinea pigs in urban and suburban home gardens. We can ensure cuy farm design meets all their social and physical needs. If we can shift our western sensibilities just a little for the sake of the environment and our own health then we might consider cuy for our own family dinner and get back that close connection to our food that has been reduced by factory farming and unrecognisable supermarket cuts of meat.

honey soy pan fried guinea pig

Squab

Now speaking of unrecognisable cuts of meat, would you recognise a plate of squab or King pigeon? Just like the guinea pig, squab ( juvenille king pigeon) was a very common pre- industrial source of nourishment throughout Europe and the middle east for centuries until the practice of keeping dovecotes was abandoned by rural farmers with the advent of modern farming and the spread of the lab rat, rattus norivegicus, which was able to easily access and devastate domestic pigeon populations.

Authors pair of sqab – juvenille king pigeons

King pigeons, like guinea pigs, are also very friendly, gentle and beautiful creatures & do extremely well in domestic environments. They are the largest of the pigeon breeds, developed for consumption of their meat and as they are rather heavy they prefer to hang around their nest rather than fly long distances like doves or homing pigeons. For this reason it is possible to design a system for squab that is able to support all their natural behaviours of forraging, socialising, romancing & raising young.

Glazed Squab

Pigeon manure, known as guano, is highly prized for its rich nitrogen levels and considered to be less likely to burn plants than chicken manure, however neither of these manures are going to burn you vege patch if they are well composted or mixed with a good amount of mulchy materials before you plant your seedlings. I have been using rather fresh chicken manure in my vegie beds for years and never had an issue with burning.

Japanese Quail

A mature japanese quail

Japanese quail were domesticated in Japan around the 11th century but were not farmed for meat & eggs in the west until the mid 20th century. Many generations of breeding in captivity, mostly in overcrowded cages with little opportunity for natural behavior, has left this gorgeous quail species largely without its ability to successfully raise young on its own, although you do hear ( and see thanks to youtube) the odd anecdote of quail hens sitting on their nests and also occasionally the surprise of baby chicks in the quail pen so it can still happen but it is not a good strategy if you wish to breed & raise you own quail. An incubator OR a broody bantam hen will be required to hatch your own quail chicks.

Some of the quail eggs I collected this week

Fortunately life for the Japanese quail in a permaculture system can be a very happy one as long as their needs are provided for in your pen/garden layout. These little birds perform best and are happiest when they are given plenty of space and bushy shrubby cover and for that reason I like to keep them in a pen or garden area planted with well established perennials such as a herb garden or food forest area where there is plenty of shade and places to hide. Quail need to be able to dust bathe in a sandy dry dusty soil on a daily basis. This is an important social ritual and also helps keep external parasites at bay.

Like their larger chicken cousins, quail are foragers which means they love to sift through the soil looking for insects, seeds and vegetable matter for their diets. This foraging behaviour can be put to good use in a permaculture system as they can help to keep down pests such as ticks and other unwanted insects. A few quail allowed to forage around the perimeter of a meat rabbit set up is a great way to help reduce pests that might threaten rabbit health such as flies, ticks, fleas, mites and mosquitos.

Quail require plenty of protein. Access to meal worms or black soldier fly larvae and some regular greens can provide a very balanced diet. An integrated setup of perenial shrubs & quail surrounding raised or grounded guinea pig or rabbit pens, and a black soldier fly (BSF) farm can provide you with a regular supply of fresh herbs and meat with all species working together.

Black soldier fly (BSF) arvae are incredibly useful in a permaculture system. They can break down organic matter extremely fast, are disease free, they repel the dreaded house fly, breed very easily and are a brilliant food source for your poultry and your fish farm. You can set up a BSF bin and wait for the BSF to come and lay its eggs for you. The fly larvae will then eat your kitchen scraps and provide a healthy pathogen free food source for your micro livestock. Free protein from the air!

The BSF larvae can be fed daily with kitchen scraps and then fed to the quail. The amonia & nitrogen rich soiled bedding from the rabbit or guinea pig pens can be regularly spread around the herb garden as a fertiliser and mulch layer suppressing weeds and feeding the soil. The quail assist the breakdown of the mulch via their constant foraging behaviour and help to reduce pest numbers. The same supply of fresh green waste can be used to feed quail, rabbits, guinea pigs and BSF.

