This is a saying in our house that I inherited from my boyfriend who inherited it from his family. This notion of “nothing eats for free” can be applied to a lot of different ideas, i.e the lifecycle of wildlife and our place in the food chain or in my case, how we manage our farm. Let me tell you a bit why this should be the bottom line motto for your homestead.
Hard lessons taught by expensive rabbits
Unless you’ve recently come into a substantial amount of money, you will need to find ways for your homestead to support itself financially. This is much easier said than done. Most people will look at different aspects of homesteading and try to find ways justify how they plan to make money. The problem is, there are a lot of homesteading activities that won’t make you money at first or ever. So where do you start?
This starts deciding what homesteading activity you’d like to take on and examining it in detail. A great example I have is my Giant Angora Rabbits. Nearly two years ago I was researching a variety of small homestead-type animals, trying to figure out what would be a good addition to our farm. I was really interested in some sort of fiber animal as I am an avid knitter and would love to learn to spin my own yarn. I looked into sheep and some fiber goats but they both seemed to be a bit intimidating at the time. I resolved that angora rabbits might be a good fit. I looked up the costs of such rabbits, their feed consumption needs, housing, and how much fiber they would produce yearly. I decided this would be a profitable animal. I announced my plan to my boyfriend that I would get 1-2 female giant angora rabbits (giants seemly being the most profitable of the angora breeds), and would make enough cash selling their wool to cover their costs and maybe put a little profit in the bank.
That spring I brought home 3 female giant angora rabbits from a local fiber fair. I had intended on purchasing 2 baby rabbits but the breeder had a bit of a mix up and one of the females that was reserved for me turned out to be a male so she instead offered me an adult female at half price, a baby female at full price, and a free-bee young female that she planned to cull due to her small size. So, I came home with my 3 discount rabbits and felt like I was on my way to making some real rabbit profits. I hadn’t planned the housing situation out as much as I should and decided to convert our brooder box into a makeshift group rabbit pen. Luckily for me, the three girls got along for the most part. I should note that most rabbits don’t do well in group living conditions so I was taking a huge unnecessary risk with my set up.
Tragedy struck only a month in and my baby female (yes the one I paid full price for) became very ill. I noticed that the linoleum liner I had placed in the brooder box was significantly chewed. I should also note here this was a rookie rabbit owner mistake. Rabbits chew everything and I had foolishly thought me putting a nice linoleum liner in their box would make their living quarters more sanitary. Here’s where I make things worse. While I had considered everything that was needed to keep these rabbits alive when they’re healthy, I had never thought of how I would react if they needed veterinary attention. All our other homestead animals (excluding pet dogs) don’t receive official veterinary care. We forgo vet care for two reasons. 1.The majority of our animals are low cost animals so paying hundreds in vet bills would not make financial sense. 2. A lot of the animals we raise are for meat purposes so if they have an injury or illness we’d rather cull them then to attempt to nurse them back to health and eat them.
So, I was at a crossroad, do I kill this expensive, rare, young rabbit? Or, do I take it to the vet, hopefully saving her life and hopefully not breaking the bank in the process? I chose to take her to the vet, where I then agreed to x-rays, only to find out that she needed to be euthanized. The bill was several hundred dollars and I went home with a dead rabbit in a box. I got an earful when I got home but I justified my decision with my thoughts on attempting to save my investment.
I continued to raise my two female rabbits, shearing them seasonally and occasionally selling some wool. My rabbits continued to not make money and I could see the disapproval in my other half’s eyes at the aspect of having very valuable, seemly useless, pet rabbits. So, I came up with a plan. First, I would change my strategy on selling my wool. I was shearing my buns 4 times per year, and 4 times per year I would try to unload the 7-10 ounces of fiber I was getting off of them. When I did find a buyer, I was usually met with “that’s all you have available?”. I decided that I would start stockpiling my wool and try to sell it just a once or twice per year but in bulk.
