By Jacki M. Perkins The face of production farming has changed drastically in the last 100 years. We have moved away from growing our own food and have relied on others to provide for us. There has, however, been a growing interest, driven by global circumstances, in re-learning the art of the homestead. The majority
Organic refers to an agricultural system that is founded on the natural world. Organic farmers are stewards of the land and work to build soil, promote ecological balance and encourage biodiversity. Growing and eating organic food supports human and environmental health while fostering thriving local economies. Organic farming is at the core of MOFGA’s work, and this includes raising organic livestock. Livestock are animals that are raised on a farm including cattle, pigs, chickens, cows, horses, sheep, goats and other domestic animals. Livestock can be raised for meat, milk, eggs, fiber, land management, breeding stock and/or a combination of these things.
Why raise organic livestock?
Raising livestock organically promotes humane production of livestock, without synthetic antibiotics, added growth hormones, such as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or feed made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Additionally, organic livestock farmers ensure that animals have access to the outdoors and room to move, graze and develop according to their natural behaviors. Organic livestock cannot be fed GMO grains.
Organic livestock needs
In order to start raising organic livestock, there are few things you need. The obvious one is livestock! We’ll cover getting animals in the next section.
You’ll need land to raise your livestock. Smaller landholdings might be more suitable for raising a flock of chickens or starting a small apiary. Having access to 3 to 5 acres of mostly open, fairly dry grassland opens up other possibilities, including sheep, goats and cattle. Learn more about land considerations.
To plot out how much pasture you’ll need for grazing cattle, the Natural Resources Conservation Service poses two questions for you to answer: How many animals should be on your pasture? And how many acres of pasture do your animals need? If you have a limited amount of land but a flexible herd size, you probably want to know the maximum number of animals that you can graze on your pasture. And if you have a lot of land but you want to keep a fixed number of livestock, you probably want to know the minimum amount of land your animals need to graze.
The NRCS continues to go into detail with an equation that can help figure out the exact number of animals you can have per acre. Your goal is to maximize the amount of livestock on minimal land without overusing the land. Without proper land rotation, you can run into myriad issues.
MOFGA has comprised a very comprehensive list of the accepted health practices, products and ingredients that you can use for raising organic livestock in Maine.
Pasture care for organic livestock
Raising livestock on pasture is beneficial for many reasons. Pasture-based systems produce healthy livestock. The meat, milk and eggs from pasture-based livestock is also nutrient dense for consumers. Maintaining livestock pasture offers environmental benefits, as grasslands can also reduce CO2 in the air. Lastly, pasture-based livestock can be more profitable for farmers.
In order to raise certified organic livestock, there are a few requirements for your pasture.
To qualify for organic certification, livestock producers must follow guidelines, including those for pasture, set out by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
One pasture rule outlined by MOFGA Certification Services is as follows: “Ruminant livestock must receive a minimum of 30% dry matter from pasture averaged over the entire grazing season.”
What this means, in a practical sense, varies from farm to farm; however, some basic best practices can be followed to optimize pasture.
- Rotationally graze — set up a series of paddocks to allow livestock to be moved to different sections once the grass has been grazed.
- Don’t graze lower than 4 to 6 inches — this allows grasses to regrow efficiently without needing to access their root reserves and to stay above the height that internal parasites typically climb to, as they need to stay hydrated in those lower levels.
- Move animals off an area after three days to prevent back-grazing (returning to eat the tender regrowth that plants start to do after three days).
Organic livestock information and care
Your primary goal is to reduce stress through good management, quality nutrition and proper healthcare. Observe animals daily by looking at their behavior and their movement — watch for any limpers (catch, examine and treat if necessary) and for animals hanging back or that don’t get up to feed. Provide daily outside access to a well-drained area for sheep not on pasture (no mud). Gently handle all sheep, refrain from yelling, yanking legs and horns, and pulling wool.
Contact your certifier before using any product that is not included on your Organic System Plan (OSP). Here are some basic healthcare practices:
- Have visitors use booties or foot baths to clean and disinfect footwear before entering barns or pastures.
- Provide a quarantine pen for at least three weeks for animals that are new to the farm.
- Be sure to check all hooves of new sheep for foot rot and to trim hooves regularly.
- Consider a vaccination program.
