My husband, Keith, and I have had a working sheep and goat ranch for nearly ten years. It is a small operation, all things considered. We only have thirty acres.
Coming from major cities like Houston and Loss Angeles, as Keith and I do, thirty acres seems like a lot. Locals joke with us, “Thirty acres? That’s not a ranch! That’s somebody’s back yard.” Which is true when you consider many ranches around here have acreage up into the thousands.
Thirty acres is huge to us and we have turned it into a ranch. We have made it work. Work is what I want to talk about today.
Keith and I hear from friends and family, “Oh, you must work so hard.” “I always wanted a farm but it seems like too much work.”
I’m not certain what my friends and family envision we do all day, but my response is always, “It’s not that much work! And it can be made easier”
It’s not like we are hand scything tall grass and pitching it into giant hay bales all day. Our animals are well cared for so, though the occasional illness comes along, we aren’t doctoring them up all day every day. We aren’t carrying water over our shoulders in buckets.
The work we do can be hard work, but it is so sporadic and spread out; it is such a labor of love that it doesn’t seem like work. Even the hardest work can be made easier.
For anybody considering starting a smallholding ranch, let me assure you: if a couple of city kids (in their 40s) can do it, so can you!
Daily chores are the easiest.
There are daily chores, of course. Depending on the time of year and amount of rainfall, these chores vary slightly in energy, exertion, and time spent.
By far the easiest daily chore is egg picking. Sprinkle a bit of feed down for the hens, check their water, go pick eggs.
Easy, right? I don’t know how this particular chore could get any easier.
This is not even a daily chore year-round.
The hens get broody and stop laying for a few weeks or months (depending on if they are allowed to hatch any eggs or left to their own devices). They molt, usually in the fall, and all their energy goes to making new feathers. They don’t lay eggs.
When the days get shorter, they stop laying eggs until they can enough hours of light to produce an egg. Some egg farmers install lights in the coop to keep egg production going all year. We don’t. We want things as easy as possible for both the humans and the animals.
The next daily chore and one of my favorites is milking. Naturally, this is only a chore when the goats are in milk.
The most work of milking is cleaning the equipment. If you enjoy washing dishes, this wouldn’t be a chore for you at all. I have learned to make this chore easier by ensuring that my equipment is clean before I leave the house.
Milking takes me about thirty minutes from start to finish if I’m milking one goat, ten minutes longer for another goat. I’ve never milked more than two goats at a time.
The most important thing to remember about milking is consistency. Milking at the same time every day is key. Whether you milk once or twice a day only depends on you. I milk once per day. This is another way I have made the chore of milking easier.
Feeding is seasonal
All of our animals are on pasture, so we only supplement feed when necessary. Usually, when the weather starts turning cold at the beginning of autumn, we supplement a daily grain ration and throw down a couple of free choice hay bales.
My husband makes feeding easier for me by pre-mixing the grains.
We buy species-specific formulated feed, so he isn’t exactly mixing from scratch. We sometimes add an all-stock sweet feed to the regular ration. Pregnant and nursing animals need the extra energy to avoid pregnancy ketosis.
Feeding out a bucketful or two of ration just takes a couple of minutes. I confess, I usually do this in my bathrobe and slippers.
With enough rainfall in the spring, the pasture grows lush. We can eliminate feeding as a daily chore until the weather turns cold again.
Hard work comes in spurts
There are definite periods of hard work. Lambing and kidding season, bottle babies, sorting and working entire herds, and building pens or repairing fence are by far the hardest work.
Lambing and kidding season only come once per year for us now. We have learned to breed our animals on a schedule. This is a huge help in regulating how much work we will do, and when. Scheduled breeding times make our work much easier.
Work does ramp up during lambing and kidding season.
Helping does and ewes through difficult labor is by far the toughest part. It takes a bit of physical exertion to pull or turn a baby. It takes an incredible amount of patience to wait and watch the laboring animal to ensure she actually needs help.
Patience is hard work for me
Waiting is a chore. Waiting for crops to grow, lambs and kids to be born, or the ideal weather to arrive. Each is hard work. I haven’t yet found a way to make waiting any easier.
Every year we do end up with one or more bottle bummers. A bummer is a lamb or kid who becomes motherless. Either the mama rejects the baby, or the mama dies, or the baby becomes hypothermic and needs human intervention to survive.
It is most common for the mamas to take care of all the labor and delivery by themselves. We watch them from afar and only step in when necessary. I have never had to midwife more than two animals on the same day.
We have had a few mamas reject babies. This usually happens with multiple births and first-time mothers. We haven’t had a bummer due to maternal death in our herd but have adopted lambs or kids from other goat or sheep ranchers.
The most frequent cause for bummers here has been the weather.
If a lamb or kid gets too cold, they cannot digest their food. E-Coli bacteria is absorbed through their stomach into the blood. If this bacterial infection isn’t treated in time, the baby will die.
