One of the greatest appeals of farming is the prospect of raising animals. Pouring hard work into a creature who then provides tenfold for you and your family is an amazing and primal feeling. The ethical aspect of being able to raise your own animals for consumption or work was a huge reason why I ended up raising my own animals. I never worried about how they were treated because I was the one looking after them.
Animals can offer much more than a plate on your table, however. 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.
This is your complete guide for raising and choosing the best small-scale farm and homesteading animals.
Best Animals for Your Homestead and Backyard
Intro – Goats
Goats can add meat and dairy production to your operation. Their manure, with some time for composting, makes excellent fertilizer for your crops. If you’re at all interested in soap-making, goat’s milk is a wonderful addition to your recipes. Because of their smaller size, they require less feed than other dairy and meat producers, such as cattle, which means less of a financial and land-use burden on you.
Intro – Chickens
Egg production is the obvious perk to raising your own flock. Chickens are also 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, and chicken droppings add a concentrated kick of nitrogen to boost your fertilizer.
Intro – 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. Left over wax can be used in many applications including candle making and creating natural cosmetics.
Before You Commit
Before diving headfirst into the world of raising animals, you’ll have a lot of preparation ahead of you. Not only will you need to identify your operation’s specific needs, you’ll need to consider your ability to ethically care for the animals you raise.
Although each species will have its own requirements, there are some basic aspects of husbandry that apply to all. Food, water, shelter, cleanliness, and medical care are going to be inevitabilities and should be considered carefully. Sure we may all want a fresh steak on our table every night, but does your set up 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 animals are:
- 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’ll be raising, you’ll want to make you’re ready to hit the ground running as soon as your new creature co-workers arrive. You’ll need to get the following prepared and purchased 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.
For livestock such as goats, having a weatherproof run-in shed, placed strategically to provide shelter from prevailing winds, is vital. 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!
Goats will also need an outdoor roaming space with sturdy fencing to avoid any escapees. 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.
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.
Letting your chickens roam free to forage during the day is absolutely recommended, but they’ll need a safe place to roost at night. Nocturnal predators such as fox, coyote, and raccoons will wreak havoc on your flock. 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.
Baseline requirements are:
- Wind/rain proof.
- A locking door.
- 1 nest box per hen.
- A non-rounded perch to avoid injury.
Nest box dimensions should be a 12 inch cube, and you’ll need 3 sq ft of space inside your coop and 15 sq ft of outdoor roaming space per chicken (source). Should you choose to keep your flock fenced in at all times, there are some fantastic plans for rotating runs which will protect your land against over-grazing.
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 (source). I’d recommend buying a langstroth hive unless you’re skilled with wood working, 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 (source).
A common mistake I see with first-time animal keepers is not getting equipment BEFORE their animals arrive. What are you going to do if your goat gets loose but you don’t have a rope to catch it?
Having foresight when it comes to keeping animals and livestock is absolutely necessary. I’ve put together a basic list of equipment you should plan to have on hand prior to receiving your animals. I would also consult your veterinarian on medications they recommend you have on hand for emergencies, such as antibiotics or pain relievers.
Equipment 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
- Scoop and scale to measure feed
- Mineral blocks
- Water trough- and a heating element if you live in cold climates
- Probiotic supplement (I recommend Probios)
- Electrolyte supplement
- Vegetable or corn oil
- Rectal thermometer
- Pitch fork and wheelbarrow
- Styptic powder (I recommend Kwik Stop) – This works for chickens too
- Milking equipment – Stainless steel bucket, strainer, glass jugs
Equipment for Chickens
- Incubator (I recommend HovaBator)
- 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
- 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 (Cozy Coop Heater)
- Egg cartons
Equipment 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
Where and How To Buy 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’ adds, but how do you know these animals were bred carefully and raised ethically?
I’ll give a brief idea on 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 assure 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’ll be choosing goats for dairy. Looking at the goats themselves will be relatively straight forward. They should have 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, and 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 on placing animal welfare as a top priority. Finding chickens may be a little more difficult if you’re going for a specific breed or trying to find fertilized eggs.