Next, I would get into breeding. After my prize rabbit died, I began perusing the internet in search of a replacement. I quickly found that Giant Angoras were not easy to come by and that if I wanted to make a go of raising them, I would need to consider creating my own. So, I found a breeder in Kentucky and gave her a deposit to purchase a little female from her. I brought this little female home in the fall and started searching again for another breeder that I could acquire a nice male rabbit from. I was super fortunate to find a young male rabbit, of a rare color, that would be available to me the following spring at a show 3 hours from me. I promptly sent the breeder the funds to secure him as mine and just had to sit back and wait until spring.
Tragedy struck again. My new little female became ill over the winter and I again chose to take her to the vet. She seemed to be doing better than the last rabbit I brought in, so I was optimistic. The vet looked her over and took x-rays and explained that she had “wool-block”. This happens when a rabbit ingests too much if her own wool while grooming herself. He told me I could elect to euthanize her or they could take her into surgery and try to get the wool out. She seemed alert and rather energetic, so I agreed to the surgery. I went off to work and prayed I didn’t just throw several hundred dollars at another dead rabbit. About 2 hours later I received a call that my rabbit survived surgery and was doing great, I could pick her up in a few hours. I was over the moon! I told myself “the money spent will be worth it, she will go on to make beautiful baby rabbits that will more than pay for this surgery”. I was feeling great, until the phone rang again. It was the vet, my rabbit had, for seemly no reason at all other than she’s a rabbit, suddenly died. After work I went to the vet, paid my shockingly high bill, and put my dead rabbit in the car to drive home to bury.
I did not buy a replacement rabbit. Instead, when it came time the following spring to pick up my male rabbit, I went and got him and quickly bred him to my unpedigreed young female (you know, the free-bee). I was shocked when she gave birth to 8 babies and even more shocked when I was able to sell all of them within hours of them reaching the appropriate age. I was back in business! The breeder whom I gotten my late female from contact me and want to know if I would take a female from her for free, in exchange for pick of the litter when I bred her to my rare colored male. I couldn’t believe my luck!
I’m now selling wool in bulk, a few times per year, and breeding 1-2 litters of babies yearly. This is bringing in enough money to dig me out of the “vet bill” hole I dug myself. With any luck my rabbits will be profitably by the end of next year.
Why did I tell that story?
Well, because that is how a lot of money-making endeavors go on a homestead. You may think you have a plan to make money but often you are going to need to work hard just to break even. Once you breakeven you can evaluate what you need to do to start making a profit. So here is a breakdown on what to consider before wasting all of your money.
Questions to ask yourself
Here’s the thing guys, we all want to believe that those cute baby goats are totally going to be easy to care for and make you money. The problem is they won’t. Whatever you are looking at adding to your homestead, make sure to consider the following.
Why “Nothing Eats For Free” is so important to our homestead
You may be reading this and think “hey if I want cute useless animals and I can afford it why shouldn’t I?”. That’s a fair question and I was on that same train of thought when I bought my property but, frankly, reality can be a bitch. Shortly after buying my property I got a raise at work, a REALLY nice raise. It was an extra $10k a year that I 100% wasn’t expecting. I began thinking about all of the cute farm animals I could get, can you say “mini cow!”. Looking back I don’t know how I kept myself restrained but I did and I’m really glad. My pay has fluctuated greatly over the years and had I accumulated a collection of cute useless animals I would no doubt have had to rehome some of them by now.
The reason “Nothing Eats For Free” is so important is because when everything has a purpose everything has a reason to stay. As soon as things start getting expensive or just plain too hard, you are going to start looking at all the useless things on your homestead. Now I want to mention that you may never see those pot belly pigs as useless, no matter how tight your checkbook gets, but your partner will. Now you will have a war on your hands with arguments such as “why do we have those useless things” and “did you see how much money we wasted on their feed this month”.
If everything has a purpose, then theoretically everything deserves to stay on your homestead. Also, if everything is at least breaking even, you can usually find a way to turn “breaking even” into “making money”. Things that are on your homestead that are losing you money are essentially holding the whole homestead back. Even if half your animals are profitable, they probably can’t compensate for the money lost on the others. Having a “nothing eats for free” moto ensures your homesteads future and pushes it to improve year after year.