This is your complete guide to the best animals for small farms and homesteads! These are some of the best animals to raise when you’re just starting out, or even if you’re an experienced homesteader.
We’ve included detailed info on animal health, the type of shelter they require, reproduction, different breeds, the equipment you’ll need, nutrition, and the time commitment you’ll need to look after your farm animals.
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This guide was originally published in September 2019 and completely updated in April 2021.
Whether you’d like to raise chickens for eggs, goats for milk, or cows for meat, adding animals to your homestead will be a great (but challenging!) experience.
If you’re not sure which animals you want to raise, we have some great suggestions for the best animals for small farms and homesteads below.
Animals can offer much more than a plate on your table. Manure can be used for fertilizer, omnivores can offer pest control, herbivores can assist with pasture and land management. These types of multi-taskers are vital to any small-scale operation, as you’ll want to get the most bang for your buck with space and resources.
Introducing Our Best Animals for Small Farms
We’re going to look at goats, chickens, and bees.
- Goats can add meat and dairy products to your operation.
- Their manure, with some time for composting, makes an excellent fertilizer for your crops.
- Goat’s milk is a wonderful addition to homemade soaps. (Check out my 30-minute soap tutorial!)
- Because of their smaller size, goats require less feed than other dairy and meat producers, such as cattle, which means less of a financial and land-use burden on you.
- Egg production is the obvious perk to raising your own flock. Click here for the best chickens for beginners.
- Chickens are fantastic at pest control. Your girls (and boys should you choose to raise a rooster) will keep your crops free from many damaging insects.
- Your birds can also provide meat for your farm.
- Chicken droppings add a concentrated kick of nitrogen to boost your fertilizer.
Why Honey Bees?
- Raising and tending to your own hives will leave you with a plethora of rewards. Not only will you have fresh honey, but you’ll have pollinators for your crops and heaps of beeswax.
- Leftover beeswax can be used for many things including candle making and creating natural cosmetics. Check out 58 practical homesteading skills you can start learning today!
Before Getting Your Farm Animals
Before diving headfirst into the world of raising animals, we have some preparation to do. We need to identify the specific needs of our animals, as well as our ability to ethically care for them.
Take, for example, our neighbor. He runs what feels like a million head of cattle (click here to find out how many cattle per acre you can run in your state!). And they’re forever getting out, onto the neighboring property. Ours.
We’ve decided that it’s easier to fence them out of our property rather than start a fight over him keeping them in. Which is why we did a whole article on the best fencing for cattle!
I mean, these cows are wild – they have had no human handling whatsoever so they run straight through gates that are, obviously, not up to the task of keeping them in. To keep the peace with your neighbors, good fencing is incredibly important.
Fly control is just as important – we’re about to get 2 gorgeous Lowline cows and no way will I have them walk around with 10,000 flies on their bodies, infecting their eyes and causing oozing sores. Fly control is super important, whether you use a chemical solution or a natural one.
Although each animal has its own requirements, there are some basic aspects of husbandry that apply to them all.
Food, water, shelter, cleanliness, and medical care are going to be inevitable and should be considered carefully.
Sure, we may all want a fresh steak on our table every night, but does your setup have the space and resources necessary to raise a herd of beef cattle?
Some important things to explore before you choose to take on any animal:
- Can your facility support the animal’s needs?
- What’s the animal’s temperament?
- What are the costs associated?
- What kind of time commitment does the animal require?
- What you intend to use the animal for (consumption, companionship, work, etc…)?
Preparing for Your Animals
Once you’ve decided which animals you want to raise, you need to make sure you’re ready to hit the ground running as soon as your new creature co-workers arrive. Our list below helps you prepare and buy the necessary things ahead of time.
Something else I highly recommend before your animals arrive is to find and contact a veterinarian in your area who specializes in livestock.
Let’s dive in – what do our animals need?
For livestock such as goats, it’s vital to have a weatherproof run-in shed, placed strategically to provide shelter from prevailing winds.
Keep in mind that goats are extremely agile and curious, and will climb anything and everything you put in their area. Make sure you choose a shed that doubles as a jungle gym! To keep them entertained and out of your hair, check out some great toys for your goats!
Goats will also need an outdoor roaming space with sturdy fencing to avoid any escapes. Plan to provide bedding material such as straw or wood chips for their shelter as it’ll make things easier to keep clean and your goats will keep warm in winter.
