Choices for Breeding Livestock on the Small Farm
We just finished round one of artificial insemination on our gilt (year old female) pig, Nutmeg. We are also in the midst of watching some of our goats to see if they go into heat, so we can whisk them off to a driveway breeding date.
I have had a few questions about AI with the pigs, and I also realized that five years ago when we decided to bring home dairy goats, the logistics of how to breed them was not one of my considerations. So I thought it would be helpful to do a post about the options available to someone breeding livestock, and why we’ve gone the routes we have.
Do you need to breed your animals?
Does that sound like a silly question? It isn’t. Every time you breed you will be, at minimum, doubling the mouths to feed on your farm. If you plan to slaughter you still have to house and feed your animals for several months, if you plan to sell you have to find them homes, and if you plan to keep every animal born to your farm you will be out of space and money in a very short time. We breed goats to bring our does into milk so we can milk them, we breed pigs to increase the number on our farm as we are using them to clear land. Every year we carefully consider the logistics of feeding, selling, and housing any animals born here, and we proceed accordingly. Just because you keep livestock does not mean you have to have baby animals on your farm every year.
When do you want to have baby animals?
We breed late compared to most of our neighboring farms. If you are breeding for slaughter you want animals born in the very early spring, February or March, so they will be ready for a fall slaughter. If you breed for sale, you’ll have to consider that the person you’re selling to may slaughter or may want to breed that fall (so your females would have to be of age by then). At our farm, we don’t breed for slaughter and while we sell some piglets and goat kids, it’s not our primary goal. So we breed much later, for kidding/farrowing in May, June or even July. Why? Because it’s warm. It’s rare that it is hot enough to be a problem in Maine, and it is very common that it is cold enough to freeze a baby. Best case scenario, all births go easily, the farmer is on hand and the mom cleans off the babies before cold sets in. But best case scenario does not always happen, and I’d rather not have one more thing to worry about when birthing time comes.
If you have livestock you usually have four options: own an intact male, lease an intact male, do a driveway breeding, or consider artificial insemination. Which is the right choice depends on your goals, how important bloodlines and genetics are to you, the species you’re raising, how large of an operation you have, and what you’re willing to invest in time and money.
Owning an Intact Male
If you’re a small farm, breeding a few females every year, your most expensive option is owning an intact male. That being said, if you are a large operation having to breed a number of females every year, keeping a buck is both the least expensive and most practical way to go. The downsides: some males are more aggressive (some, like goats, are sweeter), some (read: goats) are stinky, and all need separate housing and secure pasture when it is not breeding season. You don’t want any oopsie babies, and once you’ve used a male once you have to start considering if you have any of his daughters in your herd. All of this makes owning a male logistically difficult, and the added needs in housing and feed (to say nothing of your original purchase price)make it the most expensive option if you are only going to use him once or twice a year. That cost is offset if you would have to buy dozens of rounds of AI, or trailer twenty does over for driveway breedings. The upsides of owning an intact male: it becomes very easy to plan your breeding season, removing the logistical difficulties there. While you probably want to be aware if your females are bred, you do not have to drop everything if you see them go into heat. You can also lease or rent your male to service other farms, giving you added income to cover the costs of keeping him. And, if you are attached to your male, you have a sweet guy to hang out with on your farm.
You can also purchase a male with the specific intent of using him to breed and then sell him on, which is a fairly common practice and avoids the issues of inbreeding once your herd has his offspring in it. If you get attached to the male, this is not a great option. It’s also a risky option if you don’t know when someone might end up buying him. If your plan is to have a male for a few weeks, you could end up keeping him for years. You can butcher a male, but if he’s an intact adult the meat will have a distinct taste that most consider very unpleasant.
Leasing a Male
Leasing a male is a good option for a small farm. You don’t have to worry about if you can sell him or not, and you don’t have to cover his feed bills for too long. However, depending on what you’re looking for it can be hard to track down a good stud. Many farms are wary of health issues from leasing, and often you can only work out a lease if you are friends with the male’s farm. If you can find what you’re looking for, it’s a great option, but it requires a lot more legwork to track down the right guy for your farm, and sometimes you simply cannot.
Driveway breedings are especially common if you have a very small dairy farm, for example you’re breeding only one or two does a year. Again you have to have a tested, disease-free herd for a farm to even consider allowing a driveway breeding with your doe. If you find the right farm, and a guy who matches what you’re looking for, the only difficulty is timing. For example, we tried to do a driveway breeding with our Nubian goat Ginger this fall. She didn’t take the first time, and the second time she came into heat it was a snowstorm. We missed her window of heats for the year, because doing a driveway breeding requires being able to take her to the stud’s farm during the 24 hour period she is in heat. If you work off the farm or bad weather sets in, that might not be possible. Some species driveway breeding is harder to arrange than others - it seems to be extremely rare as an offer for pigs, but fairly common for goats.
Finally, artificial insemination. This requires some boldness on the part of the farmer, and a lot of attention to your girl’s heat cycles. In order to work, AI has to be performed during the window that your female is ovulating. You need some special equipment and you need to purchase the semen, but all of this costs significantly less than the feed and housing costs of a male animal. You will have access to more diverse and higher quality bloodlines from around the country, instead of just what is local to you. As with a driveway breeding, you need to be available to breed your female 2-3 times in a 24 hour window. With goats, AI means a lot of special equipment (male goat sperm is kept frozen in liquid nitrogen) and does don’t stand still for very long. But with pigs, the equipment is a $.05 ‘pig rod’ and a sow or gilt will stand stock still for pretty much as long as it takes you to inseminate her.
To conclude, I’ll explain what we did this year and why.
For our pigs, we’ve chosen to do AI. One of our farm’s missions is to help preserve heritage breeds, and it would be doing a disservice, and it is important to us to keep purebred, genetically strong and preferably registered Tamworth pigs. AI gives us access to the bloodlines we want, we could not locate a Tamworth boar for sale or lease close enough to us to be reasonable and we did not want to buy and then be unable to sale the male. Driveway breeding is basically not offered for pigs, because they’re so large and hard to control.
For our goats, this year we are doing a driveway breeding because we are only breeding one doe. It has been a bit of a hassle with the weather and our own schedules, having a vehicle available to transport her. But we do know a farm that is willing to offer a driveway servicing, and we are very happy with their genetics. We have leased a buck in the past, again from a farmer that is a friend and has a herd with strong genetics, and when we were breeding our whole herd it was easily the best option for us.
There is much to consider in breeding your animals, and certainly no right or wrong way to go about it. Hopefully whichever method you choose, you’ll end up with a farm full of adorable and healthy babies in the spring.