Tag Archives: Horses

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: Donkeys

What Draft Animal is Right for You?: DonkeysThose who are considering draft animals generally find themselves comparing oxen, horses, and mules. Donkeys do not receive nearly as much attention in the draft world, but that is not to say they can’t pull their own weight around the farm!

The donkey breed best suited to farm work is the American Mammoth Jackstock. Larger burros can do a surprising amount of draft work, as well.

Pros

  • Low purchase cost. Donkeys are typically very inexpensive, sometimes even free. A trained team may be a little more expensive (when locally available), but not by all that much.
  • Hardiness. While perhaps donkeys are not quite as hardy as mules, they are certainly extremely hardy. Parasites should not present any great difficulties, and neither should overeating. Hoof and leg problems are also rare in donkeys.
  • Low feed costs. Donkeys can thrive with very little feed (probably less than any other draft animal). They require supplemental feed if working hard on a regular basis, but less than a draft horse would. If they work only sporadically, they may not require any feed at all. Either way, donkeys do not require the same level of pasture quality that horses do.
  • Minimal hoof care. Out of all the draft animals, donkeys require the least attention to their hooves. As long as they have room to walk around and access to some rougher ground that will wear down their hooves a bit, they should not require trimming. But even if your circumstances make trimming a necessity, shoes are not necessary for donkeys.
  • Simple harnesses. Draft harnesses for donkeys and burros are typically quite simple, involving little more than a padded collar. This reduces the amount of time spent getting the donkey ready for work and then maintaining the harness.
  • Sure footing. Donkeys are well suited to working on uneven fields or smaller properties with hard-to-reach corners.
  • Versatility. A male work donkey could potentially be kept for breeding mules, as well. As an additional bonus, donkeys make good guard animals for sheep and goats. Some bigger donkeys can be ridden, although there aren’t too many donkeys with the size and back strength for this purpose (another point in favor of the American Mammoth Jackstock).

Cons

  • Small size. Most donkeys are too small for heavy draft work, and even a good-sized donkey cannot pull loads as heavy as an ox or mule can (although it might be able to outperform a horse of the same size). Nearly any donkey can pull a small cart loaded with firewood, but for heavier farm work you will want to consider a large donkey. You may also want to plan on two donkeys for every one horse that the job in question would require due to the donkey’s smaller size.
  • Variable availability. While donkeys in general are rather common, draft donkeys are not. Your ability to find a sturdy draft donkey will depend on where you live.
  • Independent nature. Donkeys can be difficult to train and work. They are more like cats than dogs when it comes to obedience, and they can be extremely wary, especially when young. Be prepared to earn their trust and to exercise a great deal of patience when dealing with potentially frightening situations. Also keep in mind that they will never allow themselves to be overworked or placed in danger. For most beginners, starting with a trained team is probably the best bet.

Conclusions

Donkeys are well suited to work on smaller farms. Even a miniature donkey can pull a small cart of vegetables or firewood. And donkeys also have the advantages of being versatile and quite economical to keep.

That said, most donkeys are not big or sturdy enough for heavier draft work. For this purpose, you will likely want an American Mammoth Jackstock, which may or may not be readily available in your area. But if you are considering serious logging or other very heavy work, you may be happier with something with more pulling power, such as an ox or a heavy-breed horse.

Also, not everyone gets along well with donkeys. Those who prefer a more docile animal will likely prefer oxen or horses. Donkeys are more focused on self-preservation—like a mule, but ever so much more so. But some people truly appreciate the intelligence of donkeys. It’s largely a matter of personal preference.

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: Mules

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: MulesThe mule has long been used as a draft animal, but it has been particularly associated with the hot climate of the South. It is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.

While there aren’t exactly breeds of mule, not all mules are created equal. The build of both the jack and the mare involved are key factors in determining whether their offspring will be big and husky enough for draft work. Many mules are bred for saddle purposes these days, which means that they often have a lighter physique.

When selecting the parents of a future draft mule, you will want to look for sturdy, strong-boned donkeys and horses of the larger breeds. You will also want to select both parents, but particularly the mare, for good disposition. One of the best donkey breeds for draft mule breeding is the American Mammoth Jackstock. The horse can be of just about any desired draft breed.

Pros

  • Superb heat tolerance. Historically, the mule was typically the draft animal of choice in the Deep South. The reason was its exceptional tolerance of heat and humidity.
  • Exceptional health and hardiness. Few domestic animals are as tough as the mule. It rarely gets sick, and it almost never goes lame. It has a high degree of parasite resistance. Its hooves are exceptionally sturdy and generally don’t require shoes unless it is being worked on pavement or very rocky ground.
  • Self-preservation instinct. Mules have an unrivaled ability to look out for themselves. They rarely make themselves sick by eating or drinking too much all at once (cases of founder are usually restricted to mules from pony mares). They will not allow themselves to be overworked, either.
  • Calmness. Mules are not prone to panic the way horses are. They may bolt out of wilfulness, but rarely out of fear.
  • Low maintenance requirements. Even when working, the mule requires very little supplemental feed (albeit more than a donkey). It does not require a pristine pasture or top-quality hay to stay in peak form. A draft mule is estimated to require about a third less feed than a working horse of the same size.
  • Longevity. Draft mules have long working lifespans, up to nearly 20 years with proper care.
  • A balance of speed and stamina. Speed and stamina are typically mutually exclusive, but the mule provides a very reasonable compromise. On a continuum with horses representing the most speed but least stamina and oxen representing the most stamina but least speed, a mule would be right about at the balance point.
  • Sure-footedness. Out of all the draft animals, mules are among the most sure of their footing, which is a plus on uneven ground or when working in tight quarters as when cultivating. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the mule has a narrower body and smaller hooves than a horse of the same size. The second is that it is always on the alert and acting as circumstances require.
  • Versatility. Your draft mule can also perform other work around the farm! It can be broken to ride just a like a horse, and when it is not otherwise employed, keep it in the pasture as a guardian for sheep and goats.

