If you are new to keeping livestock you may have overlooked the absolute need for a good farm vet. Most people who own domestic pets like cats and dogs are used to taking their furry friends to the vet from time to time. If you've been lucky, your furry friend hasn't needed any extensive vet care and you've basically just had to come in once a year for updating vaccines and the occasional minor issue. If this is the case, congrats, you haven't had to deal with any significant health issues with your pet and therefore you probably don't have much of a relationship with your vet. When it comes to livestock, this situation is a bit different.
First of all, find a vet to see your dog or cat is quite easy, finding a vet who treats sheep, chickens, and pigs is another story. Depending on your location, finding a farm vet could be a challenge. You could consult the phone book or Google but my suggestion would be to find a local farm that has the same types of critters as you do and ask them who is their vet. Also, don't be afraid to ask this farmer a lot of questions. Things like "how available", "how much experience do they have" and "how is their pricing", are all great topics to cover from an unbiased current customer.
Understanding Each Other
This is a big one for me. We are lucky enough to have a vet that not only sees our dogs but can also treat our livestock. However, we had to come to an understanding of investment dollars and how I feel about my dogs vs my livestock. Basically, I'd do anything for my dogs if it meant improving their quality of life. Right now I have 3 senior dogs, 2 of which are on $100+ worth of medications every month to keep them going. I feed them expensive foods, take them in for regular blood tests, and pay an ungodly amount of money for medications that seem to be keeping father time at bay. My vet originally became familiar with me through treating my dogs so when we moved into farm animals I had to make myself clear, I love these guys, but they aren't pets.
I want nothing more than to have all of my animals healthy but the lengths I'm willing to go to for a chicken aren't far. For our poultry in general, everything is either going to be eaten or is producing eggs that we will eat. Therefore, I don't want to pump anyone full of medication as this will render the chicken useless to me and if a chicken is now useless why am I paying a vet to treat its medical needs.
This is not to say that if you have chickens for meat or eggs there is no need for a vet. We had a bad batch of meat birds last Fall that seemed to grow slowly and a few died right before butchering. We butchered the healthy-looking birds and everything, to the naked eye, looked fine internally with them. We decided not to sell them to customers. I spoke with my vet and he recommended we pursue some testing. So I took one sickly looking bird, culled it, froze it, and sent it to a testing facility. After several weeks they call my vet with the results. My birds had contracted some sort of minor virus that was likely brought on by stress (a little backstory, we had terrible predator issues earlier in the season with this batch of birds and the stress of being under constant attack likely caused them to be more susceptible to sickness, much like people). While I was sad to hear my birds had caught something I was relieved that it was something serious like Marek's or Avian Flu. Those birds are now clear for us to eat and we can go into next spring with fresh meat chickens knowing they should be healthy. The testing and shipping of the dead bird set me back about $50 which is what my vet and I agreed was the maximum that would make sense to spend.
My vet also gave me his opinion that while the virus likely came from the hatchery I got the chicks from, he would advise that I'm okay to try to buy another batch from them as the transmission of some minor viruses with any large group of animals is almost unavoidable. We've had terrific results from this hatchery in the past so getting the green light from my vet to try them again put my mind at ease to continue with them.
How Much Money is Too Much
This is an important conversation to have with your vet. For us, anything that is producing meat or eggs is not something we want to treat but from there, things get fuzzy. I have a small rabbitry of Giant Angora Rabbits. These are the 2nd rarest breed of rabbit in the US and are my prized possession on the farm. I sell the wool and breed my rabbits a few times a year which makes them the most profitable animals we own. I've had two rabbits die since I began the rabbitry and both times I spent WAY too much money at the vet trying to save them. Both rabbits that died were young female rabbits that I planned to be my star breeders. These rabbits aren't easy to come by and are also not cheap, so when one gets sick I'm automatically thinking I can justify any amounts of money spent to save her because she's worth so much in the long run.
This is a slippery slope, my friends, as that logic only makes sense if the rabbit lives, mine didn't. One rabbit, who had gotten out of her enclosure and eaten something she shouldn't, was too far gone by the time I got to the vet so I had them euthanize her. That turned out to be more money than I thought and I got an earful when I came home. We cull all farm animals ourselves typically so my boyfriend didn't understand why I felt the need to waste money by having her euthanized at a vet. For me it was more for the peace of mind of knowing for sure there was nothing that could be done to save her.
