Exotic and unusual livestock are making inroads on small farms in the United States. Depending upon your farming practices, interest in revenue streams and space availability, each has distinct benefits to offer. Check out these five different domestic breeds.
1. American Water Buffalo
American water buffalo (pictured above) have three functions on farms: working draft animals, meat production and dairy production. Highly adaptable digestion systems make these animals more efficient than beef cattle. They can thrive on lower quality forage, are resistant to parasites and live to be 18 to 25 years old. Females have few difficulties with calving. Friendly by nature, the American water buffalo can be halter-trained from a young age.
Meat production requires maintaining animals for a longer period than beef cows. Water buffalo don’t reach market weight until 24 to 32 months of age (8 to 12 months longer than beef) resulting in higher cost per pound. Water buffalo meat is exceptional: It contains more protein, vitamins and minerals than beef. It’s also more flavorful.
Milk production is much less in water buffalo than in cows, so to capture the most milk, David DiLoreto, owner of Fading D Farms, uses a bucket method rather than a pipeline. Females produce 15 pounds of milk per day compared with a Holstein cow’s 80 pounds per day. Water buffalo milk has 30 percent more protein and a butterfat content of 6 to 9 percent, resulting in a higher yield for cheese per pound of milk. Overall, though, the cost of production is much greater than using milk from a dairy cow.
Sales of meat and dairy products might require more time to build relationships and an understanding of flavor and value. Restaurants are good customers when it comes to selling water buffalo products.
According to David DiLoreto, owner of Fading D Farms in Salisbury, North Carolina, managing water buffalo includes planning. “Anything they can break, they will,” he says. They require heavy-duty equipment that isn’t easily pushed around or built so that horns can become entangled. Electric fencing is effective for keeping water buffalo contained.
Equipment & Safety
Mature water buffalo reach weights of 1,300 to 1,900 pounds and cause compaction or damage in wet areas of pastures. For intensively managed pasture rotation, 1 1⁄2 acres per buffalo is sufficient to produce enough warm-weather forage.
Winter shelter is needed for water buffalo younger than age 3, when animals have yet to build up body fat stores. In contrast, mature water buffalo are susceptible to heat because of their thick black skin, necessitating access to water or mud so they can cool themselves. Water buffalo require plenty of clean drinking water, as well as water or mud in which to wallow.
Water buffalo are very territorial, so dairy operations require tandem milking stalls rather than herringbone stalls. In a herringbone setup, the first animal inside territorially blocks others from entering the milking parlor.
These large, gentle animals pose some risks to humans when mature. They play by pushing with their heads, can become easily suspicious of new things and, as a herd, can become dangerous when spooked. They should be treated with caution and respect.
A water buffalo dairy operation costs more to launch than a meat-production operation. Dairies require bulk tanks, processing tanks, cheese production equipment, cooling rooms and temperature-controlled aging rooms. In addition, dairy production requires access to plenty of water heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. DiLoreto says retrofitting a barn for dairy production can cost as much as $100,000 to meet code requirements for selling dairy products.
All water buffalo, because of their size and weight, can be hard on farm equipment. They require heavy-duty water containers, corral panels and feeders. They are also very intelligent, and DiLoreto says the animals seem to spend all day thinking about how to outwit their humans.
Members of the bovine family (Bos grunniens), yaks are large animals raised for meat, milk and fiber. They also are kept as service as pack animals. These animals have handlebar horns, horselike tails, shoulder humps and shaggy coats that nearly reach the ground. Cows weigh 600 to 800 pounds, while bulls can reach 1,200 to 1,600 pounds or more. Calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth. Yak can live for 20 years or more.
Lawrence G. Richards has raised yaks since 1988 on his Living Diamonds Tibetan Yak Ranch in Polson, Montana. In 1992, he founded the International Yak Association during a production sale on his ranch.
“We took an animal which was relatively obscure in North America and brought it up to a modest level of national prominence,” Richards says. IYAK now has more than 200 members. Richards, who raises more than 70 yaks on his 40-acre homestead and a number of rented summer pastures, says that yaks are ideally suited for small-acreage hobby farms. The small pastures of 5 to 20 acres and close human contact have a marvelous impact on their disposition. Richards calls it humanization.
Szabolcs Mandy raises yaks on Mandy’s Farm in Delaware County, New York. He explains that Yaks possess three coats of fiber. “The outer coat, which is water impermeable, can be used to make rugs and horse reins,” he says. “The middle coat can be used for coats or pullovers.” However, the inner coat or down can rival the finest fibers such as from merino sheep or cashmere goats. He also notes that yak meat is as lean as turkey breast, slightly sweet and contains a lot of HDL (which is to say, good) cholesterol and omega-3s.
