One rainy night in the summer of 2019, I found myself chasing a stubborn pig that had escaped from its pen. After fifteen minutes of sprinting and lunging I was grimy, sweaty, and more than a bit frustrated. So was the pig. When I finally had the miserable hog cornered, I inched forward keeping my eyes on the wary escapee. I knew it was now or never.
Aware that its bout of freedom was going to be cut short, the pig searched desperately for an escape. It decided, of course, to take the most difficult route: right over top of a dozen slimy fence posts that were stacked against the fence. As the pig clambered, clumsily over the posts, I lunged forward seizing him by the back trotter.
At that moment, a searing pain ripped through my knee. I tried to move my leg but discovered I was firmly attached to one of the fence posts. With one hand clinging to the squealing porker, I reached down with the other and discovered to my horror that a twisted, barbed fencing staple was lodged deeply into the muscle just along my kneecap.
Frantically, and with force, I pushed back and managed to extricate myself from the post. With blood oozing from my knee, clutching a 100- pound squirming, squealing pig, I whooped victoriously to let the rest of the world know that I had succeeded.
That night my knee swelled up to thrice the size. A raging infection forced me to the doctor and for two weeks, on a heavy dose of intravenous antibiotics, I fought the infection of my life. For the remainder of the harvest season, I hobbled helplessly around the farm.
Unfortunately, the best lessons are learned through our more unpleasant experiences in life, and I share this experience to caution those of you who are thinking about getting into animal farming. And which future homesteader isn’t romantically obsessed with one day owning a couple cows, a herd of goats, a few pigs, and a flock of clucking hens. Let me offer my best advice before you make the move.
We’ve learned over the years not to get our kids a dog or a cat until we were sure they could comfortably care for a goldfish. The same rule should apply to us big people. If you don’t absolutely adore your pets, do not assume that you’re going to love caring for a cow or a chicken.
Here are some things I’ve learned about caring for animals over the years:
Animals on your property should fulfil a purpose beyond satisfying your desire to create a farm look or farm feel. In fact, I believe they should serve a greater purpose than keeping you supplied with eggs, milk, meat, and fur.
Every creature, when given the opportunity to live out its life in the most natural manner possible, will help improve soil fertility, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, cycle nutrients, and bring greater health to the surrounding ecosystem. I encourage you to research the amazing work of Gabe Brown, Alan Savory and Joel Salatin, amongst others, who have demonstrated this with animals on their farm.
Cows, when pasture-managed well, can significantly improve the fertility of your land. Goats are excellent foragers along ditch lines and take care of noxious weeds. Chickens keep insect populations under control. Each animal, when understood, can help us on our properties.
Proper fencing is imperative. One morning the RCMP arrived on my doorstep to tell me that our cows had just been picked up at the McDonalds drive thru by a local farmer. The farmer later joked that the cows were simply confirming if it were true that they were serving Big Mac’s with meat from their own kind.
But this is no laughing matter. Hitting a cow in the middle of the night can result in a fatality. The farmer told us the cows were in heat. They had jumped the five-foot gate we used to contain them.
Who will care for the animals when you’re on holidays or end up in the hospital?
Animals require frequent visits during the day and great farmers spend countless hours observing their behaviours so that they can learn everything about them. Do you have the time to fully care for your animals during the day and possibly through the night?
Learn everything about the animal before you bring it on the property. Does the animal have a health record? When were its hooves trimmed last? What was it being fed? Is the animal registered? Do you require ear tags for your animal?
How will you treat the animal if it gets sick? What is your stance on using ivermectin or antibiotics or other medicines that organic farmers prefer not to use?
Animals are generally expensive to keep and most hobby farmers lose money. You don’t want your dream to become a nightmare simply because you decided to keep more animals than you could handle. One vet bill can crush a small farm. Consider the costs first.
Where will you source the feed for your animals? Do you want to feed them organically? What about bedding? Is it available locally? Who cleans out the pens?
Start with a few animals that are easy to control and move around. I learned quickly that chickens are easier to contain (and a little safer too) than a highland cow with curving, eighteen-inch horns and an attitude.
It’s far more enjoyable to care for pigs or a cow in the spring and summer when the weather is favorable, and the grass is green. But what about during the long, dreary, wet days of winter or during a violent thunderstorm?
Imagine the worst-case weather scenario before becoming an animal owner.
When the temperature soared to the mid-forties °C last summer during the heat dome, we took our pregnant sows into the barn for shelter and placed a misting system above them for cooling. This time we were prepared. If we weren’t, we would have likely lost the piglets and even the sows.
Before getting into animal husbandry, you must fully understand the huge responsibility animal owners carry. It would be a good exercise for wannabe farmers to make a list of the pros and cons before making the purchase.
Ask neighbours and friends to share their experiences with owning animals. Count the costs, monetarily, physically, and mentally.
Follow experienced farmers on social media. Notice the love and care they devote to their animals. Notice how much time they spend with their feathered or furry friends.
Are you able to direct this much attention to your animals?
One of our farmers often remarks that caring for animals should never raise our heart rate. We should never be forced to run after them. We should be able to move a large bull as easily as if we were directing a Tesla through a parking lot into a parking stall. Our chicken pens shouldn’t stink, and we should be able to sleep next to our pigs on their dry clean bedding.
Caring for animals is serious business.
Throughout the gardening course we’ll be showcasing various aspects of animal care on our farm and farms in our area. I’ll be using cows to demonstrate pasture management and pigs to demonstrate how we deal with crop residue after harvest. We’re also going to feature a small-scale chicken farmer.