Livestock, or animal husbandry, is much harder than gardening, with many more obligations and work required.
- However, beyond food, they also provide convenient and consistent access to meat, fertilizer, and a wide variety of supplies from their carcasses.
Do not micro-manage.
- Raising livestock is essentially letting nature happen, followed by sporadic interventions as needed.
- While the marketing veers toward technological solutions like growth hormone, antibiotics, calf formula, and various equipment, they’re only sometimes more effective than open-range, hands-off approaches.
Letting the animals freely roam in a sufficiently large-enough area ends up fixing many issues:
- Animals tend to excrete, then naturally walk away from it. If it’s outside on raw land, the elements will take over and it’ll convert to high-quality potting soil.
- Gravity naturally causes valleys to accumulate organic material and render ridges and slopes infertile, so chewing cud on higher ground defies this tendency to create fertile area everywhere.
- Forage starts slow, gains speed, then slows as it reaches maturity (a sigmoid curve over time). Wandering gives plenty of time for the forage to grow back.
- New ground and fresh forage gives variety, which nutritionally helps the livestock through fresh food with more variety.
- It may work at scale to raise livestock in pens, but it requires a lot of synthetic replacement, and isn’t financially worth it for anything smaller-scale.
Livestock have a general yearly cycle:
- Daily feed the animals or send them to pasture, as well as protect them from wild animals and other risks.
- Send the animals back in every evening and during inclement weather.
- Shear the sheep in summer, birth the animals as needed.
- Butcher, salt, and smoke their meat.
- Repair all the tools and equipment during winter, as well as working with more long-term materials (e.g., bone, leather).
Watching Over Them
Stay perpetually vigilant over them.
- Most animals have all the risks of infection as we do, but are too dumb to self-protect.
- Animals (especially prey animals like most cattle) tend to hide what they need.
- Unless you’re operating a very large farming operation, most livestock are at risk from wild animals attacking (e.g., weasels in a chicken coop).
Visually examine your herd/flock multiple times a day for any distinctive changes:
- Observe the group from a distance, preferably before they appreciate your presence.
- Are they gathered together or spread out?
- Are they relaxed and eating, or anxious and on alert?
- Is there an individual acting contrary to the group’s behavior (lying while others are standing, isolating when the rest are bunched, falling behind when the rest are moving, watching while the rest are eating)?
- Slowly approach, disrupting the group as little as possible, to where you can visually inspect each one individually.
- Count them to be sure they’re all present.
- Observe whether their behaviors are appropriate for the time of day, level of activity, body condition, and animal’s life stage.
- Observe if the animals are eating.
- Are they eating with equal enthusiasm?
- Does feed stay in the animal’s mouth, or does it tend to fall out before it swallows?
- Are young animals nursing?
- Scan their outer coverings far-to-near, then nose-to-tail, then top-to-bottom.
- Noses – look for cleanliness, flaring, and any swelling.
- Eyes – look for wide, open, clean eyelids, clear corneas with no hints of blue, and intact hair surrounding the eyes.
- Mouths – appearances should be consistent with their feeding activities.
- On ruminants (grazing animals), is there a chunk of cud on their cheek?
- Is the animal chewing rhythmically and comfortably?
- Are the lips and cheeks symmetrical?
- Has any drool accumulated near the mouth?
- Necks – look for an alert position, any curvature, or swelling.
- Chests – look for consistent and regular breathing consistent with their activity and ambient temperature.
- Is their breathing the same as the surrounding animals?
- Is their abdomen helping them breathe?
- Are the breath sounds quiet, or is there wheezing or grunting?
- Belly – look for smoothness and symmetry.
- Are the flanks caved-in or softly rounded?
- Does the animal use a hind foot to kick at the abdomen?
- Tail – look for how they carry it, which varies dramatically between species.
- Goats tend to carry their tail erect, but indicates pain, difficulty urinating, peripaturience (childbirth), or other issues within most other animals.
- Does the tail move normally?
- Is the tail hanging limp?
- Reproductive organs – look for the appropriate size and any issues.
- In heat or peripaturience they’ll have swollen, pink vulvas and may have discharge.
- Monitor for any afterbirth issues, such as greenish discharge.
- Are the males’ testicles symmetrical.
