Beyond Chickens: Livestock for Your Backyard Homestead
A backyard homestead opens up opportunities for sharing your farm with other types of animals that you may not have thought to add to your homestead. Besides the flock of chickens you maintain for eggs and maybe meat and the bees you keep on-site for honey and pollination purposes, you may want to have other animals around as residents of your homestead.
This article is by no means an exhaustive list of what you can do on your homestead. Want to have horses? Corral cattle? Parent pigs or chaperone sheep or llove your very own llamas? You can if you have the acreage and the inclination, but you’re inching your way toward farming rather than homesteading.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase tastes like chicken when someone is describing an unusual meat. Well, that description holds true for the meat of the rabbit, which is low in cholesterol. Rabbits, which eat grass and leafy weeds, are more productive and are cheaper to feed than chickens. A rabbit can produce up to 1,000 percent of her body weight in food per year, which brings new meaning to the phrase multiplying like a rabbit! You can skin and butcher about five rabbits in the same amount of time it’d take to do a chicken.
Rabbits also produce a fine, soft fiber. Rabbit fur is very soft, and people have used rabbit pelts for years as fur accents on coats or hats, among many other uses.
The fiber of the Angora rabbit can also be spun into a super soft yarn known simply as angora. Rabbits such as the Angora shed their coats a few times a year. (Yes, that means you can get the fiber and still keep the critter.) The rabbits should be brushed regularly to keep the coats free of knots, and the stuff you brush off can be added to the pile that you can later spin. For rabbits who don’t shed their coats, you can shear them or you can brush or hand-pull the loose fibers out. (You know it’s time to harvest the rabbit’s fur when you notice clumps of wool sticking to the cage.)
Here are a few things to consider:
- Rabbits don’t need much space to be happy. They should be kept confined to reduce the threat of predators.
- Take care when building their enclosures to ensure their safety. Hutches should be well above the ground and out of the way of curious dogs and other smaller critters, such as skunks.
- Because Angora hair is so long and soft, it has a tendency to mat and shed. (Matted fiber is no good.) Shedding not only means the loss of potential spinning fodder but can also make a mess of the cage and cling to your clothes. Regular brushing is crucial.
Rabbits, like other animals, need protection from predators, and the very dogs that you use to guard other animals may be the same critters that threaten the rabbits. Outdoor rabbit houses, called hutches, are typically aboveground, secured shelters, so dogs (and skunks, raccoons, and coyotes) can’t even get close to them.
The bottoms of the cages are typically a wire mesh-type material so the frequently produced poop can flow freely out of the cage. The hutches my dad used had chicken wire on three sides and on the bottom, and the other side and the roof were wood. Such wire-and-wood hutches can adequately protect the rabbits from the weather (rain, snow, and so on); for warmth, you can put some straw or other bedding materials inside.
Keep the hutches inside fences where predators can’t get close. When rabbits get nervous and freak out, they kick. The kicking feet can go down through the wire mesh, damaging the rabbits’ feet and legs. They can wear their hocks down to nothing (a hock is like an elbow on the back of the leg). This can lead to bone infections that are nasty to deal with and are pretty much fatal.
Getting your goats
Goats are fantastic animals that have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years, and they are a great way for the modern homesteader to become more self-sufficient.
Imagine never having to buy milk or cheese again. If you raise dairy goats, you can achieve that goal. Your goats need to have kids to give you milk, and then you can milk them throughout the year for up to three years without re-breeding, if you want. Or you can stagger the kidding each year so that you have a milk supply year-round. Just one standard-size dairy goat can give you an average of 6 to 8 pounds (3 to 4 quarts) of milk each day. And, depending on the butterfat content of the milk, you can get up to a pound of cheese for every gallon of milk.
Goat meat has always been popular in the developing world, because goats are much more affordable and use fewer resources than animals such as cows. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the demand for goat meat is expected to continue growing. Goat meat is easily digestible, tasty, and low in fat. If you’re in charge of your own source of meat, you know how it was raised and what feed or medications went into it.
If you raise fiber goats, you can spin your own yarn and make hats, blankets, sweaters or other products. You can also sell the fiber to spinners or to companies that make these products, while having the benefit of these friendly creatures.
Goats are also well-known for their ability to wipe out weeds. In fact, some people have made businesses out of renting out their goat herds to cities and other municipalities to clean up areas that are overgrown with weeds or blackberry bushes. But be warned: your goats will treat your vegetable garden like a salad buffet if given access, so keeping your goats contained is key.
Goats tend to be escape artists, so fences need to be strong and sturdy. Chicken wire and a couple of metal posts aren’t enough — you need something stronger, such as chain link or metal fence panels.
Check out ordinances in your area regarding keeping livestock. you may need to buy a license for a goat, just like you do for a dog. In some cities, you can’t keep backyard goats. In an urban area, even if goats are allowed, your neighbors may complain, much like they do with a barking dog. Be aware of what your local noise ordinance covers.
