On a homestead, keeping animals is one of the best ways to become more self-reliant. Keeping livestock is great idea because as Joel Salatin says, “live meat don’t spoil.”
To have more animals, you must buy or breed them. Breeding your own livestock can be profitable, but it must be done correctly to get the most profit and least costly in time and money.
One of the best ways to approach this is to use permaculture to design a productive regenerative system.
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Using multi-function animals will help by multiplying (pun intended) the number of returns you get from them.
For instance, sheep can mow your lawn, give manure, wool, meat, and milk.
Breeding your own livestock can also result in a more closed cycle of animal relationships and behavior. Note that I don’t say “more natural.”
Humans have been involved in animals interactions so long that we don’t accept some “natural” losses in our animals. Nature is perfectly fine with a 20% loss in medium to large herd animals, and an 80-90% loss in birds, fish, and amphibians.
It’s even worse with plants – many trees propagate just fine with 1 in 1000 seeds germinating. However, we want a system optimized for human needs, so we must step in, “observe and interact” and do smart management to get this outcome.
Keeping and breeding your own animals also ensures you have responsible, ethical food production as well as proper treatment of animals you might eventually eat.
Why would you want to breed your own animals?
Because it’s a way to create a sustainable food production system. Without a breeding system your livestock will be consumed (literally!) within one generation.
This is also a way to increase the potential profit and return of the system, whether you are selling products or just providing for your own food needs.
Breeding your own animals will also provide replacement animals for those who are consumed, age out, or die. This will allow the system to keep going, and stay sustainable.
Why would you NOT want to breed your own animals?
If you are not physically able to maintain fencing, housing or do the hands-on care necessary, you might not want to keep your own breeding animals.
This can be overcome by getting assistance from family, friends, or neighbors, or hiring help.
Also, if you are out of town often or don’t have time to (or don’t want to) spend with your animals, you likely won’t have a good experience and shouldn’t have a breeding program.
In general, the more time you spend with your animals the more likely you are to spot problems and deal with them before they become fatal.
But if you want to be more hands-off with the care of your animals, you can still be successful with some types of animals. This will vary from type to type, as some animals require far less care than others.
For example, ducks are quite hardy and have few needs, which are easy to provide. They are one of my favorite animals.
You will also have less money at risk if you don’t keep breeding animals. A good milking cow will cost $1200-$2000 or more. If something happens to her, that’s a big loss of capital.
If you have never kept livestock (small or large) before, or haven’t kept the particular type of animal you’re considering to buy, you may want to rethink that purchase.
Lack of experience can be costly, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
If this is the case I suggest starting with chickens or ducks if you have no animals husbandry skills. If you’ve kept other animals successfully but not the type you’re looking at, consider just getting a few and not a breeding set.
You can get experience with the animal and decide whether or not you really want to keep them before jumping into large costs and headaches.
For me, I won’t have goats again anytime soon. I know lots of people have success with them, but our fencing was not up to the task. We had escapees that got into trouble and were destructive.
The goats and I disagreed about what they should eat. They really liked to eat my baby fruit trees, whereas I thought they should eat the hay I paid for.
Considerations & infrastructure
To keep animals safely and effectively, they require certain infrastructure to be in place. This of course varies from animal to animal, as will the costs.
Before considering the cost of purchasing the animals, look at the infrastructure cost.
You will need fences, barns, and/or enclosures which will widely vary between different livestock.
Sheep and goats need tight fences that they can’t climb, push under or jump over. They can sometimes be trained to electric fence, but if you’re keeping both sexes you need a solid physical fence.
To some extent, cattle are easier to fence in than sheep and goats.
It takes only one strip of tape to keep in electric fence trained cattle, though not if they are spooked or angry.
The land size needed is also different for different livestock. You will will need a large area for ruminants you intend to graze, but less area for poultry and waterfowl.
Heavy duck breeds won’t fly much, and could be kept with a short fence. But here the problem is keeping hungry predators out.
Most animals will also need some kind of shelter from wind and rain/snow.
