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Looking Back 4: Homestead Critters: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Mosquito Mountain Montana HomesteadHave you ever tried to bury a dead horse? Think about it. When you own an animal you are responsible for it from "cradle to grave." And while animals are sometimes a source of pleasure, other times they are a burden you end up enduring.

I believe it was Scott and Helen Nearing who said that anyone who owned an animal was a slave to it. There's a lot of truth to that statement! Most homesteaders simply assume that animals should be a part of the homestead when what they should be doing is analyzing if they'd be better off without them. Sometimes critters on the homestead are useful, sometimes they're entertaining and sometimes they're an unmitigated disaster! Here are some of our experiences.

Horses

Many homesteaders can't wait to get a horse (or horses!). My father raised and rode horses most of his life. Some of our children own horses. We've also owned horses. I'm telling you this just to verify that we speak from experience when it comes to owning horses.

We like horses. But we sold the last one several years ago and, while I liked that horse a lot, I was happy to see it leave. Horses make great companions, but they eat prodigious amounts of hay, drink gallons of water per day, need routine medical care, and must have a home of their own whether it's just a covered shed and corral or a pasture for grazing. If you keep them in a corral they must have a way to get exercise or you may create additional health problems for the horse.

Horses can also cause a lot of human damage as well. My stepmother had a hand badly broken by a horse she was tying up. My wife sustained a broken wrist and a lot of bruises when a horse spooked at an unfamiliar noise. Horses only have one means of defense and that's to run. It wouldn't be so bad except that a horse is afraid of anything new.

Nope, horses are not a part of our homestead anymore!

Photo 1

Photo 2

This is Peaches, our Belgian mare. Even though I had hopes of using her as a draft animal, she was never more than a very large pet that ate large amounts of hay and drank 10 to 16 gallons of water per day. In the winter, we melted snow for her (and our) water supply. It was an endless task. If you live off grid where the winters are cold, you must also ensure that the water tank does not freeze or bring water to the horse several times daily. She did make lots of good fertilizer for the garden, but horse manure is usually available from other horse owners for free.

Pigs

We've owned pigs as well. The best things about pigs is that they are good eating. We are big fans of pork in all of its forms. Our biggest problem came at butchering time. While I generally research things carefully, I did not do a good job processing our hogs. We had some good eating and all of the meat was used, but it would have tasted much better had I taken them in to a professional or had at least learned proper methods for curing pork.

Photo 3

These guys were named Hamlet and Lord Bacon. I've never had a problem killing pigs. By the time I've fed and housed them (pigs are notoriously difficult to keep penned in) and put up with the noises and smells that accompany them, putting a bullet in their brains is just frosting on the cake. The best things about pigs is eating them. In fact, the only thing good about pigs is eating them.

Cats

I like cats but we have a hard time keeping them. In our neighborhood resides grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, wolves and coyotes. All of them like cats too and eventually our cats range too far from the cabin and end up as the main course of other predators higher on the food chain.

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This little guy (we had him fixed ASAP) started out small and cute and did a good job keeping the mice population down. We eventually gave him a new home in a warmer climate, and we do not have a cat at this time. We've gone to traps to keep the mouse population in check. Traps are cheap and effective and they don't tie you down like pets do.

Dogs

What would a homestead be without a dog! We've had several. The dogs we moved to the homestead with died from old age. One pup we got had a bad case of wanderitus, and we took it back to the animal shelter.

But the biggest problem we've had with dogs came because of idiot neighbors. One family moved in with three dogs and insisted that they be allowed to run free. Unfortunately they also ran on everyone else's property and chased deer and other wild animals. One got in the habit of eating our dog's food. They moved from the area after a couple of months. Seems that they couldn't get along with the neighbors. It wasn't just their dogs that caused problems. They had some other traits that made them undesirable as well.

Photo 5

This is Odie. We took this photo a few days ago while exploring the desert in Nevada. We had just taken a break from the wind and sun inside this shallow cave.

Odie is a Border Collie from the animal shelter. She's quick and attentive and has a strong protective instinct for my wife, our grandson, and our property. She loves to hunt and does a good job keeping the ground squirrel population in check. She's also smart enough to know when to chase a critter away and when to keep her distance and just sound the alarm. She's had encounters with everything from skunks to mountain lions and grizzly bears and has survived to tell about it. She's been a good dog. It's too bad they don't live as long as people do.

Photo 6

This is Bear. I raised her from a puppy and if I could clone a dog, she would be it. In this photo we had just returned from running my trap line. It was about 10 degrees below zero that morning. Bear hated hot weather. In the summer she would walk from one shady spot to the next. She was happiest when the temperature was below freezing. She never liked being indoors at any time of the year. We worked hard to keep her from chasing deer and did a fine job. One crisp, fall morning, my wife looked out and Bear was sleeping in one raised flower bed and a white-tailed deer was resting in the one next to her. She died of cancer a few years ago.

