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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

14. Livestock: Ruminants




Another livestock option I can recommend is goats, “the poor man’s cow.” Goats are wonderful animals, sensitive and active and curious. Especially if you have children, the whole family will love the springtime, when the kids are born. Kids are infectiously playful, endlessly entertaining, and affectionate. Goats need either constant access to pasture (or good browse—unlike sheep, they are active consumers of non-grass browse—briars, bark of young saplings, tree leaves, poison ivy) or a daily supply of good hay. You may or may not wish to supplement with a little grain at milking time, but with any ruminant I recommend against feeding much grain—these species evolved digestive systems adapted to converting cellulose and lignin to nutrients, a trick you and I haven’t mastered as yet, and excess grain in the digestive system can have negative effects. Having a fresh supply of milk is a wonderful resource. Drink it fresh, make cultured milks like kefir from it, make cheeses both fresh and aged—and by the way, have you ever eaten goat milk ice cream? If you buy a cream separator, you can make cultured cream and butter, but a separator is a pain to clean, though absolutely must be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Male kids born to the does can be slaughtered at four to eight months of age or so—their meat is at least the equal of prime spring lamb. To paraphrase Robert Frost: “Good fences make good goats.” Don’t ever forget I told you that! There are versions of electric fencing designed for goats, though I have never used them. Do establish goat-proof fencing before bringing in your first goats. If you cut corners with fencing, you will regret it.


I mentioned that goat’s milk will not give you cream without a cream separator. If you prefer lots of good rich cream that’s easier to get, you might prefer a family cow. If your space is limited or the thought of managing such a big animal intimidates you, consider miniature breeds of cattle. Some breeds of mini-cows are naturally small, such as Dexter, while some have been miniaturized through selective breeding, such as miniature Jerseys. If you don’t need the full production of a cow, you can keep the cow and her calf over night in separate stalls, close enough for comfort but with no opportunity for the calf to nurse. In the morning, milk the cow for the family’s milk, then let the calf run with its mother and nurse throughout the day.

Whether you keep goats or cows, you may well find that you have more milk than your family can use. Remember that your milking animal can be the nurturer, the foster mother, of the entire homestead. Skimmed or soured milk is an excellent supplemental feed for chickens, and pigs thrive on it. So let’s see, you got a cow for a plentiful supply of milk, now you’ve bought pigs to fatten on the excess milk—you’re really feeling like a farmer! And seeing the logic of diversity on the traditional small farm.


Sheep are also an excellent livestock for the small holding. They want to graze more, browse less, than goats, so keep this in mind when providing forage. You might enjoy getting into the spinning, knitting, and weaving arts if you raise sheep. If you’re not so inclined, it might make more sense to get a hair sheep breed (bred as more of a meat than a wool animal), who do not have to be shorn yearly. Two or three lambs a year will go a long way toward the family’s meat supply. Sheep can be milked just as goats are, though most breeds have not been bred for the same level of production. There are dairy breeds available, however, if you are looking for a dual-purpose sheep.