Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Emergency preparedness is a necessary part of any well-functioning homestead. The lives of people and animals are at stake and, of course, many homesteaders livelihoods depend on it. This is especially timely and relevant considering the massive amounts of fires that have been and are burning in the Pacific Northwest. 

Preparedness is a vast subject and one could really get wrapped up in the mire of endless scenarios to prepare for and that, in and of itself, is an important topic. What do you prepare for? How do you prepare for it? The truth of the matter is that you cannot prepare for every conceivable event. To steal from the infamous and cult classic, The Princess Bride, “it is inconceivable!” 

One of the worst case scenarios for any homesteader is if you have to leave your homestead now! Hence, the emphasis on wildland fire. 

This is the exact situation my famiily was presented with a few weeks ago due to sudden forestland wildfire that started less than 1/2 mile from our property. To make matters worse, my wife and I were not at home, we were a full day’s drive from our homestead. Our kids were holding down the fort. They informed us of the situation and we made the quick decision to evacuate them immediately due to the drought, high winds and very dry conditions being experienced. 

Fortunately, our kids were able to act quickly, due to prior preparation, and call 911 to alert them to the fire. The fire department, armed with helicopter and float planes responded quickly and were able to douse the fire before it became out of control. No lives or structures were lost except for some portions of downed powerline which caused the blaze in the first place.

Homestead Wildlands Fire Preparedness: Lessons Learned

Here are some thoughts, reflections and lessons learned from the potential disaster that was averted on our homestead:

1. You can be very preparedness minded and still have a devastating personal disaster occur in your life. No one, regardless of preparation, is immune from calamity.

2. The worst case scenario is if you have to leave your own home right now! Planning for this is difficult especially on a homestead. With over 200 animals on the property this needs to be very well thought out.

3. Periodically go through what-if scenarios with family. These need to be broadly based and not specific. For example, “if you had 15 minutes to leave the house, never to return, what would you grab?” Fortunately, we had very recently (a few days) talked about this very scenario. The only difference being that we were able to return!

4. Human life is the top priority so you have to be mentally prepared to leave your animals. If you do not have to leave immediately, have a priority list to take your most important animals. Even though we would like to take all of them we could not do that in 15 minutes or even two hours. Have a plan to get the priority animals loaded up fast and practice this plan.

5. Have a primary, secondary and tertiary meeting place in case of fire. Have a local place to go for you and your animals now instead of during the fires. Have a regional place to go in case evacuation is widespread.

6. Our homestead lost power just before the fire started (downed powerline) so this complicated things. Internet was gone and water pressure was gone. Yes, we could have fired up the generator and brought those back but this impacted the critical minutes of fire recognition to leaving the property. Have plenty of fresh water/rain water storage. This is great for drinking, cooking and cleaning but not at all good for fire suppression. Think through your fire suppression plan if that is part of your preparation efforts.

7. Have lost of defensible space and firebreaks on your property but this is no guarantee. Think of defense of your property in layers but be ready to retire from the battlefield.

8. We were able to call and warn several neighbors from our vantage point. It is great to have all these numbers stored in your phone but have hardcopy also. Vehicles are a great place to maintain copies.

9. Have bug-out bags ready to go at all times including an important papers folder with essentials like birth certificates, marriage licenses, wills etc... 

There is much to add to this list but all of the above are important in homestead wildland fire planning.

Sean Mitzel is a permaculture designer and host of 'The Courageous Life' podcast. For more information about Sean and his family, please visit their website.

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Above: Checking the hives with an intern — the bees were in a good mood that day. Photo by Ann Berlage

Honeybees, on the whole, really are a peaceful lot. The queen is busy all day laying eggs (up to 2,000 eggs per day in summertime), with her own personal court grooming and feeding her. The drones (male bees) don’t even have a stinger and loaf about the hive waiting to be fed. Around 5:00 in the afternoon, the drones leave the hive to fly, hoping that there might be a young queen bee passing by on her mating flight.

The worker bees (young females who did not develop fully to queen-ness) do everything else. Nurse bees take care of the eggs and larvae growing in the cells, others fan the entrance to keep the hive cool. Some of the bees build wax, take nectar from the field bees, and pack pollen into cells that the nurse bees will mix with nectar as food for the baby bees. Field bees race back and forth from flowers to the hive, bringing nectar to make honey, pollen for food, and tree resin for propolis, which they use to glue any cracks in the hive.

