Interested in raising animals but looking for something different than the conventional sheep, cattle, or laying hens? Then you might be interested in raising some type of alternative livestock. Examples of alternative livestock include antelope, elk, buffalo, alpacas, llamas, miniature horses, donkeys, zebra, camels, guardian dogs, ratites, game birds, ducks, wallabies, and more. Broadly defined, alternative livestock can be any non-traditional animal raised on your farm or property. Several areas should be explored before making any decisions about entering this unique type of enterprise. Are you under any regulatory, covenant, or zoning restrictions for raising alternative livestock? Will your land resources meet the nutrient requirements for the animals, or will supplemental feeds be needed? Will the potential profits (economic and recreation/enjoyment) outweigh the fixed and operating costs?
Here is an overview of some of the questions, concerns, and profit potential these types of livestock offer small farms.
Raising Alternative Livestock
Are alternative livestock hard to raise? That depends on several factors including what type of animals you choose, your background and experience, the acreage and facilities you have, and your climate. Facilities and building materials are important for any livestock operation, but can be especially challenging for alternative livestock enterprises. Some alternative livestock require special fencing or handling facilities, ostriches for example drink water by scooping it so they will need special waterers. Others require special equipment for hauling with extra high sides or a covered roof on the trailer.
One particular problem alternative livestock owners face is the lack of qualified veterinary care for sick animals. Are you willing to learn about their health needs and nurse them back to health? It would be helpful to network with current owners of the species that interest you to observe their facility design and daily care regime.
Networking with current owners will also help you source healthy and viable seed stock. Get to know the industry. Subscribe to breed journals, join the breed associations and attend shows and sales, learn all you can about the species that interest you. Breed listings on the Internet often have postings from members with animals for sale. Interacting with local producers may help you avoid start-up mistakes and save you time and money.
Since alternative livestock often fall outside the regulations for commercial livestock production, there may be special permits or licenses that apply to your choice. You need to check with your local zoning department, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to confirm that a particular species can be raised in Maryland and then if there are any special permits or licenses required.
Study your land and get advice from your local soil conservation office to determine if your land can meet and sustain the requirement of the breeds that interest you. Rocky terrain, steep hillsides, or low lying wet terrain may or may not be a good choice for your species. Do you have adequate shade, grazing land, or a good water source? Check with your local zoning authority about stocking rates that may apply to your property. Dust, flies, manure management, stored feed, noise, and a change in the vision-scape of the neighborhood must be planned for and managed to avoid conflict with other landowners and businesses.
A marketing plan for your alternative livestock will be determined by what you see as your final product to sell. If you plan to sell breeding stock to others, then search out other buyers and develop supporting sales materials that promote the quality of your animals and the species’ unique attributes. Don’t wait to build up your herd. Start promoting animals for sale. It takes time to develop sales leads. Think about what attracted you to the species and be enthusiastic about promoting those qualities in your sales promotions.
If you intend to market products from your species, such as emu eggs, alpaca wool, or buffalo meat, research who your potential customer might be and look for outlets to advertise or promote to that audience. Consider festivals, local fairs, an Internet site, or offering tours or seminars at your farm to promote your products.
Regardless of what you plan to sell, have promotional materials ready to hand out, develop a web presence to promote your products, and always be prepared to hand out your business card.
There are risks in any agricultural enterprise, but there are added risks with non-conventional crops or livestock. These must be given extra consideration. There can also be great satisfaction in raising many alternative livestock species. The historical significance of the buffalo, the commitment to preserving an endangered breed, or the pride of introducing consumers to a new high quality meat or fiber product can provide owners with more than just economical returns. However, careful consideration must be given to any alternative livestock species concerning their suitability and adaptability to this region. The profit potential for any species of alternative livestock is directly proportional to their owner’s dedication to product development, promotion and marketing, and their individual purpose for raising that species.
University of Maryland Extension Resources
USDS: Food Safety and Inspection Service - Rabbit From Farm to Table
Alternative Livestock Overview (pdf)
Agencies, Associations and Government Resources
The National Agricultural Library’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
ATTRA- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: Livestock and Pasture
USDA- United States Department of Agriculture: Animal Production