There are some things that I have learned in my journey with raising livestock.
1. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched: There’s a reason this saying is about animals and not something more predictable, like the weather. Animals will always surprise you. That little doeling goat who shows potential may be a 2 gallon-a-day milker when she grows up, or she might get coccidiosis and kick the bucket next week. Don’t start planning on things that you can’t control. This isn’t to say you should never make plans, but don’t act surprised when your best laid plans are made into manure by your animals.
2. Do what you can with what you got: Sure, a brand new wood paneled, welded bar horse stall looks pretty, but guess what? Your animals don’t care what it looks like. The only thing most farm animals care about is if their surroundings are safe, sturdy, and tasty. A horse isn’t going to be any happier living in a fancy new barn than living in an old run-in shed. As long as the roof doesn’t leak, there’s plenty of food available, and it is a calm place to live with happy interactions, the horse will be as happy as can be. An old horse trough makes a great new duck pond, a leaking water bucket is a new grain bucket, and an empty feed sack makes great barn insulation. Look around at what you have and make it work for you.
3. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Farming is a constant learning experience and everyone has a different way of doing things. Be careful, though, about changing things that work well in the first place. Animals tend to be resistant to change. Some people might have great luck with putting their goat kids on a strict CAE, coccidiosis, and deworming schedule starting at birth. The schedule might sound perfect and might be the key to keeping your kids as healthy as possible. But it might also be the key to killing your kids with kindness by changing too much of what you know already works. I killed three kids this year by changing too much too soon. I thought what worked for someone else should work great for me. Big mistake! In all the changes I forgot to keep the same some very key elements that I already knew worked, like using probiotics after using antibiotics and the dangers of feeding too much grain. I should have stuck with my old program and only changed one thing at a time.
3. Don’t go overboard: I jumped in when I first started by buying up all the goats I could find. I got old ones and young ones and pregnant ones and sick ones. If it was free or cheap, that was music to my ears. I have found that this isn’t worth it in the end. Take your time and research what you really want and what you want to do with it. Don’t just jump at the next Craigslist ad you see. Ask questions, talk to people in your area and on the internet, and look at a lot of animals before deciding what to bring home. Keep in mind that chickens can live from 4-8 years, goats live 10-15 years and horses can live to be 40. Getting animals is a long term commitment. If you get 15 goats and then decide next year that you don’t like goats, what are you going to do them? Have that figured out before you bring animals home.
4. Breed within your means: This goes along with #3. Baby animals are super cute but they eventually grow up to be bigger, eat more, poop more, and get into trouble. It’s your job as the caretaker for your animals to consider what happens to what you will produce. Is there a market for baby goats in your area? What if they are all males? Are you willing to do what it takes to care for that situation (ie: slaughter them or sell them for slaughter)? I have had a lot of neutered male goats come back to me over the years. This is because people bought them as cute little babies and then realized after 5 years that their cute baby is a large, unruly, food-consuming machine. I have now decided that all of my extra male baby goats will be used as food for my table. I feel this is a much more humane endpoint than being used as coyote bait (that happened last year), or bounced around from home to home (yep, one of my boys got that treatment) or just straight up neglected (seen that, too).
4. Be willing to go the distance: There are ways to farm that are easier and cheaper than others, but you still have to be willing to do what it takes and spend what it takes to keep your animals happy and healthy. Farming is a lot of work, takes a lot of time, and can cost a lot of money. Be prepared for that before you start. Are you willing to take a day off of your off-farm job to wait for a vet to come and charge you $300 to help your sheep? Are you able to stay up all night long to wait for your cow to give birth? Can you imagine putting down your horse that got pneumonia suddenly and is very sick? If you aren’t ready for this stuff, you might want to reconsider getting livestock.
5. Have fun with it! Farming and raising livestock can be a lot of fun. Animals are amazing to work and live with. Don’t be afraid to change something that isn’t making you happy. If your llama is a pain in the butt and he makes you dread doing chores, perhaps it’s time that llama found a new home. Farming will be a lot of work but it should be a lot of fun too!