I’ll be picking zucchinis while honeybees buzz busily beside me. I’m doing my work, and they’re doing theirs, so it’s really not an issue. If I were to grab one and threaten to squish it, then we’d have a problem. But the bees are working on the flower end, and I’m harvesting the fruit (zucchini) that their fuzzy little bodies helped to pollinate. A third of all the food we eat requires insect pollination — the bulk of which is carried by honeybees. That makes these insects an important part of any sustainable farming operation.

But as far as livestock goes, honeybees are not domestic. They can survive in the wild quite well in warmer regions (overwintering in the Northwoods without human help, though, would be almost impossible), collect everything they need from nature, and don’t appreciate being bothered. So why all the fuss about keeping bees?

Honeybees, Honey and Honeycomb

Besides fostering a strong pollination task force, honeybees are of course known for their namesake — honey! While bumble bees also make honey, only the queen bee overwinters. Therefore, the small colonies of bumble bees are not pressured to make very much honey.

Honeybees, on the other hand, which are categorized as social insects like ants, overwinter the entire colony (except for the drones, which are killed off en masse in the fall). This means that the honeybee community is under pressure to make LOTS of honey because this is their vital food source in the winter.  It’s like canning and freezing for the whole winter—a honeybee pantry.

But here’s some interesting bee trivia: In order to store this honey, the bees build honeycomb (like stacked up little hexagonal canning jars), which are capped and sealed when the nectar is cured to honey. The honeycomb is made of beeswax, which is secreted from special glands on the underside of a worker bee’s abdomen. Grown in tiny flakes, the bees chew up the wax and build their comb housing.

This all takes a lot of effort for the bees, and wax production also requires considerable calorie input — 8 pounds of honey consumed to make 1 pound of wax. A worker bee will only harvest 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime! That’s a lot of bee work to build a house.

The Benefits of a Beekeeper

This is where the beekeeper comes in: Instead of the honeybees setting up house in a hollow tree and having to build everything from scratch, the beekeeper supplies a house (the hive), furnished with movable frames. In each frame is a plastic foundation imprinted with the base of the honeycomb and coated with a light layer of beeswax to help it “smell like home” (smell is very important to honeybees). With this tricked-out apartment complex, the bees only need to “pull” the wax comb out on each side of the frame.

This means more time making honey and less time making wax, which means colonies can grow stronger faster (more space for the queen to lay eggs), and more honey can be laid away for winter (less consumed for making wax). Honeybees have such a work ethic that they will harvest more nectar for making honey than they need. This is the part I call “charging rent” to the bees. I give them lots of nice space, and at the end of the season, I collect the extra honey they don’t need. Some years are lean, and I won’t get any honey because enough needs to be left behind for the bees, while other years a hive might offer 60 pounds of this delicious, golden treat.

But just like everyone else, the bees don’t appreciate when the rent gets collected. During high summer, they’re so busy collecting, they hardly notice when I come for a checkup, all suited up in white with my metal hive tool to carefully pry apart the hive bodies. I’m checking for any parasites, looking at the laying pattern of the queen, and seeing if I need to add a new box on the top (called a “super”) so there’s more space for honey production.

In the past, I used to use a smoker, which can help to calm the bees, but it also increases their stress load.  For the past several years, then, I’ve gone without this historic device, calmly talking to the bees about why I’m there to reassure them that I’m no marauding bear.

But there’s another worker bee job I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the guard bee. There are lots of creatures in the woods that like honey—bears and wasps to name a couple. Guard bees are willing to die to defend their home and keep the precious queen bee safe. While a wasp or hornet can sting again and again, a honeybee’s stinger is barbed and pulls out of her body when she uses this defense mechanism, spelling her doom. Honeybees do not sting lightly, but the hive’s attitude changes as the year tips towards fall.

I found this out yesterday, when I was coming to pay a call on the hives. One had swarmed earlier in the summer, much to my chagrin, and I was curious as to how the new queen was getting along.  I also wanted to see if the two colonies needed more room for honey. But no sooner had I lifted the lid on the first hive when some of those guard bees swarmed right out and began stinging my arms right through the white cotton bee suit — Ouch! I dropped the lid and abandoned the operation, pursued by a myriad of angry, buzzing bees.