- Click here for great bedding material for your goat shelter
- Click here for 19 portable goat shelters you can buy or DIY
Each goat requires 15 sq ft of indoor space and 25 sq ft of outdoor space.
These housing dimensions are recommended by The American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) and are especially important when your goats are kidding out, more on that later. If you’re not sure whether you have kids on the way, check out how to tell if a goat is pregnant.
Letting your chickens roam free to forage during the day is absolutely recommended (learn how to keep them out of your garden here!), but they’ll need a safe place to roost at night. Nocturnal predators such as foxes, coyotes, and raccoons will wreak havoc on your flock. (Do you know if possums eat chickens?)
Your hens will also need nest boxes to lay their daily egg.
There are countless resources for free chicken coop plans, so take your time to find what you like. I’ve also written a guide for building the best chicken coop. Don’t forget to give your coop a great name! I mean, if you’re building your girls a palace, you may as well name it accordingly.
Baseline requirements for your chicken coop:
- Wind and rainproof
- A locking door
- 1 nest box per hen
- A non-rounded perch to avoid injury
Nest box dimensions should be a 12-inch cube. You’ll need 3 sq ft of space inside your coop and 15 sq ft of outdoor roaming space per chicken.
If you choose to keep your flock fenced in at all times, there are some fantastic plans for rotating runs that will protect your land against over-grazing. We use a chicken tunnel through the food forest for our run.
Honey Bee Accommodation
Unlike other species, you’ll have little to no control over where your bees will head to collect their pollen. You still need to provide healthy hives for them, though.
You’ll often see the term “Langstroth Hive” used in beekeeping circles. This term is used to describe a hive with specific dimensions, developed by Lorenzo Langstroth who discovered that bees need between 3/8-¼ inch of space to build useful comb.
I recommend buying a Langstroth hive unless you’re skilled with woodworking, as it is crucial that your measurements are precise.
Although the base of the hive itself is relatively small, you’ll need to consider careful placement and space to allow for constant bee traffic. It is recommended to provide a 5-10 ft radius around your hive to avoid getting in their busy little way.
2. The Equipment You’ll Need for Your Farm Animals
Make sure you’ve got the right equipment ready to go. It’ll make your life (and your animal’s) a lot easier.
I’ve put together a basic list of equipment you should have on hand before your animals arrive. Check with your veterinarian which medications they recommend to have on hand, especially for emergencies. These include things like bandages, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain relief. Corro’s shop has a great range of animal first-aid supplies.
A first aid kit for animals is as important as a first aid kit for people, especially if your nearest vet is miles away!
Equipment You’ll Need for Goats
- Lead ropes and halters/collars
- Bedding material – straw or wood chips
- Grain pans – one per goat
- Hay feeders
- Tarps to cover hay
- Storage bins for grain (we highly recommend Vittle’s Vault!)
- Scoop and scales to measure feed
- Mineral blocks
- Water trough (these automatic ones are awesome!) – and a heating element if you live in cold climates. Or, just get a heated trough which is a trough and heating element in one.
- Probiotic supplement (I recommend Probios)
- Electrolyte supplement
- Vegetable or corn oil
- Rectal thermometer
- Pitchfork and wheelbarrow (or see the best heavy-duty garden carts that are easy to pull here!)
- Styptic powder (I recommend Kwik Stop) – This works for chickens too
- Milking equipment – Stainless steel bucket, strainer, glass jugs
Equipment You’ll Need for Chickens
For fertilized eggs:
- Chick feed
- Bin or brooder
- Heating element. Bulbs can cause fires! (I use Cozy Coop Heater)
- Poultry feeder and water jug
- Bedding – wood shavings, never Cedar though as it is harmful if inhaled
For pullets and adult birds:
- Pullets: grower feed
- Hens: layer feed
- Styptic powder
- Nest box bedding – straw
- Large feeder/water jug – I highly recommend the hanging designs for cleanliness
- Heater for winter
- Egg cartons
Equipment You’ll Need for Honey Bees
- Protective equipment – face mask and gloves at the very least
- Hive tool
- Beekeeping brush
- Honey harvesting supplies – I recommend buying a kit
- Materials to winterize your hive – Foam siding or tarps
- Jars to store honey
How and Where to Buy Your Animals
Although it may not be a tangible piece of preparation, don’t forget about sourcing your new animals. You’ll want to make sure you are ethically consuming, even at this stage.