It is not uncommon for chickens and eggs to be purchased online and shipped, just make sure you dig deeply into where you will be sourcing these animals. If you’ll be 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), and their eyes and temperament should be bright and alert.
There are several different ways to obtain a colony of bees. For beginning beekeepers, I would recommend purchasing bees as it’ll be the easiest way to start your apiary. When buying bees, you’ll run across two options:
- Nucleus Hives (“Nuc”)
- Packaged bees
Nucs are a half-sized hive and colony that you simply add on to your existing hives.
Packaged bees are the colony without the hive attached.
To buy a packaged hive or nuc contact your local beekeeping association, you can do so on beeculture.com. Always try to source your bees locally, as transporting insects long distances and across changing climates will cause undue stress which often results in death.
Poop will pile up quickly with livestock! Make sure you have a plan in place for how you’ll be managing this never ending supply. If you choose to use your goat manure as fertilizer, you’ll need to employ the use of composting before putting it on your plants.
Goat and chicken manure are ‘hot’ manures, which means they have a high NPK ratio. Without being properly broken down, they can burn your crops. You may also choose to sell or give away the manure that your livestock produce. I’ve utilized Craigslist in the past for this purpose and had great luck with it.
Raising and slaughtering your own animals is one of the only sure fire ways to ethically source your meat, as you’ll have been in control of the entire process. With dairy animals in particular, breeding is necessary and 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. Please make sure to check with your state and countries regulations regarding slaughter of animals for human consumption, the USDA in the United states and the CFIA in Canada.
Goats in Detail
- 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
Saanen, Alpine, Toggenburg, LaMancha, Oberhasli, Sable
Goat breeds for meat
Boer, Myotonic, Spanish, Savannah, Kiko
Goat breeds for meat and dairy
Nigerian dwarf, Nubians
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.
There are a couple options you have for breeding your goats. You may 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 utilize stud services by paying a nearby farmer for the use of their male goats during breeding season. Twins and triplets are extremely common in goats.
Goats: Common Health Issues
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 on 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 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, 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).
Goat Time Commitment
- Twice/day milking
- Daily cleaning
- Monthly hoof trim
- Daily feeding
- Cleaning water trough regularly
Chickens in Detail
- 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.
My flock was 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 for the best egg layers, meat producers, and hybrid birds.
Chicken breeds for eggs
Ameraucana, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, Leghorn
Chicken breeds for meat (“Broilers”)
Cornish, Jersey Giant, Bresse
Chicken breeds for meat and eggs
Buff Orpington, Chantecler, Buckeye, 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 (source).
Should 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 with eating those make sure to keep a group a hens separate from your rooster.
Domestic hens are often lacking 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
Among 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 as well. Be sure to carefully examine your birds regularly and watch for signs like poor feather condition or irritated skin around the legs and face for your animals.
Birds are especially prone to nutritional deficiencies, so be sure to 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, when in fact chickens are unique from other birds in that they sleep flat footed rather than 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 which is enriched with calcium for egg-shell production. If you raise chickens for meat, you’ll want to place them on a ‘finisher’ feed once the read adulthood. Finisher has a higher protein concentration and will result in larger birds.
Feed should be offered in a free-choice manner for chickens, just make sure to check on the cleanliness of your feeders as they tend to get soiled 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.
Chickens Time Commitment
- Weekly coop/nest box/run cleaning
- Daily egg collection
- Daily checks on food/water supply and cleanliness
- Monthly check for parasites
- Monthly disinfecting of coop
Honey Bees in Detail
- 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 afterwards. 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 as your first step into the world of keeping bees. 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 ensure 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 various bacterial and viral infections.
Treatment and management for all of these issues are varied and numerous. I’d highly recommend searching through the honeybeehealthcoalition.org 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 which draws honey out of the combs.
You’ll want to make sure to have plenty of jars on hand, as each hive can produce anywhere from 20-60 lbs of honey every year. Make sure to properly wash and sanitize whatever equipment you’ll be using to bottle and store your honey in.
Homestead Animals Summary
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, and 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!