My 2nd sick rabbit was still savable when I brought her into the vet. They took x-rays and could see that her stomach was full of wool from grooming herself, this is known as "wool block". She was quite alert and active so they advised me that she was a reasonable candidate for surgery. I agreed, signed the paperwork, and left for work. A few hours later I got a call that the surgery went well and she was recovering. However, about an hour after that, I got a call that she suddenly passed away. This is quite common with rabbits as they don't handle stress well. I won't lie, the bill for this procedure was huge! Although arguably, this rabbit was probably worth a couple of thousand dollars throughout her expected lifespan, she was still dead and worth $0 in the end.
My point of telling these two stories is that my vet understood my decision making on all accounts and didn't pressure me one way or another. It's hard to determine, in the heat of a crisis, how much money is reasonable to spend on an animal. Having a level headed vet who will give you an honest opinion means the world to me. I've had vets in the past pressure me to do additional testing, medications, and diet changes for my dogs. I usually did it and looking back sometimes I wish I hadn't. I'm very thankful for the vet-client relationship I'm in now and feel confident that I'll be able to properly care for my animals no matter what.
You will need to decide for yourself what level of vet care you want for your animals. Whatever you decide, be sure to communicate this clearly with your vet and gauge their reaction. Some vets are the "do anything to save the animal" type and this may not line up with your farm goals or budget.
If you're like me and live in a part of the country that has freezing temperatures in winter, you'll need to be prepared for the added challenges that will bring to your homestead. I'm in lovely northeast Ohio, more specifically, in the heart of the Lake Erie Snowbelt. This means that along with the frigid winds that blow across the lake straight towards me, I also have to deal with large amounts of snow being dropped more often than surrounding areas. For example, today is November 14th and my homestead received a little over 10 inches of snow in the past two days, while my parents, who live 20 minutes west of me, received barely an inch. Perhaps you live somewhere that is even more intense than that, perhaps not, regardless, if you experience freezing temperatures regularly during winter you will need to be prepared.
Cleaning Up Before The Snow Flies
I failed this year. Spring through Fall is pretty crazy for us as we raise 100+ meat chickens and 12+ turkeys that we run through the same acre pasture behind our house (I have another blog post detailing how to run so many birds through such a small area if you're interested). My point is, when you are raising so many animals in a "rapid-fire" type fashion, you end up with things like feeders, waters, wheelbarrows, temporary pens, etc all out in odd spots in the grass. I told myself repeatedly that I needed to collect everything up and store it for winter….but I didn't. Typically we may get our first snow in late November but it's usually just a dusting that melts off fast as the ground is still too warm for the snow to "stick". Not this year, over 10 inches of snow dropped in less than 24 hours on November 12th. Now, all of those things I was going to pick up and store are buried in snow, not to be seen again until we get some warm weather to melt it off (P.S. I checked the forecast and all I see is more snow coming). Don't be like me, clean up well before the snow hits!
Depending on what type of farm you have this may not be possible but since we raise some animals for meat, and it applies to us, I thought I should mention it. Winter is a hard time to be an animal. A lot of their energy goes towards keeping themselves warm which means their food consumption vs output will be weak. "Output" could mean many things but in general I'm talking about chicken laying eggs and anything you are raising for meat purposes will not gain much weight in the winter months. Side note, the changes in daylight hours also greatly impact the chickens' abilities to lay eggs but I'm certain the cold isn't helping.
If you can, consider scaling back on your quantity of animals before winter hits. If you are raising anything for meat purposes, and it's struggling to gain weight in the summer, it will only get worse in the winter. Sell that animal off or butcher it to prevent it from suffering in the frigid temps. We specifically planned to be done raising all of our meat chickens in the fall and will be processing our retiring hens in the next week (see how I also didn't do this task early enough). We have 2 heritage turkeys that truly need another 3-4 months of growing to be of peak size but we are going to process them next week. These were our first heritage turkeys and we grossly underestimated the time needed for them to gain weight and highly doubt they will be able to pack on the pounds over the next several cold months.
