At first I was stumped by this question. Well, not the question so much as the amount of times I have been asked it in the last month. And then I finally realized that it totally makes sense. It’s spring, everyone has or will have kids and lambs for sale. People who have been dreaming of livestock all winter are keen to get started. But I couldn’t figure out why I was getting calls, emails, and messages so I asked the lady who tracked me down today.
“That’s easy,” she said. “You really helped my friend. She felt like you help her figure out what she wanted instead of just pushing your own agenda.”
Well, that’s kind of flattering. I asked if a blog post would be helpful and she thought so though, being a friend of a friend, she would still be phoning me.
So… what kind should you get?
Well, my opinion on how to figure out what to get is pretty much the same whether you’re talking about goats, sheep, dogs, cats, cattle, whatever. Before I get started here is the required disclaimer: this is my opinion and my opinion only – ymmv!
So, let’s begin.
First of all look at how much work you’re willing to do and how much land you have. I have been reading all of these articles about self-sufficiency on a small piece of land which requires cramming every inch of a small space full (like having a full farm on a 1/2 acre or acre). Well, I suspect you can but…. there are tradeoffs. The articles I have been seeing don’t really do those justice. One of the biggest ones is the amount of work you have to put in to make up for the small size. What’s interesting is that now when those come to me via email, blogs, or friends, I have been emailing many of the authors. A fair few of them garden, or have a few chickens and are extrapolating the rest. Some are really doing it but by and large, they’re just telling you what they think might work. So, let’s imagine for a second, shall we?
Let’s pretend you have a 1/2 acre with a normal-for-this-age sized house and garden. You probably don’t want full sized anything. Of course some people will want a couple of cows, or a trio of full sized sheep and depending on your circumstances, you might be able to make it work. I have a friend who has a half acre yard and three Shetland sheep. She loves it and works for her but… she doesn’t really have anything else – a couple of chickens, no big house, no woodlot, a smallish garden. No real attempt at self-sufficiency. She just loves Shetlands and Shetland fibre so that’s what she has. When I asked her about self-sufficiency in her yard she thought it wouldn’t be impossible but you’d have to be working at it all of the time. Every hole in the garden would need to be filled which also means you’re always working to keep the soil enriched. She also lives in a bioregion that allows her to garden year round – cold crops in the winter to be sure but she can do it.
My recommendation though, is to calculate in a higher cost for hay, and be extra mindful about diseases as well as having quarantine plans. Everyone should have those but when you have four goats on 10+ acres it’s a lot easier to do a quick quarantine than four Merinos on 1/2 an acre.
So we’re clear? Step one is looking at how much space you actually have and how much time you have to make that space work. But, I’m off the “what breed should I get” topic and onto “self-sufficiency on a small plot” topic. So, more on self-sufficiency in a small space later.
The other part of this is to look at the type of space you have. If you have a grassland you could have goats, but why not have sheep or cattle? If you live in a woodlot, you could have sheep but even the primitive ones that people will go on and on about eating so much browse will need a lot of supplementation with hay (ask me how I know). And that’s where the money comes in – if you have a lot of money, then maybe that’s no big deal but most of us don’t, so it is something to seriously consider. No shortage of well intentioned people have started out and then realized just how expensive this little hobby can end up.
If you choose to take an animal out of the environment they’re best suited to, don’t be surprised when it seems like you’re putting in more effort than you should need to. I knew an Icelandic shepherd who was furious and was publicly defaming the breed because he was losing so many every year to parasites and hoof rot (to which they’re supposed to be less susceptible than many other breeds). Did I mention he lived in a semi-tropical area? Ahem. The clue is in the name. Icelandic. Not well suited to a hot, humid, damp environment. Sure, you can do it, but why? Especially when there are other breeds of sheep much better suited to it.
The final thing about evaluating the area you’re in is predation. Do you live in a predator heavy area? You need to consider that too. We always, always have good fences and at least one working dog because we live in a very predator heavy area (ours is heavy even for the area because we back onto zillions of kilometers of forest). But, good fences aren’t easy in a rocky, mountainside, forest… so keep that in mind too.
