Monday, February 21, 2011

Living with livestock

Of all the most longed-for hopes and dreams for serious Preppers, nothing is more wishful than a barnyard full of livestock. Chickens, cows, pigs, goats….whatever the species, the whole idea behind that dream is security. The security comes in the form of food that is perpetual. In theory, you cannot run out of food if you have livestock.

And to an extent it’s true. We don’t have pigs or goats, but we do have chickens and cows – and food security is definitely something they can offer. But with that security comes sacrifice.

We have some dear friends in Oregon who very much want livestock. They want chickens and a Jersey cow or two. They want to be able to raise their own beef and make their own milk products. They have the acreage and the barn space. So what’s stopping them?

It’s the fact that they also want to travel.

And I will be the first to admit, livestock puts a serious crimp on one’s ability to leave home. The fact of the matter is, once you gain the security of livestock, you also take on the responsibility. A part of that responsibility means accepting limitations on your freedom.

Recently we (meaning, all four of us in the Lewis family) wanted to go visit these friends. They live just far enough away that it would require an overnight trip. At virtually the last minute we had to cancel because we couldn’t find anyone to house sit for us. House sitting for the Lewises is a complicated business. Besides keeping our dog Lydia from attacking our dog Major (they conflict while in the house), the current list of chores consists of:

• Feeding and watering the chickens morning and evening
• Taking a head-count of the chickens before buttoning them up for the night (and, armed with a flashlight, hunting up any stray chickens that didn’t make it into the coup)
• Feeding and watering the livestock morning and evening
• Caring for Matilda (our Jersey) and Thor (her new calf), which are apart from the herd
• Working Thor on his lead-rope two or three times a day
• Mucking out Matilda’s pen (removing the soiled hay), dumping the old stuff in the manure pile, and spreading clean straw on the floor of the pen
• Milking Matilda morning and afternoon
• Straining and chilling the milk
• Feeding and watering the barn cats
• Keeping the woodstove going (unless you want to freeze)
• Et cetera ad nauseum

Anyway without a house sitter available, the visit to see our friends fell through. The girls and I later went on the overnight trip by ourselves, leaving Don home to mind the beasties. In a couple months, Don and the girls will go visit our friends and leave me home to return the favor.

Such is the nature of owning livestock. As a family, all four of us haven’t taken a trip together in over a decade. Business or pleasure trips always require one of us to stay home and mind the farm.

For some people, this is a deal breaker. Not take a family vacation every year? Impossible to contemplate!

But major trips aside, it’s the day-to-day upkeep that livestock require that can seem the most intimidating.

In some ways we have it easy. We work at home. We school at home. We don’t have to deal with commutes and overtime and school buses and other scheduling difficulties. Barn chores become part of the daily routine. But barn chores must be done, and done daily.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a howling blizzard or baking sun or pouring rain – the chores must be done. I’ll say it again: if you’ve taken on the responsibility of livestock, you have the responsibility to feed and care for them.

But it’s not all hardship. After all, we have our livestock for a reason, and those reasons are a big payoff for the limitations on our freedom. The livestock are an integral part of our “prepping” efforts – even before we were Preppers.

Prepping without livestock is rough enough. Prepping with livestock means some additional things to think through. We’ve have to “prep” for the needs of the livestock in addition to our own needs.

For example, we have a large number of mineral blocks we’ve stashed away because livestock need trace minerals as well as salt. We stockpile usable fencing materials as we find them. We’ve looked into ways to keep the stock tanks from freezing in the winter if we’re deprived of electricity (which powers the heating coil in the tank heater that keeps the tanks ice-free). We’re anxious to grow wheat and corn to grind and mix together for chicken feed. We are looking for ways to hand-harvest (if necessary) sufficient amounts of grass hay to last our animals through a harsh Idaho winter. (Scything 25 tons of grass hay by hand? Now that's an intimidating prospect!)

So should you get livestock? Assuming you have sufficient space to put them, my answer is: Yes and no. Yes if you can commit to them. No if you can’t.

Like everything else associated with Prepping, it’s best to practice and know what you’re doing with livestock before a “bleep” scenario. If you want to get cows or goats or pigs or chickens in order to survive a catastrophic situation, get them sooner rather than later so you know all the good, the bad, and the ugly associated with owning livestock.

It does no good to own guns if you don’t know how to shoot them. If does not good to store first-aid supplies if you don’t know how to use them. Both guns and first-aid require hands-on practice. Same with livestock.

