What are the Easiest Farm Animals to Keep?
When it comes to raising animals at home, for starters, rabbits and chickens are good examples. Rabbits are cheap to maintain, and do not require too much space, while offering a great meat source. Chickens serve different purposes, offering eggs or their meat for human consumption. With both of these animals you have to think in advance about the maintenance circumstances concerning the holding pens, food, water, manure, mating and slaughtering of the animals.
Raising Rabbits for Meat at Home
When it comes to raising animals for food, rabbits are a great option, right up there with chickens, goats and pigs. Rabbit meat is high in protein, and by most accounts tastes pretty darn good. They’re fairly low maintenance to raise, needing only small spaces and not making a ton of noise or mess. They’re also (re)productive; a doe (female rabbit) can produce 20-40 new babies a year.
Finding the Right Rabbits
Your first step is getting hold of some rabbits. This shouldn’t be too difficult a task (provided you aren’t Elmer Fudd). Other farmers or owners that raise them for food are your best bet, as they are most likely to be the type of breed that fit your goals by having a good feed-to-meat ratio (how much you must feed them daily vs how much meat they produce).
You want one buck (male rabbit) for every 5 does, and want to rotate who mates and keep the gene pool diverse and healthy.
You’ll have to select a type of breed. Medium-sized breeds weigh 4-7 lb at maturity. They consume a cup of feed per day, and take up about 5 square feet of cage space. American Sable or the English or French Angora breeds are examples of medium-sized rabbits.
Meat rabbits weigh 8-12 lb at maturity, and as you might have garnered from their name, are the kind of breed raised for their meat, since they offer the best feed-to-meat ratio. They consume 1.25 cups of feed per day, and take up 7-8 square feet of cage space. Some examples are Blue or white American rabbits, Beveren, or Californian rabbits.
There are also some “giant” rabbit breeds, such as the Checkered Giant or Giant Chinchilla, which weigh over 10 lb. These are sometimes raised for meat as well, although their feed-to-meat ratio is not as good, and stronger cages are required.
Creating a Pen for Your Rabbits
You’ll want a wire mesh pen for your rabbits, with 3/4 inch holes or greater for their droppings to exit. Remember the space guidelines for your rabbits as listed above. Have a separate area for your rabbits to stand on as well, as standing on wire mesh all day can hurt their feet.
Place something underneath the cage to catch the droppings, such as newspaper or cardboard you can dispose of, or a tray you can clean weekly (remember not to use bleach when cleaning it, as it will mix with the rabbit urine to produce a harmful gas). Rabbit droppings make a great fertilizer.
Also remember never to put two bucks into a pen together. They will feel threatened and may castrate each other (ouch.).
During the summer, keep your pen in a shaded and ventilated area, as rabbits are not too keen on hot summer days. During the winter keep your pen covered to protect it from cold winds.
Food & Water
For water, you’ll want something that avoids getting contaminated by all that rabbit poop. An elevated water bowl or a bottle waterer are both good options.
For food, there are rabbit pellets for sale that are designed to give your rabbits all the nutrients they need. You can also feed them hay- red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa and Kentucky bluegrass all work well. Make sure the hay smells sweet, not damn, as the latter is an indication of mold.
There’s a reason we have expressions in our language about two people who can’t keep their hands off each other being like rabbits. And that reason is this- rabbits like to do it. A lot.
This comes down to their biology. Some rabbits are ready to breed as early as 6 months old. Does can conceive at any time of the month, they stay pregnant for about a month, and are ready to conceive again hours after giving birth. In short, they spend most of their existence ready for procreation. Life is good for a buck (except for that whole castration thing mentioned above).
To initiate the mating process, place the female in the male’s pen (doing the opposite will scare the female, and she may attack). If they don’t get down to business, remove the doe and try again a few days later.
2 weeks after mating, you can feel the area above the female rabbit’s pelvis to check for pregnancy. If it’s swollen, then she is.
You’ll want to have a separate, private pen (2 square feet or larger) for a mother to give birth and raise her young. Make sure there is plenty of fresh, dried hay in there before hand. It is important not to disturb them, as the smell of humans on the young can threaten the mother, and she may kill them. It’s also important to keep the father away from the young, as rabbits don’t make the best fathers, and he too may murder them. It’s a tough life for a newborn bunny.
Leave them alone for 6-8 weeks to grow, after which you can separate the young from the mother.
Slaughtering a Rabbit
Ahh, now to the fun part…
(Not really, it can be pretty disturbing the first time you kill an animal you put a lot of effort into raising.)
Do not feed a rabbit for a day before slaughtering it. The best way to kill a rabbit is to hold the animal upside down and strike it sharply with a pipe behind the ears, where the neck and skull connect. This is quick and painless for the rabbit (not so much for you if you accidentally hit your fingers. Be careful here).
You’ll need to open the rabbit up and remove the visceral material (intestines, etc) to avoid contaminating the meat. Remove the head and limbs, skin the rabbit, and then store the carcass in an appropriate container and chill immediately.
You now have rabbit meat ready to eat.
My Experience With Raising Chickens
A big part of homesteading (particularly if you’ve got a prepping mindset) is the animal population that you’ll be caring for and eating. Few of us have any practical experience in raising them or even harvesting their resources, so I gathered the information I’ve gained over the past few years of raising livestock to assist you in choosing, building pens for, and using these animals. Chickens are among the easiest animals to raise and require minimal input, but let’s check and see what you’ll need to know for the best possible start.
