I live on one acre and we grow most all our own food. This year, we’re expanding our animal production.
The best animals to raise on a 1-acre lot are rabbits. They are the most economical, the most productive, the easiest to house, and the easiest to grow feed for. Other good options are chickens, small-breed pigs, goats, and sheep. Avoid high-maintenance animals or large livestock.
The key to self-sufficiency is efficiency and simplicity. Selecting the easiest options that fit your needs is perhaps the most important aspect of successful, practical homesteading.
Here’s a chart showing common nubers for the effieicncy and total yield of small farm livestock.
|Litters per year
|Meat per animal
|Meat per breeding female/year
Rabbits are my favorite self-sufficiency animal because it’s easy to house and feed them. Rabbits can literally live on grass, weeds, and tree leaves. Animals that can live green fodder are irreplaceable in a well-rounded homestead operation.
Starting with startup costs, expenses add up fast. Some animals are cheap and some are expensive. Rabbits are a great example of a cheap animal. Most rabbits are sold for between $20 and $40. They’re small but super easy to purchase and get home. They don’t require heaters or special care when young.
It’s easy to build a rabbit cage. They’re also cheap to buy. You can get a decent cage for a breeding doe for about $30 at Wal-Mart or Amazon. I made my first rabbit cage out of some chicken wire, three pallets, and half of an old wooden door. It worked well and I used it for a few years.
Anyone with a little ingenuity and some basic materials can create a functional rabbit cage for cheap. To have a breeding pair of rabbits, it only takes about 3 feet by 6 feet of cage space, and another 3×3 or 3×6 to space out the growing bunnies before butchering.
Rabbits are also pretty low maintenance. I mean, I feed and water mine every day but as far as health, they rarely have an issue as long as they’re fed well and kept out of the direct sun. Rabbits can easily get sunstroke and overheat if in direct sun. I learned that the hard way.
The occasional care includes checking the ear canal for mites, making sure their backsides are clean, keeping an eye on their toenails, and occasionally checking their teeth for overgrowth. Usually, the only thing you need to do is trim the toenails once every two months or so at most.
If you have kids, let them handle the rabbits often. They will be the ones to notice if something is off. Other than that, keep the cages fairly clean and make sure they aren’t getting too skinny.
Rabbits are also highly productive. One breeding pair will likely produce 32 bunnies a year. That’s between 60 and 80-pounds of meat from two rabbits. They’ll do even more in a really good system.
Chickens are very low-maintenance health-wise. They can be housed in a small area with lightweight materials and can be easily fed. When I’m talking about chickens, I don’t mean the modern Cornish Cross meat chicken. Those birds are less functional in a self-sufficient system.
Because they require high-grade feed and a lot of it, and because they are more prone to sickness and health concerns, and don’t keep warm very well, I put them far down on the list for a person working toward true self-sufficiency.
Classic breed egg chickens like the Plymouth Rock/Barred Rock, Isa Brown, and Rhode Island Red are Super chickens for the homesteader. Egg breeds are very reliable producers of fairly shelf-stable food. Eggs, if unwashed, can be left out at room temperature for a month of more.
Chickens can be free-ranged. In fertile, active land, they will scavenge and scrounge pretty much all they need to get by. Giving a little grain and calcium will help keep up the egg production of free-range eggs. If you save and grind their eggshells, it can provide up to 40 percent of the calcium they need to eat.
I fed free-range chickens for years on just cracked corn and offered them a bowl of crushed eggshells. Don’t overfeed corn because they can get fat. True free-range birds may only need a handful per 2 birds every day or so to keep up the calories. Think of it as a supplement, not regular meals.
Chickens will eat most any kitchen scraps, especially if it’s chopped up small first. Food waste and scraps can fill an important nutritional role for your chickens. With only a few chickens, that can easily become half their diet.
Free-range chickens are prone to predation. If you let your birds out of the coop nearer to evening, they will still get to range some and will be back before dark to go in the coop. Limiting their time roaming helps keep predators from being a problem.
If you have a garden with tender produce, especially tomatoes, keep the chickens locked before anything starts ripening. You can let them out again after the harvest is over.
As long as you have a rooster, chickens reproduce easily and quickly if you have a hen go broody. One hen can hatch a dozen eggs, and she’ll take full responsibility for their care.
Most chickens will lay three to five eggs a week, or between 12 and 20 a month during the laying season. The average chicken owner can get 100 or so eggs a year per chicken, or more with artificial lighting in the winter.
Small-breed homestead pigs have been a huge blessing to our little farm. They are an important source of meat and help us to work up the soil in the fall. Small breed pigs are easy to handle, simple to contain, and individually, won’t eat you out of house and home.
My favorite homestead pig are the Asian Heritage Hogs, specifically the potbelly pig. While smaller, they are not inefficient, troublesome, or at all problematic. If you want to raise pigs for your family, I suggest this breed. They are fairly equal to the Kunekune, American Guinea Hog, and Idaho Pasture Pig.