There are many commercial operations selling fertilized eggs for profit, and I’m sure you can guess that the welfare of those hens and roosters is subpar. Jump on a site like Craigslist and you’ll find tons of “goat for sale” ads, but how do you know these animals were bred carefully and raised ethically?
I’ll give a brief idea of where to source your new animals and things to keep in mind before buying.
I would recommend doing some research on local farms or breeders in your area. Always ask to take a tour of the facility so you can make sure the animals are kept and treated well. If you run into a situation where someone refuses to allow you on their property, this should be a huge red flag.
You should also ask to sample milk if you’re choosing goats for dairy.
Looking at the goats themselves will be relatively straightforward. Look for:
- A nice glossy goat
- Bright/alert eyes and temperaments
- Their hooves should not be overgrown
- Their udders should be free of any rash or sore
- They should not be limping
Finding chickens will have some of the same ethical concerns you’ll run into with goats. Always do your due diligence – animal welfare is a top priority. Buying chickens can be a bit more difficult if you’re going for a specific breed or if you’re trying to find fertilized eggs.
It is not uncommon for chickens and eggs to be purchased online and shipped. Before you do that, make sure you dig deep into where you’ll buy them from. Some online sources are better than others, and it’s quite an ordeal for a chicken to be shipped. Make sure the company you buy them from looks after them properly and packages them well to make the journey as comfortable as possible.
If you’re buying birds in person, always check:
- Their feet for signs of injury or infection
- Their feathers should be clean and well distributed (no missing patches)
- Their eyes and temperament should be bright and alert.
Buying Honey Bees
There are several different ways to obtain a colony of bees. For beginning beekeepers, I would recommend buying bees because it is the easiest way to start your apiary. When buying bees, you’ll run across two options:
- Nucleus hives (“Nuc”). Nucs are a half-sized hive and colony that you simply add to your existing hives.
- Packaged bees. Packaged bees are the colony without the hive attached.
To buy a packaged hive or nuc, contact your local beekeeping association, which you can do on beeculture.com. Try to source your bees locally because transporting insects over long distances and across changing climates will cause undue stress which often results in death.
If you want to use your chicken or goat manure as fertilizer, you’ll need to compost it before putting it on your plants. Another method you can use is to dig it into a garden, then leave it for 6 months or so to “cool down“.
Goat and chicken manure are “hot” manures, which means they have a high(ish) NPK ratio (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium). If it is not properly broken down, it can burn your crops.
I’ll have to be honest with you here. Shock horror – I don’t compost manure. It goes straight on top of my garden. I have never had any issues, my garden loves it, and it saves me a LOT of time. Just be forewarned that some plants might find it a “bit much of a good thing”. Test and trial will see you succeed!
You can also sell or give away the manure that your livestock produce. I’ve used Craigslist in the past for this purpose and had great luck with it. I also see a lot of bags of manure for sale on the side of the road.
Schools are often happy recipients too. I run a permaculture project at our school and we happily take any manure offered!
Slaughtering Your Animals
Raising and slaughtering your own animals is one of the few sure-fire ways to ethically source your meat, as you have been in control of the entire process. With dairy animals, in particular, breeding is necessary and that will result in a mix of males and females being born.
It is a common practice to raise male animals to maturity and use them as a meat source. This keeps your herd or flock at manageable levels, preserves your hens or does for eggs and milk, and supplies your family with a new food source.
Breeds, Cost, Health, and Babies
- Average annual cost: $300-$400 per goat.
- Temperament: Breed specific.
- Purposes: Dairy, fertilizer, meat, fiber.
- Space requirement: 15 square feet indoor, 25 square feet outdoor space per goat.
When it comes to raising working goats, not all breeds are created equal. Due to domestication, many dairy breeds have poor meat quality and vice versa. I’ve compiled a few suggestions for breeds but I do recommend doing some further research on climate tolerance before you select a specific breed. Some goats will do better in hot vs. cold climates.
Each of these breeds will have unique temperaments as well, something to keep in mind if you have children or will be treating your goats like pets.
Goat breeds for dairy:
Goat breeds for meat:
Goat breeds for meat and dairy
- Nigerian dwarf
To produce milk, your goats will need to have kids (yes, that’s what baby goats are actually called). Goats are seasonal breeders, generally late summer to early winter, and once they’ve given birth they’ll produce milk for up to 10 months after.
You have a couple of options for breeding your goats. You can choose to keep a male at your property, but remember that this will be a non-productive mouth to feed. A second route is to use stud services by paying a nearby farmer for the use of their male goats during the breeding season.
