By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner
This is the sixth in a series about the vital “must-haves” for preparedness-minded people considering an off grid retreat lifestyle. These articles are good for would-be homesteaders considering their first rural property purchase, and serve as a reminder for retreat owners who, due to age-related or medical issues, are preparing to sell their beloved retreats. This post covers raising livestock on your retreat.
Once the hordes detect the gravity of a prolonged grid down situation, store shelves will empty in hours, not days as your government predicted. You know you’re on your own, that you’re going to need protein and that means livestock over the long haul. Nearly all retreat owners have abundant quantities of long-term storage food. However, it may not have occurred to some that their stored food will be exhausted over time. Regrettably, very few investigate animal husbandry as a method to develop a sustainable protein and dairy supply. Raising livestock is a key part of advancing a functional homestead capable of producing enough food to live on beyond a catastrophic aftermath.
Not every situation allows for raising your own meat, eggs, milk and fiber from livestock. Recognize that it’s difficult to prepare for livestock if you only visit your retreat weekly. It is prudent to think ahead and definitely plan for the addition of livestock in the future. If you live at your homestead full-time, get started now so you know how to care for animals, how to feed them without feed store grain, and how much food they can produce.
Raising livestock is an integral part of off grid homestead agriculture that focuses on the breeding and rearing of various farm animals. But before you buy your first animal, you must be aware that raising livestock is a 24/7/365 responsibility that literally anchors you to your property. Learn as much as you can about common livestock illnesses, how to detect sickness and injuries, and how to treat them. Keeping your animals healthy and pens clean is essential if you want to eat their meat and eggs.
Keeping livestock is not a commitment to be made lightly. Animals depend on you - they need food, water and shelter regardless of the weather. Animal needs don’t get put on hold if you are ill or injured. If you can’t make this commitment, keeping livestock is probably not for you. Remember your critters deserve your care and respect even if they are bound for the dinner table.
Before you start making a list of the livestock you want, seriously consider how much time you can devote to their care, how much space you have to keep them, and how much of their feed you can produce yourself. Avoid buying more livestock than can be sustained on the hay and grain you have on hand each winter. Animals not needed for food can be bartered for supplies. There will be a huge demand for eggs, milk and meat after the balloon goes up. You just have to make smart choices when choosing types and breeds, and for housing and feeding them. If you can handle the responsibility of caring for livestock, they will make your life much easier when there’s a disaster.
Space and facilities
Proper management and care of livestock requires some acreage – this is a primary consideration. Two acres is probably a minimum if you plan to raise several species, but large acreage is not required. Goats, chickens and rabbits are much easier to squeeze into a small property than cattle or horses, and draw less attention to your retreat. A single milk cow and a bull can keep your family healthy and fed for a lifetime. The number of animals you plan to raise determines the amount of pasture you will need to provide the required grass and feeding area. With carefully selected livestock, a great deal of security can be achieved.
Building infrastructure, and raising animals takes time, and you may have a few less successful years before you can really eat off grid. Ask yourself some basic questions about livestock rearing: can you build a barn that is secure enough to prevent rustling and ward off predators? Will you have enough pasture (not woodlands) to support your stock? Is there adequate rainfall and water storage to support livestock year round? Can you provide feed for your livestock for the lean months? Research alternative food sources for your livestock and plant what they need to keep them fed and healthy. Would refugees see your livestock and make a meal of your goat? It’s best to keep your livestock, barn and coop out of sight. Do you have what it takes to wring a chicken’s neck or butcher a hog?
Once you’ve determined that keeping livestock fits your retreat lifestyle, you can decide what critters to keep. Consider your budget, acreage, feed requirements and what you hope to produce. If your stock can live off the land, you’ll be better off. Stock up on commercial feed, hay and dehydrated produce from your garden for winter feeding. Check state, county and local regs to determine what types of livestock are permitted for your size parcel. Again, have a gut check. Will you be able to slaughter your animals for meat? This is another very real consideration. Hunting wild game is very different from butchering the lamb that your kids have named and bottle-fed.
The following is a selection of livestock that provides variety and value for most any off grid homesteader with at least a few acres available.
Four species to consider
Poultry – If you could only have one animal, it should be a chicken because they provide meat, eggs and are very cost-effective. Four or five healthy laying hens each produce one egg at least every other day. Eggs from free ranged birds are very wholesome. They produce fairly consistently for the first two or three years. Your best bet for buying pullets (not old enough to lay eggs) is to find a local who is selling birds. They’ll be more expensive than purchasing newborn chicks. That’s because the seller will have raised the birds to near adulthood. There are also abundant online sources for chicks.
If you buy online chicks, expect two to three years of successful rearing, selection, brooding and culling before your flock is established. Until then, you can collect eggs and eat birds you don’t keep. Start with 10-12 chicks, and butcher them at approx. three to four months. Birds can double their numbers in a single year – providing an ongoing source of meat and eggs. But birds won’t provide eggs year round. Egg production typically drops each Fall with the decrease in daylight.