It’s all fine and good to say you want a cow after seeing pretty pictures of Matilda and all the foamy creamy milk she gives, but do you know how to milk a cow? Deal with mastitis? Hobble? Lead? Halter? Do you even have hobbles, leads, and halters (in various sizes)? See my point? You won’t know what you need until you get the animals and start learning. And the time to start learning is NOT post-bleep.

Sometimes you just have to DO IT. I clearly remember when we got our first Dexter cow/calf back in 1998. I remember looking at the cow and thinking, “Poor thing, you don’t have any idea that I’m totally ignorant of how to take care of you.” Interestingly, I had the precise exact same thought when holding my newborn Older Daughter – an overwhelming sense of “Oh bleep, what have I gotten myself into?” Livestock, like parenting, is something we all learn on the job. All the books in the world won’t help unless you practice as well.

Believe me, I would not discouraging anyone from getting livestock any more than I would discourage anyone from having kids. If you have the room for animals, give it a try. If you want animals badly enough, then I’m confident you’ll learn what it takes to feed, shelter, and care for them.

The rewards of owning livestock are both tangible and intangible. For example, now that I’m milking Matilda again, I just made ice cream using fresh milk, fresh cream, and fresh eggs. For lunch I had some leftover pot roast from the steer we butchered last year. For tomorrow’s dinner I’m defrosting a chicken we butchered last year. We have literally tons of composted manure awaiting spring when it will be spread over the garden and worked into the soil, ready to feed our vegetables.

Our animals give us milk, meat, eggs, and manure. Those are the tangibles. But they also give us a great deal of intangibles – namely security and yes, enjoyment. On a summer evening, I love nothing more than to take a glass of wine and a good book and sit outside among the chickens (“communing with the chickens,” I call it). I love watching the calves gambol in the pastures in warm weather.

I love milking Matilda, even when it’s muddy and cold. I love the sense of security that comes from knowing how to care for and harvest our animals’ resources.

Maybe it’s because I’m a homebody at heart anyway, but I like living with livestock. I’ll never become a world traveler, but that’s okay. It’s a tradeoff I’m willing to take. And if the bleep hits the fan, we will still have meat, milk, and eggs.


  1. Oh, how fun...I'm first.

    So spot on with animal commitment! We have some animals now that curtail our activities substantially, but currently no goats.

    I loved my goats when we did have them. I'd take them everyday out to the front hayfield and just let them have at it for a while. They followed me everywhere I went if I had them out of the barn. They were silly, fun and gave great milk.

    The only thing holding us back from buying another couple goats is knowing we'll be back in "Milk Prison": twice a day milking no matter what. I take my animal responsibilities seriously and won't do it unless I'm willing to go back to "jail."

  2. So, what purpose does the horse serve, other than for pretty? I don't see pictures of anyone riding. They make great lawn ornaments, but they consume a lot of hay and grain that (hopefully) will not go in the freezer as dinner, nor do they contribute milk or eggs.

  3. This is from the same "anonymous"...funny thing: The same concept applies to serious gardeners. I can't go anywhere from early spring through to late fall. One day out of the garden and everything goes to heck in a hand basket.

  4. Were I close enough for it to be feasible I would volunteer in a heartbeat. And gladly. But, alas...

    Besides, it's like "renting." If I felt I'd bitten off more than I cared to chew for the long term... Hey! Don and Patrice will be home day after tomorrow! Hurray!

    Jeff - Tucson

  5. Hi, great post. I want to add that for those of your readers that are feeling a little anxious about committing to raising livestock, I recommend that they begin with just chickens like we did.

    First, the cost of entry is much lower than with probably any other livestock (except maybe rabbits, but are they considered livestock?). Second, if you get a good, hardy, dual-purpose breed like Barred Rocks, they do a pretty good job of taking care of themselves if you give them plenty of room to forage and keep them supplied with clean water and supplemental feed. And finally, it's much less intimidating for your neighbors to accept responsibility for just feeding and watering the chickens -- and collecting/keeping eggs! -- than for all that other stuff on your list.

    So I think basically everyone ought to have chickens, local zoning ordinances notwithstanding (Shh! I won't tell! Just be sure not to have a bunch of juvenile roosters practicing their crowing when codes compliance officers are roaming your neighborhood). And if you're out in the country with plenty of land, there's really no good excuse not to be raising chickens.