“Get out, and stay out!” they seemed to be yelling. Obviously, they’d forgotten I was a friendly part of the operation. You can’t blame them, though, I wouldn’t appreciate someone peeling off the roof of my house and rummaging through the pantry and refrigerator either!

I didn’t go back that afternoon. I waited until dark, when they would all be hunkered down in the hive for the night before making my return. With two fresh supers, I quickly moved the lid aside. A thousand angry bee butts stuck up in the air, ready for me. Wings whir, making that classic buzzing sound. But to their surprise, I set a fresh new piece of housing for them on top instead, replaced the lid, repeated on the second hive, and was gone. With that many worker bees, there must be a healthy queen inside. Other than that, the bees were going to have to take care of themselves!

Today, though, I can really feel the ramifications of those guard bees who had it in for me.  My arms are swollen and sore, and I can barely get my left hand to type out this story.  Ouch!  But at least the bees are having a busy, buzzy year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


In Selling Your Honey at Fairs and Festivals, Part 1: Planning Ahead, I discussed how to select a fair or festival, and some of the items you will need to acquire ahead of time to help make your day a success. In this blog I will discuss some more items to take care of as you get closer to the day of the festival.


Keeping Track of Sales

First, it is important to have a system in place to help you keep track of what is being sold during the festival. This can help you plan what to bring to future festivals as well as give you feedback on which items are good sellers, and which are not. Some vendors jot down each item sold in a notebook as they sell them. This method has never worked well for me. I find that it is difficult to keep track of everything if it gets very busy, especially if I am working by myself. It can cause customers to have a longer waiting time if they are purchasing many items, or if there is a line. Instead, we create a table with the following headings:

Item      Price     Amount Brought      Amount Returned    Amount Sold

We can then enter the amount of each product before we leave, the amount of each product we bring home, and calculate the amount sold. This could be done in a notebook or on a computer. Speaking of inventory, start working ahead of time to make sure that yours is in good condition. Honey jars should be uniformly filled, labels on straight, and no drips or stickiness on the outside. For any items, make sure that they are clean and in good condition.

Running the Stand

You will also need to decide who will be running your stand. At most of the fairs I can run the stand by myself, but at the busier ones my husband joins me to help out. Even at the smaller events, he usually comes by around lunch time to give me a break so I can have something to eat, check out the other vendors, etc. If for some reason he can't make it, I try to arrange for a friend or family member to stop by to help out.

Taking Care of Details

Another important item is to make sure you have enough change for the day! Bring a variety of denominations, including plenty of ones, tens, and fives. In my experience people often pay with a twenty dollar bill.

There are also a few other odds and ends that are nice to bring along: Drinks, snacks, and a chair can all help make your day more comfortable. Also, plan for the weather. At one memorable festival the day started out warm and sunny, but by early afternoon it had gotten so cold that there were actually snow flurries! Bringing extra layers, rain jackets, hats, etc. can make the difference between being comfortable and being miserable. I have also found that fingerless gloves are amazing. I can still wrap purchases and make change, but they do keep my hands nice and warm.

At outdoor festivals, you may also run into problems with a variety of stinging insects who are attracted to the honey and beeswax at your stand. In our area this is especially true if it is a warm, sunny, fall day. Another beekeeper told us that putting Bounce dryer sheets around the stand helps to deter these insects. We’ve tried it, and while not 100 percent effective, it does seem to help. You could also look at it as an opportunity to explain to the public the difference between honeybees and other stinging insects!

Some honey vendors also give samples of their honey – this is a great way to tempt people to buy your product! A simple way to do this is to have a squeeze bottle of honey and some small crackers. You could use plastic or wooden spoons instead of crackers, but this creates more waste, and the spoons in the garbage will certainly attract more of those stinging insects.

With all of the items to keep track of, it is a good idea is to create a master list of everything you want to bring with you. A day or two before the event, start gathering items and checking off the list. If any items can be packed on the days leading up to the event it will save you time in the morning. I keep a list on my computer that I can quickly print before each event.

