All Articles for: Use & Care
of Barnyard Animals
Taking time to observe the sight and sounds of the animals in your barnyard offers a refreshing change from the hurry and scurry of modern life. Provided you leave the cell phone behind, doing barnyard chores offers time out for relaxation and quiet enjoyment. Since livestock must be cared for daily, they pull you away from your indoor activities and force you to get out for a little exercise and fresh air. I often spend long days in the office and look forward to doing the evening chores that not only let me stretch my muscles but also help clear my head after a busy day.
As well as being pleasurable, barnyard animals are also purposeful. In exchange for your care, they give you unadulterated food products, such as eggs, meat, or milk, for your table; wonderful fiber products, such as wool, feathers, or hides, for use in a variety of crafts; and environmental benefits, such as manure to fertilize the land, automatic lawn mowing, and the joy of seeing active, healthy animals in your back yard. What a treat to pause and gaze out your window and see your animals peacefully going about their daily activities.
Having outdoor pets can be one reason to raise barnyard animals, which are not unlike house pets in some ways. The four-legged breeds tend to be somewhat like dogs in the companionship that can develop between them and their human keepers. The two-legged breeds tend to be more like cats, in that they tolerate and even appreciate your presence but have their own agenda and in general prefer each other’s company to yours.
Recreational value is another reason for raising backyard livestock. Not only is caring for animals pleasurable in itself, but your chosen species may have a local or regional club that meets periodically to share information and ideas, giving you a chance to get acquainted with others who share your enthusiasm. Sometimes these groups are involved in breed exhibitions, privately or at county fairs, which offer the opportunity to share your enthusiasm with the public and encourage other people to become involved. Recreational opportunities include hitching your goat, cow, steer, or sheep to a cart for pleasure driving, entering local parades, and maybe using the animals to help with light chores.
Most people don’t associate barnyard livestock with community service, but an often overlooked activity is taking well-trained and well-mannered animals to visit elderly people in nursing homes. Animals provide terrific therapy for drawing out unresponsive patients and will brighten the day of any shut-in. The animals, too, learn to enjoy all the attention lovingly showered on them.
Educational value is yet another reason for raising backyard livestock. Anyone who keeps animals knows that caring for them involves a constant learning process that is particularly valuable for children. If you enjoy working with children, you might set up an informal petting zoo for neighborhood kids, or take your animals to local schools.
Helping care for animals at home is a wonderful way to teach children responsibility, patience, dedication, and compassion. Raising barnyard animals also offers an excellent way for kids to learn about the natural processes of procreation, birth, and death.
All these marvelous rewards don’t come without their price, however. For one thing, barnyard animals require constant care, day after day, week after week. No matter what else may be going on in your life on a particular day, or how tired you are at day’s end, you must make time to take care of your livestock. These daily chores do not involve a lot of time or a lot of hard work, but they are an important responsibility. If you cannot find a substitute caretaker for times when you must be away, you may soon feel tied down by your animals.
But that’s largely a matter of attitude. Many times I’ve not felt like doing barnyard chores, only to have my spirits lifted when I got out to the barn and was greeted by the animals eagerly waiting for my arrival. On the other hand, sometimes when I turn down an invitation from a friend or relative because I can’t leave my animals for long, I’m exhorted to get rid of them so I can “be free.” Of course, none of these people have, or have had, livestock of their own, and my friends who do have barnyard animals would never consider suggesting such a thing.
Other downsides that can be part and parcel of keeping backyard livestock include the need to deal with the manure, odor, noise, flies, and complaining neighbors. All of these potentially negative factors can be handily dealt with through proper management. I consider manure to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage because I am also a gardener, and manure makes an outstanding compost. My backyard barnyard full of animals provides me with a constant supply of manure. Odor-free composting techniques are covered in myriad online guides or books such as Let It Rot. If you are not a gardener, surely you know someone who is and who would be delighted to have a source of free, natural fertilizer. And if you are enterprising, you might exchange the manure for help in cleaning out your barn, or you might sell the manure as a way for your livestock to help earn their keep.
