We have a variety of livestock residing here at Blackberry Run Homestead. An assortment of chickens and ducks, geese, rabbits and goats. When I enter the barn every morning I am greeted by a cacophony of sound that would rival a 10 piece brass band. Quacks, honks, bleats, screams and crowing drown out any other sound. I call it feeding time at the zoo. The barn residents are hungry and they are letting me know they want breakfast. And that is the issue.
When you acquire livestock you soon find out that you work for them and not the other way around. Sure they may end up in the freezer, but in the meantime it is the homesteader or farmer's job to cater to the whims of their animals. Feeding, watering, housing, doctoring, whatever it takes to keep the livestock healthy, happy and productive. No one who harvests meat is under the delusion they are saving money by doing so.
Quite the contrary, I have estimated that every pound of meat I produce costs at least three times that which I can get at the supermarket. And that is not counting my labor. An example, a one day old heritage turkey poult costs as much a young frozen bird from the store. The costs mount quickly as turkey feed is the most expensive I buy. Add in the time and effort to water and manage a flock and you now have surpassed the cost of a meal at a fine restaurant for each bird.
Money is only one part of the equation though. Effort is a commodity that becomes increasingly valuable as you age. Mrs. Blackberry and I have been at this homesteading game almost 30 years. We didn't start young. It now takes a considerable effort just to care for the livestock twice a day, every day. This effort also includes daily rotating the goat herd on new pasture. Fixing pens, hay racks, etc., which break on an almost daily basis. Dealing with the pressure from predators is almost a full-time job.
Many people in the agriculture world know that dairy farmers have a tough life. Cows have to be milked twice a day like clockwork. There are no off days. Injury or sickness of the farmer can be catastrophic to the farm. I posit that most people who raise livestock are in a similar situation. Maybe not as extreme as the dairyman, but just as hectic and rigid in the execution of daily chores. A day off here means I can step away from the homestead for about eight hours in the middle of the day. The barn has to be opened everyday before any other activity and it must be closed before any final activity.
No overnight trips are possible without backup to manage the livestock, a daunting enterprise for non-farm folk. It is a great imposition to ask someone to tend to the tend livestock so we can go away and do nothing for a day or two. I feel guilty and worried the entire time I'm away on my supposedly relaxing trip. So we don't take any trips.
The real issue that concerns me is the work never gets easier and each year my energy levels decrease. What was done with relative ease five years ago, now takes considerably more effort. Add into the equation the effort to avoid any kind of injury. A few years back I injured my ankle. I could not stand on it for several weeks. Everyday I went out and performed my daily chores without hesitation. Pain or no, livestock must be fed and watered. Most homesteads don't or can't have paid help. There are no other options.
After much discussion, and much complaining by me, we have decided to stop raising livestock. That includes house pets. Our remaining cats are old and won't live for more than two or three years. I am planning to slowly start phasing out the farm animals. That means the ambitious breeding plans I had for this year are probably going to be put aside. Through sales and attrition we will let the herds and flocks dwindle down to nothing. I just found out today that one of the local livestock auction houses has shut down for good. That option went up in smoke.
We are not going to unload everything all at once or have a fire sale. I can keep going for a while yet. However, I want to be livestock free in about three years. There are many other projects I have wanted to start but have been unable due to the demands of keeping animals. I would like to be young enough and have the strength to attempt at least of a few of them. I want to pay more attention to my gardens and hobbies I tell people I have but never have the time to pursue.
My greatest concern is leaving Mrs. Blackberry on her own with a dead husband and hundreds of mouths to feed. To me, that is the most unconscionable thing I could do.
I may adapt this new plan. Extend it a year or two after scaling down to just some chickens or a pet goat or two. However, the direction is set and from this ultimate path we will not waver. I never set out to be rooted to the land like a tree. Rather to live close to the land and appreciate its bounty. We will still be homesteaders, but I'll let those younger and stronger do the heavy lifting. Rereading those words stings quite a bit since they mirror my mortality. Homesteading is fraught with the life and death struggle of nature. In the end we all succumb. As human beings, it is our job to prepare as best we can so those we leave behind are better off.
Maybe the extreme cold of this winter is affecting me because I find myself wanting to not have to go outside. I never thought I would actually be at this point in my life. Who does? Youth is intoxicating and we feel it will never end. I plan to live out the rest of my, hopefully, many days left raising food and puttering around the homestead. We'll find a local farmer raising meat and support them. It will actually save us a fair amount of money. My ancestors are probably turning in their graves. Both at what I just wrote and for allowing the conditions that make that statement correct.