Cons

  • Prevalence of low-quality mules. Too many people try to make a fast buck by breeding a cull jack to an inferior mare. While miracles do happen, in everyday life any mule that results from such a breeding is highly unlikely to exceed its parents in quality. Purchasing a mule takes some research to avoid picking up somebody else’s nightmare. A docile mare and positive human interaction from birth are two ingredients necessary to make a good mule.
  • Expense. If you are starting out with a trained draft team (and you should give it some serious consideration if you are thinking about buying mules), a good mule team can be rather pricey.
  • Noise. This should not be much of an issue for anyone who has enough land to be considering draft mules. That said, those of you who are considering a mule for tilling the garden in a more populated area may want to factor in your neighbors’ feelings on the subject.
  • Training challenges. Mules aren’t exactly stubborn—they’re just super independent, and they have an exceptional ability to spot a person who isn’t really in control of a situation. But this independence, admirable though it may be in many situations, is not something most beginners want to deal with. Training mules for draft work is extremely challenging, and it requires a fair but firm hand, not to mention a considerable amount of time. Mistakes have long-term ramifications, and bad habits are extraordinarily difficult to weed out. (This is exactly why trained mules are so expensive.)
  • Complex harness. Although there are differences, the harness used for mules is much like that used for horses with respect to complexity. It takes time to get it on the animals, and it requires a good degree of maintenance.
  • Intelligent disobedience. Even a well-trained mule will disobey if it feels the need, and it will insist on taking time to look over any and all dubious situations before proceeding. This is precisely due to its beneficial self-preservation instinct. That said, not everyone can handle the independence of mules. Horses are more like dogs, mules are more like cats (although not quite to the same degree as donkeys). There is a reason why many people would rather train dogs than cats!
  • Sterility. The mule is the only draft animal that cannot replicate itself (with the caveat that most oxen are steers). Granted, your mule team should last for many years. But if you ever need to replace or expand it, you must purchase new animals or keep both horses and donkeys on hand to raise more yourself.

Conclusions

Mules can make a superb team for use in challenging conditions, and they are the epitome of low-maintenance draft animals. Add to that their nice balance between speed and stamina, and you have an excellent choice for serious farm work.

However, there is probably a good reason that draft mules are not more common than they are, and that is their temperament. Not everyone is going to enjoy working with mules. Beginners in particular may find mules to be too much of a challenge when learning the ropes, even when dealing with a trained team. (And an untrained team can be a nightmare for all but the most dedicated and experienced teamsters.)

When it comes to mules, there is no question that they are superb in low-input farm situations. The question is whether or not you are one of those special people who can get along with a mule.

Next week: Donkeys

Helpful Resource

Mule
More information on the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of the mule, from our guide to horse and donkey breeds.

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: Horses

Which Draft Animal is Best for You?: HorsesThe horse has always been and still remains a great favorite with some who work with draft animals. It is widely in use among the Amish, and it has enjoyed the attentions of homesteaders and small farmers of all stripes in recent years.

While heavy horses are the ones commonly thought of as draft horses, these breeds are not the only option. A good, sturdy pony can be a suitable draft animal for a truly small farm.

Common horse breeds that can perform some type of farm draft work include:

Pros

  • Low cost of good animals. Compared to some of the other draft animal options, horses are relatively easy to come by, which makes them less expensive. If you are looking at starting with a team that is already trained, you will particularly notice the price difference between horses and mules.
  • Relative ease of finding supplies and information. Likewise, because horses are still comparatively commonly used for draft purposes, finding resources should be quite doable. Even if you live in an area where equipment and expertise are not locally common, the Internet has made draft horse resources widely available.
  • Sized for all purposes. Whatever you want to pull, there is likely a horse of the right size to tackle the job. For a very small farm that produces nothing but vegetables and firewood, a pony may be all you need. For field work and logging, there are the tried-and-true draft horses. And then there’s just about everything in between.
  • Docile temperament. Although not as easy to train as oxen, compared to mules and donkeys, horses are far more amenable and less independent-minded. This is particularly true of the large draft breeds. The horse can also tolerate more beginner mistakes than a mule can. A good draft horse may not be the fastest-learning animal on the planet, but it more than makes up for this in willingness.
  • Moderate heat tolerance. While the horse cannot match the heat tolerance of the mule (can anything?), it is far more suitable for summer work than oxen. Horses are a good fit for all but the hottest climates.
  • Speed. The horse is the fastest draft animal. If you are farmer who likes to hustle, this may be the best bet for you.
  • Dual-purpose transportation. Of course, this depends on the size of the horse and the size of the rider, but many draft horses can make surprisingly good saddle horses due to their kind, gentle dispositions.

Cons

  • Spookiness. Out of all the draft animal options, horses are the most prone to panic. Needless to say, this can present some very dangerous situations for both team and teamster. Breed choice (heavy breeds are the least skittish), careful selection of your new team, and proper training will all go a long way toward preventing mishaps.
  • Health issues. Ideally, you will evaluate the soundness of any draft animal you are considering purchasing before bringing it home. That said, there are problems that can turn up after years of work, and injuries do occur. Horses are probably the most delicate of all the draft animals. Lameness and hoof problems are things to watch out for. There are also a number of genetic defects rampant in heavy breeds that, while not necessarily always fatal, may have a negative effect on their working ability.
  • Short working lifespan. In keeping with their more delicate physique, horses often have shorter working lifespans than either mules or oxen.
  • Complex harness. If you are interested in horses, you will need quite a bit of gear to make it all work. This means a greater up-front cost to get started, and a longer time spent harnessing in the morning before you can actually start work. The harness will also require considerably more maintenance than an ox yoke.
  • Feed needs. Compared to the other draft animal species, horses require the most inputs to perform draft work. This means high-quality pasture for certain. Most working horses need supplemental feed, too (although not as much as you would expect given their size, and they can provide the power to grow their own grain).
  • Shoeing needs. Fortunately, many draft horses do not require shoes to work. Unfortunately, many do, primarily owing to soundness issues that have resulted from a heavy emphasis on breeding heavy horses for looks in recent years. If you happen to have a team that needs shoes to avoid hoof problems, be prepared for hefty farrier bills—shoeing such large horses costs considerably more than shoeing mules or even saddle horses due to the large, specialized shoes that have to be made for them. For safety, some farriers also insist that draft horses be shod in stocks, a special restraint system something like a milking stanchion.
  • Less stamina. Horses get tired more quickly than mules or oxen. If you expect to put in long, grueling days of work, you may want to consider another option.
  • Poor self-preservation instincts. Donkeys and mules are pretty good at looking out for themselves and will simply refuse to be overworked. Those who choose to keep draft horses must do the monitoring. Keep an eye out for exhaustion, overheating, colic, and founder from drinking too much water too quickly.

