Friday, May 17, 2013

Why Every Homestead Needs a Donkey

Samson the Donkey and I, chillin' in the back 2.
So a year ago, we had been experiencing some issues with gardening and grass cutting. The garden wouldn't grow right, and the grass wouldn't stop.
I just couldn't manage to get either one under control.
Our vegetables were having nitrogen fixation issues. Our lawn was growing faster than I could mow.
So I did what I do - I got on Google.
How do I enlist help mowing the lawn, without buying a big riding mower? How do we get nitrogen back into our soil? What steps can be taken to balance the land?
I stumbled across a gardening thread where somebody casually mentioned having access to donkey manure. The other members were insanely jealous, calling it "garden gold" and wishing they had some instead of their cow manure.
At the time, we had no animals, and no access to manures of any kind. Also, we had no fence.
But with some looking into it, I discovered some fascinating information about donkeys. Pretty soon, I realized we just couldn't go on much longer without a donkey.
The next hurdle: convincing the Wife.

The major issues with any animal are:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Health Care

Donkeys, as it turns out, are one the easiest to care for in regards to all three of these. For food, they eat vegetation - grass and hay, weeds, tree leaves, grains, even the wild bamboo that grows in my yard. A day's worth of water is easily supplied in a five-gallon bucket. Shelter can be as simple as keeping the cold wind and driving rain off - lean-to's and tree clusters all the way up to stalls and barns. And for health care, keeping the hooves in order and having a vet to come 'round the house when needed are basically it.
I realized that I could do all of that.
So then, why a donkey? Why not a horse, or a cow, or an alpaca?
Ca-ching! Garden gold.
Donkeys, as it turns out, give incredibly rich compost, free of weed seeds - unlike horses and cows. With a tougher digestive system and a higher acid level, seeds get broken down, resulting in weed-free compost. It is also very high in nitrogen, given the grass and leaf-heavy diet they consume in nature.
Also, donkeys can develop a bond with other animals and become very good protectors - especially against coyotes and other larger predators. Given our plans (at the time) to eventually get sheep and chickens, it seemed like a good idea to be prepared.
They can be trained to carry heavy loads, and eventually be used as work animals to pull plows, carts, and other things like that. They have strong torsos and gentle, curious dispositions, making them easy to work with.
So we were dealing with a low-maintenance, grass-eating, livestock protecting, compost-producing machine of an animal. I was sold.
But how to convince Wife?
Well, first, I promised that I would do 100% of the care and maintenance. Second, I got on Craig's List and found one for free.
Yes, donkeys in Tennessee are not very expensive. Since they aren't bred for meat, aren't ridden very much, and don't produce (human-drinkable) milk, donkeys are relegated to a level below that of cows, horses, and even goats.
From left, Thing #2, Samson, and Thing #1.
Getting acquainted in his movable pen.
So I called and offered $20 for 'delivery' (I don't own a trailer). The owner was happy to oblige.
i spent the next few days preparing a 10' x 20' movable pen to contain him. I also had read that donkeys can be tethered. I figured a combination of the two would be best, and also bought a 50' rope.
Surprisingly, he vastly preferred the tether. I think it gave him a bit more freedom that the pen, and allowed him to browse food easier. Plus, being tied to a new tree every day gave him a good scratching post and impromptu shelter (he refused the roofed, dry pen I provided for behind the shed - go figure). The only downside was the rope sometimes knocked his water bucket over. A daily check and refill prevented any dehydration issues.
Our routine became a periodic bucket refill and tree retie, with the occasional chill time in his pen. All in all, about 3-10 minutes, depending on how far away he was, and either every day or every other day, depending on his consumption. Every 7-10 days, I'd get a few wheelbarrows full of compost. It's been a great rhythm.
His health has actually improved substantially since being on our land. He came from a horse farm, so I wonder if food was scarce and the horses pushed him around. He was bloated around the belly and skinny up and down his legs on first arrival. Now, he's lean, slender, and muscular. His hooves were a mess on arrival, but with the rockiness of our land, they've been slowly grinding down to normal - just as would happen in nature.
A year later, I can definitively say that getting Samson the Donkey has been a wild success. He's been an excellent  easy-care lawnmower, a friendly personality around the yard, and even a good conversation topic (bonus!).
Would I recommend a donkey for a homesteader?
Only if you need excellent compost, have grass and plants to be trimmed, want some peace of mind against large predators, are looking for an easy-going and low-maintenance buddy, have some large objects to be pulled around, and would like a livestock companion.
In other words - ABSOLUTELY.


  1. Love it. We just recently lost our donkey but are seriously considering getting another one. I knew about the guardian and companionship but was not aware of the composting benefits other than the obvious...the manure. Your totally right that donkey's are low maintenance which is why my husband don't worry too much when I say I want another donkey. They don't cost much to keep. Thanks for putting this all together. I am going to share it on my Facebook page because I think donkey's are an under-appreciated animal.

  2. I'm so sorry you had to suffer through that. We parted ways with Samson recently as well, as we recently bought a dairy cow/calf pair, and simply do not have the acreage to support cows and donkey. As i told the kids, if we had 7 acres instead of 5, we would absolutely still have Samson. Maybe we can buy the neighbors' land and find a new donkey.....