(Continued from Part 1.)
Cows: With Spring firmly entrenched in the Rockies, my thoughts turned to critters. I wanted my own cattle and wondered to myself if there might be some sort of “mini-cow” I could easily manage by myself. This led to an internet search and ultimately to me purchasing my first pretty Dexter cow, who had a heifer calf by her side and had been “bred back” (meaning she was pregnant with another calf). She had spent her life in a remote pasture. She had little experience with humans; I had no experience with cows. In retrospect, I would say it all sounded like a very bad idea.
While not exactly “mini”, Dexters are smaller than most other breeds and provide not only good quality beef but high-fat-content milk. (I have never milked mine, though.) Both males and females have horns, and my new cow delighted in menacingly shaking hers at me for every perceived slight (such as when she realized that the bucket was not going to be refilled with sweet feed). Over time she calmed down, but she was never terribly friendly. About six months after purchasing my Dexter cow, our first bull calf was born. It was such an exciting time! He required a vet visit and bottle feeding for a few hours, but we were able to return him to his grouchy mother within less than 24 hours, which lowered my workload substantially. When we turned him into a steer, we did so by banding him. This prevented an open incision susceptible to flies. We had a bad fly season that year, so I was glad I had used that castration method.
While many homesteading web sites sing the praises of Dexter cattle, I found them to be less than ideal. They do have a coat that’s a bit longer than many other cows, making them more cold-tolerant. However, trying to get my cow bred again became quite a hassle. Dexters should be bred short legged to long legged to prevent chondrodysplasia (an aspect of dwarfism causing stillborn calves). They also don’t take very well to AI (artificial insemination). Cross-breeding Dexters to Angus seems to be a way around these issues, but I wanted pure-bred cows. (Leviticus 19:19 “Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind…”). The closest possible “dalliance” for my cow would entail trailering her to a bull who resided many counties away, in a region with rampant brucellosis outbreaks. (Brucellosis is a gram-negative bacterium which is highly contagious, often lethal, and can be weaponized, much like anthrax. Because of this, any outbreak garners serious concern from both ranchers and the CDC.) Moving cattle between counties requires the sign-off of a local brand inspector (contact your state department of livestock for details). Bangs vaccine is used to prevent brucellosis and we ensure our cattle all receive this. Still – all these extra steps to find an acceptable bovine suitor were a complete hassle.
Change of Breeds
Ultimately, we settled on the wonderful Scottish Highland cattle as our favorite breed. They are majestic creatures who have the same cold hardiness as caribou/reindeer and possess calm, friendly demeanors. Like Dexters, both sexes have large horns and they are a dual-purpose (meat/milk) breed. Most importantly, in our location, they ended up being easier for us to breed, which was critical to our ongoing homestead operation. We’re hoping for a new calf this spring, good Lord willing.
After having “grumpy” cows and “gentled” cows, I would strongly recommend the latter, for ease and safety in handling. Gentling your cows really is as simple as spending time with them, talking to them, and most importantly, giving them treats. A slice of apple will cause them to associate you with good things.
And yes… we process our own beef. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to eat something I raised, but I did! By the time I processed our first cow, I was married. As we started out, my husband (more about him later!) thought it was just hilarious to tell people we’d “lost a third of our herd this year”. This always garnered looks of horror until he explained we only had three to start with! We don’t breed animals with poor conformation or cows who seem unable to wean calves on their own. (We already have full time jobs and think the momma cow has far more free time than we do… So, weaning is her job!) Instead, these animals go into the rotation for meat processing. (Bad behavior will land you a trip in the freezer, too, so there’s that…)
Until they are processed, our cows get the very best care we can provide them (including taking one weirdo-Dexter to a bovine farrier so she didn’t suffer pain related to her funky-shaped hooves). They have shelter, fresh water, and top-quality grass hay. They do not get prophylactic antibiotics, but we would certainly provide medication if they were ever sick. We’ve found the beef we raise is very tender and requires only a bit of salt and pepper after cooking it – nothing else. If you’re going to raise your own beef, you’ll need a squeeze chute, halters (if you plan to halter break them, which we recommend), mineral licks, water troughs or automatic waterers (more on this later), solid fencing, some spare cattle panels, a big stack of hay sufficient to get you through late summer the following year, a feed trough (unless you roll out round bales), Bangs immunizations, de-worming, freezers–just to start. Don’t forget to factor all that into your overall budget.
Goats: My neighbors decided to be “goat foster parents” for the summer. (“It will be a great experience for the children!”, they said.) The plan was to return the goats to the rightful owners when September rolled around. My response was “That owner is probably three states away by now….” Sure enough, as fall approached, the owner was nowhere to be found and my neighbors now had to figure out what to do with their foster-goat-situation for the winter. You see, getting rid of a goat will almost always require some level of treachery and deceit on your part, since most folks in these parts understand that goats are very destructive. If you’re looking around your homestead and wondering “Why can’t we have nice things?”, the answer will surely be “…because you have goats.”
