When you delve into livestock, backyard homesteading changes. Livestock, farming, methods, and breeds may differ according to the desired products and regional factors. For example, dairy and beef cattle require different management practices than pigs, sheep, or goats.
Livestock refers to domesticated animals raised primarily for meat, eggs, milk, fur, leather, and wool. Common livestock are cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses, donkeys, buffalo, oxen, poultry, rabbits, and camelids. Each varies in their contributions to the industry, with some being multi-purpose.
As you continue your exploration of this essential aspect of agriculture, you’ll soon discover the complexities of raising livestock, and you’ll get to explore blending traditional and modern techniques to maintain a sustainable and thriving industry.
Types of Livestock
Agriculture’s livestock is crucial in providing diverse products for consumption and even offering labor.
Let’s discuss some of the most common types of livestock found in backyard homesteads and farms. The exact type of animals you’ll be able to keep will depend on the size of your backyard homestead and any zoning laws or HOA covenants you may be required to keep.
Cattle are the most common type of livestock globally, primarily raised for their meat, milk, and leather. They come in numerous breeds, such as dairy and beef cattle.
Some common cattle breeds:
Cattle farmers keep breeds like Holsteins for milk production and Angus for beef.
If you want to keep cows, you’ll need plenty of grazing land, fodder, and neighbors who don’t mind the smell of manure. You’ll also want to keep up with the manure by composting or disposing of it appropriately.
To keep more than 1-2 cows, you’ll need at least a couple of acres.
Sheep and Goats
Sheep and goats play an essential role in global livestock production. Bred for meat, milk, and wool, they require less space and resources than cattle.
Some common sheep breeds:
While managing sheep, you may encounter breeds such as Merino, popular for wool production.
Some common goat breeds:
Conversely, goats offer versatile products like goat milk, meat, and cheese, with breeds like Boer and Nubian being popular choices.
To keep sheep or goats, you’ll need sufficient grazing space. If you get goats, you’ll also want to keep them busy with enrichment activities and plenty of grazing space, or they can get destructive.
We’ve never had any issues keeping up with the manure with only a couple of small goats on half an acre. Most of it composted naturally and there was never a smell issue.
We checked with the neighbors, and they didn’t notice the smell. On the other hand, the neighbors didn’t love the bleating, but they did love petting the goats and trying the fresh milk!
Horses can also be considered livestock, primarily work animals and companions, although some breeds are raised for meat globally.
Based on your farming needs or equestrian interests, you may come across several breeds, like Quarter horses, Thoroughbred, and Clydesdales.
Some popular horse breeds:
- Quarter horse
My uncles raised Quarter horses and tamed mustangs, and we’ve had neighbors and friends who’ve raised or kept almost every horse breed.
Please be aware of the space and exercise needs of your horses. Without going into details, we had a lovely neighbor who kept too many horses on half an acre. It was smelly, and the flies were everywhere. It was probably too much work for one person. While we miss the lovely neighbor when they moved, we don’t miss the flies.
You’ll mainly deal with birds like chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese raised for meat and egg production in your poultry endeavors.
Common poultry breeds:
- Plymouth Rock
- Rhode Island Red
Broiler chickens are commonly bred for meat, while layers provide eggs. Various available breeds include Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, and Leghorn.
If you keep chickens the right way, there shouldn’t be any smell (no matter how large your flock is). Ducks can be smellier than chickens, and they’re certainly messier. I’m less familiar with turkeys, though they’re fun to watch!
We’ve got a lot of chicken articles on this site, so be sure to read them all. I’m working on indexing them all, so I’ll add the link here when that’s ready for you.
Swine or pigs are essential livestock, providing meat (pork) and other by-products such as lard.
There are many swine breeds globally, the most common being Yorkshire, Duroc, and Hampshire.
