Author: Dr. Susan Kerr
Publish Date: Winter 2009
In Part 1 of this series on sustainable livestock production, we discussed the need for effective pre-planning before engaging in a livestock enterprise. This pre-planning includes inventorying resources, conducting market research, selecting products, determining break-even prices, etc. In Part 2, we will focus on enterprise-specific issues. Bear in mind the brief comments here grossly oversimplify the issues related to each livestock species. However, this information should be enough to help readers decide if this venture is of interest and possible on a given farm and therefore worthy of additional research.
Common Issues for All
All prospective livestock producers should critically investigate markets and realistic revenue and expense prices first and see if these are compatible with the farm’s financial goals. Also see if there are opportunities to sell value-added products and/or if special management tasks can increase product value. For example, using protective blankets on fiber animals will keep fleeces cleaner and increase their value. The importance of understanding and applying best pasture management practices on small acreages cannot be overemphasized. The University of Idaho’s Bulletin 849 (see link below) is a useful resource. Pasture rotation and multi-species grazing are two very effective management tools. Food animal producers need to implement product quality assurance practices, maintain accurate records on all animals, stay within the law regarding the use of medications in food animals and develop effective biosecurity plans. Wise animal husbandry practices regarding air quality, sanitation, feeding, nutrition, stress reduction and so on are essential aspects of herd health.
It is a challenge to have a profitable horse enterprise. Also, if not properly managed, horses can do quite a bit of damage to their environment. Consequently, horse enterprises require a great deal of preplanning. Enterprise options include breeding, boarding, training, recreation, sheltering/rescue, therapy, agrotourism and showing, to name a few. Your selection of a breed will probably depend on your goals and the horse’s purpose. For example, a Percheron probably would not make the best competitive hunter/jumper and you probably would not use an Arabian in competitive weight pulling. Start-up and input costs can be significant. Land, shelter, fences, machinery, hay/feed, breeding fees, routine health care (deworming, vaccinations, hoof care, dental care) and veterinary services are some costs to be considered. Horse operations can be physically demanding and labor-intensive, too. Each horse farm needs to have a mud and manure management plan. This plan may include a “sacrifice area” where horses are kept and fed on a dry lot so grazing can be managed and environmental impacts minimized. Horses on dry lots need exercise or they can develop behavioral and health problems. A grazing plan including pasture rotation is essential for optimal pasture health, production and longevity. Horses are susceptible to many health and disease concerns including tetanus, West Nile virus, colic, parasitism and many more. Many of them can be minimized or prevented by vaccinations and proper management.
Due to their size and versatility, goats can be a viable option for many small acreage enterprises. One goat can produce an amount of milk compatible with a family’s daily needs and surplus can be made into other dairy products. However, year-round milk production can be a challenge with goats. There is growing customer demand for goat products such as milk, soaps, cheese and meat. Goats can be used for dairy, meat, fiber, draft, packing, companionship and forage control purposes. Purebred breeding operations are a common enterprise selection. There are many breeds to choose from and this choice will depend on the producer’s goals, markets and interests. Common management practices include vaccinating, hoof trimming, deworming, castrating, and ear tagging or tattooing. The meat goat industry has grown exponentially since the mid-1990s when the Boer breed was introduced to the U.S. The majority of goat meat consumers in the U.S. are ethnic minorities with a cultural tradition of goat meat consumption, especially during religious celebrations. Knowledge of customers’ preferences and cultural requirements is essential for customer satisfaction and repeat business. Profitable goat enterprises providing the sole income for a family are rare. Major challenges to profitability include location of markets, availability of USDA approved slaughter plants, costs of meeting requirements for dairy licensing and land and feed costs. Health and management challenges include shelter, fencing, predator control, parasite control and several contagious diseases. Selection of disease-free foundation animals will help reduce future health issues when assembling a herd. A quality assurance program and excellent record keeping help ensure producers sell only safe and wholesome food products.
As with goats, cattle breeds include meat and dairy varieties. Breed selection will depend on markets, goals and resources. For all cattle, good fences and handling facilities are essential, as are mud and manure management plans. Because cattle cycle year-round, breeding can be timed to coincide with other factors such as labor availability, weather, markets, forage cycles, etc. The barriers to establishing a new, conventional, largescale commercial dairy are staggering and this option is probably not feasible for small acreage owners. Smallscale specialty dairies (such as organic, specialty breed or specialty product production) are a possibility, however. Federal, state and local laws govern dairy licensing and the sale of dairy products so pre-planning should include investigation of these issues. Year-round milk production is possible with just a few animals; a two-month dry period at the end of lactation is needed so the udder can recover and prepare for the next lactation. A cow needs to give birth to produce milk so the farm plan needs to include a plan for calves. Small beef herds are common on small acreages. Again, a marketing plan is essential for maximum profitability – who is the target customer and what does he/she want? Equipment, land, feed and labor costs and issues should be addressed before the first animal is purchased. Many small-scale beef producers sell live animals or portions thereof directly to consumers and the animals are processed at local custom plants. Others have access to USDA-approved processing plants and can then sell retail cuts to customers, restaurants and even online. The more marketing options available, the more likely the enterprise is to be profitable. Purchase initial animals from reputable, disease-free sources. Concerns include Johne’s Disease, respiratory viruses and bacteria, Bovine Leukosis Virus, Bovine Viral Diarrhea, mastitis, hairy heel warts, foot rot and many more. Quality assurance programs are essential to guarantee product safety, wholesomeness and customer satisfaction.
