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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Animal Handling

One of the hardest aspects of farming or homesteading is balancing cost and utility. This is true of numerous aspects - fencing, buildings, cultivation, firewood production, storage. Take fencing as an example. It makes sense to me to put time and resources into building a perimeter fence that is solid enough to let me leave the farm for an afternoon without fearing that the animals will get loose. It’s something I rely on every day of the year, and so I need to trust it.

Lately I have been thinking about animal handling facilities in particular. Because they are only used when sorting a group or when sending animals to the slaughterhouse, it is easy to overlook them. It may be annoying to have a less than ideal setup, but it’s still manageable when it’s only used a few times a year.

I built a crude paddock out of old gates and spare fence posts, but it has not worked as well as hoped, so often, when I am sorting cows, I end up putting them in the barn and letting them out one at a time until only the cows I want remain inside. This works fine so long as I am patient, but it is time consuming and not terribly reliable; if a single wrong animal gets out it’s often back to square one.

Raising pigs has highlighted other issues with the current (lack of a) system. Though they are easier to lure than cows - a couple slices of stale bread are all it takes to command their full attention - they are devilishly good at getting under, between, and over barriers. Once a pig has its snout through a gap it seems like nothing can stop its body from following. To take the first five pigs to the butcher my brother and I built a holding pen and ramp out of pallets and hog panels, leading up to a well bedded box in the back of the truck. Between the two of us we got them in with a minimal amount of drama, but I was still bothered by it.

Within a few years, as the herds continue to grow, I will be forced to make proper handling infrastructure. But I am seriously considering making it a priority sooner, and I’m coming to think it would be worthwhile investment even if I wasn’t going to be dealing with any more animals than I currently have.

Of all the routine interactions between livestock and farmer, handling is the most stressful and potentially dangerous for both parties. The cows or pigs (or sheep or llamas or anything else larger than a chicken) would ideally be held safely and securely in a position that would allow for tagging, grooming, a thorough examination for signs of illness or parasites, and the administration of any medical treatments. At a minimum, any handling situation should allow a group of animals to be split up as desired without too much effort.

I think it’s important to not be afraid of livestock - being afraid usually just works them up - but seeing the same animals every day makes it easy to take their safety for granted. When I am handling them I am reminded how powerful even the small cows are, and a large pig can be every bit as intimidating.

To return to where I started, the difficulty for the homesteader or small farmer is figuring out a way to make a safe, workable facility without paying for a huge amount of concrete and metal. Unfortunately, I don’t yet have an economic, durable solution to this problem. Hopefully in the coming year or so I will arrive at something, and when I do I’ll be sure to post the details.

— Garth

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