Choosing livestock for your homestead

It is that time of year when many of us are curled up with a cup of something warm and a hatchery catalog or we’re on the Internet looking at classified ads for other livestock. Whether you will be bringing home your first livestock this spring or just adding to your herds and flocks, there are some important things to keep in mind.

Last night I arrived home from the Illinois Specialty Grower’s Conference, which over the past couple years, has started to include some livestock sessions as people realize that a diversified system is the backbone of a healthy farm. Jennifer L. Burton, DVM, gave a talk on “Animal Health in Organic Systems,” and I found myself constantly nodding throughout her talk. I realized that I’ve been doing what she was recommending.

First of all, buy from someone who has a similar management style to yours — or similar to what you plan to have. I have long advised people buying dairy goats to buy from someone who milks their goats regularly and keeps track of their milk weights. And in the back of my head, I’ve always thought it was a good idea to buy from someone whose health protocols matched your ideal, but I don’t think I ever voiced it much.

If you want to have an organic farm, you should buy from a breeder with an organic management style. There are a lot of breeders out there who are injecting kids with various supplements and vaccines within minutes after they hit the ground. If they really need to do that to keep their animals alive, then those are not the genetics you want on an organic farm. Those are also not sustainable genetics. If an animal has been vaccinated for a disease, you have no idea if that animal has any type of natural immunity or if it could develop immunity on its own.

Ask the breeder about birthing complications in the dams (mothers) of the animals you plan to buy. Did they require assistance at birth? I once saw a woman on Facebook say that she’d had her arm inside every goat on her farm. My first thought was that either she was way too involved in her goats’ birthing or she needed to cull her whole herd and start over. Every animal could get unlucky and have a baby that was positioned poorly once or twice in her life, but if they seriously need assistance every year, this is unsustainable.

What about problems like retained placentas, mastitis, and lameness? Those all have genetic components, although nutrition can also play a big role, so it is important to ask about the breeder’s feeding program. If it is vastly different from what you are planning, then the animals might not do well on your farm — or they might do better.

Is the breeder frequently using chemical dewormers, or do the animals show resistance to worms? Do they rotate pastures, or do they have the animals on a dry lot? Again, if this is very different from the way the animals would be living on your farm, it’s hard to know if they’ll thrive.

If you are planning to allow mothers to raise their babies, what kind of mothering ability does the animal’s dam have? This is especially important if you have plans for pasture lambing, calving, and farrowing.

And finally — if you want an organic farm, you may have to close your herd or flock at some point. At a minimum, you will have to stop bringing in new animals every year. The animals that live on your farm develop resistance to the germs on your farm, and they pass along that immunity to their babies. When I heard the vet say this, the light bulb went on in my head that it is no surprise that modern commercial weaning-to-finish operations have to rely so heavily on drugs to keep the animals alive. They are constantly bringing in new animals from different farms with different pathogens. They’re all stressed because they’ve just been weaned and moved to a new place, so diseases like shipping fever seem like a logical problem.

I was also talking to a pastured beef producer that I know, and I asked him why my butchering book says that if you butcher calves around nine months, they’ll be tough and stringy. We just butchered two bull calves at that age, and it is the most tender, delicious beef I’ve ever eaten. He immediately said that in modern confinement beef operations, calves that age would be tough because of all the stress they endure — castration, weaning, moving to a feedlot, losing weight, and then starting to gain again. It’s quite different from our calves who were not castrated and stayed with their mothers until they were taken to the processor, which is a twenty-minute drive.

It can sometimes be a challenge to find organic producers from whom to buy your stock, and I certainly wasn’t lucky enough to be able to do that with all of my animals. So, if you do buy animals from a different management system, be aware that your results may vary, and you may need to include “hardiness” in your list of reasons for culling. And no, culling does not have to mean butchering. In many cases, an animal that’s not right for your farm will be just right for someone else, perhaps even just as a brush eater or pasture ornament.

11 thoughts on “Choosing livestock for your homestead”

  1. Great advice, will keep it in mind as we begin to expand…but first I am going to make hubby read this 🙂

    Blessings Kelsie

  2. Thanks! Just read this after my husband returned from the MN Organic Conference, and relayed much of the same information to me. Increases the validity when it comes from multiple sources!

  3. I appreciate your thoughts. Honestly as much as I'd like to be on the page of no interventions (wormers, vaccines and such) I don't feel like we are experienced enough for the leap. We would like to aspire for it, but we've only had goats since March 2011 and that has been a very sharp learning curve as it is. Do you use absolutely no wormers on your goats or just herbal versions? We vaccinated for CD/T this fall and being as through the year our goats got out and gorged themselves on chicken feed we were pretty glad we had done that. Right now I think both our goats may have lungworm (they have a cough anyhow) but I'm having to wait to worm them until my doe delivers her kids….what do you do if you don't worm them? ….I'm asking honestly, not questioning your methods at all, but I don't know any other way at this point.

  4. Melody, I'm really glad you asked your question because it brings up another good reason to buy from someone with a management style similar to what you want — they can serve as a valuable mentor PLUS they have personal knowledge of the animals that you have. My original mentor raised her goats conventionally, so I was pretty much on my own trying to figure out how to do things sustainably — and that was ten years ago when almost no one was talking about this.

    The thing about sustainable management is that it is far more complicated than simply saying to dose an animal at 1 cc per 20 pounds of a certain drug. It really is about management, not drugging, and even mainstream vets have come to realize that they will never be able to control diseases and worms with drugs alone. I used to get emails from people all the time asking questions like yours, so a couple years ago, I started a goat group at, which you are welcome to check out. As with organic gardening, organic livestock production is not about using a natural poison versus a synthetic one — it is truly about management. If you find yourself with problems like worms, then there is a management problem that has to be fixed because at some point, the chemicals will stop working. Just as there are problems with antibiotic resistant bacteria now, there are also dewormer-resistant parasites in goats, which was a direct result of overuse.

    It would take pages to adequately answer your questions about management, but I doubt your goats have lung worm. There are many reasons goats may cough. And who knows whether the CDT helped your goats. Mine have gotten into the chicken grain more than a few times over the years, and the worst thing that's happened is a bit of diarrhea. On the other hand, one of the reasons I quit vaccinating is because I'd heard of so many people losing goats to enterotoxemia even though they were vaccinated, but that's another long conversation. I hope you'll check out the goat group because there are hundreds of conversations on there about all of these topics and more.

  5. Thanks and I will. Our goat is due to kid in March so even if I can start with them it would be a good place to begin. I'm hoping the advice for nigerians translates well to nubians 🙂

  6. I agree that you should ask the breeder about complications in the mothers of the cattle or livestock you buy, like you said. That will help you know if there will be any potential health issues with the animals. They should also be transparent with you by telling you that information.

  7. It was helpful when you said that you should find out about any birthing complications. My cousin was telling me last night about how he is wanting to look into getting some livestock for his farm in a couple of weeks, and he wants to make sure that he chooses the right kind. I’ll make sure to pass this information along to him so that he can know what to look for when finding a livestock breeder for his farm.


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