Choosing Your Farm’s Animals

When deciding whether to keep farm animals, lots of questions need to be answered before you invite them to your land.

by Cyn Cady

When deciding what animals to keep on you farm, consider your space available and the purpose they can serve.
Morgan James/Flickr

Managing a mini-farm sometimes boils down to making a series of decisions: which animals to raise, what crops to plant, watering methods, when to prune, when to fertilize, how to fertilize—I think I’ll just go back to bed, ’cause it’s wearing me out just thinking about all that thinking.

The animal choice was a tough one, because if I followed my first impulse, I’d have baby critters everywhere: goats, piglets, one of those little Dexter or Highland cows, rabbits, and of course, chickens.

But then I had to look at the jobs those animals would actually do, and what it would take to manage them accordingly. Chickens, without requiring a rooster, can produce eggs day after day for years. Winner. But with goats and cows, even if I was only interested in their milk, I’d still have to let them produce a kid or a calf every year or so, and because I don’t have room for more than one cow and maybe two goats, the question of what to do with the offspring is a serious one.

Does and heifers, I might be able to sell to other dairy lovers, but the buck kids and bull calves would most likely end up on a dinner plate—mine or someone else’s—and this is where I stumble into some weird hypocritical territory.

I’m a meat eater. Yep, beef, chicken, goat meat, pork, lamb, venison … if it walks, flies, or swims, I’ll pretty much stir-fry, grill or sauté it up with a side of ’taters and some kale. So why am I OK with chowing down on a slab of beef or a pork chop that I got at the local farm stand, but reluctant to serve up my own?

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It’s the pet factor, pure and simple. I can’t not turn these animals into pets. The minute a chick hatches or a kid or calf or piglet slides into my little world, they’ll have names. They’ll be cuddled and petted and scratched behind the ears. And once that happens, the possibility of their future as butcher-paper wrapped freezer-fillers becomes pretty much nil.

So because my philosophy that every animal on my farmlet must serve a purpose is in direct conflict with keeping them solely as pets, I don’t have the kids and calves and bunnies of my fantasies. I have chickens, because they’ll keep producing for a prolonged period of time, and when they’re done, I don’t have a problem with them retiring in peace. They’ll have earned it.

I’m finding now that I have to apply that same philosophy to the vegetable plots. For years, it would have been unthinkable to leave Halloween carving pumpkins out of the garden plan, but now that the girl one and the boy one are elderly teenagers, I’ve skipped it for the last couple of years. Once they had driver’s licenses, they met my offers of pumpkin-carving sessions with the same blank looks as if I’d asked them if they wanted to sit on my lap while I read The Lorax. (Although the “we’re too old for that, you ninny” attitude doesn’t seem to extend to Easter Baskets. Apparently, we will be required to provide these until the kids are well into their 30s.)

So, for now at least, it’s ix-nay on the carving pumpkins—although I still plant sugar pumpkins for pie and general eating purposes—and on animals that require butchering in order to provide benefit. Yes, I know, if I have that attitude I should probably go veg, but I’m willing to embrace my inner hypocrite for now, and I source my meats from local free-range sources as much as possible. Someday, I may forgo either my carnivore nature or my reluctance to eat Sammy or Bucky or Wilbur, but not just yet.

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