Provide free-choice minerals formulated for sheep. Check that ingredients are permitted in organic management. Provide fresh water, free choice, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Flush ewes by providing a higher level of nutrition before and during breeding. Select rams based on soundness and traits sought. Evaluate rams for soundness 30 days before breeding.
Provide adequate nutrition (pasture, high-quality forage or grains) to brood ewes during the last third of gestation and until their lambs are weaned. Allow ewes adequate space to move about freely during pregnancy. Check ewes regularly before, during and after lambing.
Some livestock managers choose to identify lambs with ear tags or tattoos at birth or soon after.
Wool and shearing
Shear sheep at least once per year. Some breeds are shorn twice annually. Have shearer disinfect equipment, electrical cords, cutter and combs before shearing. Have shearer wear clean clothing before handling and shearing your sheep. Keep sheep off feed for 12 hours before shearing.
Keep production records for each ewe, such as: percent of lambs marketed per ewe, conception rate, lambing rate, lambing percentage (lambs born per ewe lambing), lamb survival rate. Keep records of ewes’ performance before, during and after lambing. Mark and record I.D. numbers of ewes (if using). Specify those that are poor mothers — those lacking milk, having damaged udders, or “poor doers” (generally doing poorly). Consider culling these ewes and possibly their lambs.
Processing slaughter stock
Keep slaughter lambs off feed for 24 hours before slaughter. Provide water to lambs before slaughter. Arrange for slaughter of animals with the abattoir well in advance. Meat sold to the public or restaurants must be state or federally inspected to be legal. You must use a certified processor.
We have a full list of sheep best management practices for all your sheep care needs.
- Average body temperature: 100.5 F
- Age of sexual maturity: 6 months
- Heat cycle: 21 days
- Gestation: 283 days (9 months)
- Productive life: 10-12 years
- Digestive system: Ruminant
Types of cattle
- Dairy: Cattle selectively bred to produce larger volumes of milk than their calves would consume.
- Beef: Cattle selectively bred to be heavily muscled, often with a lighter bone structure and faster growth curves than other breeds.
- Exotic: Cattle more closely aligned with their wild counterparts, such as water buffalo or American bison.
- Calf: Birth to weaning.
- Weanling: Average age of weaning is 4-6 months.
- Heifer: Refers to a young, female cow of sexual maturity, but not yet milking. It is not recommended to breed heifers before 18 months of age because their bodies have not fully matured.
- Cow: Refers to female breeding-age bovine which have gone through their first lactation cycle.
Other terms to know
- Bull: Any individual of the species that exhibits male characteristics.
- Steer and oxen: Castrated males.
- Free martin: Any individual of the species that exhibits outward female characteristics, but does not have a complete reproductive tract and is therefore unable to reproduce.
When managing the living conditions of your organic cattle, you must consider the following: “All livestock … must have year-round access to outdoor areas that provide shade, shelter, opportunity for exercise, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight” (MOFGA Certification Services 2021, 23).
You have to consider the cow’s anatomy and physiology in relation to their living conditions.
- Ambient temperature and airflow are important things to monitor when dealing with ruminants. The action of the rumen creates heat, much like a compost pile, and it is more important to make sure adult cattle are not overheating. The optimum environmental temperature for peak production in adult dairy cattle is between 25 F and 65 F.
- It is the natural inclination of cattle to lie down. This means they need both comfortable, well-bedded space to lay down and enough space to get back on their feet.
- Due to the size of the rumen, diet and demands created by milk production, adult cattle consume upwards of 30-plus gallons of water per day. Cows need a constant supply of water because of this.
Grain and mineral requirements
While formulating a ration can be as simple or as complicated as a producer makes it, cattle should always have access to minerals in accordance with their life stage and production level.
Generally, cattle receiving adequate nutrition and housing remain healthy and problem-free. There are, however, some common issues that arise despite the best of care. If cattle owners remain aware of these possibilities, they are more prepared to work with their veterinarian to put their animals on the road to recovery.
We also have a full list of best cattle practices for all you need to know about raising cattle.
