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Should you raise your own meat?

This is a meat cow with a calf nearby.  You buy the calf to raise for meat after its weaned.
This is a meat cow with a calf nearby. You buy the calf to raise for meat after its weaned.
Kim Willis

With high prices on meat in the grocery store those who live in the country often start thinking about raising their own meat. If you own a little land and have favorable zoning laws there is a possibility that you could raise some of your own meat. It would be wonderful if more people did start raising their own meat, because the animals would generally have a better life and the people raising them would be more aware of the connection between their meat and the animal that produced it.

But there are some important things to think about before you jump in. You probably won’t save any money raising meat for the table. Your meat will be probably be better quality and you will know that the animal that produced it was well treated. But the first time you raise animals there are many expenses for shelter, fencing, feeding dishes and things you will decide you need to make your chores easier. You have to purchase the animals and feed. The type of animal and your existing set up will dictate your starting cost. But count on barely breaking even or even spending more than you would at the grocery for your meat, especially your first time raising that type of animal.

Often there are vet bills for castration, dehorning, and vaccination of animals. And don’t forget that getting meat from an animal you purchase and spend time and money on isn’t a sure thing. Animals get sick or accidently killed. These animals generally can’t be used for meat. And if they live you may have spent a lot of extra time and money helping them. Occasionally a family member gets so attached to the animal it doesn’t become meat either, at least for your household.

Most people do not butcher at home. Butchering prices will add considerably to your meat cost. Then there is the cost and space needed for storing the meat, which generally means at least two large home freezers, or you will need to rent freezer space at the butchering facility.

If you are going to raise your own meat you will need to have time and the patience and the drive to see the job through. If there is no one home all day because everyone works or goes to school raising animals can be a real challenge. Count on an hour a day devoted to the animals on average. You won’t be going on long vacations unless you have someone reliable to care for the animals. While some days when the steer is grazing in the pasture are easy, days when it’s below zero and you are hauling water to the barn or when the pig escapes and you are chasing it through the woods are just plain hard. And large animals can be dangerous, even unintentionally to those caring for them.

Still if you have the ambition, startup funds and proper conditions to raise animals, raising your own meat can be a rewarding and eye-opening experience. It’s quite satisfying to take out a couple of rib-eye steaks to grill, some ham to bake, or some chicken to fry that you raised yourself. Here’s another thing about raising your own meat, when it becomes too hard or expensive to continue with your meat project almost all animals can still be eaten, even if it isn’t at the optimal stage.

Different animals equal different time and costs

Chickens are the easiest animals to raise and take the least amount of time. They are easy to handle and relatively cheap to house. Turkeys and ducks are also pretty easy but take just a bit longer to raise. You can buy meat chickens at feed stores and through catalogs and on line. The more you buy, the less they cost. A good number to start with is 25. To learn more about the shelter and equipment you need to raise chickens try this top rated book “Raising Chickens for Dummies”.

From baby chick to "ready to butcher" will take just 8-10 weeks if you buy meat type hybrid chicks and confine them. It will take a couple weeks longer to raise meat birds on pasture. It will take longer to raise chickens for meat from heritage and large, purebred breeds of chickens. While every chicken could be eaten, some have much better meat and grow faster than others. Turkeys will take about 4 months to raise, depending on what size you want the Thanksgiving meal to be. Ducks take 3-5 months depending on breed and what size carcass you want.

While you may eventually get the cost down by raising chickens in larger numbers, shopping for bulk feed prices and re-using existing equipment, count on your first batch of chickens costing about $8.00 to produce a 3-4 pound ready to cook broiler. It may cost more depending on what you need to buy to house your birds. A large turkey will cost about $15.00 to raise. Butchering costs are generally about $2.00 per chicken and $3- $4 per turkey or duck.

Hogs are the next easiest animal to raise but your start- up expenses may be more than other animals. Pigs need very good, strong pens and shelters. They have a tendency to escape from pens that aren’t well built and they need shelter from sun and from the cold. Their feed and water pans need to be heavy and well anchored. Pigs can be difficult to handle too.

If you start with a weaned pig it will take about 5 months to produce an average sized market hog of around 200-250 pounds live weight. That will yield from 150-175 pounds of meat. And you should start with 2 piglets, pigs are social animals and don’t do as well as a single. Currently it costs around $75-$100 per weaned piglet for average mixed or non- show quality pigs.