Have the right gear
This may seem like a no brainer but I struggled with this originally. I'm a bargain shopper and often feel guilty about spending a lot of money on my clothes. My first big "splurge" regarding shopping was seven years ago I bought a full length, -20 degree rated, L.L. Bean Winter Coat. It was beautiful and I wore it for 5 years before it had finally needed to retire to the trash. So the first year we were officially living on the homestead I asked my other half for a new L.L. Bean Winter Coat. I was thrilled Christmas morning to open that gift and a few hours later I suited up and headed out to do barn chores. My boyfriend almost lost his mind, "You can't wear that nice coat out there! You'll get dirt and dust and poop all over it!". He was right, I hadn't even considered that my beautiful, and quite expensive, coat had no place anywhere near my animals. So, the following day, I headed down to the local Walmart and bought a $20 winter coat. I now had a "homestead coat" and "a nice coat", who would've thought? I've now applied this thinking to my boots, hat, and gloves as well. I'd also like to point out that your homestead gear may actually be more expensive than your "nice" gear depending on your needs. If your homestead chores are going to require that you be outside for hours upon hours every day, better buy the extra warm stuff. Also, always fully "suit up" before going out to do chores. I've foolishly headed out with just a coat and boots to "just feed everyone real quick" only to find some sort of issue out there that requires an hour + of my time in a snowstorm. If it's cold out, put everything on, even if you think you'll only be out there a minute. (also this is a good policy in case god forbid you lock yourself out of the house).
Protecting Against Frostbite
The last section was about keeping you warm, now let's talk about keeping your critters toasty. In the winter months, I have two types of animals to take care of, chickens and rabbits. My rabbits are, more specifically, Giant Angora Rabbits so they actually do quite well in the cold months. Angora is 8 times warmer than sheep's wool so my rabbits are quite happy in their barn. However, I do need to keep on schedule with when they need sheared which will happen at least one time over the winter months. When I shear a rabbit I immediately put a little coat on it. I buy the super cheap dog sweaters online or at Walmart and they wear those for about 2 weeks before they have enough coat regrowth to keep themselves warm.
The chickens are a bit more of a challenge. Our coop is not insulated which I go back and forth about whether that is really an issue for us. Our coop does have a window so they get quite a bit of sunlight that of course helps keep the coop warm. In the summer months, I typically use 1 single bag of pine shavings on the coop floor for bedding but in the winter I will usually do 2 bags of pine shavings and some straw. Our coop is slightly elevated off the ground so while it's nice that they are not sitting on the cold ground, there is also an abundance of cold air right below the floor so I lean towards heavy bedding to make sure they stay warm. It's also important to note that chickens themselves can handle quite cold temperatures as their feathers keep them toasty. In my opinion, as long as you keep the floor heavily bedded and make sure there are no drafts, your birds should be pretty comfortable. However, I have had a few issues with combs getting frostbite. Some chicken breeds have bigger combs than others and I've found that the ones with big combs tend to get frostbite. You can try applying a small amount of Vaseline to your hens' combs to try to prevent this from happening. The biggest problem with comb frostbite is that it may cause the comb to bleed which then may result in your other hens pecking at it. If this happens you need to remove the frostbit hen ASAP and set her up by herself in a warmer location until it heals. Overall, I've had a few issues with comb frostbite and they've always healed up nicely. All and all, animals are pretty tough but make sure you research your animal's capabilities to avoid health issues caused by the cold.
Ahh yes, the infamous frozen waterer, the ultimate pain in every homesteader's butt. So, we are all familiar with the concept that water freezes when it's cold but you'd be surprised how fast it freezes. This is a huge problem because as soon as that water freezes your animals can't drink. If you are like most homesteaders and have a "day job" this can be very problematic. There are two ways to combat the frozen water dilemma, 1)change the water so often that it doesn't get a chance to freeze. This is easier said than done but it is possible if you are home at your homestead all day every day, 2) find a way to heat the water. There is essentially a heated water solution for any animal waterer however the common denominator is electricity. In previous years, we've fashioned an outdoor electrical cord from our barn to our chicken coop for a heat lamp that was pointed at the waterer. This generally worked but due to an issue we had last year with a fallen heat lamp nearly catching the coop on fire, we've steered away from that idea. There are a lot of seemly safe water heater options for chicken waterers but since I'm now working from home the majority of the time I'm going to try to just check and change the waterers multiple times per day. I'm also pursuing this method with my rabbits. The rabbit waterers are quite challenging because often the water in the actual rabbit water bottles will be liquid, but the nozzle, where the rabbit actually drinks, will freeze very quickly. My plan this winter is to buy a second set of all water bottles and just have them rotating in and out of the house.