Yak down is as fine as musk ox qiviut but is of short staple length so it’s usually blended with merino wool or alpaca fiber. The resultant yarn makes beautiful articles of clothing that command high prices.
Yak meat is similar in nutritional values to grass-fed bison or beef. Yak meat sells for $7 to $10 per pound. Currently found in specialty butcher shops and restaurants, it has a growing popularity especially with those seeking to enrich their paleo diet.
Yak burgers have been called the finest in the world and can dominate farmers markets, according to Lawrence G. Richards of Living Diamonds Tibetan Yak Ranch in Polson, Montana. Yak milk is rich in butterfat (6 to 11 percent) so it’s an excellent resource for butter, cheese and yogurt.
Cold-hardy and disease-resistant, yaks are considered easy keepers. They can free-range foraging for grasses inside a five-strand wire fence; however, babies can fall asleep under the wire and wake up on the outside of the fence, so where babies are enclosed, woven wire field fence is preferred. This livestock does well on a grass-fed regimen yielding lean and flavorful products. Yak don’t do well in hot, humid climates but can tolerate summer months in areas where they have access to shade and fresh, clean drinking water.
Equipment & Safety
Yaks have strong herd instincts and do well in small groups. From an early age, cows and steers can be handled and trained in preparation for milking or service as pack animals. Yak are accurate kickers, so early socialization is also an essential safety function. Mandy emphasizes safety when being around Yaks’ horns: “Yaks are not aggressive, but when they shake their head, you better back off.”
Prices for yak can vary depending upon wool production and temperament. Woollier animals can command higher prices. Pricing ranges from $1,500 to more than $10,000.
One of the largest species in the deer family, elk were once naturally occurring mammals in much of the Northern Hemisphere. Also called wapiti and red deer, elk weren’t domestically or commercially raised in North America until the 1960s. Modern-day elk stock comes from private breeders; the animals have become larger and more docile through strategic breeding practices.
Compared with cattle, elk are low-maintenance livestock. They are hardy and will eat whatever they can forage, including tree bark, leaves and shrubs. Grazing on summer grasses, the animals build up fat reserves for winter. Green alfalfa and grains are supplements to a healthy diet.
For centuries, antler velvet (the antler before it has started to calcify) has been a significant resource in the production of Chinese medicines. Velvet is said to support health, improve overall energy and stamina, improve joint health and support the immune system. Starting at the age of 2 years, each bull elk annually produces about 9 pounds of velvet, which is harvested by surgical procedure. As the animal ages, he produces increasing amounts of velvet so that a 7-to-8-year-old bull produces as much as 30 to 40 pounds of velvet a year.
According to the North American Elk Breeders Association, elk provide revenue potential through breeding stock, antler and velvet production, and meat, in addition to game for hunting ranches. Elk meat offers a low-fat, healthy alternative to red meat. An increasing number of restaurants offer it, and in some areas, elk meat can be purchased at farmers markets and small, specialty butcher shops.
Elk space requirements differ from beef cows. Two or three elk can easily live in the same amount of space needed for a single steer. Elk consume about 2 to 3 percent of their body weight daily. According to the North American Elk Breeders Association, elk require supplemental hay during winter as well as a rich vitamin-mineral routine before breeding, calving and velvet harvest. Feeding costs vary from $150 to $300 annually per adult animal depending on soil and supplemental hay prices.
Equipment & Safety
Elk require significantly more fencing than beef cattle do. Bulls generally weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds, while cows weigh 450 to 650 pounds. These large animals require 8-foot-high fences along with feeding stations. Fenced pasture and barn areas require holding pens and the use of squeeze gates specifically designed for elk, as these animals are generally not handled via direct contact.
For those with land, startup costs vary depending on factors such as construction of necessary fencing and facilities. Fencing costs are greater than that of beef cattle, given the necessary height and strength to hold and move this large livestock. Breeding stock pricing also varies, but a good bull with a demonstrated ability for velvet production will cost $8,000 to $10,000, while a guaranteed pregnant female will cost $7,500 to $10,000. A young heifer sells for around $4,000 to $6,000.
Domesticated longer than sheep and cattle, alpacas originated in South America where they were raised for their fiber, which was used for clothing. Alpacas gained popularity in the United States in the early 1980s.