Twins and triplets are extremely common in goats. If you’re not sure if your goat is pregnant, read “how to tell if a goat is pregnant“.
Common Health Issues in Goats
As with any livestock species, goats need regular vaccinations and dewormers to keep them protected against pathogens and parasites. They’ll also need regular hoof trims.
The Merck Veterinary Manual has a fantastic list of common diseases in goats, the most well-known of which is a bacterial infection causing diarrhea called Coccidiosis.
I’ve also found this article on common goat health problems, which is a great resource for management and prevention methods. A majority of health issues that arise are due to poor husbandry.
If you follow the advice of your vet, keep your facilities clean, and make sure your goats have good nutrition and water, chances are you’ll have very little health problems with your herd.
If your goats are allowed to graze, you only need minor feed supplementation. Growing kids and milking adults should be offered daily grain and horse-quality legume hay (alfalfa) to ensure they meet their protein requirements.
In the colder seasons, when forage is scarce, the hay and grain quantity will need to be bumped up. A good rule of thumb is to feed 2-4lbs of hay/forage and ½ to 1 lb of grain per day, depending on your goat’s life stage and the seasons you’re going through (source).
How Much Time to Goats Take?
- Milking twice a day
- Daily cleaning
- Monthly hoof trim
- Daily feeding
- Cleaning water trough regularly
- Average annual cost: $13-30 per chicken.
- Temperament: Breed and gender-specific.
- Purposes: Eggs, meat, fertilizer, bug control.
- Space requirement: 12-inch cube nest box, 3 square ft. indoor, 15 square ft. outdoor space per bird
Similar to searching for goat breeds, you’ll need to keep in mind what your intended purpose for chickens is: meat, eggs, or both? Again, remember to research the weather hardiness for breeds to avoid health problems and fatalities due to weather exposure.
There are endless beautiful breeds of chickens in the world – researching breeds was one of the most fun aspects of raising chickens for me. It can be tempting to buy beautiful birds, but many of them are essentially useless when it comes to eggs and meat and there are many breeds with poor temperaments. Read more about chickens in our chickens vs ducks article.
My flock is composed of unique breeds so I could have a rainbow of different colored eggs, as well as friendly hens. I’ve made up a list of the best egg layers, meat producers, and hybrid birds.
Chicken Breeds for Eggs
- Plymouth Rock
Chicken breeds for meat (“Broilers”)
- Jersey Giant
Chicken breeds for meat and eggs
- Buff Orpington
- Rhode Island Red
Chicken Reproduction/Egg Laying
If you’re only planning to use your flock for egg production, you won’t need a rooster. Most hens regularly lay one egg a day, starting around 6 months of age.
In the colder months, hens usually take a break from their normal laying for their annual molt, which puts you in the ballpark of about 250 eggs a year from each of your hens.
If you choose to raise chickens for meat, you’ll need to make sure you have a flock that repopulates, which leads you into the world of rooster ownership.
A good rule of thumb is one rooster per 10 hens. If you do not have enough hens for your roosters you could wind up with deadly fights. Keep in mind that having roosters means fertilized eggs, so if you have issues eating those, make sure you keep a group of hens separate from your rooster.
Domestic hens can lack in the motherhood department, so the best practice is to remove eggs and hatch them using an incubator. You’ll love the day you get your first rooster wakeup call!
Chickens: Common Health Issues
Some of the most prevalent health issues you may see with your birds are external parasites.
Ticks, mites, fleas, and lice are the most common and can also cause health concerns for you or your family. Carefully examine your birds regularly and watch for signs like poor feather condition or irritated skin around the legs and face of your animals.
Birds are especially prone to nutritional deficiencies. Feed your flock a well-balanced diet (not just table scraps).
Injuries to the feet and keel bone are common in flocks without appropriate perches. I often see coops with thin round perches. Chickens are unique from other birds in that they sleep flat-footed rather than with a locked grip around a perch.
I love this article as an overview on common health issues in chickens and how to manage them. As always, work with your veterinarian should any issues arise.
The feed you provide your flock will vary depending on age. Chicks and pullets need “grower” feed and adult hens will need a “layer” feed that is enriched with calcium for egg-shell production.
If you raise chickens for meat, you’ll want to put them on a “finisher” feed once they reach adulthood. Finisher feed has a higher protein concentration and will result in larger birds.
The feed should be offered in a free-choice manner for chickens. Check your feeders often as they tend to get dirty easily.
