Animal Advice They Tell You

One size doesn’t fit all farms.

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by Joanna Will
Hank Will and Dove

The older I get, the more I realize that most of what I’ve been told or have read about raising animals wasn’t applicable in my situation…–…and, I bet, in many situations. Sometimes, the information is offered in a dogmatic way, perhaps to make it readily reproducible and easier to master than a more open-minded approach. There’s also the one-size-fits-all syndrome, which makes book writing easy but falls short of helping folks adapt to variability and change. And when applying a fixed set of rules to your homesteading approach, frustration, fear, and even failure are likely to follow.

For example, chicken keepers are encouraged to prevent their hens from going broody. Sure, you might not want more mixed-sex chicks running around, but anyone with a free-range setup is liable to lose a few birds a year, and if you have a rooster around the place, why not let a hen hatch a clutch to replace them? Small-scale flock managers aren’t super-concerned with maximizing egg production, right? Anyone who’s bought mail-order chicks, brooded them, and introduced them to the existing flock and other critters know all manner of disasters can, but usually don’t, occur at any stage of the process. But if you allow a broody hen to raise a clutch for you, you won’t need to do any of the hard work. The hen will incubate the eggs and raise the chicks without any brooder, or even a heat lamp. The chicks will learn to forage, and will get acquainted with other animals with minimal strife and…–…in our situation, anyway…–…no fatalities. And the resulting adults are uniquely adapted to life at your place. The only downside I can come up with is that you’ll wind up with extra roosters…–…for your stew pot, if nothing else.

We also learn of the impending doom resulting from allowing your animals to forage freely, be they chickens, sheep, or even cattle and goats. I once read a U.S. Department of Agriculture flyer listing all the plants that would be poisonous to our chickens…–…stuff like alfalfa and clover? It was probably 35 years ago, but by then, I had already noted that our flocks devoured alfalfa and clover to great positive effect, including vitamin-rich eggs with brilliant-orange yolks. Even our sheep haven’t gotten the memo. Everything from horsenettle to jimsonweed to dogbane are available for them to graze in our diverse paddocks. And while the sheep never consume more than a small percentage of their daily intake of “killer” plants, they make the choice to consume them in small quantities whenever they encounter them. Animal nutrition scientists, such as Fred Provenza, wouldn’t be surprised, after studying grazing-animal foraging behavior for decades. The quick explanation is that there’s something in those vilified plants that sheep need, and when that’s not the only plant they have to eat, eating some of it will benefit them, rather than kill them. Who knew?

I could go on and on. The bottom line is that your chickens and other animals are likely better at most, if not all, of the things relating to their lives than we are at trying to micromanage them. So park the panic next time your prized goat gets into the corral and munches a few Datura leaves. When she’s had enough, she’ll let herself out of the corral and find some multiflora rose bushes to chomp! If your own observations and experiences fly in the face of expert wisdom, I’d love to hear about it. Send me an email at, and if we get enough anecdotes and examples, we might compile a list for a future issue.