Five Things to Consider

It pays to know about keeping livestock before you decide to take the plunge
February 28, 2011

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More than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from. “As a result, more people want to raise food animals for themselves, which is great—as long as they do their homework first,” says Garth Miller, the livestock production manager at the Cummings School. If you’re thinking about keeping livestock, our experts offer a few pointers:

Know your local laws. Regulations around raising livestock in Massachusetts vary by town. Check with your city or town hall to make sure your property is in the right zoning district and you have enough land to keep animals. Some towns also require you to purchase a permit. Every municipality has a health inspector who conducts an annual census of all livestock in that community; those records are submitted as “barn books” to the state Department of Agricultural Resources. The barn books are used to contact owners if there is a disease outbreak that could threaten livestock.

Think about your neighbors. While keeping livestock may appeal to you, your neighbors may have other ideas. Consideration and common sense are key to avoiding conflicts. “If you want to raise chickens in a populated area, stick to hens since they’re a lot quieter than roosters,” says Samuel Anderson, G09, the livestock and outreach coordinator for the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a program run by the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts. “Fencing is also key,” he says. “I grew up in a very rural area, and when a neighbor neglected their fences, we would find a herd of cattle in our front yard. I can only imagine how that would go over in the suburbs!”

Invest in good stock. “The most important step in keeping livestock is buying an animal from a reputable breeder,” says James Phillips, the Cummings School’s farm supervisor. Although auctions offer an enticingly inexpensive way to get started, the experts agree that finding a quality animal at auction is rare—and that such an animal is difficult for a novice to spot. Remember: once you bring an animal into your herd or flock, you’re stuck with whatever genetics, disease, disposition or other issues come with it.

Plan for predators. Five laying hens produce enough eggs to feed a family, and you may love the idea of letting the birds roam in your backyard. But chickens need secure fencing and coops to protect them from a host of predators that prowl the suburbs (and even cities), including fisher cats, raccoons, skunks, hawks and owls. For those who keep sheep, fencing alone won’t always keep out dogs and coyotes, so consider adding a guard dog, a llama or a donkey to your herd, all of which can drive off canine intruders.

Add it up. Raising animals for meat, dairy or eggs entails a financial commitment. You have to purchase healthy stock and pay for feed, veterinary care, fencing and housing. Then there are the fees for processing food animals: $40 or $50 for an 80-pound lamb and $500 for a 1,200-pound steer, says Cummings farm worker Katlyn Tice. And don’t forget about your own time. “Livestock is not much fun to have around on a Sunday morning when it’s zero degrees outside and you have to go break ice in water buckets,” says Scott Brundage, a herdsman at the Cummings School. “Livestock require attention every day.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2010 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

 

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