Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Feeding Pets Self-Sufficiently

According to most veterinary experts, dogs and cats need to eat 2-5% (preferably meat) of their body weight daily depending on their activity level and general climate. Ripley weighs just shy of 100 lbs, is rather active and the climate is cold most of the year... so we're planning on an average of 4% or 4 lbs a day. This equates to about 1 fryer rabbit or broiler chicken (3-5 lbs) a day or 1 chum/dog salmon (8-15 lbs) every 2-3 days. This can be supplemented with tablescraps, slaughter offal, wild game, as well as surplus eggs and dairy... but those are harder to factor into a plan since their amounts vary.

Cats have similar dietary requirements; but considering a cat seldom weighs more than 10 lbs, we can easily lump one cat's feed (4 oz) in with Ripley's calculations. If we have a whole herd of cats, we'll have to refactor for more food. Chicken or rabbit hearts should always be fed to the cat in preference to the dog, since hearts are high in taurine and cats have a greater dietary requirement for it.

Wow! That's a lot of critters to raise or catch.

Salmon & other Finfish: It is illegal to use King salmon as pet food in our district; and Kings don't run our portion of the river. Silver, Pink and Red salmon don't run on the Tanana either. Chum (dog) salmon run July to Mid-August and again in November. The daily bag/possession limit for Sport Fishing both summer and fall chum salmon is 3 per day. The annual bag/possession limit for Subsistence and Personal Use Fishing chum salmon (with permit) in the summer run is 500/year for the summer run and 2,000 for the winter run.

Grayling and Sheefish run the river and creeks June through September; while lower consistent populations of Northern Pike and Burbot can be found year-round. Sport bag limits are low for these species and gear is restricted. There are no bag limits for Subsistence and Personal use unless noted on your permit; however, populations in the creeks are not very high, so you aren't likely to get a huge take even though you are allowed to use gill nets.

Regardless, with the ability to use gill nets and fish wheels with a Subsistence or Personal Use permit, harvesting enough fish to feed Ripley should not be overly difficult or time-consuming as long as we have the means to preserve the take.

Rabbits:non-commercial breeding doe averages 8 kits per litter every 10 weeks with conservative breeding practices (4 weeks for gestation & 6 weeks for weaning). In our extreme climate, we don't feel that breeding during the winter months is wise for the health of the mother or the kits; so at least 2 breeding cycles are forfeit, most likely 3.

It's generally light enough by March for a rabbit to breed, and warm enough by April to kindle in an unheated barn without supplemental lighting. Light and temperatures begin to plummet after mid-September, so the last litter we can responsibly raise should be kindled no later than October 1st, in order to grow out (12 weeks) before the truly bitter cold sets in.

Breed the doe March 1st, the first litter will kindle April 1st and be grown out by July 1st.
Breed the doe May 15th, the second litter will kindle June 15th and be grown out by Sept 15th.
Breed the doe Aug 1, the third litter will kindle Sept 1st and be grown out by Dec 1st.
There isn't enough time before freeze-up to breed the doe again and raise another litter.

We could tighten the schedule by weaning and rebreeding at 4 weeks instead of 6 and slaughtering at 8 weeks instead of 12. That schedule places a lot of stress on the doe during the breeding period, and requires intense feeding for rapid weight gain of the kits which we don't feel is reasonable or responsible for homestead production.

Three litters will average 20 kits (conservative loss estimate of 20%); which means we'd need to breed 18 does (and 3-4 bucks) on this schedule each summer just to feed Ripley if rabbits were her only food source.

Rabbits have a feed conversion rate of 4:1 (4 lbs of feed = 1 lb of growth). You should budget 150-200 lbs of feed for a doe and her litter (for each litter from conception to slaughter); and budget 1/2 lb of feed per day for open (unbred) does and bucks. For us 54 litters, 4 bucks for 12 months, and 18 does for 3 month comes out to 9,640-12, 340 lbs of feed a year.

Chickens: Given the sheer amount of birds required, it may be wise to consider breeds that mature quicly, and to plan on purchasing broiler chicks every summer rather than attempting to hatch and brood our own flock naturally. Because we don't intend to keep the broilers over the winter like we would our laying hens, it is less important that they be cold-hardy and robust breeds; however, we do intend to house them in portable tractors on pasture, so they can't have any serious health or vitality issues.