Isolating first-time mothers and watching closely can prevent hypothermic lambs and kids. Ensuring the baby is dry and can nurse before leaving the mother alone further will make parenting chores easier. For both the mother and the human.
Carefully observing lambs and kids in the hours after birth is crucial. Early detection of hypothermia makes the work of saving babies much easier.
The work begins by bringing the baby indoors, getting it warm inside and out, medicating it, and coaxing it to take some warm milk. We warm the baby by soaking it in a warm bath and immediately blow drying it, then wrapping it in a blanket.
We then medicate it with spectinomycin, an antibiotic found in SpectoGard Scour Check. This was developed for pigs, but our vet has okay-ed its use and we have found it works wonders with lambs and kids. We also give it a warm soapy water enema to get those bowels moving.
I usually have goat milk on hand. We feed this regardless of species.
Once all of this is accomplished, the baby smells weird to mama and she usually won’t take it back. We end up with a bottle baby.
Bottle babies are work, but they are the best work
Yes, bottle babies must be fed every two to three hours the first few days and every four hours the first two weeks after that. Which is a lot of work.
At three to four weeks, they can be fed three times a day. The workload lessens.
Babies who have to be kept in a crate in the house present additional work. Think human infants and diapers. Yep. Same thing. There will be plenty of pee and poop to clean up. I am always happy to do this. Babies that stay inside our house are the worst-off babies. When they start to pee and poop, they are healing and getting ready to be taken outside to the lambing/kidding shed.
This work can be made a little easier when the babies are two or three days old. We put them in a crate, take the crate out to the milk barn and put it under a heat lamp.
Not losing sleep worrying about every little noise those babies make, definitely makes our work easier. Bottle babies are a lot of work, but not that much work. It is such a labor of love and cuteness I hardly notice it is work.
Healthy animals make happy ranchers
We keep our animals healthy by working them several times a year.
We have to coax the whole flock of sheep or herd of goats into the working corral and from there into the working pen which leads to the working shoot.
We figured out pretty early on this chore is made easier by working one species at a time.
Once in the shoot, they get ear-tagged, vaccinated, medicated for parasites, castrated, and tails docked. They also get sorted for sale, who stays, who goes and examined for any indication of unwellness.
We used to ear tag every head brought to or born on our place. We have made this chore easier by only ear-tagging the animals we want to sell. We tag them during sorting just before they go on the truck.
We only dock the tails of the ewes we will keep. Tail docking helps to prevent fly-strike in ewes that have just given birth.
In order to get one herd or flock worked in one day, we have help. Other sheep and goat people, a (much younger) couple come out and spend the day. This creates a fun environment where, yes, we are working hard, but not that hard.
The hardest work comes first
By far the hardest work came before we ever got animals. We had to build pens. We had to build fence. We had to rebuild the barn and sheds.
Building pens requires hauling T-posts and pounding into the hard, drought blighted ground. Once the posts are in place, someone has to hold the panels still (me) while someone else Keith) tightens the wire around the panel and post.
We did this chore in the heat and scorching, blinding sunshine. It can obviously be made easier by choosing cooler weather in which to work.
Building fence requires the same amount of effort, plus a little more. You still have to pound posts into the ground. In addition, you have to string wire. Stringing wire requires a lot of walking, bending, and pulling.
Fencing can be made much easier by using appropriate tools. These include fence pullers, spinning Jenny’s, and permanent wire wheel tighteners.
You have options for stringing wire. Four or six strands, barbed or electric depending on the animals you are keeping penned and the predators you want to keep out.
Four strand barbed wire fence is ideal for cattle. The wire will keep them in, and cows, for the most part, are adept at handling predators.
Sheep will usually stay inside four wires but need more protection from predators. We have coyotes and bobcats that see baby sheep as the perfect snack.
Goats are difficult to keep in any enclosure. Goat people have a saying, “If it can’t hold water, it can’t hold a goat.” We have had good luck keeping our goats penned with hot fences.
Most of our pasture is grazed by sheep and goats. We started with goats and built our first fence accordingly. Some of the pasture was previously grazed by cattle and already had barbed wire strung. We only had to repair, tighten and add one strand of electric wire to that fence.
Fencing our property truly is hard work. It can be made easier with the appropriate tools, good company, and ideal weather.
If waiting for perfect weather is too much of a chore, fencing can still be made easier. Go slow and take lots of breaks for lemonade, cool water, or sweet tea.
Preparation, patience, proper tools, and skill ensure a good fence will last a lifetime. There may be occasional maintenance and upkeep, but not very often.
Ranching is hard work but can be made easier
Our ranch is a labor of love. We receive so much more in return for work we do; it feels like no work at all.
We have fresh eggs and fresh milk. We have adorable, cute, and friendly livestock ready and willing for pets and love. We have the joy of raising babies. Excellent livestock management gives us healthier, better stock for sale (which brings in more money). A well-built fence keeps animals in, predators out, and requires infrequent maintenance.
If you plan ahead, use good management skills, keep your animals healthy, ranching is hard work, but it can be made easier. Especially when it is a labor of love.