This could be a barn for larger livestock, or coop/house for smaller ones. Just ensure it’s effective at protecting them from cold, and face the entrances away from prevailing winds.
Make sure that you will have feed and water available as necessary. And that it’s available at all times of the year.
Especially during a heat wave of 109°F or that cold snap of -30°F, or during a blizzard.
You know, those times when you really don’t want to be outside.
Not having a good water or feed system makes keeping animals way less fun. Trust me, hauling buckets of water uphill gets old FAST.
It’s strange, but animals (and people) must have water to keep themselves warm. Their bodies need water to allow proper thermoregulation.
Some animals like ducks must have water to keep themselves clean, and prevent choking on food.
And as silly as it sounds, it may be illegal to keep certain animals in some parts of the country. Of course, this is why I prefer rural to urban living.
These restrictions are usually found in cities and suburban areas, though some cities are better than others.
Just confirm that the types of livestock you’re wanting to get are allowed in your area.
You should also consider lifestyle fit. If you don’t like being dirty or cleaning up after animals, this may not be the best choice for you.
If you’re not home much and don’t have someone to care for the livestock, you should also reconsider keeping animals.
It’s not as easy to go on vacation and find someone to house-sit for a homestead and take care of animals. It almost requires you to really like where you live and be OK with not having many vacations.
It’s important that you know how your livestock reproduces. This is critical for many reasons, including being prepared for the babies to be birthed.
If you don’t know when the females go into heat or how long the gestation is, it’s time to find out.
Also, realize that different breeds may have different characteristics.
For example, unlike most goats and sheep who breed seasonally, Nigerian dwarf goats go into heat every 21 days or so, all year round.
There are many good books on this subject, and I suggest getting some for reference.
But the best information source is a local person raising the same breed you want.
This mentor will be invaluable in providing useful information and assistance.
The fun part!
I’ll start with the smallest and easiest and (usually) the lowest cost of the livestock choices.
In small animals, there are birds, rabbits, and cats?! Who put this here?
First, let’s talk about chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and quail.
All of these have different behaviors and features to recommend them.
Unique to poultry, they will all lay eggs and provide a food source without having to process them.
If you have males, and want more babies, you may want to consider investing in a good incubator.
If you don’t have a broody hen to incubate and raise them, an incubator will give you more consistent hatching and production.
Of course, some breeds are better than others at laying eggs or producing meat birds.
Buying day-old babies costs between $1-$6 each, depending on type and breed.
I really like ducks and quail for food production, but that’s my own preferences. Ducks lay eggs more consistently and longer than chickens, as well as having larger and (in my opinion) better tasting eggs.
Quail will mature and can be harvested (the roosters) or start laying eggs at 6-7 weeks.
Both of them are also very yummy!
Compare this maturity to 8 weeks (minimum for Cornish Cross, but usually more) butcher time, and 4-5 months before laying for chickens.
Chickens can be contained to scratch and till up weeds and their seeds.
Geese grow large and are delicious but don’t lay many eggs. Turkeys can be fun, and some have personalities like dogs.
There’s also more exotic birds like guineafowl, pigeons, pheasants, and chukar
While I like having the guineas around for bug control and as an alarm, they created a ton of noise. Anytime anything moved they would sound off. If a dog barked 2 miles away they would let you know.
It got to be really annoying, and we finally got rid of them.
If you are OK with the noise, they are a good addition to a homestead.
I’ve thought about keeping pigeons, though I have no first hand experience. At Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert site in Jordan, they put up pigeon houses and used pigeon droppings for fertilizing the crops.
Pheasants and chukar are considered gamebirds in some states, and have special laws. Home production is possible, but I don’t know how feasible it is.
Rabbits breed like…well rabbits, and can produce lots of offspring in time. They aren’t super hardy in general, but the ability to rapidly breed offsets this drawback.
We have kept rabbits only as pets since we don’t eat rodents.
Daniel Salatin (Joel Salatin’s son) has done lots of work breeding rabbits to grow on pasture instead of commercial rabbit pellets.
