Sustainable Livestock Production, Part 1

Author: Dr. Susan Kerr, WSU-Klickitat County Extension Director

Publish Date: Fall 2008

Definitions of sustainable agriculture usually include references to financial, environmental, ethical, social and product quality issues. In addition to those considerations, sustainable livestock production also needs to address animal welfare issues. Keys to sustainable livestock production include extensive preplanning, knowledge of one’s goals, understanding of marketing options and the ability to review and adapt plans as needed. This article is a brief introduction to the concept of sustainable livestock production. Readers may find it asks more questions than it answers, but what it takes to be sustainable will differ on every farm.

Why Do You Want to Raise Livestock?

Most of this article will focus on the need to identify one’s motivations and goals before beginning a livestock enterprise. Wanting to produce a protein source for one’s family will result in management decisions much different from the goal of needing to earn primary income from livestock production. Which of the below best matches your goals?

  • You want to produce fresh, wholesome protein source for your family
  • You want to produce a healthy, wholesome protein source for the public
  • You want to produce fiber for yourself or for sale
  • You want to use livestock to manage plants on your land
  • You want to help preserve an endangered breed of livestock
  • You want to earn a living from your land
  • You want to supplement your income with a livestock enterprise
  • You want to maintain your land’s lower agricultural zoning tax rate
  • You “love animals” and want to have lots of them around 

These goals are not mutually exclusive and you can certainly work toward more than one at the same time. However, decisions involved with “quality of life” or “lifestyle” goals may differ greatly from those associated with a profitable, agriculturally-based small business.

What Are Your Resources?

What do you have available to help you obtain your goals? An inventory of tools, land, soils, fences, water, forage, shelter, labor, etc. is crucial when considering a new livestock enterprise. For example, already having pastures with productive plants well-suited to the location may eliminate the need to budget for pasture development. This list might help you consider items you did not consider as resources before.

  • Acreage (Own or lease? Water availability? Soil type? Plants? Slope? etc.)
  • Fences
  • Buildings
  • Labor (Self, family, volunteers, paid or barter)
  • Financial resources (Savings, loans, salaries, pensions, inheritance, other)
  • Agency cost-sharing opportunities (NRCS, Conservation Districts, etc.)
  • Advisors (Extension, NRCS, Conservation Districts, FSA, CPA, state departments of agriculture, attorneys, veterinarians, neighbors, mentors, etc.)
  • Time
  • Relevant skills, knowledge and experience
  • Equipment (Livestock handling facilities, tools, machinery, etc.)
  • Financial lenders (Commercial banks or other sources)
  • Credit rating (Ability to secure loans/mortgages)
  • Supporting businesses (Nearby feed/farm supply stores, etc.)
  • Consumers (People ready to purchase your product)
  • Aptitudes and interests (Do you genuinely like working with livestock? Which species?) 

An inventory of resources often reveals more available resources than one might have thought at first. Be creative, seek input from others and create your list over a period of several days to make sure it is complete.

What Are Your Challenges?

It is best to identify challenges before initiating a new enterprise. Some challenges may preclude certain options on your acreage. For example, if you do not have water rights, it is not feasible to consider an enterprise that will necessitate the need for irrigation. If you have little or poor topsoil, it may take a great deal of time, labor and expense to make the land productive. Ideally, you purchased land compatible with your goals. Issues to consider as challenges include:

  • Noxious weeds 
  • Soil (Poor soil type, little soil, predominance of marshy or rocky areas, hardpan, etc.)
  • Water (Is rainfall sufficient? Do you have legal water rights?)
  • Laws (Zoning and other regulations)
  • Distance from markets/customers
  • Distance from USDA-certified meat processing plants 
  • Labor
  • Financing
  • Physical attributes of the property (Location of roads, driveways, hills, etc.)
  • History of property (Previous mismanagement, livestock diseases, etc.)
  • Waste management
  • Profitability (More on this later)

What Are Your Options?

Sustainable livestock production could involve any or all production phase of these species, if not more

  • Beef cattle
  • Dairy cattle
  • Horses
  • Sheep
  • Goats
  • Swine
  • Poultry
  • Ostriches/emus
  • Rabbits
  • Llamas
  • Alpacas
  • Other

Some species such as sheep and goats provide producers with the opportunity to produce multiple products (milk, cheese, fiber, meat, breeding animals, pets, etc.). Some producers choose to specialize in a certain aspect of the industry, such as rearing dairy heifer replacements, training horses, shearing sheep, raising cow-calf pairs and so on. Others are involved with all aspects of production, from breeding and birth through marketing products. If you want to raise livestock, here are some essential questions to answer before you purchase your first animal:

  • Which species should I raise?
  • Which breed(s) should I raise?
  • Where should l obtain my first animals?
  • What health requirements should I have for purchased animals?
  • Will I have an open or closed herd?
  • Should I raise purebreds or crossbreds?
  • Do I want to have registered or grade animals?
  • Do I want to sell breeding stock?
  • Do I want to retain ownership of young stock?
  • Do I want to raise replacements for others?
  • Where will I get feed and supplies?
  • What shelters and fencing do I need?
  • Do I need to protect livestock from predators?
  • Who can be my veterinarian?
  • What are my livestock health and nutrition programs?
  • What is my manure management plan?

