6 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Buying Livestock

You’ve decided you want your own fresh eggs or goat cheese, so you find a few chickens or goats, bring ’em home and start enjoying the bounty, right? Wrong!

Buying livestock is a big responsibility, and it’s different from having pets in several ways. Dogs and cats can live with you in your house, and it’s not that hard to find a pet sitter or board them when you want to go on vacation. But that’s only the beginning. Here’s a list of questions you must ask yourself before buying livestock, starting with practical and moving towards emotional and philosophical.

Do you have proper fencing?

I recently received a phone call from a woman who wanted to buy a pet goat for her neighbor. She knew nothing about goats and thought it could just live in their yard like a dog, even though these people had no fencing. (I refused to sell her a goat.) But just any old fence isn’t good enough. It’s important to know that every type of livestock needs a slightly different type of fencing. Goats would jump over a single strand of electric fencing, but I’ve seen that work with pigs and cattle. On the other hand, woven wire works for goats, but pigs can lift it with their snout, push it up and go under it. A bucolic wooden fence works with cows, but goats can squeeze through wooden rails unless they are only a few inches apart. Do your homework and find out exactly what type of fence will work best for the animals you want to buy.

Learn more: All About Electric Fencing »

Do you have proper housing?

We cut goat-sized doors into the side of our barn so the goats could go straight into the pasture.

When we moved to our farm, there was a big horse barn here, so we thought we were set. Right? Not so fast! Although a big horse barn will keep animals protected from the elements, we quickly learned that it was not ideal for goats. If they were out in the pasture during the day and it started to rain, they’d be screaming their heads off. We’d run out there, put them in the barn, then put them out again half an hour later when the rain stopped. Then it would start raining again. Sometimes this scenario would repeat several times a day. It didn’t take us long to realize that goats need three-sided, run-in shelters where they could seek cover when it starts raining during the day. We also realized that those big five-foot wide horse doors were overkill for goats, and it was a pain running the goats through the barn to go outside.

An even bigger mistake was to put our chickens in a stall in the barn. First of all, the aisle of the barn has a concrete floor. Concrete + chicken poop = danger. It’s as slippery as a bar of soap in the shower. More than once I almost hit the ground when I slipped on chicken poop. The second problem was that although chickens will come inside at night, it was too much to expect them to go into a specific stall. It worked for awhile, but eventually the chickens realized they could roost anywhere in the barn.

So, research proper housing, even if the previous owner tells you they used a building for a specific purpose. Just because someone used a specific type of housing does not mean it’s ideal. (Re-read last paragraph for a great example.)

Learn more: Equipment and Housing for Goats »

Are you willing to care for them properly 365 days per year?

How do you feel about working 365 days a year, through heat waves, droughts, blizzards, pouring rain, mud, ice, sprained ankles, backaches, and stomach flus? Now, if you’re just getting a few hens for eggs, this does not represent a huge investment of time. It’s not much more work than a dog or cat. But as you add more livestock to your farm or homestead, the time to care for them increases. Do not make any assumptions about animals reducing your workload — such as getting sheep so you don’t have to cut your lawn. That’s a ridiculous idea because they won’t mow it down evenly like a lawn mower would. And you have to feed them through the winter when the grass stops growing.

Learn more: 4 Steps to Time Management on the Homestead

What are you going to do with your chickens when they’re only laying an egg or two a week?

Lots of people never think about what they’ll do with their hens when the laying gets to be so infrequent that the eggs are getting really expensive. That includes me. Our earliest hens lived to be five years old. One day I did the math and realized they were averaging one egg per week. It was a tough decision, but we ultimately had to admit that we really could not afford to have chickens that laid so little. If you only have three or four chickens, that’s more like having pets with benefits, and it costs less to feed them than a dog. But we had about 50 chickens, and they were eating a lot! The good news is that I discovered that stew hens are the most flavorful meat you’ll ever eat, and there’s a lot you can do with stewed chicken meat.

How do you feel about putting down an animal that’s suffering?

I’m not just talking about taking an animal to the vet and having the vet put it down. The vet office is only open about 40 hours a week, and sometimes vets are busy with another emergency. What would you do if you had an animal that was suffering, and no vet was available? Why do animals usually get sick or injured when the vet office is closed? Because there are 168 hours in a week, which means the vet office is open less than 25% of the time. This is one reason most homesteaders have a gun. Shooting is the quickest and easiest way to put down an animal. There are other options, but you need to think about this before you find yourself in an emergency situation. I’ve heard really sad stories of people who found themselves in this situation without a plan, as they tried to kill an animal by drowning or carbon monoxide poisoning.

How will you deal with the death of an animal?

This is a tough question to answer, but it is something you will have to face a lot. In modern society most people have a couple of pets, so they only have to deal with death once every ten years or so. If you have 50 chickens, 10 turkeys, 5 goats, 10 sheep, and 3 pigs, you’ll have to deal with death 78 times. It is inevitable. Either they die naturally or you put them down or butcher them. Someone gave a negative review to my book, Raising Goats Naturally, because the reader said there were too many stories of dying animals. In a 300-page book, there are three stories about a goat that died. If that makes the whole book too depressing for that person, then owning goats — or any livestock — is definitely not for them.

If you missed Monday’s post about 4 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Homesteading, check it out. Although I have known people who got into livestock that their spouse was not interested in, the other three questions are absolutely applicable to livestock.

