Dear Diary: Yesterday there was a little gray mouse in the feed barrel. I put my hand in as a half-hearted effort to capture him. He scurried right up to my hand, rubbed his head under my finger, then ran the length of this his body along the same finger to the tip of his tail. I brought him out in my hand set him on the ground, my fingers lingering as he rubbed against them. It felt like a Disney movie moment, until a chicken saw the show and chased the mouse for her lunch. Such is like nature, always giving, sometimes gifts unknown, and always taking, sometimes gifts unknown too.
The privilege of animals is also the burden. We keep animals captive in environments that aren’t native to them and it is our responsible to care for their needs. Each breed and each sex carries with it general attributes and limitations that can be directed properly to make them efficient for a homestead. To do this you must make it a priority to consider fully the steps and expenses necessary to raise each animal. You must have the ability to comply with these requirements, from birth to death, prior to getting an animal. You will be accountable for each animal’s continual well being, sometimes for many years to come.
Number One Rule: Don't get a critter until you have learned and can administer the proper environmental protection and sustenance for it. Anticipate the worse possible negative event then be prepared to implement preventative measures eliminating failure factors. It will always be a mistake to get an animal prior to this preparation.
All animals and birds must have a shelter. Do you have a suitable pen; cool enough on the hottest day of summer and warm enough on winter’s coldest day? Is there enough room for the animals to walk around a bit during shut in days? It should have a good roof and a dry floor. Moisture and the mould it calls are also toxic to animals. Every pen must have a hole for in air and a hole for out air to maintain air quality through ventilation.
All birds and animals need as much space as possible for foraging. When it is inadequate to sustain them, you must step in to supplement feed. Gradually feed critters more as they grow from infants to maturity. It is your responsibility to make sure they don't suffer by having good food, clean water, room for natural activity and sunshine everyday. You would know it if you didn't eat or drink today, so do animals.
They all must a secure fenced area around the shelter to keep them safe and for exercise. Do you have a sufficient fenced to keep the animals you plan to keep? A cow needs a minimum of an acre, smaller animals and birds need less to be content. It is of note that plants and grass stop growing at fifty percent consumption in pasture and garden. For this reason, it is optimal to have two penned areas for your animals, one to be grazed while the other recovers and grows again.
A good fence not only keeps animals in, it keeps predators out. Proper fortification is your first line of defence. Predators are persistent and when hungry will be diligent to infiltrate your security. Some dig under fences, some climb trees to get over fences, some can get through the smallest holes. Make sure no trees or structures make escape or entry possible. Laying chicken wire and/or gravel around the perimeter of your fence will alleviate animals digging in. Valuable energy can be spent tending injured animal, chasing away predators, rounding up escaped critters and re-reinforcing fences and pens. A person can spend years carefully raising critters only to lose them all to one natural predator in one night.
What are the natural predators in your area and what helps you evade them? You but must be vigilant and clever in this protection. Once after weeks of no eggs, we watched crows sneaking our eggs and badgering our young chickens. We set up a motion detector hooked to a radio, it worked like a charm. Never underestimate the crow or hawk as it watches when you don’t see it and plans its assault. Predators can be the largest obstacle in raising animals as no free range pen can never totally be predator proof.
Beyond fencing and shelter there are many general questions you need to answer to assess you ability to raise food animals in a self-sustaining manner: What will the animal cost you to from purchase to table? Where can you get healthy animals and how can you get them to you? What do they eat and how can you get feed? Do you have a covered storage area for feed? Do you have good water and feeding locations? Are you keeping them over the winter; are you able to secure that much feed and do you have a dry place to store it? How will the males and females interact and how will you deal with needs of the offspring? Are you prepared for grooming jobs such as nail clipping and treating known health threats?
It is not efficient to keep animals through the winter because buying feed is expensive, and growing your own feed takes a lot of land and time in labour. When are they ready to harvest and how does that process happen? Do you have butchering skills and facilities? Do you have a freezer to preserve the meat? It is best to prepare for the end at the beginning.
The farm chores you will be performing, while at first will seem complicated and time consuming, eventually become habitual and will rotate naturally and easily with the seasons. Knowing you will be doing the same chores, day after day, year after year, helps one consider the most time efficient way to do them. Streamline the chore; correlate it with other necessary daily activities. Chores should be set up for your convenience to be performed with the minimal of effort so neither you or the animal suffers. You should not be a slave to your animals, but a steward.
Homestead life is both joyous and tragic. Spend time with your critters to learn from their behaviour. Gradually somehow, like with cats and dogs, you can interpret their unique body language. Animals want that warm intimate feeling we long for with people, knowing this is a crucial element in maintaining animal health. To raise farm animals is to see nature’s alchemy in perfection. Working with nature becomes a very familiar comfortable way to secure food. In all ways this life is fulfilling, challenging and satisfying.