Sharon February 24th, 2009
My last post on this subject focused on little livestock for people in cities, apartments and small lots (and people on 500 acre farms who want to keep bees, chickens and guinea pigs). Today’s post is on livestock for slightly (or vastly) larger spaces.
You probably know what your choices are already – the common ones are horses (which provide draft power, transportation, pleasure, great manure, offspring), donkeys (traction, transport, guardianship, manure, offspring), mules (even better traction, manure, transport), Water buffalo (milk, tillage, livestock, manure), cows (milk, meat, manure, leather, offspring), goats (milk, meat, fiber, manure, packing, offspring), sheep (wool, milk, meat, sheepskin, manure, offspring), llamas (fiber, guardianship, packing, manure, offspring), alpacas (fiber, manure, offspring), turkeys (feathers, meat, the occasional eggs, offspring, manure), geese (manure, tillage, weeding, eggs, meat, feathers/down, property alarm/watch animal and offspring) and pigs (meat, offspring, manure, tillage). I’m going to leave out buffalo, fallow deer, ostrich, emu and other fairly wild critters, on the assumption that if you want to raise these, you’ve already done your research. Today will focus on common domestic livestock.
No animal does only one thing – and so no animal should be gotten for only one purpose. Or rather, you may want sheep because of the wool, but you need to have a plan for how to deal with the other useful outputs – and whether you make a profit or get back your costs will probably depend on this. Particularly if you are going to butcher animals, it honors them to make the best possible use of everything you get from them. The old “everything but the squeal” model of pig butchering is pretty much what you want in your animals – so even you are thinking of milk when you get your goats, you need a plan for manure handling, one for what you will do with the kids, etc…
The other important thing when managing large animals (which can be thousands of pounds heavier than you, and even if they aren’t, often with a good head of steam can run you down) is that you work hard to make sure that they mostly get to be animals in the way they are designed to be. That is, try and get them to do more or less what they want to do, or if you have to do something that will displease them, plan for it and have help, whether a good herding dog, a few extra pairs of hands, or the right equipment.
What animals you have will depend on a whole host of things – the time you can devote to them, the size of the animal, your physical abilities, your land base, whether there are potential males nearby for breeding, temperature, water availability and landscape, and your taste in creatures. That last should not be underestimated – my friend who owns the sheep that graze our pastures each year says that there are sheep people and goat people. She is a sheep people. I am clearly a goat people. I’m perfectly happy to help with her sheep, and eventually I may even own a few. But I know my limits – the grand passion for sheep does not reside in me. When a person walks towards a sheep, they walk away, generally (unless, of course, that person is carrying a bucket of feed ). When a person walks towards a goat, they generally head over, to see if you are concealing a bucket of feed somewhere, maybe in your shirt. Or maybe the shirt tastes good. Or you might scratch their heads.
Now there are exceptions to this – all animals have personalities. There are cuddly sheep, smart turkeys, malleable mules and presumably bad tempered water buffalo. Uncut males of all species are generally more volatile than females, and the young of all species more energetic and excitable. But generally, creatures have their characteristics, and you can broadly speak of them, if not by species, by breed within species.
How much land do you need for any given creature? Well, not much if you are going to buy or cut all their feed – enough for them to be comfortable. But if you mostly want your animals to find their own food (usually the most time and money efficient way), it varies a lot. How good is your pasture? How well an animal will do on a pasture depends on the animal – horses generally can tolerate lower quality pasture than dairy animals, for example. It will depend on rainfall – around here, a cow can be supported on about an acre. In dryer places, it might be 20.
Small multi-purpose farms are generally well suited to multi-purpose, often older or heritage breeds of animals. These were bred when polyculture farms were normative, and while they may not lay eggs as well as the most highly bred layers, or milk as well as the best bred milkers, they often are a good combination animal – they might not produce quite a fine a meat as a Dorset or as fine a fleece as a Merino, but for our climate, Romneys give a pretty good optimization of fleece, meat and suitability to the environment. In a different place, with different priorities, it might be wiser to choose otherwise.
One factor to take into account is cost – I’m sure I’ll hear cries of horror from alpaca farmers, but I don’t think you should spend many thousands of dollars for any livestock – livestock, like clothing, has its trends. This creature or that one is the next hot thing, and people will get rich breeding them. And for a short while that’s true – and then they breed enough that the bottom drops out and they become ordinary livestock again. I’m not convinced that the current trendy livestock (alpacas) are worth anything like the cost of them. On the other hand, if they or something else is perfect for you, maybe it is worth the risk.
So what’s the right animal for you? Well, if you have a small patch of land, there are very small versions of these critters – some geese that lay, live mostly on grass and provide meat for your family might be the best choice, particularly if you live in a tough neighborhood and need an alarm system. There are miniature sheep, and very small goats. I would say that you should probably not get into milking unless you really like the way it organizes your life – I love milking, but for someone with more desire to roam, it could be tough.
If you have the land, your choices are limitless – you can have as many livestock as you want and need. I do recommend that people track their costs, though. Keeping records of food, vet and other costs can be very helpful in determining whether you have a barn full of large pets or actual homestead helpers.
The more you think about animals in integrated ways on your land, the more you will like them – that is, putting animals where you want them, using their instincts and needs to meet your needs is what tends to make them profitable and helpful. So, for example, putting your pigs on ground you plan to garden on next year will get the land rooted up and manured. But be careful about overstated claims about what animals can do – sure, geese can weed your garden. But some of the greens you grow may look an awful lot like greens. Yes, you can have draft horses on 10 acres – but you may find that most of your draft work is growing food to well, feed your horses. Not a problem if you love them and have other reasons for keeping them. But think it through.
Our own journey to large livestock has been slow – we started the farm with chickens, moved on to ducks and then geese and turkeys, and only just last year added the sheep (which are not ours) the guard donkey, and the goats. We’re still mulling over whether we will want more livestock – or if we will be content with our goats.
My own suggestion is start slow, make sure housing and fences are in place, and know what you are getting into – get to know your creature, read about it, talk to people who raise them and learn as much as you can before you are confronted with a real live creature, considerably bigger than a bread box.