Chickens in a coop environment also need to be supplemented with grit, which is a stone material necessary for the breakdown of food in the chicken’s digestive system.
How Much Time Do Chickens Take?
- Weekly cleaning of the coop, nest box, and run
- Daily egg collection
- Daily checks on food and water supply, as well as cleanliness
- Monthly check for parasites
- Monthly disinfecting of the coop
- Average annual cost: Initial investment between $200-$400 should last for years.
- Temperament: Docile unless their hive is threatened.
- Purposes: Honey, pollinators, wax, cosmetics.
- Space requirement: 5-10ft radius around each hive.
Setting Up Your Hive
Once you’ve purchased (or constructed) your hives and bought your packaged bees or a nuc, you’ll need to get them introduced. The introduction methods will vary slightly depending on how your bees arrived, in a nuc or a package.
The biggest piece of advice I hear from all of my beekeeping friends, and through my experience as well, is to always move slowly and deliberately around your bees. They have a sixth sense when it comes to feeling stress. If you’re worked up, they will be too.
Introducing Via a Nuc
Introducing bees via a nuc hive is relatively simple. Nucs already have a functioning, yet small, colony. The queen has been introduced and they have already built up honeycomb.
To get your bees into their new hive, you’ll simply transfer the nuc frames into whatever hive you’d like that colony to reside.
Once you’ve removed the frames from the nuc hive, make sure you leave the empty nuc box outside for a day or two as there will still be bees that didn’t transfer over with the frames who need to find their way to their new hive.
Introducing Packaged Bees
Bees that come packaged can be a bit trickier to introduce, as they arrive in a 3lb cage, with a queen in a separate, smaller cage within.
You’ll place the queen into the new hive first, then dump in the rest of the colony afterward. Because of this dumping method, there will be LOTS of bees flying all over the place.
Make sure you have all of your protective equipment and stay calm. If this makes you nervous, I’d definitely suggest going with a nuc first.
This is a fantastic video on introducing packaged bees by Kelley Beekeeping, one of the most well-known beekeeping resources in the States.
One of the greatest perks with beekeeping is that, once your initial set up is complete, they become extremely self-sufficient. The most hands-on you’ll need to be with tending your bees is ensuring they make it through winter, particularly in very cold climates.
Appropriately wrapping your hive and providing sugar syrup for your bees are the most surefire ways to get your insects through the winters.
When it comes time for honey harvesting, you’ll want to clean away excess comb or propolis to make sure your bees have the correct space. This will make sure that your bees don’t decide to vacate.
Bee Health Issues
Honey bees can actually contract diseases and parasites, just like your other livestock. The most common of these are mites such as Varroa, pests poaching honey, Small Hive Beetles (SHB), Wax Moths, and other bacterial and viral infections.
Treatment and management for all of these issues are varied and numerous. I’d highly recommend searching through the Honey Bee Health Coalition for any issues you may face, as well as your local beekeeping organization.
This is a fantastic article that covers honey bee health concerns in-depth and discusses treatment and prevention.
Honey harvesting is an art form, and definitely deserves an article of its own. I’ll do my best to provide the long and short.
You should be ready to harvest your honey in the summer months. This will have allowed time for your honey to “ripen” (reduce in moisture content), and will also give your bees enough time to rebuild before the colder months.
To determine when your specific hives are ready to be harvested, you’ll need to remove the frames and determine how many of the comb cells are covered with wax, or “capped“. Once 80-90% of your frames are capped you’ll know your honey is ready!
You’ll need some special equipment for harvesting, the most basic of which are listed in the equipment section above. If you want to streamline the process, you can rent or invest in an extractor. This machine acts like a large centrifuge that draws honey out of the combs.
Make sure you have plenty of jars on hand, as each hive can produce anywhere from 20-60 lbs of honey every year. Properly wash and sanitize whatever equipment you’ll be using to bottle and store your honey in.
What’s Your Animal of Choice?
So, there you have it, a complete guide on three of the best small-scale farm or homesteading animals!
Raising animals can be a daunting prospect, especially if you’re new to the game. Following the advice and information in this guide should have you off and away to a great start.
My parting words of wisdom for you all:
- Foresight is key
- When in doubt, contact your vet
- Don’t forget why you’re doing this when the going gets tough!
Your animals, although demanding at times, will help you provide for your friends and family, achieve a sustainable life, and lay your ethical concerns to rest.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and get farming!