The American Poultry Association recognizes eight varieties of turkeys: the Bronze, White Holland, Black (Black Spanish, Norfolk Black), Narragansett, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and the Royal Palm. Other varieties that have been named are the Nebraskan, Jersey Buff, Black-wing Bronze and the Gray. Of these varieties, the Bronze and the White Holland have been, by far, the most important in the commercial industry. The Narragansett and the Bourbon Red have been secondary players but have not been involved in commercial operations since the 1950s.
Turkeys have certain characteristics, compared with chickens, that tend to make them less popular:
- They grow at a slower rate.
- They mature much later.
- Egg production in the turkey is about 50-80 eggs per year compared with the 250 eggs expected for the laying hen.
- Turkeys require a greater amount of space.
Raising organic chickens requires:
- Providing good-quality organically grown feed.
- Maintaining appropriate stocking rates.
- Designing husbandry systems adapted to their needs.
- Promoting animal health and welfare by minimizing stress, maintaining animal health with sound management, emphasizing cleanliness, and moving away from the regular use of healthcare products.
Housing space per bird
- 1/3 square foot indoors until 3 weeks.
- 1.5 square feet until 16 weeks.
- After 4 to 6 weeks, depending on outside temperatures, birds are required to have outdoor access.
- 1.5 to 2 square feet inside.
- 8 to 10 square feet outside.
- 6 to 10 inches perch space.
- The standard “chicken tractor” for pastured broilers is 10 by 12 feet for 75 to 90 birds. This needs to be moved daily.
- 3 square feet per bird. Another option is to use poultry netting and allow 15 square feet per bird for the season. They need some cover for weather protection.
You also need clean bedding that is added to the top or changed regularly.
Feeder space per bird
- Replacements: 1 to 2 inches.
- Layers: 2 to 3 inches.
- Meat birds: 6 inches.
Feed consumption per bird
- Replacements: 15 pounds up to 16 weeks.
- Layers: 0.2 to 0.25. pounds/day; 1.5 to 1.75 pounds/week; 6 to 7.5 pounds/month; 72 to 90 pounds/year.
- Meat birds: 10 to 20 pounds up to eight weeks.
Set feeder height so it is level with back of bird when standing and only fill half way to reduce feed waste.
Feed ingredient restrictions
- All feed must be organic, so no feed/vegetable scraps that aren’t organic.
- Fishmeal is allowed to supply methionine, if discussed with certifier.
Water space per bird
- 0.5 to 1.5 square feet as they grow.
- You must manage manage birds organically from the second day of life.
- No non-permitted substances in feed, healthcare products or house structure.
- Vaccinations are allowed.
- Must be clean. Sand lightly or wash to sell.
- If not washed, there is no need to refrigerate if selling within 7 days.
- Washed eggs must be refrigerated immediately after drying at or below 45 F.
- If you are slaughtering less than 1,000 birds per year, you can sell them from the farm gate.
- Grower/Producers (“G/P”) — those slaughtering less than 5,000 birds per year — can sell anywhere. A state-inspected facility is required.
- It is also possible to sell birds live and then transport them to a custom facility. A permit from the Department of Agriculture is required.
Toulouse is the largest breed of geese; the Mammoth Dewlap strain can reach 26 pounds. Its back is dark gray, with a light gray chest, pale yellow bill, and red to orange shanks and feet.
Embdens, large white geese, are better at sitting on eggs than Toulouse. They are good breeders, and their white pinfeathers make them easier to pluck.
African geese adults can weigh up to 20 pounds, and are grayish brown with a lighter breast, black beak, orange legs and feet and a black knob on their head. They are particularly noisy and have dark pinfeathers, so are more difficult to pluck because bits of pinfeathers are difficult to see against the dark skin.
American Buffs are a light buff color with a white chest. They reach 14 to 18 pounds and have light-colored pinfeathers. These are nicely behaved birds, easy to work with, are good grazers and are recommended as weeders.
Chinese geese can be white or brown. The whites have an orange knob and bill; browns have russet brown feathers, a brown head, and a dark gray knob and bill. They weigh 8 to 12 pounds and are productive egg layers. Their long neck makes them swanlike and good at weeding around plants.
Pilgrim geese are fast growing and efficient meat producers. This is the only breed in which the sexes are different — females are gray with a white breast and hazel eyes while males are white with blue eyes. This very docile, medium-sized breed makes a good weeder.
