Get­ting live­stock, with Tim Tyne

Now to the crux of things. In his se­ries about the most chal­leng­ing as­pects of small­hold­ing, Tim Tyne turns to live­stock. More next month

Country Smallholding - - Inside this Month - milk from your cows goes to feed your pigs. The pigs turn over and fer­tilise a fal­low plot in the gar­den. Sur­plus crops from the gar­den can be fed to both the pigs and the cows. Dung from the cows dur­ing the housed win­ter pe­riod is spread on the land in o

Some of the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges en­coun­tered by the small­holder are as­so­ci­ated with the buy­ing, keep­ing, feed­ing, breed­ing and sell­ing of live­stock. Once you in­tro­duce live­stock to your lit­tle king­dom then you’re com­mit­ted 100%, 24/7, so it’s right that you first give proper con­sid­er­a­tion to whether it’s ap­pro­pri­ate for you to be keep­ing an­i­mals at all. Far too many peo­ple make im­pulse pur­chases of live­stock, par­tic­u­larly young an­i­mals such as piglets or or­phan lambs (be­cause they’re ‘cute’), or take on other peo­ples’ prob­lems in the form of ‘res­cue’ cases, with­out be­ing fully pre­pared for such an un­der­tak­ing. To be fair, the fault here lies as much with the ven­dor as the pur­chaser, but ei­ther way it’s just stack­ing up wel­fare is­sues for the fu­ture. Please – do your home­work first, find out what it is you’re let­ting your­self in for, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.

The Live­stock Ques­tion

Should there be an­i­mals on the hold­ing or not? I be­lieve that there should. How­ever, if you hap­pen to be a ve­gan then per­haps you’ve al­ready made the de­ci­sion that there’s no room in your life for do­mes­tic an­i­mals, for even keep­ing an­i­mals as pets is an un­jus­ti­fi­able form of ex­ploita­tion.

You could, of course, make ar­eas of your hold­ing more at­trac­tive to wild an­i­mals, but when the re­sul­tant deer, rab­bits and rats start to de­vour your pre­cious veg­etable crops you may find your­self wish­ing you hadn’t. A vege­tar­ian might choose to keep a lim­ited num­ber of pro­duc­tive an­i­mals, such as sheep for their wool, hens for their eggs, and per­haps a goat or two for milk and cheese, but even here there’s a dilemma, as there will in­evitably be sur­pluses to dis­pose of in the form of un­wanted male goat kids and hens that have reached the end of their egg lay­ing lives, not to men­tion the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing a clutch of chicks to deal with, half of which will in­evitably be cocks.

In re­al­ity, a pro­duc­tive and sus­tain­able small­hold­ing should con­tain a bal­ance of both crops and live­stock, of wild ar­eas and cul­ti­vated zones, of wood­land and pas­ture, be­ing an ecosys­tem in which plants and an­i­mals sup­port one another and – equally im­por­tantly – sup­port the small­holder him­self. Re­move one el­e­ment and the whole struc­ture is at risk of be­com­ing un­sta­ble.

Although I’ve de­scribed the small­hold­ing as an ecosys­tem, it’s an ar­ti­fi­cial one. There­fore, the hu­man el­e­ment is es­sen­tial to en­sure sta­bil­ity and sus­tain­abil­ity: We re­cy­cle nu­tri­ents from our live­stock through our crops and ul­ti­mately through our­selves; we re­cy­cle sur­plus crops through our live­stock and con­sume the out­put of those an­i­mals; we man­age the pop­u­la­tion den­sity of our live­stock through breed­ing and culling and we are re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing their health and wel­fare. We also in­ter­act with the wildlife of the hold­ing through both habi­tat en­hance­ment and pest con­trol.

If you can grasp the con­cept of your small­hold­ing be­ing an ecosys­tem of which you’re a key part, then this will en­able you to over­come a lot of the chal­lenges as­so­ci­ated with the keep­ing of live­stock, as it un­der­pins many of the de­ci­sions you’ll make regarding the types of an­i­mals you should be keep­ing, how many, and un­der what man­age­ment sys­tems. It’ll also help you to over­come what, for many, is the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge of all – the eth­i­cal dilemma as­so­ci­ated with the con­sump­tion of home-pro­duced meat.

Pause for thought…

Although I’ve made it quite clear that I be­lieve pro­duc­tive live­stock should be an in­te­gral part of any small­hold­ing, it’s now time to ask your­self whether you’re re­ally geared up for han­dling large an­i­mals, or would it per­haps be bet­ter to stick to poul­try and rab­bits for the time be­ing, and rent out any sur­plus graz­ing land to a neigh­bour? Small do­mes­tic live­stock can take you a long way down the road to self-suf­fi­ciency with only a frac­tion of the work­load that’s as­so­ci­ated with the keep­ing of larger an­i­mals, and min­i­mal bu­reau­cracy. Be hon­est with your­self regarding how much time you’ve got avail­able, your phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties and your level of skill in stock­man­ship. It’s not suf­fi­cient that you sim­ply love your an­i­mals – they won’t thrive on love alone; you need to re­ally un­der­stand them, both as in­di­vid­u­als and as part of a group, be able to em­pathise with­out be­ing overly sen­ti­men­tal, and to be aware of their many sub­tle psy­cho­log­i­cal re­quire­ments in ad­di­tion to pos­sess­ing a knowl­edge of their phys­i­cal needs. This level of in­ti­macy isn’t some­thing you can ac­quire overnight, but spend­ing time car­ing for less chal­leng­ing smaller an­i­mals while per­haps help­ing a friend or neigh­bour with his sheep, cat­tle or pigs will give you a good ba­sic ground­ing, and en­able you to take a more con­sid­ered ap­proach to the es­tab­lish­ment of your own live­stock en­ter­prises.