They are one of the most cold-hardy livestock, but their downfall is the hot summer. Rabbits can easily die from heatstroke, or from fright.
If you specialize in breeding an uncommon rabbit in your area, you can probably profit by selling the babies.
Cats are good for mouse and rat control, which is why we have them. All were essentially free barn cats, who were good at mousing.
Ours will also sometimes catch, kill and eat wild rabbits bigger than they are.
There’s usually some cats available for free on Craigslist or **shudder** Facebook.
However, if you get into breeding cats, there might be a market for them.
Years and years and years ago, Mrs. TPL raised Mancoon or “Maine Coon” cats when she was growing up. These cats fetch a high price from breeders, though it’s beyond me why people spend good money on a cat.
Aside from chickens, goats are often the entry livestock. They are popular, easily available on Craigslist, aren’t too expensive to buy, and can be quite adorable and fun.
Both sheep and goats require solid tight fences, because the adventurous ones like to escape and take the whole herd with them.
There is a tongue-in-cheek saying that “if a fence will hold water, it’ll hold a goat.” This is hyperbole, but you still need a good solid fence they can’t get under, through or over.
Goat and sheep manure (and rabbit) can be used directly on a garden without composting, because it isn’t “hot” like raw cow, horse, or chicken manure.
Goats are used in much of the third world as a meat and milk source, especially in Asia, The Middle East, and Africa.
They are intelligent (which is why they get into trouble), quite hardy in most respects, and generally very tolerant to heat and moderately to cold. This of course varies by breed.
One behavior to watch is that they will strip a tree as high as they can reach on their hind legs, and girdle the bark as well.
This great when you have lots of weed trees to keep in check. Not so great when you’re trying to start an orchard.
Improper grazing of goats also led to desertification of many areas where there once were forests. The Loess plateau in China is a great example.
Happily, it is starting to recover due to better management and methods of terracing and forest planting.
My goat experience was marred by my failure to install adequate fencing.
Some people just really love goats, more so than they like people. Goats can have really funny personalities, like very smelly dogs that poop everywhere.
Goat kids are super cute, and can be $50 to $150 depending on breed and gender.
Both goats and sheep will also need at least a 3-sided shelter where they can get out of the wind and rain. A pole-barn style works great for this, and you can side and roof it with steel roofing panels or similar.
Sheep are similar to goats, though they are more grazers than browsers. They tend to eat grass more than trees, though they will still browse on trees some.
Like goats, sheep give meat and milk, but sheep also give wool every year in the spring, unlike most goats. I’m excepting Angora goats, since most goats can’t be sheared this way.
Newborn lambs are super cute too. Plus, roasted yearling lamb leg is delicious. And lamb chops. And wool is warm even when wet, insulating, and resists burning.
One thing to watch out for is that goats require more copper in their diet, while sheep will die from getting too much.
Sheep supplements have copper at 8-11 parts per million (ppm), but it becomes toxic at 15-20ppm. This is a very narrow range and it’s easy to overdose sheep.
Sheep copper toxicity is also often fatal, in around 75% of cases. So if you keep goats and sheep together, you must have a way of feeding them separately.
Something else to be aware of with sheep is that they are stupid. Really stupid. And sheep are masters of finding ways to kill themselves.
If they get into grain storage, they will literally eat themselves to death. Had this happen.
Any water like a pond or stream is a great place for sheep to suddenly decide to get into and drown. Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design had this happen.
Wild or domestic dogs will chase sheep, running them until they die from heart attacks or heat exhaustion. Dogs like to chew their ears off while they’re still alive. Had this happen too.
It’s usually a good idea to keep some kind of guardian animal in with the sheep. This could be donkeys, llamas, larger goat breeds, or livestock guardian dogs like Anatolian shepherds or Great Pyrenees. Pyrenees are great dogs – they will defend the flock, and attack and kill coyotes. Had this happen as well.
Given those drawbacks, you may be thinking why anyone would ever get sheep!?
Just like with goats, it comes down to proper management. Good fences, watchful husbandry, and good feeding practices will reduce the chance of these incidents happening.
