White sheep stood in field

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Rearing & Keeping Livestock on a Smallholding

Rosemary Champion, AKA The Accidental Smallholder, shares her experience and tips on keeping livestock.

For many smallholders, keeping livestock is an integral part of life. And there’s a wide range of livestock to keep – pigs, sheep, goats, alpacas, cattle, a variety of poultry and waterfowl. In the second of a six-part series in partnership with NFU Mutual, Rosemary Champion shares her advice.

1. Be prepared for a big commitment

“The key issue around keeping livestock is that they are a 365-day responsibility. All stock needs to be checked at least once a day to make sure they have adequate food and water and to ensure that they are fit and healthy. If you, as the keeper can’t do it, then you must make sure that you have arranged (and adequately trained and briefed) for someone else to do the daily checks. Don’t assume that because you know it, your “apprentice” will, so don’t be afraid to leave detailed instructions. And the vet’s phone number.

2. Have a clear purpose

“I think it helps to establish why you are keeping livestock. We’re quite generalist – we keep laying hens, raise meat birds and weaner pigs for our own freezer and breed cattle and sheep. Our main purpose is to produce food for ourselves and sell any surplus.

“So, we don’t keep goats – partly because I just don’t like goat’s milk, but mostly because we have home produced lamb, beef, pork and chicken already. We don’t breed pigs because we don’t have adequate housing or land and don’t want the stress of having to either sell, perhaps, 30 weaners every year or sell the consequent pig meat. We don’t keep llamas or alpacas because we can’t get our heads around the economics. All our livestock has to earn its keep – that’s the deal. I justify the ponies because they produce a lot of manure and they contribute, along with the cattle and sheep, to managing the worm burden on the grazing. OK, it’s tenuous – but that’s us and our plan. Every smallholder is unique.

3. Don’t overstock grazing animals

“If you do overstock on grazers, you can compensate for a lack of grass in the short-term by feeding conserved forage or bagged feed, if you can tolerate the cost. But the damage that overstocking and the resultant poaching (or trampling of grassland) will do to the soil structure and therefore future grass growth is difficult to rectify.

4. Be a good partner with your vet

“Work with your veterinary practice to develop a health plan so that you have a timetable of routine interventions like vaccinations and the prevention of parasites like worms and liver fluke. It doesn’t have to be complicated – but it will reduce the risk of disease and ill health, as long as you follow it.

5. Develop the “smallholder’s lie-in”

“This means getting up in the morning, feeding the livestock, then going back to bed for a kip. See sheep tip below.

6. Plan ahead with your pigs

“My best tip is ‘when locating your pig pen, think about how you are going to get 100kg pigs out, not 20kg weaners in’. I speak from experience and the memory of a very long and rickety race from the pig pen gate, across the lawn to the trailer, the first time we sent pigs to the abattoir. We’d taken the weaners across the lawn six months earlier in a puppy crate. Think ahead!

7. Get ready for lambing season

“For sheep, my best tip is to pre-cook and freeze your favourite comfort food before lambing. And buy chocolate biscuits. I favour chocolate gingers. Also, learn how to dress and walk while asleep. With modern technology, you can check your sheep from your phone on your bedside table but I can get up, put wellies and jacket on, lift torch, check sheep, then do the reverse – and not wake up. It’s a skill.

8. Protect yourself if you’re keeping cattle

“For aspiring cattle keepers, buy steel toecapped boots and arnica. You WILL be bruised. And adopt cattle speed – rushing them just makes them grumpy and everything take longer. Take the time it takes, and it’ll end up taking less.

“Keeping livestock is incredibly rewarding, but always keep your personal safety and the welfare of your stock at the forefront. And enjoy.”

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