In today’s podcast “Best Animals for a Homestead” is the topic. We have tried many animals and plan to try a few more. The best animals for a homestead will depend on your goals and land situation. I’ll talk about our thought processes and how we came to choose our animals and specific breeds.
Let me take a minute to say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. If it were not for you, this show would not exist. I appreciate you all and hope you and your families are doing well. I’m so excited to share with you what’s going on at the farm this week.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
Because this podcast is generally about the best animals for a homestead, I’ll keep the garden and fruit portion relatively short.
The garden is amazing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We love this ground cover. The plants are thriving like they never have before. Even with the harsh heat we have been experiencing, everything is thriving.
The tomatoes are coming on strong. There seemed to be only a few tomatoes for a while, but now when I go out there, I see every plant has many, many tomatoes. It won’t be long now. The only type of tomato I am growing this year is a paste tomato. I will get my slicing tomatoes from other vendors at the farmer’s market. My tomato crop is specifically designed to produce lots of tomatoes to be used in making tomato sauce and barbecue sauce.
Peppers are up next. You can’t have tomato plants without pepper plants. They are all doing so well. The sweet banana peppers starting bearing first, then the jalapeno and cayenne started ripening. I’ve harvested only one green bell pepper but many more are in the near future. The plants are strong and bearing lots of fruit. They just need to get a bit bigger. It’s going to be a fabulous year for peppers. That green bell pepper was out of this world. I like to cut up a banana pepper and sprinkle it over my eggs while they are cooking. The peppers get cooked just enough to add their fabulous flavor to the eggs.
All of the potatoes have been harvested. We had about 75 square feet of red potatoes and 25 square feet of Yukon Gold potatoes. Most of them were quite small but also quite healthy. They are the size of new potatoes, about two to three inches in diameter, and I am treating them as such. Rather than curing and firming the skins, I’m letting them be with their thin skins so perfect for boiling and roasting.
In the past we have lost many potatoes before getting them out of the ground due to rotting with fungus. Again, this time all healthy. I’m ready to plant again.
I started picking the crowder peas a few days ago. And then again last night I picked them again. I will wait another day or two and give them another go. I have great luck with crowder peas every year. It appears this year will be a bumper crop year.
Basil and Other Culinary Herbs
This is my first year for really growing basil. I am really pleased with how easy it was to grow this herb. I’m packaging up 2 cup bags to take to the farmer’s market. Come see me on Saturdays in Wytheville, VA 8 am to noon. I’m including a fresh Basil Pesto recipe with every purchase. If you’re not in my area and want the recipe, I’ll put a link in the show notes. Or just hop over to our website at Peaceful Heart Farm dot com and select “recipes” from the menu. It will be at the top of the list.
The Oregano and Thyme are also doing well. The parsley and cilantro don’t look so good. I’ll have to investigate how to do better with those two. I think the Rosemary will also do well, but it grows much slower. Because we have lamb, we use a lot of rosemary. And I love it when it’s fresh. Dried works okay. But fresh is the best. I have a little bit of mint growing here and there also. I want to try a mint sauce recipe with our lamb. I haven’t had the opportunity to do that so far and am looking forward to it. I may make some mint jelly as well. Sometimes mint sauce recipes use mint jelly or offer it as a substitute ingredient.
The blackberry bushes are producing lots of fruit. However, it is such a jungle down there I’m not really able to harvest it. We have been doing other tasks and have let them get overgrown. Blackberry canes are very prolific. Perhaps you’ve had some wild ones invade your space. They can be a real pain. Most of ours are thornless, but there are many wild volunteers that make picking the berries a greater challenge. Certainly not as much of a challenge as picking from a patch that is entirely wild with an abundance of thorns, but a hindrance just the same.
I really enjoy picking berries when there are no thorns. Well, I guess we need to just take a day to go in there with hedge trimmers and cut out the overgrowth and clear out the wild ones. I’m pretty sure they already have a pretty good foot hold and are solidly mixed in with the thornless ones, but with diligent effort we can keep them under control. It’s just one of those homestead jobs that is not really fun. Some things on the homestead are wonderful and other things are really unpleasant. Getting my ankles ripped up by blackberry thorns is unpleasant. I guess I could wear thick socks. But it’s ssssoooo hot out there. Is it hot where you are? Moving on to the animals.
I’ll give a health and wellness update and then some information on how we came to have these particular animals. After I cover what we have, I’ll go into some that we want to have but don’t have yet.
Sheep were the first animals that we added to the homestead in 2010. We started with a dozen pregnant ewes. We added a breeding ram, grew the flock to over 70, then scaled back to our present flock of six to eight ewes and one ram. This year we had eight ewes and have now added 9 lambs. All doing well and keeping together for the most. The health of our flock has steadily improved over the years.