Specific herbs can be grown and hung around rabbit cages to repel flies. And all of this can be designed to become a truly beautiful integrated, climate positive/carbon negative garden. When quail are kept in the garden instead of cages they can help create soil, capture carbon from the atmosphere, reduce landfill, reduce garden pests as well as provide you with meat and eggs!

I must also mention that quail are extremely quick & easy to dispatch, pluck or skin & and cook due to their tiny size. Unlike with larger meat birds quail can be processed very quickly and humanely in the kitchen and cooked immediately. This makes them ideal for urban or small space permaculture farming.

Delicious pan fried quail

Rabbits

The final species in this ultimate micro livestock guide is the rabbit. Rabbits are both rewarding and challenging to farm. They can provide excellent healthy meat and have numerous young. Their diet is an uncomplicated one of fresh pasture hay, grass and vegetable greens which makes them suited to a permaculture system.

Rabbits can be raised in large pens with plenty of fresh hay and greens

Depending on your location you may find it challenging to meet their needs easily or integrate them with other species. In the United states there are many passionate backyard rabbit farmers who breed and grow their rabbits humanely in raised pens, or in colonies on the ground or even tractor them around on pasture. Feed in the form of pellets, pasture hay or home grown greens is fairly cheap and the rabbits can provide a family with nutritious home grown meat without too much effort. Rabbits can be integrated with other species such as poultry.

The situation in Australia is quite different. Because feral rabbits pose such a massive threat to the environment due to their plague proportions, lethal rabbit hemorrhagic disease viruses (RHVD1, K5) have been developed and released into the wild which have decimated domestic rabbit numbers and continue to be a threat to pet and meat rabbits. In Australia this disease is called the Calicivirus. The virus can be spread via contact with sick feral rabbits and their droppings, infected pasture where they have grazed and even flies and mosquitoes that have come in to contact with infected rabbits or their droppings. Because of this rabbits cannot be tractored in pens, fed grass, vegetables or home grown pasture without some risk. The viruses have been so successful that they have almost completely wiped out the small commercial meat rabbit industry in Australia in recent years despite large scale vaccination programs.

Still, it is possible to raise rabbits for meat in Australia and reduce the risk of disease by utilizing flywire in the pen design to prevent infection from insects, and feeding with pellets or buying pasture hay from produce stores. There is also a vaccine available from the vet or online without prescription known as Cylap which will give some protection against some of the viral strains and new vaccines in development to try to combat a new lethal strain which appeared recently in the wild without having officially been released (RHDV2). Breeding trios ( two does and a buck) can be kept for many years well protected in spacious flywire cages or pens and be regularly vaccinated while kits (baby rabbits) can be housed in grow out pens and processed at 12 weeks for meat without the cost of vaccinating every rabbit in the system. Vaccination is no guarantee that your rabbits wont contract the virus and for that reason many backyard farmers in Australia prefer not to vaccinate.

So provided you are prepared to take on board some degree of risk, you could integrate a rabbit system into your permaculture garden. Rabbits are fascinating creatures and quite addictive. They have many young and as prey animals low in the food chain they are able to produce many litters but the mortality rate of the kits can be quite high.

Some rabbits are great mothers and some not so much. Unlike guinea pigs who are born fully furred and quite independent, rabbit kits are completely dependent on their mothers for breast milk and protection from the elements for the first six weeks or so of their lives. The young grow quickly. They are gorgeous and its a wonderful homesteading experience to watch them grow and always tough if they dont survive.

Deaths can occur due to lack of feeding from the mothers, extreme cold or heat or genetic issues. Rabbit does need to be able to build a nest and provide adequate care for their kits to get them through those first delicate weeks of life. If the rabbit doe is stressed because she perceives a threat to herself or the kits she may well kill the young so great care must be taken to provide a quiet stress free, predator free spacious environment for the mother doe and her kits.

Rabbits can provide a fantastic source of healthy home grown meat

If you are prepared to take on board some risk and make the effort to design a spacious healthy stress free environment for your rabbits, it can be a truly rewarding hobby for the urban homesteader.

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