Fences keep your critters in and unwanted animals out, but it takes sturdy construction and yearly upkeep to make sure those livestock barricades stay intact.
If you live or plan to live in the country, your plans probably
include raising livestock for food or fiber. Now
some homesteaders are content with a few egg-laying
chickens and a dairy goat, while others hope to start
a full-fledged livestock operation. But whether your goal
is a few gallons of buttermilk or a whole herd of beefalo,
you'll have to be absolutely dedicated to keeping your
There is, of course, a practical monetary reason for such a
conscientious disease-prevention effort: Animals that are
in less than peak condition simply don't produce their
maximum in meat, wool, eggs, or milk. And unless you're a
lot richer than I am, you plain can't afford to be
constantly funneling feed into such "uneconomical"
In addition, there's an ethical reason for doing your best
to keep your animals perfectly hale and hearty. Every
livestock or pet owner is a guardian of his or her beasts
and fowl, and therefore is morally responsible for giving
the animals the very best of care during their lifetimes.
Fortunately, maintaining healthy livestock is
by no means an impossible or even an overly time-consuming
task. On the contrary, if you take the time to learn and
consistently follow a few basic guidelines for animal
husbandry, your critters will thrive like shoots in
springtime. These "rules of the animal health road" (which
are guaranteed to help keep any cow, cur, goat, or guinea
absolutely fit) are called: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR
Keeping the Right Animals
I. Recognize your market. Before you begin to "stock up" on
farm animals, take a good hard look at who will be eating
or using their meat or produce. A realistic appraisal will
show that—at least in the beginning—the main market for
such products will be your own family. It's often difficult
to try to turn your critters into moneymakers because
the minute you put up a FOR SALE sign, you're competing
with all the food conglomerates and "plastic" food
producers. And although you know that homegrown "vittles"
are tastier and more wholesome than the mass-raised,
chemical-injected variety, quality eats are also more
expensive in most cases than are store-bought foods.
Unfortunately, as we all know, the average food buyer
is shortsightedly more cost- than health-conscious.
So don't raise a critter unless you want its products! If
your family treats goat milk like some foul-tasting
medicine, don't own half a dozen nannies that each give a
gallon of milk a day but devour your grain supplies in the process.
If you can't see yourself ever butchering any cute-looking
rabbits, don't keep a hutch full of the rapidly multiplying
What does all this advice have to do with animal health?
Simply this: Most any critter needs a little love and
affection in order to thrive and produce well. If you don't
really want the foodstuff you're working—and paying—to
raise, you may well become tremendously unhappy with (and
therefore less careful of) your livestock. I've seen folks
who almost hate to wake up in the morning because
they know they'll find that their attention-demanding
homestead animals are still around. So do yourself and the
beasts and birds a favor. Don't raise what you won't use.
II. Know what a normal animal looks and feels like. Once
you've decided what kind of livestock you'd like to raise,
you'll need to be sure you're able to readily recognize
healthy specimens of those breeds. Of course, no one can
spot an able-bodied critter just by looking over a fence at
it. No sir, your hands will have to know how a normal
animal feels just as your eyes will need to recognize how a
healthy one looks.
Let's take an example: Suppose you're shopping for a nanny
goat, and the particular creature you're examining has rump
bones that poke out against her fur, a very wide chest
with a "barrel" belly, and a strikingly large, broad
udder that's equipped with hand-sized teats. If you don't
know goats, this beast may sound a bit like a malformed
monster. But such features exemplify "dairy character."
The knowledgeable "shopper," on the other hand, will look
even further and perhaps notice—for example—that the
critter's coat is awfully rough for the middle of summer (a
sign that it may be undernourished or sick with parasites).
He or she will also be sure to bend down beside the goat
and rub its skin firmly but gently all over: If there
aren't any unusual lumps, ol' Nan probably doesn't have
abscesses. But if the animal fidgets during such a
"checkup," the goat-wise buyer will suspect she's hard to
milk. Of course, an "in the know" farmer would never buy a
goat that he or she hasn't personally milked—and
would likely discover that our "sample" nanny reacts to the
procedure by kicking and jerking unmanageably.
Naturally, you should know all such "clues" by heart, and
be able to reject the described goat on the spot—without
even investigating such further points as her stool, teeth,
or suspicious cough—and look somewhere else for your
homestead milk animal. And goats aren't the only critters
that need a complete "physical." Every type of animal
should be examined just as thoroughly ... and each
species has its own peculiarities. Pigs, for example, have
such an unusual gait that—unless you understand their
normal way of walking—you might not recognize when one is
lame. While rabbits and sheep that look loaded with
muscle may turn out—upon prodding—merely to be heavily
furred or wooled. So don't go livestock shopping until
you've seen (and felt) enough critters to know what's
normal and what's not. (This knowledge will also come in
handy while you're raising the animals; if you
don't recognize a healthy bird or beast, you sure as heck
won't spot a sick one! )
III. Buy the best animals. If you expect top production
from your livestock (and you shouldn't aim for any less),
you must buy the best animals available. Please note that
I'm not saying "the best you can afford" because the
worst livestock decision you can make is to purchase a poor
quality critter. Such a financial "deal" will end up costing you a lot of money in the
long run. If you can't afford
superior animals, don't purchase any beasts at all.
