Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing instinct that propels a dog to herd sheep or cattle? The fact is, your furry assistant is a wolf in dog’s clothing. Herding is hunting—without the kill.Continue reading Teaching the Rules of the Hunt
We love curating helpful reading material for country living enthusiasts!
If you are looking for a variety of useful books on everything from starting a farming enterprise to planting crops to drawing horses, we highly recommend the Homestead Bookshelf as the place to find what you’re looking for. We have collected public domain classics, modern paperbacks, free extension service PDFs, and even a few books published by Homestead on the Range to help you learn important facts and skills.
New to our site? Allow us to recommend some of the books our readers purchase or download after visiting.Continue reading Top 10 Reader-Favorite Books
If 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!
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 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.
Our online guide to popular and heritage cattle breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.
Horse & Donkey Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage equines, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.
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.
Keeping 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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Our own guide to the functions and natural sources of vitamins, along with symptoms of deficiency and toxicity.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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?
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:
- Calves: 5 gals/day.
- Stocker calves: 15.
- Dry cows and heifers: 15.
- Cow/calf pairs: 20.
- Bulls: 20.
- Finishing cattle: 25.
- Calves: 5 gals/day.
- Heifers: 10.
- Dry cows: 15.
- Milking cows: 40.
- Ponies: 5 gals/day.
- Light horses: 10.
- Heavy horses: 16.
- Donkeys: 6.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
How to Freeze Eggs
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Ice Cream Ball
This is a fun way to make ice cream, but it does involve some exercise and some patience.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Looking for ways to expand your small-farm dairy business? Milk offers many opportunities for diversifying your product offerings!
Here are some common ways to add value to farm-fresh milk.
Cream is not one of the more popular value-added dairy products around, but it does have a loyal following among health-conscious customers. Fresh, raw cream is often touted as nature’s ultimate health food due to its vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria. Good cream can also provide quite the gourmet cooking experience.
Because butter requires a great deal of milk fat to make, selling butter is typically a better fit for dairy farmers with cows rather than goats or sheep.
Another pitfall with butter is that it is often harder to sell to the public. Many customers (even those who aren’t necessarily health-conscious) won’t think twice about sampling homemade cheese or ice cream. But the market for farm-fresh butter is much smaller.
Old-fashioned buttermilk is the milk left over from the butter churn, in contrast to grocery-store buttermilk made from skim milk, cultures, and thickening agents. Buttermilk is one of the less common dairy products sold on small farms, but it may be a way to salvage an otherwise wasted byproduct.
Or, to take the value-adding a step further, make buttermilk soap! Handmade soap can be a truly artisan product that commands high prices. It also has a major advantage over many dairy products in that it can be sold online and shipped across the country, enabling the soapmaker to find markets anywhere at all. The usual rules apply when selling soap—check the laws (soap is regulated by the FDA) and make sure you produce a quality product every time. If your customers are paying top-dollar for handcrafted soap, they expect more than a run-of-the-mill cleansing agent.
Whether you keep cows, goats, or sheep, cheese offers a magnificent opportunity to the artisan entrepreneur. At the same time, it is a very popular product to eat across America! And another bonus? Cheese made from raw milk is typically regulated much less stringently than raw milk itself (but please check your state regulations before starting on your cheese venture).
Another advantage of selling cheese is that it allows for considerable variety, as there are many different types of cheese that can be made. Cheese made from raw milk must be aged prior to sale in some states, which means that the cheeses many small farms will be able to offer fall into the hard cheese category. Fortunately, hard cheeses do include some very popular varieties, such as cheddar and Gouda. Pasteurization will enable you to add soft cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta to your lineup. Another option for adding still more variety is flavoring your cheese with herbs and spices.
A few words of advice—trying making cheese for home use before turning this project into a business. Cheesemaking is very time-consuming, the equipment is expensive, and quality is the key to maintaining customer interest, so it’s a good idea to test your interest level and build your skills before committing. The good news is that instructional materials abound these days, making the learning curve much less steep.
Also keep in mind that specialty cheese sales usually peak around Christmas—near the lowest ebb of seasonal dairying.
Whey is a byproduct of cheesemaking. Hard cheeses are pressed to remove the fluids, which can in turn be sold as whey.
So what do you do with whey? Bottling flavored whey drinks is one option. Also, if you happen to know any other small farmers, you may be in luck. Whey can be marketed to pig farmers as feed, and it can also be sold as a very effective fertilizer for organic pastures and fields.
Ice cream is an extremely popular value-added product, partly because it is readily accepted by the public whether sold by the gallon or by the cone. It’s also portable—some small-scale creameries set up shop in trailers at fairs and other special events, allowing them to capitalize on existing crowds in a festive mood.
The demand for gourmet ice cream is particularly high among older, wealthier customers. Hand churning and indulgent flavors can command an impressive premium—just be aware that choosing this marketing route will make your product a luxury and will consequently reduce your customer base.
Yogurt can be a favorite product among health-conscious consumers, who tend to view it as a positive snack choice.
One potential pitfall to be aware of is the fact that not all areas have a large enough interest to support a yogurt business. Even in areas with access to interested buyers, it would be quite easy to oversupply the market, since a pound of milk makes a pound of yogurt! Yogurt makers will definitely want to have another outlet for milk and dairy products besides yogurt.