Common swine breeds:
- Large Black
While not knowing what your local zoning laws, municipal codes, or HOA covenants say, I can tell you what mine say. Keeping pigs requires at least an acre per pig because pigs tend to be smellier and annoy neighbors. Please double-check what your local requirements are before raising pigs as livestock.
Camelids consist of camels, llamas, and alpacas, used for meat, milk, and fiber production. While camels are widespread in arid regions, llamas and alpacas are primarily found in South America. They are also used as pack animals.
If size is an issue, opt for the smaller alpacas. They also have the best fiber, which isn’t actually wool.
Rabbits, though considered minor livestock, are bred for meat, fur, and as pets. Breeds such as New Zealand White and Californian rabbits are popular choices for meat production.
Common rabbit breeds for meat production:
- New Zealand White
- Flemish Giant
Or you can get cute bunnies as indoor pets. Keeping rabbits as livestock is really more when you’re keeping 5-10 or more, and when you’re focused on raising them for a specific purpose. We had some friends who raised rabbits as pets, then other rabbits as dog feed.
Livestock Rearing Practices
When raising livestock, you’ve got a lot of options. All methods can work well when done right, whehter you do the methods solo, combined, or your own personal mix.
- Free Range: Free-range animals have lots of grazing and space. Not much feed (or fodder) is required. Manure typically decomposes on its own, as there’s plenty of space.
- Intensive farming: Intensive farming happens when space is limited. Many animals are kept in a smaller area, meaning that fodder (or feed) is required to keep animals fed and healthy.
- The exact mix will depend primarily on how much space you have to free-range your animals.
You can also keep animals separated by species, rotate pastures, or co-pasture animals.
- Separated animals: Keeping each species separate prevents the spread of inter-species diseases, but it requires the most space.
- Rotating pastures: Rotating pastures means each species can be kept separated, but the pastures are rotated to maximize space usage, minimize parasite issues, and prevent disease. This requires a moderate amount of space and a heavy amount of planning.
- Co-pasturing animals: Keeping multiple animals together requires the least space possible, but animals need to be watched more closely for possible health and inter-species issues.
In free-range systems, your livestock can access outdoor space, roam, and graze on natural vegetation. This method allows animals to express their natural behaviors, improving overall health and welfare.
Common free-range animals include beef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry. You might also consider raising animals like bison, elk, or even ostriches and emus as a free-range rancher.
Free-range practices often require larger land areas but can support the conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity. When managed sustainably, free-range systems can help maintain healthy ecosystems, limit soil erosion, and promote carbon sequestration.
Integrating your livestock with the surrounding environment can bring numerous environmental benefits if you keep overgrazing in check.
Intensive farming refers to livestock-rearing practices that maximize production in a confined space. Animals in these systems often receive consistent and controlled nutrition, health care, and breeding.
Although this method can increase productivity and efficiency, it sometimes comes at the expense of animal welfare and the environment.
Common intensive farming systems include:
- Feedlots: Cattle or other livestock are raised in a confined and concentrated space, receiving a high-energy diet to maximize growth.
- Battery cages: Poultry is kept in small cages, limiting their movement to limit resource use and increase productivity.
- Pig pens: Pigs are raised in indoor facilities with separate nursing, growing, and breeding areas.
As a livestock producer, you should be aware of the potential environmental impacts of intensive farming practices.
Identifying and implementing strategies to minimize these impacts (like proper waste management, selective breeding, and efficient feed use) can help reduce your environmental footprint.
In conclusion, free-range and intensive farming livestock-rearing practices have advantages and disadvantages.
As a livestock producer, assessing your resources, needs, and goals is essential when choosing the most suitable rearing practice for your operation.
You can choose and manage your livestock systems responsibly by understanding these practices’ potential impacts on animal welfare, the environment, and conservation.
Keeping animals in separate pastures is a smart practice because it can help prevent the spread of diseases and parasites between different species. Keeping animals in separate pastures can help ensure that each species has access to the appropriate amount and type of forage.
