Raising animal protein for food on the homestead. What are some of the options? And what are some of the factors to consider when making your choices. As you may know our choices for raising animal protein on the homestead currently includes cows, goats, sheep and poultry. In the very near future, we plan on having pigs. There are other types of protein that we may have or have considered. I’ll talk about all of those.
But first, as always, I will never take you all for granted. You make this show possible.
Welcome to any and all new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. You mean so much to me. Thank you so much for your support of this podcast. It has been a while and I’m so excited to share with you all about the homestead.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
We’ve had a busy morning already. Scott is milking. I set up for making butter in a little while and put some yogurt on to ferment. It will be ready in less than 8 hours. I’ve been out to the garden and planted a half dozen flowers, stocks this time, and let the chickens out to play.
Chickens you say. When did that happen? If I remember correctly, the eggs began hatching on April the 8th. I had 24 eggs each of American White Bresse and Black Copper Maran. There were two incubators running and all went well. I hatched 17 White American Bresse and 7 Black Copper Marans.
Due to the low hatch rate on the Marans, the eBay seller sent me another dozen for the cost of postage. I incubated those and hatched three more of the Black Copper Maran from that batch.
The first batch of low hatch rate was not my fault. Most of the eggs were not fertile or perhaps were “scrambled” in the shipping process. But I must say that of those that didn’t hatch in the last dozen, four were nearly or fully formed. I have no idea why they died just before hatching but have to believe it must have been something I did or did not do with that last batch.
At the moment, I have 14 American White Bresse and 9 Black Copper Maran. I lost three of the Bresse and one of the Marans. That last loss happened just a few days ago. That particular chicken was hatched six days after the rest of the crew. It was always smaller, but a little over 2 weeks ago, it developed some kind of disorder. It couldn’t really stand up. The vet happened to be here that day and took a look at it. She recommended antibiotics for a few days and see how it goes. That seemed to help a bit but eventually the chick succumbed to whatever the ailment was.
The vet did not have a lot of information on chicken issues of this type. She said there are just too many variables without testing. And chicken generally are not worth the cost of testing. So, there you go.
There is a lot to talk about with the dogs. I’ll try to keep it brief. Let me start with the current state of affairs and then go back and fill in a few details. Finn disappeared about 4 weeks ago and has not returned. While he and Charlotte escaped a lot, Charlotte has always been back the next day and Finn never more than two days. We did have to go and fetch him three different times. He seemed to get so far away that he did not know how to get home.
Charlotte and Mack are now guarding the sheep. They seem to be doing well with that task. Charlotte still goes wherever she wants, whenever she wants, but she stays relatively close. She grieved for about two weeks after Finn disappeared. I had her on a tether so she could not run away, but even after I let her loose, she was very quiet. Being a Great Pyrenees, she generally barks a lot. But there was nothing for many days. Now she is back to barking up a storm.
Fear of Thunder
Speaking of storms, on the day that Finn disappeared, there was a storm and Charlotte returned home only hours after they both escaped. I found that she is very scared of thunder. Still, after seven months, she will not let me walk up to her to pet her. But if there is thunder, she is right there beside me looking for comfort. I can pet her all I want in those moments. But Finn did not show up with her, not unusual.
Let’s see if I can be brief regarding of the circumstances of Finn’s final escape. Starting about six weeks ago, we were trying to get them to bond with the sheep so we put all of them together in the front pastures. We had already been trying this for some time in the field next to the house. We were able to contain the dogs there. The same was not true when we moved them to the front fields. For several days we tried patching places in the fence to keep them contained. They still escaped nearly every day. After an escape that had Scott going a few miles to pick up Finn, we put both of them back in the field right next to the house. Finn was put on a tether. Charlotte will stay close by to him. We then spent long hours discussing what we were going to do.
Another Coyote Attack
In the meantime, we left the sheep in the front pasture. Within three days of the dogs being out of the pasture, we had a coyote attack. We lost six of seven lambs and one of our new ewes. The remaining sheep and lamb were moved back into the field next to the house with the dogs. Just three days alone and the coyotes zeroed in on them. We suffered yet another huge emotional and financial loss. It’s far in the past now and I am over it, but as you can probably imagine, it was quite traumatic at the time. Again, I was questioning whether we wanted to have sheep and goats.
I got over that bit of negativity and we still have the sheep and a deposit on some goat kids. More on that later.
After lots and lots of research, I decided to try and train Charlotte and Finn with an ecollar. It was recommended over and over again in the Livestock Guardian Training group on Facebook. No matter the ecollar system, it is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.
