One of the goals on our urban farm, the Bossy Hen Homestead, is to create a cycle of sustainability. This is certainly not to say that with a property as small as ours that we do not have to occasionally pursue outside avenues to ensure the proper functioning of the homestead. But over the years, as our knowledge and skills have developed, we have figured out how to keep the enterprise as independent as possible.
As is the problem with many urban farms, our space is extremely limited. In turn, if careful consideration is not taken, an urban homestead can face any number of problems caused by depleted soil, such as disease, pests, and poor crop production.
There are a number of ways to address this issue. Some people chose to incorporate synthetic fertilizers. Others preach the benefit of green manure, and I would be one of those people. Another option for the urban farmer is the manure of small livestock, in particular rabbits and chickens.
Once again, if space for growing crops is limited, then it is easy to assume this will also be the case for raising livestock. There are also other considerations for a suburban environment, such as noise and smell. That is where chickens and rabbits come in as a particular benefit.
I will begin with rabbits whom I believe are the easiest of the two to raise. They need very little room to be healthy. They are extremely quiet and they produce wonderful manure. Their manure is referred to as a "cold" manure meaning, unlike chickens their droppings can be directly applied to your crops without "burning" them. With that said, it certainly does not hurt to compost this valuable fertilizer for 6 months to ensure that any harmful pathogens have been properly disposed of.
Rabbit manure is extremely high in N-P-K. In fact, it is slightly higher in nitrogen than some poultry manures and has high levels of phosphorus, which is important for flower and fruit growth. In my experience, it is an odorless manure unless you allow it to build up and sit in the rabbits urine for a few days. At this point, it would potentially create an unpleasant smell for your neighbors, depending how close they are to your homestead.
If managed properly, rabbits will provide an abundance of nutrition for the amazing spectrum of life found within your gardens soil.
Chickens are another great addition to any urban micro farm. Not only will they produce delicious eggs, but they are living compost machines. I would argue that on some level, they are as beneficial in that regard as hogs.
The difference with chickens is that they do need a bit more space in order to be healthy. They will make a little noise when they lay an egg. I have found this varies with the breed, though. For example, our leghorns were always far louder than our Americana.
Chicken manure is gold for the garden, in fact it is higher in N-P-K than cow and horse manure. But there are a few things worth keeping in mind. To begin with, if not properly managed, chicken manure will get rather smelly. I have found that I really have to stay on top of it during the rainy season in spring.
It is also considered a "hot" manure, meaning that it cannot be directly applied to your crops or else it will "burn" the roots. You definitely want to compost your hens manure. The suggestions I have come across give a range of time spanning from 6 months to 2 years. I tend to let it sit over a season, meaning that if I do a late fall cleaning of the run and coop I feel comfortable using that spring.
At the end of the day, our gardens are only as healthy as the soil they contain. There is a microscopic world that is thriving right below our feet. When we apply fertilizer, we are not necessarily feeding the plants themselves but rather the organisms within the soil that in turn provide healthy plants that are able to withstand disease and pest much better. It also helps the soil with water retention during times of drought by building up the soils content with organic matter.
Simply put, small-scale urban livestock provides a healthy alternative to synthetic and potentially toxic fertilizers.
As a fourth-generation micro-farmer, Tobias Whitaker had strong early influences in regards to responsibly working the land and taking pride in producing his own food. Tobias is currently working on an urban homesteading book and is also exploring ways to increase his yearly yield and lengthen his growing season. You can visit him on facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead or online at Seed To Harvest. Read all of Tobias' MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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