Properly dealing with manure automatically solves the problems of odor and flies, which leaves us next to deal with noise. Barnyard noise is particularly problematic because not everyone considers it a problem. When I hear my neighbor’s cow bellow, I know that her calf is being weaned or the cow is ready to be rebred. I once had a neighbor who, when she heard a cow bellow, became alarmed and called in a vet at her own expense. Now that can become pretty annoying if you are the cow’s owner.
A crowing rooster is another noisemaker that not everyone considers to be a problem. I enjoy hearing the sound of a cock crow. I have had customers come to my place to buy a single rooster just to have the pleasure of hearing it crow. On the other hand, various of my chicken-keeping friends have been in constant battles, sometimes ending up in court, over their crowing roosters.
If barnyard noise is a potential problem, consider silent animals, such as rabbits or Muscovy ducks. The latter are sometimes called quackless ducks because their sound is so muted that it can be heard only at close range. Rabbits and Muscovies not only are quiet but also make great pets that even the crankiest neighbor might learn to appreciate.
Breeding and Offspring
If breeding is to be part of your backyard program, it must be well thought out in advance. Will you be breeding top-quality animals or run-of-the mill stock that only increase the population of mediocre animals? And what will become of the of the offspring? Hatching chicks in an incubator is a popular school project and is a super educational tool, provided plans are made in advance for the future of the resulting chicks. The worst possible scenario, as happens at some schools, is to send each student home with one or two chicks, which are more likely than not to meet some unpleasant fate.
School chicks and other offspring resulting from backyard breeding can be raised for meat, but you must be prepared to deal with the eventuality that one day the animals will be butchered. This event can be traumatic if you, or especially your child, has become attached to the animals. How well I remember the rabbits our family had when I was little. I had thought that they were my pets until the day I came home from school and found them hanging from the rafters to be skinned. I can’t tell you how betrayed I felt. I eventually got over it, and today rabbit is one of my favorite meats. But as a child, I would have appreciated knowing that the rabbits our family was raising, and that I was allowed to play with, were destined to feed us.
When you raise animals for meat, you must be prepared to deal with butchering day. For starters, never give an affectionate name to a meat animal. If you name it at all, call it “Sir Loin Chop” or “Finger Licking” or something similar as a reminder of its purpose in life. Dealing with butchering involves not only over coming the emotional aspects but following the prescribed procedures that result in safe, tender, tasty meat. Educate yourself by reading a book such as Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game, and if the process sounds like something you’d rather not get involved with, find out ahead of time if you can count on some one else to do it for you. That someone might be a friend or neighbor involved with similar livestock, or perhaps a professional slaughterhouse.
Not all slaughterhouses accept all kinds of livestock. Some take only poultry, whereas others take only larger animals. Even a custom butcher who handles goats and steers might have a seasonal schedule: for example, taking in only game animals during the hunting season. When you find a slaughterhouse you plan to use, try to get endorsements from past customers. We once took in a goat to be butchered by a shop we had not used before. Despite our best instructions, the meat was wrapped in packages that were much too large for our small family and all the fat was included in the ground meat. As a result, the meat didn’t store well in the freezer.
Perhaps you don’t want to get involved in raising meat at all. Consider that right from the start in making your selection of livestock to raise. If you raise a calf, will it be a steer for meat or a heifer that will eventually become the family milk cow? If the latter, you must know that a cow gives milk only as a result of calving, so you will have another calf to deal with in the fl1ture. The same is true of milk goats. The question still remains of what you will do with the offspring.
Some breeds of goat and most breeds of sheep may be raised for fiber, which is used for spinning and other craft projects. If you find these animals appealing, you will have to contend with shearing. Learning to shear is a skill in itself, and may be more than you bargained for if you have only one or two animals. Custom shearers usually won’t deal with small numbers of animals, but you may be able to take your sheep or goats to a larger operation at shearing time. And if you live in an area where fiber-bearing animals are not common, you may have a hard time finding a shearer at all. A fiber-bearing alternative to breeds that need shearing is cashmere goats or angora rabbits, from which the hair is harvested by combing rather than shearing.
