Raising Meat When You Don't Have Acerage

Raising Meat When You Don't Have Acreage

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There are many reasons people want to raise their own meat. The horrors of factory farming, contaminated grocery store food, grocery store food with more unhealthy omega-6s than healthy omega-3s, vaccines and antibiotics in commercially raised animals, environmental pollution (step into a commercial chicken farm without a respirator or drive past a hog factory and you'll understand this problem instantly!), and a desire to be a bit more self-sufficient.

Sadly, though, many people think they can't raise their own meat. Maybe they are like my family: They have acreage, but no pasture - or money for expensive fencing. Or maybe they are like we used to be: They live in the suburbs (or city) and don't have enough space for livestock. (Or do they? Keep reading!) Or maybe they are like we will someday be: Their health doesn't allow them to handle large livestock like pigs and cattle.

But the truth is, just about anyone can raise meat - and do it with very little space. The trick is to think outside the commercial farm box.

Meat Rabbits

Raising rabbits for meat is a touchy subject. I often hear: "Bunnies are too cute to eat!" To which I say, "I think cows and chickens and pigs are really cute, but you eat THEM. Heck, cows are basically big, dumb dogs and pigs (I hear) make wonderful house pets!" That said, I'm not immune to cuteness and I'm thankful meat rabbits are less cute once they reach the age of butchering. The correct mindset from the beginning of their lives helps tremendously, too. These are prey animals that God designed to make food for predators. They will have a wonderful life where they are pampered - until one moment when they are suddenly and instantly gone. It's a far better life than the life of ANY animal you buy as meat in the grocery store.

The "meat mutts" who were our first breeders.

Personally, I think rabbits are one of the easiest animals to raise for meat. They reproduce like mad, typically having 6 to 11 kits at a time. (Some rabbits have litters into the 20s, and a rabbit past her prime will have litters with fewer than 6 kits.) Although most people allow the mother doe to rest between births, wild rabbits (the same type we've domesticated, oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus - which are different from the wild rabbits found in North America) become pregnant pretty much immediately after giving birth. If fed pellets, it takes only 12 weeks for a decent meat rabbit to reach 5 lbs., and the common wisdom says a single doe can produce 600 lbs. of meat in a single year. That's a lot of meat from an animal that doesn't take up very much space.

Rabbits don't make much noise, which means they shouldn't bother neighbors. They thump their feet to brag, to show impatience, to show dominance, to show anger, to "feel their oats" - and they make quiet grunting noises. Occasionally, you'll get a screamer. All rabbits scream if they think a predator is about to kill them, but some scream over little things - like their sister grooming them. Some males scream when they ejaculate.

Rabbits don't have much smell, either - a good thing when you have neighbors nearby. Their urine can smell like ammonia - some rabbits are worse than others - but if you collect their urine and manure in a manure tray beneath their cage, then pour the contents in a tub or compost bin, the smell is not unpleasant. The mixture is also fantastic fertilizer - and can be put straight in the garden without aging or composting first.

A rabbit nest with newborn kits.

For years, I put off raising meat rabbits because I wasn't sure we'd like the flavor and I just couldn't find any place that sold the meat...or when I did, it was $40 or more for a single rabbit. I wish I had plunged into rabbit-raising, anyway, because now it's hard for me to imagine someone not liking domestic rabbit meat. (Wild rabbit can taste more gamey.) Many people compare domestic rabbit meat to chicken meat - and yes, there are some similarities. But most of my family doesn't care much for chicken meat, yet we all LOVE rabbit meat. Somehow, rabbit tastes better. It is clean, mild, all white, has little fat, but has an ever so slightly more assertive flavor than chicken. In fact, if you imagine the best chicken you ever ate - but even better - you have a good idea what rabbit tastes like. I regularly use rabbit in place of chicken in recipes.

Rabbits require very little space, making them ideal for those without acreage...or even large yards. Some people do raise rabbits in a colony setting on the ground, which requires fencing in a portion of land. This clearly requires more space, more predator-proofing, and more work to keep the rabbits from digging out, and it also may expose them to more diseases, though it does imitate natural rabbit life more closely. But rabbits are pretty content in cages, which can be stacked even in a tiny side yard. The cages should be four times the size of the rabbit or larger, and should have manure collection trays, as well as waterers, feeders, and something (like a piece of wood or a large tile) to put on part of the cage bottom, so they can rest their feet. It's also important that the cages have a roof over them, to keep the rabbits dry when it rains, and a reasonable amount of wind protection.

