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What's in Your Garden?

By Robert Spencer, Urban Extension Regional Specialist

Goats in a field with barnIf you appreciate vegetable production and think you might also relish raising chickens, cattle, goats, or sheep, you should contemplate integrating vegetable and livestock production to diversify your farm process. It does not matter whether you have small garden plots or large vegetable fields. Using livestock to clean up old vegetation with poultry or ruminants has great potential from late fall through late winter as long as you have appropriate fencing and housing for organized grazing as needed.

Advantages to integrating vegetable and livestock production:

  • Crop residue provides healthy nutrition for livestock. Animals trample vegetative residue into ground, loosen top layer of soil, and add organic matter.
  • It is a value-added way to rid crop residue and vegetable discards.
  • Livestock manure provides natural fertilizer such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium nutrients and minerals. 

Integrating livestock and vegetable production offers farm diversification such as:

  • Year-round marketing that generates revenue opportunities. While vegetable production and marketing tends to be seasonal, livestock production and sales can be year-round.
  • Expanding customer base, developing customer loyalty, and providing one-stop shopping for vegetables, eggs, and meats.
  • Production can be all-natural or organic with the proper management strategies.
  • Presenting opportunities with silvopasture such as fruit and nut trees with forages for grazing.

Fencing Options

The need for fencing is essential to making this integrated practice stress free.  During time of viable vegetable production it is essential to exclude animals from the garden area, and when vegetable production season is completed it is time to allow animals access within the garden area. This encourages them to clean up all dormant vegetation.

Fencing options include:

  • Permanent woven wire with appropriate posts, although this is an expensive option.
  • Strands of electric wire with appropriate posts are okay but plain wire is not very visible.
  • Portable electric net-wire fencing is an option for smaller areas, and is portable, yet can be expensive for larger areas.
  • Poly, rope, and tape electric wire is affordable and with portable posts can be moved about or removed as needed.

Keep in mind containing or excluding untrained goats and sheep with a fence charger that offers 5-6 low-impedance joules will be necessary to maintain their exclusion or retention. Poultry and cattle will not require such a strong fence charger unless it covers acres and acres.

Note: Do not allow animals to graze near plants of the nightshade family, such as eggplants, tomatillos, tomatoes, and potatoes, (excluding sweet potatoes). Rather than going through the effort to fence those plants away from livestock, harvest entire plants and remove them to a location where livestock will not be able to access. 

Last words of advice:

  • Be aware of nutrient needs for livestock, and be prepared to supplement with additional grazing, hay, or grain-based feeds. For example, cattle and sheep need 8-12% protein, goats need 10-16% protein, and chickens may need supplemental layer pellets for egg production, or feed for growth as meat animals. Ruminants will consume 2-3% of their body weight in forages, hay, and grain.
  • Goats were meant to browse, but can be grazers. Sheep and cattle are primarily grazers.
  • Allow livestock to graze for short time frames then relocate to pastures. Keep them moving to minimize problems with gastrointestinal parasites.
  • Provide free-choice minerals for livestock on a year-round basis.

No matter how big or small your operation, the integration of vegetable and livestock production has a significant potential. Late fall through late winter is an ideal time frame to graze animals on vegetable plots while allowing them to clean up your remaining vegetation, to leave behind an all-natural form of fertilizer, and to expand marketing opportunities. So why not integrate some form of livestock like chickens, goats, sheep, and/or cattle into your vegetable or fruit operations?