The Other Side of Raising Your Own Food

Or, "So, You Want to be a Farmer Do You?"

Commentary by Cindy Ross

There are two baby steers in the pasture that have just learned to eat grass. Up to now, they’d rather suck — fingers, pant legs, each other’s ears. A dairy farmer friend gave them to us when they still had their umbilical cords dangling from their abdomens — the age they’re sent to auction.

We purchased two months of milk replacer, bottle-fed them, taught them to drink from a bucket and eat grain from our hand. Without a mother to watch, it took them a while to figure out the grass step.

My husband, Todd has successfully raised chickens and turkeys in the past and didn’t think the leap from poultry to mammals would be a big jump. He figured, “You hear how great grass-fed beef is, so I figured I’d get a couple of bull calves, put my good grass to use and get some free meat.”

There’s a growing trend to reconnect with our food sources and save money while doing so. A few friends got into chickens because they heard that “you just throw them a little grain and water and you get free eggs,” but we are finding out otherwise.

Todd took on the task of castrating the calves using a borrowed rubber band stretcher tool. He did the deed while they were eating and occupied. But the second calf finished early, freaked and kicked off the tool, which resulted in getting the half-on-band snipped with a wire cutter and Todd starting over.

In a few days, that calf’s private parts became sore and infected and the vet needed to be called after all. He deduced that one of the testicles receded up into the calf’s abdomen and that his disposition would get very nasty in about four months. So nasty that Todd could not wear a red T-shirt without enraging him.

As I write this, my neighbor calls to tell me one of our baby steers is in his front lawn. I had to pause to capture it.

Todd had purchased a solar collector ($100+) that was rated to electrify up to 3 miles of fence to electrify our half-mile fence, but the fence wire only slightly tingled his fingers when he wrapped it securely around them. Until today, he merely hoped the calves would be content inside the 3-acre pasture.

Now, the boys are locked in their shed until Todd purchases an electrical charger ($100) as well as 600 feet of wire ($200) to send electricity from our home to the pasture. I don’t want to do the math to discover how much per pound this beef will cost.

In his defense, Todd noted, “But I’m learning a lot and that is worthwhile in itself.”

As backyard chicken farmers sprout up, they can easily make the mistake (like Todd, an experienced animal “husband”) that this lifestyle is easy and cheap. But we need to go into this animal husbandry business being as realistic and educated as we can so once we grow tired of the work and challenges we don’t mistreat our animals or try to unload them. Animal rescue shelters get chickens dropped off a few times a month.

Popular media doesn’t help. In a woman’s country magazine, a recent article encourages even urban dwellers with only a porch or balcony to keep chickens. The editor shows how to sew diapers (nappys) for your “cute” chickens so they can roam inside the house.

Directions are available to make an “adorable” hen house out of a baby crib so the chickens can sleep in your bedroom, and there are instructions on how to pamper your pet chickens with a “day at the spa” by painting the tips of their toes with pink polish.

In reality, chickens can be destructive, cannibalistic, and sickly and are always vulnerable to predators. If you hatch peeps, some will be roosters and more than one rooster in the henyard causes trouble. Are you willing to kill the unwanted boys?

Egg-laying slows down after only two to three years resulting in “pets” for another seven to eight years if you don’t want to turn the girls into soup. My softhearted friend can’t kill his senior citizens so his increasing flock of 25 hens consumes $75 a month in feed and lays up to 60 eggs a week, which he just gives away.

Well, OK. This animal husbandry has to be about the experience. Great-tasting eggs, a flavorful stewing chicken, and hopefully for us, some tender sirloin tips. Never mind the expense. Never mind the time. Just go into this endeavor with a grounded, realistic approach. It isn’t about saving money and it isn’t easy. But it certainly can be worthwhile. But please, forgo the nail polish.

Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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