Tufted Romans are small, talkative geese with round bodies and enough meat to make them worth butchering. They are much less aggressive and more tolerant than Chinese Geese and are good weeders.
Geese are large birds and must be handled carefully to avoid broken bones or dislocated joints.
To catch a goose, first corner it so that you can easily access it. Then, put one hand around the neck near the body, holding firmly. Next, put the other hand on the back of the goose, over the wings. Then, let go of the neck and slide your hand, palm side up, under the breast and to the abdomen to support the bird’s body. Finally, lift the goose, holding the legs between your fingers to keep from getting scratched and confining the wings to prevent them from flapping around.
Getting started with geese
Purchasing adult geese is a good idea if you don’t have the patience or facilities to accommodate a gosling nursery; but any animal is cutest when young, and you are more likely to bond with each other if you get young stock.
Feed requirements for goslings depend on whether they are getting straight feed or their feed is supplemented with fresh cut greens or pasture. For the first six weeks, birds getting straight grains can eat waterfowl starter at 22% protein or chick starter. Be cautious with commercial chick starter: Certain coccidiostats included in starting and growing mashes may cause lameness or even death in goslings.
Raising your own goslings
Geese are generally good setters and take good care of their young. Only minimal housing is required (access to pasture is almost more important), primarily to keep them dry and protected from predators.
So, if the birds you raised from goslings or purchased are good representatives of their breed, you can then raise your own goslings. Remember that these goose-raised goslings still need appropriate feed and water.
All animals require water, but waterfowl also like to know where their water is at all times. In fact, you can move them around a pasture by moving their water tub. Keep goslings dry, however, until they have all their feathers and can maintain their body temperature. Place the waterer on a wire mesh, with a tray below to catch spilled water so that they cannot play in it.
Grazing and weeding
Geese are the closest foragers known, and adults can glean their entire diet from grazing quality pasture. They can be very selective and tend to pick out the palatable forages, rejecting alfalfa and tough, narrow-leaved grasses and selecting more succulent clovers, bluegrass, orchard grass, timothy, bromegrass and crabgrass. Beware: If the pasture does not supply feed they like, geese can get thin because of this pickiness.
MOFGA has comprised a full guide of how to raise organic geese.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need at least 1 acre for five sheep or goats, or 1.5 acres of total forage production fields per 1,000 pounds of animal unit.
You can check out our resource on organic sheep and goats for more information on raising goats organically.
- Sow: sexually mature female
- Farrowing: sow giving birth
- Gilt: young female
- Boar: sexually mature male
- Barrow: castrated young male
- Stag: old castrated male
- Piglets and shoats: young pigs
- Weaners: recently weaned or taken from sow
- Feeders: from weaning to slaughter
- Normal temperature: 101.6 F to 103.6 F
- Age at puberty: 5 to 8 months
- Heat period: 16 to 24 days; duration: 1 to 3 days
- Gestation: 114 days
- Average productive life: 8 to 9 years
- Teeth formulation: 3-1-4-3 (three incisors, one canine, four premolars, three molars). They get their top and bottom final, third molar at 20 months of age.
Groups of pig breeds:
Lard type —
- Poland Chinas, Cheshires, Essex, Mulefoots.
- Have compact bodies, large hams and a heavier fat layer, although recent breeding has made them more similar to bacon and meat typing.
Bacon and meat types —
- Landrace, Yorkshires, Tamworth.
- Longer bodies and legs, with a trim profile and less external fat.
- Higher energy.
- Berkshires, Hampshires, Large Black (especially docile because of the large flopped ears), Saddlebacks.
Types of housing can vary. It can be as inexpensive as an A-frame, for example, made out of scrap lumber or prefabricated, such as a Port-A-Hut. Whatever you construct, remember that some 200-pound animals will be rubbing up against it. Larger producers that grow feeder pigs year round use hoop house structures with lots of deep bedding such as straw or lower-quality hay. Whatever you decide to use, be sure the pigs have enough room to lie down without crowding one another inside the house.
You can easily train pigs to mind electric fences. For newly purchased piglets, run the electric fence inside a solid fence, such as snow fencing, to start. Pigs don’t usually try to get through if they can’t see the other side. This is helpful to remember when moving pigs or catching loose pigs. Holding a solid piece of plywood in front of the pig will cause it to move backward or to either side. Or place something over the pig’s head and it will move backward.
