You installed fencing, built shelters, stocked up on feed and filled water tanks. Now all that’s left to do is bring home livestock you’re raising and watch them graze, root or browse in the pasture—well, not so fast!
Raising cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, alpacas or other livestock requires a significant commitment, expert partners and a wealth of knowledge. Experienced farmers share tips that will ensure that the animals—and the farm—thrive in your care.
Find a Mentor
There might be lots of information about raising livestock in books, magazines and online. But Maureen Macedo believes there is no substitute for a knowledgeable mentor who can answer questions and provide guidance in unfamiliar situations.
“It can be as easy as being comfortable with the person you purchased your alpacas from,” she says.
Macedo, who raises alpacas at Macedo’s Mini Acre in Turlock, California, also suggests looking for mentors through breed-specific associations such as the Alpaca Owners Association.
Marie Minnich of Marushka Farms seconds the suggestion to join a community familiar with the livestock breed who can provide essential resources and support to help you succeed in raising them. The support team for the Romeldale-CVM sheep on her Danville, Pennsylvania, farm includes the breeder, veterinarian, shepherds, a shearer and the local extension agent.
Mark Bengston can’t count the number of times BF Farm in Huggins, Missouri, has received calls from regretful pig owners asking to buy back their Kunekune pigs because the novice farmers couldn’t handle them.
It might be tempting to go “whole hog” and establish an entire passel or purchase a breeding pair and plan for the first litters. But those who are new to livestock should start small, Bengston advises.
See how it goes with a pair of sows. If it feels like a good long-term venture, purchase a boar or additional stock.
Focus on Fencing
Darren and Felicia Krock have a simple requirement for the fencing on Triangle K Ranch, their Kenton, Ohio, farm: It must be strong enough to keep their Large Black pigs in and predators out. The couple uses perimeter fencing plus electric fencing for rotational grazing.
At White Bison Farm in Laona, Wisconsin, Jodi Cronauer has high-tensile electric fence around most of her pastures. But she prefers electro-netting around the “maternity ward” where Idaho Pasture pigs are raising their piglets. The holes are smaller, making it impossible for the newborns to go through and get tangled.
The fencing must also be strong enough to withstand the snow and ice that are common during Wisconsin winters.
Schubert also choses fencing with maximum 4-by-4 openings to ensure that lambs can’t crawl through, leaving their mommas on the other side. She adds, “A dam and her lambs, separated by a fence, with both ‘baa-ing’ like crazy from the stress is something I don’t want either to go through if it can easily be prevented,” she says.
Choosing parasite-resistant breeds can be an important first step in protecting the livestock you’re raising. Kiko goats and Romeldale-CVM sheep are known for their parasite resistance. But, Minnich adds, “It’s still important to understand the care of sheep regarding evaluating for and minimizing their exposure to parasites.”
Pasture rotation, multispecies grazing and regular sanitation can help minimize parasite pressure. But a regular prevention program, including a deworming protocol, can help keep livestock parasite-free. Deworming practices might include checking the color of mucous membranes or testing fecal samples.
Performance Over Pedigree
Jodey Fulcher often advises new goat owners to look past the pedigree of a herd. “A goat with a stellar pedigree might not be the best performing goat and won’t pass along the best traits [to its offspring],” he says.
At BF Farm, Fulcher provides data on pedigree and performance to those wanting to purchase his Kiko goats. He also encourages farmers to look beyond bloodline and choose goats that will make good additions to their herd.
Even when raising livestock for meat, deciding which animals to cull can be a tough—but essential—choice.
“It’s hard to do in the beginning,” Fulcher says. “The goat that needs to be culled is probably the one you’re most attached to because you’ve handled it the most. But you have to make tough choices because that one goat could wipe out your whole herd.”
Maintaining strict standards for health and performance also helps build your reputation as a breeder, adds Bengston. You’d never sell underperforming stock, he explains. This makes culling important to the success of the herd and the farm.
Partner With a Vet
Do not wait until an animal is sick to call the vet, advises Felicia Krock. Even though Large Black hogs are a hardier breed that rarely gets sick, Krock still schedules regular “well checks” with their large animal vet.
Knowing the personalities of the passel of hogs will help the vet make more accurate diagnoses when something goes wrong.
“If you’re selling breeding stock outside the state, you’ll need a vet to provide health certificates,” Darren Krock says. “It’s good to have a regular relationship with your vet to make those tasks easier.”