When animals are housed together, they can easily spread illnesses and parasites to each other, which can be costly and difficult to manage. By keeping animals in separate pastures, farmers can better control the spread of diseases and parasites, and reduce the risk of outbreaks.
Different species of animals have different nutritional needs, and overgrazing can quickly deplete a pasture, making it difficult to provide enough food for all animals. By keeping animals in separate pastures, farmers can better manage the amount of forage available to each animal, ensuring that they have access to the appropriate amount and type of food to maintain their health and well-being.
Livestock rotation, also known as rotational grazing, is a sustainable practice that involves frequently rotating livestock to different portions of a pasture to minimize overgrazing. In doing so, you can maintain forage that is healthy, fertile, and nutritious.
Normally, a pasture rotation scheme will involve one larger fenced-in area with multiple interior parcels. This practice can look different across farms and ranches depending on how often livestock are moved and the number of grazing areas.
Livestock rotation can have benefits such as improved soil health, reduced erosion, and increased biodiversity.
You’ll want to rotate pastures in a way that benefits both the animals and the land.
For example, if you’ve got chickens, goats, and cattle, you’ll want to rotate them in this order: cattle, chickens, goats, chickens. That way, the chickens could eat any parasites between the cattle and the goats to minimize any issues, while also allowing the pasture plenty of time to re-grow between the larger animals.
Co-pasturing animals refers to the practice of grazing different types of animals together in the same pasture or grazing area. Co-pastured animals may also cohabitate in a barn or other shelter area.
- Benefits can include improved land health, animal weight gain, and access to various food sources.
- Disadvantages can include cross-species issues, including diseases and parasitic transfer.
When trying to decide which animals to co-pasture, think about all the potential issues. Or just read our guide on it here: Compatible Livestock: Which Animals Go Together?
Feeding and Nutrition
Proper feeding and nutrition are vital for maintaining the health and productivity of your livestock. A balanced diet, combining forage, grains, and supplements, can help ensure your animals perform up to their potential.
This section will discuss the use and importance of hay and crops in livestock nutrition.
Hay is an essential forage source in livestock diets, especially for ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. It is usually made from dried grasses or legumes and can vary in quality depending on the plant species, harvesting time, and storage conditions.
Here are some key points to consider when choosing hay for your livestock:
- Opt for high-quality hay whenever possible, providing more nutrients and better digestibility. Look for bright green color, a fresh smell, and a low level of dust and mold. First-cut hay and Timothy hay are usually solid choices.
- Legume hay, such as alfalfa, is typically higher in protein, energy, and minerals when compared to grass hay. It can be an excellent choice for animals with higher nutritional needs, like lactating cows or growing young stock. However, alfalfa is not a one-size-fits-all option for all animals.
- Monitor your animals’ intake and adjust their rations as needed. Chewed and wasted hay can indicate that your animals may not find it palatable or has a lower nutritional value.
- Store your hay in a dry and well-ventilated area to prevent spoilage and loss of feed value.
Not every type of hay is right for every animal; make sure you pick the right hay for the right animal.
If you don’t raise your own hay (or alfalfa), there may be local farmers who raise it. You can usually get better prices on hay if you buy in bulk from them directly. This works great if you’ve got proper storage for the hay.
If you don’t have room to store hay, you’ll need to buy it in smaller quantities. In this case, you must see if a local farmer will sell you a smaller quantity of hay. If not, buying hay or alfalfa from a feed store will be more expensive, but it will make more sense as you can buy it in smaller quantities as needed year-round.
Crops, including grains and forages, are critical in providing livestock energy, protein, and essential nutrients. They can be fed whole, ground, or processed as a balanced diet.
Here are some of the commonly used crops in livestock feeding:
- Corn: High in energy and carbohydrates, corn is a popular choice in many livestock diets. Be cautious with feeding large quantities, as it can increase the risk of digestive disorders in ruminants. Consider including it in mixed rations to minimize risks.