We chose katahdin sheep. It is a meat breed as opposed to a fiber breed. They are referred to as hair sheep. That means that they shed their wool every spring. We do not need to keep up with having them sheared every year. There are other hair sheep, but after research we decided on katahdin due to their excellent mothering instincts and their ability to thrive on pasture. They have internal parasite issues comparable to other breeds. I don’t think there is any way to get around that issue. Breeding for parasite resistance and managing our pastures has improved our flock health tremendously.
If we knew in the beginning what we know now, we would have asked a few more pertinent questions before purchasing. We would have looked at the eyelids of a few of the ewes before we bought them. The flock we purchased came with a heavy worm load. They literally needed to be wormed every 3 or 4 months just to keep them and their lambs alive. Indeed, we lost a few ewes and lots or lambs before we got it under control. Naïve as we were, we did not even know it would be a problem. Oftentimes we as humans go into a situation thinking everyone thinks and acts as we do; that is a great illusion. They would of course be caring for their animals in a manner similar to our plan. Not true.
Anyway, over the years we have learned how to tell when they are stressed with parasites and act quickly to bring it under control. Because of this kind of husbandry, we no longer have what I would call real issues with parasites. We may go an entire year or more without using chemical wormer at all. In other years, it may only one or two animals that get treatment. In the past four or five years we have not had to use much at all. This spring, not one single animal needed treatment. Oh, they still have the parasites and have to be monitored. But they are able to handle it effectively. A healthy flock can be maintained without chemicals. Pasture maintenance and management is the key. Well, good genetics are also important. But even the best genetics will fail if the pastures are not managed well.
Donkeys were the next animal to be added to the homestead. We chose miniature donkeys. Working with small animals was what we were comfortable with and these beauties fit the bill. Daisy was pregnant with Sweet Pea when we purchased her. Both are still on the homestead and both are doing very well. Sweet Pea ended up being bigger than her mom. I’m not sure she would even qualify as a miniature. They must be 36” or less at the shoulder.
A few years later we added Johnny. He produced several foals for us including Cocoa whom we still have. He produced so prolifically that we decided that enough was enough. We wanted to keep him so we enlisted the vet to change him from a Jack to a John. It is fitting is it not? A John is a gelded Jack. Johnny is a John. He will no longer produce Jennys. There is another term for Jenny before they have their first foal, but I can’t remember it right now.
Johnny and Cocoa are also doing well. The problem we have with the donkeys right now is we simply don’t need four. Eventually, we will be selling Johnny and Sweet Pea. Daisy has always been a favorite and Cocoa is my next favorite. They are just friendly and loving. Sweet Pea is an attention hog. She is so friendly she will keep pushing and nudging you from behind for more attention. Johnny is quite shy but if he lets you get close, he really enjoys a good scratch as much as the girls.
We chose donkeys as guard animals for the sheep and lambs. And ours are very good at it. They have kept the coyotes away. We only had one bad incident with coyotes. Spring lambing was in full swing. It rained heavily one night and the pond flooded out into the field. The donkeys were on one side and the sheep and lambs on the other side. We came out to find three lambs destroyed by the coyotes. But again, that was the only incident. We’ve lost a lamb here and there to other predators. But the coyotes stay away. That was and is always the main concern I have with sheep and lambs. Coyotes can be devastating to a flock of sheep.
Cows and Calves
I’ll start out with saying that all of the cows and calves are doing very well. I have started using a natural fly spray and it is working. I’m am very pleased. Flies are a real problem when you have cattle. It’s the poop, you see. Flies love to use it as a breeding ground. And cows make a lot of poop. But with a few squirts of my special fly spray twice a day, we are keeping them at bay. We did have that issue with Luna and pink eye that I talked about last time, but I am keeping a close watch on her and making sure she gets her fly spray twice a day. The spray does not diminish the fly population. Later, we will have chickens to help keep the fly population down. More on that later.
As I have mentioned before, we have Normande cows. For you guys that are new, there is a whole podcast on why we chose Normandes. I’ll put a link in the show notes. I’ll just summarize it here.
It started off with me wanting to have a family cow for milk, butter and cheese. Quickly that grew to wanting a small herd to make handmade farmstead cheese. We chose the Normande breed to one main reason along with a few more major/minor reasons. The main reason is they are a dual breed cow. We needed to have a calf every year to have milk. The calf would be grown out for meat. That was the original plan. The dual breed was perfect for that. The calf would produce excellent meat and the cow would produce excellent milk. Usually a cow is either excellent at producing beef or prolific in making milk. The Normande does both. There are other breeds that are considered dual breeds but we settled on the Normande because of the other major/minor characteristics that were important to us.
