When we look at sustainable, off-the-grid communities, the need for farming and animals becomes more and more apparent. But must these animals be a drain on our already finite resources, let alone our time? For thousands of years, we have domesticated our animals for single purposes. Can we use them for more than the most obvious applications?
Your climate and location will be the determining factor on the types of animal that you can raise, but the basic ideas remain the same whether you raise cattle, horses, elk, or moose.
When we look at our forefathers, we can often find useful ideas for how to deal with modern issues. Whether you are raising cows, goats, or elk, you have at your disposal a nearly endless supply of power. Beyond simply strapping your animals to treadmill generators, there are many ways to use their natural tendencies and functions to assist with your energy needs.
First and foremost is the most basic of biological functions: waste management. Cow patties in particular are useful not only as free fertilizer but also as a fuel for fires. This energy source has been used around the world for generations. Due to their unique properties, dry patties burn both hot and slow, and as such make the perfect fuel for a boiler system or steam power for much less effort than wood, and at a much lower cost than gas. The best part is that this process does not require any modifications or costly part replacements.
Beyond the constant renewable resources that animals provide, one can also raise animals that provide natural oils, which have been used to fuel lanterns for many years as well. Animals of this type include ducks and many types of fish. The benefits here are two-fold. First, you gain the oil, but you also often find a great deal of edible meat in these animals. Further, with the use of a grease kit, the natural oils of these creatures can be used to power any form of diesel engine (to provide electric power or run small turbines, for example). Note that it requires a great deal of grease and oil to run a generator, so this is not a suitable project for a small farm with limited resources.
In addition to these products one can obtain from farm animals, there is a simple piece of equipment that can turn almost any animal into a power station. It consists only of a shaft, a gear box, and a permanent magnet alternator. As the animal walks around the central shaft, it moves in sync with the animal’s pace. The shaft’s movement runs an alternator, and electricity is generated. The electricity can be stored in batteries and be used as and when required.
Thankfully, the magnet in the alternator will not heat up, and except for occasionally replacing the bearing, the generator requires very little maintenance. The equipment itself does not require any type of fuel, and it can run in all seasons throughout the calendar year, depending on your particular climate. (Long periods of exposure to extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold, may be harmful to animals.)
To construct an ox or cow-driven electric generator, you must have access to certain components and materials, plus a facility to convert the generated power for usage. An internet search will provide plans and component lists for this type of generator. Be certain to follow the plans as carefully as possible – any engineered structure providing power depends on precise specifications in order to function properly. Some plans even explain how to build an ox-powered generator using many used or recycled components.
Much of the work involved with this type of project can be done with basic metal working tools, but some of the work must be completed by a skilled machinist. For one model, the build team handled most of the work with an oxy-acetylene torch, electric arc-welder, drill press, and similar tools. A metal lathe was also required for the project. Once completed, the ox-powered generator provided for the year-round heating needs for 60 residents living on the farm.
While this type of power generation may seem simple and uncomplicated, it is important to keep in mind the costs associated with this method. Cows or oxen might cost less up front than a solar panel or water turbine, but animals can incur more long-term costs, such as food, shelter, and any veterinary expenses. This must always be balanced against the associated benefits.
This way of life is not for everyone. For those who can handle it, there is a nearly infinite power supply available, along with meat, fertilizer, and milk. However, it may come at too high a price for some. The animals will always need tending, which will limit, if not remove, your ability to travel or vacation away from your home. Beyond that, there is the physical cost of getting up early every morning to muck stalls or milk cows. For those who can live this life, the benefits of having so much control over food and power are worthwhile.