What does it take to homestead?
It takes a lot of heart. You need to be dedicated and find things that bring enjoyment to your life, rather than be a burden.
I’ve always been like my mom, and she’s always been a role model to me. When she was my age she had a little homestead with chickens, goats, and a garden. Her love for gardening and animals never left her, and it reflected onto me. I’ve always loved animals, but I didn’t really get a passion for gardening until I moved to the farm. When I went to college and lived in a big farmhouse surrounded by cow pastures, I started to read up on homesteading. I fell in love with this idea that homesteading was magical – growing your own food, collecting eggs, milking the family cow or goat, etc. – but it’s hard.
I was never in one place when I was in school, so I had always attempted to container garden with not much luck. I frequented the local farmer’s markets and found things by the bushel to cook and can for storage. Learning to can was probably my first step to homesteading. Homesteading, to me, is the ability to be self-sufficient. I didn’t grow the food I canned, but I was able to make it last and have something for storage. Canning food quickly became a fun past time, though it was a challenge being in a tiny kitchen with not enough room to open the refrigerator door completely. For someone learning to pressure can, I would recommend starting with apples. They were easiest and you can make them in several different ways. I tried my hand at apple sauce, spiced apple pie filling, and apple butter. I also canned soup, salsa, and peaches (which I am dreading ever doing again).
In everything that I read in books and magazines, “start small” is the best trick to homesteading. In your first year start with a garden and maybe some chickens. You can start plants from seeds or get some starts from any store that sells them. Planting seeds is the cheapest route and when I first started, I would plant them in the wells of egg cartons. It worked really well, but I had a hard time keeping the soil damp enough because the cartons were so shallow, they wouldn’t hold moisture. I do remember the majority of my started plants were eaten by my pet rabbit, so to anyone that has critters that like greens, beware.
To me, chickens are the staple animal for a homestead. They’re easy to care for, relatively inexpensive, and make breakfast nearly every day. I answered an ad on Craigslist and just happened to find a really fantastic poultry mentor. He helped me understand the basic care of chickens, what they all really need to thrive. I always knew that chickens molted, but I learned that they can molt really heavy and look practically naked, so that was a relief to know. The hours of daylight also affect the hen’s laying cycle. Most chickens decrease in production or stop completely during the winter months, and not because it’s cold. There’s all these little facts that I learned by having a mentor.
I would say, although chickens are the easiest animal to have and care for, they are full of a lot of heart ache, trial, and error. I started off with eight hens and two roosters, and by the end of the year I had nearly lost my whole flock to predators. It took a lot of learning to figure out how to predator proof the chicken coops, protect them while they were out during the day, and just try to keep them coming home each night. I think the most important thing I learned is that chicken wire really isn’t great at protecting chickens. I battled raccoons sticking their hands into the coop through the spaces in the chicken wire and had to replace everything with sturdy hardware cloth.
Having been a fiber artist from years of crocheting and more recently learning to weave, I really wanted sheep. I initially wanted just two sheep for a small fiber flock, because you know, “start small”. By the end of the year, I had six sheep of all different breeds. I did a lot of research on their basic care and management, and found a mentor to help me learn. My one regret with starting my fiber flock was having tried wool from different breeds to find the type of wool that I liked best. I got Icelandic sheep to start with and ended up really not liking their wool. It was coarse and I couldn’t keep it from felting on the sheep, which was a nightmare in itself.
To anyone wanting sheep, it’s not easy. There’s a common saying amongst all shepherds that “sheep are always looking for ways to die.” I can verify that that is a fact. Learn from my mistakes and get sheep from a flock which has ample amount of grass and great parasite resistance, or at least minimal intervention when it comes to parasites. Oh, and you will get to intimately know all about sheep parasites. Sheep are not these cute, little wooly pets like the nursey rhymes make them out to be. They’re stubborn, flighty, and smart! My first year I battled every day with parasite loads in my flock. I had gotten my sheep from a shepherd who had too many sheep for the amount of pasture they had. Parasite larva like to live close to the soil, so when grass is short, there are a lot of larva that the sheep will ingest. Due to the constant parasite issue, this shepherd used a lot of de-wormer to keep their sheep alive, which lead to de-wormer resistant parasites, particularly the Barber Pole worm. I was lucky enough to bring the resistant strain of worm to my pastures (sarcasm intended). I tell anyone interested in sheep, quarantine your sheep from your pastures! I didn’t think I needed to worry about quarantining the sheep since I didn’t have any other sheep that could get sick, but I didn’t think about what those sheep were harboring. I recommend keeping any new animals in a stall or separate place for a minimum of one week, having a vet complete a fecal egg count, and deworming as needed. This would have saved me from a lot of heart ache.
After having the first two sheep for about a month, I thought, why not one more? Well, she died, and according to her necropsy (animal autopsy) report, it was from Barber Pole worms. These worms can lead to sheep becoming severely anemic and their bodies just shut down. The hardest part was knowing that I was actively de-worming her because I knew she was anemic from the Barber Pole worms, but none of the medications were working because the strain she had were resistant to the de-wormer. There are loads of articles about chemical resistance in common livestock parasites, and over-use of these products will lead to the demise of a large amount of livestock. It was a horrible, heartbreaking lesson I had to learn from the mistakes of someone else. I learned so much after that experience, and I would suggest to anyone, look into pasture rotation and management practices. We currently employ these methods and have excellent control on the parasite population. I will likely make another post about this topic, which I am really passionate about.
To sum up my first year homesteading, I had a large garden, a small flock of chickens and a few wool sheep. I am really thankful I didn’t have much else on my plate, because between battling with predators attacking my chicken flock and trying to keep my sheep from dying while they grazed, it was more than enough to handle. If I had more to deal with, I wouldn’t have been able to fully learn from what had happened. I took a lot of time researching, asking questions, and learning from others on how to improve. I read dozens of articles and books on poultry and sheep care, pasture management, and who knows what else.
Even though they were really hard lessons to learn, I learned from them, and that’s the most important part. So when I say homesteading takes heart, prepare to have your heart ripped out repeatedly and stomped on as you watch your tomato plants die from disease, your chickens dismembered and their feathers scattered across the yard, and your sheep trying to die on you daily. I wouldn’t trade my little homestead for anything else in the world though, because it is my heart and it’s what keeps me going every day.