Learn the basics of raising animals, whether for hobby farming or for consumption.
In The Joy of Hobby Farming see how to farm for fun, not for a living. Authors Michael and Audrey Levatino show how you can grow your own vegetables and live sustainably while also working a full-time job. In this excerpt taken from chapter 8, "General Animal Care Basics," learn about the ethics of eating meat and the basics of raising animals on a farm.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Joy of Hobby Farming.
We’d already been practicing vegetarians when we made the decision to begin farming.
Coming from the beautiful mountains of Colorado where we met, we have always been concerned with the impact that eating meat has on our natural world. It takes approximately twenty pounds of grain (which is how most of the world’s animals are fed for meat production) to produce one pound of beef. That is not a sustainable ratio for the environment if we eat meat every day. In addition, most people are completely divorced from the source of the meat they consume. Even the grass-fed farmer at your local farmer’s market has his animals slaughtered and butchered by someone else (due to USDA regulations). And forget about trying to rationalize the commercial meat industry; as soon as an industrial production model is attached to any living sentient being, it’s inevitable that injustice will be done. Our philosophy is that if you can’t kill and dress your own meat (not every single bit you eat, of course), then you aren’t honoring that animal and you aren’t honoring yourself. But after moving to a farm and raising animals, we quickly realized that achieving a level of ethical purity was close to impossible. So while we still don’t consume meat, we understand that many people want to raise and consume meat in the healthiest and most ecologically sound way possible. Hobby farming allows for you to come the closest to that ideal.
We do eat fish. We’ve fished ponds for catfish, green rivers in Texas for bass, marshes in the Keys for red fish, mountain streams of Colorado for trout, and the Chesapeake Bay for rock fish. We’ve even ventured into the Pacific on a salmon fishing boat off the coast of Oregon that fishes with lines, not nets. We’ve caught, cleaned, cooked, and eaten our fish (but certainly not a majority of it) and feel a connection to it. Fish also live in the wild (we do not eat commercially farmed fish) where they aren’t crowded together and fed antibiotics to keep their tight living situations from spreading disease. We follow the sustainable fisheries guidelines and stay away from species that are overfished. And fish is healthy.
Milk and cheese are another issue. You can’t get milk without a cow, sheep, or goat that has been pregnant. And cows don’t only give birth to female cows. They also produce bulls. And those bulls don’t produce milk, so they are sold as meat. You can’t get cheese without milk. So if you’re eating milk and cheese, then you are also contributing to the meat culture. We get that. But we’re also not completely dogmatic in our approach to food and meat, and we do eat milk and cheese sparingly.
There are the same ethical issues with eggs. You can have a small flock of hens for yourself and get eggs for many years and that’s both good for you and the environment. But hens come from somewhere and that’s usually a factory breeding operation. And the ratio of male to female chickens that hatch is usually 50/50, so if you have hens, then you contributed to the creation of an equal amount of cockerels that were then used for meat production. As with most green endeavors, there’s really no way to reach a state of environmental purity unless you foreswear keeping any animals at all on your farm. But that’s no fun.
We’re not so strict in our diets or ethics that we would turn away our grandma’s homemade meatballs once a year or our friend’s grass-fed beef once in a while. And we do understand that you can’t go from a meat culture to a vegetarian culture, with the masses of people that need to be fed, overnight. We welcome our neighbors that raise their own meat for their own consumption and even those that sell at the farmer’s market. Hobby farmers are an integral part of moving our society away from industrial meat. We will even give you the basics of keeping cows for grass-fed beef in this book.
There are many ethical questions everyone should explore when deciding to raise animals. Whether you make the decision to eat animals that you raise or not, you’ll still want to make sure that you aren’t creating an imbalance in your farm system. We practice an adoption and no-breeding policy. After all, does the world really need any more farm or domesticated animals? All our four dogs and five cats have been adopted locally from rescue organizations or they’ve just showed up as strays (live in the country long enough and animals find their way to you); they are all spayed or neutered. We have chickens, but we do not allow them to hatch eggs and breed. Our latest batch of chickens has come from another farmer friend who’d given up on farming and was selling his entire chicken outfit. We eat their eggs to prevent them from multiplying. And our donkeys and llamas are males. Males are always the least desirable animals for breeders (besides prized breeding stock) and we give the unwanted males a good home. We’ve stayed away from livestock markets because of the poor treatment and health of the animals. And we certainly support any organization that rescues animals from livestock markets.