Most rabbits are raised for meat and some are raised for their hides. Both activities involve breeding and butchering. You can, of course, keep rabbits strictly as pets. Similarly, chickens may be raised for meat or eggs or kept as pets, and ducks and geese may be meat animals or pets. Many people raise chickens or waterfowl solely for ornamental reasons — to enjoy the pleasure of having a couple of ban tams pecking on the lawn or a pair of ducks or geese floating on the backyard pond. That’s fine, too, although it’s likely that one of the birds will eventually steal off into the underbrush to lay and hatch a batch of eggs, thus greatly increasing your backyard population. The offspring could be considered a bonus and given away or raised for meat.
An advantage to raising livestock solely for meat is that the project can be short- term. A batch of broiler chickens, for example, may be raised and butchered all within 6 weeks’ time. A lamb may be ready to turn into chops in 6 or 7 months. These short time frames give you a chance to decide whether you like raising livestock at all. If the answer is yes, you then have the choice of doing another short-term meat project or engaging in a long-term project involving breeding more meat animals.
Education is Key
Once you’ve made your livestock selection, begin to educate yourself about what’s involved. Read not only this guide, which provides an overview of each type of animal, but also some of the guides and books mentioned in the References and Recommended Reading section of this guide, which offer more in-depth details on specific breeds. Also, subscribe to a periodical dealing with your chosen breed. Network with others who raise the breed by joining a local club, if one exists, and regional or national breed clubs. Visit the fair in your county, and perhaps in surrounding counties, to meet people who have the breed that interests you.
A super place to gather information is a 4-H show, where the kids involved are well educated about their animals and eager to share their knowledge. Nothing pleases children more than the opportunity to show a novice adult how smart they are. The people you meet during your networking will be invaluable later when you have questions about how to milk a cow, trim a goat’s hooves, or assist a ewe giving birth.
The same places that offer good networking opportunities are also excellent sources for locating livestock to purchase. If possible, try to buy animals from someone who lives nearby. Livestock purchased close to your home will be well adapted to your area, and you will have someone to turn to if you need help later on. When you buy from a local breeder, you can see for yourself whether the animals come from a clean, healthy environment and whether the breeding population has the proper conformation. If you are buying a female animal — a cow, ewe, or doe (goat or rabbit) — the seller may have a male animal to which you could breed her when the time comes.
An excellent place to find local sellers of livestock is the farm store. Many farm stores maintain a bulletin board where breeders may advertise livestock for sale, and the clerks often can tell you who buys feed for the species you are seeking. The county Extension office is another possible source of information, although some agencies are more active and knowledgeable than others. Larger livestock operations might advertise on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages, in the newspaper classified ads, or in the freebie shop per newspapers that abound in every community. The farm store and Extension office can also tell you if your area has a club or other interest group dedicated to your breed. Also check with the national association that promotes your breed or species, most of which maintain a membership list that is available to the public. Some organizations publish their membership list on Web sites, where you can readily locate the members nearest you. If you are interested in a less common breed, contact the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for their annually updated list of breeders.
If you have difficulty finding the animal you want locally, cast your net a little farther afield. Again, the national breed association may be helpful, as may advertisements in periodicals devoted to your chosen breed. Even when purchasing from a distance, it’s best to try to travel to the seller’s location to view the breeder stock and pick up your purchase. No matter how carefully animals are transported, shipping always involves certain risks. We have occasionally purchased a calf from a dairy in the next county and transported it home in our pickup camper, and we never had a problem except on one extremely hot day. During the 45-minute drive home, we stopped to offer the calf some water. It was too frightened to drink, so we decided the better plan was to get home fast and get it off the hot truck. We arrived home to find the calf nearly prostrate from heat and dehydration. After a good hosing down with cold water and several gallons of Gatorade, the calf was fine, but the incident gave us quite a scare. We vowed that from then on if we had to transport livestock in the summer, it would be only in the cool hours of early morning or late evening.
If you cannot pick up your purchase in person but must arrange to have it shipped, have a dear written understanding with the seller regarding who bears the risk if the animal gets sick or dies. The stress of long-distance travel compromises an animal’s immune system, leaving it open to any infection that might come along during travel or on arrival at its new home.
