The term sustainability has been defined as “the ability to provide for today, without taking away from tomorrow”. Most of our modern agricultural practices today are anything but sustainable. Our selfishness and get rich quick mentality leave many producers making choices that benefit in the short term, but are actually causing long term damage to both our land and our livestock. In a TEOTWAWKI situation the livestock owner who has been using good management decisions will have little trouble adapting. Those whose management is based on short term success and follow the advice of those who are selling the “magic bullet” for increased gains, will find themselves with a lot of sick livestock and a land base that is unproductive.
We raise cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens on our ranch. We also have horses, mules, honeybees and several dogs and cats. We have approximately 200 acres of grazing land with several more acres of timber, ponds and buildings. Our soil is productive and alive because of the diversity in our plants and animals. Management is the key to having healthy soil, plants, animals, and ultimately humans.
The more closely we mimic nature, the fewer problems we have. This is most easily seen with the time chosen for when our babies are born. Look at when the deer and elk in your area are giving birth to their young. If God has the wild animals giving birth in May and June, then I am guessing there is a good reason why. I have come to learn that He is a lot smarter than I am!
The majority of cattle producers in our area calve in February and March. Sheep and Goat producers have their lambs and kids born in December and January. I have yet to see a newborn baby come out with a winter coat on! The amount of labor and resources necessary to keep these little ones alive are unsustainable now and nearly impossible in a TEOTWAWKI situation.
Cold and Predators
Freezing cold is only the first problem our newborns face. Predators like fox, coyote, bobcat, mountain lions and wolves are always looking for the easiest meal. They have less options in winter and will key in on easy meals like lambs and calves. If we calve in sync with nature our babies are born at the same time as the wild game. Predators are much less likely to bother our livestock if they have access to a surplus of wild game.
There are more than just freezing temperatures and predators that newborn babies have to fear. Cold rains and muddy conditions in March and April are the perfect recipe for pneumonia, scours, and navel infections. Many articles are written and products pushed to help producers deal with these. Calving in sync with nature nearly eliminates all of these problems and it doesn’t cost anything!
Cows that calve out of sync with nature have a much harder time getting bred back to calve again. Body condition is the most important factor in determining if a cow will even cycle. If she isn’t in good enough condition to maintain her body weight and raise a calf, she certainly won’t be physically able to breed back. Calving in May and June matches the nutrient requirements of the cow with the nutrients that are available in the forages. There aren’t many nutrients in a snow ball! Cows that calve in May and June are fat and healthy before calving, after having a month of green grass to forage on. Most producers feed a High-Magnesium mineral to avoid grass tetany in early spring. Calving in May and June has eliminated this problem on our ranch.
Managing when our animals give birth is quite simple. The bulls are placed into the herd of cows on July 30th and removed September 11th. Rams are put in with the ewes on December 15th and removed January 20th. Our dairy goats have the same 5 month gestation as the sheep, so most of the goats are bred at the same time as the sheep. In order to have fresh goats milk year round we do have a couple of goats that kid in January. This is not ideal, but it is a great reminder for us why we don’t do this with all the animals!
The biggest management mistake most people make is having too many animals for the amount of land they have. This is called the stocking rate. We desire to graze 300 days a year and only feed hay for about 2 months. The average amount of hay feeding is about 5 months in most of the U.S. When you have too many animals, they tend to overgraze and keep the forages chewed down to the dirt. This causes the plants to have short root systems, increases erosion, raises soil temperature and reduces the health of the soil significantly.
The second management mistake is poor stock density. This is the amount of animals in a specific area for a given time. Our ranch is divided into many small paddocks so that the livestock are restricted to only a certain area for a specified amount of time. This allows the other paddocks to rest and recuperate so they can grow more nutrient rich forage. As we work our way through the ranch, moving from paddock to paddock, we are utilizing the forage more evenly and growing more forage than is possible by just opening the gates and letting the stock have run of the whole ranch. Having water available is usually the limiting factor when dividing the ranch into smaller paddocks.