This philosophy of not raising farm animals for meat also simplifies our life as hobby farmers. After all, time is tight when you’re trying to balance an off-farm job with on-farm duties, and one of the easiest mistakes to make when getting into farming is to obtain too many animals. Animals take time and money. They begin to breed and before you know it, you’re overwhelmed. If you’re a hobby farmer and have a job outside of the farm, then low-maintenance animals are the way to go. The idea of homemade goat’s milk cheese is divine, but just consider the time it will take to milk goats every day (you can’t miss even one) and sometimes twice a day. That’s why we chose donkeys, llamas, and chickens. They are all very self-sufficient and require little in the way of feed, if you have healthy pasture, and daily care.
But everyone feels differently and this is just our approach and our advice on raising animals and can be applied to raising them for meat as well. We’d recommend that you think long and hard before raising any animals at all. Resist the idea that you can only call yourself a farmer if you have farm animals. Farm animals live much closer to the natural world than humans, dogs, or cats. Many times they die in painful and tragic ways. And sometimes that death is not quick and it will be up to you to help the process along. You can’t fully prepare for this, but certainly it should be a consideration.
Why have animals at all on a farm if you’re not going to eat them? There are several reasons:
• Companionship—We enjoy being around animals, more so much of the time than humans. We consider our animals some of our closest friends. There are so many abandoned animals that need a home that it would be heartless to have all this room and not share it.
• Eggs—Eating eggs from your own chickens that you don’t allow to breed is the most humane way to consume animal protein.
• Natural fertilizer—Our donkeys’ and llamas’ sole purpose outside of enjoying their lives is to convert our fields of grass to manure, which we in turn use as our primary source of soil enrichment for our vegetable and flower gardens. Our chickens serve this purpose too.
• Protection—Our dogs are a much better deterrent to intruders, both human and animal, than a gun. Long before we’d have time to get a gun out and confront someone or something, the dogs would have alerted us to danger and most likely have deterred any intruder from coming near our property. Our donkeys and llamas guard the fields from approaching predators.
• Pest control—If you live in the country, you will have rodents, including rats. Cats and dogs are the best natural form of pest control. And chickens eat loads of harmful insects, like ticks and Japanese beetles.
• Work—We don’t work our animals, but we do know that our donkeys and llamas would be very happy to be included if we asked them to help pull logs out of the woods or carry a load on a packing trip.
• Sustainable by-products—In our climate, llamas need to be sheared once a year so they can endure the summer heat. Their fleeces are valuable and renewable each year. Similarly, sheep and certain goats provide fleeces that are also a sustainable way to use your animals without killing them. And if you truly care to milk an animal every day, then a single cow pregnancy can turn into a couple of year’s worth of milk. Our beehive provides both honey and good pollination for our flowers and vegetables.
There are loads of really terrific books out there that offer detailed information about raising and keeping farm animals. Our book will give you some general considerations and our own experience, but there are many people out there with much more experience than us. The other books in the Joy of . . . series are terrific companions to this one and there are others that are worthy, which are listed in the recommended reading section. We suggest you buy all the books you can find on the animals you will be raising because they all have something to offer. You can never get too many perspectives on raising animals.
We recommend buying animals locally. If you’re buying them as pets or as fertilizer producers, then there’s really no reason to look for the pick of the litter. It’s much easier and cheaper to find the gelded males that for-profit farmers don’t care to spend money feeding. Ask around at your farmer’s market. Ask the folks selling beef, chicken, eggs, llama wool, or sheep and goat’s milk cheese if they have any animals they’d like to sell or know of someone who does. Don’t be impatient; you may have to wait until the next round of birthing. Just start putting the word out and the animals will come. We found many of our animals through the local rural classified newspapers that are available at most country stores.
• Buy locally and befriend the sellers so you might be able to call them for answers to questions you may have later.
• Read up on the specific animals you’re buying and the traits to watch out for, like founder rings on the hooves of horses. But unless you plan to show or breed the animals, there’s no need to be too picky outside of general health.
• Always buy two to begin with as farm animals do not do well living alone.
• Begin by buying gelded males. They are cheaper and you can learn to care for them and give yourself time to decide if you want to breed animals in the future. Buying a breeding pair instantly commits you to more than your original purchase.
• Visit the farm you’re buying from at least once without actually buying. Don’t buy on the spot. Take a look around, ask lots of questions, then go sleep on it for a few days.
• Stay away from livestock markets. They can smell a greenhorn coming from miles away and you’ll never leave there with what you truly want or need.
• While we do advocate adopting from rescue organizations, don’t do it initially. Rescue farm animals can have very serious physical and mental problems that may be beyond the expertise (or financial means) of a first-time farm animal owner.
• Start with the lowest-maintenance animals you can find, like llamas, donkeys, longhorn cattle, or chickens. It’s much more fun and rewarding to grow into a menagerie at your own pace than to have them take over your life.