We were keeping Finn on the tether and Charlotte always stayed with him. But what to do about protecting the sheep? We can’t keep them in the same field forever. The sheep must be rotated from field to field for their health and the availability of grass. The idea of fixing fences every day, every time we move them to another field or paddock was completely unrealistic. The time to complete the ecollar fence and training would be months and months. We decided to go back to an original plan before we got Finn and Charlotte. Mack was to be the sheepdog.
We had kept him separate with the cows because he chased the sheep. He bonded well with the cows and we were preoccupied with trying to train Charlotte and Finn to guard the sheep. All was well there. Now that Finn and Charlottes plan with the sheep was scrapped, we decided to bring Mack back into the picture. And this was the fatal day that we lost Finn.
Let’s Train Mack
Now that we decided to train Mack with the sheep, what was the plan to make that happen? We needed to check the health of the flock after their coyote ordeal. The plan was to bring all the sheep and Mack to the corral together so he could see us working with the sheep. Then we would bring the lot of them back to the field next to the house for a week or so until Mack could start to see them as his animals to be protected. Well, we needed to move Finn and Charlotte out of that field while we made this short jaunt up the travel lane to the corral and back.
We put Finn and Charlotte into the lower garden fenced area. We had held them there before and there was no problem. We didn’t take the time to move the tether. By the time we returned with the sheep and Mack only about 30 minutes had passed. I’m guessing that within 10 minutes Finn and Charlotte had gotten into the orchard and then completely out of the perimeter fence.
I’m still grieving over Finn. Tomorrow will be four weeks. There is not much hope, but I still cling to just a little bit of hope. He has a collar that has our farm name and phone number clearly visible from 3 feet away. I can’t imagine someone would steal him. How would they know they needed to strongly contain him? He could have run afoul of a bear or that pack of coyotes. He could have been hit by a car, though we have found no evidence of that. Someone could have shot him. He could have gotten to the Primland resort. They have all sorts of bears, lions, and who knows what else over there. It’s an internationally known hunting resort. I just don’t know. I just don’t know. And that’s the worst, not knowing. He could still be out there.
A Brief Hope Still Burns
About three weeks ago, we had a call from someone who thought they had “our dog”. I was so relieved, but then it wasn’t our dog, it wasn’t Finn. It was a Great Pyrenees dog that was extremely skinny and had some medical issues. Perhaps Finn is still out there somewhere like that trying to survive. There is that small string tied to hope coming up again. I better move on.
The remaining sheep and lamb are doing really well. We moved forward with the plan for Mack guarding them. Charlotte was also in the same field and I let her off the tether after only a few days. She was so despondent I thought it was best. My instincts were correct for once in that situation. No more escaping. She stays pretty close, though she does still roam around various places on the property. I will eventually have to train her to stay within the perimeter.
I think Mack is beginning to bond with the sheep. Moving him out of the field next to the house has sealed that deal. Before that move, the sheep were with Mack and Charlotte, but the calves were also in that field. Mack immediately bonded with the calves, but not the sheep. Moving the dogs and sheep to a separate paddock from the calves seems to have worked. Fingers crossed, so far it has worked. The sheep are still wary of the dogs. It will likely take months and months for them to become comfortable with Mack. I mentioned in a previous podcast that he is food aggressive. He has chased them away from his food multiple times. We are working on a system where the dogs can have their food and the other animals cannot get to it. The sheep are easily chased away but we really want them to get along with the dogs. Eventually, all of the cows and sheep will be together and the cows are not so easily chased away. And truly, the dogs should not have to fight for their food. Yet another plan is a work in progress. Scott is working on that today.
I’ve gone back and forth about whether I want to bring goats back onto the homestead. I already decided that I want Kiko goats. They are very expensive goats. And when I say expensive, I mean very, very expensive. The kind of expense that would really hurt our finances.
I have put down a deposit on a trio of Kiko goats. It will be late summer, fall or even next spring before we have these goats. Two does and a buck as a starter herd is the plan. Not only is it imperative that the dogs begin guarding the sheep so I can feel confident they will guard the goats, but more training will be needed so that the dogs don’t harm the goats when they arrive. Thankfully, that is still quite a few months down the road. There should be plenty of time to get the dogs and sheep stabilized in their symbiotic relationship. Adding the goats will be just a short training period with the goats in the next field over where they can be seen but with no contact. After a few weeks, we would introduce them to the dogs with close supervision until we are comfortable that the dogs will accept them as part of the family.
More on the goats as that time gets closer.
Luna went to a new home. We sold Luna and her bull calf to a lovely couple looking for a family milk cow that was not going to overwhelm them with milk. Luna was perfect for them. And her bull calf is going to be breeding their other cows. It was a great fit and I’m so glad that we could rehome her so well.
Since Luna is rehomed and Cookie finally had her calf, we are now milking three cows. Butter, Cookie and Claire. I make cheese on Mondays and the rest goes to the calves and fulfills the herd shares. All is going well with the cows at the moment.