Another factor to consider is that tastes vary. Most Americans prefer heavily sweetened yogurt made from low-fat milk. The thicker, less sweet product is more likely to be enjoyed by a few select groups.
Some Final Thoughts
Adding value to milk invariably requires expertise and special equipment. It also requires commitment, and preferably an artisan bent. Before undertaking any value-added dairy enterprise, assess your financial situation, your workload, and your level of enthusiasm carefully and honestly. Many successful dairy entrepreneurs start out learning to make their chosen product on the kitchen stove and sharing with friends and family for free.
One way to reduce the startup costs is to purchase used processing equipment. If you do want to buy new equipment, keep in mind that some manufacturers now make dairy equipment sized for smaller farms—industrial machinery is not necessary these days.
Also note that, in niche dairying, quality is all-important. Off flavors must be avoided, which requires close attention to grazing management. Furthermore, dairy products must be moved fairly quickly to avoid expiration.
Are value-added dairy products right for your farm? If you have serious passion to see you through, maybe so.
Starting & Running Your Own Small Farm Business
This handy book offers a step-by-step approach to business planning. It addresses many of the financial, legal, and marketing issues you will encounter when considering value-added dairy. Read our full review.
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.
Dairy sheep? Seriously?
Yes! There are many reasons some adventurous homesteaders and agripreneurs have turned to sheep dairying. Believe it or not, one is the flavor. Sheep milk has a high rate of acceptance among those who have tasted it.
And then there are the health benefits. According to various dairy sheep organizations, sheep milk boasts the following claims:
- More protein than cow’s milk.
- Small fat globules, which are easy to digest.
- Higher levels of CLA than cow’s or goat’s milk.
- Higher levels calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins A, B12, and E than cow’s milk.
Sheep milk is also amazingly versatile. It can be enjoyed as a beverage, but it is also suitable for cheese, yogurt, kefir, and ice cream. Can’t process it all at once? No problem—sheep milk is naturally homogenized and can be kept in the freezer until you are ready to work with it.
Who Buys Sheep Milk?
It is rather ironic that so few Americans use sheep milk today, given the fact that sheep dairying has been practiced in nearly every part of the world since the most ancient times. Very few people indeed drink sheep milk as a beverage in our country.
A more palatable way of presenting sheep milk to the American public is in the form of artisan cheese, popular with foodies, retailers, and restaurants alike. The United States, while it produces very little sheep cheese, is a major importer of this product. Some of the sheep cheeses popular in our country may sound familiar to you:
- Pecorino romano.
Some sheep farmers prefer to sell their milk to cheese processors rather than oversee the cheesemaking process. Finding a processor in your area can be a challenge, however, because a large-scale processor must be assured the milk of at least 750 ewes to be profitable. You may need to either find a local artisan to work with or learn how to make sheep cheese yourself.
The Best Breeds For Sheep Dairying
The sheep dairying industry is not as well developed in the United States as it is in Europe. In many European countries, specialized dairy breeds of sheep have been selected over time for production. In the United States, most new dairymen will have to do this selection themselves unless they are fortunate enough to live where imported populations of specialized breeds have been established. This can make starting a profitable dairy flock difficult and time-consuming. Upgrading a meat flock into a dairy flock may be necessary.
One mark of a good dairy breed is its ability to produce enough milk to sustainably nurse twins and triplets. Another factor is the ewe’s ability to breed back quickly, even in the winter.
Breeds that have come to the surface in U.S. sheep dairying include:
- Assaf (specialized).
- Awassi (specialized).
- East Friesian (specialized).
- Lacaune (specialized).
Hybrid vigor gives crossbred ewes an advantage over purebred ewes in health, so a combination of these breeds is often advantageous for dairying with sheep. Crossbreeding is also a reliable way to increase the milk production of a meat-breed flock.
Special Considerations of Dairying With Sheep
Raising sheep for dairy purposes requires different management than is necessary for raising sheep for meat or wool. Heavy milk production places tremendous demands on the metabolism and reproductive system of the ewe. In fact, it is not always possible to meet the energy needs of specialized dairy sheep on forage alone. Extra care must be given to proper sanitation and nutrition to avoid health problems such as these:
- Milk fever.
Tail docking is also recommended to ensure clean dairying practices.
When to separate the lambs from the ewes is an important consideration. In most countries, the lambs are separated from their mothers about 24 hours after birth and are then raised on milk replacer. While this practice maximizes the amount of milk available for processing and sale, it does result in a less vigorous lamb, a real downside in America where a major part of the income of a sheep dairy may come from selling lambs to ethnic markets for meat. For this reason, it may be desirable in many operations to wean the lambs at 30 days of age. The milk production can be increased in this system after the first week by keeping the lambs in separate quarters at night so that the ewes can be milked in the morning.
Are Dairy Sheep Right For You?
Sheep dairying is not exactly an easy enterprise to start. Building a flock can be difficult, and special equipment is required. However, if you love cheesemaking and have access to upscale markets interested in artisan cheese, sheep dairying may be a good fit for you.
Note that many sheep dairies do not rely solely on milk or cheese for their profits—lamb and wool are two additional streams of income that can make this business a success.