Conclusions

First off, it should be noted that some people keep draft horses because they love them. No mule, donkey, or ox will suffice in this case. This is not entirely due to the beauty of horses, but often largely due to their personality. The difference between a horse and a mule in loyalty, obedience, and trainability has been likened to the difference between a dog and a cat. Many people find the former of each pair easier to work with.

Second, there is a great deal to be said for horses if you have no prior experience with draft animals. There is the temperament factor as already mentioned, but there are many other considerations. Horses are often the easiest of the draft animals to come by, and there are more people out there who have experience with them who can mentor you. Harnesses for horses are also relatively easy to find.

But working horses require maintenance. They need high-quality pasture to carry out the demands of farm work, and they may require supplemental feed at least seasonally. Shoeing them, while not always necessary, is also quite expensive. Care must be taken to prevent them from being overworked or going lame. And they have less stamina and shorter working lifespans than other draft animals. All this adds up to make the horse a less-than-ideal fit into a truly low-input operation.

However, this is one of those cases where each individual teamster will have to weigh the pros and cons for himself. Are horses readily available to you? Are there the necessary resources, equipment, and knowledge in your area to make the project feasible? Would you benefit from working with a less independent-minded animal? Do you just love horses? Depending on your answers to these questions, the benefits of horses may more than compensate for the negatives.

Next week: Mules

Helpful Resource

Horse & Donkey BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
If you have decided that horses are right for you, it’s time to choose a breed! Our guide covers the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of America’s favorite horses.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: Breed

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: BreedIf you’ve looked into breed options at all, you’re probably bewildered. What are the differences between all these breeds? How do you narrow it down to just one or two?

These are not always easy questions to answer. For one thing, it will depend on your particular set of circumstances. For another thing, no two individuals within a breed are exactly the same.

Defining Your Expectations

The best place to start is with a list of characteristics you definitely want and definitely don’t want in your chosen livestock. To narrow your options down, ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I raising this animal for? Eggs? Milk? Meat? Fiber?
  • What type of environment will my animals need to adapt to?
  • What kind of temperament will I best be able to get along with?
  • What is my price range?
  • What breeds are readily available in my area?
  • What breeds interest me the most?

Most prospective homesteaders will probably want to look for animals that are disease-resistant, parasite-resistant, and suitable for low-input pasture-based production. In Kansas, don’t forget to factor in the climatic extremes! If you are selling either animals or animal products, you may also want to think about traits that might give you a marketing advantage (popular, heritage, rare, health benefits, etc.).

Doing Your Research

Once you know what you are looking for, choosing a breed largely boils down to extensive research. Every breed has pros and cons, and every breed was developed to fit a particular set of conditions and expectations. The right breed for you will typically be a breed developed for essentially the same environment and production system you are dealing with.

What about crossbreeds and assorted mongrels? These may work great for you, or they may not. Again, it depends on your circumstances and the nature of the individual beast. A good rule of thumb is that crossbred animals are usually a great fit for production systems (hybrid vigor) and a poor fit for breeding systems (inconsistency). But this is a very general principle—the applications and pitfalls of crossbreeding are explained in more depth in our Breeding Toolbox series.

Ready to check out some of your options? Arm yourself with your laundry list, and spend some time with one of our breed guides. Also be sure to check out some of our other online resources for posts, books, and links relevant to your species of interest:

If you find a breed or several breeds that meet your requirements, you’re well on your way to having a great country adventure. Have fun!

Helpful Resources

Breeds of Livestock
An Oklahoma State University website featuring the histories and characteristics of all types of livestock.

Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
A free online resource covering all types of heritage-breed livestock.

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
This book will walk you through the process of assessing your five needs, deciding whether purebred or crossbred cattle are right for you, and choosing from 40 beef, dairy, and dual-purpose breeds. More information and free sample pages are available for Choosing a Breed of Cattle.

Cattle BreedsCattle Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage cattle breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Horse & Donkey BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage equines, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Goat BreedsGoat Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Murray McMurray Chick Selector
This handy tool lets you filter chicken breeds by egg production, meat production, heat tolerance, cold tolerance, disposition, free-range suitability, and much more.

Getting Started With Livestock Part 3: Diet

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietKeeping your animals on pasture obviously has financial benefits, and you’ve probably heard of the numerous health benefits, as well. Even nonruminants like pigs and poultry can derive a great portion of their diet from the pasture, although they will need some type of supplemental feed. So how do you make it all work?

Pasture

The key to using pasture as your sole or primary animal feed is to keep it in good shape. This means you can’t let your livestock trample or graze it into the dirt. The best way to avoid this is to ration pasture out just like you would feed—you give the animals a small space for a day or maybe a couple of days and then move them onto a fresh paddock. You keep working your way across your pastures in this fashion.

This is just a very superficial overview of rotational and management-intensive grazing methods. There’s actually a whole art to it, which is way beyond the scope of this post. Check the Helpful Resources below for more information.

Another thing you’ll have to think about is how many animals you can safely keep on your land. Stocking rates vary widely (sometimes even on the same property). Five acres per cow-calf pair seems to be the average in most parts of Kansas.

The cow-calf pair can in turn be used as a standard of measure, known as the animal unit, to calculate stocking rates for other types of livestock. Thus, on our average five Kansas acres, we could place one of the following options:

  • 1 cow-calf pair.
  • 1 stocker calf.
  • 3 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 5 mature goats.
  • 1 pony (not a full-sized horse).
  • 1 bison.
  • 1 elk.

Stocking rates for pastured pork production have not received as much attention as those for other animals, so be prepared to do your own hands-on field research. A good starting point is to plan on about 10 pigs for every acre. Young, newly weaned pigs can be stocked more densely, while sows with litters will require more space.

