Nova Scotia reflections: animals

Goats and sheep grazing on the far side of the garden.

(Note: This is part of what was conceived as a four-part series. Not sure if it will turn out that way, but stay tuned for more!)

When I was looking for a farm to go work on, I decided that “animals” was a key component in my search. There were two reasons for this: one, I wanted to learn more about maintaining livestock, and two, I knew there wouldn’t be much work to do in the garden in April so far north. Old Man Farm had a little bit of everything: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and geese. I was able to get a sense of the relative levels of attention required by some of these different animals, as well as some sobering lessons about what can go wrong.

The Animals

I had the most interaction with the sheep, goats, and chickens. These are the animals that lived in the main section of the barn. The sheep and goats needed the most attention, partly because it was lambing season. They needed to be put out if it was a warm day, brought back in at night, sequestered if they appeared sick or lambing seemed imminent, fed hay since the grass wasn’t in, and generally checked on a few times a day. There was a calm of being in the barn, and Brooke spent a lot of time there just being with the animals. It was a nice place.

lambs: you gotta check on 'em.

I got to try shearing a sheep with hand-clippers, which was new. My grandmother had sheep which she bred for wool, and shearing was done by a professional, the wool bagged and washed and saved and then knitted into sweaters. This was the vision I had of shearing. On Cape Breton Island, there isn’t much of a market for wool, so the Olands weren’t saving it for anything. It didn’t matter if the wool came off in clumps, fell on the straw, or got dirty in the shearing process. In a way this was disappointing to me.

The sheep were where I learned the most about medical side of livestock maintenance. Two old ewes died while I was on the farm. They had been bought pregnant, along with three others, from a farmer who was culling them because of their age. Both developed toxemia (ketosis), which basically meant that they had no energy and didn’t even want to eat. We tubed medicine down their throats, put them under heat lamps, and did all we could for them, but they slipped away. Brooke had to then butcher them himself, a task that wasn’t particularly good for him on an emotional level. I watched the butchering since I thought it would be a good thing to know about – the reality of livestock farming, if you will.

As for the next generation, in one case, the lamb was lost as well; in the other, we had an orphan on our hands. You might think that having a lamb in the house is cute, and great, and it is, to an extent. But it’s a hard road for those lambs, and for you, too… Brooke was a walking zombie at one point because the lamb had woken him up with its bleating so many nights in a row. The orphan developed scours, so we needed to medicate him.

The orphan, nicknamed "Blam-Blam".

The goats had already kidded so they required a little bit less maintenance, and could go outside on colder days. I learned that while goats are cute, they are tough to herd! I usually had to lure them with a bucket of grain, but then the goats with horns would unintentionally spear me, which was annoying and sometimes painful.

The chickens needed very little from us. They had lots of places to root for insects. In most cases, predators would be a major concern, but because the farm had three large, white livestock dogs, there didn’t seem to be any problems with chickens getting eaten. They produced more eggs than the family could consume. When I left, one hen was getting broody, so she was allowed to keep a dozen eggs; later in the season, there will be little chicks running around.

The cattle were Highlands, a breed which can take care of itself quite well. They occasionally needed hay because the pastures weren’t quite going yet, but other than that were pretty self-sufficient. One of them had a calf and we hadn’t even expected it or done anything to prepare her. This was lucky, because perhaps the saddest thing that happened while I was there was that a yearling got stuck in some mud overnight and drowned. Pulling his body out of the mud was very sad, and afterward all the other cattle came over and sniffed him to say goodbye. Anyone who says that cows don’t have feelings is quite wrong.

And then there were the pigs. They did an excellent job of rooting up ground that was being prepared for planting. However, they also needed quite a bit of extra feed, and were very aggressive at feeding time, pushing each other around and squealing. I learned to take the feed into their stall when they were out in the field and then call them in, so that I wouldn’t have to wade through them and hit them with a stick in order to get to the bucket.

The ducks and geese were pretty self-sufficient. I don’t think we ever fed them anything. We ate one, though, and I learned how to pluck a goose (we never got the water quite boiling, so the process took longer than expected).

Goose eggs in a nest next to the woodshed.

How to make livestock work

In general, the livestock required a surprisingly small amount of attention considering how many diverse kinds there were. There were the never-ending fencing projects, of course, but I think with a few good pushes, the fences could have been in good shape. Fencing is where, as a farmer, planning and preparation are essential. Fencing is a fact of life.

The tough part with the animals is that the farm was using very little of their potential. They were no longer milking the goats, which means that they had to buy milk for their family, and also weren’t making cheese. The male lambs would in theory be butchered, along with a few of the cattle, in the fall, but the Olands had trouble finding a butcher who would come to the farm. The beef brought in some money, but given that the cattle took three or four years to mature, I don’t know if they paid for their upkeep or not. The eggs were unmarketable because there was no henhouse, so they were usually dirty.

The feed bills were, shall we say, high. I realized how expensive it is to have animals just for pleasure.

Brooke indicated that he wasn’t interested in turning the farm into a money-making enterprise. He just wanted to feed his family and live sustainably. Which is totally fine: you can make that choice if you want to, and if you can afford it (the Olands were getting by, but barely).

Cattle and chickens.

I think this was part of the reason that it seemed like the livestock didn’t take much attention. If, like most operations, you were trying to make money, or at least break even, you would need to be milking and making cheese and packaging and marketing your products. You needed to build the henhouse, and learn to accept butchering if you couldn’t find a butcher, and make sure that the butchering was done at the correct time of year (for instance, slaughter your geese in the fall, not the spring). Your general level of attention needs to be higher if you are marketing products to someone else rather than consuming them yourself.

With such a variety of animals, it seems unlikely that the farm could operate in this manner with its current labor supply. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, but I think that with one full-time worker and WWOOFer help, a farm looking to sell products from the animals would need to focus on an area of expertise, as it were. You would need to decide which kinds of animals you could work with, easily and happily, and rely on, and get rid of the others. This was something up for discussion, as the Olands were contemplating reducing the herd of goats and selling a few sheep as well.

The verdict

The difference between having a few animals for your own pleasure and having animals as a business venture is not insignificant.

My vision of my future, the perfect one where I have a mysteriously sufficient income stream, usually includes a tiny house, a garden, a horse, a dog, some chickens, and maybe some sheep (although with every passing year, I realize that the horse is pretty unlikely since it is the most expensive component of this dream future). My experience at the farm didn’t really change that. It would be easy to “start” with a few chickens, or a small flock of sheep, or even a pig.

The pigs were probably the ones I learned the most about, honestly. They did a remarkable job getting the garden ready for planting; I hadn’t thought of them in such a useful sense before. And piglets, of course, are quite cute (that’s the girl in me speaking).

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