Is raising livestock animals right for you? Is this the right time for your homestead to manage farm animals? I’ve got some thoughts and experience to share in “Raising Animals – 9 Questions to Ask Before You Commit”.
One of the most exciting parts of being sustainable is raising livestock! Raising animals is wonderful and rewarding. However, far too many people bring home livestock before truly counting the cost.
This is an important subject, especially now as Spring arrives. “Chick Days” begin at local farm stores and springtime babies are being born on every farm! Baby bunnies are popular Easter gifts, only to become a burden after the holiday is over. I can’t tell you how many “Free Bunnies” I see after Easter, and I find this to be very sad. Folks need to slow down, get over the cuteness and count the cost.
Raising Livestock is a 365/24/7 Commitment
Please don’t under-estimate the amount of time it takes to properly care for an animal!
This is true for household animals, to be sure, but especially for farm animals. This is not a 9-5 kind of responsibility! Critters cannot tell time, believe me.
I’ve spent Easter Sunday in the barn delivering a baby goat, only to watch the mother pass away. I get up extra early on Christmas morning to feed and water, before the kids get up. There are times when we struggle to get a good night’s rest because the new baby chicks are in the kitchen “cheeping” all night.
This is life with livestock.
You’re on call 24/7. You must respond when you’re needed and many times, it can’t wait until the next day.
Are you ready for this?
Livestock Animals Will Cost More Money Than You Think
After you buy the animal itself, you will need equipment like feeders and waterers. There are cheap ways to DIY, but until you get some experience under your belt, you will likely fall prey to what the farm stores convince you to buy. You’ll need to buy more feed than you think you will and worm them regularly.
But here’s the things you aren’t thinking about.
Here’s the story of our “Free Horse”. Oh, by the way, whenever you hear the word “Free” in front of the word “animal”, beware!
So, a client of my husband’s asked if we would please take his daughter’s horse as she was going to college. If it were anyone else, we would have declined, but there’s that “client” thing. So, we took him off their hands, so that he wouldn’t find his way into a kill pen.
The horse was older and a little thin, but we just put him with our other horse and they quickly became friends. I figured the weight-thing would work itself out with a good diet and less stress.
Let me tell you something, this horse never stopped eating. Like, never. Being so thin, I let him get away with it to some degree, but he never really gained much weight. Laminitis is something that you don’t want to risk with equine by over-feeding, but this horse would break through stall gates to get to the grain!
So, the vet came out and did some blood work. He also filed his teeth, sometimes older horse’s teeth are uneven and they drop more food than they chew. Considering his weight, this made sense. At the end of the day, his blood work came back clear and we got a big, fat vet bill.
Years went by, this horse had more issues than I could shake a stick at. Money, money, money.
Finally, this winter, we found “Mr. Free” down and we knew it was time.
The vet came out to put him down…$200. Ok, now the fun part…have you ever buried a horse?
Several hundreds of dollars later to rent a backhoe, we finally buried him. Let me tell you, that was the most expensive “free” pet I’ve EVER had! But we felt a responsibility to treat him like any of our other animals, ethically and with respect.
Find a Sustainable Way to Feed Your Farm Animals
Whether you bring goats, equine or chickens onto your property, you will slowly go broke by feeding them consistently from the feed store.
Whatever money you were hoping to save at the grocery store will not only be non-existent, but you’ll triple the price of your eggs if you can’t find another way to feed your chickens!
For our donkeys and feeder calves, we grow a nourishing pasture blend and rotate like crazy people for 9 months out of the year. I can’t recommend highly enough that you get familiar with “Rotational Grazing”. It’s best for the animals and best for your billfold. Your pasture may need to be built up and that can take a couple of seasons, but if you plan to keep livestock, it’s your best investment.
We include clover in our pasture mix to feed our bees as well!
Raising Animals and Vet Bills
If you want to be successful long-term with your animals, you’ve got to learn to do things on your own.
Do a lot of reading about the critters you bring home and what their species requires. Research ways to keep your animals healthy to stay ahead of illness. Keep feeders and waterers clean to avoid bacteria, as well as keeping fresh straw or shavings in coops/stalls. Cleanliness goes a long way to promote healthy animals.
Otherwise, you’ll be calling the vet for every little issue and be broke because of it.