So, you think you want to give homesteading or some variation of it a go? Your next step is to find the right location for your goals.
Where your homestead is will make or break your dreams so you need to be sure to choose wisely. A good indication of where would be a good location for your homestead is examining where you are now and what you do and do not like about it. I came from the suburbs and hated having to deal with neighbors so close. I wanted solitude and you just can't get that when you walk out to your ¼ of an acre backyard to relax and see your 80-year-old neighbor 30 feet away from you sunbathing with his shirt off. Because of this, I knew I wanted space and privacy. However, I was also less than a 5-minute drive from literally everything I could want or need including grocery stores, countless restaurants, a movie theater, you name it I could basically walk to it. I recognized the convenience of being close to a town so grocery trips weren't a weekend excursion. Think about what you like and what you hate about your current living situation and what things you're truly indifferent too.
As with most things, size does matter. There are plenty of blogs and books out there detailing how to homestead on crazy small pieces of land and perhaps this is the route you want to take but let me caution you a bit. When it comes to homesteading everything is an investment. If you do a ton of research and build the ultimate dream chicken coop, you might not be able to pack it up and take it with you when you outgrow your land. The same goes for your garden and especially for any fruit trees or berry bushes you plant. A homestead should be a forever project and choosing a tiny piece of land because it is cheap or you feel it's less intimidating may very well come back to haunt you. Some of you may be leaning in the other direction, "how big can I go"? I was a victim of this as well. When I set out 5+ years ago to find my little slice of heaven I told my realtor I wanted no less than 5 acres, the house could be a dump as long as it was livable, and I didn't really care how far "out in the country" I was. Well, you can find some relatively cheap pieces of land 1-2 hours away from where you want to be but is it worth it? To me, it ended up not being a good idea. Luckily, my relator had a good head on his shoulders and talked to me extensively about location and resale value, also to consider the hours I would be wasting daily on my commute that I could use working on my land. I opted for a limitation of staying in a certain county. Agreeing to stay in the county also meant compromising on my 5-acre minimum. There was just no way to buy 5 acres of land with a house that was livable that I could afford. I ultimately opted for 2 acres and looking back it was a great decision. Not that I wouldn't love 5 acres but the other proprieties I looked at were mainly wooded. I understand now that I would have had little use for 4+ acres of woods joined to essentially a big yard. My 2 acres is completely open and has 3 mature fruit trees and a mature blueberry bush. The take away of this point is to consider what exactly you want the land for. If you are really looking for space and privacy maybe having several wooded acres is exactly what you're after.