My dear aunt used to say, “What you cannot learn by reason, you will learn by pain” and I’m fortunate to be among those who usually learns by reason. As cute as goats are (and let’s face it, they are adorable), I believe goats and sheep are critters best left for ranching endeavors, where they are important components of grassland management and can be raised by people who really know what they’re doing. If you envision having a few goats for milk and cheese, I’d suggest you investigate it very carefully. Except for a few places west of the Continental Divide, we typically don’t have lush pasture grasses in most places of the Redoubt. Goats can quickly ruin a small pasture in this high, arid climate and it can take many years before your land is restored to its original condition. Be sure you know what you’re doing before you inadvertently ruin your land.
Chickens: I had no experience with poultry, but I wanted to give it a try. First, I purchased and read Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry and then I referenced the BackYard Chickens web site very often during the first year whenever I encountered issues. With my landlord’s permission, I converted the old shed to a chicken coop and painted interior walls with a high gloss white paint, which made winter time chores a bit brighter and spring-cleaning easier when I blasted hose water on the walls to wash them down. By the entrance, I hung a basket filled with little disposable shoe covers (like the ones worn in an operating room). My neighbors laughed and shook their heads, noting that I wasn’t adjusting to country life very well… but the shoe covers allowed me to quickly run in and grab a few eggs without stopping to put on heavy muck boots.
I opted for Buff Orpington chicks and fretted endlessly those first few days after they moved from the brooder to the “new” chicken coop shed. Ultimately, it became apparent that the only one having a problem with this transition was me. They grew into beautiful, calm birds who were good layers. My kind neighbors gave us a rooster they said was just too well-behaved to butcher and true to their word, he was a perfectly well-behaved rooster. The chickens free-ranged and we didn’t lose any to predators (more about why, later), but we did lose one to the hay bale stack. The poor thing squeezed in between bales and evidently couldn’t get back out. (We didn’t figure this out until many months later when we pulled down the hay bale and frightened ourselves a little.) Overall, it was rather easy and enjoyable to keep chickens. But ultimately? I ended up giving them all away once we moved to our permanent home due to their propensity for taking “dirt baths”. Those birds did a number on my flower beds! Instead, I opted for….
Ducks: I can’t say enough good things about ducks! After trying Pekins and Cayugas, we settled on Welsh Harlequins. They are prolific layers, very pretty, and cold-hardy. How cold hardy are they? Ours have survived -10 to -30 F degree weather for weeks on end with nothing more than periodic layers of fresh straw placed inside their duck house – and they seem no worse for wear.
Ducks don’t require supplemental heat lamps (which can cause fire), they don’t take dirt baths (so my flowers survive), and they don’t hop up on picnic tables and leave poop everywhere (a true bonus!). While a pond is nice, they can be quite happy with just a kiddie pool to help them stay clean. Their eggs are richer tasting than chicken eggs and great for baking.
When building their duck house (aka “the Quack House”), we adapted guidelines found at HGTV’s guide to duck houses. Still, we weren’t sure if these guidelines would protect our ducks from extreme cold. For your convenience, the details of our modified plan are included here: Our Quack House holds 6 ducks and is 3 ft. deep x 6 ft. long x 3 ft. tall (with an angled shed roof). The base was built with one-inch solid foam insulation topped with 3/ 4 inch pressure treated plywood, and dug into a slope and leveled, creating some additional dead air space underneath. A picture window (covered with hardware cloth) provides summer breezes and is securely covered with wood in winter. Two 3×6 inch vents are positioned at either peak. We covered one vent this winter due to excessive winds coming from that direction. The door is large enough for two ducks to enter without anyone getting stuck while playing the “me first” game, and it’s securely closed at night. And, while it might be smaller than most duck plans recommend, the small area allows them to use their body heat to stay warm.
Ducks do make a mess with water, so our ducks have no food or water inside their house. We let them out early in the morning to free range. They put themselves up at night and we secure the door behind them. Just a note: If you decide to raise ducklings indoors in a brooder, resign yourself to a stench-filled month. I changed their shavings daily and it didn’t help a bit. If you have a heated garage or shed, use that location! Once the weather is warm enough for your ducklings to go outside and you’ve mopped up their mess, all will be right with the world again.
Guineas: The sweet old lady at the feed store convinced me to purchase keets (baby guineas) when I purchased the baby chicks. She said they were great “watchdogs”. She said they would eat lots of bugs. She said they were cute. (They were, and I bought two!) What she didn’t say was that she lived in a house many, many miles from my keets and she would never hear the horrifically loud screeching sounds they made once they became adults. Watch out for seemingly sweet old ladies trying to sell you keets. That’s the best advice I can give you on this one.
Turkeys: These are fun birds. They are smart, they’ll roost in your pine trees, they are low maintenance and cold-hardy, and they’ll become amazingly social and tame. Ours were free-range turkeys who would occasionally decide to walk single file down the road to visit the neighbors. (Luckily, our neighbors found this to be quite entertaining.) I wish I could tell you what it’s like to process and eat turkeys, but I don’t know. Ours decided to run away with a wild turkey flock that moved through our property one fall. I hope they miss me, those ingrates.