Note that there are many variables that will affect your stocking rate. A 1,500-pound beef cow will require 1-1/2 times as much pasture as a 1,000-pound beef cow, for instance. Irrigation can squeeze more forage production out of your land. Also, simple attention to good grazing management will almost certainly raise your stocking rate above that of your neighbors!

Always err on the safe side when it comes to stocking rate. If you have a little more grass than your livestock need, it’s not a serious problem, but if you’re stuck with hungry animals, you’ll find yourself either buying hay or selling animals. Both can be painful, especially in a drought when everybody else is doing the same thing. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have enough experience to look at your land and roughly gauge how many animals you can put on it, you probably don’t need very many animals (at least not yet). Some experienced graziers recommend starting with herds as small as two to five head when learning grazing management.

Even in the winter, you may be able to keep your animals on pasture with proper planning. Stockpiling forage and planting cool-season grasses are two techniques for extending the grazing season and minimizing hay and feed consumption. Some animals, particularly dry beef cows, may even be able to thrive on dormant range grass in the winter with a protein supplement.

Harvested Forages

Of course, winter brings an end to the grazing season. Then what? Fortunately, hay and silage offer grain-free options.

Keep in mind that the quality of your harvested forage is very important. Animals cannot thrive on moldy hay, which can be a problem if the hay was improperly harvested or stored. Furthermore, blister beetles are toxic and can be a major problem in hay, particularly if you are feeding horses, so keep an eye out. Finally, remember that any pungent odors or flavors in hay for dairy animals will end up in your family’s milk supply!

The nutrient profile of the hay will depend on the types of forages that went into it. Legume hay is particularly noteworthy, as its high protein content can be absolutely essential or a needless expense, depending on what types of animals you have in what stages of production. Lactating animals will require more nutrition than dry animals (which is why it’s generally advisable to time breeding so that livestock will give birth when the weather is warm and the pastures are lush).

When it comes to sourcing harvested forage, you have three main options:

  • Harvest it yourself.
  • Have it custom-baled on your land.
  • Purchase it.

Determining which option is best for you is largely a matter of putting pencil to paper to work out the dollars and cents of the question. Also keep in mind that harvesting your own hay offers you more control over the quality but can be very expensive on a small scale. Purchasing hay, provided that it is good quality, offers an opportunity to bring in a natural source of soil fertility from outside, but it can also introduce noxious weeds and similar difficulties.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietFeed

Some animals will need feed to perform well and stay healthy. With these animals, you will have to be careful to keep your costs down without sacrificing the quality of their diet. Poultry and swine typically need some grain for peak health and performance. While ruminants are generally healthier without grain, some genetic lines (particularly among dairy animals) are bred for high production levels and may require feeding to avoid a breakdown. Horses may require supplemental feeding in winter or if working hard on a regular basis.

All this said, many animals are fed far more than is strictly necessary or even healthy. When determining whether or not your livestock will require feed, it is important to take genetics into account. If your goal is to minimize feed costs as much as possible, you will do well to seek out low-maintenance breeds, and low-maintenance genetics within those breeds. Thankfully, every livestock species still has breeds (typically heritage breeds) adapted to rustling their own living off the land.

Also consider your production system. Minimizing feed costs requires good attention to grazing management, and the smaller your property, the more important grazing management becomes. Furthermore, avoiding feed will often require some sacrifices, such as breeding in sync with the climate and accepting lower production levels.

What about growing your own grain for feed? Well, it just depends. Not only can creating a balanced ration be something of an art, the cost of making the feed can quickly add up to more than the purchase price elsewhere. Do the math. Does it make sense financially? Also, can you consistently guarantee the quantity and quality that your animals will need to stay healthy, particularly when first starting out?

Supplements

What kinds of supplements (if any) you need will largely depend on what kind of animals you have and where you live. Two people rarely agree on one magic formula. Many advocates of natural ways of raising all types of ruminants swear by kelp, and free-choice salt is also recommended in many situations. But what if your chickens are laying hens? Then you might want oyster shell or a feed that contains oyster shell. And what if you have dairy animals? You may need to consider a variety of vitamin supplements to keep them in top form. And what if your pastures are particularly poor? You may need a general-purpose stock lick.

The only way to know for sure what supplements will be necessary for your livestock is to do your research and then try it out. See what deficiencies are most common in your area to get off to a good start, but also be prepared to adjust down the road.

Planning a healthy diet for your animals is probably the most critical as far as your finances and their health are concerned, so take your time. Once you have a rough plan to reach your production, animal health, and food quality goals, you are ready to start looking into your breed options.

Helpful Resources

What is Management-Intensive Grazing?
An introduction to meeting the needs of both pastures and animals. Includes plenty of additional reading material.

Intensive Grazing: An Introductory Homestudy Course
For those who just want the basics of grazing management, this bulletin packs a great deal of essential information into a concise format.

What are Animal Units?
How to figure out how many animals your land can support.

Vitamins
Our own guide to the functions and natural sources of vitamins, along with symptoms of deficiency and toxicity.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & Facilities

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & FacilitiesThere really is no one right way to fence and shelter your animals. It’s a subject that will largely depend on your individual circumstances. But it’s also a subject that must be addressed, so here goes.

Fencing

What type of fencing and where to put it is going to depend a great deal on what kind of livestock you have. Nearly all grazing animals respond well to electric fencing, which is great because a portable electric fence makes rotational grazing easy. Even goats, which are notorious for their scorn of conventional fencing, can be contained with an electric fence if properly trained (more on that in just a minute) and if the fence is always kept in good working order. There may be particular cases when you might need to use barbed wire for cattle, such as along a property line; just keep in mind that even cattle don’t respect a barbed-wire fence the way they do an electric one.

For the more vulnerable animals, such as sheep and chickens, you may want to consider electrified netting to exclude predators. Just be aware that this type of fencing isn’t as easy to handle, and the weeds must be kept away from the bottom strands. Also, even electric netting cannot contain a lightweight chicken in the habit of flying out. The best way to avoid escapes is to move the pen often enough to keep the birds busy and contented and to avoid placing potential launch pads near the fence. Stubborn cases may need to have their flight feathers trimmed.