We have to remember that the livestock are working for us. They are not pets and we shouldn’t be working for them. Culling of inferior animals is the key to having a strong, healthy herd. If the animal fails to give birth or nurse their offspring unassisted, they are culled. If they fail to raise a healthy offspring to weaning age, they are culled. If they don’t rebreed within two heat cycles after raising a healthy offspring, they are culled. If at any time they need doctoring, they should be culled. They should be able to do this with nothing more than good forage, water, and maybe some salt. When TEOTWAWKI comes, our livestock will be better prepared than we are. If our livestock are pampered with every vaccination, supplement, fly spray, and gizmo the local co-op is selling, we are propping up a lot of animals that will fall quickly from our herds when these are no longer available. It is much more profitable now and could make all the difference in our survival later.
I always wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up so it’s been a great blessing to be able to raise cattle. There are many breeds of cattle and much variation within those breeds. The best advice I can give you when it comes to choosing your cattle, is to buy them as close to home as possible from someone who has the same management that you are going to have. The closer to home you get your cattle, the more likely they will be adapted to your forage, water, minerals, and weather. Most producers pamper their cows and they will quickly fall apart when you take away their crutches. Only buy from producers who are tough on their cows and make them work for a living.
Our ranch is located in a high rainfall, high humidity, region with heat indexes over 100 degrees in July and August. We also get below zero temperatures in the winter. With that kind of variety, we need a cow that is adaptable. We like red cattle because they can handle the heat and humidity. In my experience, the red hided cattle are 15 degrees more heat tolerant than a black-hided cow in summer. Our cattle will also get a good winter coat on them and do well in the winter. Good cedar thicket wind breaks and spring water tanks make for a much easier winter. Don’t try to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Get cattle that fit your environment and you will have less problems.
Sheep are the most profitable part of our operation. We raise hair sheep that are used only for meat. Their “wool” sheds off every spring and grows back for winter. Since it costs more to have sheep sheared than you can get out of the wool check, this is a plus to us. In a TEOTWAWKI situation there may be an advantage to having some wool available, but I couldn’t imagine trying to shear 150 sheep with scissors. Our sheep are extremely hardy animals that do not get dewormed, have hooves trimmed, or get fed grain. They are out on pasture with the cattle 365 days a year. Lambs are born unassisted on pasture in May and June. It costs as much to keep one of our cows as it does to keep seven ewes. If we sell a single calf for $650, that isn’t much compared to selling 10.5 lambs for $1,575.
Livestock Guardian Dogs
Sheep do have one requirement that I feel is a necessary expense, sheep dogs. We need both livestock guardian dogs to protect the sheep and a working dog to move them. There are many great breeds of each and getting good working dogs is essential. We use Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, and Maremma livestock guardian dogs. Border collies are our preferred working dog for moving all kinds of livestock. Good dogs are expensive, but worth every penny.
Dairy Goats are the most entertaining and frustrating animals on the ranch. We have Nubian and Saanen cross milk goats. They give a good quantity of high butterfat milk and raise decent sized kids that are another source of meat. Goat milk soap is a big part of the reason we put up with goats. We have a donkey that lives with the goats and haven’t had any losses to predators. I have heard it said “if your fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold goats.” My suggestion is if you don’t try to keep them in then they aren’t ever out!
Start With Chickens
Chickens are a great place to start if you don’t have any livestock. They will help you to understand basic animal husbandry skills without a large investment. Dual purpose breeds that produce eggs and meat are a simple way to begin. Once you get that mastered you can start raising meat birds for a higher quality and quantity of meat. They are a more challenging animal to keep alive though. Chickens are excellent foragers and will clean up any scraps you may have.
Chickens and Rabbits are the only livestock on our ranch that get fed grain. This is definitely something to be prepared for in a TEOTWAWKI situation. You won’t be able to go down to the farm store and pick up a 50 bag of rabbit pellets every week or two. We grind our own feed for our chickens from locally sourced grains.
Rabbits are something fairly new to us. They are an exceptional source of a delicious, renewable supply of meat. They are much overlooked and underappreciated in today’s society. The amount of food they can supply a family compared to the cost of feeding and caring for them is much better than any other livestock we have. They are very easy to process and are definitely a great animal to have on the ranch. Having a good Livestock Guardian Dog that is trained to not eat chickens and rabbits makes life a little easier. Just the presence of a LGD will keep most predators away.
All animals require the basic things we do- nutritious food, clean water, shelter, and protection from predators. If we take care of them, they can supply us with more nutritious food than we can buy in stores today. While starvation will be a problem for many when TEOTWAWKI hits, it doesn’t have to be if we are prepared.