Raising Animals: Barn, Shed and Fences
So many people get this backwards…
They bring the animal home first, and THEN worry about housing. Or, sometimes folks commit to fixing up an old run-in but then never really get around to it.
Please. I beg you.
Don’t bring home animals until you’re truly ready for them. Build or buy what your animal needs, whether it be a horse barn, chicken coop or three-sided run in, first.
Will you have separate quarters for a sick animal that you need to quarantine from the others?
Whenever I bring home a new chicken of any kind, I keep them separate from the flock until I’ve had a chance to watch them for a week or so. Poultry disease can wipe out an entire flock in no time. This is something else to consider with housing, you’ll need more than you think.
Fencing Before You Get Livestock Animals
Depending upon the animals you decide to raise, your fencing needs will vary. However, and I speak from experience, you must have sturdy fences to protect your livestock.
Further, you must regularly inspect your gates and fences because animals will test them! Remember, they have a lot of time on their hands to work away at a small break in a fence! Don’t think they won’t see it, they absolutely will!
Goats are particularly difficult to keep fenced in. There’s a saying “If you fence can’t hold water, it can’t hold goats”. Somewhat of an exaggeration, but not that far from the truth either! The last thing you want is for your animals to get loose!
Larger animals may require electric fencing, which can be more of an investment. Consider all of this before buying.
Livestock Animals and Predators
Every animal owner deals with predators, it’s just part of life.
Livestock predators are particularly crafty at getting their dinner, however. Do everything you can to protect your animals!
Getting a LGD, or a Livestock Guard Dog, will save you a lot of grief.
Our Great Pyrenees has chased off hundreds of hawks, who would like to eat our chickens! She has kept fox and coyote at bay as well!
Raising Animals: Dealing with Reproduction Cycles and Castration
Whether you get chickens, goats, horses or cows, every animal has a reproductive cycle that you need to think about before buying.
Depending upon their purpose on your farm, male mammals will likely need to be castrated. Sometimes, you won’t have a choice because the in-tact male puts the safety of the other animals at risk if you don’t.
Unless you know how to do this, you’ll have to bring in a vet.
Pregnant animals is another consideration, as many times there are special needs required just before birthing. Do you have separate quarters for an animal who is ready to deliver? What if you have birthing problems? You may need to call the vet to save the offspring.
Livestock Animals: Death and Culling
Where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock. This is another thing you need to consider before getting livestock.
Death will come, and it can be really difficult to deal with. But it happens.
If you grow your animals to sustain your family, letting go of that animal when it’s time to process can be very emotional. Ask yourself if you’ll really be able to do it, as well as consider your family members.
At first, when I started raising meat birds, I cried my eyes out when processing time came. But now, after several years of doing it, I feel more humbled and grateful than I do sad.
I am very grateful for these animals that give their lives to feed us. In return, I make their lives as wonderful as I can! They are free-range and can experience nature everyday. They are pet and loved on. They get clean water and housing…and treats!
More importantly is where they aren’t.
They aren’t in a cage with several other animals, unable to even move.
They aren’t walking in their own feces and over the bodies of diseased and dying animals.
They aren’t stressed and pumped up with growth hormones.
I can live with raising our own meat, because we raise them humanely and ethically.
There are times when you’ll need to cull a sick animal. It’s never fun but as the manager of these animals, sometimes you’re the one making the call. If an animal is suffering and cannot be helped for whatever reason, you must be prepared to cull.
It’s your responsibility.
Raising Animals for Self-Sufficiency
For the beginning homesteader, chickens are probably the easiest animals to raise.
They lay eggs, eat bugs, scratch through compost and give you all kinds of entertainment to boot!
Chickens need a place to keep them safe at night (preferably a coop), someplace to roost and nesting boxes to lay their eggs. Coops range in size and price, you should choose the right one for where you live.
Goats are another popular “beginner” farm animal, but I don’t recommend them.
We had a number of goats when I first started homesteading. They destroyed fences and trees faster than I could repair them.
Chickens are far easier, cheaper, less destructive and more fun! Plus they start laying eggs at about 5 months of age!
I hope this post gives you a lot to think about before you commit to raising animals, but at the same time, I hope you won’t miss out on all the joy they bring!