Some people find it very enjoyable and rewarding to raise pigs; others find it to be a lot of work and not profitable. There are “meat” (e.g. Hampshire) and “mother” (e.g. Yorkshire) breeds of market hogs as well as many lesser-known breeds, including those with critically-low worldwide populations. Go to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy web site (URL below) for a list of endangered livestock breeds of all species – perhaps you would like to dedicate your small farm to the preservation of one of these breeds. Being omnivores, swine can be fed a least-cost ration based on a variety of locally-available products and by-products. However, most small-scale producers feed commercially-prepared products. Public health regulations mandate that any household food wastes feed to hogs must be thoroughly cooked first. Pigs adapt well to a variety of management settings, from confinement to free range. However, they can be difficult to keep inside fences and can be very destructive to property through rooting activity. Piglets need sanitary environments, protection from crushing, creep feed, supplemental heat and iron injections at birth. Potential customers include 4-H/FFA youth, pig roast events, locker meat customers and those interested in breeding stock. Some consumers seek out home-raised hogs because they desire moister and more flavorful pork than that typically available in grocery stores. Parasites and many diseases threaten swine but a great many can be prevented through vaccination, selection, deworming and management practices. Most serious swine producers have a strict biosecurity program that restricts farm visitors and prevents mixing of pigs from multiple sources. The National Pork Producers’ Council has been at the forefront of quality assurance programs and their web site has an excellent array of educational materials for producers (see link below).
Sheep are another versatile species with many products to offer: wool, meat, milk and cheese. They are well-suited to small acreage and various intensities of management. Keeping accurate records and adhering to food animal regulations are again essential tasks for sheep producers. Common management practices include vaccinating, hoof trimming, deworming, shearing, castrating, tail docking and ear tagging. In the meat breeds, shearing has become an unprofitable and time-consuming venture, so some small acreage owners are transitioning to non-wooled “easy care” breeds such as Dorpers and Katahdins. Lamb and mutton are prized by some people groups, especially for certain celebrations. Other sheep meat enterprise customers include 4-H/FFA market lamb youth and locker lamb/direct market consumers. Wool has several value-added opportunities, as well: washed fleeces, rovings, spun yarn, bats, finished products, pelts, etc. Sheep milk, cheese, fleeces and hand-spun yarn tend to be “highend” products commanding high retail prices. Again, regulations govern the production and sale of sheep dairy products. Excellent fences are necessary to keep sheep in and predators out. Livestock guardians such as guardian dogs, llamas or donkeys can be very effective but have their own management issues. Predators and parasites are threats to sheep health and profitability. Sheep can be afflicted with several serious and contagious diseases, so assemble a flock from disease-free sources. Pay particular attention to foot rot, Johne’s Disease, Caseous Lymphadenitis and Ovine Progressive Pleuropneumonia. Use vaccinations and excellent management to control other common sheep diseases.
What is a small farm without poultry? More and more farms are taking poultry seriously and are producing meat and eggs for the growing segment of the population demanding “free range” products. Poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese) can work into pasture rotations nicely, helping distribute livestock manure and reducing livestock parasite loads on pastures through a multi-species grazing program. The poultry production cycle includes incubation, chick brooding, growth and breeding or slaughter. Chicks need supplemental heat for up to several weeks and a well-balanced diet for optimal growth. Laying hens should be fed a laying hen ration that meets their high calcium needs. Roosters are not required unless you plan to let eggs get fertilized and either incubate eggs or let hens hatch them out. Creative producers can find markets for many poultry products including eggs, breeding stock, 4-H/FFA birds, fryers/broilers, show birds, chicks, manure, grass/pasture management, feathers and even egg art. Laws govern the sale of meat and eggs but usually not to the extent of livestock species; check with state and county agencies to see what regulations govern the sale of poultry products in your area. Keep excellent records and record all treatments and processes. Poultry predators come in all shapes and sizes and any time of day. Owls, hawks, eagles, foxes, coyotes, dogs, cougars, cats, raccoons, weasels, opossums and others can kill poultry, so effective protection is essential. Birds need protection from both the sun and the harsh elements of winter. Health threats are often tied to sanitation and environmental problems, so keep housing and equipment clean and make sure birds have good ventilation. Remove and isolate sick birds from the flock. Purchase eggs or chicks vaccinated against Marek’s Disease at the hatchery. Monitor birds closely for lice, especially through the winter.
Contact your county’s Extension office to see what educational workshops are offered in your area. Educational programs specifically developed for small acreage owners include “Living on the Land,” “Cultivating Success” and “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity.” The following web sites have helpful information as well.