With the exception of chickens, newly purchased animals will need to be trained to respect electric fencing. Training consists of placing the animal in a safe enclosure, such as a pipe corral, with a short strand of electrified fencing set up at about nose level. Once the animal has received a shock on the nose, it will develop a healthy respect for the fence. Animals that have been born on your pastures do not need to be trained to the fence if kept with the rest of the herd or flock, as they will be taught by their mothers and the other animals.

So where do you put fencing? Some type of permanent fencing should definitely go around the boundaries of your land, but the rest is a little more subjective. Many regenerative agriculture experts advise against fencing in straight lines because this practice does not take into account the natural landscape and its needs. Instead, fences should follow natural contours, keeping similar forages and areas of terrain together to ease management (see Water for Every Farm by P.A. Yeomans for an in-depth explanation; read our full review here).

In the beginning, however, you may want to keep permanent cross-fencing to a minimum while you practice grazing management techniques and learn how to “read” your land. A good rule of thumb—if you find you have left a temporary fence in the same location for about three years, you are ready to replace it with a permanent fence.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & FacilitiesShelter

Shelter, too, largely depends on the type of animal you are raising. A short drive through just about any part of Kansas will tell you that beef cattle get along with little more shelter than a draw, a shelterbelt, or perhaps an artificial windbreak, depending on how far north and west you are. Sheep, on the other hand, can benefit from a simple shelter during lambing and after being sheared. Goats like to have someplace dry to go when it rains. A llama just wants a shady spot to lie down during the heat of the day (and maybe a kiddie pool). Chickens need shelter from rain, heat, cold, and predators, as well as a clean, dark, private place to lay eggs.

Of course, in no case does the shelter have to be elaborate. The simpler the better, especially if it’s only for seasonal use. If you can put it on wheels or skids and tow it around the back forty, so much the better.

Other Facilities

For most small animals, unless you’re starting in on a huge scale (not advisable), you probably aren’t justified in building elaborate facilities of any sort. If you have several dairy goats or cows, you may need to consider a portable milking parlor, and having a small corral for handling newly purchased beef cattle will probably make your life much easier. But for the most part, think simple. What are the bare basics you can start out with? One horse may require a field shelter, but almost certainly not a stable. Likewise, processing your own broiler chickens for personal consumption will not require you to build a professional abattoir. As you expand and gain experience, you’ll probably find it worth the money to invest in a better setup, but start small and grow into it.

Once you have a rough idea of the fencing, shelter, and other facilities you’ll need, you’ll be ready to juggle pasture, harvested forages, feed, and supplements as you put together a healthy diet for your livestock.

Helpful Resources

HomeMadeHomeMade
This handy book offers guidelines on building a number of structures for housing and containing livestock of all types. Great for the do-it-yourselfer! Read our full review.

Free LSU Building Plans
Although the plans at this site are free, they are generally more elaborate and geared toward commercial production. That said, there is quite a bit here that could prove useful to those getting started with livestock.

Getting Started With Livestock Part 1: Water

Getting Started with Livestock Part 1: WaterWhen it comes to keeping livestock, the water supply of your land base can be a major limiting factor. Therefore, before you invest any money in farm animals, it is crucial that you take stock of your water situation first.

Supply

Let’s start by examining the water resources you have available:

  • What water sources do you have? Wells? Springs? Creeks? Ponds? Cisterns?
  • How much flow or capacity does each water source provide?
  • How reliable is each source, especially in a drought?

You might want to consider writing out a water source inventory and keeping it in a handy place for reference.

Quality

As you write down the different sources of water available to you, also make a note of the general quality of the water. There is a saying that if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t make your animals drink it, either, but this is not necessarily always either true or practical. While you obviously want to avoid contamination as much as possible, and you should always strive to be a good steward of the water on your property, the importance of quality varies a great deal with the type of livestock you are raising. For dairy animals, clean water is an absolute must for quality milk production. Sheep also need reasonably clean water, or they won’t drink it. Chickens and beef cattle, on the other hand, seem to care very little about the state their drinking water is in. Yes, you should definitely give your livestock water that’s as clean and fresh as possible. But fit for human consumption? That may be a little over the top in most cases.

Water quality problems that are not acceptable include:

  • Unpleasant odors.
  • A pH below 5.5 or above 8.5.
  • Excessive salinity.
  • Fecal contamination.
  • Bacterial contamination
  • Blue-green algae.
  • High nitrate levels.
  • High sulfate levels.
  • Heavy metal contamination.

If there is reason to suspect that your water sources are less than ideal, some testing and remedial action is in order.

While you’re already thinking about water quality, you may also want to take a moment to think about extremes of temperature. Your animals will need cool water in the summer and unfrozen water in the winter. How will you get it to them?

Demand

Now that you know what you’ve got to work with, you need to find out how much water your chosen animals will drink in a day. Will your water resources limit the number of livestock you can keep? Bear in mind that there are many variables at play here. For example, a lactating cow will drink more than a steer, a milk goat more than a meat goat, and a European sheep more than a Navajo sheep, especially in summer.

For a starting point, consider the following estimates of daily water consumption per head:

Beef Cattle:

  • Calves: 5 gals/day.
  • Stocker calves: 15.
  • Dry cows and heifers: 15.
  • Cow/calf pairs: 20.
  • Bulls: 20.
  • Finishing cattle: 25.

Dairy Cattle:

  • Calves: 5 gals/day.
  • Heifers: 10.
  • Dry cows: 15.
  • Milking cows: 40.

Equines:

  • Ponies: 5 gals/day.
  • Light horses: 10.
  • Heavy horses: 16.
  • Donkeys: 6.

Pigs:

  • Weaners: 1 gals/day.
  • Feeders: 3.
  • Boars: 5.
  • Gestating sows: 5.
  • Lactating sows: 6.

Sheep and Goats:

  • Lambs and kids: 1 gals/day.
  • Rams and bucks: 2.
  • Gestating ewes and does: 2.
  • Lactating meat ewes and does: 3.
  • Lactating dairy ewes and does: 4.

Exotics:

  • Bison: 6 gals/day.
  • Elk: 6.
  • Llamas and alpacas: 3.

Please be aware that this is not intended to be a definitive guide to animal water consumption. The amount of variables that can affect the amount of water any given animal drinks on any given day is staggering. Until you get a better feel for your livestock and your water supply, think in terms of worst-case scenario.