Rabbit kits in their nest.

 

I find rabbits super easy to care for. I feed and water them each day, and the mother takes care of her babies as long as I provide a good nesting box and hay to help keep it warm. I check kits daily to ensure everyone is healthy and well fed, and when I get a runt, I hold the mother and runt together so the runt can get extra feedings. I generally clean manure trays weekly.

In addition to meat and manure, rabbits can provide hides and dog treats. (For example, frozen or dehydrated ears and feet are marketable dog snacks. Hides appropriate for tanning usually come from rabbits at least 16 weeks old - a bit older than most people raise for meat.) 

While all rabbits are edible, some are better suited for meat raising because of their size and meat-to-bone ratio. New Zealand, Californian, Champagne D’Argent, and mixes (or "mutts") of Rex, Silver Foxes, Palomino, American Chinchilla, and Satin are most commonly raised. Beginners are often tempted to raise Flemish Giants for meat, since they are 20 pounds or larger at maturity. However, Flemish Giants have more bone than meat, require much larger amounts of feed to get to butchering size, and tend to be pretty expensive to purchase unless they are of mixed heritage.

Recently weaned kits.

How much does it cost to raise rabbits? Well, as with a lot of homesteading projects, getting set up is the most expensive part. To save money, some people build their own cages, but we've been purchasing Pet Lodge cages and are pleased with their size and quality. (Admittedly, cages are hard to come by right now and cage prices have about doubled since last year. You'll definitely want to shop around.) You can also look for used cages on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, but be aware that cages only have a certain lifetime. If you buy used, you may find yourself needing to repair or replace sooner rather than later. For disease control, you will also need to thoroughly sanitize used cages before putting your rabbits in them.

For food, rabbits can be fed only pellets (which are compressed hay and minerals, carefully designed to be 18% protein, which facilitates healthy growth rates). They do love eating loose hay, and being able to chew on and play with this hay seems to make them more content. It's a good idea to give them sticks to chew on (to keep their ever-growing teeth from becoming problematic). You may also give rabbits certain weeds from your yard - but note that a rabbit's digestive system is pretty delicate. You shouldn't change their diet (or even pellet brand) quickly. Gradual changes are best, and unless you want to raise rabbits entirely on grass, fodder, and weeds (which is do-able), smaller amounts of each of these is best. If you do want to avoid buying pellets, rabbit tractors with wire bottoms are an excellent choice. To learn more about feeding rabbits naturally, I recommend the book Beyond the Pellet.

We feed our rabbits mainly pellets, with a little hay and weeds mixed in. We buy a middle of the road brand and really it's our only on-going cost except for a bit of hay. Currently, our meat costs $11.88 per rabbit - which is far cheaper than you can buy in anywhere! It ends up being about $2.37 per pound, which again, isn't easy to do in a grocery store or farmer's market.

"Shake and Bake" rabbit. Courtesy Holly Webster.

 

Meat Quail 

Quail might seem like a bad choice for meat-raising. After all, quail are pretty small birds. However, there are some good reasons for raising meat quail - which is why they are seeing a big boom in popularity among backyard homesteaders.

Coturnix quail.

Of course, the first reason is that, being small animals, they don't require a lot of space to raise. Yes, some people put them in aviaries on the ground, which requires at least a reasonably-sized back yard. But many people raise quail in rabbit cages. As with rabbits, these cages can be stacked and put in a small corner of a yard or alleyway, taking up minimal space. Coturnix quail (the type usually raised for meat) require a minimum of 1 square foot of space per bird. Like rabbits, these cages need something over them to keep the birds sheltered from wind and rain.

Before you decide to raise quail, you also should consider their flavor. It is not correct to compare Coturnix quail to chicken (or rabbit) meat. Coturnix have a stronger flavor than either; some people would call it "gamey," but to me "gamey" suggests something negative, and I don't think that's an accurate flavor profile for quail. Instead, I would say the texture is similar to chicken, but the flavor is more assertive.

Quail hatching in an incubator.