Devote a good deal of time to researching various breeds of the species you wish to raise. Go to shows, fairs and sales and ask plenty of questions. Research breeds on the Internet. Ask people who already have a certain breed why they selected this breed. Most producers are proud of their breed and may over-emphasize the positive attributes of this breed, so gather information from multiple sources, compare, compare, compare, then apply this information to your own situation. For example, livestock breeds known to have strong mothering instincts may not be the safest choice for a small acreage operation with young children.

Know Before You Grow!

Perhaps the most common reason for failure of new farm enterprises is lack of adequate market research. Even if you have the resources you need, have selected a livestock product to produce and  are ready to go, your enterprise will not be sustainable if there is no one to purchase your product. To have a chance at profitability and sustainability, you MUST be able to answer these questions before purchasing your first animal:

  • How and where will you market your animals? (Local auction yard, Internet, farmers’ market, live animal farm gate sales, restaurant sales, etc.)
  • Who is your expected clientele and what do they want? (Lowest price, highest quality, organic, free-range, natural, etc.)
  • How will people find out about your product?
  • How will you market your product cost effectively?
  • How will your product be unique and why should people buy it? 

Think outside the box stall, too; consider innovative enterprises such as agro-tourism, composted manure, brush control for a fee, selling shares in your products, starting a community-supported agriculture operation—your imagination is the only limit (besides some regulations, that is…). Consider specialty or niche markets, which often can bring higher retail prices and greater likelihood of profit. For example, you could contract with a local B&B to supply fresh eggs and breakfast meats and they could feature the use of local products in their advertising. Some people prefer duck eggs to hen’s eggs so you could produce a product for that niche market. Some handspinners are extremely selective about the wool fleeces they purchase so you could choose to raise the breed and type of sheep wool breed in which they are interested. Some consumers may balk at paying more than five dollars a pound for USDA inspected ground goat meat, but others may happily pay the equivalent of more than $14 a pound for goat meat jerky.

Product Classifications

At the grocery store, you have probably noticed the different food product classifications that have increased in number in the past several years. Product labels include “natural,” “organic,” “grass fed,” “free range,” “hormone free,” “non-GMO” and so on. Each label may appeal to a different segment of consumers.

Some state departments of agriculture strictly define and regulate the use of such labeling on food products and others do not, so check with your state’s department of agriculture about this issue. The Washington State Department of Agriculture’s “Green Book” for direct marketing is an excellent resource. Oregon’s Department of Agriculture has a resource called “Agripedia”. Agripedia has information about agricultural resources, regulations, marketing, zoning and other issues; pages 109-199 are most relevant to the issues discussed in this article.

Federal and local regulations often apply to the production of some food products, as well. For example, meat to be sold as retail cuts must be processed and inspected at a USDA-certified meat processing plant. County regulations may further dictate that processed meat be transported in a certain type of container and at a certain temperature; check with your county’s public health department for more information.

Financial Considerations

For most producers, sustainable livestock production must also take financial sustainability into consideration. Sadly, many producers do not know enough about their costs of production to determine a break-even price for their product(s). Without knowledge of their break-even price, producers can easily sell products for less than production costs and lose money through their livestock enterprise. A less-than-fair price does not allow producers to pay themselves for their labor and management services and help retire debts. Other businesses build in a profit margin when they price their products, so why shouldn’t you?

As mentioned, market research is a key part of creating a successful small business. Your nearest Small Business Development Center staff can help you with a marketing plan. They can also advise you on how to develop a business plan and enterprise budget and conduct periodic financial analyses. Introductory materials on these subjects is available at the OSU Extension Service Wasco County Risk Management Website.


In Part 1 of this two-part series on sustainable livestock production, the importance of pre-planning has been highlighted. It is very challenging for an agricultural enterprise to be financially sustainable, but thorough planning helps reduce threats to profitability. Pre-planning issues include resource inventory, selection of product(s), market research, determination of break-even price, specific challenges and more. The need for planning cannot be overemphasized because the damage to your livestock and wallet due to lack of preparation can be devastating.

After you have answered all the questions asked in this article, you can focus on producing a consistent and high quality product at a fair price for loyal customers. In Part 2, we will address enterprise-specific issues.