So does your projected water use match your available water resources? If not, you will need to plan to either reduce your water use or increase your water supply.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 1: WaterDelivery

Water delivery methods vary by species, but there are a few golden rules that always apply:

  • Your animals should never run out of water at any point during the day.
  • They should have a fresh supply at least every 24 hours.
  • Their water should be protected from soiling as much as possible.

This means that you may be breaking ice at regular intervals in the winter. It also means that hanging poultry drinkers should be monitored for leaks periodically. And it means that livestock should not be allowed to swim in the pond (ducks, geese, and swans are the exceptions, as they benefit from having water to bathe in).

Other logistical factors unique to your situation will apply. For example, moving cattle to fresh paddocks daily will likely necessitate a portable stock tank.

So do you have enough water to supply your animals? If so, you’re ready to take a look at fencing and facilities.

Helpful Resource

Waterers and Watering Systems
Free PDF from K-State that provides an overview of water sources, power sources, drink delivery options, livestock water requirements, and permits.

The Homesteading Bucket List Part 2: 25 More Practical Country Living Projects

The Country Living Bucket List Part 2

Ready for 25 more skills to build on the ones you mastered previously? This set is considerably more advanced than the first, so take your time and be prepared for the learning curve.

26. Prune a Fruit Tree

Although more involved than pruning cane fruits, pruning fruit trees is still quite essential to keeping your trees productive and healthy. Be sure to study some diagrams carefully before you tackle this one. Every cut you make will affect your harvest for better or worse for years to come.

Helpful Resource

Pruning Fruit Trees
Handy free document with illustrations from K-State.

27. Build a Fence

Good fences make good farms. Fencing the garden is a must to keep animal pests at bay. Fencing the yard is highly recommended if you have pets. Fencing the perimeter of the property discourages trespassers. One type of fencing that is better avoided at first, however, is permanent fencing subdividing pastures. Most grazing management experts recommend that beginners use only portable fencing to break up pastures for the first three years or so, as there is a strong tendency to overdo it when starting out, creating logistical mayhem in the long run.

Helpful Resource

How to Make Osage Orange Fence Posts
Making your own fence posts can be surprisingly easy.

28. Learn an Intensive Gardening Technique

Intensive gardening methods seek to maximize the yields of produce per square foot of growing space. These methods were usually created in response to the inefficiencies of traditional row gardening, which was developed based on commercial horticultural implements. For making the most of small areas, intensive gardening techniques cannot be beat. Consider some of these possibilities:

  • Biointensive gardening.
  • Container gardening.
  • Interplanting.
  • Lasagna gardening.
  • Mittlieder method.
  • No-work gardening.
  • Raised bed gardening.
  • Square foot gardening.
  • Soil bag gardening.
  • Straw bale gardening.
  • Succession planting.
  • Tire gardening.
  • Vertical gardening.

29. Work with a Team of Draft Animals

What can draft animals do for you? Plenty. Two areas where draft animals still excel today are in small-scale grain growing and in sustainable logging. For farms with an agritourism bent, draft animals have considerable educational and entertainment value, as well.

Helpful Resource

Draft Animal Power for Farming
Important information to know before you get started, conveniently available in a free PDF download.

30. Grow Grain

You would be surprised at how little space it takes to meet a family’s annual grain needs! Furthermore, raising your own grain can be a way to avoid pesticides and GMOs while taking advantage of the impressive nutrient profiles of traditional grains that may be hard to find at the grocery store.

31. Freeze Eggs

Once your layer flock hits its stride, you will probably start wondering what to do with all those eggs. Freezing them is an incredibly simple way to save them for the winter, when your chickens will be taking a holiday. Frozen eggs are quite satisfactory when used for baking or scrambling.

Helpful Resource

How to Freeze Eggs
Step-by-step instructions.

32. Sell Homegrown Food

This is not an easy task, but fortunately it doesn’t have to be done on a large scale. If starting a full-fledged food business is not for you, sell a dozen eggs to some close friends. If you are more ambitious, set up a produce stand or sell grassfed beef to a restaurant.

Helpful Resources

Starting & Running Your Own Small Farm BusinessStarting & Running Your Own Small Farm Business
A 10-step overview covering everything from business plans to product pricing to sale venues. Read our full review.

Farm Fresh
Plenty of ideas for marketing grassfed meat and milk. Read our full review.

Kansas Department of Agriculture Licensing Guides
Important information to know before making your first sale. (If you are not in Kansas, check your state’s department of agriculture for a similar resource.)

33. Make Homemade Bread

Making bread does not have to be complicated! While some home bread bakers are true artisans, working with carefully crafted recipes and doing every step by hand, those who are pressed for time or inclination can use a bread machine.

34. Plant a Cover Crop

Whether you grow vegetables or grains, a cover crop is a great way to improve your soil—naturally! Cover crops can offer numerous benefits in the way of nitrogen fixation, weed suppression, and organic matter building.

Helpful Resources

Cover Crop Decision Tool
A superb online tool that factors in your objectives, climate, and soil conditions. Highly recommended for growers of both grains and vegetables.

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers
Useful site from Cornell that profiles 17 cover crops that work well in the garden.

35. Sew an Entire Garment

Again, keep it simple, especially to start. Make it easy on yourself by starting with a purchased pattern. Also, invest in some internet tutorials and how-to books before you pick up the thread. As a final time-saving tip, consider buying a sewing machine, particularly if you think you are likely to sew regularly in the future. A sewing machine can make garment repair and creation quick and easy.

36. Learn to Quilt

This time-honored tradition can be a great creative outlet! Furthermore, there are plenty of kits and books to get you off to a good start these days. If an entire quilt seems like a daunting first project, consider a pillow instead.

37. Build a Root Cellar

It seems like nearly every homesteader’s dream involves a root cellar. And it’s a great way to keep your produce fresh throughout the long winter months when you can’t garden as much!

Helpful Resource

HomeMadeHomeMade
This handy project book includes tips and plans for building your own root cellar. Read our full review.

38. Shear a Sheep

Shearing is something of a lost art, with few professional shearers left. Fortunately, thanks to a growing interest in country living across America, the skill of shearing still has a bright future among hobby farmers.