AI for Spring 2023 Calves
AI for birthing in March has already started. We AI’d eight cows. By Monday we will know whether we need to try again with any of these girls. If we see signs of any of them coming into heat again, we call the vet and she will try again.
We also have a tentative plan to breed one or two in the fall so that we have milk year-round. Perhaps if only one or two do not take, we will let one slide and try again in December for births in September 2023. And there is always Cookie. She calved so late that she did not make it into the initial AI session. At the moment, she is already slated for December AI. Of course, we can still change our mind at any time until mid-July. AI can be done as late as Mid-July for projected births no later than mid-April 2023. There are always so many decisions to be made.
I’ll briefly mention the garden. Finally, the entire garden is planted. Yesterday I put in the last of the winter squash and melon seeds. I may plant a few more flowers, but the veggie part is done.
Tomatoes, Lima Beans, Eggplant and Chard
I ended up with a lot more tomatoes than I had planned. Who knows that I am going to do with them? I have four beds of baby lima beans that are looking good. The eggplant is going to be stellar this year, as is the chard. The chard is pretty easy, but I must say I am more than pleased with the eggplant. I haven’t grown it in four or five years because of repeated failures. I had given up on being able to raise that vegetable. I’ll say it again, these plants look fantastic this year. This could be the year of my success with eggplant.
Summer Squash and Cucumber
I also planted cucumber and summer squash which is also a first for several years. They have never done well for me. We shall see how they progress. It is too early to tell how they are going to do. We only transplanted my plant starts less than a week ago. I see many of them catching on, but time will tell.
Onions and Herbs
The onions look fantastic. I also have cilantro, parsley, and peppers planted. The cilantro looks weak. That one I keep trying but cannot say I have been successful with it – YET. No basil. I only started Thai basil and I sold all of those plant starts at the farmer’s market. I may have to buy a plant or two of sweet basil just to refresh my stock of dried basil. We shall see.
The last few beds have winter squash and pumpkin. Some of those are from seed which has not yet sprouted. I hope to see a jungle of plants out there in the next month.
As far as the creamery, Scott and I (mostly Scott) are putting up the ceilings in the barn and milking parlor area. He has finally gotten caught up on all of his other tasks and is moving ahead with completing the creamery. As usual, we are behind schedule, but you know what?, we will keep plugging along. It will get done, but on God’s timeline and now ours. That’s about all I have to say about the creamery today. I hope to have lots of updates on this topic in the next podcast. Let’s get on to the topic of the day.
Raising Animal Protein
We have lots of resources that I’ve already talked about. As you can tell, there are always challenges, no matter how well you think you’ve laid out your plan. And every day brings new decisions that you never knew you would have to make. No matter how educated or prepared you think you are, just know that every day is a learning experience. You will never get it done, settled, never to change.
Large or Small to Start
Unless you have previous experience with large animals, cows may not be your first goto animal for raising protein. My suggestion is to start with something smaller. Sheep and goats are smaller, but even smaller than that are chickens. Chickens are always a great place for anyone to start. Comparatively, they are easy. In many places, you can raise chickens in your backyard. If you have an HOA, maybe not, you may have to forgo the chickens, but there are other options. I’ll talk about some in a moment.
The thing to keep in mind with chickens is whether you are looking for egg or meat protein – or both. If you are looking for both, check out dual purpose birds. There are many other factors to take into consideration, but this one is the most important.
You don’t want to get caught up in exotic chickens, really cool looking chickens, that don’t produce the meat and eggs you require for your family. While many exotic-looking chickens can provide exactly what you need, it is important to check the statistics regarding the finished size of the bird and/or expected numbers of eggs per year. Some may be as little as 150 eggs per year, while others may produce nearly 300. Generally, the more eggs, the less body size. And vice-versa. More body size can produce significantly few eggs. It’s not 100% true, but a good rule of thumb. Rely on the published statistics for your chosen breed. While you may not buy from Stromberg’s or McMurray’s (those are the two biggest outfits that I know), they are a great resource for comparing one breed to another. They each have lots and lots of information about the chicken breeds they carry. It really helps in making your decision. Then you can choose who and where to get the chicks for your enterprise.
Once you’ve chosen your breed, the internet, in general, is your resource for details. Search engines are amazing for providing answers to specific questions. Just today, I looked up the age at which my chickens should start laying. For the Bresse it can be as early as four months old, while the Marans can be as late as six months old. I didn’t really consider that in my decision for which breed to choose, but it may be an important stat for you. How quickly can you begin to get eggs? Which breeds may have health issues? Are there any climate issues to consider based on where you live in the country? And so on. Choose your breed, but then read up on it to make sure it will be a good fit for you. And as always, you may make a mistake and need to start again. No problem. You won’t be able to think of every single question and get every choice correct the first time. As I said, every day is a learning experience.