Flavor aside, quail reproduce and grow very quickly, which is another reason they are so popular. The incubation period for quail eggs is only 18 days and by the time the birds are eight to ten weeks old, they are ready to butcher. Here's a pretty conservative run-down of how much meat you can expect to raise from one cock and five hens:

Those hens should give you at least an egg a day, or 35 eggs in a week. Let's assume you keep some of those eggs to eat (they are, many people feel, much tastier than chicken eggs!) and you choose to incubate 25 of their eggs. Being very conservative with the numbers, let's say you only get a 50% hatch rate from those eggs, so 15 chicks are born. Let's say you have bad luck and 3 chicks die, leaving you with 12 live chicks. After nine weeks or so, you can butcher those chicks - so that in 12 weeks you got 12 quail, which is one meal a month for three months. (Quail meat is a bit higher in protein and most people only eat one or two birds at a sitting.)

Although rabbits aren't difficult to butcher, quail are perhaps THE easiest livestock to butcher. You don't have to even pluck them if you don't want to. You can simply peel their skin off, making for super-fast processing.

Quail chicks are teeny-tiny.

 

Aside from a cage, quail need a waterer (I find the ball type rabbit waterers, like this, work best), a
feeder (I currently use a chick feeder, but am looking into some homemade "no waste feeders"). If you want your Coturnix quail to lay eggs all winter, you'll need to give them supplemental light. They are much more particular about this than chickens.

To make the quail more comfortable, each cage needs some sort of container to hold a dust bath (filled with dirt), and quail generally love having some sort of area to hide in - whether that be a small box in the cage or tree branches propped up in one corner.

For feed, the typical advice is to give quail game bird feed that is 21% to 25% protein. I've never been able to find this locally, so we feed our quail Purina Flock Raiser Crumbles, which are 20% protein. It has not been a problem for us, or for other homesteaders I know who feed similarly. You may also give quail treats like weeds and bugs, but some quail (including mine!) don't recognize these things as food. Coturnix quail are poor foragers.

Unfortunately, most Coturnix quail don't go broody and hatch their own eggs. (There are some people who swear that if you give them an aviary that replicates nature, they absolutely will hatch their own eggs.) So most people are going to need an incubator - or a breeder - to get more birds. Some people also have luck getting broody chickens to hatch their quail eggs, but if you try this, it's important to remove the quail chicks immediately. Chickens will smother or squash tiny baby quail.

Brooding quail in storage containers with wire lids.

In addition, it's important to know that quail manure is really stinky. I mean REALLY stinky. If this will bother you or your neighbors, you will need to empty the manure trays daily (or lime the poop on a regular basis). Quail manure is useful in the garden, but it needs to age for at least several months before you can apply it, or its high nitrogen and ammonia content will kill plants. I recommend a plastic bin or bag for this aging process. Some people also bury the poop to dispose of it or to prepare future garden beds.

Quail also have a LOT of dander. I do not recommend growing them in an enclosed space like a garage or shed - although I know quite a lot of people do. (I raise mine in a three-sided carport.)

Raising quail chicks is a lot like raising chicken chicks, although I've found quail are more delicate. They need a brooder with a heat lamp or heat plate. (This is the heat plate I use.) I currently use plastic storage bins with covers (my husband cuts out the top of the lids and inserts wire so the birds have ventilation, but are still protected and can't fly out...Yes, quail do fly.). If you use a heat plate, put it at an angle, so on one side, the top is right where the chick's backs are and the top is higher up; this way they can regulate their heat better. You'll also need a chick feeder (and may need to grind their feed so their tiny mouths can eat it) and waterer. I like to use special quail chick waterers. (Chicken chick waterers allow quail chicks to drown. You can get around this by putting rocks or marbles in a chicken chick waterer, but trust me, cleaning that is an icky job.)

And what is the cost of raising quail from hatch to butcher? First, I have to mention that quail are very


To predator-proof our quail cages, my husband built a cage around the cages. The outer cage has 1/4 in. wire cloth.

messy eaters, so a certain amount of feed falls into their poop trays. I recycle this as much as possible, putting it back into their feeders (using a tin pie plate under their feeder helps facilitate this) or I spread it on the ground for our chickens, who scratch through and consume the feed. Homemade no waste feeders can help with this issue, too. But really, feed is our only ongoing cost, aside from electricity for the incubator and lights, and each quail costs about $3.87. That's certainly an improvement over grocery store prices!

Braised quail.