39. Learn How to Spin

Once you’ve sheared your first sheep, it is only logical to learn how spin the fleece into yarn. Unfortunately, spinning wheels can be very expensive these days. However, the drop spindle is an affordable alternative, especially if you want to test your level of interest before making a considerable investment.

40. Hatch a Batch of Chicks Yourself

There’s nothing like raising your own chicks from eggs. This is an area where you have quite a few options, too. You may want to purchase fertile eggs from a hatchery, or you can let your own rooster and hens do the work. You can bring the hatching process indoors with an incubator, or you can opt to let a broody hen provide a more natural experience.

Helpful Resource

The Broody Hen Versus the Incubator
A comparison of the advantages of each option.

41. Make Ice Cream

Even if you don’t have farm-fresh milk available, you can still make some mighty tasty ice cream with cream from the store. Many gadgets for making ice cream exist these days, and most come with recipes to get you started.

Helpful Resource

Ice Cream Ball
This is a fun way to make ice cream, but it does involve some exercise and some patience.

Stocking UpStocking Up
The third edition of this classic includes tips on making ice cream. Read our full review.

42. Make Cheese

Again, even if you don’t raise dairy cows or goats, you can still make cheese at home. If you are completely new to the process, consider starting with a beginner’s kit.

Helpful Resource

Stocking Up
The third edition includes quite a bit of cheesemaking information, including specifics on cottage cheese, ricotta, cream cheese, semi-hard cheese, and cheddar. Read our full review.

43. Learn How to Dehydrate Fruit

Many fruits can be dehydrated at home, and often without much investment in equipment. If you are new to food dehydration, consider starting out with your tried-and-true home oven. Other dehydrating options include solar drying, freeze drying, and using a special electric food dehydrator.

Helpful Resources

Stocking Up
The third edition of this old classic includes a considerable amount of information on your many dehydrating options. Read our full review.

Drying
This part of K-State’s Food Preservation site offers links to information on equipment, methods, storage, and more.

44. Make Jam or Jelly

Making homemade jam or jelly is not only a way to preserve fruit, it is also a way to achieve unique flavor. However, food safety considerations are crucial when making jam or jelly, so be sure to read up before you start!

Helpful Resources

Stocking Up
Includes very practical information on making jam or jelly. Read our full review.

Jams & Jellies
This part of K-State’s Food Preservation site has information on working with apples, cherries, peaches, and a variety of berries, along with general information on the various steps of the jelly-making process.

45. Learn to Knit

This is an easy and rewarding skill to pick up, and a natural next step after learning to spin. Start with something really simple, such as a washcloth or scarf, and before you know it you’ll be making everything from socks to sweaters.

Helpful Resource

Kids KnittingKids Knitting
Not only is this inviting, easy-to-understand book a great way to introduce children to a productive craft, it is a superb way for an adult to get started, too! Read our full review.

46. Learn to Crochet

And if you’re going to learn how to knit, learning how to crochet is also a natural choice!

47. Sell a Handmade Craft

Already selling food? Selling crafts is even easier. Considering adding your handmade items to your farm product lineup or setting up shop online.

48. Make an Entire Meal with Only Homegrown Ingredients

This is the ultimate goal for many homesteaders, and it is one that will require some planning. You will likely need a homegrown grain and some homemade butter to make bread or some other baked good. For a dinner, you will also want home-raised meat and a sampling of produce from the garden. For a breakfast, you might consider farm-fresh eggs and some homemade jelly.

49. Learn to Ride a Horse

While not absolutely essential on many homesteads, horseback riding can be excellent recreation, and it can be useful if you raise a larger herd of cattle. Consider this one a reward for a lifetime of homesteading well done.

Helpful Resource

The Basics of Western RidingThe Basics of Western Riding
While you will definitely need a more advanced guide at some point, this should get you started. Read our full review.

50. Teach a Country Living Skill to Someone Younger Than You

Here’s your chance to give back. Whether you pass your knowledge along to your children, to an apprentice, or to a blog reader, sharing your expertise will help ensure that country living skills are handed down through the years.

What are Animal Units?

What are Animal Units?When extension centers and other information sources discuss stocking rates, they usually make their recommendations in acres per animal (or animals per acre, depending on the climate and the type of animal). For instance, you might read a factsheet that advocates 5 cow-calf pairs to the acre.

There’s one problem with this method of calculating stocking rate—how big are those cows? A 1,400-pound cow eats considerably more than a 900-pound cow.

And what if you want to do mixed-species grazing? How do you figure out how much forage is required to feed both cattle and sheep, for instance?

Enter the animal unit.

Animal Units and Equivalents

A 1,000-pound beef cow with an unweaned calf commonly serves as a standard of measure in grazing management. That standard is the animal unit (AU). The hypothetical beef cow is considered 1 AU.

Because we know roughly how much other types of livestock eat compared to the 1,000-pound beef cow, we can easily make comparisons. We can take the basic AU and modify it to reflect a bigger cow, or a dry cow, or even a goat instead of a cow. The result is the animal unit equivalent (AUE).

Compare the following AUEs:

  • 1,000-pound beef cow with calf: 1.0 AUE.
  • 1,200-pound beef cow with calf: 1.2 AUE.
  • 1,500-pound beef cow with calf: 1.5 AUE.
  • Dry beef cow: 1.0 AUE.
  • Mature bull under 2,000 pounds: 1.5 AUE.
  • Mature bull over 2,000 pounds: 2.0 AUE.
  • Weaned calf: 0.75 AUE.
  • 2-year-old steer or heifer around 700 pounds: 0.8 AUE.
  • Ewe-lamb pair: 0.3 AUE.
  • Mature dry sheep: 0.2 AUE.
  • Yearling sheep: 0.15 AUE.
  • Mature goat: 0.17 AUE.
  • Yearling goat: 0.1 AUE.
  • Mature light horse: 1.25 AUE.
  • Mature heavy horse: 2.0 AUE.
  • Bison: 1.0 AUE.
  • Mature elk: 0.65 AUE.

Determining how many animals you can have on a given piece of land then becomes a matter of matching forage production to livestock needs.

Animal Unit Days and Months

So how long can a pasture feed a given type of animal? A 1,000-pound beef cow with an unweaned calf requires an average of 26 pounds of forage dry matter per day. This gives us the animal unit day (AUD).

