While we do consider a lot of our farm animals as "pets", and they certainly are spoiled, the usual suspects and even some surprising additions all play a role in keeping the farm running. Even as we expand our farm, we are looking to add animals that benefit our land or livelihood and don't just increase the cute factor - although, we do always want to increase the cute factor!
Choosing animals that are beneficial is key to survival for a small farm. Specifically, choosing animals that benefit your farm in a wide variety of ways and help diversify your farm will help a you achieve more while spending less. The family farms of yesteryear, when most of our food was grown by small families on a hundred or two hundred acres instead of mega-farms that plant thousands of acres of one crop, would diversify their farms to get the most out of their land, and if you are trying to feed yourselves that is the most sensible way to go.
Goats might be the cutest creatures on the farm. Let's face it: there's nothing sweeter than Tater's sweet face. As I've talked about on this blog before, they are also serving a wide variety of purposes on the farm. I detailed some of those purposes in last week's blog post, Why Keep Goats?. Even neutered males like our Mr Jones can be helpful with keeping weeds at bay.
I feel like our farm owes some of its existence to the flock of geese. They were the first real livestock animal we kept, and their increasing numbers and the opportunities they presented helped me gain confidence in our ability to be self reliant. But geese also serve some concrete purposes. A large flock of geese can keep a field of crops trimmed clean of weeds - as long the crop they are weeding isn't something they consider tasty (try larger bushes or trees). Goose eggs are large and valuable delicacies, their meat (although we do not eat ours) is delicious and prized, and even their feathers are desirable as comforter and pillow stuffing. In fact, geese may be one of the most versatile farm animals.
Ducks are also remarkably versatile farm animals, and like geese they require minimal attention. Ducks and geese both eat little grain during the summer when foraging is plentiful, need a dry space away from the elements, and can free range if you are not worried about predators or neighbors. Ducks will chow down on any creepy crawly insects or bugs, including pests that chicken's won't touch such as Tomato Hornworms. They may also chow down on your tomatoes, so fencing is helpful. Fortunately, ducks are shorter than geese so they cannot reach every tasty morsel. Ducks also lay large, delicious eggs, and their down and meat are both valuable.
Chickens are the classic small farm animal. They lay an abundance of eggs which can free you from the grocery store, although unlike ducks will slow down egg production during the darker winter months. Chickens are also great for pest control, and will happily forage for insects and grubs all day. They are low maintenance, much cleaner to keep than ducks or geese, and require relatively little space for housing.
We recently adopted some Guinea Fowl, who volunteered from a farm down the road. We have done literally nothing to keep them, but every day they are hanging around with our flock. Guineas have some downsides, such as their extremely loud calls and the fact they are impossible to catch, but they are excellent foragers who need almost no grain or shelter. You can provide shelter, but with their independent spirits there is no guarantee they'll use it. They can be fierce and will intimidate prospective predators, and they do lay small, tasty eggs. Mostly, though, people keep guinea fowl for pest control. They are probably the best foragers, and they'll remove ticks, grasshoppers, and other bugs entirely from a field.
Looking forward there are some animals we are definitely adding to our farm, and others we are considering. Honeybees, which we will start keeping next year, are important to keep crops and flowers pollinated and producing fruit. Honeybees can be left mostly to themselves, although for healthy and prolific hives some maintenance is a good idea. And, at the end of the summer, if your hive has been productive you can collect some honey to keep your sweet tooth satisfied through the winter.
Even our cats aren't just pets! We increased our little herd of cats to two in order to keep the mouse and rat population under control, which is crucial on a farm that's feeding lots of of tasty grains. Large rats and weasels can even be a threat to chickens, especially baby chickens, and can steal eggs. We are also getting a Livestock Guardian Dog for protecting our many animal investments. Dogs make great pets, but on a farm they can fill a very important need in protecting against predators.
Down the line we have considered such additions as a dairy cow, which would give us milk to supplement our goat's milk, and pigs, which would not only provide delicious cuts of meat but equally as importantly would help to uproot small trees and completely clear large areas of land.
Animal planning is an important part of farming, to make sure you get the most out of your investments and enjoy their company as well as their benefits. It's also probably the most fun part of farming. Picking the right goose breeds or when to breed our goats requires lots of research on the livestock which I thoroughly enjoy, and adding new animals to our farm is always a joy.