Big Rewards of Small Livestock

The benefits of tending a mini herd can outweigh the effort and expense.

July 21, 2011

If you are considering the purchase of any kind of small livestock, you must realize that to most experienced hobby farmers and acreage putterers these animals are, first and foremost, living lawn ornaments. Small livestock do fulfill some more prosaic purposes—you can eat, shear, or milk them—but economies of scale scotch any thoughts of profit motive. This is not venture-capital territory. But if you want to spin the wool from your llamas, giggle as your fainting goats fall over, marvel as poodle-sized spring lambs perform multiple triple salchows, or hear your miniature donkey call you at lunchtime, you will be rewarded in your purchase.

These little critters will come to like you as much as you like them. (Well, most of them, anyway. There are some adorablelooking beasts that turn out to have personalities just like your ex-boss.) If you have children, caring for these "pets" teaches responsibility and reward in a way that cleaning the cat box never will. And barnyard babies? Some of us would say they are more fun than people babies, and they drool much less. 
More pluses: Small livestock mow grass so that you don't have to (saving time, fuel, and the environment). Most small livestock actually improve pasture, whereas horses and cattle degrade it. And they provide manure—black gold to us gardeners. Llamas are so accommodating they poop in the same place every time, making it easy to collect. 
But on the downside:
  • They are expensive. You must build strong fences, not just to keep your animals in but also to keep coyotes and other predators—even the neighbor's dogs—out. Your crew will need to eat, so you'll be carving out time to zip to the feed store for feed, hay, and straw. (You already bought a truck, didn't you? Or are you going to pay extra to have this stuff delivered?) The vet must be paid, for even the greenest herd requires vaccines for things like tetanus. Summer coats need to be sheared hooves trimmed. Other necessary supplies: stock tanks, heat lamps, water heaters.
  • They can be too much of a good thing. I raised sheep for quite a while, because my wife and I love lamb, which as you know can be expensive. But after a few trips to the locker (a small-time, rural, custom-processing plant—and another expense), we decided that our pricey breed didn't actually taste as good as most restaurant cuts. Also, one lamb pretty much filled up both freezers of our kitchen and basement fridges. And we ended up with many, many cuts we wouldn't ordinarily have chosen. (How much lamb-burger can one man stand?)
  • There aren't that many like-minded people. Which is to say, you may jump at the chance to lay out $150 for a registered whiteface ewe or $400 for a llama that performs no reasonable function, but how many other folks within driving distance would do the same? Bottom line: You will have trouble selling offspring. And this time of year, you may be swimming in offspring.
  • Winter. Do you really want to go out to the barn in nasty weather? Come springtime, would you be willing to spend the night out there helping frightened moms give birth?
All that said, why would any rational person in these economically troubled times go through all this?
First, because you can. Isn't that why you got a little patch of land in the first place?
And second, not all rewards are counted in folding green....
When our first llama gave birth, it was out in the pasture on a fairly chilly, but not freezing, afternoon. To reprise a line from my favorite Jesse James movie, "Ain't that a wonderment?" As I checked on the progress of our baby cria (yes, you will learn a new vocabulary as well) throughout the afternoon, it seemed to be faltering. And, with a look of finality, it eventually went down.
So there I was, kneeling in the middle of the pasture as the sun was going down, with a limp llama in my lap, its eyes fixed and closing. So I did what anybody else would have done in this kind of situation. I did what you would do. I improvised. I gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Covering its nostrils, I gave it a lip lock and breathed slowly and determinedly into its mouth. I don't even know how to give mouth-to-mouth to a person, and there I was attempting it on livestock! And you know: It worked. The little guy quickly revived, at least enough to give us time to call the vet to meet us at his office, even though by now it was dark and after hours. The vet showed me how to "tube" my little friend, sticking a long flexible straw down its throat and pumping nourishment into its stomach. I was also told to keep the baby warm and dry all night, using a hair dryer on occasion. So the two of us spent the night on the floor of our laundry room, and neither of us got much sleep. But by morning, it had four on the floor and was ready to be returned to the barn and its mom.
Made me feel pretty dang good about the whole thing. That was the ultimate reward. But I had llama breath for a week.