Cornish-Rock hybrids are genetically programmed for rapid growth (particularly breast meat), and can reach slaughter weight in 6-8 weeks. However, I have some serious ethical issues raising a non-viable animal that could not survive reliably on its own... and Cornish-Rock, or Cornish-Cross, are notorious for heart, lung and bone/leg disorders due to such rapid growth. These birds are approaching geriatric at 8 weeks and need to be slaughtered before succumbing to health issues... the only reason their meat could be considered "succulent" is because they can't really move around very well.

Brahma, Jersey Giants, and Langshans were considered "Meat Birds" before Cornish-Rocks came along; but they are even slower to mature (12-14 weeks) than many other Dual Purpose/Heritage breeds.Orpingtons were also considered "Meat Birds" and they are reasonably fast to mature, normally reaching slaughter weight in 10-12 weeks. And really -- what's waiting one more month when the birds will be happy and healthy?!

So, perhaps I should be looking for heavy Dual Purpose/Heritage breeds that are considered "fairly fast maturing" - like Australorps, Chanteclers, Delawares, Dominiques, Faverolles, New Hampshire or Rhode Island Reds, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, Sussex and Wyandottes. All these breeds are considered cold-hardy, and most are also winter layers (except Australorps)... just in case we want to keep some for the laying flock or eventually consider a flock large enough for natural brooding. Really, the only breed I'm interested in for layers that is missing from the "early maturing" list are the Buckeyes.

Since we'll be purchasing chicks and brooding them ourselves, we certainly want to wait until it warms up a bit because we most definitely don't have room for 400 chicks in our cabin!! It would probably be better to raise these guys in batches to help spread things out a bit. I think it's safe to assume the chicks will need some supplemental heat for 6-8 weeks until they're fully feathered before leaving them outside in a tractor, and it's really not warm enough (overnight above 40F) to do that until mid-May. Again, we aren't overwintering these birds in an insulated coop, so the last batch needs to be fully feathered and out on pasture before it gets consistently below freezing at night (around Halloween).

We can brood in 3 stages: (1) three weeks in a brooder indoors when they're really fluffy and tiny, (2) three weeks in a larger pen on the enclosed porch with constant supplemental heat, and (3) three weeks in an even larger covered pen with supplemental heat only at night. And then (4) three weeks out on pasture in a tractor until (5) slaughter time. 

Raising the broilers in continual batches allows us to have less dedicated equipment because each batch can be moved into the next stage when the previous batch moves on.... it also means we don't have to kill and slaughter 400 birds all at once, which is emotionally draining as well as physically exhausting. Spreading out the harvest also allows us to spread out the preservation of all the meat; much of which will need to be canned since we have limited freezer space.

Batch 1: (1) March 15, (2) April 5, (3) April 26, (4) May 17, (5) June 7
Batch 2: (1) April 5, (2) April 26, (3) May 17, (4) June 7, (5) June 28.
Batch 3: (1) April 26, (2) May 17, (3) June 7, (4) June 28, (5) July 19.
Batch 4: (1) May 17, (2) June 7, (3) June 28, (4) July 19, (5) Aug 9.
Batch 5: (1) June 7, (2) June 28, (3) July 19, (4) Aug 9 , (5) Aug 30.
Batch 6: (1) June 28, (2) July 19, (3) Aug 9, (4) Aug 30 , (5) Sept 20.
Batch 7: (1) July 19, (2) Aug 9, (3) Aug 30, (4) Sept 20, (5) Oct 11.
Batch 8: (1) Aug 9, (2) Aug 30, (3) Sept 20, (4) Oct 11, (5) Nov 1.

So it looks like we've got enough time to do 8 batches of 50 chicks, with a conservative loss estimate of 10%, to feed Ripley for a year if all she eats is chicken (with a bit left over for us too!).

Chickens have a feed conversion rate of 2-3:1 (2-3 lbs of feed for every lb of growth). You should budget 10 lbs of feed for each broiler chick. Each batch of 50 broilers will need 12.5 lbs of starter feed, 287.5 lbs of grower feed, and 300 lbs of finishing feed. So, for our 400 broilers, we're looking at 4,000 lbs of feed plus the cost of the chicks.