If you decide to purchase from outside your area, try to get recommendations from satisfied customers. Every breed seems to have a few disreputable dealers. No matter whom you buy from, the supplier should be a reputable breeder rather than a dealer. Dealers, who buy and sell animals but do not raise them, often cannot attest to the breeding history or health of the animals they trade. A breeder, on the other hand, knows exactly what is being sold and will be able to answer your questions about the breed in general and about the particular animal you are acquiring.
Another place to avoid purchasing livestock is at an auction or sale barn, where animals are constantly coming and going. You will have no idea where your animal came from, and you can’t tell how healthy or unhealthy it may have been to start with or what kind of diseases it may have picked up along the way. The last thing you want is for your first livestock experience to turn into a fiasco involving multiple expensive visits with the veterinarian, administering medications to a reluctant animal, and in the end possibly losing the animal despite your best efforts.
Don’t be shy about closely examining your potential purchase for fear of insulting the seller. You will instead be showing that you are a well-informed buyer. If you appear to be thorough in your examination, the seller may tell you things that might otherwise not have been mentioned. Don’t be shy either about asking questions, which is how most of us learn. The only dumb question is the one you fail to ask.
If the animal you are purchasing is mature, check it for such problems as crooked back or legs, or asymmetry in a cow’s or goat’s udder and in the pouches between a goose’s legs. Ask the animal’s age and be familiar with the prime production age and longevity of your chosen species, as well as the relative characteristics of young and old animals. Unfortunately, once an animal is fully mature, its exact age may be difficult to verify. To avoid getting stuck with a geriatric case, seek animals that are nearly but not quite full grown. That way, you can be sure of the age, you will get the advantage of the animal’s full productivity while avoiding the uncertainties involved in raising a baby, and you will have a pretty good idea of what the animal will look like at full maturity.
If you are purchasing a registered animal, obtain all the necessary paperwork at the time that money changes hands. Stories abound of people who paid for a registered animal only to never receive the registration papers. Something similar happened to me when I purchased my second goat as a companion to my first goat. After we agreed on a price and loaded the goat into the truck, the seller went inside to get the registration papers. A short while later, he came back out to inform me that he couldn’t find the papers but would mail them to me later. After several reminders, he finally did supply papers, but the name on the registration was not the name he had given me when I bought the goat. I wasn’t too bothered, since many people give their animals both a registration name and a barn (or pet) name. Because I later had a question about the goat, I contacted the original owner, whose name was on the registration as the person who had sold it to the man who sold it to me. I described the goat and, after much discussion and confusion, learned that the animal I had bought was not the animal for which I had received papers. Fortunately, it was not an important issue for me, because I was not interested in breeding that goat as a registered animal, but I learned firsthand how easily a buyer can be duped by an unscrupulous seller.
Preparing a Home
Before bringing home your first animal, a little additional advance preparation will help smooth the way.
Ensure Family Support
Check with all members of your family to see how they feel about having barnyard livestock in your backyard. It’s always best to have everyone’s full support, especially when you may need a substitute to do your daily chores while you’re away. If not all members are involved in maintaining the livestock, strife can result the uninterested members feel that the others spend too much time at the barn. In contrast, relations in families in which everyone is - involved in some phase of animal care are usually harmonious.
In our family, my husband and I normally do chores together; we each have certain responsibilities, but both pitch in for the other when need be. We enjoy our time together walking to and from the barn butat the barn, we devote our frill attention to the animals.
Establish Caretaking Responsibilities
Establish a caretaking schedule and decide who in your family will do what chores daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. Children, for instance, may be in charge of the daily routines of feeding, milking, and gathering eggs; these simple tasks will help them learn about responsibility. Adults or older teenagers should probably be involved in less frequent but more difficult tasks, such as vaccinating, cleaning stalls, or attending a birth.
Check Zoning Regulations
Check the zoning regulations for your area. Zoning laws may prohibit you from keeping certain species of livestock, limit the number of each species you may keep, regulate the distance animal housing must be from nearby human dwellings or your property line, or restrict the use of electric fencing.