You may consider ducks, though often we keep ducks just because they are cute and not so much for meat. Having said that, they do provide good meat and they come with their own set of challenges related to water. I don’t have any and can’t provide much more information than that. They always seem like more trouble than they are worth. Your mileage may vary.
Rabbits and Quail
Other small animals to consider are rabbits and quail. Both of these can be grown in the smallest of environments. And an HOA will likely not even know you have them as long as you keep the manure cleaned up regularly. Both tend to produce a lot of odors from excrement. Out here, I can get away with any amount of odor I can stand. In an apartment or HOA subdivision, you will need to find ways to dispose of the manure likely on a daily basis. As with all animals, there is learning to be done, but both of these animals are relatively easy to raise.
Goats and Sheep
I would say that the next largest animals up the scale are goats and sheep. Obviously, you need some land for this. I can’t imagine any HOA allowing grazing animals in your yard. But you also don’t need a huge amount of acreage for just a few sheep or goats. You will need fencing. If you keep them close to you, a family dog can often provide deterrents to predators such as other dogs and a coyote or two. An acre or two of good pasture will suffice for one to five goats and/or sheep. Of course, it depends on where you live, but supplementing with hay is always an option if you don’t have the grazing space. You’ll likely need hay even if you have the acreage.
Next up would be pigs. We haven’t given these guys a try yet, but it is only a matter of time. We have been so focused on the cows, sheep and goats that we simply haven’t had the time to get this enterprise started. You can also keep one pig in a relatively small area. They are generally friendly and easy to work with from everything I’ve seen. Of course, it depends on the particular animal. You could end up with a mean or unruly animal. Just like humans, there are all kinds of personalities out there. Visit the farm where you plan to purchase your pigs and see how they interact with them. Is the breed you are considering a docile breed? Will it do well on pasture. Sad as it is, there are some breeds that will require some confinement and lots of feed to live and grow. They have been bred to thrive in that environment. If you have woods, you have a great environment for raising pigs more naturally. This is another animal with which I have no experience, so I’m not going to say more here. Just listing it as an option for animal protein sources.
If you are into the big animals, cows and even bison might be a good choice for you. Even with a cow, you can get by on a couple of acres. You’ll need more or less hay according to where you live. And as an aside, all of this info is for the US. I am definitely not your resource for anywhere outside the continental US. And I don’t have any info on raising bison, but there are plenty of them available out in the Oklahoma and Texas areas. They are a big, scary animal but it’s definitely doable. Check out Arms Family Homestead for info on bison.
How Much Do You Need?
Anyway, as far as beef, one butchered cow will provide protein for at least a family of four for a year. It depends on how much meat that your family consumes and that in turn depends on their ages. A couple of teenagers and you need the whole cow. If your children are younger, you might only need ½ a cow. And you will need to factor in what other animal protein sources you have chosen to raise.
Now that I am on that subject, I’ll give you our stats and you can perhaps scale it up for you and your family. For the two of us in a year we plan for as much as ¼ cow, ½ pig, 1 lamb and 1 goat. That amount changes depending on which animals we have available at any given time. But if all things were equal, that is what I plan for the two of us for a year’s worth of animal protein. Add to that lots and lots and lots of eggs from the chickens. As far as chicken meat, I don’t have a very good idea of how much we consume. Unfortunately, I’ve been buying them at the grocery store at irregular times. Usually, when I’m shopping and think, “gee, I haven’t had chicken in a while” and then I buy one of those rotisserie ones. All of that is coming to an end soon, thank God. At the moment we don’t eat a lot of chicken simply because it requires that trip to town.
I’ve heard others plan the number of meat chickens from one a week to one a month. There are 52 weeks in the year and 12 months. Your needs will fall in there somewhere. And all of that has to change if chickens and rabbits are your main source of animal protein. You might need two a week or some other number. Make your best guess and then adjust each year as you narrow those numbers down for your changing family situation. Again, your plans will change as you learn.
That’s it for today’s podcast. I’m changing my schedule to make it easier for me to publish podcasts more often. There is always so much going on and the animals and gardens have first priority – and of course getting that creamery up and running. We will get there eventually. In the meantime, I’m assessing how I use my time and opening up more opportunities to share our homestead updates and a little bit of wisdom on how you might get started.
God willing, I think I’ve given you enough basics on animal protein sources to get you started. Shoot me an email with any questions you have about getting starting with growing your own animal protein for food. I’m always happy to take a few moments to respond. Tell me what you are trying to accomplish and I will try and provide some guidance or at the very least, where to find more information.
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