Chickens

Chickens are our favorite homestead animal. We love fresh eggs. The yolks are deep yellow and flavorful, and the whites don't run all over the place when you crack them open. We've raised many from chicks but economically it's best to pay extra and buy young adult birds. In fact, most of our most economical birds were given to us by people who were moving. We do not artificially push them to produce eggs so our birds normally live to be 5 to 7 years old.

Photo 7

The kitten would sneak up on the chickens until it got too close, then the chickens would chase the cat away. They never seemed to tire of this game.

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We've had two hens that would actually hatch eggs. In this photo, the eggs were duck eggs we got from a daughter. We also had this hen hatch some chicken eggs. She stopped sitting on the eggs after the first four chickens hatched. Two days later, we threw the rest of the eggs out believing that they had spoiled. Several were within hours of hatching, and we could have finished their incubation time artificially. It was a hard lesson learned!

If you have a good, steady supply of electricity, it's more efficient to use an electric incubator for hatching eggs. We've done it using the pilot light in our propane kitchen range's oven for heat. but it's labor intensive (constantly turning the eggs, etc.) and not real effective.

We've also grown meat chickens for homestead use. They are bred to grow large breasts. They also eat huge amounts of feed. Last summer we purchased 84 of the little buggers. It took me three days to butcher them and my wife spent several days more canning them and the chicken broth. We did end up with some mighty fine organic meat though.

We also had to put some electric fence wire around the chicken coop due to a grizzly bear in the neighborhood that had developed a taste for homegrown chicken. It would literally rip the siding off a chicken house to get the chickens. We received a "heads-up" from the neighbors and got the electric wire up before he visited our homestead.

Chickens are considered a delicacy by most predators and need safe quarters.

Goats

Yes, we've had them and, yes, we've milked them. I don't like goats. My dad had goats, and they were always climbing on things (like his truck and car), getting into places they shouldn't be, and being a pest. One even killed a dog of his. The dog and goat often played with the goat butting the dog. One time the dog wasn't expecting it and the goat butted him hard in the chest. The dog walked a few steps then fell over dead. The vet said the goat ruptured an artery to the dog's heart. Goats can be serious business if you aren't careful.

If you like goats they do have some redeeming features. They are smaller than cattle and can provide healthy meat and milk to those willing to put up with them. Good fences will keep them confined and out of your way as well.

Photo 9

My wife is milking the neighbor's goat while they are on vacation. Goat milk has a different taste than cow's milk. Try to find some to sample before getting a goat for milk.

Photo 10

Rabbits

Rabbits are our second choice for homestead livestock (after chickens). The meat is good and they are prolific producers. (They breed like, uhmm ... rabbits!) The furs can also be sold or used for projects.

My major problem with them comes at butchering time. I hate killing them. Overall they are easy to care for (requiring little space) and can be fed from foods easily grown on the homestead. We planted a small patch of alfalfa and harvested enough by hand for fresh rabbit food and for hay to feed them in the winter.

Of course there was also the time that cute little bunny girdled all but one of our apple trees. But that's another story for another time.

Overall we have gotten rid of all of our critters except the dog. We like to travel in the winter after the homestead work is finished. Animals tie us down.

Another thing most homesteaders should consider is the cost of raising animals. I read of one homestead family that was very self-sufficient in every area except one: they spent hundreds of dollars every month for animal food. We can tell you from experience that it's much easier to save money than to make money on the homestead.

I once had a dream of owning draft horses and using them for homestead tasks, then I figured up the work owning horses would add to our life and saw that I'd spend an extra two months a year of my time just growing, harvesting and putting up food for the horses. It just wasn't worth it to me.

Do the homework. If you can't grow your own livestock feed you'll have to buy it. Buying feed takes money and money has to be made. I've seen too many people work their entire lives supporting the animals that owned them. I'd rather do other things with my time.

We've owned or had experience with many more animals than those I've mentioned. These are just the most prominent in our minds. At present we hunt for the meat we eat and do some buying and battering for the meat and eggs we can't get by hunting. It's cheaper and easier in the long run for us to do it that way.

In no way is this advice for other homesteaders nor are we judging those who fill their property with critters. We have a policy of live and let live and if it's animals you want then have at it. If you live nearby, we'll even be happy to do some bartering or even pay cash for eggs and milk your critters produce. But, the Nearings were right about a lot of things and (even though we are not vegetarians as they were), one of the most important is that you don't really own an animal. The animal owns you!

I'll continue our story in future posts and some of them will be about animals we've had to deal with over the years and the sometimes good, sometimes bad experiences they've given us.

If you've enjoyed what you've read so far you might want to check into my book, Creating the Low Budget Homestead, (available in the Grit bookstore). It's filled with homesteading advice you won't find anywhere else. Most homesteading books tell you how to raise livestock, grow a garden and preserve your harvest. My book focuses on how to pursue your homesteading dream on a budget that would make Ebeneezer Scrooge envious.

You may also view my blog.