- Soybeans: An excellent source of protein, soybeans can be used as a supplement in livestock diets. Use heat-processed soybean meal to destroy harmful compounds and improve digestibility.
- Sorghum: This drought-resistant crop is a valuable source of energy and protein. Its low-starch content makes it suitable for ruminants and equines.
- Forage crops: Grazing on pasture or feeding silage, a fermented forage, can provide nutrition and fiber. Choose appropriate forage species according to your livestock’s needs and local climate conditions.
Integrating the right combination of hay and crops into your livestock’s diet can greatly contribute to their overall health and productivity. Monitor your animals’ performance and adjust their feeding regimen to support their changing nutritional requirements.
When changing your animal’s feed, begin with small changes and watch their behavior and health to ensure they adjust well. Keep making small changes until the switch is complete.
Livestock and the Environment
Every being can impact the environment, whether the being is alive (and feeds off the environment) or dead (and feeds the environment).
It’s the great circle of life that Mufasa taught us about in Lion King.
Okay, it’s slightly more complicated than that. But still. Let’s cover the basics.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
It’s important to understand how livestock emits these gases as a major contributor to climate change. The most common gases produced by livestock are methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide.
Livestock is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it accounts for about 14.5% of global emissions.
- Methane is produced mainly through the digestion process of ruminant animals like cows and sheep.
- Nitrous oxide emissions come from manure management and nitrogen-based fertilizers in feed production.
- Carbon dioxide emissions, on the other hand, are associated with deforestation for creating pasturelands and growing feed.
You can help reduce these emissions by:
- Supporting sustainable livestock practices.
- Reducing meat consumption or opting for more climate-friendly animal products.
- Encouraging better manure management and the use of renewable energy in livestock production.
That’s not to say you must make all these changes right now. But if enough of us make small changes, they will add up and show big corporations that we value the environment. They’ll have to make changes to stay in business.
And that’s how we positively impact the environment as a collective.
If we can all make bigger changes together? So much the better.
The demand for land for grazing and feed production has driven deforestation and resulted in land use changes with significant environmental impacts. These impacts include loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and water pollution.
Livestock’s dependency on land exacerbates the competition for resources between food, feed, and biofuel production.
Livestock occupies a large portion of the Earth’s land. To give you a better idea of how much space livestock use, pastoral systems occupy up to 45% of the global land area.
To minimize land use impacts related to livestock, you can take several actions:
- Support policies and practices that promote more sustainable land-use strategies.
- Adopt a diet with a lower environmental footprint, such as reducing meat consumption or choosing products sourced from sustainably managed lands.
- Engage in discussions about land use planning and zoning in your community.
It’s essential to remember that livestock is an important part of the global food system, but striking a balance between livestock production and the environment is necessary for a sustainable future.
One way we try to make a difference is by having at least one “meatless” meal day each week. Our kids have taken to it surprisingly well. Of course, the increased availability of plant-based “meats” helps, too!
By understanding the environmental implications of livestock and taking proactive measures, you can contribute to a healthier planet.
Livestock Market and Economy
When considering keeping livestock, it’s important to at least know the basics about the economics of the livestock industry. That way, you can see what impact you’re making, and can intelligently compare raising your own livestock versus supporting the global industry.
The meat industry plays a significant role in the global economy. As a pillar of the food system, livestock contributes around 40% of the global value of agricultural output. Not only does this industry support the livelihoods of almost 1.3 billion people worldwide, but it also helps ensure their food and nutrition security.
You should note that different animals have varying environmental impacts. For instance, dairy cattle have a higher environmental effect than beef cattle, while sheep create less impact than both cattle types.
Adopting best practices in livestock management can help reduce the ecological footprint and conserve resources.
The dairy industry is equally important in the livestock economy, mainly through milk production. Reliable milk production is essential to maintain a steady and sustainable market of milk and dairy products (like cheese). This sector has an enormous impact on both food security and poverty alleviation.