As for how much you’re willing to do… time is a huge factor. And it’s not just your willingness, it’s also the people around you. Do you have a full time job and an employer who won’t care if all 30 of your ewes decided to have babies and you now have 9 bummer lambs? Can you leave work for lambing or kidding or do you have to be there, or worse, will you be out of town when babies are coming? If so, a breeding programme may not be the right thing for you. Do you have a partner or friend who will help out in a pinch or are you totally on your own? really evaluate this one. It’s the same thing that happens to parents. There is a lot of “oh sure, I could watch the baby” but when push comes to shove, you’re really in it yourself. You might have a friend who is in the same boat in which case a trade is a good idea. But be boring about it and write it out. Make it concrete and clear instead of “it will just work out”. If you have someone you can trade farm chores with that is worth it’s weight in gold manure. Don’t mess it up but being reluctant to be a bit formal. You can even be formal informally on a chat… just have it spelled out somewhere. Just make sure you do your part and speak up if you think the deal is uneven. If you’re resentful, it’s going to fall apart.
Another major consideration is whether you’re planning to start a family? I have met a few families who started the “back to the land” thing with a baby and by the time baby two came along they were done. It’s an easy thing to look at through romantic eyes while you’re in suburbia flipping through Mother Earth News. The reality is so much harder which is fine if you love it but not so much if you don’t. It will also take up a lot of your free time. In fact… It takes me eons to even update my farm related blog because well, you guessed it. Chores don’t wait. So, decide if trimming hooves, fixing fences, and building things (because it seems something always needs building) is really how you want to spend your free time.
The other thing about time is how much of it do you really have? Do you like to travel? Do you have farm sitting built in or…? If not, you need to consider other plans. Either find someone you can trade with, or hire, or decide to take a break from travelling. It’s tough to even go away overnight when you have animals and no one who is willing to come and do your chores.
Step Two – What do you want out of a breed?
I know there are people who think this is step one but seriously? I have prioritized what I want out of a breed before thinking about what I could realistically do, what my finances and land would support, and what was really realistic. You know what? It ended in heart break. I had that happen to another friend who was forced to sell her horses for the same reason. She had a small space and was diligent about getting them exercise but they had no grazing. When she lost her job and the price of hay went up, she had to sell. Some of her horses had been with her for most of her adult life. It was a terrible time for her and her horses.
So, please first think about the space and time factors AND then, within those constraints, So again – do you have a half acre and you want milk? You probably aren’t going to be getting a whole herd of dairy cows. Well, maybe you are but it wouldn’t be my recommendation. So… do you hate goat’s milk? I have known (and loved) many people who think they do because they’ve just had grocery store goats’ milk. Fresh from the goat – it’s (usually) a whole other story. Rather than buying a goat just to see if you like it when it’s fresh, you might want to try it at a friend’s house. Here it’s illegal to sell or give away milk outside of the regulations so, one must be careful about how they go about obtaining goats milk. What would be legal is to borrow/lease the goat and milk her yourself to see if that’s really what you want to spend your time doing. Or you could just swipe some milk when no one’s looking. Not that I’m advocating theft but you know…
Also – remember that animals tend to do one thing well, and the others not quite as well. When I had Icelandics I LOVED their fibre but I picked them because I thought they’d be well suited to a woodlot (they were better than white sheep, but nowhere near as suited as my goats), were supposed to be good for milk, meat, and fibre. Well… the wethers grew the best fibre ever. Loved it. The good milkers were great at mothering and had lots of milk but ok fibre. And they all took at least two years to be anywhere close to a butchering weight. Yep, you can feed them grain to bulk them up and you can work on getting their weight up for butchering in the first year (or accept that you’ll have smaller carcasses but delicious ones that you can sell for a premium) but you won’t get an Icelandic to weight what a Corrie does by the fall without a lot of extra effort.
So, what do you want? Milk? Meat? Grazing? Cuteness? Breeding stock?To be part of conserving an old breed? Conservation grazing? Will your land and your wallet support having them just for fun? There’s no point in getting into a really rare/high end animal and then not being able to afford the upkeep, or getting cast offs hoping to make them into something worth millions. Maybe it will work but most likely, not.
Also – decide if you are going to be a rescue person or not. I used to be. I’m not anymore. My time and money don’t allow for it. I did it – again, heartbreak. I’m watching a friend go through it right now as her rescue does are having kids prematurely and they’re dying right, left, and central. It’s not that it’s a bad idea (and one day when I have more time I will again) but for right now, I just can’t.
Alright so… is your goal self-sufficiency? Is your goal to make money? Is your goal to have your own milk? Fibre? Bacon?