    And Patrice, I thought I was the only one who liked to "commune with the chickens." For me, it's almost like watching fish in an aquarium... it's somehow peaceful sitting down with a cup of coffee watching chickens doing what chickens have been doing for thousands of years: Scratch. Peck. Repeat.

  6. To Quote Spider Robinson from "Time Pressure":
    "The petty chores of living in the country are so never ending that if they don't send you gibbering back to the city that become a kind of hypnotic, a rhythmic ritual, encouraging you to adopt a meditative state of mind."

    I imediately thought of this quote and spent the last couple hours finding it so I would get it right. I want the opportunity to be there.


  7. I had to chuckle when I read the part about y'all not leaving home at the same time in a decade.

    It's been the same at our place for almost twenty years. We hired a vet tech to live in while I spent some time in the islands with my husband in '92. He was there working for two years, so I spent a couple of months total, but that was it.

    We've never taken a vacation, but that's OK. It didn't stop the big guy from becoming a well traveled and much respected outrigger canoe racer, and I've had my share of going places, too, but we just don't travel in tandem. The critters come first.

    And that's OK. I'm a serious homebody. I'd mostly rather be home than anyplace else.


  8. ....oh, and speaking of harvesting 25 tons of hay... :)

    I'm wondering if y'all have talked about draft animals, or considered using them. Your place is an ideal size for using horses or mules, or even oxen.

    Are there any folks in your area currently farming or working timber with them?

    I've never worked a team, but I find it a very interesting subject and really enjoy learning about it.


  9. Save the Canning JarsFebruary 21, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    Hey Patrice,
    You are mentioned (in a good way) on Tues. Feb. 22nd

    Just thought you would want to know.

  10. Here! Here! I thoroughly agree with Mike in Va.'s post.

    Another major consideration if you're considering embarking in this rewarding endeavor with farm animals is the importance of the breeds of any livestock you chose, both small and large.
    Invest some time in researching carefully for hardy, disease resistant, easy birthers, and meat or milk production to food consumption ratios. Consider your climate and food source availability for your geographical region.

    Our first encounters 20 years ago in procuring animals were based on the way they looked!
    Over the years that naivete has been replaced with the reality of lots of trial and error and a fixed realistic budget.
    Today, I run and manage a farm with a 15 head herd of Tx.Longhorn cattle, three Jersey's, 20 plus milk and meat goats, a rabbitry, Barred Rock chickens, Guineas, Muskovee Ducks, Geese, Turkeys, and several hogs.

    I empathize with you Patrice, finding trustworthy and skilled help is no easy feat.
    I have had some success in training older teens who have been active in the local agricultural programs or 4-H to sit in for me once for a family members funeral I attended 600 miles away.

    When you chose to be a farmer with livestock, it is a crucial decision and long term commitment and it's responsibilities dictate an integral part of your life.
    And, I would not trade this life for any other choice!


  11. Heh. We feel your pain. We haven't been able to go on overnight trips since the kids grew up and moved away.

    It gets worse! Daughter had her third c-section and required help with the kids DURING LAMBING.

  12. Traveling is overrated, especially now a days with the groping the airports give you just to be able to go somewhere.....

    I must be the odd one, I don't mind doing all of the chores at all....I especially love the mucking, I get some of my best ideas out there while getting "cheap" exercise all at the same time......The fresh air, the sounds of the farm, the unexpected excitement of the crisis of the moment, the security of the calmness.....not to mention all those critters being a constant supply of entertainment......

    And in today's uncertainty of the state of the world, I'd prefer not to be to far away from home, anyway......

  13. Can you stockpile mixed grass/small grain pastures in the fall for winter grazing there, or will snow be too deep for the livestock to eat it?

    (grin) I decided to stockpile a couple pastures this fall, letting the grasses grow and keeping the animals off, even though I knew that the feed quality would be low if we got any rain (we were in a drought), but the sheep would eat it anyway and get supplements.

    I was just patting myself on the back at the thought of rationing out that pasture (as standing hay) and minimizing hay purchases when I came home from work to find my pastures mowed, and a note from a neighbor saying he noticed that we hadn't had time to mow the pastures so he mowed 'em for us while we were at work. Heh. Well, I thanked him very nicely for his kindness.

    Normally I would have had it planted down in rye, oats, or wheat for winter grazing but it was too cold and dry this year.

  14. Oh Patrice... I so identify with that. Even just an overnight can be a challenge for us especially in the winter. If you don't have a little pause when getting new livestock, you are foolhardy.

    Thank you for sharing.