Goats need a safe, clean place to hang out, sleep in, or retreat to when the weather is too hot, cold, windy, or rainy. Consider buildings that are already on your property that may be feasible for housing goats. You can remodel a chicken house or other farm building or even use a prefab garden shed for a goat house. Many people house urban goats in a section of garage that opens into the back yard.
Finally, run the numbers! In almost all cases, getting only one goat is a recipe for trouble. Goats are not dogs and do not thrive on human companionship alone. Goats are herd animals and need other goats to keep them healthy and happy. A goat without a friend will cry and can even become depressed. Never get just one goat; always buy at least two goats so they can keep each other company. That said, start slow and don’t get the maximum number of goats that your homestead can handle right away. And then think about what you are doing when you start breeding your goats. They grow exponentially, and all the kids are way too cute!
Figuring out fowl: ducks, geese, and turkeys
Many chicken-keepers add other poultry to their backyard flock. In general, ducks, geese, and turkeys get along well with chickens. However, you may need more room than a small backyard to keep them with chickens. All of these birds need to be kept where they have a lot of space to roam and a place to bathe.
Raising domestic ducks and geese
Ducks are typically raised for their meat, eggs, and down. Their meat is a more exotic one and is often used in gourmet foods in pricey restaurants (foie gras is one example). Their eggs are larger and richer than that of a chicken and thus are prized among chefs.
They’re a popular animal to have on the farm because they’re easy to care for (they’re happy with kitchen scraps), they eat bugs, and they’re just fun to watch. They can also act as alarms and fend off small predators.
Geese are hardy birds and aren’t as susceptible to diseases as some of their poultry cousins. They’re easy to care for because they’re foragers — by eating their favorite food, they help control your weeds. They even love grass clippings. Their eggs are a delicacy, and their feathers (particularly their down) make for soft and warm insulation material.
Be aware that most ducks and geese can be noisy, and neighbors may not welcome them.
You can mix ducklings or goslings (baby geese) with chicks in a brooder without them harming each other. However, you’ll need a plan for meals. We usually recommend that chicks start out with medicated feed, but ducklings and goslings shouldn’t have medicated starter feed because they’re sensitive to the antibiotic used. Since you can’t keep them from eating each other’s feed, all the babies will need unmedicated feed. This compromise may then lead to more disease problems in the chicks.
We recommend using a higher-protein feed, such as broiler feed, for ducklings — the chicks will be okay with that choice, too. As adults, ducks, geese, and chickens can eat the same feed, although special feed mixes for ducks are available.
Keep in mind that ducks are messy, even when they’re ducklings. They’ll play in the water, and their droppings are more liquid than chicks, so brooders with ducklings need more frequent cleaning to keep them dry. Ducklings don’t need to swim while in the brooder (although they will if they can fit inside the water container), and it’s not recommended to let them bathe if you’re keeping them with chicks. Goslings aren’t quite as messy with water.
Geese can be aggressive, and they go after unfamiliar visitors who come into their territory. And because geese are rather big birds, they’re capable of defending themselves and their territory against small to medium predators such as raccoons or weasels. But their biggest guarding benefit is that when they’re upset, they don’t stop squawking until the danger is gone. As long as you’re home, you’ll be notified that something is amiss out in the yard and that you should go check it out.
Ducks can be territorial, too, going after and nipping at a critter who doesn’t belong, but they’re not so big and are no match against larger predators.
You’ll need to address one other consideration when keeping ducks with chickens. Don’t keep male ducks with chickens without female ducks also being present. Ducks are often aggressive sexually. If they’re deprived of their own females, they may mate with hens.
Mother hens and ducks sometimes raise each other’s babies when allowed to mingle freely. They may lay in each other’s nests and sit on each other’s eggs. Chicks don’t usually follow a stepmama duck into water, but it has happened. Baby ducklings can confuse a hen when they pop into water to swim, but it rarely causes a problem.
Turkeys, of course, are the most popular Thanksgiving meal. Turkeys need to be a bit older than chickens do at slaughter — hens (females) should be 14 to 16 weeks old, and toms (males) should be 19 to 20 weeks.
Most commercial turkeys are bred to have a lot of meat on them, and that means they’re unable to fly. That also means you should provide shelter — protection not only from the elements but also from predators, because they can’t fly up to the top of the barn if something gets too close.
Turkeys eat grain (with a little higher protein content that what you’d give a chicken) and have a life expectancy of about ten years.
Goin’ fishin’: farm raising fish
Farm raising fish can be fun because they’re rather easy to care for, but what types and even whether or not you can do this depends on your state’s laws. The most common types of farm-raised fish are catfish and trout.
If the fish are for your own enjoyment, you have little to do in the way of caring for them. For instance, if you have a natural pond on your property, you don’t have to do much besides catch them. With human-made ponds or repurposed pools, you need to take care of feeding them and keeping their homes pest-free.
If you’re raising fish (such as tilapia, perch, catfish, or trout) for food, you have more health-related issues to consider, such as being careful about the herbicides you use for controlling aquatic plants and keeping the fish disease free.
Fish raised in captivity have some problems their wild counterparts do not. Their diet is different, so they can have a different taste or color. They also have less room to swim and can be prone to diseases, so you have to consider using antibiotics.