This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you.*
If you’re a new homesteader or thinking of starting a homestead, you’ve probably been wondering which animals you should get first. There’s no need to jump in too quickly. Investing in animals for your homestead is a big commitment. It’s important to take plenty of time to consider your options so you can do what’s best for you and your family.
In this article, we’ll look at the 9 most popular homestead animals. They’re popular for a reason, so let’s find out why…
A few chickens is a great place to start for animal self-reliance. Chickens produce eggs, and some breeds will also hatch their own chicks providing you with a consistent supply of new layers, and roosters, for consumption.
For just starting out with chickens for eggs, a few standard egg layers in a movable coop can be a good idea. For more advanced chicken raising, small chicken breeds, like bantams, silver phoenix, and silkies are more likely to have the requisite clutching instinct for raising your own chicks. Smaller breeds also have better foraging instincts, so can gain protein from bug sources vs. requiring commercially prepared laying rations.
Chickens can be a very handy part of a permaculture garden, as they specialize in flattening and scratching up low ground covers, cleaning out insect populations, and even cleaning up fallen fruit and waste veggies.
Many large cities are also permitting backyard flocks, usually 3-5 hens and no roosters. Check your local by-laws and see if you are able to raise a backyard flock. Just remember that you don’t want to leave your garden hose in the chicken waterer because, if the city flushes the mains, it could act as a siphon. Use a controlled waterer instead.
One step up from chickens, and less threatening and obnoxious than geese, ducks can produce awesome eggs, and also some very tasty meat. If you have a slug problem, ducks are also a very good option as they love slugs, though they also like drilling holes in every garden bed in sight if you let them.
Ducks require more bedding than chickens, as they often go to bed wet. At the same time, they are very handy for keeping fly populations in check in other animal yards, clearing slugs out of grassy areas, and cleaning up garden waste. Ducks and chickens can be raised side by side and will often get along just fine.
However, ducks require more water than chickens, as they have to clean their bills after puddling around in the dirt, so their water dirties far faster than that of chickens. If you are in a desert climate, you may want to begin with chickens and evaluate water usage before adding ducks.
If you live close to other people, smell can be an issue with ducks, due to them turning their housing into a wet zone. This either requires frequent cleaning or using something like wood shavings for bedding combined with frequent liming to keep odor to a minimum. Here are some duck raising tips.
Rabbits are another great place to start for animal self-reliance, and for many reasons. Rabbits are a favorite for backyard meat production. Depending on the variety you choose, you can also get rabbits that produce fiber, but that is a lot more work than just raising meat rabbits. Even if you get a dual fiber and meat rabbit. Rabbits require clean cages, frequently changed bedding, daily fresh water, and a consistent feed and amount of feed. Some breeds do quite well with an add-on of garden scraps, weeds, and other greens as well.
For rabbits, temperature is a big issue. Shade, and/or a cooling system, can be essential depending on your region and seasonal temperatures.
Processing rabbits is slightly more difficult than chickens or ducks, possibly due to the cute factor. Unlike poultry, however, rabbit skins can be processed into leather and used for clothing or blankets where a thin leather, with fur, is essential.
Fish are a surprisingly easy way to raise a large quantity of protein in a small space, and you can raise them indoors or outdoors. Indoor fish raising is likely the most controllable, and can even be worked into some indoor gardening, a pairing often referred to as aquaponics.
With an outdoor fish pond, you need space and some protection for the fish from predators. If you are close to a natural water supply, you will also need to only stock indigenous fish species, as otherwise escaped fish could damage your local ecosystem.
Indoor fish growing, or an aquaponic garden and fish raising system, can be quite beneficial for the quantity of food produced. An aquaponic system is actually one of the recommended systems for high return urban farming.
Beekeeping has become surprisingly popular in recent years, likely due to concerns that the bee population is dying off thanks to companies like Monsanto, but I don’t want to get into that right now.
Bees are a great thing to have around if you have a vegetable garden, as they could significantly increase its production. You’ll also get fresh honey, and if you don’t need a lot of honey, you can sell the extra. Plus, you’ll get lots of beeswax which can be used for making things like soap and candles.
However, due to the fact that bees can be very dangerous in large numbers, you really want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you get started. Buy and read a quality book such as The Backyard Beekeeper, find and meet local beekeepers if possible so you can ask them questions, and make sure you have all the necessary supplies and precautions before you order your bees.
Raising Larger Animals
Small livestock are very handy for small properties and city zoning. However, most small stock require a large amount of hands-on time for a relatively small return. Although, one taste of a home raised, free ranged roast chicken can make all the fussing completely worthwhile.
Larger livestock require more space, and a larger quantity of feed, but some species can just about take care of themselves, and one goat or sheep is way easier to process than fifty chickens.
Good fence checkers, and brush clearers, goats are handy for clearing land and driving farmers crazy, so it’s good that they are cute. Depending on the breed, you can get goats specialized for meat, milk, or even fiber. Of course, milk goats can be eaten just as easily as a specialized meat goat. However, it’s a lot harder to get decent milk from a meat breed goat.
Goats can graze, or browse in overgrown areas, just have good fencing or livestock guard animals to help keep them safe from predators. A good barn, good fences, and a wealth of patience are also very beneficial for raising goats.
You can raise two goats, or a goat and a sheep, but never a goat or a sheep on its own. They need a partner.
Standardly raised for wool or meat, sheep are a good choice if you have pasture land. Wool breeds are actually dual purpose, they just grow slower and taste better than the dedicated meat breeds. There are a few sheep breeds that are also used for milk production, but those sheep are standardly hair sheep and do not produce wool.
Sheep are more respectful of fences than goats, unless they are raised with goats. Sheep and goats have different mineral needs, specifically copper is toxic to sheep but necessary for goats. If you are raising both, you’ll need to make sure the goats are given mineral separate from the sheep.
Sheep prefer to graze, but will browse on occasion. They also have better mothering instincts than goats, and will be slightly more successful raising their young.
For simplicity of fencing, cattle are one of the easiest. A few strands of barb, or electric wire, and you are good to go. Cows, whether milk or meat, will graze or browse, but it depends on the diet and food habits of the mother cow. They are less likely to try new plants compared to goats. Due to their size, each individual cow requires more feed than an individual goat or sheep.
Milk cows produce up to four gallons of milk a day, and can milk for more than two years without being rebred. However, due to the size differential, it is far harder to force a cow to cooperate and a feisty cow can cause serious injuries. A cow is also much harder to process at home, at least compared to a goat or sheep.
Pigs are useful for meat, and for their tilling tendencies. A few pigs can be quite handy to turn a large compost pile, as they root for fermented grain or other edible garden waste. They are efficient at turning food into meat, and will eat anything. If you want to get into raising pigs, start with a smaller breed and really good fencing. Nothing wrecks a garden faster than an eagerly rooting pig.
So there you have it! The 9 most popular animals among homesteaders. To learn more about this, check out The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals. It’s a great place to start.