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Smaller breeds of farm animals aren't necessarily better for homesteads.

Countryside: I have written several letters for information on Dexter cattle, Pygmy goats, Nigerian goats, and Vietnamese Potbelly pigs, but to date I have not received any answers.

I have 150 acres in Missouri and will retire there in a year or two. I need all the information I can get to start planning now. I am very interested in receiving any and all information on any of the above on how to raise and feed them.

I would also like information on Beefalo cattle.

I think a good article in Countryside on the small livestock would be welcome to a lot of homesteaders because of the small costs involved which would fit into their budgets.

This letter sends up several warning flags... and we get many like it. There are no direct answers, but let's examine some of the concepts and misconceptions it brings up.

A discussion of minor and exotic breeds in this magazine first requires getting a couple of ideas straight. (We can include registered animals here too.) That's because some people who say they want to be homesteaders, or self-sufficient, think that old-fashioned (or small) breeds of animals are somehow better for old-fashioned, small places. That's not necessarily so.

Then too, homesteading and self-sufficiency can mean providing only enough for your own use, or it can involve having something extra to sell. This can be important. If you don't want to get involved in selling stock, the higher value of the off-spring of either a rare breed or a registered animal is of no concern.

I'm fully aware that there are many people in many situations who are sincerely interested in out-of-the-ordinary breeds of animals and should pursue that interest. What concerns me are the people who know little or nothing about livestock, and who think either that they're going to make money by raising expensive animals, or that these are somehow inherently better for self-reliant homesteading than more common breeds. They read about a small cow or see a cute picture of a diminutive goat, and that's what they want.

I believe that anyone who is interested in self-sufficiency--and certainly anyone starting out with little or no livestock experience--should think twice before getting into exotic breeds. Or even registered purebreds, for that matter. Learning more about the specific breed isn't the first step. The first step should be learning more about livestock.

Despite frequent and sustained protests from many readers, I'm not convinced that someone who's interested in low-cost animal products should be looking at off-beat breeds. Note the italics: this doesn't include gentleman farmers, hobby farmers, or serious breeders. I'm talking about us ordinary poor folks who want to put something besides road kill on the table: we're not about to become experts in genetics and the other things serious breeders have to be educated in, we have no intentions of becoming salespeople, and we couldn't afford an expensive hobby even if we had the time and inclination.

(One big problem here is that Countryside includes many gentleman farmers, hobby farmers, and serious breeders--as well as subsistence homesteaders--among its readership. I have to point out the differences in discussions such as this one because many beginners don't know what they are, yet.)

Unusual breeds generally cost more--sometimes much more--than more readily available varieties. In some cases there are only a few thousand, or even only a few hundred, of the animals in the entire country. Driving 500 or a thousand miles to buy an expensive cow when you can get a perfectly acceptable and cheaper one right down the road doesn't fit in with my idea of self-sufficiency.

If you want a certain breed just because you want it, and you can afford it, that's something else. But that brings up another problem I've had with many different kinds of animals over the years.

I can understand the urge to have something new and different. But when this becomes a fad--as it did with Potbellied pigs--it can become dangerous, especially to the unwary newcomer to livestock. As the fad builds, prices invariably soar. The assumption is that if you paid big money for a breeding animal, you'll be able to charge big bucks for the stock you sell.

Don't bet the farm on it. Maybe I've spent too much time reading about the scams of years past in back issues of this magazine, going back to the Belgian Hare boom (and even fancy ladies paid outrageous prices for Brahma chickens at one time). But I don't recall a single instance where much-higher-than-normal prices for animals reputed to have special attributes--or profit potential--didn't come crashing back to Earth after enough people lost enough money to make a few promoters rich.

I've known more than a few people who lost their life savings (mostly on rabbit schemes, which pop up like toadstools on a rotted dung heap). And these are invariably those who can least afford a loss of any kind.

The problem? Perhaps along with a certain amount of greed, or at least a desire to get rich quick, it's a total lack of experience.

This is a terrible and outlandish example, but it's true: back during the chinchilla boom, when it seemed every other person was going to make a million raising chinchillas in their basements for fur coats, someone asked... "How often can an adult chinchilla be pelted?"

For those more interested in homesteading than in becoming cattle (or rabbit or chinchilla) barons, there are other pitfalls. You don't have to read very much literature on livestock--including articles in this magazine--to suspect that almost every breed is "the ideal homestead animal," easy keeping, hardy, with good mothering instincts, etc. etc. In most cases what we're seeing is personal preference, as well as personal experience with a specific strain or family. There is no guarantee that breed will serve you as well, if only because of differing location and management.

What you need first is experience.

There are certainly examples of people with no livestock experience becoming enamored with a certain animal and becoming expert and respected breeders. The problem is that that requires a great deal of work, time and study, and that people who think you merely need a male and a female and some feed to be a successful breeder are not prepared or equipped for that work and study.

Where does that leave us?

We have to recognize that there are different kinds of livestock people--regarding their interests, desires, time, knowledge, finances and goals. It's impossible to say that Breed A or Breed B is good or bad for any individual without taking all of these into account.

In addition, a cow is a cow, basically, and a goat is a goat. Only in very rare instances would it be necessary, or make sense, to have an article telling how to raise and feed a Dexter cow or a Nigerian Dwarf goat as compared to a Jersey cow and a Nubian goat, because all animals of the same species have the same basic needs and requirements. Learn how to raise and feed a cow, and you can raise and feed any cow, regardless of breed. Read our articles on pastures, to take one example, and you'll have information on pasturing any breed of cattle... as well as sheep and goats. The differences, if any, will be minor.

The important thing is to get started. Study. Then prepare the housing and purchase an animal. If you have your heart and mind set on a minor breed--or a registered purebred--and can find one without too much difficulty and you can afford it, fine. But if not, start with something else and gain experience. You can always switch later if the opportunity arises--and if you're still interested. The real payoff is, you'll be prepared to do a better job.
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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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