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7 thoughts on “6 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Buying Livestock”

  1. Your website is very helpful. I lived (tenant) on a medium size commercial farm in Scotland. The farmer was full time with 1 full time help plus extras for key activities.
    For several years I saw a lot of what goes on, the hours, rhythm of farm live with sheep and cattle.
    I so much wanted a small farmstead. I even took some extension classes a few years ago offered by PENN State and NH.
    Now comes the real life questions. I will probably be offered a full time job in Maine so I can purchase land but will it be enough land for homesteading (garden, barns, animals). I cannot start a farm with out the job, but am trying to figure out what animals can get by during the day. In Scotland sheep can get by, pheasant (free range), etc , but that’s there in the north. Are their any resources in how to scale up over time , say the next about 5-7 years. Are there any calculators for realistic acreage (sheep need x plus x more in grain, goats x for general meandering about, and then x for feed grain and veg?) The salary offered needs to match the amt of acres/barn not to mention the equipment. Summary: Scale up ideas, what does not need 24 hour supervision (except birthing), and estimating acreage would help. No use looking in to details if I cannot afford it, best to try to go back to Scotland. Oh and am I looking /pricing commercial land or is this family, residential with acreage. Do not want not buy land that only allows pets in the USA.

    • Like most people, I thought I needed a lot of land to homestead — like at least 10 acres. But when I was writing Homegrown and Handmade, I visited with people do SO much on so little. One couple had chickens, bees, raised beds, and hoop houses on the roof of their apartment building in Chicago! I also know several people who even have goats in their Chicago backyards. Now you do have to make some adjustments when doing that, but it showed me very quickly that you don’t need acres and acres to homestead. You can do a TON on only two acres. Although we have 32 acres, we only use about 1/3 of it. My book, Homegrown and Handmade, is available in many libraries (or through inter-library loan), if you don’t want to buy it, and it covers all of your options. As you noted, you just need to be sure that you know about the zoning before you purchase anything.

    • Katherine, I honestly know very little about homesteading (I’m still in the “read everything I can find on the subject” stage in the hopes of eventually getting some land), but I do know there are resources available for finding out how much land certain livestock might require (as it’s different in every region/state and also depends on things like water access or how well grass grow), or the opposite, how much livestock of various types your land might be capable of sustaining. Also there are resources for finding out how good your soil is likely to be for gardening, like if the clay soil is common in your area, or really salty soil.

      Where I live in Oklahoma, usually the local extension office or the local ag(riculture) departments of the colleges can help. I know for sure I read in something one of them had released several years ago that, based on rainfall and several other factors, a 20 acre farm in one county could sustain X-number of head of cattle or Y-number of cow/calf pairs, while a 20 acre farm in the next county over could sustain A-number of head of cattle and B-cow/calf pairs.

      So I would suggest seeing if you can find a number for a local extension office or even try contacting an agricultural department at a college in your state (or a neighboring one if you’re state doesn’t offer ag classes at the colleges). Plan B could be to see if the state Wildlife/Game/Fisheries/etc. branch might have information or a place for you to contact.

      Plan C is to find the closest farm store (Tractor Supply, Standard Supply, maybe even Ace Hardware, etc.) and see if either they can help or you can get in touch with the local farming community (many have bulletin boards for the public, and if nothing else might have a 4-H or FFA flyer that might have a contact for someone who could point you in the right direction for more info). The locals who do any farming will probably be able to give you an idea of what a specific amount of land in your area will support at least in terms of one or two animal species.

      And as was already said, check your zoning. Where I live, generally anything outside of town is zoned rural or agriculture, which usually allows for any type of farm animal (as well as larger amounts of dogs and cats than generally allowed in the city/town limits. Occasionally there are even places in town zoned for ag. In my town, there is a small field, probably not quite even a quarter acre, where someone keeps a couple horses. It’s in the middle of town! On the other hand, I’ve seen 5+acres for sale just on the edge of town, that upon further research is actually zoned residential, meaning no livestock at all and subject to all town codes regarding pets and such. So yes, definitely check the zoning of any land before you buy it.

      Hope that helps, and good luck!

  2. I’ve kept my chickens (60) in a stall in the barn and I’ve had no trouble getting them to go back into it at night. I think the difference is the setup. My coop-stall opens up to a covered and fenced run. When we are trying to discourage a migrating predator, it gives them a place to go and be safe while the predator realizes that I am not providing a buffet table and moves on. Most of the other time, the hens get the run of the barn and the horse pens. Chickens like to stay together for safety, so as long as I don’t let anyone roost outside, they all tend to go into their coop-stall to stake out a claim on the best roost spots. My barn aisle is also dirt, so I don’t have the slipping poop issues either. I’ve also found that feeding fermented feed helps the chicken poop to decompose a lot faster and the smell is mostly eliminated (unless they get scared. nothing is stinkier than scared chicken poop!!)

  3. I really enjoy your website and have your book. I have been raising dairy goats since 1980 (LaMancha’s) and do the whole show, milk test, classification. I consider my
    whole operation pretty well every time I read one of your posts. I do have a question on feeding grain though for milk production. I have fed 16% dairy text for the last 7 years (easier) and Purina mineral mix for goats. I am going on holidays for 4 weeks with my goats and can’t haul enough feed so thinking of going to a whole grain as I can get that where I’m going. Would you have a suggestion of a mix that I could start on this year due to my holiday. My goats start to kid March 2nd so thinking that I should start the feed when they kid instead of trying to switch when I go on holidays. Thanks Sandy

    • I don’t have a clear idea of your timeline, but does need hay that is 50-100% alfalfa for the last two months of pregnancy so that they get enough calcium to prevent hypocalcemia. It is also high in protein to prevent toxemia.

      I really discourage people from trying to create their own grain mix because I have never seen anyone who could create a mix that was 16% protein, which is what dairy goats need. If you just mix up grains, you’re going to get somewhere around 7 to 9% protein at best and will likely wind up with low production and unthrifty kids.


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