Because you should only "buy the best," the ability to
distinguish between high-quality and "average" critters is
as important a skill as is recognizing normal as opposed to
inferior specimens. And the quickest way to learn "advanced
animal appreciation" is to spend a few days studying the
prize entries at the county fair. Be sure to watch the
livestock judging and listen closely when the
officials give their reasons for selecting one beast over
another. Before long, you'll understand the standards of
excellence for each species and pick the same top ribbon
winners that the experienced judges choose.
Once you do know what to look for in your herd and flock
"starters" and begin shopping around, promise yourself that
you won't buy any animals until you've seen at least a half
dozen of the finest specimens in your area. Then
purchase the very best of the bunch for your homestead.
Don't be like the goat shoppers who pull up to my
place with a pickup truck full of children so eager to get
themselves a nanny (or maybe even two or three if the
young'uns whine enough) that they'll buy an animal
regardless of the critter's quality. Do your looking,
and then do your buying.
IV. Cull the worst animals. If one side of the
livestock-choosing coin is to purchase the best specimens,
the other side—inevitably—is to remove the worst from your
pens and pastures. The chicken that won't lay eggs, the
rabbit that bears four or five bunnies per litter instead
of six to eight, the goat that dries up after four months
of lactation (and doesn't get bred every year)—in fact, any
animals that aren't superior examples of their breed should
be culled. In most cases, the easiest way to get rid of
unwanted critters is simply to add them to your dinner
Culling improves the quality of your present and
future stock, helps weed out inherited tendencies toward
disease, and makes it possible for you to keep your feed
bill at a reasonable level. Some folks consider this
"survival of the fittest" idea harsh, but it's the
ultimate test of whether you are in the livestock or the
pet-raising business. Of course, there's nothing wrong with
keeping animals as companions, but that sort of
operation isn't always compatible with maintaining
productive farm stock.
Knowing Your Animals
V. Be aware of your animals' cycles. Every beast or bird is
controlled by its own natural life patterns. As a
livestock producer,you need to understand these predictable
For instance, you'll have to know when your female critter
will come into heat, how long that breeding period will
last, and when during the heat cycle the animal should be bred.
Some other "facts of life" that a successful stockowner
will learn are these: How long after breeding will the
young'uns be born? (You need to be prepared for those
babies!) And at what age should the little ones be weaned?
When will the maturing critters begin to produce milk,
eggs, wool, or meat? How much "harvest" can be expected? How long will the animal in question continue to
You see, all of these considerations can be related to
natural cycles. You need to be familiar with the life
patterns for every type of animal you raise in order to
know what to expect and when to expect it.
VI. Keep meaningful records. Livestock cycles will tell you
how your animals are supposed to grow and produce. But you
still won't know which critters really are meeting those
expectations (and consequently which uneconomical beasts to
cull) unless you keep accurate records.
For meat-producing stock, you'll have to tally dates and
weights at birth, weaning, and butchering. Breeding records
should include sires, expected and actual birth dates, and
litter size and weights. And, of course, you'll need to
keep tabs on all of your animals' milk, wool, or egg
yields. (Remember that some critters' productivity can only
be assessed by group output—it's often pretty
difficult to tell just which chicken laid what egg!) You
can then compare these totals against your feed bills and
other expenses, and know whether or not your livestock
enterprise is profitable.
Not only should you keep records on your own animals,
you should also only buy critters with accurate production
sheets. When a farmer comes out with that old nanny
seller's saw, "Oh, this goat gives about a gallon of milk a
day," he may in fact mean, "The least she gives is a
gallon a day throughout a 10-to 11-month lactation period."
On the other hand, the animal dealer might just as easily
be saying, "On her best milking day last year ol' Nan gave
nearly three quarts, and she dried up after about
Folks here in Kansas emphasize the importance of records in
their own way: "Without good tab sheets, you got no idea
where you've been to get where you are ... which means
you are lost ... which means moving in any direction will
more than likely get you further lost." Don't get "lost" in
your livestock-raising enterprise. Always keep
accurate, complete, and meaningful records.
Caretaking Your Animals
VII. Build your animal housing well. Once you have the best
possible livestock and record system, your main
responsibility will be providing for your animals' care. Shelter is one of any creature's most basic needs.
Many people tend to think of animal housing as more of a
cold- than a hot-weather necessity, but the reverse is
actually true. Beasts and fowl can maintain their normal
body temperatures even in a snowy winter if they're
kept dry and out of the wind. After all, that's what the
critters' wool, fur, or feathers are for. (You can help
stoke the animals' heat-making digestive furnaces,
too—during those extra crisp cold snaps—by giving them some
On the other hand, hot weather can really sap a critter's
vitality and health. So all of your livestock will need
some place—like a big shade tree or a homemade shelter—get away from searing summer sun.
