Selecting Livestock for your Suburban Homestead

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It’s that time of year, folks. SPRING—the time when chicks hatch, ewes lamb, cows calve, sows farrow, does kid and rabbits kindle. A farm is alive with life as each new addition is born. But, as suburban homesteaders can we experience the same pleasures of raising livestock for food and fiber on our city lots just as our friends in the country can? Yes, we can!

Instead of curling up with a poultry catalog, scanning the internet dreaming of what could be or bemoaning what you think you can’t have, why not look into what you can have?

Bringing home your first flock or herd, or adding to an already existing one can be an exciting time. But, there are some things you need to do first. The most important first step, and the one I always recommend to any new suburban livestock owner, is find out what you are allowed to have on your property. Some suburban homeowners will only be able to raise a few rabbits, chickens, ducks or maybe a turkey, while others, like me, on a larger lot with different zoning regulations can have a larger variety – sheep and pigs. Regardless of your situation, you can still raise some of the meat and eggs your family eats, and that is better than nothing.

Including livestock on your suburban homestead is the backbone of a diversified healthy farm system and one that should be seriously considered regardless of your lot size. Even a few laying hens can clean up kitchen scraps, produce eggs and provide manure for the garden. It’s a whole cycle, folks.

Once you have determined which animals you are allowed to have on your property, decide what you want to have and how many. If you are allowed to have rabbits, but don’t like rabbit meat then don’t raise rabbits, at least not for meat. Rabbits for fun and manure is another choice.

The amount of space you have available for raising livestock will also dictate what you can raise and how many. Different species have different space requirements—chickens and rabbits only a few feet per animal, turkeys quite a bit more. As an example, I am zoned to raise a steer on my property, but, with gardens, fruit trees, berry patches and my existing animals I don’t have adequate space available for an animal that will eventually grow to 1000 pounds or more. I am looking into raising a heritage breed which tends to be small, but I may not have enough space for that either, even though I am zoned for a steer. So, I am content with raising meat chickens and ducks, freezer lambs and pigs because I can comfortably house and raise these animals if I raise them at different times of the year.

When you have decided what to raise and have calculated how many of each species you have room for, now is the time to seek out a breeder.

First off, and I think most important, is to find a breeder who has a similar livestock management style as you have or you want to have. If you plan to raise chickens organically and free range, then you should buy stock from a breeder who is doing the same. However, this is not as important if you are buying day old chicks or eggs to hatch because the management system will be determined by you.

The management system an animal comes from is especially important if you plan to raise larger livestock like sheep or pigs, even cattle, and more so with goats. There are many breeders who think nothing of injecting their animals with growth hormones and supplements to improve their chances of survival or faster growth. If this is the case, how do you really know what the animals’ abilities are in an environment that does not include drugs? How do the chemicals affect their natural immunity? Ability to convert feed? Or, their ability to grow to maturity?

When raising larger livestock, you should also ask the breeder about birthing statistics. Along with knowing what the female’s litter size or her rate of singles, twins or triplets is, you also want to know about the frequency of birthing difficulties. If a breeder has a high rate of births that require assistance, they are either way too involved in the birthing process (not letting nature take its course), or they have a flock or herd that is predisposed to birthing problems. Any animal can have a miss-positioned baby once or twice in its life, but any animal that requires birthing assistance every year is one that does not have a desirable trait you want. Other problems that are genetic in nature and should be avoided are mouth, feet and leg problems, females that have poor mothering abilities, prolapes, mastitis, or ketosis, or hoof rot, although hoof rot could be more a result of the wet climate where the breeder lives than an actual trait. I’ve purchased breeding animals from the wet Ohio Valley area with great results because of our hot dry Southern California climate. And, although it may be easier to purchase animals from local breeders, improving your flock or herd by introducing different genetics may force you to look elsewhere.

Herd history and statistics becomes even more important when raising dairy animals, especially goats, because the health of the animals will directly affect the quality of milk produced and your ability to sell milk or use it to make cheese. If you are seriously considering raising goats on your suburban homestead you’ll want to do a lot more research and due diligence especially on contagious diseases affecting many goat herds.

Finally—a few things to keep in mind; raising livestock in a suburban setting will NOT be pasture raised because of space constraints and lack of adequate grazing areas, and, if you plan to have an exclusively organic suburban farm you may have to eventually close your flock or herd. This means you will be raising all your own replacement stock with little or no influence from the outside. You will need to bring in new sires occasionally to avoid any inbreeding problems. The animals you produce will build up resistance to germs on your farm, passing this immunity on to their offspring, making a stronger herd or flock.

This makes perfect sense when you think about why large commercial feedlot operations have so many health problems that require chemical intervention. They bring in animals from all over and pen them together. Animals coming from different farms will have different germs or pathogens. It would be improbable for animals not to get sick.

Finding organic breeders to purchase your stock from can be a challenge, one that you may not always be successful at. I know I haven’t. But, if the breeder is reputable and runs a clean well managed operation, even if it is not organic, you should be able to transition the animals to your system quite easily, but know that your results may vary and a few animals may need to be culled before you find the hardiness you’re looking for. And no, culling does not have to mean butchering. Many times an animal that’s not right for your suburban farm will be just right for someone else, perhaps someone that has more property.

So good ahead folks, find out what you can do and take another step closer to food self-reliance. Not only will you be producing good meat for your family table, but you’ll have fun along the way.

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