PHOTO: jacinta lluch valero/Flickr
May 16, 2016

Most of us have heard the word “livestock” since we can remember but may have never fully thought about what raising livestock would be like. There are plenty of helpful resources for raising livestock that go into great depth about everything from the environmental impact of raising backyard chickens to the types of products livestock can produce. But sometimes a general overview of farming practices and management styles and some of the challenges involved in raising livestock can better answer your overarching questions about whether raising livestock is right for you and your farm. Here’s so food for thought for those of us pondering a livestock adventure or tweaking our current operation.

Livestock Management Styles

As you can imagine, when it comes to farming practices, there are a lot of options. Your best bet is to first decide which types of livestock you want or are able to raise. Once you choose your animal(s), the management style will become more obvious. Whether you opt for raising chickens for eggs, hanker for beef cattle or just want a family cow to supply your family’s dairy needs, here are a few of the options out there.

Organic Livestock Farming

According to the Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises department at the University of Florida:

“Organic livestock production often necessitates the integration of animal-pasture-crop production to be successful.”

Producing organic livestock means that not only have you raised the animal on a continuous organic program from birth/hatching, their food must be of organic origin and they must also live in surroundings that allow for natural behavior and health. For example, confined feedlots for cattle or sheep are not natural. In addition, farmers must manage manure and waste products a way that recycles nutrients yet avoids contaminating water, soil or crops.

SFAE advises that producers cannot provide prophylactic antibiotics, medicines given to ward off sickness. Rather, they are encouraged to “treat animals with appropriate treatment, including antibiotics and other conventional medicines when needed, but treated animals cannot be sold or labeled as organic.” And obviously, hormones or other growth drugs are taboo, as well.

Clearly, with these stipulations, keeping records is important, and as it turns out, the Organic Food Production Act dictates that farmers must maintain records for five years to verify the organic status of:

  • animals
  • production
  • harvesting
  • product-handling practices

Furthermore, official certification is required in order to sell products under an organic label. A quick internet search will send you in the proper direction, giving an overview for your state and contact information for the official agency in charge of organic certification. Save yourself a lot of potential financial and emotional stress—if you don’t want to go through the time and expense of certification, don’t put “organic” on your label.

Sustainable Livestock Farming

At first glance, sustainable livestock farming looks a whole lot like organic livestock farming; however, it is more like the umbrella under which we find organic practices. Sustainability takes in a much larger scope. The clue is in the name: Sustainable practices are those that can be sustained over time, as all parts contribute to the whole. Just a few examples of this symbiosis include no-till farming, preventing erosion and conserving water, while organically raised animals provide organic fertilizer for those no-till crops and help control weeds and pasturage. According to Oregon State University, sustainable livestock farming takes into account financial, environmental, ethical, social, product-quality and animal-welfare issues.

Sustainability can be overwhelming at first because it can extend past what we produce and how we produce it to address what we eat, the products we clean with, how we recycle and reuse our resources, and more. Our best bet, as hobby farmers desiring to employ sustainable livestock farming practices, is to start small. One change at a time is, well, more sustainable!

Free-Ranging Livestock

Most people associate the term “free range” with chickens. Again, the basic definition is in the term: a livestock management practice in which the animals—in this case, chickens—are allowed to range freely, without confines. In reality, chickens are often only ranging free in an enclosure in order to protect them from predators on the farm, which is, technically speaking, “enclosure-raised.” To be truly free range, poultry would have no pens, and larger animals, such as cattle and sheep, would be wandering about without fences.

So though they may not exactly be “free,” the important aspect of free-ranging is freedom of movement and free availability of forage/grass/pasture, as opposed to dirt enclosures, such as chicken pens or corrals/feedlots. In addition, access to sunshine is a basic tenet of free-ranging. By contrast, fowl in large poultry operations may spend their whole lives indoors in a small, enclosed space and never actually experience direct sunlight.

Intensive Livestock Farming

Intensive livestock farming, referred to by opponents as “factory farming” or “industrial livestock production,” is the name given to operations involving large numbers of animals that are being raised on a small amount of land. While these could include confined animal feeding set-ups, like feedlots for cattle, confined dairy herds or chickens grown at extreme densities, there are viable, sustainable ways to support a large number of animals without such situations.

Some farmers opt for intensive rotational grazing. Included in this might be growing meat chickens in chicken tractors. These movable pens are rotated over pasture as soon as the current spot becomes eaten down. Sheep, cattle and goats can be managed similarly, rotating them out of one paddock and into another at the optimal time that allows the pasture to recuperate quickly while affording fresh graze at all times.

Beyond Management Styles

Once you’ve chosen your animals and your farm-management plan, there are a couple more aspects of raising livestock you’ll want to keep in mind, including predation and disease.

Predation

On a farm, predators come in many sizes and shapes. There are both four-legged and winged poachers, and depending on which livestock you’re tending, you’ll need to take precautions to prevent some critter from eating beef (or chicken) for dinner instead of you.

Obviously, a raccoon is not a threat to a cow or a sheep, but it can create serious mayhem in a chicken coop or run, as can foxes, possums and chicken hawks. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and even dogs at times can pose threats to newborn or even half-grown calves, kids and lambs. Each predator has its own approach, and consequent safeguards against each type of predation is necessary.

Again, there are a lot of helpful resources out there. Not only can internet searching turn up reputable suggestions, your local cooperative extension office is a goldmine of information.

Disease

Happily, the natural state of livestock is one of health. But disease can happen, and you need to be aware of the various illnesses/diseases/injuries inherent with the animals you’ve chosen to raise and how to combat them should they surface in your herd or flock. Preparation takes on various forms, the first of which would be to educate yourself not only on the various things that can go wrong with a particular animal’s health, but what a healthy animal looks and acts like. This is key in being able to recognize if something is wrong.

Secondly, take the time to research and connect with a veterinarian before a crisis. As one who has called four vets in succession before managing to connect with one to assist in a difficult calving situation, believe me—this is not the type of thing you want to deal with when time is of the essence. Ask your fellow farmers for recommendations, and if you’ve got large animals—cattle, horses, sheep—ascertain if your vet of choice makes farm calls. Even if you’ve got a trailer, sometimes hauling animals in crisis stresses them beyond their ability to recover.

Thirdly, farm stores and vet offices carry basic health supplies. Compiling a first-aid kit for your livestock is a great investment in their health and your stress level should something develop quickly or at an hour when stores are closed.

Marketing Your Livestock

While some hobby farmers are interested only in raising livestock for their own consumption, a certain percentage may be considering this venture as a way to bring in additional income. If this is you, your first task should be to research your particular state’s regulations on selling livestock and livestock products. As an example, in some states, selling raw milk is legal, but only in certain settings. Other states require certification in order to sell milk and dairy products. Your state may be fine with you selling eggs at your farm or farmers market, but meat is a whole different animal, so to speak. Bottom line? Don’t take a neighbor or friend’s word for it; do your own legal homework. Know exactly what you can and can’t sell and how you should label it. That way, your money-making venture won’t backfire and cost you a whole lot more than you bargained for.

If you’re hankering to raise livestock for fun, food or profit, it’s good to know that one farm management style doesn’t have to fit all. Choose your animals and your livestock management practices, deal with predation, and prepare for contingencies such as disease and illness, and your livestock adventure will be off to a great start.


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