I did want to make cheese and the Normande, as well as being a dual breed, was genetically bred in France to produce the finest cheese. They were also bred to sustain themselves on grass. We did not know how great a boon that was until we purchased that Jersey and saw how much supplemental grain she required just to maintain her weight. The Normandes have no such requirement and still produce similar amounts of milk.
Other great things are that they have extremely beautiful coats. They are docile, very docile. Here again, the Jersey cow gave us the true contrast there. Sure, the Jersey has those beautiful and gentle eyes. But let me tell you, they can be quite aggressive. Mostly with the other cows, but she has certainly challenged us from time to time as well. We will eventually sell her and stay with our Normandes. She is a lovely cow and we have learned a lot. But the Normande is the cow for us.
We purchased Claire and Buttercup in 2011. Claire was bred to an angus bull and gave birth to a lovely calf. Willis has been gone for many years but I still remember the joy of that first calf being born. Buttercup is a full sister to Claire and one year younger. The next year we added Cloud, Violet and Lilly. We also purchased a bull, Teddy, with that lot. Teddy was sold a few years back. Cloud was a bred heifer and gave birth to Dora who we lost last year. Dora had complications following a breech calf. Well, the complications likely happened before the birth began. She was two weeks early, hence the breech position and subsequent infection that took her down.
We purchased Butter, a Jersey cow, last year for her A2A2 milk. She was our seed for starting our herd share program. At that time, our cows had not been tested for the A2A2 genetic trait and we wanted to offer A2A2 milk to our herd share customers.
Our current herd consists of the matriarch, Claire, and her sister, Buttercup along with Cloud, Violet and Butter. That’s five cows for the moment. We also have two heifers. Cloud gave birth to Luna in November last year and Buttercup gave us Virginia just five weeks ago.
It will still be a while before the two heifers add milk to our supply. Luna will be bred summer 2021 and will give birth to her first calf in spring 2022. Virginia will follow the year after. Or we could breed her in September or later in 2021 for a calf in the summer or fall of 2022. We shall see. It takes a while to build a herd.
There is way too much information on various goats for my information here to be of much use. I wanted Cashmere for my knitting projects. There is no registered cashmere breed, though there is an American Cashmere Goat Association. With cashmere it’s all about the fiber. Lots of goat breeds produce cashmere. A cashmere goat herd is simply one where selective breeding has produced the finest fiber. That was my only criteria for a goat breed – other than we needed pasture maintenance. They are great at keeping those wild blackberries down. I can’t turn them loose in the blackberries we are growing on purpose. They will not distinguish between wild thorny, thorny blackberries and our lovely thornless ones. They will simple eat everything in sight. They eat the briars and wild roses as well.
Goats eat lots of plants that the cows and sheep won’t touch. They keep small trees and bushes under control as well. Left alone the pastures would be filled with all kinds of bushes and young trees, especially pine trees. They can really take over the edges of a pasture quickly. Future plans include thinning out the cashmere goats to nothing and then bringing in some meat goats. Right now, Kiko is the breed at the top of my list, with Spanish waiting in the wings. They are both meat goats with low parasite loads and little hoof maintenance. That’s another reason for my change of heart with the goats. Our current herd requires regular hoof trimming. If I can shop well, the next one will not.
That’s all I’m going to say about the goats. You may be thinking of milking goats or meat goats, but I really don’t have a lot of information in those areas to add to your knowledge.
The quail chicks are hatched. We have 52 in the brooders and 4 more still in the incubator. Two of those in the incubator will live, one other is a maybe will live and the fourth is not going to make it. There is a problem with its legs and it cannot stand. Let me back up a little bit. There is a lot to this story.
Most of them hatched on Saturday. They stay in the incubator for up to three days. They need to dry off and get some strength in their legs and they need to be kept consistently warm. The incubator provides that environment. They were scheduled to go into the brooders on Tuesday. That date changed to Monday based on a couple of different incidents.
So much has happened that it is a little bit of a blur. I can’t recall whether it was Saturday evening or Sunday evening when we were blessed with rain and I thought, “great, I don’t have to water the garden”. Watering the garden had become nearly a daily activity. It was a tremendous thunderstorm. So tremendous that the power went out. The incubator was off and those 50 plus babies were now in danger. A call to the power company revealed that the power was guaranteed to be back on by 3:00 am. Good to know, but without the incubator or some other source of heat, those newly hatched quail would not survive.
Scott came to the rescue and hooked up the generator and selectively turned on breakers so the incubator was functional. It was quite the balancing act. The cows still needed to be milked so he also turned on the breaker that would provide power to the portable milker. After that, the circuit breaker for the portable milker was turned off and the one for the water pump was turned on so we could clean up the milking equipment and get showers. That one was turned off and the circuits for the freezers were turned on. Thankfully, the power was back on long before 3:00 am.