Emphasize Good Nutrition
Different livestock have different nutritional needs. Instead of taking a DIY approach, Darren Krock suggests developing a relationship with a feed supplier who can formulate a mix with balanced nutrition.
Bakery leftovers, distiller grains and fresh vegetables might be nice treats, but, Krock adds, “Without appropriate, balanced nutrition, your animals won’t thrive or give you the healthy litters you want.”
For livestock like goats, sheep and pigs, good nutrition includes the right balance of supplemental minerals. Fulcher offers free-choice minerals with a high copper content to his Kiko goats. Cronauer also offers minerals to her Idaho Pasture pigs, noting, “I’ve never seen [this breed of pigs] root unless there is a mineral deficiency.”
Many heritage breeds are slower growing than their commercial counterparts.
Kunekune pigs require up to 18 months on pasture to reach a butcher weight of 175 pounds or more. And Idaho Pasture pigs don’t reach their market weight of 230 pounds for at least 10 months.
Commercial pig breeds, however, can be butchered at five months. “If you want a fast-growing pig, heritage breeds might not be right for you,” Cronauer says.
But slower-growing breeds are often worth the wait. Lori Enright, founder of the American Kunekune Pig Registry, believes the slow-growing, docile breed produces delicious, marbleized meat that is much juicier than conventional pork breeds.
Moreover, she adds, “Consumers are contributing to the preservation of an historic breed.”
Many species of livestock, including cattle, goats, sheep, llamas and alpacas, are herd animals that eat, sleep and graze together.
Without a companion (of the same species) animals can get bored or depressed. And this could lead to undesirable behaviors such as crying or escaping the pasture.
To avoid accidental pregnancies, Macedo suggests putting two or more animals of the same sex in a pasture together. A female/castrated male pair would also work.
Deal With Dead Stock
No one likes to think about losing an animal, but it’s a fact of life on the farm. And when it happens, you don’t want to be unsure of what to do next.
“It’s important to have a system for dealing with animals that have perished in accordance with local laws and regulations,” Felicia Krock says. She suggests talking to the local extension office and your vet about properly disposing of deceased stock.
Make Time for Grooming
Farmers who want to raise fiber animals such as sheep and alpacas must be prepared to devote time to grooming.
Be prepared to maintain pastures to minimize exposure to foreign materials such as burrs and briars. You’ll need to set up feeders to minimize the amount of hay that ends up in the fiber. Also, you’ll invest in coats to keep the fiber pristine.
Shearing in clean conditions and minimizing second cuts also helps preserve the quality of the fiber.
“For new owners and breeders, understanding the value of the wool and how to maintain the sheep to maximize its quality is important,” Minnich says.
Schubert warns that experienced shearers can be hard to find. Be sure to check local availability—or prepare to take a class to learn the ropes—before purchasing fiber animals.
Consider Your Space
Putting too many animals on the pasture—called overstocking—leads to several problems from degraded pastures to increased parasite pressure. Before investing in livestock, research ideal stocking rates for animals you’re interested in raising.
Mary Sue Measel ensures that each of the belted Galloway, Herefords, Lowline Angus and other miniature cattle breeds grazing in the pastures on Measel’s Mini Ranch in Greencastle, Indiana, have at least a half-acre of pasture each (for a stocking rate of 5 acres for every 10 cows).
Asmussen follows a similar stocking rate for her Highland cattle. She runs 32 head on her 60-acre farm, Red Willow Ranch, in Springfield, Missouri.
The stocking rates for goats and sheep average two to four sheep per acre. Considering the amount of space you have in pasture will help you decide on the ideal number of animals for your farm.
Visit Multiple Breeders
Before purchasing stock, visit multiple breeders. You should get as much information as possible about the background of the animals. This includes their parents, health problems and bloodlines, according to Measel.
Gloria Asmussen, co-founder of the Heartland Highland Cattle Association, also advises using those visits to get a better idea of available colors and confirmations. In Highland cattle, for example, some breeders specialize in specific colors such as silver, brindle or dun, while others focus on confirmation.
Black Highland cattle tend to be smaller framed, while red Highland cattle have longer legs, she explains.
You should also evaluate their temperaments. The best breeders have animals that are beautiful, productive and well-socialized. “An animal that is fearful of humans is harder to deal with,” she says.