Mail Order Birds (and Small-Town Life)
We ordered ducklings online twice and had no issues either time with their health. The hatchery will give you advance notice when your order is scheduled to arrive. Imagine how excited I was for my first delivery when the phone rang at 3 AM and Pete (name changed to protect dear old Pete’s privacy) from the Post Office said my ducklings had arrived! I was thrilled and promised to head straight there, only to have him add “We don’t open until 8 AM”. Confused, I asked “Um, so why did you call me at 3 AM?” Pete mumbled something about the instructions on the box saying “Call Upon Delivery”, and since they were delivered, well, he was just callin’…. Every small mountain town will have a Pete. Just give him a polite call the next time and let him know about your impending shipment of ducklings, thank him in advance for checking on their fuzzy duckling welfare, and assure him you’ll be there when they open, so he can skip the 3 AM wake-up call.
Anatolian Shepherds: In recent years, it seems that Anatolian Shepherds have become the “dog du jour” lauded by many homesteading and prepper web sites as the perfect dog to have. I have had a positive experience with Anatolians, but I also have some reservations about them. I stumbled across this livestock guardian breed after my child somehow convinced me to adopt a two-year-old Anatolian from the local animal shelter. I foolishly assumed all shepherd dogs were the same – smart dogs who want to make you happy. Not so. I quickly learned that Anatolians are smart, but they don’t really care if you’re happy. They are extremely independent, destructive 120-140 pound escape artists who don’t listen. The one we adopted was quite a challenge to train (and I already had many years’ experience training both horses and large breed dogs). I’d say we easily spent a full year working intensively with him.
We had some awkward moments, like when he ran away and was returned to us in the back of the Sheriff’s car. Or when he hopped into the UPS truck and was found lying down in the back behind the boxes. Or when he went missing for hours and then we suddenly found him lying in our yard next to moose antlers. (We had to apologize to our neighbor, an avid hunter, and return those antlers.) However, when three coyotes tried to attack our first calf who was just hours old, our Anatolian didn’t need any training to successfully fight them off. He also didn’t need any training to spring into action and distract an angry horned cow who was ready to charge me. And we didn’t lose any free-range chickens to predators. Good boy!
As he matured, he enjoyed his “retirement” years inside the house with us. We went on to adopt two 12-week-old puppies from National Anatolian Shepherd Rescue. For the first two years, we referred to them as “The Velociraptors”. One is now an excellent livestock guardian who always wants to be outside, and the other one would be inside all day on a pillow if we’d allow that. My husband jokes that, in his experience, about 50% of Anatolians puppies will go on to become good livestock guardians.
Purchasing Anatolians from a breeder can cost thousands of dollars, which I think is unnecessary. Sadly, there are many Anatolians available for adoption because people terribly underestimate how large, stubborn, and difficult these dogs can be. You’ll need the patience of Mother Theresa. But if you’re willing to work with them, an adopted adult dog can become a loyal guardian and save you both the high purchase price and difficult puppy phase–which lasts two years. Adopting an adult Anatolian certainly worked out well for us.
When our veterinarian told us that he has many Anatolians in his practice, but ours are the only ones he can care for without fear of being bitten, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. These dogs tend to bond only with their immediate family and are very wary of others. Never, ever allow visiting children to rough-house with your own children. Livestock guardian dogs will not take kindly to any perceived threat to family or flock, even if from a small child, and the bite force of Anatolians is particularly devastating. One mistake could tragically change lives forever.
Our dogs are well suited to our climate, needs, and lifestyle. They have a job and they do it well. (Okay, one of them does it well… The other one is sort of hit-or-miss!) They are very cold hardy and come inside for the evening only when temperatures are expected to drop below 10 degrees F. – and then they can easily overheat if the house is too warm. The rest of the time they sleep in their insulated dog house filled with fresh hay. They eat a lot, bark a lot, shed a lot, and one of them drools a lot. They also need a lot of room to run. (Ours have 10 fenced acres to patrol.) They are wonderful, but they aren’t for everyone, and I certainly think there are other solidly protective breeds such as German Shepherds and English Mastiffs which would be better suited to homesteading families with small children.
A Social Life…
After a while, it became obvious to me that between raising a child, working, and taking care of farm critters, my social life had dwindled to the point that it consisted mostly of quick chats with the nice folks at Costco who handed out food samples on Saturday mornings. While throwing myself an elaborate pity party one afternoon, I blurted out (in an unflattering, whiny voice) “Okay, God. If you want me to meet anyone, then you’re going to have to bring him right to my front door. Otherwise, I’m never going to meet anybody!”
About four months later, the man I would ultimately marry showed up – right at my front door. He was a conservative Christian, a prepper, smart, handsome, funny, capable and no-nonsense when needed. He knew the Rocky Mountain terrain and was expert in many areas where I knew little or nothing at all. Our skill sets were amazingly complementary. He also was very extroverted, and my social circle grew quickly. Soon, we were married, and I had inherited a lovely new family. We combined our preps (“Hey, where should I put these fabulous French Onion soup cans I bought three years ago?”) and began searching for a home of our own.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)