And whether your "critter cottages" are designed for
protection from heat or cold (or both), the homes must be
adequately ventilated because too much shelter is
worse than too little. The humidity that can build up in a
confined area from a farm animal's breathing, urine,
manure, and body heat will make an otherwise healthy
inhabitant more susceptible to pneumonia than if that same
beast had endured the weather outdoors. On my farm, we
dealt with that problem by making all our solid, leakproof
animal shelters completely open on the south side (away
from the prevailing winds). If your barnyard structures
don't have such exposed ends, be sure to provide the
enclosures with adequate ventilation holes.
Your farmstead fauna will also need a protective fence
around their yard or pasture, both to keep harmful
varmints like our local coyotes out and to keep your own
livestock in. And believe me, constructing a barricade
strong enough to contain those furred and feathered
farmhands can be quite a hassle. Sheep and goats will poke
their heads into a small fence gap often enough to force
open a full-sized exit hole, horses and cows walk
through walls you'd think would stop a bulldozer,
while birds cart fly over, hogs root under, and rabbits
gnaw through just about every imaginable man-made barrier.
All in all, animals seem to act as if folks build fences
solely to provide "escape practice." So always make your
enclosures as sturdy as possible.
VIII. Feed the critters correctly. Although animals need
the same kinds of food that we humans do—protein,
carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water—each
critter must have a specific diet balanced to its own
requirements. And since scientists have figured out the
exact proportions of feed mixture necessary to help each
animal do exactly what it's intended to do (for instance,
young-chick chow contains 20-25% protein, while
laying-hen food has only 16-18%n protein but higher vitamin
and mineral quantities), the easiest solution to your
feeding problems is prepackaged commercial food made
specifically for your livestock's needs.
Most of us, however, want to use up some of the produce and
leftovers we have around and save a little food-bill money
besides by feeding farm animals on farm food. Well, you
darn near have to have a graduate degree in nutrition to
figure out your own homegrown, full-time livestock feed, but you can effectively "stretch" those commercial
products with your own growing.
However, any supplemental feeding must be based upon a
knowledge of your barnyard denizens' eating habits. Of
course, such understanding will include knowing the types
of things the beasts like to ingest (goats enjoy the
occasional fresh tree limb, for example). But you must also
know how your critters eat. You can't—for instance—safely
give the same small bones to dogs (aggressive gulpers) that
you can feed to hogs (fastidious chewers).
With the best intentions, beginning homesteaders often make
one of the worst feeding mistakes of all: They overstuff
their livestock. Fat animals won't breed, often give little
milk, and supply poor-tasting (and feed-wasting) meat. All
in all, such "tubbies" are just about useless. So if you've
got an animal that's overweight, cut back on its grub and
keep the "obeastie" on a diet until it returns to normal
weight or butcher the animal before it gets any
Finally, don't neglect the most important requirement of
all animals: fresh water. Your livestock must have a
continuous supply of the life-giving liquid. So unless the
critters have access to a clean, flowing stream, you should
replenish their water at least twice a day.
IX. Coddle the "youngsters". Raising healthy animal babies
will keep you in the livestock business longer than any
other single thing you can do. So go ahead and SPOIL your
"litter critters." You'll be rewarded for any amount of
extra effort you put into keeping those small fry healthy with more vital and productive adults.
To take care of the offspring, you have to prepare for
their birth well in advance. Circle the anticipated day on
your calendar, gather up everything you'll need (from heat
lamps to iodine), and check your expectant mother several
times each day.
When the "little strangers" do arrive, the care you give
them will of course depend on what type of young'uns they
are. Be sure that you know the babies' specific
needs. All newborns must be dried off (momma may do this
with her tongue) and be provided with a clean, draft-free
bed, but some of them have a few special requirements like 80-90°F temperatures for the first few days. And
by the way, be sure all your mammal babies get that first
drink of colostrum (antibody-laden milk) straight from
Take care of your young critters, and they'll grow up to
take care of you.
X. Help your animals prevent their own disease. If you
follow the first nine animal-care commandments, you'll
already be doing a great deal to keep your livestock
healthy. These last few tips will help birds and beasts
avoid catching their own species-specific "bug and worm"
 Make sure that every part of your animals' environment
is scrupulously clean. I emphasized the importance of
keeping livestock away from their own manure in "How to Deal With Internal Parasites in Livestock, Part II," so I'll simply say here that
if cleanliness is next to godliness, dirtiness is next to
 Don't bring illness onto your homestead. Buy animals
that are not sick and quarantine them for a few weeks
to be certain the newcomers aren't carrying some unnoticed
disease. Also, be sure to wear boots when you visit other
folks' livestock areas and disinfect that footwear
 Remember that parasites and "regional" bugs are your
animal's biggest problems, so set up good worm control and
vaccination programs with your local veterinarian.
If you look over these ten commandments for healthy livestock, you'll realize they don't involve a lot of
grueling extra work. Nope, you can keep all your critters
fit with a minimum of fuss or muss. What preventive animal
health does involve, though, is using your head. You've
heard the old saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure." Well, I'm going to add to that all-too-true
proverb by rewriting it this way: When it comes to keeping
livestock well and productive, an ounce of prevention comes
from using that pound of gray matter between your ears!