The problem with the power going on and off and the incubator is stabilizing the heat and humidity. While they are just eggs, this has not really been a problem. But the last two hatchings required me to vent the humidity and temperature just a little to keep from suffocating the babies. For whatever reason, when there are so many baby birds in there, the humidity goes off the scale and the machine has trouble maintaining the proper temperature. It tends to get too hot.
To get to the point, the next night I barely got any sleep at all. Somewhere between trying to stabilize the humidity and temperature, I let it run out of water in the middle of the night. Now the humidity was way too low. I added the water back to the tray and closed the lid completely to wait for the humidity to come back up. That, of course, caused the temperature to get too high and the incessant beeping began again. I vented that and went back to bed. And another hour later, the humidity was now too high again. So I get up again and vent the humidity and then leave the lid just a tiny bit open.
Between the power outage and the constant struggle to maintain the proper temperature and humidity, I was very ready to put in the little guys into the brooder a day early. That meant that some of the eggs may not be finished hatching and it might cause them to die. I took the risk, and as quickly as I could I got the babies out and put the lid back on the incubator.
More issues last night with the humidity and temperature. Scott wanted to turn it off but I wanted to wait. One more bird had hatched out after I took out the original 52 and there could be others. Today I waited as long as I could and then opened the top to check out the eggs. I found a very healthy bird, the bird that could not use its legs and two more that were not out of their egg shell yet. I helped them most of the way out and waited. One of those looks pretty good but the other, I don’t know. He may not make it. There were two others that died in their shell. Likely all that fiddling around with the temperature and humidity hurt them.
It’s all good. I was not sure we would have very many eggs hatch at all. I am very pleased with 53 very healthy birds and perhaps one or two more.
So why do we have quail? Why not chickens? That’s the next topic.
Other Animals We Want
Chickens are a natural as a “best animals for a homestead” in general and especially if you plan to make cheese. They can drink the whey and it is a great protein supplement. Another great advantage I mentioned earlier. We can use them to eat the fly larvae. Again, a great protein supplement. Less purchased feed.
Of course, the best thing about chickens is they provide both meat and/or eggs, depending on the breed you choose. We will be choosing a dual-purpose bird herd as we chose a dual-purpose breed of cow. We eat lots of eggs and of course we love eating chicken.
Chickens are a great first animal to have on a homestead. They are small, easy to learn about and fairly quickly provide food for your family. They do need a good shelter. Therein lies the reason that we don’t have them yet. Scott is putting all of his time into building the creamery. No time for building additional animal shelters. Well, except for the quail. He built their hutches in about a day.
To build the chicken facilities would take maybe up to a couple of weeks. It also means learning and studying a new animal. No matter how many animals you have experience with, a new one requires additional education and experience. Sometimes just figuring out how to accomplish a needed task is a trial and error experience over days, weeks, or months. Don’t get me wrong. I love learning about new animals and how to care for them properly to get the best result for them and for us. But it does take time and effort that we are currently investing in other areas.
Perhaps next year we will add chickens.
And perhaps next year we will add pigs. Pigs are truly one of the best animals for a homestead. Rumor has it they are easy to grow. Starting out with growing out small pigs purchased from someone nearby is the best way to start. Their growing season also intersects with our cheesemaking. Pigs also like that high protein whey. They are a natural addition to a cheesemaking operation such as ours. I can’t wait to give them a try.
There is a breed call Idaho Pastured pigs in which I am very interested. We shall see if I can find any in our area when the time comes. We will be raising pigs for meat. And rumor also has it that pigs raised on whey make some very tasty bacon.
I just want to add one more that is a maybe. Rabbits. I think rabbits would just be fun. But I also thought I would have fun with the fiber goats. We shall see. You can only do so much. There is only so much time in a day. The best animals for a homestead list sometimes needs to be narrowed down to what is actually manageable.
That’s it for today’s podcast. There are lots of animals to choose from and many breeds within each species. You will have to do a lot of research on what will work for your goals. We prefer dual purpose animals. We prefer heritage breed animals. These both fit with our goals to raise animals sustainably and with as many natural husbandry techniques as possible. Each of our animals has a purpose on the homestead. They all contribute to the health of our homestead environment. Fertilizer, pest control, weed control, parasite control and so on. All done with animals and some natural products such as apple cider vinegar and essential oils.
What do you think are the best animals for a homestead? What are your goals? What are your values? The last two questions define and support the first question. The system you put in place will be unique to you. I hope I’ve given you some ideas about how it might be done.
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Thank you so much for stopping by the homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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