Homesteading and Animals are a Match Made by Heaven
In our modern age there are some who question man’s raising livestock and using them as possessions, so let me emphasize why I recommend animals of any kind on the homestead.
Chickens provide meat, but they also provide eggs on a continuous basis with minimal effort needed from the homesteader.
Animals provide valuable food for the human. Ultimately this is why most animals are kept around the homestead, and for preppers having that animal protein is invaluable. Some animals such as chickens and cows provide additional fresh food in the form of eggs and milk as well.
Livestock help to complete the “circle of life”. God made nature to sustain itself, and we can and should take advantage of this fact in order to maximize the productivity of our own homesteads. Manure from almost all animals is wonderful for compost to promote vegetable growth, and some animals can directly assist with pest management by consuming insects or disturbing earth and disrupting life cycles.
Livestock make use of land unsuitable for gardening. Anywhere grass or weeds grow can support some manner of livestock even if the lack of nutrients or rocky nature of the soil would make gardening an exercise in frustration. Particularly with soil that is nutrient lacking, livestock can actually assist in turning “useless” land into productive, fertile ground.
They store or produce goods constantly, making them wonderful for preparedness. Storing eggs, milk, and meat is historically very difficult unless you can turn them into other products like cheese or salted hams. Having a source for fresh eggs and milk allows you to consume these products while they’re fresh and nutrient rich, while having meat on the hoof allows you to “store” meat for rough times ahead.
With that general disclaimer, let’s take a peek at a wonderful, versatile homestead animal: the chicken.
Looking at Chickens
Chickens were one of the first animals I acquired, and they provided value very quickly with minimal input required. Here are the basics that I learned in a school of hard knocks with many lost chickens:
A strong, secure coop is worth its weight in gold. Our chickens free range within an electrical fence that we move on a constant basis, but we always bring them back to the coop at night. Although we’ve lost plenty of chickens in the light of day, it is at night that the majority of predators seem to seek out the vulnerable, tasty flesh of my flock. Having a coop that is 100% secure allows you to sleep soundly without worrying about losing your chickens as they slumber.
Chicken coops don’t need to be fancy, make do with what you have on hand. Just make sure the neighbors are alright with it!
Be safe, but feel free to go with cheaper materials for chickens. If you’ve had the larger farm animals, you know that you need to spend some money on the posts, fencing etc. so that it is strong enough to contain them. With chickens, you just need whatever you can cobble together out of spare lumber and scrap metal, plus a little chicken wire, to build things like coops, fences etc. Just make sure you don’t have jagged edges sticking out and you should be good.
Chickens are incredibly dumb. Time and again we had a chicken brutally torn apart by foxes or hawks outside of our electric fence in plain sight of the other chickens. The very next day we would still have chickens running around outside the fence! They don’t seem to learn cause and effect very well, to the point where a crafty chicken will manage to figure out how to escape a fence but then immediately forget how to get back in. Forget what anyone says about “natural cunning” when it comes to chickens, period.
They do not need to be babied. Granted some of the fancier coop designs I have seen are made to fit in a neighborhood, but there are plenty of people who seem to treat chickens like they would a lap dog, complete with a heated and air-conditioned coop! We had an ostracized rooster sit outside on a branch staring into the coop for an entire winter despite temperatures that reached -20 Fahrenheit, and he survived all the way through with only some minor frostbite. Even when we picked him up and tried to force him into a separate pen with plenty of warm straw to snuggle up in, he willingly went back outside and maintained his vigil. Dumb they may be, but chickens don’t need plush surroundings and air conditioning. Good food, clean water, and a secure coop are sufficient for them.
The manure is wondrous stuff. Chicken poop is chock full of nitrogen, to the point where raw, non-composted poop can actually “burn” plants. If well composted though, it can easily supply enough nitrogen even for hungry corn plants that soak it up like a sponge. Keep straw or some other bedding down in their coop to make it easier to grab large amounts of feces regularly, or else give them the run of a garden when there’s nothing growing to let them self-fertilize.
They kill many pests and grubs, just keep them away from the garden when it’s growing. Chickens will peck strawberries, tomatoes, and a variety of other tasty fruit until it is rotting on the vine,but they are also tenacious killers of slugs, larvae, and grubs. If you can place them on your beds during the early spring before planting and during the fall after the last harvest they will disrupt many pest life cycles and reduce insect populations for you without needing a single chemical application.
Aside from manure (which should never be overlook as a valuable resource!) what else does a chicken provide? Eggs and meat, of course, and words scarcely describe the difference between farm-fresh and store bought in this regard. Eggs are not a favorite dish of mine unless they’re there to provide flavoring in my french toast or cake, but even there I can taste a definite difference. Furthermore, I can use these to hatch more chickens with the help of a rooster, making my flock self-sustaining and creating an endless chain of meat and egg production.
The meat…ah fresh chicken. The very first chicken we slaughtered and butchered on the farm was eaten that night in order to see what rewards we were to garner from our labor in raising them. We had just plain chicken, no breading and hardly any spices to season the meat as it cooked, but it was worlds better than even gourmet restaurant foods. Moist as you could want, full of flavor, and you could choose white, dark or a mixture of both kinds of meat as you pleased. I cannot recommend truly fresh chicken enough, particularly if you love chicken as much as I do.
Chickens are invaluable in all areas of the homestead, from the garden to the kitchen table. I hope you’ll make the effort to add a flock to your lands, and will receive the tasty increase they yield to you.