In my next blog post, I will be discussing the actual day of the event, and what you can do to make the day go smoothly, and hopefully be both fun and profitable!

Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith Freeman. You can visit them at Bees Of The Woods.

Photo Credit: Keith Freeman

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A World Disconnected

Looking through the activities of my daily life, it is almost unbelievable how many gadgets and gizmos I rely on to function.  From the alarm that sounds at 4:30 AM to get me to market, to the little smart phone that keeps my business in order and connects me almost magically to the network of human beings invested in my wares and offerings.  Many of these items do what they do without my awareness of how they do it; they were made somewhere I’ve never been and the process of their manufacture, for all I know, is done by a room full of wizards. 

This sense of groundlessness associated with key tools in daily life is even more prominent in urban environments.  An accelerated evolution of technology, centralizing of powers, profits, and production, and the inconceivably complex system of capital we use to hold it all together exacerbates society’s addiction to convenience.  With 80 percent of the population living in cities, humans are more vulnerable than ever before and that nagging feeling of discontent has spurred some into action.

Folk and Homesteading Schools

It is the idea behind Folk or Homesteading Schools to reintroduce us to the wisdoms and craftsmanship of our ancestors.  There was a time, not so long ago,  that a community of individuals had to work together to survive, dividing up tasks and trades to cover all bases.  Creative expression was rooted in purpose; beautiful handmade tools, clothes, and comforts were of the highest quality and held within them the intention of the caring hands that manifest them into being.  Modern day Folk Schools have a difficult line to toe between being centers for educating those who will reestablish personal resiliency in our communities and simply being a place for nostalgia, another distraction from the difficult times we face.


The Homestead Atlanta

One Folk School making prosperous strides in restoring empowerment in human communities is doing so in a challenging setting.  The Homestead Atlanta was founded 2 and half years ago by Kimberly Coburn in the enormous International city of Atlanta, Georgia.  Coburn saw in her own life and in the lives of those around her the ways that individuals had been forced to cede control over their own existence.  The immense diversity in cultures, life experiences, and perspectives further divided and separated communities and avenues for sharing were difficult to come by.  Through The Homestead Atlanta’s partnership with Georgia Organics, Coburn has facilitated hundreds of workshops all over the city in an attempt to open that avenue of community and communication and restore a sense of resilience among the people of Atlanta.


The Classes include, but are not limited to, everything from Blacksmithing and Fermentation, to Ecological Landscaping and Leathercraft.  The Homestead Atlanta utilizes donated space throughout the city for its workshops and this facilitates a connecting thread between neighborhoods.  These classes have drawn everyone in from apartment dwellers and suburbanites to rural property owners with hundreds of acres. The classes also feature a work trade option and a sliding scale in hopes of including anyone eager and willing to learn.  One of the biggest goals of The Homestead Atlanta is to generate more teachers and doers.  It is not feasible to believe that one organization could educate or reach every individual.  It is the goal of Coburn to give tools to those who are ready and willing to learn and share their skills, adding to the list of spirited creators that will be available to take care of themselves and others in times of need.

Wrassling the challenges faced by those in the city with traditional wisdoms and modern day sustainability innovation is no easy feat, but is incredibly rewarding and important.  With all of the different lifestyles, expressions, cultures, and heritages; Atlanta houses a powerful store of information, creativity, and potential.  The Homestead Atlanta has a long road ahead and they are on the right track.  With their workshops, modern day resilience meet ups, and community outreach, they are inspiring people to use their hands and minds, hearts and communities, to bring power back into their lives. In the modern world, it cannot simply be about preserving the history of a handmade lifestyle.  It must also demonstrate the relevance of making and creating, of caring for one another through work and mastery, and it must be made accessible to anyone who is ready and willing to take action.

Do you live in Atlanta and feel like you’ve got the ambition enough to change this world one skill at a time?  Sign up for a class today and or join the conversation.  We’ve all got something to share and resiliency multiplies with each new empowered voice.