Meat Chickens 

Let me begin by saying I haven't raised chickens solely for meat, but we do butcher our old laying hens and our extra roosters. In fact, this is how many homesteaders start with meat chickens - even though the downside is that older chicken meat is more tough (though, in my experience, more flavorful).

That said, if you really want to get serious about raising chickens for meat, you're want either Cornish Cross or Red Ranger breeds. Red Rangers are a heritage breed, but they have more pinfeathers (meaning they are more time consuming to pluck), are smaller than Cornish Cross, slower growing than Cornish Cross, have tougher skin, and a MUCH smaller breast than what most people are used to. 

Only heritage meat chickens are good foragers.

Cornish Cross are a commercial breed raised to grow fast and have huge breasts. Unlike Red Rangers, they don't really forage for themselves, and since they tend to sit around all day, their manure will build up in certain locations. They aren't as hardy as other chicken breeds, but they look and taste more like store-bought chicken.

Meat chickens require a coop to secure them at night, and most people raise them in a run so they are safe from predators and their own stupidity. (Meat chickens are a lot dumber than dual-purpose or egg-laying breeds.) Some people prefer chicken tractors, giving their birds more access to grass, weeds, and bugs. All require water, of course, and at least supplemental feed (22% protein is recommended for good growth).

Meat chickens rarely go broody and hatch their own eggs, so you will need to either buy chicks periodically or incubate eggs. Chicks must be kept in a brooder with a heat lamp and will require a chick waterer and feeder.

Meat chickens in a tractor. Courtesy of JoePhoto.

Meat chickens are typically pretty quiet, as long as nobody starts crowing. Their smell is minimal if you keep their manure cleaned up.

Cornish Cross birds are generally ready to butcher at 6 weeks (4.5 to 6 lbs.). If time gets away from you and you don't butcher by ten weeks, the birds begin developing health problems. Red Rangers are ready for butcher at nine to eleven weeks (5 - 6 lbs.)

As with all chickens, the ongoing costs are really just feed.

By the way, you might wonder if you can raise quail and chickens together. The official answer is no. Chickens and quail share diseases, but some of those diseases chickens are immune to or don't get very sick from, will quickly kill quail. BUT...I can envision having quail in cages well off the ground, in the chicken run. If you don't put a manure tray under these cages, their wasted feed (and their manure) will drop into the chicken run, which would give chickens something to scratch at and eat. It's a calculated risk.

Other Ideas

Again, I have not personally raised the animals I'm about to discuss, but have done extensive research on them, because I've considered raising them on our homestead.

It is not uncommon to raise turkeys alongside chickens. Both have similar feed and housing requirements. But it should be noted that turkeys are susceptible to blackhead disease, which chickens can carry. Check with your local extension office to see if this is an issue in your area. Turkeys typically take about 16 to 22 weeks to reach a butchering weight of 12 to 14 lbs., but much depends upon the breed you choose.

Backyard ducks. Courtesy of
Ducks are also worth considering. They should never be kept with chickens, since drakes will try to mate with female chickens; the drake penis is - well - LARGE, and will kill chickens. Besides, ducks require a different environment than chickens. They do want a shelter, but it needs to be low to the ground, with no roost or ramp. They should also have water to play in - and unless you have a natural pond, this water source will need frequent cleaning. Ducks are also nosier than chickens, if that matters in your particular situation. Although Muscovy ducks are quackless, they do make other noises. Ducks can really make a mess of your yard, too, since they use their beaks to dig around for food. They do offer large, tasty eggs, but they often lay where you don't want them to and their production isn't as reliable as chickens or even quail. They offer excellent slug control, but they will also eat your vegetable garden. Preferred for eating are Pekin, Muscovy, and Moulard breeds. Be prepared for a stronger flavor than chicken or turkey, as well as fattier and darker meat. Generally, ducks are butchered at 7 to 8 weeks. (They become more difficult to pluck as they age.)

Geese are another interesting option, but they do require space to graze grass, weeds, and bugs. If you live in the suburbs, you will need understanding neighbors, since geese are generally noisy. They should also have water to play in. Geese have a reputation for being aggressive - to the point that they are sometimes used as an alert system for predators, but if given lots of handling and attention, they can be very friendly. Of course, most of us don't want to get tooooo friendly with our meat. Goose meat is most commonly compared to beef (and it's worth noticing domestic goose tastes different than wild goose). Geese are generally butchered at eight to fourteen weeks, depending upon breed. 

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