Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cost/Benefit of Raising Food Animals in Alaska Winter

Animal husbandry in cold, dark winters is challenging and expensive.  From a cost/benefit assessment, it is unsurprising that autumn has historically been a time for butchering animals - they cost a lot more to feed and warm through winter than in the summer, and in the case of birds, they lay fewer eggs, too.

Insulated bee hives in winter
Below are some of the seasonal problems we have encountered raising honeybees, chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and the costs/benefits we estimate.  Perhaps this will help others considering raising food animals (and insects) during long cold seasons.

Problems, costs, and benefits:
HONEY BEES   Winter: Almost all of our honeybee colonies die in winter, despite insulated hives, so we have to buy nucs (nuclear colonies with one queen and a few hundred Buckfast or Italian bees) every spring, for about $250@.

Costs: So  (after buying the initial boxes and equipment), our annual cost to produce 17 gallons of honey from four hives is about $58/gallon, or $0.91/oz, which is in between the prices of store bought regular and organic honeys.  This volume may seem ridiculous to anyone who only uses honey on an occasional biscuit, but we use the honey in place of sugar in many recipes (can't grow sugar up here), including beer and mead, and for hair conditioner and facials.  We also use the beeswax in furniture and leather polish, lip balm, and skin moisturizing bars.  I don't know the weight/volume we accumulate,  because we store it in bits and pieces, but I read that a pound of beeswax sells on-line for $10 – 15/lb.

Winter:  Rabbits are usually pretty cold tolerant, but one doe who gave
Our natural rototiller in the garden
birth in February  pulled all eight kits out of the nesting box and let them die - maybe because she knew they wouldn't survive the deep cold.  That distressed me, so, in subsequent winters, I have not mated any in Dec/Jan, and have housed singles and groups in the unheated greenhouse, (once the ground freezes so they don't dig out). However, they have a agreat time digging tunnels in the raised bed garden and nibbling last season's stalks.  Their efforts turn, warm, and fertilize the soil weeks earlier than I could do otherwise.

Costs/benefits:  Rabbits are very cost effective and easier to raise in winter than birds.  Large breeds, like Flemish giants, eat a LOT.  When we had  3 adults and 13 juveniles, they chowed through a 50 lb bag of food every 11 days!  The cost of maintenance is about $5/mo per rabbit (2 mo - 5 months, when we butcher them, and is the same winter and summer, since they are caged.  Each one yields about 2 quarts of meat and one of broth. A quart feeds two people for 2.5 meals.  (By contrast, I found a source on line that sells whole, frozen rabbits for $39@, which is pricier than I expected.)  Another advantage of raising rabbits is their manure for the garden.  It provides nitrogen, phosphates, and potash as well as secondary and micronutrients, like calcium and zinc, in handy, pellet form.  In addition, it helps condition sandy or clay-like soils. According to an on-line vendor, this benefit is worth $20/3 lbs;  I guarantee that even one rabbit generates more than that!  Last fall, for the first time, we preserved several skins which we will endeavor to tan and sew this spring.  We'll see how that project turns out!

Winter:  Our hens lay fewer eggs in winter, but require additional expenses
More daylight = more eggs!
of a heated water bowl and a heat lamp or two inside their insulated building when temperatures drop below about the mid +20s F. (Note the red light of the heat lamp on the hay in the photo, and the metal encircled wire at the front for the water heater.) And since they cannot free range to eat, as they do in summer, they cost more to feed when snow covers the ground. Meanwhile, the ammonia from their excretions and the humidity from their breathing increase in the closed structure, requiring additional attention to forestall respiratory ailments to which chickens are susceptible.  (Cold ash from our wood stove is a terrific deodorizer, and they roll in it for winter dust baths). The hens in the photo are, from front to back: Nellie, Wanna, and Witless.

Costs/benefits:  For our family of two with occasional guests, 3-4 laying hens is a good number.  Of the breeds I favor, like Dominiques and Orange Comets, 1-3 year olds lay almost one egg per day, so about 2 dozen per week in sunny seasons (about mid-March to mid-Sept), or 576 eggs, for a cost of $100 in food and hay, or about $0.17/egg, (not including initial construction and supplies).

However, in winter, the cost more than doubles.  The girls lay fewer eggs in exchange for more food and hay, plus the electrical expenses.  Although we rely on wind and solar power, we have to supplement with a small generator on dark, still, windless days - which is almost every morning in the winter.  We estimate that winter generator support JUST for the coop costs $1/day.  So the winter cost per egg is close to $0.40, which is near the price of a farmer's market organic eggs. Because I can't eat my chickens, I can't comment on raising them for meat.  We pay $17@ for large (5 lb) organic frozen chickens.

DUCKS  Winter: We decided to nix winter ducks because their water needs were so high and they made an ice rink in the cold coop as they splashed when drinking and washing their heads.  However, they have two winter advantages over chickens.   They are much more cold tolerant, and willing to walk over hard snow, which is an entertaining sight.  Also, winter was the only season when they reliably left their eggs in the nesting boxes, for easy collection.  If I didn't try to house them with chickens in winter (their habits are incompatible), I would recommend ducks over chickens as a winter bird.

Costs: Not sure, since they shared food with the hens over several years.

It is MUCH easier and cheaper to raise vegetarian fare than meat. However, since we are omnivores at this house, we do both.  Rabbits have proved to be the most cost effective during our long winters.  Another household, particularly with a running water source near duck housing, might find that an attractive option, too.

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