December 13, 2018
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Tiny livestock can be the perfect fit for small-scale homesteaders

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
A Nigerian dwarf goat is seen in Hampden.

When Randy Sullivan decided to quit logging and homestead full time on 2.5 acres in Knox several years ago, he knew he had to make the most out of every square foot.

“There was a lot of planning because every inch has to count,” Sullivan said. “And a lot of what I call ‘tactical thinking,’ where I look at something and figure out how to make it work better.”

To get the biggest homesteading bang for his limited acreage, Sullivan made his gardens as compact as possible. For livestock, he’s opted for miniature animal breeds that multitask.

“Take the goats,” he said. “I have a Nubian and a LaMancha cross, and they give you milk, meat, clear your land and are easy to maintain.”

Sullivan, his wife and two children also raise rabbits, chickens and turkeys for food — all livestock smaller than the beef steers, horses or pigs seen on other Maine farms.

Going tiny in regard to farm animals is a good option for Maine homesteaders, according to Cindy Kilgore, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“These animals are smaller so they are easier to manage and move around,” Kilgore said. “They take less feed, hay, straw or space than their larger counterparts so the whole scale of operation is just smaller.”

Plus, there is the “awwww” factor with miniature livestock.

“These animals are really cute,” Kilgore said. “And when you are hands-on managing your animals, it’s just easier when they are smaller.”

There is a world of difference, she notes, between trimming the hooves on a 200-pound standard sheep versus giving a pedicure to a 40-pound Breton Dwarf sheep.

When it comes to farm animals like cows, goats, horses and chickens often seen on the Maine homestead landscape, the animals can run from hundreds of pounds down to a fraction of that, depending on the breed.

Pat Polley, president of the Maine Boer Goat Breeders Association, knows all about size extremes when it comes to livestock on limited acreage. Polley has a mixed herd of 20 Boer goats and Nigerian dwarf goats on his 4-acre spread in Chelsea.

The Boer goats can weigh up to 300 pounds while the smaller dwarf goats top out around 70 pounds.

“Both are good for meat,” Polley said. “But the smaller ones also make good pets. You don’t need high fencing or worry about them trampling over you. In fact, if one of the dwarf goats steps on you, you may not even notice it.”

Smaller animals can do everything their larger cousins can do, according to Polley, just on a reduced basis.

“With dairy, you may get a cup of milk a day from a mini, when the large varieties produce gallons a day,” he said. “A lot of the time the mini [animals] tend to be as much pets as livestock.”

That combination of low volume production and companion animal can be just what a small homesteader, who does not want to be overwhelmed, is looking for.

Cuteness factor and a desire for an usual pet aside, Kilgore said obtaining a mini animal should never be an impulse buy or snap decision.

“You need to consider your location, first of all,” Kilgore said. “Your town or municipality may have ordinances that do not allow you to have farm animals in town.”

Secondly, thought must be given to how the animals will be housed and kept from wandering off from even the tiniest and coziest of homesteads.

“I tell people before they get the animals, figure out the space you need and then go out, take a measuring tool and figure out exactly what you need and the cost of fencing,” Kilgore said. “That can be one of your biggest expenses. You want a good fence so you don’t have your neighbors calling animal control because your livestock got out because they were not fenced in properly.”

Exactly how much space an animal needs is specific to that breed but Kilgore said all that information is available through her department.

“We are all about education,” she said.

The next step, according to Kilgore, is to determine why you want the animals in the first place.

“What are your plans?” she said. “Are you milking them? Slaughtering them for meat? Breeding them for babies? You need a farm plan.”

The time to formulate that plan, she said, is not after a pair of animals has produced dozens of offspring, no matter how small they are going to be as adults.

At the Sullivan homestead, breeding small livestock is in the future.

“I am researching Angora rabbits to raise for their fur,” he said. “Rabbits are great. They don’t take up much real estate and produce a lot of young.”

But he’s not rushing into anything.

“I see a lot of [social media] posts from people wanting to know what to feed or asking advice about their critters,” Sullivan said. “Do your homework beforehand and learn how much feed or hay or straw the animal will need over the year. That’s where I am with the Angoras so I can have a better idea of what to do before jumping into it.”

Polley said raising animals — even the small ones — is a large commitment.

“It’s not all animals romping around and having fun,” he said. “They need everything a larger animal needs.”

Successful farming and raising livestock, Kilgore said, has a lot to do with recognizing one’s own limits — be those limits space, resources or finances.

“You need to develop a plan and get animals that fit within your limits,” she said.

Starting out with miniature livestock varieties can be a perfect way to test those limits without going overboard.

“Yes, ‘mini’s can be the gateway livestock,” Polley said with a laugh. “I know people who have started out with big goats and were not sure it was for them, but anyone who starts out with little goats before you know it are looking for more.”

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