Photo Credits: Homestead Atlanta Photo By @smlennox; Indigo Dyes Photo By @ladyflashback; Blacksmithing Photo By @christophertmartin

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Goats need to be held still in various contexts, including slaughtering, hoof-trimming, and milking. Ideally, the method of restraint should be comfortable/humane, strong, portable, easy to use, and affordable. We’ve developed a homemade goat restraint that fits these categories and has worked for many years

DIY Goat Restraint Harness

The restraint consists of a wooden frame, with a rotatable curved head-lock. We simply lash the restraint to two T-posts with a few turns of baling twine, at a height appropriate for the intended animal’s size, and it’s ready to use. Food (like hay or grain) placed in front of the restraint entices the goat in the first place, and provides entertainment and preoccupation during whatever comes next. The goat puts its head through the frame, then the head-lock turns on a bolt and latches into place across the goat’s neck, holding the animal securely in place.

The drawing gives a few basic dimensions, but most of these do not need to be absolute; the design can be adapted to fit the wood and goats on-hand. We initially designed this restraint for use in fall slaughter of first-year kids, though we quickly found other uses as well.

The neck hole as shown is slightly small for full-size adult goats (though still workable), while it’s too large for young kids, who can slip their heads back through. The latter problem is easily prevented by slipping a thin slab of wood across the bottom of the neck hole, thus raising its base enough to narrow the opening.



If you do your own slaughter, as we do, a proper restraint is key to a quick and humane death. Holding the goat steady, with its head slightly down, gives us the perfect angle for a .22 bullet to the back of the skull, a location which drops a goat instantly. A bit of attractive food keeps the goat happily occupied until the shot. Then the arm is opened and the animal is quickly dragged away for further processing.

The restraint can also be easily repositioned after each kill if you’re concerned about the smell of blood, though we’ve done multiple animals in a row without any demonstrated concern. As in other cases above, this setup allows slaughter to happen anywhere you like; we prefer working in the open near a good tree for hanging the carcass.

Animal Health           

Restraining an animal may be necessary for various health reasons, such as regular hoof trimming. On rare occasions when we’ve needed to give injections, a practice we’re not accustomed to, having the animal restrained helped greatly. Other times we’ve wanted to dust the goats with diatomaceous earth for lice control, or otherwise work with or examine their bodies.

This flexible, portable restraint is especially useful for such work, as it can be quickly set up in pasture or anywhere else, allowing you to work with the herd without moving individual goats to a permanent location.



A basic restraint allows for milking a small herd on pasture, without lugging around a heavy milking stand, if you incorporate milking space into whatever moveable shelter you use. One downside, compared to a full milking stand, is the lack of solid floor and the lower angle of work (having the bucket on the ground rather than set up on a stand). But depending on situation, this setup can also save a lot of work and hassle, particularly for small or mobile herds.

While we used a full-size milking stand for our own herd, having the portable restraint around was quite handy. The photo above shows us using it to milk a neighbor’s family herd, which we were boarding during their vacation, a favor made easier by setting up the portable restraint within the animals’ temporary shelter so that we didn’t have to move the animals around on unfamiliar terrain and paths.

We’ve been very pleased with this portable and sturdy design, which stores easily on a shelf when not in use. The ability to quickly set up and take down a restraint, for whatever situation or needs a goat herd demands, has been an excellent improvement to our goat management.

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Border Collie puppies

With the increasing use of livestock guardian dogs, we are seeing more inappropriate breeds or crossbred dogs being offered for sale as livestock guardian dogs. If you are not familiar with the recognized breeds of LGDs, you can find the names of the breeds here.

Choosing a pup or a dog from one of these breeds or a cross of these breeds, gives you the very best chance of success. LGD breeds were developed through centuries to be perfectly suited to this work and they inherit a set of genetic behaviors and traits. You cannot train another breed to be a LGD. It is important to remember that LGDs are a specific group of breeds, like herding or hunting breed groups — not a job.

Other breeds do not possess the specific combination of inherited behaviors and traits that make a dog a LGD, including: a longer period of bonding; low prey drive; nurturing and protective instincts toward their charges; sufficient size to deal with large predators; a coat adapted to living outside; and the independence, self-thinking, and defensive aggression to respond to predators or threats.

Guidelines for Selecting a LGD Pup or Adult

Do not adopt a pup under the age of 8 weeks and preferably one closer to 12 weeks old. Research has proven that pups learn important lessons from their littermates on how to interact with other dogs and bite inhibition. Most experienced owners and breeders would advise you to only raise one LGD pup at a time. Working pups do not need a playmate. In fact, two pups can be overly focused on each other instead of you or your stock and will often encourage each other to get in trouble as they pass through their troublesome teens. Littermates are especially problematical. Most experts recommend staggering the ages of your LGDs if possible.

