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Urban Livestock Expo: If You Plan to Raise Your Own Food, Don't Wing It

By Patty Wetli | February 21, 2014 11:40am | Updated on February 21, 2014 11:50am
 Saturday's Urban Livestock Expo aims to teach people how to raise their animals responsibly.
Saturday's Urban Livestock Expo aims to teach people how to raise their animals responsibly.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

CHICAGO — Chickens, rabbits and goats, oh my!

As raising livestock — and that includes bees — becomes a more common part of the urban experience, experts advise those interested in keeping animals: Don't wing it.

"I want to make sure people have good information, that they've thought it through. It's not fair for animals to suffer from your bad decision," said Martha Boyd, Chicago program director for Angelic Organics Learning Center.

Teaching people how to raise animals responsibly is the goal of Saturday's Urban Livestock Expo, co-hosted by Angelic Organics, Advocates for Urban Agriculture and Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts.

The event will take place 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, 3857 W. 111th St.

The expo is "not a sort of petting zoo," Boyd stressed.

Though the agenda includes a handful of livestock demonstrations — Ag School students will lead tours of their barn and aquaponics room — the main purpose is to educate people on what it takes to properly care for animals.

"It's important not to jump in willy-nilly," she said.

Boyd, who also moderates the Chicken Enthusiasts list serve, estimates there are about 800 households raising poultry (chickens, ducks, quail and turkeys) in Chicago, and the numbers are even smaller for bees, rabbits and goats.

The expo offers a forum to swap stories, ask questions and share best practices. Those considering dipping their toes into animal keeping will gain a better understanding of the investment involved and "maybe talk themselves out of it," Boyd said.

Because each animal group has its own specific set of needs and concerns, the expo features break-out sessions by creature, featuring discussion about housing and care, other people's perceptions and fears, biological lifecycles, the delightfully euphemistic topic of "manure management," and sources of food and supplies.

Bees, for example, need a nearby nectar source, said Boyd.

Chicago's abundance of trees and gardens "makes beekeeping more successful than in the country," she said. "Bees outside the city have a hard time finding food" given what she termed the "mono-cropped" landscape of corn and soybeans.

It's incumbent on keepers to be cognizant of the route their bees take to those nectar sources, said Boyd.

"Don't put bees right next to somebody else's passageway," she said.

Locating hives on rooftops is an excellent solution as it places the bees' path to and from their food out of neighbors' sight.

"A lot of people don't realize they live next to a beehive," said Boyd.

While the expo focuses on the "how" of raising urban livestock, the "why" is deeply personal.

"Some people are getting into it because they love animals. Some want their kids to understand where food comes from. Some just use it to fertilize their garden," Boyd said.

Though "definitely not the cheapest way to get your food," animals are kept to supply eggs (chickens), milk (goats) and meat (rabbits), she said.

Rabbits are "one of the most efficient converters of plants to meat," Boyd said. Though she personally has never killed a bird or mammal, "If people are going to do it, I would rather have it happen in a thoughtful way. If it's hidden away, there's more risk of people not doing it well and animals suffering."

That brings up the distinction between livestock and pet, a line that can seem blurry to outsiders unfamiliar with the practice of urban homesteading.

Boyd has learned from the city's Department of Animal Care and Control that neighbors frequently call the agency with concerns about birds left out in the cold.

"Chickens are really quite fine being outdoors, they're really built for it," she said. "By the same token, we have hot summers here and chickens are wearing feather vests year 'round. I think the heat's more threatening."

If urban livestock remains something of a curiosity to most Chicagoans, that wasn't always the case, said Boyd.

She has in her collection a book called "Keep Poultry and Rabbits From Scratch," which was issued by the U.S. government in the 1940s. During World War II and in the years immediately following the conflict, citizens across the country were actively encouraged to grow their own food.

"Let's be realistic," said Boyd. "This is the reason people domesticated these animals in the first place."