Homestead Series VII—Livestock

Let’s talk a little more about keeping livestock on your homestead. Just because you’ve bought your property and have a house or cabin to live in, it doesn’t mean you can find a cute little goat on Craigslist and bring it home. First, you have to know what you’re doing and you have to be able to take care of your animals.

Decide what kind of animals you want to have. Popular homestead choices are chickens, goats, pigs, and cows. All of them need shelter, food, water, and protection. But why do you want livestock?

Self-sufficiency is, of course, the number one reason. Maybe you just like animals. Perhaps you’re going to sell products, or raise and sell the animals themselves. Or you just really, really like bacon. All of these are good reasons, but you want to remember that animals are expensive to feed and care for and so you should get some kind of return on your investment.

With chickens, you can sell eggs or even some chickens—naturally, you can also eat both. I strongly suggest you forgo a rooster—they’re mean and they’ll fertilize those eggs you plan to eat or sell. Then again, I hate chickens. A lot.

Goats and cows provide both milk, which can be turned into butter and cheese, or meat. Keep in mind, if you’re going the meat route, you’ll need to butcher your animals or take them to a processing plant—find one near you and remember, you’ll also need to transport them. Same for pigs. Well, not the milk, butter, and cheese part!

Also, you want your animals to be healthy and happy, which means they need at least one other of their kind, a buddy so to speak. So right away you have two of whichever you choose.

All of these animals need some kind of shelter. They need to get out of the rain and wind, not to mention snow, and some need to be kept warmer than others. You’ll probably notice, at some point, that the beautiful structure you built for them is empty—know that it’s there for them, and they’re probably using it when you aren’t looking. A shelter doesn’t mean they’ll spend all their time in it, it means it’s available should they choose to use it. Sure, you’ll see a herd of cows in a field with no barn or shed in sight, but that’s generally more than two on a homestead; a large group can huddle together for warmth, two cows cannot.

A shelter doesn’t need to be fancy or have utilities, just a place that acts as a windbreak. Check your area to see from which direction the prevailing winds blow, and of course, any weather out of the north is going to be colder. A shelter for cows or goats or pigs doesn’t need to be as tall as one for horses, but a chicken coop should be completely enclosed, both for heat and for protection from predators. And, chickens need a place to roost and to nest.

Speaking of protection, you don’t want to just let your livestock roam, especially far from where you can watch over them. Your animals need to be contained, not just for their protection, but also to preserve your homestead. You really don’t want to walk through manure all the time, and goats in particular will eat everything on your property. Everything.

Check with your local extension office as to how much room your animal(s) of choice need, keeping in mind that all of these will forage—for bugs, worms, grubs, roots, grass, and whatnot. The more they can forage and graze, the less you’ll spend on feed and hay. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Your fences should be sturdy, built for the type of livestock you have. You don’t want goats getting stuck in the fence, or cows getting torn up by barbed wire, or chickens flying here, there, and everywhere. If your animals are securely contained, there will be less work for you—and maybe your neighbors—rounding them up and repairing fences.

Depending on the size and location of your corrals or pens or pastures, you’ll need to be able to see them or you might need an LGD. A trained dog will watch out for your livestock and keep them safe, particularly if you have only two animals in a pasture—and those should be mature animals, not babies. Even two babies together isn’t enough protection from a predator. If your livestock isn’t located close to your house and the pasture is large, you’ll need to bring them in at night to a smaller area with a shelter.

Water is paramount. If you don’t have a well, get one drilled. There are government loans and grants for this purpose, as water is considered a health issue. Google it. Your livestock needs access to water 24/7, and if you’re hauling water for them, your workload has tripled—especially in the winter. A mature cow will drink up to 24 gallons a day; goats need 2-3 per day. You’ll need to invest in water troughs, as per the type of livestock you keep, and you’ll need to keep them clean and thawed, year round. You might be lucky enough to have a pond or a running creek or river on your property—that will help but cannot replace hydrants and troughs.

If your animals are foraging, they’ll need less feed provided by you. However, even the best pastures can become overgrazed and useless if you don’t rotate your animals. Here in the Ozarks, our pastures are either rock-filled or wooded. We have three paddocks/pastures for our horses, currently, and we allow grazing during the growing season only, for up to six hours or so a few days a week. As we expand our pastures, the horses will have more time to graze, which means our hay cost will go down.

Cows will eat 24 pounds of hay a day—or grass; goats need about 3-4 pounds. Pigs will eat hay, about five pounds a day, or while on pasture. On average, a 50-pound bale costs about $5.00. So, doing the math, that’s $72 a month per cow, $12 per goat, and $15 per pig. That’s not counting any grain or supplements.

Additionally, you might need to call the vet on occasion, particularly if you’re breeding your animals, and you might provide a salt or mineral block or extra treats. These animals look to you to provide their needs, and their needs can be expensive.