Piglets require two wires at about nose and shoulder height. You can usually contain adults with one wire. If you are going to rotate them on pasture, move them frequently in the beginning so they are accustomed to moving to new spaces. Otherwise, they will be afraid of where the fence was and won’t go to the next paddock.
The best way to load pigs onto a truck or trailer is to place the truck in the pig’s pasture for a couple days and feed them inside. In doing so, they will adjust to the trailer and you can close them in when you are ready to move them.
A pig’s ability to utilize pasture is related to its age and digestive capacity. Pigs are not ruminants. Their ability to utilize roughage is limited, you must not fill them with roughage and limit their intake of nutrient-rich foods. Young pigs with higher requirements and a smaller capacity need more concentrated feeds. A full-grown sow that has completed farrowing and is suckling its young will have a much lower requirement. It is possible to raise feeder pigs on pasture with a good protein supplement, e.g., milk, although it takes about seven or eight months (rather than six with grain supplementation) to get a finished market weight of 225 pounds. You can reduce grain consumption 30% to 60% with excellent quality pasture. This requires an intensively rotated pasture with many types of legumes.
Make sure you provide plenty of fresh water (warm water in the winter) for pigs at all times. Water is necessary for proper digestion and pigs eating dry feed rations particularly require plenty of water.
Water requirements are as follows:
- 12 to 30 pounds of pig: 1 quart/day
- 100 to 240 pounds: 6 quarts/day
- Lactating sow: 20 quarts/day
Remember these amounts don’t take playing into account! A constant supply of water using nipples on a barrel is the ideal set-up.
Minerals and salt must be available to all pigs unless they are fed a commercial pig ration. Even then, keep kelp, at the very least, in a mineral feeder.
There are many diseases that can affect swine, but as with raising any organic livestock, prevention is the key. Sound management practices copy the natural environment: fresh air, sunshine, freedom for natural behavior, shelter as needed, healthy feed, pasture, variety in the diet, clean water, good sanitation and manure management. The major concern for most small-scale hog growers is intestinal parasites. These can be managed with proper pasture rotation.
Here’s is a full list of the best practices to raise organic pigs.
Raising rabbits on pasture allows the animals to exercise, engage more easily in natural behavior and improve their overall quality of life, while giving the farmer a way to move or manage rabbit housing easily. Rabbits raised on pasture produce more meat and meat of nicer quality, with more omega-3 fatty acids in the limited amount of fat contained in the carcass.
Rabbits for fertilizer
Nitrogen in rabbit manure goes directly on the soil, and less is lost as ammonia gas than during composting. Some loss does occur on the field, but you can minimize the loss if the soil is absorbent, is not waterlogged or is not very dry, crusty and in direct sun. Fertility from the manure improves pasture production, and the rabbits’ direct application of manure to the field eliminates the need to make and move compost for part of the year, therefore saving labor.
Rabbits that have been intensively bred for production, such as California and New Zealands, often won’t do so well on pasture. You can raise confined rabbits to slaughter weight in eight weeks; on pasture and with less intensive feeding, they need 10 to 12 weeks.
These are some recommended breeds, primarily because they will reach a good size on pasture:
Champagne d’Argent — 12 pounds.
Crème d’Argent — 11 pounds.
Californian — 10.5 pounds.
American Chinchilla — 16 pounds.
Cinnamon — 11 pounds.
New Zealand — 12 pounds.
Palominos – 11 pounds.
Satin – 11 pounds.
Housing for rabbits is critical and must take into account the life cycle of the rabbit. We recommend housing breed stock in outdoor hutches all year. These hutches are stick-built constructions with an enclosed back and wire front.
Rabbits are pseudo-ruminators: at night, they eat pellets that are produced in the caecum during the day, directly from the anus. So the feed passes through the digestive tract twice in 24 hours. This is how rabbits, like cows, can get their nutrition from plant material. Pasture can supply up to 40% of a rabbit’s dietary needs.
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By Diane Schivera, M.A.T. This is my annual wrap-up of meetings I attended in 2016, beginning with the 20th annual Northeast Pasture Consortium (NEPC) meeting held in Maine at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. It was very exciting to have the meeting in Maine for the first time in its history. The meeting sessions included