You may not think of dogs as livestock, and in most ways they’re really not. But they can be a useful resource on the homestead.
Like with cats, breeding specialty dogs can provide some income. But dogs can be more useful on the homestead.
Some breeds can herd livestock, some can be livestock guardians like I mentioned above, and some can be used for hunting or rodent control.
Donkeys and llamas can both be used as guardians for livestock. Donkeys will stomp a coyote into the ground.
Llamas will also kick predators with their sharp toes, defending the herd. They are native to the high dry mountains (AKA the Andes) of South America.
There are two different kinds of llamas: one for working/packing, and one for fiber production.
Llamas’ fleece is superior (warmer, lighter, no oils, kinder to sensitive skin) in some ways to sheep’s wool, though they are more expensive and harder to find.
The llama’s smaller cousins the alpaca have even better wool than llamas in general, but they must be protected from predators like sheep and goats.
People have used cattle for thousands of years for hauling and plowing, and as meat, milk, and leather.
They also pack a lot of meat and milk into a single animal. Just one side of beef can be several hundred pounds of meat, and a milk cow will give more milk and cream than the average family can probably use.
This great, though, because it can be preserved into cheese and butter.
For those with the land and means to handle them, cattle are less delicate than other food animals.
You generally don’t have to worry about predators, except with newborn calves or when you’re dealing with wolves.
If properly managed, cattle can be one of the most sustainable means of meat production.
One thing to realize is that because they are a heavier animal they may be harder on the land if their pasture is not shifted on time. They will also eat a lot more than smaller ruminants like sheep and goats.
They will also take longer to reach butcher weight. It can take 18 months to have a
Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, uses cattle to drastically improve his pastures (healthier, higher organic matter) with smart rotational grazing.
A multi-strand high-tensile or barb wire fence will keep in cattle just fine. Their fencing requirements are not as stringent as sheep and goats, partly due to their larger size.
The fence needs to be strong, but it doesn’t have to be “goat tight.”
As I said above about infrastructure, you can subdivide pasture for cattle with a single strip of electric fence tape on push-in pigtail holders.
This fencing advice does not apply to bulls. They can be much stronger, and more aggressive especially during mating season.
You should also keep children well away from them. Many farmers have been killed by bulls, because they didn’t have the proper caution around the “tame” potentially deadly animal.
Growing up, we had a 300+lb Suffolk ram for breeding to the 30-ish ewes. We usually kept him in a separate area away from the ewes except at breeding time.
He was “tame” and nice, while would pet him and play with him, even ride on him when we were small. But my grandpa got knocked down and trampled by this ram, because he turned his back on it once.
He got really bruised up, but if it was 1500lb bull he might have been killed.
This not something you want to mess around with unless you have experience with bulls and solid hard bull-proof fencing.
Bulls are useful in a cattle herd, but you may want to consider artificial insemination (AI) or borrow a bull from a nearby farm.
If you have daughters (or are a daughter) you might be asked to get (or want) horses. In my opinion, each animals must pull its own weight and contribute to the homestead.
If the horse sits in the pasture or corral and doesn’t get used, this detracts from your profitability and sustainability, especially when buying hay for them.
Instead, if they’re used for working cattle, hauling, plowing or breeding, I could see where they are helpful.
Like cattle they also take a lot of land, and for me, they don’t have a place in my homestead plans.
They do give manure that can be used for improving garden soil, so that’s a plus.
Horses are another one of those areas where I had a bad experience and now my views on the animals are worse than before.
I know I am biased, but there is another reason why I don’t care for horses.
Horses don’t improve pasture the way cattle and other ruminants do.
They are actually not a ruminant (as they have no rumen), and they don’t process vegetation as well as cattle, sheep, goats, and other ruminants (deer, elk, moose, etc).
Horses also take a lot of human interaction, and seem almost as determined as sheep to injure themselves.
I talked about
- Why you would want to breed your own animals
- Why you would not want to breed your own animals
- Cost consideration & infrastructure
- Livestock choices
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about livestock, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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