Chickens can start laying at 16 weeks of age, some breeds mature slower. The better birds for free ranging, raising offspring and laying include Ameraucana, Astralorp, Brown Leghorn, Buckeye, Chanticler, Dominique, Marens and Turken. Price varies with the breed, supplier and time of year. Roosters are noisy, but you need one in order for eggs to be fertile. Keep two to ensure long term viability of your flock. The best ratio is one rooster to every ten hens, but a family of four can do well with 25 laying hens and two roosters. Hens will sit on eggs to hatch warm weather. Expect to raise two or three sets of chicks each summer. Throw out a handful of organic feed daily and feed them your table scraps and they’ll quickly pay for themselves with daily fresh eggs. From spring through early fall, chickens won’t need any feed. Free range chickens pretty much feed themselves during the warm months.
Bunnies are quick producers of meat and you can expect 20 or more rabbits per year from a single breeding pair. Allow for 1-2 years for your rabbits to become established. Select for breeding performance, health and size. Rabbits can be kept in a small space and fed grass and weeds.
Rabbits make a great source of protein and with one buck and three or four does, you can raise plenty of lean meat to feed your family for the year. Rabbits that are raised on forage will give you meat and fur with very little work. Clean out their hutches and gather grass and weeds for their feed. You can tan the hides and put their droppings directly on your garden.
Build a ground level run onto your pen for young rabbits you want as breeders so they have natural feed from day one. Build a compost bin beneath the rabbit hutches to cultivate nutrient rich soil for your greenhouse.
There are many reasons that goats make a very good off grid retreat animal. They are much less expensive to purchase, easier to raise, eat a lot less and will happily eat brush and weeds instead of pasture, and they take up a lot less space than a cow by comparison. A good doe will birth two or three kids and produce milk for up to two years. Good dairy cows give about a gallon of milk a day. Goat milk, properly processed, is indistinguishable from fresh cow’s milk. During grazing months, a goat will produce milk just with pasture. In winter, they require hay and a little grain if you aim to keep milking. A cow gives milk for up to a year and normally has one calf. When your goat wears out, it provides a more manageable amount of meat, and it’s easier to dress and dehydrate than a cow.
For the cost of a single milk cow, you can buy 10 good dairy goats to provide milk, cheese and a source of meat. In a drought, goats are satisfied to eat dead weeds without added feed costs as long as they have water and shelter. A five year old cow may cost $1,800 to $3,000. Goats (a kid or an adult) cost from $100-$300 depending on the breed and sex. Goat cheese is easy to make and highly nutritious.
For a family of four, two or three does and one buck is sufficient. Goats are intelligent, gentle, quiet and don’t stink like cattle unless you keep a buck for breeding. Goats have good vision and hearing and they will definitely wake you if a bobcat, coyote or a strange human sneaks up on your retreat. A doe can kid as early as eight months old. Usually bearing twins and triplets, goats’ gestation is about five months. Some of the better goats for off grid homesteaders are dairy breeds (Alpine, Saanen, Toggenburg, Oberhosli, LaMancha, Golden Guernsey); meat producing breeds (Boer, Kiko, Kinder); dual purpose breeds (Nubian), and miniatures (Pygmy, Nigerian Dwarf). Avoid experimental breeds due to very low milk production.
Hogs produce a lot of meat, are smart and easy to manage if you treat them well. They grow fat on table scraps, meat, roots and forage. One sow and one boar will keep your family fed and provide lots of meat for trade. When raised on pasture and allowed to forage pigs have much less lard and more lean meat. They can be a low maintenance source of meat, and do not need a pasture or a big pen. You need to build a very sturdy pen large enough to humanely house the hogs, but don’t let them roam your property and lose their bulk. Pigs are fertile breeders and can be easily managed as a small herd - one bore and two or three sows is good breeding ratio.
One sow can produce 20 or more piglets in a year. That’s a lot of bacon and useful fat (soap-making). Keep a few pigs as breeding stock and you’ll have no shortage of meat. Sows’ gestation is three months, three weeks and three days and can usually raise two litters annually. Many pork producers prefer to butcher at about 160 pounds, which will give you about 80 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of lard. Ideally, you should only winter over your breeding pair to reduce the feeding and housing burden.
One hog can supply a family of four with enough meat to last almost all winter. Butchering a pig is a lot of work, but nearly every single inch of a pig is edible. If a 225 pound hog was roasted, and only conventional meat cuts were consumed, it could provide about 275 entrees.
Of course there are other suitable animals, like horses, donkeys, dogs, dexter cattle, ducks and geese but they are “also rans” compared to the previous four for high value/low maintenance retreat living.
Consider what you and your family will do when your retreat food storage is exhausted. How will you feed your family when hunting becomes impossible? Give serious thought to a sustainable solution. You need to be prepared to raise and perpetuate a variety of livestock, and butcher it as required. These are just a few of the challenges you should consider before buying an off grid retreat. You can learn more about what off grid living requires at this site.