As a stakeholder in the livestock market, it’s crucial for you to stay informed about the current trends and developments in the livestock and poultry trade. You can access reports and data on global trade, production, and consumption to help you make informed decisions within the meat and dairy industries.
Remember that your actions in the livestock market can positively or negatively affect the environment, the livelihoods of millions of people, and overall food security. By staying informed and adopting sustainable practices, you can contribute to developing a thriving and eco-friendly livestock market.
Livestock and Public Health
Regarding public health, concerns related to livestock include cleanliness (as it impacts human living spaces), disease in general, the use of antibiotics, and zoonotic diseases (diseases transferrable between animals and humans or vice versa).
Cleanliness and Public Health
Some animals are cleaner than others, but all animal waste (including human waste) isn’t the cleanest or safest to handle. If this waste builds up, it can become problematic to everyone’s health as it houses various diseases, pests, fungi, parasites, pathogens, or other problems.
Some manures can be composted to kill those problematic pathogens, and make it safe for using as fertilizer on crops. Other manure, especially if it’s filled with parasites, should be disposed of appropriately to prevent the spread of disease.
When ill, animals can spread that disease to other animals. The sick animals may be culled (humanely killed) depending on the illness to prevent that spread.
Most people will feel this pain in their wallets, as a lower supply of animals will lead to higher costs at the grocery store (or farmer’s market).
However, there’s also the cost of animal life and quality of life to consider. Keeping too many animals in one place may improve their production, but it raises the risks of spreading diseases among animals.
Antibiotics are often given to animals to prevent and treat infections, but they can also be used for growth promotion. Overuse of antibiotics in livestock can lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, ultimately affecting both the health of your animals and your health.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from livestock to humans via:
- Direct contact with animals or their waste.
- Contaminated food products.
- Water and soil contamination.
To minimize these risks, follow proper hygiene practices when handling raw meat, and make sure you cook meat thoroughly.
In addition, supporting more sustainable and responsible farming practices can help reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock production.
Another significant aspect of livestock and public health is zoonotic diseases or illnesses transmitted between animals and humans.
Some examples of zoonotic diseases include:
- Avian influenza
These diseases can spread to humans through contact with infected animals or their products, such as meat, milk, and eggs. To protect yourself from zoonotic diseases, follow these guidelines:
- Practice good hand hygiene: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling animals or animal products.
- Use protective equipment: If you work with livestock, wear gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment when necessary.
- Get vaccinated: Some zoonoses have vaccines available for humans. Consult your healthcare provider to understand whether you need any additional vaccinations.
- Cook food properly: Cook meats and animal products to the recommended internal temperatures to kill potential pathogens.
By being aware of the risks related to antibiotic use in livestock and taking precautions against zoonotic diseases, you can play a vital role in protecting your health as well as the health of your community.
Breeding and Genetics
Humans have been selectively breeding animals for specific traits for generations. Some people continue to selectively breed animals for desirable traits, whether those traits are gneral health, size, shape, productivity, or another feature. With scientific advancements, those improvements can also be done on a genetic level.
Both selective breeding and genetic modification offer various benefits in improving livestock quality and yield. It is essential to weigh the advantages, disadvantages, and implications of each approach to determine the best strategy for your specific situation.
Stay informed, and always make responsible and ethical decisions regarding livestock breeding and genetics.
Selective breeding involves choosing the animals with the best traits, such as high productivity or resistance to disease, and mating them to produce offspring with desirable characteristics. Over time, your livestock’s overall quality will improve as these favorable traits become more prevalent.
To successfully implement selective breeding, you’ll need to:
- Identify the specific traits you want to improve in your livestock
- Select the animals with the best expression of these traits
- Mate the selected animals and monitor their offspring
- Continuously evaluate and improve your breeding program
Some of the benefits of selective breeding include increased efficiency, improved yield, improved meat quality, and better disease resistance. Keep in mind that careful management and genetic diversity are essential to avoid potential issues like inbreeding depression.
