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Urban Ranching

An animal farm in your own backyard


The words "urban" and "ranching" usually don't share the same sentence in today's lexicon. Urban environments mean the city, and ranching invokes images of cows traversing a lone prairie. But urban ranching exists in a variety of forms.

Ten years ago, Ada County residents converted 4,480 acres of rural land per year to urban uses. That number hasn't decreased. As urban sprawl eats up farmland, large tracts of acreage are subdivided on the fringes of cities into smaller and smaller parcels. As these cities grow, enveloping once rural family farms, new zoning variances and grandfather clauses apply to the keeping of livestock. The family farms cease to exists, or are forced to move. Unfortunately, the newest generations of these families become city-folk, losing their links to the land and the animals.

I grew up on a small farm on the edge of a small Colorado town. Our seven acre farm produced vegetables for the weekend farmers' market in town and our animal pens had chickens, pigs and sheep. These we raised to sell, to eat, to shear and for livestock shows as part of our 4-H projects. At the peak population we had a dozen pigs, 200 head of registered sheep, five dozen chickens and a token goose and duck. It was a time in my youth when I hated the daily chores of feeding, cleaning, picking eggs and all the work associated with taking care of so many animals. But in hindsight, I value the opportunities and sacrifices my parents made to live and maintain a farm while holding down full-time jobs as well. My father commuted 60 miles, each way, to Denver each day.

On the Barnes stock farm I learned about the circle of life. Today, I know where my food comes from and the cycles of birth and death that are required to bring it to the table. I made friends with the animals and cried when they were sick or died. In a few rare instances I was the harbinger of death, either for utilitarian purposes like a meal, or in cases of euthanasia when they were injured. If some catastrophy were to happen to the human race, I feel confident that I could keep my family alive with a small cadre of animals to support us. Fewer and fewer people in today's world would be experienced enough to make that claim.

The desire to give my own children this experience is strong. Once-rural folk who long for this lifestyle but are hampered by living in the city have few options, but it is not impossible to have farm animals in the city. While no one in their right mind would care to have a 500-cow dairy-complete with morning moos and afternoon odors coming from the manure pile-in the North End, horses, ducks, geese, chickens and the occasional llama do cohabitate with city folk-even within city limits. The lives of their owners and neighbors, whether they like it or not, are enriched by cohabiting with nature's beasts.

When we talk about livestock, we refer to the keeping of animals for utilitarian purposes. While a duck, llama or small pig may make a fine pet for some, they also make for a fine Christmas dinner or wool for a warm sweater. The city of Boise defines in its municipal code that pets are generally housed indoors but can include certain outside animals. What a single household can have as pets includes dogs, cats, up to three female chickens (no roosters), two ducks, two rabbits or similar small animals (as determined by the planning director). While a pet chicken may lay an egg a day, it is not likely that the products from these pets will ever generate any income beyond the selling their offspring, as in the case of pedigreed dogs and cats.

Livestock, on the other hand, are defined as having a commercial use. In other words, these animals are typically raised to sell their products such as wool, milk, meat and pelts. Within city limits, there are restrictions as to how many animals a resident can have. First of all, it depends upon your zoning district. Only specific city zones are allowed to have livestock (A Open, R-1A, R-1B and R-1C) and if you don't know if you are in one of them, you can contact city planning at 384-3830 with your property's legal description and location to find out.

If you've passed that hurdle you need to make sure that your neighborhood association covenants allow livestock. Then you may be limited by other rules. You must have at least one acre of land with at least a half-acre dedicated to the keeping of your animals. Then you are limited to the numbers. The maximum animal density is two animal units per acre. An animal unit is defined in the code as one horse, mule, cow or llama, or four sheep, four goats, four swine, 12 chickens, 12 ducks, six geese, or 10 rabbits. You can have wild animals such as bobcats or wolves but these animals must be in entirely enclosed facilities and subject to inspection. Of course, most likely you have close neighbors, and these neighbors may complain about noise, smell or other animal-related annoyances, so it's not for everyone.

There are some loopholes in the Boise Municiple Code. In the code are outlined variances such as grandfather rights. Despite an incompatible zone, if you've had animals on the property continuously, with no gap of more than two years, you can still have them as long as you follow the other guidelines. Other variances include properties that have been reduced in size because of public right-of-way acquisitions and cases wherein the subdivision covenants and the Boise City Council specify that they are allowed, such as the case with the Collister neighborhood. Perhaps the biggest exception is for educational purposes. The Future Farmers of America, 4-H and similar organizations, in which animal projects are part of the educational programs, are allowed exceptions for spaces smaller than one acre.

While raising and caring for numbers of animals on one's property often isn't feasible within city limits, there are movements happening around the world to think small scaler, like just a few animals for personal use. Taking off in England right now is the practice of keeping one to three chickens in the backyard, which is doable under Boise's municipal code. Omlet, a Great Britain-based company and producers of the Eglu, hope that their stylistic design of basically a dog-house for a chicken makes it easier for people to have a chicken or two. The concept is simple: Feed the chickens scraps from your kitchen compost (vegetables), move the pens around the yard to have them scratch out the dirt and fertilize, and watch bugs get eagerly eaten as they get close to the birds. As a bonus, you may even get an egg or two a day.

For more information about youth programs such as 4-H, small acerage farming or ranching, sustainability contact Kevin Laughlin, University of Idaho Ada County Extension, Natural Resources, 5880 Glennwood St., Boise, ID, 83714, 208-377-2107,

For more information about 4-H (which isn't just for kids raising livestock) visit or

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