For new lifestyle block owners, the idea of keeping animals on their property – other than domesticated family pets – can be seen through rose-tinted glasses when, in reality, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Owner of popular New Zealand website Lifestyleblock.co.nz or LSB, Kate Brennan says while inherently rewarding, there are several key things people should consider before committing to keeping animals.
“Ask the questions ‘do we have the time, can we afford it, and what’s the plan?’ because while in my experience the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks – the drawbacks are real.
“Keeping animals is hard work and if you don't have experience then you need to get a reality check from someone who does.”
Brennan says when you take on livestock, you take on a legal and moral obligation to care for them.
“You can't just head off for the weekend without considering your animals, and even a few chooks can be a tie.
“Someone in the family has to commit to putting in the time because while sometimes there's very little to do except check that the animals are healthy and have sufficient feed, at other times of the year livestock could need to be moved to new pasture or monitored for flystrike and footrot.
“Further, if you breed animals you need to make extra time to ensure your mums and babies are well, and if an animal gets sick you may need to provide around-the-clock care.”
The question of affordability is also very real says Brennan, as it’s not just the land and the animals you need to buy but equipment, feed, supplements, fencing, water lines, troughs, shelters and tools as well.
“Then add on veterinary care when needed, because if you can't afford emergency vet bills, then you can't afford to keep livestock.
“It’s also important to have a clear plan because having a few animals that will live out their lives on a block is one thing but if you're breeding to get those cute youngsters, then you'll need to find homes for your excess animals.
“You should talk about what happens at the end of an animal's life too, as you need to be prepared to do the right thing by your elderly and sick livestock – however much it hurts you.
“So I urge people to really think through questions like ‘are you going to sell your young stock, would you be happy sending your animals to slaughter and if not, what are your options?’”
The information Kate facilitates through the LSB website is tailored to New Zealand conditions and is proving a valuable resource for lifestyle block owners.
“A lot of other information online is either not relevant to Kiwi lifestyle property owners or is written for commercial farmers operating at scale, which isn’t ideal.
“Along with articles and discussion forums, we have an online training academy in collaboration with lifestyle vet, Sarah Clews where we’ve compiled courses covering everything you need to know to keep various livestock species.”
Brennan says the animals you choose to have on your lifestyle block will rely on you for their well-being, so do your due diligence.
“Check animals out at an Ag’ day or Fieldays – some new lifestyle farmers are surprised at how large cattle are up close!
“Once you know what you want, talk to someone – preferably a lifestyle farmer – who keeps that species.
“Although commercial farmers know a lot and are a great resource, they don't face the same issues as lifestyle farmers.
“Start off small with a few animals but remember that all livestock species are herd animals and are stressed when they're on their own, so you should get a minimum of three as they feel safer when they can see at least two others.
“You can always buy in more animals, or breed your own, to expand as you gain experience.”
There are legal and compliance requirements for all animal owners and disappointingly, research carried out by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in 2018 showed lifestyle block cases are heavily represented in animal welfare complaints received by MPI and SPCA New Zealand.
Additionally, a survey of vets showed that the most common welfare issues seen were animals with poor body condition due to under or overfeeding, or inappropriate feeding and supplements; ill health and injuries; and the farmer’s lack of basic animal husbandry skills or knowledge, with vets reporting they are often called too late.
Brennan says owners of animals need to be familiar with the welfare codes and regulations, and be mindful of ownership and biosecurity responsibilities.
“Animal Welfare Codes cover what you can and can't do with your own livestock and include things like castration, dehorning, transporting stock, and how much space an animal requires.
“If you have cattle or deer, then you need to be registered with the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) programme and keep your records up to date.
“There are regulations about things you may never even have thought of like what you can feed to pigs and who is responsible for wandering stock.
“The websites for MPI and Operational Solutions for Primary Industries (OSPRI) have clear resources and at lifestyleblock.co.nz, we have a section on legal requirements which is a helpful place to start.”
For lifestyle block owners looking to get an income off their animal investments, Brennan says you'd better find something you're passionate about as you’ll be putting in some hard yards.
“Cattle are usually profitable, but that may mean selling directly to the meat works which some owners may not want to do.
“If you're interested in making cheese then consider milk cattle, sheep or goats, or you can keep chooks and sell eggs.
“Another option is to breed with the intention of selling your animals to other breeders so perhaps choose a specialist breed, like the gorgeous black-nosed Valais sheep or breed prize-winning bantams.
“On our lifestyle property, we farm angora goats and sell the fleece but goats are much more labour intensive than cattle.”
Brennan is a converted goat enthusiast, enjoying their sociability, but warns – they have their challenges.
“Goats are very intelligent and natural comedians – they make me laugh every day.
“All animals, whatever the species, have great characters, but goats seem to have more character than the others.
“While on a practical level, they're easy to handle and the mohair fleece my angora goats produce is in high demand and fetches a good price, you do need to know what you're doing and goats are not for the faint-hearted.
“They will get into everything, regard fences as optional, are wilful and mischievous.”