Another approach to improving livestock is through genetic modification. With advancements in science, researchers can now precisely modify the genes in animals to introduce specific traits or remove unfavorable ones.
Genetic modification techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene-editing tools, have opened up new possibilities in animal breeding and genetics.
Some potential applications for genetic modification in livestock include:
- Increasing growth rates
- Enhancing disease resistance
- Reducing environmental impact
- Improving reproduction performance
Before you consider using genetic modification in your livestock, it is crucial to be aware of the ethical considerations, regulatory requirements, and potential risks associated with these technologies.
Technology in Livestock Management
One of humanity’s defining features is that of innovation: we’re always looking to make things easier and better. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve used technology to improve livestock management.
Here are a few key things about technology in livestock management to know. Most of these technologies make the most sense in larger-scale operations, so they may not make sense for every backyard homesteader to use.
But that’s why knowing about these options is important – so you can know what’s available to make an informed decision about what may work for you.
Precision agriculture technologies enhance the productivity, welfare, and overall management of your animals.
By using sensors, IoT devices, and data analytics, you can gain insights into your livestock’s health and productivity to make informed decisions.
For example, you can use animal smart tags and QR code readings managed by cloud-based IoT systems to monitor animal healthcare and streamline farm management.
These technologies can help you:
- Track the location and movement of your livestock
- Monitor vital health parameters, such as heart rate or temperature
- Identify anomalies or potential illnesses early on
By leveraging precision agriculture practices, you can improve your farm’s overall efficiency and sustainability, making it easier to manage your livestock and ensure their well-being.
Automation has found its way into the world of livestock management, making tasks more efficient and less labor-intensive for you. One significant application is the use of robots in livestock management.
Some examples of automated systems that can benefit you include:
- Robotic milking systems: These systems can automatically milk cows, reducing labor costs and increasing milking efficiency.
- Feeding systems: You can use automated feeders to ensure your livestock receives the correct feed and nutrition.
- Cleaning systems: Automated barn or coop cleaners can help maintain a hygienic environment for your livestock with minimal manual labor.
In addition to these examples, other technologies use sensors to monitor the health and productivity of your herd. You can also take advantage of LoRaWAN technology to monitor farm assets and conditions, providing valuable data for managerial decisions.
By incorporating these advanced technologies into your livestock management practices, you can streamline operations, enhance animal welfare, and increase the overall efficiency of your farm.
The process of livestock domestication has played a crucial role in the development of human civilization. Throughout world history, livestock has held immense cultural significance for various societies.
Animals have played pivotal roles in folklore and customs from various cultures. In some cases, animals were even considered sacred, and their treatment and usage had religious connotations.
Moreover, livestock has been depicted in paintings, sculptures, murals, and written literature. The impact of domesticated animals and the livestock industry on the human condition is widely recognized and serves as a central theme for numerous artists and authors across genres.
- In art, the pieces often represent the close bond between humans and animals or highlight the beauty of these creatures in their natural habitats.
- In literature, animals frequently represent allegorical or metaphorical symbols, enhancing the story’s message. Livestock characters often convey deeper meanings, reflecting human values, societal issues, or cultural preservation.
One of my favorite literary works involving animals is “Animal Farm,” where George Orwell uses a literal farm (albeit with talking animals) to showcase a myriad of themes, including how politics and power corrupt. That was one of my favorite reads in high school – and it’s all about livestock.
In any case, raising healthy, happy animals should look nothing like “Animal Farm.”
Keeping animals in a backyard homestead, a hobby farm, or a for-profit farm should be a place where the animals are safe, healthy, and have everything they need to live great lives – while also producing quality products.
Make sure you bookmark this site and we’d love to have you follow our homesteading journey on YouTube.
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
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- World Bank Group. (2023). Moving Towards Sustainability: The Livestock Sector and the World Bank. In World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/moving-towards-sustainability-the-livestock-sector-and-the-world-bank