• Remember that even chickens can live twenty years or more. Horses, llamas, and other large grazing animals can live well into their thirties. Keeping animals you aren’t going to eat is a big commitment.
Shelter—Most of the animals we recommend in this book need just a three-sided shelter with a roof to be happy. They’ll only use it to get dry or stay out of the harshest weather. If you live in a very cold, wet, or hot climate or you’re raising show animals, then you will need a barn to keep them during the coldest and hottest days of the year. (Chickens need a fully enclosed shelter to keep them safe from predators; more on chicken coops and tractors to follow.)
Food and water—The animals we recommend for the hobby farmer need very little in the way of extra food, as long as you give them enough pasture to graze. Animals are not healthy when they are overweight and you should not feed your farm animals in the same way you feed your dogs and cats. They should be left to forage mostly for themselves, except when that forage is not available. We only buy hay for the harshest months of the winter when there’s not any green grass left on the ground. If you live somewhere that is very dry and has very little grass for much of the year, you should really think twice about having animals at all. Raising animals where they can’t naturally forage for themselves is not sustainable. But animals can be made to create healthy pastures if you employ proper rotation techniques.
The books of farmer Joel Salatin describe a sustainable grass-fed animal rotation system. Even in areas that do have good grass, we know of times when drought conditions have required farmers to travel several states away to find hay. The amount of on-farm grass and feed you can produce is a big factor in the cost of keeping animals.
Access to clean, fresh water at all times is very important. Some animals can share water sources. For instance, our donkeys and llamas share a tank and our house chickens, dogs, and cats all drink out of the same water bowls scattered around the yard. Make sure that the water doesn’t freeze in the winter time. We usually carry buckets of hot water from the house to pour into the frozen bowls and tank to break up the ice in the winter. But electric water heaters are inexpensive and convenient too.
Basic veterinary care—Most large animals should be seen by a veterinarian once a year. For hardy animals like donkeys and longhorn cattle, you might get away with never needing a vet unless they have a problem. At a minimum, you should have your animal seen once by a vet to establish the relationship and to get their professional advice. Then you can decide for yourself how often you’d like your animals to be seen and evaluated. There’s some debate as to how many vaccinations are needed for all the various farm animals. We tend to believe that most farm animals are over-vaccinated. The recommendations of your local agricultural extension agent are very much in line with their conventional recommendations for raising plants; they rely heavily on chemicals. But this will have to be a judgment call on your part. Some people suggest a West Nile vaccine for donkeys and llamas, but a few vets we’ve talked to have explained that donkeys seem to be less susceptible to this virus than horses. They suggest that the animal would have to have another pre-existing condition that weakened their immunity before it could be a problem. Tetanus shots are another issue. There’s no clear evidence that indicates how often farm animals need to be vaccinated against tetanus. We’ve only had our donkeys vaccinated twice in the 8 years we’ve owned them. But we do have our llamas vaccinated every year with whatever the vet recommends.
Companionship—The more attention you give your animals, the better. They like it. They become more tame and easier to handle. You can spot any problems early. And animals provide good, old-fashioned entertainment.
Keeping in mind the basic needs of farm animals, you’ll need to prepare for their arrival. If you have animals already, you’ll want to make sure you have a separate area for the new animals to go until they get settled. It’s best to have a small pen next to the field where other animals are so that everyone can get acquainted over a fence for a day or two before intermingling. We use our dog pen (without the dogs in it, of course). A temporary fence of posts and ropes is okay, if that’s all you have.
Even if you stick with the low-maintenance animals as we suggest and you have good grass, it’s best to have some feed for the first few days. It’s a good way to break the ice and to let the animals know that you are the provider. They can usually use a little more high-calorie and protein food if they’re stressed from being moved to new place. Buy some good grain or sweet feed, but don’t completely spoil them.
Walk your fields and fences before they arrive and replace any fencing that might be dangerous. If you’ve got barbed wire from having cows previously, you should really replace that if you are introducing horses, donkeys, or llamas. We spent a whole day gathering up old rusty barbed wire that had been left around our fields before we brought in our llamas. We then put them in our dog pen for the first night. But we didn’t fully check the dog pen. There were some wires sticking out that were used to attach the woven wire to the posts. Within the first four hours, one of the llamas was spooked and caught his lip on the wire. It ripped it wide open and we had to call the vet out at 9 p.m. on a Sunday to stitch him up—on his very first day!
You should also make sure you have proper halters and leads for the animals before they arrive.
Reprinted with permission from The Joy of Hobby Farming by Michael and Audrey Levatino and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Joy of Hobby Farming.
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