Do not select a pup that is small, fine-boned, or has a pointed muzzle. Most LGDs average 20 lbs at 8 weeks of age. At 16 weeks, they should weigh 35-40 pounds. A pup that is significantly smaller probably has some non-LGD in its parentage and will not grow large enough to deal with a predator. Although heartbreaking, do not buy a sickly or undersized puppy because you feel sorry for it. A LGD pup is an investment in protecting your valuable stock and farm. This is not the time for compromise.

If you are obtaining an adult LGD, he should weigh 80 to 120 lb or more, depending on the breed. However, also avoid oversized and massive dogs, which may result from crosses with other breeds. LGDs need to be large enough to deal with predator threats, but also fast and agile with great stamina. Some very large, imported dogs were bred for dog fighting or guard dog work, not as livestock guardians. Overly large dogs are also more prone to hip or joint injuries and a reduced lifespan.

Great Pyrenees  

Do not select an albino dog or a dog lacking dark coloring around the eyes or on the nose. Pink skin on the nose or around the eyes poses a serious risk of sunburn and skin cancers, especially for a full time working LGD. No LGD breeds have pink coloring in those areas.

Several characteristics are likely a result of outside breeding.

Crossbred dogs with herding or hunting breeds generally possess high prey drive – exactly the opposite of a good LGD. Crosses with herding dogs are especially common, since both types of dogs often live together on farms or ranches, but the resultant pups will be too small and too likely to possess strong chasing behaviors. Crosses with other dogs like a Saint Bernard, Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, and others will lack appropriate behaviors as well. Do not take a chance with your valuable stock.

Four month old Kangal Dog pup

Avoid a Pup or Adult LGD with These Characteristics

Blue eyes or red or blue merle coloring. No LGD breeds have blue eyes or merle coloring. Speckling and freckling of color in white areas is also suspect. These traits indicate another breed in the dog’s parentage – mostly likely a herding breed.

Ears that are semi erect, pricked, or set high on the skull like they want to stand up. All LGD breeds have low set, drop ears unless they have been cropped.

Straight, thick tails. LGD tails are typically long and often curved, sabre-like, curled, or have a crook at the end. Some breeds may have cropped tails.

Very short, single or smooth coats. All LGD breeds (except for the extremely rare Laboreiro) are double-coated.

Whether you are considering a purebred LGD or a LGD x LGD cross, take some time to research the expected appearance, coat, and coloring of the breed or breeds.

Breeds and Coloring

Read the standard and look at pictures. Breeds have typical coats, colors, and color patterns. An unusual color, like black or black and tan, can be an good indication of outcrossing in some breeds. The Big White Dogs or BWDs — Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremma, Polish Tatra, Kuvasz, Komondor, and crosses of these breeds — are all white colored dogs that may have some lightly colored patches of cream, tan, red, or gray which typically fade as the dog ages. Badger markings or black edging on ears on a Pyrenees are acceptable. A BWD dog should not be colored black and white or resemble a Border Collie.

Concern about LGD color is not just relevant to dog showing or purebred breeding – it is a very helpful tool in determining a dog’s appropriate ancestry. Unusual colors or patterns should always raise a red flag because they suggest that the pup has another breed in its background. Even in breeds that appear in many colors, some colors are not very likely at all. If you have any doubt, seek a second opinion from a breed authority or LGD expert.

When shopping online, remember the good advice – buyer beware. Be especially cautious if the breeder cannot produce any registration, pedigree, or breeder information for a dog that is labeled as a purebred. You should not be asked to pay a purebred price for a dog without documentation.

Keeping these guidelines in mind will help you avoid the pitfalls or potential problems of LGD shopping, and will greatly increase your chances of success.

Thanks to the LGD experts at the Facebook group Learning About LGDs, who are dedicated to provided correct information for both new and experienced owners of livestock guardian dogs.