Their needs can also be time-consuming, especially if you’re still working a day job. All of your livestock needs to be fed twice a day, and their water checked; if you’re milking, that’s twice a day as well. This takes time, energy, and physical strength. If you don’t have those three things, you shouldn’t keep livestock. You’ll need to do the feeding and watering and milking every single day, 356 days, whether it’s cold or hot or storming, whether or not you “feel” like it or you’re sick or crippled or whatever. If you can’t commit to that, you shouldn’t have animals.

If you’re planning on selling products or breeding, there will be more work involved in obtaining, making, packaging, and marketing those products. And more expense.

Additionally, you should do your livestock chores at about the same time each day. Yes, you can make exceptions—animals can’t, after all, tell time…except my horses. I swear. But if you feed at 7:00 a.m., and again at 7:00 p.m., on a regular basis, you really can’t just “sleep in” until 10:00. If you decide to go out for dinner, you’ll need to feed a little early—that’s certainly doable. But you won’t be having any long weekends or getaways as long as you have livestock that depends on you.

Most homesteads have livestock, or are planning on doing so. You’ll need to research, decide, and prepare before you add animals. They’ll need a place to live, just like you did when you first purchased your property, and you’ll need to be able to care for them, physically and financially.

*Disclaimer: I didn’t talk much about chickens, except they need protection from the weather and from predators. They also, of course, need feed and water and eggs must be collected. But there’s a good reason for this—chickens are cheap, pardon the pun, and easy to care for if you like birds. I do not. Ick. Gross. But that’s just me…because of a rooster fifty years ago!

Fall on the Farm

November is that time of year when you can finally relax a bit on your homestead. It’s not too hot and not too cold, a little extra wind some days, and of course, the rain and mud are always around as soon as the ground starts to dry out a bit.

This is when I have more time to work with the horses—one starting under saddle, three having a refresher in manners and groundwork, and two just still trying to touch. It’s a process. A long one.

If you’re not training horses, there’s always fence repair and new fencing for your perimeter or your livestock of choice, and barn and shelter repairs. Your goal is to make everything temperature- and snow-proof.

This is also an excellent time to mark dead trees on your property, either for firewood or removal for a pasture or field. If you wait too long, they’ll all look dead.

And of course, it’s time to finalize all your winter preps.

Ideally, you should already have a stockpile of wood for heating. Depending on temps each winter, we use about four cubic feet per day for three months. That’s a little over two cords of wood, and I like to have some extra on hand. We start over the summer, cutting and splitting trees downed from storms, and usually have at least two cords ready for winter. I certainly wouldn’t want to start with less than that, although there are nice days even in winter when you can add to your woodpiles.

You don’t need to store firewood inside, but it should be off the ground a bit. We have a couple stacks with a long board up on concrete blocks, or stacked on an old piece of sheet metal; a few are simply laid on top of a line of smaller logs.

We also leave it our firewood open to the elements through September. Once fall arrives, we cover it with tarps and weigh them down with rocks—which works pretty well until the deer run through and knock it down or a big wind comes up. This year, I set them up with a rope across the top and a tarp draped over that; I used clothespins to keep the tarps attached—just like you’d do if you were sleeping in a hammock in the woods. Works like a charm.

Here’s another tip: bring in wood from the farthest stack early on. That way, when it’s 15 degrees, you’ll be closer to the back door.

Of course, you always need to winterize your water supply. We use a heat lamp in the pump house, as well as insulation, to keep the water flowing and to prevent damage to the pump and pressure tank. Our outside spigots in the back of the house are covered, and all hoses are removed and drained. We do not cover our hydrants, simply because we use them all the time and they aren’t prone to freezing.

Your garden should be finished, or close to it by now, unless you still have some winter-hardy spinach or kale or whatever. If you have a greenhouse, and I highly recommend it, here in southern Missouri you’ll need to have heat lamps there too. I’ve successfully kept herbs growing there over the winter—in fact, some have been going now for three years. You can also overwinter hanging baskets like petunias, verbena, or impatiens. Forty degrees last night, yet my greenhouse is 20 degrees warmer; the cats love it.

Speaking of pets, if you have any that live outside, like barn cats, make sure they have places to go—unless you’re willing to move them into your house. Yes, we do that occasionally. Just for a short warm-up. We also have two kitty houses on the porches; one is stuffed with straw, the other is insulated. They can also go in the barn, hay shed, or greenhouse. If you have an outside dog that isn’t a hairy LGD, you can do the same thing or, better yet, bring them inside. Dogs are pack animals, and you are their pack. Cats don’t give a damn. Make sure they get a little extra food, and keep the water dishes full and thawed.

Fall is also a good time to indulge in some of those activities that brought you out to a homestead in the first place: target practice, hiking, fishing, crafting. Or even fall cleaning and window-washing, if that’s your thing.