There are many options for using animals to generate your own food supply. Generally, they will either serve the function of direct meat or of dairy products. Some of the most common choices for animals in the homesteading/ small farm world today are chickens, pigs, goats, cows, sheep, rabbits, and turkeys.
Chickens are the most common choice and can serve as either meat birds or egg producers or be dual purpose. They don’t need as much space as many of the larger animals and can be used in a variety of supporting ways around the property. They are also fairly easy to breed and increase the size of your flock “for free”. The most common set ups are either free range, movable chicken tractors, or an enclosed coop that includes some “yard” space. They are fairly easy animals to take care of and require little extra work beyond feeding, watering, and cleaning out their facilities.
Pigs are another classic homestead animal. They are used for meat and are great at tilling up an area for you. The choice many people make is to either get feeder pigs or heritage pigs. The stereotypical hog is a feeder hog. They grow quickly and can easily be kept just spring through fall and get a few hundred pounds. Heritage hogs are breeds that have been around for a long time, often centuries, and are considered to have higher quality meat. On the flip side, they are typically slower growing. Some breeds will only get 150 pounds at most if you raise them from spring to fall whereas others may still break the 200 pound mark easily. One of the biggest advantages of some heritage breeds is that they can be grazers. Breeds such as Kunekune and Meishan will graze on pasture thus requiring little extra feeding and they don’t root up the ground nearly as much. Breeding the larger animals gets fairly involved so most homesteaders will just buy piglets in the spring and process them all in the fall. Many say that an acre of pasture can support 4 to 12 pigs without issue and this has been true in my experience as well at least. The large discrepancy is largely due to the choice of either rotating pasture or leaving them all on the same pasture the whole time.
Goats are another potentially dual purpose animal. While they are not a very common source of meat in the U.S., worldwide they are one of the most common sources. Most homesteaders in the States will keep them more for brush clearing and/or milk. Goat milk and goat cheese does have different characteristics than cow products but many still enjoy it. When it comes to clearing brush, goats are unrivaled. They will eat nearly anything and will yank up plants by the roots, preventing them from resprouting. The negative with goats is that they can be more difficult to manage. They get into stuff more and they are escape artists, always be looking for a way out.
Cows are a staple homestead fixture but not nearly as common as chickens, pigs, and goats. This is because they need more pasture to graze, larger facilities, and require more management if they are to be milked. If someone does do cows, they can often supply much of their family’s dietary needs when paired with a garden. Dairy products and meat typically make up a large portion of the human diet and extra milk can also be used to feed other animals on the property.
Sheep are an often overlooked option for the homestead. This is unfortunate because they have some great characteristics that fit well with many people’s goals. Like goats and cows, they can be both milked and used for meat. There are wool breeds that will require sheering but will offer an additional product yield. There are also hair sheep, such as Katahdin, Dorper, and St. Croix among others, that do not require sheering. Hair sheep are also very parasite and disease resistant and they are known for being great breeders. Sheep get the vast majority of their diet through grazing and therefore food costs are typically very low. They have a very low impact on the pasture and require little work to raise. Lamb is also a very expensive meat in many markets, making it often very profitable when used to bring in income off the homestead. They are usually quite docile and well behaved.
Rabbits are not for everyone but are unparalleled for those they work well for. Meat rabbits take up little space, do not make much noise, and grow to processing size quickly. They also fit their stereotype of being great breeders. Rabbit meat is not as highly sought by the public but many find it tasty and it is an animal that you can process yourself at home fairly simply. Selling the offspring is another potential income stream. Rabbit droppings are amazing fertilizer for the garden and can be applied directly without composting or waiting.
Turkeys are much less common on homesteads than chickens but they can be much better for providing a meat source. They get quite large and there is a huge market for them in the fall around Thanksgiving time. They can supply much of their diet through grazing and are good for fertilizing the pasture as they go. They can be raised in open pasture but most people will keep them in tractors (movable “cages” or coops). This keeps them protected and contained as well as allows you to direct where you want them the graze and fertilize. When processing time comes, it’s much easier to pull them out of the tractor than chase them around the pasture. They can be loud at times and very friendly and curious. They are much more prone to dying for various reasons than chickens and other birds, especially as poults.