Figure out those things and if you’re like me, your answer will be all of the above. So again, based on my experience, realize that if you’re just starting off, that might be too much to take on at once. So, start breaking it down. What’s most important to you? What’s next most important? And then see how that fits in the with the time/space/money continuum. You really, really, really want to have an ethical cow’s milk dairy? And you have an acre and can’t build anything to save your life but you need a barn, milking parlour, etc. Well, maybe you don’t do anything on your land and you meet someone you can partner with. Maybe they have the land but not the time? Or you scale it back. Or you look at moving. I’m not kidding about that last one. I have met no shortage of people who have moved to chase a dream – why is a farm dream any less likely?
Anyway, think about the land you have, what you hope to get out of your livestock and then whittle it down to the top two or three things that line up. And then ask people who know you, know the breed, etc. See what they say. If you find yourself saying a lot of “yes but…” you might want to forge ahead but be mindful of those “yes but” things and have a backup plan for them. Some of the best successes have come when people were sure there would be failures so it doesn’t mean give up, just be smart about it. Also – we’re not talking about widgets; they’re living beings. The animals you bring home have a right to quality of life. We’re always learning as we go but it’s not fair to the animals to always get the short end of that stick.
Step Three – Start building infrastructure.
So, you want to raise pastured pigs but you have no fences, no shelters, no stock, and no idea of what’s needed. Well, you might be surprised to hear this but farmers tend to be a supportive lot. If you start asking around (your local feed store is a great place to start) you will likely learn about people who share your interest but also glean some tips. Use social media. I live in a teeny tiny town and thanks to a couple of folks, we have a few groups for farming type people. Our membership now stretches almost too far but it’s made for some interesting conversations, means we have an amazing railway to move animals, and people are learning about resources in other parts of the country.
So, figure out fences (and don’t cheap out on those – again, ask me how I know). You’re better off to have fewer animals behind a really good fence that you can afford than to try fencing a large space but have break outs and break ins and all of the stress that comes with that.
Figure out housing. We all seem permanently behind in the housing department – myself included. My goats don’t need a barn, for example. They have awesome pallet houses out of reclaimed wood that they love. However, one caught a cold this winter and I had nowhere really great for her to fight it back. And, I hate, hate, hate milking outside in mosquito season. I also want to have a stall that I can heat for a mum and baby in the event someone needs it. So, do my goats need a barn? Nope but I do.
You can be as fancy or cute or simple as works for your time/effort/money/sanity.
Figure out hay/feed. Do you have a hay lot? Ask someone with experience if you will have enough (both in quantity and quality) to feed the numbers you want to feed. Do you have machinery or are you going to mow by hand? People are going back to the old methods and for some it’s working really well but the ones I know who are doing it that way have more time than money. And an interest in it, let’s be honest.
Want to raise an English heritage breed of pig but the local vet has no experience with pigs or, even better, there is no local vet? Again, not to say you can’t do it but you need to decide how to do it well. Do you have firearms and skill/experience in using them? If you’re raising animals, in my opinion, you should. There’s nothing like waiting a few hours with a suffering animal because the vet coming to euthanize is in surgery or driving for two hours. If you can’t have a firearm, reconsider your plans and at a minimum, make friends with a neighbour who is willing to do the job for you.
Also – learn everything you can about the breed before the animals come home. Learn about all of the problems you’re likely to encounter and how other people have dealt with them. Check and cross check. There is a lot of information on line, but you get what you pay for. Join a breed association or other, similar organization but be cynical. See if things make sense. If there is a suggestion that you can clear hoof rot with turpentine, do a bit of research. Spend money and ask a vet. I know a lot of people are anti-vet but let’s face it, even if they’re not super skilled in working on the animals you’re raising, they understand basic animal physiology, medications, etc. The fact is, they have a lot to offer – just treat them like any other partner. Be open, curious, and then check and double check. Most vets – especially the ones staying in rural areas – tend to be on the same team as us. Offer them respect and draw on them as one more resource.
So, if you look at the intersection of land/time/money (honestly – take the worst case scenario, not the best!) and what you’re hoping to get out of the breed (realistically – also not defaulting to the best case), you should be well on your way to deciding what will work best for you. From there, do build your infrastructure – which includes people who can support you. With all of this careful planning you won’t be guaranteed smooth sailing but you will have headed off the majority of problems that discourage so many when they’re first starting out.