Mark Christenson of Red Circle Ranch in Cleveland, Texas, raised miniature Texas Longhorn cattle since 2008 and often sees prospective owners looking for bargains. It’s a mistake, he believes, to prioritize price over performance.
“The old saying that you get what you pay for is true with cattle,” he says.
Evaluating the animals available from multiple breeders will help you choose stock that is the right fit for your farm goals. Consider it an investment in the future of your farm.
Consider Threatened Breeds
Minnich reviewed the breed descriptions on The Livestock Conservancy website before purchasing her first Romeldale-CVM sheep.
“[The Conservancy’s] thorough descriptions of the various breeds led me to believe it was an ideal breed for someone with no livestock experience who wanted a breed with wool of various colors appropriate for hand-spinning,” she says.
Register Your Stock
The American Kunekune Pig Registry has almost 17,000 Kunekune pigs entered into its herd book. Enright believes that registration of heritage breeds is especially important for its conservation.
“It ensures that the breed and those characteristics that make it a breed remain intact and tracks the ‘health’ of the breed, allowing breeders to understand how many pigs are being produced and whether conservation efforts have been successful,” she says.
Thanks to breed registries like the Heartland Highland Cattle Association, The Livestock Conservancy was able to track the number of Highland cattle in the U.S. When annual registrations topped 1,000, the conservation nonprofit removed the heritage breed cattle from its Conservation Priority List last year.
“Most people don’t register their litters,” says Felicia Krock. “Large Black hogs are critically endangered. There are less than 50 breeders and only 28 are breeding animals. Following through with the paperwork is so important so we know the status of the animals.”
Develop New Markets
The limited number of markets for niche proteins is one of the downsides to raising heritage livestock breeds, Asmussen admits. “We’re not big enough as a group to form a co-op,” she says. “If you’re going to do any kind of beef [with Highland cattle], you need to develop your own niche market.”
Hosting cooking demonstrations and offering samples can help convince consumers to give heritage proteins a shot. Seeking out sales channels like farmers markets and food festivals that provide opportunities to talk to customers about the benefits of often under-appreciated breeds.
Sidebar: Choose the Best Breed
Michelle Schubert researched multiple sheep breeds before choosing Southdown Babydoll sheep for her Bergamascos’ Babydoll Brigade farm in Stomping Ground, Kentucky. In addition to their diminutive size and overall adorableness, Schubert appreciated their versatility.
“They sell well in the companion, pet and 4-H/FFA markets; they are used in vineyards, sustainable agriculture and organic farming; and their wool is favored among spinners and fiber artists,” she says. “They also have select carcass value for the table … and some folks even milk them.”
Think about your goals for raising livestock—meat, milk, fiber, show, companions—and choose the breed that will best meet those needs.
Sidebar: Make time to socialize
Miniature cattle breeds are adorable—and Christenson warns that miniature Texas Longhorn are addictive—so interacting with them is a pleasure. It’s also essential
Spending time with your flock every day also alerts you to abnormal behavior, allowing you to diagnose a suspected illness before it’s too late.
“The Babydoll is small in stature and easy to handle,” says Schubert. “They also love treats—I use sheep pellets as treats—and they will come when I shake the bucket and call, ‘Here Babydolls.’ If you want your Babydolls to be friendly, you want to spend quality time with your flock and handle them on a daily basis.”
It’s not just socializing and regular health checks that take time. You’ll also have to establish a team to care for your livestock when needed.
“The No. 1 thing [new farmers] don’t consider … is the amount of time livestock requires,” says Jill Christopher of Six Wags Over Texas, a Van Alstyne, Texas, farm raising Harlequin sheep. “You can no longer go on vacation without a farm sitter to check the sheep twice a day, feed and water as needed and be alert to health changes.”
Sidebar: Establish Good Biosecurity
Strong biosecurity protocols help reduce the likelihood that your livestock will be exposed to infectious diseases. At Triangle K Ranch, no one is allowed in the barn or pastures but the vet (and the Krocks keep plastic booties ready so nothing is trekked in from other barns).
Make sure to wash your hands after dealing with livestock.
When bringing new animals on to the farm, keep them separate from the existing livestock for at least 30 days to ensure you’re not exposing them to disease.
Farm equipment can also be a source of infection. If it’s necessary to share equipment with other farms, it should be cleaned and disinfected thoroughly before it’s brought onto the property.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.