Choices

The prospec­tive live­stock keeper is faced with a be­wil­der­ing choice of breeds of var­i­ous species, not to men­tion a mul­ti­tude

of dif­fer­ent man­age­ment sys­tems un­der which they may be kept. Es­tab­lished small­hold­ers, par­tic­u­larly if they’ve got stock to sell, will do their ut­most to con­vince you that you should follow their ex­am­ple, and breed so­ci­eties will woo you with their pro­pa­ganda. How­ever, many of the claims made by breed so­ci­eties (par­tic­u­larly of the mi­nor­ity breeds), re­lat­ing to char­ac­ter­is­tics such as milk­i­ness, moth­er­ing abil­ity, growth rates, car­cass qual­ity and dis­ease re­sis­tance, are sim­ply hearsay and wish­ful think­ing. Very few have ac­tual data or re­search to back up th­ese claims.

In ac­tual fact, con­sid­er­ing spe­cific breeds is the last thing you should be do­ing in the course of es­tab­lish­ing a fledg­ling live­stock en­ter­prise. The se­quence of thought pro­cesses ought to go like this:

Firstly, de­cide what your aims and ob­jec­tives are. What is to be the prod­uct or out­put (if any) of your live­stock en­ter­prise? It could be that you sim­ply want a few graz­ing an­i­mals to keep the grass in check, or per­haps you want to pro­duce meat or milk for your own con­sump­tion, or for sale. Maybe you’ve got an in­ter­est in pedi­gree live­stock and fancy try­ing your luck in the show ring, or per­haps fi­bre craft is more your line.

Some ten­ta­tive species choices can be con­sid­ered at this stage. So, for ex­am­ple, to pro­duce your own milk is it to be cows, goats or sheep? Do you pre­fer pork or mut­ton? Duck or hen eggs? Some species are ca­pa­ble of giv­ing mul­ti­ple out­puts (e.g., meat, milk and fi­bre from sheep) whereas oth­ers are very spe­cial­ist.

Next, con­sider the re­sources you have avail­able, and firm up your choice of species. So, for ex­am­ple, for meat pro­duc­tion the back­gar­den small­holder may choose rab­bits, the small­holder with plenty of out­build­ings but lit­tle – if any – graz­ing land might choose pigs, and the small­holder with plenty of land but only a lim­ited range of out­build­ings would prob­a­bly opt for sheep. On scrubby ground goats would be the an­swer to do­mes­tic milk pro­duc­tion, whereas on bet­ter land a cow would be more ap­pro­pri­ate. And so on.

Now, hav­ing de­cided what you want to pro­duce, and from what species, you need to con­sider a man­age­ment sys­tem that’ll en­able you to achieve that, given the re­sources that you have avail­able. Think about things like graz­ing ro­ta­tions, in­te­gra­tion be­tween dif­fer­ent en­ter­prises, ac­cess and lo­ca­tion, ef­fi­cient util­i­sa­tion of build­ings, sea­son­al­ity, mar­ket­ing (if ap­pro­pri­ate), and whether or not you’re try­ing to make any profit or sim­ply break even, or if you’re happy for this to be an ex­pen­sive hobby.

Fi­nally, hav­ing de­cided upon a man­age­ment sys­tem that’ll de­liver the de­sired re­sult you can choose a breed (or breeds) to suit that sys­tem. This is in­fin­itely more likely to give a suc­cess­ful out­come than sim­ply choos­ing a breed be­cause you like the look of it!

In­te­gra­tion be­tween en­ter­prises

If you’ve taken on board what I said about the small­hold­ing be­ing a care­fully man­aged ecosys­tem, then you should have no prob­lem with en­sur­ing that your var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties com­ple­ment one another. Ba­si­cally, what I’m re­fer­ring to here is a holis­tic ap­proach, where the man­age­ment of one area of the hold­ing also ben­e­fits oth­ers, re­sult­ing in what I call the ‘cy­cle of self-suf­fi­ciency’. So, for ex­am­ple, sur­plus

A pig in the veg­etable gar­den – a good ex­am­ple of in­te­gra­tion be­tween en­ter­prises.

Would you be able to deal with an un­ex­pected brood?

Should it be cows, goats or sheep for do­mes­tic milk pro­duc­tion?

Even at this small lo­cal event the wide di­ver­sity of breeds is ap­par­ent.

Ducks or hens for eggs?

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