There are two breeds of alpaca: Huacaya and Suri. Huacayas are more common because of their fluffy, crimpy fleece and teddy-bear-like looks. Suris grow silky fleece that drapes gracefully, but this breed represents only about 10 percent of the U.S. alpaca population.
Alpacas live 15 to 20 years and weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. They are docile, mild-mannered animals that will occasionally kick with their back feet.
Each animal produces 5 to 8 pounds of usable fiber a year. Alpacas are shorn each spring, and a portion of the fleece is unusable. Some people sell fleece right off the animal while others prepare the fleece by carding it into rovings or creating yarns. Some fleece is sold as finished goods, such as mittens, hats, sweaters and socks. Animals are found in 22 official colorations or markings, making fleece very interesting to weavers and spinners.
Alpacas live peacefully in herds, and 1 acre of pasture can support five or six animals, providing enough grass for summer. During winter, the alpaca is generally fed high-quality hay. Each animal consumes 2 to 3 pounds per day. A small barn is sufficient offering night or inclement weather access. Fencing is necessary to keep predators—such as dogs and coyotes—from the herd.
In terms of nutrition, alpacas thrive and produce excellent quality fiber on a diet of high-quality hay and pasture supplemented with pellets formulated for the breed. Weight and regular fecal exams to check for parasites are essential in management strategy.
Equipment & Safety
Tim Sheets, the owner of Heritage Farms in Flora, Indiana, raises alpacas. He explains that alpacas are very trainable. At about 6 months of age, they can be handled, halter trained and led. Handling these animals supports their overall care. Alpacas don’t show signs of illness when they are sick, so you can best manage individuals by leading them onto a platform scale to be weighed on a regular basis.
Startup costs vary depending on the type of alpaca and the goals for raising them. Alpaca gestation periods are 11 1⁄2 months, and Sheets suggests purchasing two bred females so that within 6 to 7 months you have offspring to grow your herd. A pair of bred females can range in price from $5,000 to $10,000.
In addition, starting up will require a simple shelter structure ($2,500); supplies such as halters, leads, buckets ($200); hay and 50 pounds of feed (the animals will consume 1⁄2 pound a day so this amount goes pretty far); and fencing, which can cost a couple of dollars per square foot, as well as a platform scale.
The second largest flightless bird, the emu is quick, agile and capable of kicking with its big three-toed feet. Emus grow to be around 5 feet tall and weigh 100 pounds. They can run about 30 mph, are very territorial especially during breeding season and can live to be nearly 20 years old. Females lay large dark green eggs that weigh a little more than a pound.
Emu meat is rich in iron, so it’s always a dark, cherry red color. It has a mild taste and sells for $6 to $10 per pound ground or $15 per pound for steak. Emu meat has been listed by the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy meat and has been demonstrated to lower cholesterol.
Emus are raised also for the oil made from their fat at the time of rendering. Birds are
processed at 14 to 18 months of age. They produce about 25 pounds of meat and another 25 pounds of fat, which, when rendered results in 2 1⁄2 gallons of oil. The oil is very popular for products such as lotions, facial creams and shampoos. Grade A certified emu oil sells for $12 to $15 an ounce.
Emus are grazers consuming grass and insects. They are also fed a supplement grain mix formulated for them, which includes corn, soybeans, wheat oats and alfalfa. Optimal management approaches include a facility with pens and gated runs through which to transfer birds.
Day-to-day management is easier than many other livestock breeds. With self-feeders, the birds are fed once a day during spring months (after laying season) and twice a day during laying season. An adult will eat an average of 1 pound of food a day, sometimes consuming all the food and other times eating very little.
As a rule, one pair of mature birds and two years of offspring—a pair of 1-year-olds and a pair of chicks—can live comfortable on 1 acre.
Equipment & Safety
Equipment needs include incubators, humidifiers, brooders and, for mature birds, a system of pens with gates and passageways. People handle emus from behind, using their short wings as handlebars for steering; a lead rope across the chest and under the wings is another option. Although easy to get along with, the birds are generally not handled but transferred through pens and passageways.
In addition to specialized equipment, chicks can be purchased for $50 to $150 or more for a week-old chick. Depending upon the region, chicks are in high demand and can be difficult to find.
Exploring each breed more deeply will help you determine which one is the best fit for your farm operation. You can learn more by finding a farm that keeps the exotics that interest you. Most exotic farmers are happy to share information, expertise and experiences—as well as resources for getting started.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.