Even in today’s technology-driven, urban-oriented world, there are still plenty of people who want to have a little land and grow their own food. Once you master gardening, the next step is often farm animals. After all, you have the garden surplus and manure is good stuff for building soil. If you don’t have any experience, though, it can be tough to decide which farm animals to choose. It’s quite doable to produce a fair amount of protein on very little land if you think ahead and plan well. Here are some considerations in choosing the best farm animals.
Poultry and Rabbits
For the small landowner looking for farm animals, poultry nearly always top the list. Chickens, ducks and geese have a long and productive partnership history with humans for good reason. Guinea hens are another poultry option, as are turkeys. Rabbits are often lumped into this group as well. Of all of these, the chicken leads the flock for a number of reasons. They are readily available, whether you want egg-layers, meat or dual purpose birds. They will eat pretty much anything, which means you can feed them quite inexpensively. Chickens don’t take much space. If you deep bed them, they will make compost for you. Ducks and geese produce fewer eggs, really need a pool or pond and aren’t very good at making compost. While they will eat grain, they are not omnivorous like chickens. Geese are actually grazers and need a daily supply of fresh green stuff. Guinea hens are more like chickens in terms of feeding and compost production. They produce fewer eggs, though, and are extremely noisy. Guineas are harder to confine because they fly well; free-range them and they’ll destroy your plantings, irritate the neighbors and roost on your roof at night. Turkeys combine the good and bad qualities of chickens, geese and guineas. They will lay some eggs in the spring, they eat a wider range of feeds than geese, the heritage breeds fly and they can be quite noisy. They also need more room than chickens. Rabbits are much quieter, which is a consideration if you have close neighbors. Many people find it harder to butcher rabbits and their diets are more limited, so you may need to buy feed for best health. It’s easy to collect their manure, though – just put something like wood shavings under the cages and shovel it up periodically.
Sheep, goats and pigs fit into this category. A word of warning – once you move into small livestock, fences become an issue of prime importance. It’s pretty easy to build a chicken coop; a fence to keep pigs confined is another matter. While you can milk sheep, production is not all that high and sheep’s milk has a distinct taste. Most people who do milk sheep want the milk for cheese-making. You can get out of shearing by choosing hair breeds like the Katahdin, Dorper or Romanov. However, these are meat breeds. Sheep are also particularly prone to predation by coyotes, wolves, cougars and feral dogs. If you have limited room and want a meat/milk animal, goats are a good choice. Goats are also better for brush control and can rustle a lot of their own food (they are great at eliminating poison oak, for example). A good milking goat can produce about a gallon of milk a day and their lactation period is around 10 months (sheep are only good for about five months). Goats are escape artists – smart, curious and sociable, they like to visit the neighbors and can find any weakness in your fencing. They also like to climb on things – like your car, the picnic table in the back yard or your front porch. Like chickens, pigs will eat literally anything except citrus peels. They don’t have to have a wallow, which is one of the things that tends to make neighbors irritable because it smells like pig. They do need to have sun protection and welcome a daily bath with the hose, however. Most pigs will pick one spot in the pen to deposit their manure; clean it regularly and pigs don’t really have much of an odor. All of these animals are more difficult and time-consuming to butcher than poultry.
The leader of the pack here is the milk cow. In addition to milk, butter, cream and cheese, she will produce a calf you can raise for beef. You need some permanent pasture (practice rotational grazing and it doesn’t take all that much, maybe two to five acres). You can also just buy hay, but the cost of your milk goes up considerably. Beef cows give you beef, period. You’ll need access to a bull or the ability to artificially inseminate either milk or beef cows. Another option is to buy a weaned steer or heifer and raise it for meat.
If I were starting from scratch with a few acres of land and had no farm/ranch experience, I would take it in steps. First, spend enough time building gardening skills to get to the point where you always have surplus food. For most people, this is a three- to five-year process. Build or repair your fences; the “horse high, bull strong and hog tight” motto should be your mantra for fences. Build or repair sheds, barns and smaller buildings like chicken coops or pig houses. Next step, chickens. Give yourself at least two years of managing the flock to gain some experience. Many people stop right there. If you can handle more, your next step would be either a milk goat or milk cow. These animals take more time, care and knowledge. I don’t recommend you add pigs until you have three to five years of milking under your belt. After that, the sky’s the limit – you might even branch out into exotics like emus and buffalo…