- Udders – note symmetry, cleanliness, redness, crusting on the nipples, and stiffness near the hind legs.
- Lower limbs – note the limbs and hooves.
- Are the joints knobby and angular, or do any of them appear rounded and swollen?
- Do the limbs appear equally mobile when the animal walks?
- Are the hooves an appropriate length and free of cracks, horizontal lines, and breakage?
- Body position, stance, and gait – watch for an irregular posture.
- Is the back flat and parallel with the ground, or is it hunched?
- Is the body position symmetrical, or is weight shifted to one direction?
- Do the hips and shoulders appear to be at an equal height, or is one offset?
- Are all limbs bearing equal weight, or is one favored?
- Are there any muscular fasciculations (tremors)?
- Note their outputs.
- Monitor stools looking for diarrhea (including dried diarrhea under the tail or across the backside).
- Watch during urination for ease, straining, little production in the face of posturing to urinate, and dark or red-tinged urine.
- Look over your shoulder as you exit.
- How do they respond as you leave?
- Is their response normal?
Unless you’re a veterinarian, you will need to know one.
- While you may be able to take care of smaller animal matters, veterinarians will have more training and experience than you about what the animal may need.
- When you have a dozen animals, you can contact the vet as-needed.
- However, once you have a lot of livestock, it may make sense to plan for them to visit at least once a week.
At scale, you may want to consider more robust ways to improve your yield.
- While it may take more space and initial work, letting your animals freely move can very frequently help improve yield with minimal effort (i.e., “free range”).
- Generally, they need electric fences or some other natural barrier, as well as water routed to the area to ensure they can graze.
- The easiest way is to give the animals antibiotics, but you can also give them hormones to strengthen them.
- Irrespective of ethics, giving more synthetic stimulants to the animal will decrease the quality of the yield, and it’ll generally make the animals miserable in the process.
One simple way to improve your agricultural yield is with mob grazing or rotational grazing, which both operate on a similar broad principle of rotational farming:
- Abandon the soil where a crop had been for 1-13 months.
- During a planting season, plant grass seeds in that area and wait for them to grow. At the same time, start Step 1 somewhere else.
- Send out cattle to graze once the grass has grown tall, where their poop will fertilize the soil.
- Plant the crop the next planting season.
Fencing doesn’t have to be permanent (e.g., digging posts or laying bricks), and can be as simple as mobile electric fences.
- When you’re starting, install mobile fences, then convert it to a permanent fence once you haven’t moved it in 3 years.
- Most modern mobile fencing is braided polywire, which combines plastic and wire, and can be rolled with a standard extension cord reel.
- The wire strands required for control vary:
- Cows and horses need 1, pigs need 1-2, sheep need 3.
- The key, though, is to make sure it has enough tension, voltage, visibility, and is the right height.
- Solar-powered mobile energizers can often be cheaper than central energizers.
Make sure you build roads across the property, with a water line that runs parallel to it.
- When you can, capturing water runoff into ponds will save the trouble of having to pipe it across large distances.
Most modern bandsaw mills permit building small-dimension structures with the available timber.
- Consider making shademobiles as an extended hay wagon chassis to protect cows from the sun.
- Broiler chicken shelters can offer predator and weather protection, while also being portable enough to move every morning.
- A “rambler” for a ram allows them to self-move across pasture.
- Building a gobbledygo for turkeys on a mobile home axle with roosts on a v-truss gives them protection and habitat.
- Generally, portable frames allow managing at scale without having to pay for extreme infrastructure.
Most domesticated animals have been selectively bred to be farmer-friendly, but they still have their idiosyncrasies.
Horses are very intelligent.
- They can sense your feelings, and the horse-rider relationship can often be a very strong bond.
- If the horse is resisting you on a path you want to go with them, there’s a clear reason.
Cows and sheep are not very intelligent, and will get themselves lost or killed if you don’t keep them confined or direct them in a general direction.
- Thankfully, they’re skittish enough that they’re easy to direct.
Chickens are even dumber than cows.
- Never let multiple roosters persist in a coop or they will fight with each other and harass the hens.
Goats can eat just about anything, and they will devour almost any green foliage.
- While you can hire them to clear out overgrowth, keep an eye on them or they’ll strip all roots, leaves, and bark from an area.