Now we come to the animal unit month (AUM). The animal unit month reflects how much forage it takes to feed an animal unit for 30 days. Remember, the animal unit is a 1,000-pound beef cow with a calf, and she consumes 26 pounds of dry-weight forage per day. That gives us 780 pounds of forage for a 30-day period.

The AUM can be used to help you determine the stocking rate for a pasture. Let’s say you have a 40-acre pasture estimated at 0.2 AUM/acre. That means that every acre of the pasture can support 0.2 AUE for 30 days—the entire pasture can support 8 AUE for a month. So for one month you could graze your choice of:

  • 8 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,000 pounds each.
  • 5 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,500 pounds each.
  • 10 steers at 700 pounds each.
  • 26 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 47 mature goats.
  • 6 light horses.
  • 4 heavy horses.
  • 8 bison.
  • 12 mature elk.

You can also use the AUM to figure out how to mix species in your grazing plan. Just to give you an idea of a few possible combinations, in this scenario you could graze:

  • 4 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,000 pounds each + 13 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 6 beef steers at 700 pounds each + 2 light horses.
  • 10 ewe-lamb pairs + 29 mature goats.

How do you determine the AUMs for your pasture? Check online for average AUM data in your area. If you can’t find anything specific, you may have to keep your own forage production records. If you determine how much dry-weight forage your pastures produce over a 30-day period, you will have no problem calculating the AUMs, as one AUM uses 780 pounds of forage.

Pros and Cons of Deep-Litter Bedding

Pros and Cons of Deep-Litter BeddingWhile allowing livestock of all types to enjoy the freedom and nutrition of pasture is ideal, there are times when animals may need to be temporarily confined. For instance, you might be raising chicks in a brooder, or you might need to isolate an injured animal in a stall.

So how do you keep livestock healthy under these conditions? One common solution proposed is the deep-litter bedding method. Basically, this method keeps animals off the ground by using at least eight inches of carbon-rich bedding, such as straw or wood shavings. More bedding is added regularly to keep things fresh and clean. The bedding is only dug out on occasion, ranging from every couple of weeks for horse stalls to perhaps only once a year for a winter-use-only chicken coop.

Is deep-litter bedding right for your animals? Let’s take a look.

 

Pros

  • Reduced odor. Odor occurs in animal housing when nitrogen-rich manure gives off ammonia gas. Having large quantities of carbon present in the bedding locks up the nitrogen, essentially beginning a composting process that is low in odor. Of course, this benefit is dependent on providing enough fresh, dry bedding regularly.
  • Cheap entertainment for chickens and pigs. If for any reason your chickens or pigs have to be housed for a time, put down a good, thick layer of bedding, and then toss some dry corn around. Searching for the grain will satisfy the natural foraging instincts of these animals (and their rummaging around will keep the bedding supplied with oxygen).
  • Added warmth. Deep-litter bedding encourages composting, which in turn produces warmth. Animals housed away from drafts on deep-litter bedding will stay cozy in winter. (Note that deep-litter bedding may become excessively warm in summer.)
  • Beneficial bacteria. Aerobic decomposition promotes the flourishing of beneficial bacteria. These in turn produce vitamins B12 and K, as well as antibiotic substances that control the growth of the bad bacteria. Chickens that have the opportunity to scratch around in the slowly decomposing, oxygen-rich environment of a layer of good-quality bedding can benefit tremendously from the experience.
  • Reduced nutrient loading. Too much nitrogen in one place is harmful to the pasture. Containing it with bedding can keep your land in good health. This practice also reduces nutrient loading in surrounding waterways by cutting down on manure-contaminated runoff.
  • Quality compost. When you are done with used bedding, it makes an excellent, well-balanced compost due to the fact that it already contains both carbon and nitrogen. In fact, due to the nature of deep-litter bedding, it probably has already started the composting process by the time you are ready to dig it out! One more bonus? If you keep the chickens in a coop over the winter, when you move them out to pasture in the spring, that empty coop can be put to work as a composter.

 

Cons

  • Expense. If you do not have ready access to carbon bedding in abundance, deep-litter bedding can be remarkably expensive. You will want to find a way to source leaves, straw, wood chips, and the like cheaply.
  • Poor suitability for some structures. Some animal housing is not built to handle layers of bedding eight inches or deeper without creating logistical issues. Inspect your animal housing before trying to implement a deep-litter bedding system. You may need to build your own housing.
  • Dead grass. Deep bedding is very much like mulch. If you pile it on the ground in a movable field structure and leave it there for more than a day or two, you will end up with dead grass and subsequently mud and weeds. Deep-litter bedding is more ideally suited for permanent structures.
  • Need for good-quality bedding. No matter how expertly you handle and maintain your deep-litter bedding system, if you start with poor-quality materials, you will end up with poor-quality results. Dusty or moldy bedding is not acceptable here.
  • Potential for anaerobic decomposition. Deep-litter bedding works best in well-ventilated buildings that are good at keeping water out. If the litter gets waterlogged, or if it does not receive enough air circulation, it will begin to decompose anaerobically. Not only does this cause a smelly mess, the ammonia released into the air can cause serious eye and respiratory problems in livestock.
  • Labor requirements. Maintaining deep-litter bedding requires regular inputs of fresh bedding to keep your animals’ living quarters clean, dry, and odor-free. Also, caked bedding needs to be broken up with a fork to reintroduce air. And, finally, digging out the whole building at the end of the year can be backbreaking work!

 

Conclusion

Letting animals enjoy fresh pasture is always preferable, but for those times when housing is a must, deep-litter bedding has much to offer. Basically, by using the science behind composting, deep-litter bedding promotes a healthy environment and prevents manure from damaging the surrounding area.

However, deep-litter bedding does require regular monitoring. Odor is not acceptable—if you smell ammonia, your system has devolved into anaerobic decomposition. Your animals will suffer for it, so be sure to keep this from happening at any point in time. Be proactive in adding fresh, dry bedding of good quality, and fluff it any time it shows an inclination to pack down or cake up.

Once your animals are finished with the bedding, enjoy its benefits in your compost pile, garden, or field!