Photo credits: Great Pyrenees – David R Tribble (labeled for reuse Wiki commons); Border Collie puppies (labeled for reuse Wiki commons); Kangal Dog pup – Jan Dohner

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



It seems like every twenty years or so the subject of dehorning dairy cattle catches the eye of the non-farming public. This year I have seen several Facebook posts and read several articles that condemn dehorning as animal cruelty - no exceptions.  It is a fairly complicated subject but on the other hand it is also pretty simple.

I am old enough to remember the days when not all commercial farmers dehorned their cows and stories of people and cows being gored were not that uncommon.  Horns on dairy cattle can be very dangerous for the humans caring for them as well as other cows.  In nature, the horns on the wild ancestors of cows were weapons used for both defensive and offensive purposes. In a well-managed dairy farm horns are completely unnecessary.

I don't believe horns strengthen the spirit of cows. My farm is not a wildlife sanctuary.  I want my cows to be domesticated, easily handled and relaxed around me and other people.  The cows that I raise from calves will follow me around the pasture and scratch heads on my back and legs.  I'd be a dead man today if my cows had horns.

But there is a catch. Dehorning calves can be a brutal experience that I agree can be called animal cruelty. But remember our attitudes towards farm animals and pets have changed dramatically in the past quarter century.  It used to be that pain wasn't a factor with farm animals.  You did what you had to do and it didn't matter if it caused the animal pain or not.  If and when anesthesia was used, it was for the safety of the farmer not the comfort of the animal.  My father used to shoot our cats if they got sick.  Today I bring my cats and dogs to the "animal hospital" and paying a $500 bill when I leave is not unusual.  It's a different world.

Up until the 1990s I had my calves dehorned with a big old red hot electric iron that burned the horn bud off the calves' skulls along with a nearly 2 inch circle of flesh that surrounded the horn bud.  Smoke poured off the calves’ head during the procedure and the stench of burning hair and flesh filled the air.  I didn't use anesthesia so we had to forcefully restrain the calf as it writhed in pain.  What bothered me most was that dehorned calves would never fully trust me again.  Not that I blamed them. I tried other methods such as gouging out the horn buds but that was bloody and equally gruesome.

Finally one day when the vet arrived to dehorn a few of my calves I asked him if we could please use a local anesthesia.  He said "sure, but it is going to cost more." I didn't care. The difference was remarkable, even though we still used the big old electric burner.  The calves didn't struggle and the trauma of the procedure was eliminated.  The calves would basically just stand there not feeling a thing; though I am sure their heads were sore after the anesthesia wore off. 

The next big development in dehorning came when I was introduced to a new type of dehorner in the late 1990s. It was a small propane burner that simply removes the horn bud. All the collateral damage to the surrounding flesh is eliminated.  The procedure should be performed before the calf is a month old while the horn buds are still tiny, about the size of a dime or less. After a couple of weeks there is virtually no sign of the procedure. And the calves' attitude toward me never changes. They still trust me.

Dehorning (also known as debudding) a calf is not animal cruelty when it is done properly at the right age. The danger to people and other cows associated with leaving the horns on the cow eliminated. A cow with horns doesn't have to attack a person or another cow to seriously injure themselves. Cows swing their heads when they groom themselves, chase off flies, or scratch themselves, etc.  If you are in the way of a cows’ horns you'll get gored. 

Cows with horns tend to understand they have weapons on their heads and are not afraid to use them offensively against other cows.  As a result you shouldn't mix cows with horns with dehorned cows because the cows with horns will terrorize dehorned ones.  It is an all or nothing proposition.

The reason to dehorn cows far outweighs how cool cows with horns look.  Of course there are exceptions.  There are dairy farmers who grew up with horned cows who feel comfortable and have experience handling them. For example Devon cows are naturally horned and must be horned to be shown.  Dexter cows are also horned but they are rarely dehorned because their horns are relatively short and don't represent as much of a threat to people or other cows.

Hopefully further advancements will be made with the dehorning process.  The ideal solution would be breeding cows to bulls that are naturally dehorned. Or maybe the hornless or polled gene can be introduced so all cows that would otherwise be dehorned will be born polled.  Even though dehorning is not animal cruelty when it is done properly it still costs dairy farmers time and money.  Being able to eliminate the need to dehorn calves would represent a big savings for dairy farmers.

Watch the video from Bob-White Systems below to learn more about calf dehorning.

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