The big difference is that they’re much more common and quite a bit cheaper to get decent breeding stock. After weaning, it takes about 150 pounds of feed to raise one to a butcher age of 6 to 9 months. old. You need to give them a decent feed. Pigs need protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
We feed our pigs mainly on fermented whole grains. The grains are bought from the farmer down the road and are fermented in 5-gallon buckets. I wrote an article about our Pig feed fermenting methods. Here’s a link to it.
Pigs, even small breeds, are not really prone to predation and rarely have health issues before butcher age. The pen I raise our butcher pigs in cost me $120, and is very mobile. It’s literally just 5 hog panels (a square split in half) and carabineers holding the corners together.
Large-breed pigs can certainly be fine, but if you want to keep a breeding pair, I highly suggest a small breed. The larger breeds can get hugs when they mature. I’m talking 500-900 pounds. That requires a serious pen and poses serious risks to small children who may wander too close. Big pigs are dangerous.
Fully mature potbelly pigs are usually around 150 pounds. They’re called lard pigs, but they’re not more fat than meat. If a pig is looking plump and chubby, you’re feeding it too many calories. Most people overfeed potbellies. They should have some visible muscle and hip structure.
If you want to fatten one to get a lot of lard, go for it. I don’t because it’s much less efficient with feed. Potbelly pigs are a source of delicious, high-quality pork. Just ask the folks that regularly buy butchered pigs from me.
You’ll need to separate the boys and girls before 3 months old, but that’s about it. Each potbelly we raise for meat eats approximately 150 pounds of feed, weighs approximately 60 pounds, and yields about 30 pounds of pork by 9 months. Butchering closer to 6 months will improve efficiency some but lower yields.
Pigs are productive breeders. My sows will have 2 litters of 7-10 piglets a year. That’s why I ultimately consider them better than goats for the homestead. at say, 25 pounds of pork each, that’s up to 400 pounds per breeding sow. A hefty year’s worth.
All pigs, that aren’t super fat, have a butcher weight of about 50 percent of their live weight. A potbelly pig should grow to between 50 and 60 pounds by 9 months and will yield some nice, dark, well-marbled meat if fed properly.
Goats, despite having become a symbol of high-class hobby farmers, are the most common livestock in third-world nations. And for good reason. Goats are among the toughest, hardest, and simplest animals to care and provide for. They do well on wild pasture, especially one with a lot of brush or stemmy plants.
Goats can thrive in a simple setup, aren’t prone to predation, have little health trouble, and pretty much take care of themselves. They are fairly easy to contain in a pen too. Goats are useful not only for meat but are great milking animals. And they are much more practical than keeping a dairy cow.
One standard-sized milking goat, when well-fed, provides enough milk for the average family. The only problems with goats are their initial cost and their low birth rate. Goats have become expensive in the last 10 years.
Fifteen years ago, I would see decent goats for $50-$75 each. Now they regularly go for $400 to $500 each. And, almost all goats out there are mini goats. I figure regular goats are small enough, especially if you want to milk them. Once you get past that initial buy-in, it’s doable if you maintain a breeding herd.
The other issue is that goats only have up to 2 litters a year and average 2 kids each time, if well-fed. If fed a less ideal diet, you’re likely to get just 1 kid per pregnancy.
Goats are the animal I’d get if I had an acre or two of fenced-in pasture. Right now, they just don’t make sense for us. One of my small pigs yields about as much meat as a standard meat goat. If I didn’t have a 1/2 acre garden and if I wasn’t trying to grow all our rabbit feed, I’d consider goats.
We only have 1 acre, and I can only do so much. The way I see it, I’d need a bare minimum of 1/2 acre, probably split into 3 paddocks for rotational grazing, to raise a small herd of goats. Goats are the largest animal I could feasibly raise on my property, but I’d have to sacrifice something else to make room for them.
Goats are usually slaughtered between 5 and 7 months old, weigh about 50 pounds, and yield about 15 pounds of meat. The meat yield is usually about 30 percent of their live weight. Although super hardy, they are not particularly efficient animals in most situations.
Sheep are in a similar category as goats. They are expensive upfront, have relatively low birth rates, and need a fair bit of space to raise a year’s worth of meat for a family. but, they generally get much bigger by butcher age and have more meat. They’re just not quite as hardy.
The fact is, I can have three breeding adult rabbits (one buck and two does) and get as much meat as I could from a breeding pair of sheep, or goats for that matter. The high birth rate does matter. Sheep are easy caring and easy to keep, but adult sheep need to be shorn every now and then.
Sheep usually require better pasture land than goats do. Sheep thrive more on grass than goats could. A lamb, butchered at 8 months weighs between 100 and 140 pounds and yields between 30 and 50 pounds of meat.