Harnessing the suns energy to produce home-grown protein

Most reptile farms are relatively small and compact operations, and some occupy no more than a few square meters. In many respects, the Asian reptile farming industry is a similar backyard enterprise to smallholder chickens or market gardening in the West. It is popular with children and the elderly, and makes for an ideal source of home-grown meat and leather.


So why not chickens instead of reptiles?

  • Reptiles are remarkably low maintenance compared to warm blooded livestock. They require much less food yet are capable of very similar outputs;

  • Reptiles fit well with busy lifestyles. Most do well on a part-time management regime;

  • Reptiles produce very little manure, noise or noxious odours, and are thus ‘neighbourhood friendly’;

  • Reptiles do not carry or transmit warm-blooded viruses like Covid-19 or bird flu, and pose fewer health risks to humans compared to birds or mammals; and

  • Reptiles do not have fur or feathers, are are thus allergy-friendly.


Production systems - a lesson in regenerative agriculture

An almost infinite range of  production systems and management approaches exist. Livestock options are equally diverse, ranging from crocodilians to turtles, snakes and even small lizards. Obviously, there are some key characteristics that make some candidates more suitable than others:

  • Diverse spatial ecology (e.g., from tree tops to underground chambers);

  • Communal tendencies (e.g., aggregation behaviour);

  • Minimal freshwater requirements for housing or cleaning purposes;

  • Low feeding frequency (e.g., eat once a week or less);

  • Ease of processing and preparation for the table (e.g., body size and muscle mass); and

  • Minimal health and safety risks to humans (e.g., non-venomous)


Food security in a pocket garden

Production inputs and outputs will vary according to species, food inputs, temperature etc. Nevertheless, compared to backyard chickens, outputs can be phenomenal. A 10'x 6' enclosure in a suburban garden is capable of producing 100 kg of dressed python meat per year – easily enough to meet the protein requirements of the average family of four. (Note: Although the skin is edible much like pork crackling, it can also be harvested to make a durable and attractive source of leather.)


How much does it cost?

Assuming a temperate, seasonal climate and a greenhouse-type setup, initial outlay would cost in the region of US$ 1500.00. A diet of cheap livestock by-products (e.g., still-born lambs, pigs and day old chicks) would result in running costs amounting to approximately US$ 100.00/year. The system is easily managed on a part-time basis averaging one hour per week.  


Enclosures - low cost agricultural intensification 

Much will depend on prevailing conditions and choice of species. For example, vertically oriented greenhouses and semi-arboreal basking species (e.g. mid-sized pythons) are excellent choice for temperate climates. Snakes exert very little mechanical impact on their environment and can be contained within low cost  designs. Cheap and widely available baseline options include aluminum framed horticultural greenhouses, polytunnels and shade houses.

Recycling and upcycling for a circular economy

Although commercial reptile diets and feeding systems do exist, they are not yet widely available. In the meantime, the key to successful backyard reptile farming lies in finding a suitable source of cheap protein.  Waste products from agri-food chains and agricultural by-products (e.g., culled day old chicks, still-born livestock) are the staple option for most reptile farmers in Asia. Many reptiles can withstand periods of fasting and can therefore be sustained on seasonal rodent harvests (a single pair of rats living in a backyard vegetable garden can multiply to over 2000 individuals in a single year!). Many lizard diets can be supplemented with garden waste and kitchen scraps. High protein commercial fish feeds are useful, although in many cases specialist sausages or feeding systems are required to deliver artificial diets. 


Temperature -  recreating hothouse earth  

Reptiles have to thermoregulate in order to maintain optimal health and growth rates. Adequate provision relies on creating and maintaining suitable microclimates within enclosures, and this requires careful consideration. Specialist temperature-centric technologies can greatly enhance both production viability and the geographical scope of reptile farming:

  • Solar capture technology: Greenhouses, polytunnels, solar collectors etc. can be employed in many different ways to help reptiles achieve target temperature. Reptiles quickly learn to exploit artificial heat sources.

  • Vertical systems: Thermal clines along the vertical plane can be exploited through the provision of  shelving systems. Shelving systems can be extended below ground to further increase thermal range. Underground chambers are a valuable addition during extreme weather events such as heatwaves, cold fronts, cyclones etc.

  • Climate control electronics: A wide array of thermostats, heating, cooling, energy transfer and ventilation systems can be employed to manage and manipulate microclimates in an energy and cost effective manner.

  • Compost: Decaying vegetable matter is a versatile resource for reptile farmers. The art behind hot composting requires some skill, but once mastered, can be manipulated through carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water controls to insulate, shelter and/or heat reptiles. It can also help with waste recycling, controlling ecto-parasites and creating a more holistic systems.


Water and humidity

Reptiles generally require much less water compared to birds and mammals. Most micro production systems can operate free from running water provided a few simple techniques are employed. Reptiles obtain much of their water requirements from their food, so ensuring meals are well hydrated will lower freshwater requirements. Seasonal rainfall can be sufficient if runoff is collected and stored effectively. Greenhouse technology and impermeably plastics can be synergised with solar still technology  (i.e., extracting moisture from plant sap, waste water etc.) to provide sufficient humidity and drinking water in desert and drought prone environments (most reptiles are capable of 'sipping' dew or condensation).


Stocking densities

Asian reptile farms are classified as intensive terrestrial livestock systems because they have high outputs per land surface area. This is technically correct,  but because most farmers operate on a three dimensional landscape (i.e., vertical shelving systems), farms are actually more aligned with free-range, extensive systems. The critical minimum requirement is that all individuals should be able to access all environmental niches at all times, and most farms achieve this by default. 


Getting started 

Reptile micro production systems synergize well with many sustainable backyard food production systems. They can be incorporated into a wide variety of regenerative food systems, including permaculture, aquaponics, conservation farming and vertical urban gardens. Production systems are extremely versatile, and this is a very new concept so experimentation and on-the-job learning are par for the course.  Native species should always be first choice, and potentially invasive species should be avoided altogether. Examples of suitable species to choose from include: large lizards (e.g., Iguana, Leiolepis, Varanus and Salvator); large colubrids (e.g., Elaphe and Ptyas); and the pythons and boas (e.g., Boa, Morelia, Python and Malayopython).