Cost of Living
Now let's get into the nitty-gritty of homestead selection, how costly is it to live in that particular house. You will find that most affordable homestead contenders come with houses that are less than ideal. This was certainly the case with mine. The house I bought was livable but barely. Since I was only 26 and didn't have much money or a ton of credit, I had to buy something that would pass the standard appraisal/inspections by the bank or I couldn't get a loan. Quickly after closing on my house, I realized that my initial plan of working on my homestead was going to take a back seat to remodeling the house. There was simply no point in putting "band-aid" type fixes all over the house when I truly needed to gut it down to the studs and start over, and that's just what we did. Even if you are okay with living in a dump of a house while you build gardens and coops, it's not a smart move. If god forbid, you fall on hard times and need to sell your homestead, other buyers will be most concerned with your home's condition and all that hard work and money you put into the land will be for nothing. We've now finished our remodel and while I would be heartbroken if we had to leave, we are in a great financial position with the home value and would make a nice profit if we had to sell. This would allow up to restart our lives somewhere else if necessary. Along with the house's quality, you need to consider how much it will cost you to live there. Water is insanely important and depending on where you are located it can be quite the roadblock to homesteading. We were lucky that we have a good well with good quality water. Our water is quite hard but we hope to invest in a water softener at some point to help with that. Don't be afraid to do some research regarding water quality and availability in your area. If neighbors have issues with their well's running dry it's best to not get yourself involved with that heartache. Next up is heating. I'm in northeast Ohio and we typically have below freezing temperatures November through April meaning how we heat our home is important. When I purchased my home I was told it was an "oil" heated home but there was an option to connect to natural gas. I had no idea what a life-saver that would be. As the bank was completing the closing paperwork I spoke to the home sellers and was shocked when they dropped the bomb on me that it costs anywhere from $300-$500 a month to heat the house and that's on the all-year budget plan! My heart sank, how would I ever afford that. Thankfully, I was able to convert the house to natural gas via the gas line that was run to the house and never used, live-saver is an understatement. It now costs anywhere from $70-$150 during the coldest months to heat the house. We also have an option to put in a wood stove which we hope to do in the next year that could help a bit. Out in the country, some homes have access to natural gas but I wouldn't say it's the norm. Most homes are heated by electric baseboards, propane, broilers, or woodstoves (side note, a friend of mine heats her home with propane and her heating bills top $700 in the cold month to heat a 1,200 sq ft ranch). PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do extensive research on how much these options cost. I know people who have had to leave their dream homes because they can't afford to heat them. Last but certainly not least is the septic system. I hate this subject because I know this will be a huge pain for us to deal with at some point. Septic systems are rather simple for the most part. Don't flush anything you're not supposed to and get it pumped out regularly. That part is easy, the hard part is the replacement. A new septic can go for $20k+ and installing it can destroy a lard part of your land depending on where it is placed. Our septic is behind the house meaning large equipment will need to cross my front acre horizontally and then drive around our house to access it. Right now everything is fine but our septic system is nearing 50 years old so it's only a matter of time. If you are considering a home with a septic system do not buy it unless it is inspected. If it fails inspection you need to negotiate the seller covering some or all of the costs to replace it. Trust me, no one else will buy the home without asking the same from the seller.
I saved the most important point for last. I set out to do this on my own but didn't want to. Several years ago, I was in a less than ideal relationship with a man who sold me on the homesteading idea. On our first date he took me out on a hike of his 70-acre property (turns out he didn't own dick and it belonged to someone else but that's a story for another time). Anyway, as the relationship progressed and eventually died, I realized that one way or another I wanted this self-sufficient lifestyle. At 23, I embarked on my journey to pay off student loan debt so I could buy some land. A few months before my 25th birthday I met a great guy and we started a relationship. He had a lot of similar interests to mine, but we took it very slowly, being careful not to make any long term plans together to quickly. I don't know why but it never occurred to me after my past relationship that I'd find anyone else who'd want the same things. Little by little, we incorporated our lives together and I found that he hated the term "homesteading" but that's exactly what he wanted to do. Cut to nearly 6 years later and we are building our homestead together. I'd like to think I could have done this on my own but it would not have been nearly as successful and I probably would have doubted my choices about 1,000 times. Had I embarked on my homesteading journey with my past companion it would have ended in disaster. We wouldn't have accomplished anything close to what I have now and ultimately, I would have had to walk away and leave all of it behind. My point is, don't get too far down the rabbit hole in your homesteader's dream unless you are certain you are game to do it alone or know that your partner wants it as much as you do. Homesteading is tiring, expensive, and just plain hard at times. This can't be a situation in which you both live there but you do all of the chores because it's your hobby. At some point you will be sick or need to leave town for a few days and you need that reliable person who can handle things. Also, half the fun of accomplishing something on a homestead is having that other smiling face looking back at you, enjoying the success as much as you are. Make sure to have a frank conversation with your partner about what you want and make sure to listen carefully to how they respond. If they are unsure there are several homesteader-type conventions you can bring your partner to if you feel they need some more insight into your dream. But be aware, ultimately if they say there's no way they'd want to live that lifestyle you need to hear that