I saw firsthand how zoning works on my first little arm, where I raised poultry and waterfowl. The area was rezoned after I moved in. Of course, my poultry activities were grandfathered in, meaning that the authorities could not make me get rid of the birds I had, but I was not allowed to increase the population. Now, the nature of raising chickens is that after the spring hatch, you have more, and as the year progresses and you sell or butcher some, you have fewer. Complying with the new law meant I would eventually be out of business. I managed to prevail as long as I lived there, but not without hassles from neighbors and occasional visits from the authorities.
One of my acquaintances experienced a zoning issue when he purchased some property on which he planned to breed chickens. Between the time he agreed to buy the land and the time the purchase was finalized, the area was rezoned to ban roosters, without which he could not breed his hens. If you plan to raise livestock on property you have yet to purchase, check not only existing zoning laws but also pro posed changes.
Once you learn of any zoning regulations that might influence where on your property you may keep animals, prepare their facilities. Most animals will require all-weather housing. If your area has particularly hot days or cold days, take those extremes into consideration right from the start, or you may never get around to pro viding proper housing. If you are starting out with babies, remember that they will grow; make sure your facilities are of sufficient size to handle hilly mature animals. If you wish to breed your stock to raise future babies, chances are pretty good you’ll want to keep one or more of them, so allow space for herd or flock expansion.
Have your facilities ready and waiting before you bring home your first animals. Things have a way of taking longer than expected, and you don’t want your new animals to suffer the discomfort of staying too long in temporary and perhaps unsuitable housing.
Provide adequate feed and water stations, and lay in a supply of feed. If you will be using feed that is different from what your new animal has been eating, purchase some of its usual feed from the animal’s seller. Gradually mix in greater quantities of new feed with the old. The goal is to avoid an abrupt switch that can cause stress or digestive upset.
Secure the barnyard area with a sturdy fence that not only keeps in your livestock but also keeps out predators. ‘When most people hear the word “predator,” they think of wild animals such as foxes, raccoons, or coyotes. But the number one predators of domestic livestock are neighborhood dogs. I woke up one night to hear the squawking of some young chickens I was keeping in a raised hutch in my drive way. I ran to the window and saw what looked like a man reaching in to grab my chickens. When I snapped on the light, he crouched and ran. In my sleepy state, it took me a moment to realize I had just scared off a huge dog. Next morning, the animal control warden told me the surrounding neighbors were being terrorized by a marauder that killed not only countless chickens but a man’s calf, a couple of sheep belonging to a little boy, and most of one little girl’s rabbits. Based on my description, the dog was finally identified; it was determined a menace to the public and euthanized. Because the warden didn’t believe that one dog could possibly do so much damage in such a short time, the animal’s stomach contents were examined; they included a wide variety of fin, wool, and feathers. The irony is that the woman who owned the dog, and who had turned it out each night to run loose, was furious with the authorities for having deprived her children of their pet dog. Sadly, such tales are far too common.
Sometimes the predator dog is not the neighbor’s but your own. I was once talked into getting a dog to guard my chickens. One morning, I went out to be greeted by a happy canine that had spent the night killing my fryers and neatly laying them out along the path with all the heads pointing in one direction and feet pointing in the other direction. The dog seemed immensely pleased with his gift to me. My gift to him was to find him a home with a nice couple who didn’t raise chickens.
Inform the Neighbors
Let your neighbors know about your plan to raise livestock. Explain that you are taking great pains to keep your animals from getting into other people’s yards and to keep other people’s animals out of your yard. Describe what you are doing to maintain clean housing and minimize odors and flies. By letting the neighbors in on your plans, you are less likely to hear complaints from them later.
Depending on your relationship with your neighbors, you might get them involved by asking for their input and advice. Perhaps they’ll be interested in fresh eggs from your chickens, fresh milk from your cow or goat, or barnyard compost for their garden. You might even interest them in helping with your livestock adventure, thereby developing an ally who can keep an eye on things when you must be away. You might even pique their interest enough that they’ll end up having a backyard barnyard of their own.