It is that time of year when many of us are curled up with a cup of something warm and a hatchery catalog or we're on the Internet looking at classified ads for other livestock. Whether you will be bringing home your first livestock this spring or just adding to your herds and flocks, there are some important things to keep in mind.
Last night I arrived home from the Illinois Specialty Grower's Conference, which over the past couple years, has started to include some livestock sessions as people realize that a diversified system is the backbone of a healthy farm. Jennifer L. Burton, DVM, gave a talk on "Animal Health in Organic Systems," and I found myself constantly nodding throughout her talk. I realized that I've been doing what she was recommending.
First of all, buy from someone who has a similar management style to yours -- or similar to what you plan to have. I have long advised people buying dairy goats to buy from someone who milks their goats regularly and keeps track of their milk weights. And in the back of my head, I've always thought it was a good idea to buy from someone whose health protocols matched your ideal, but I don't think I ever voiced it much.
If you want to have an organic farm, you should buy from a breeder with an organic management style. There are a lot of breeders out there who are injecting kids with various supplements and vaccines within minutes after they hit the ground. If they really need to do that to keep their animals alive, then those are not the genetics you want on an organic farm. Those are also not sustainable genetics. If an animal has been vaccinated for a disease, you have no idea if that animal has any type of natural immunity or if it could develop immunity on its own.
Ask the breeder about birthing complications in the dams (mothers) of the animals you plan to buy. Did they require assistance at birth? I once saw a woman on Facebook say that she'd had her arm inside every goat on her farm. My first thought was that either she was way too involved in her goats' birthing or she needed to cull her whole herd and start over. Every animal could get unlucky and have a baby that was positioned poorly once or twice in her life, but if they seriously need assistance every year, this is unsustainable.
What about problems like retained placentas, mastitis, and lameness? Those all have genetic components, although nutrition can also play a big role, so it is important to ask about the breeder's feeding program. If it is vastly different from what you are planning, then the animals might not do well on your farm -- or they might do better.
Is the breeder frequently using chemical dewormers, or do the animals show resistance to worms? Do they rotate pastures, or do they have the animals on a dry lot? Again, if this is very different from the way the animals would be living on your farm, it's hard to know if they'll thrive.
If you are planning to allow mothers to raise their babies, what kind of mothering ability does the animal's dam have? This is especially important if you have plans for pasture lambing, calving, and farrowing.
And finally -- if you want an organic farm, you may have to close your herd or flock at some point. At a minimum, you will have to stop bringing in new animals every year. The animals that live on your farm develop resistance to the germs on your farm, and they pass along that immunity to their babies. When I heard the vet say this, the light bulb went on in my head that it is no surprise that modern commercial weaning-to-finish operations have to rely so heavily on drugs to keep the animals alive. They are constantly bringing in new animals from different farms with different pathogens. They're all stressed because they've just been weaned and moved to a new place, so diseases like shipping fever seem like a logical problem.
I was also talking to a pastured beef producer that I know, and I asked him why my butchering book says that if you butcher calves around nine months, they'll be tough and stringy. We just butchered two bull calves at that age, and it is the most tender, delicious beef I've ever eaten. He immediately said that in modern confinement beef operations, calves that age would be tough because of all the stress they endure -- castration, weaning, moving to a feedlot, losing weight, and then starting to gain again. It's quite different from our calves who were not castrated and stayed with their mothers until they were taken to the processor, which is a twenty-minute drive.
It can sometimes be a challenge to find organic producers from whom to buy your stock, and I certainly wasn't lucky enough to be able to do that with all of my animals. So, if you do buy animals from a different management system, be aware that your results may vary, and you may need to include "hardiness" in your list of reasons for culling. And no, culling does not have to mean butchering. In many cases, an animal that's not right for your farm will be just right for someone else, perhaps even just as a brush eater or pasture ornament.