Depending on what feed is available it will cost around $100 to feed the pig to butchering size. Butchering costs vary widely around the country, there is usually a kill fee around $25, and then a “butchering” cost per pound based on hanging weight. ( Call local butchers and get the costs before beginning your animal project, so you will know what to expect.) Hanging weight is after the animal is gutted and skinned. There will be less pounds of meat than there are hanging weight pounds because some bone and fat are discarded. And there is generally an additional cost to make sausage, and smoke bacons and hams. In general your meat will be returned to you packaged and frozen.

Here’ s an article about the costs of raising pork.

Sheep and goats take 3-6 months to raise from weaning, depending on what size animal you prefer to eat. They are weaned at about 6 weeks of age. The cost of a weaned kid or lamb varies widely, depending on your location and the breed of animal. Like chickens every sheep or goat could be eaten but some breeds make better meat animals so do your research before purchase. Buy 2 lambs or kids, as they really do not like to be alone.

Sheep and goats can be cheap to raise if you have good pasture. A little grain based feed will be needed to produce meat too. In warm weather shelter can be minimal and fencing isn’t quite as expensive as that for hogs. Sheep and goats are easier to handle than hogs and less dangerous. You will have similar butchering costs as hogs, but you will probably end up with less meat per animal.

Here’s some information on raising sheep and goats.

Beef is generally produced from castrated cattle called steers. Female cattle can be eaten too, but they are seldom available for purchase at meat animal prices. Beginners should start with a weaned calf that has been castrated, vaccinated and dehorned. That will set you back $150-$200 or more depending on the breed and weight. Once again you should buy 2, they are happier and healthier raised that way, but many people do not, as a whole steer produces a lot of meat. Beef steers can be hard to handle, especially for small or timid people, and can also be dangerous.

Steers from dairy animals like Holsteins will be much cheaper than steers from premium meat breeds like Angus. A cow needs to have a calf each year to produce milk and dairy owners don't need the calves around. You can buy calves just after they are born and bottle feed them but that is very time consuming and you tend to get more attached to the calf that way. Young calves are very susceptible to disease and it's easy to lose one or spend a lot of time and money saving it. Its better to let someone experienced raise the calf to weaning age. Cows from beef breeds however, are often left with their calves and allowed to wean them naturally. When the larger, older weaned beef calves are sold it's for much more than a dairy calf. A Holstein or mixed breed steer is fine for beginners and will produce good meat.

The bad thing about raising steers is that it will take about 18 months from weaning to typical butchering size of around 1,500 pounds. That means at least one winter that you will be feeding the steer through. While their primary feed can be grass in the summer you’ll need to buy hay to feed in the winter. You will need a dry place to store that hay.

Steers require minimal shelter and they will need a fairly large area fenced if you intend to grass feed. If the pasture is good you need about 2 acres per steer. You can also confine a steer to a smaller area and feed hay and grain, but you will have larger expenses per pound of meat produced and the meat won’t be as healthy for you. Many people also feed a steer a lot of corn in the last few months to produce fatty, marbled meat. That will raise your cost per pound.

If you don’t have a livestock trailer you will need to hire someone to haul the steer to the butcher for you. Once again there will be a kill fee and a cost per pound of hanging weight at the butcher. Count on your beef costing you at least $4 per pound if you grass feed and $6 or more if you confine it and feed a lot of hay and grain. (That’s for all types of beef cuts from hamburger to prime rib). Those costs include the animals purchase price, feed and butchering. Your housing, fence, hauling, and vet costs are extra. If hay and grain prices are high because of drought or other problems while you are feeding your steer your feed costs could go way up.

Here’s a link to a good article about the cost of raising beef.

Yes everyone who can, should raise their own meat, at least once in their lifetime. But you should go into the operation with your eyes open and armed with some basic knowledge of what the animals need and what it will cost you. Strive to provide humane, comfortable conditions for the animals you raise. Read up on the animals before you begin. Have your shelter and pastures fenced before the animals come home.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you will save money over grocery store prices, you probably won’t. But you can provide humane conditions for the meat animals you raise and you can control what they eat and in the end what you eat- when you raise your own meat.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

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