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Animal Husbandry vs. Livestock Farming: What’s The Difference?

kathy mccune holding bottle lamb

Wondering what exactly is the difference between animal husbandry and livestock farming?

At first, the two phrases seem the same, but actually they refer to two separate aspects of raising livestock.

Livestock farming is raising livestock to sell for income. Animal husbandry refers to the way the farmer/rancher interacts with the livestock.

Animal husbandry is animal care

Animal or livestock husbandry is the phrase that covers all of your activities that directly involve the animals.

This would include, milking the cows, feeding the sheep, moving the pigs, you get the idea.

Any time you and your livestock are together there is animal husbandry involved.

Farm Animals That Can Be Raised Together shows you how you can keep animals with differing needs happy when living together.

Jersey cow and her half Angus heifer grazing
Our Jersey cow and her heifer calf that is Angus sired.

Good animal husbandry is a vital skill

The real question to ask though, are you practicing good animal husbandry or poor animal husbandry?

Think about a parent taking care of kids, some are doing a good job raising great kid, others doing a poor job, but all are parenting.

It’s the same with animal husbandry the farmer makes things go well for his animals or poorly, depending upon how he interacts with them and provides for their needs.

Livestock farming is raising animals

Livestock farming is raising and selling livestock for income. This means the livestock are not viewed as pets, they are workers on the farm.

The animals, cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. are kept for production reasons, and will also be sold for production reasons.

This could be as a market animal, as a breeding animal, or as a cull (an animal that is no longer productive).

Remember, there is more to raising livestock than just buying the animal.

Also involved are expenses like feed, fencing, buildings, vet care, other hired workers, taxes or rent on land, etc.

All this must be paid for by the eventual sale of the animals.

For the most part anything under the heading of livestock farming could be done on paper by someone who is not with the animals daily.

For example, this includes budgets, purchasing hay and arranging for it to be delivered and any other activities that are not done while with the animal.

Once the farmer or rancher is with the animals his activities fall under animal husbandry.

Animal based focus with husbandry

The main difference between livestock farming and animal husbandry is where the attention of the farmer or rancher is focused.

Are decisions made with animal needs uppermost in mind? Or are decisions made with the person’s needs first?

Don’t get me wrong, for the operation, whatever size it is to last there has to be profit, meaning decisions made for the person’s benefit.

Animals can be happy (animal husbandry decisions) and profitable (livestock farming/business decisions) all rolled up into one situation.

Most farmers and ranchers that make their living with livestock would be both everyday.

kathy mccune holding Boer goat doeling
Me again, holding a not so cooperative Boer goat doeling we named Agatha.

Where this gets squiffy is in the mega farms or corporate farms.

The huge farm is so big many of the people working at the business would never interact with animals, despite being employed on a livestock farm.

For instance, the farm manager for a large dairy with thousands of cows would rarely if ever milk the cows-other employees do that and many other jobs that are hands on with the cattle.

The manager is managing people in an operation this size.

Hopefully, he is teaching good animal husbandry and setting this as the standard for getting things done, but day to day animal husbandry would be done by the people actually with the cattle.

Good animal husbandry is vital

Good animal husbandry is the cornerstone of any livestock operation, regardless of size. Sadly, not everyone has realize this.

Some individuals in animal agriculture view the animals as a production unit only, almost like a robot on an assembly line. That is a poor attitude.

While it is true that the purpose of a livestock based business is to make money, it is a fatal flaw to neglect the happiness of the stock.

Animals, all animals, will perform better in an environment in which they are happy.

Happy animals grow faster, utilize feed more efficiently, and end up being more productive. That means more profitability.

However, neglecting the needs and wants of the animals in your care will lead to more stress on you and the livestock.

Stressed animals are the opposite of happy ones in that stressed stock will be more prone to illness, will grow slower and yield a poorer quality result for the consumer.

Take a minute to ponder that last sentence.

Good animal husbandry = more profit. It’s that easy.

Poor animal husbandry might be a quicker fix in the short term but is always much poorer choice in the long term.

shearing a naturally colored sheep
Spring shearing, this is a ewe lamb with a great natural colored fleece.

Improve your animal husbandry skills

  1. Spend time with your animals! Observing your stock daily will help you learn to recognize when they are happy or nervous. Once you know their normal actions now you can pick up on anything that is abnormal.
  2. Consider the needs of the animal. Are the animals happy to be at your place? Do they have buddies?
  3. How do they look? Shiny hair coat and good body condition? This is what you are aiming for!
  4. How does their pen or pasture look? Do they have space to be themselves? Meaning cattle and sheep are built to graze, pigs are built to root. Are your animals expressing this type of normal behavior on a daily basis?
  5. Moving the stock should be low stress. Once they start to walk, give them some time to get there-no yelling or smacking needed.

Looking for more information? This is an easy one.

There are tons of articles and videos available on the internet. Start looking into it and more good options will come up.

One of my favorite channels for seeing happy livestock, mostly cattle, is Greg Judy of Green Pastures Farm. His website is He puts out weekly videos.

Watch his animals, they are happy and calm. That’s livestock husbandry!

Look at Low Stress Livestock handling. There are some great articles for all livestock raisers to read on stock handling and many other subjects at a site called On Pasture.

I haven’t gotten through all of the articles there, but the ones I have read are super.

From what I have seen these are ranchers writing about low stress livestock handling, so they are moving a large number of livestock through working facilities with knowledgeable help.

Even if you are a small producer or just getting started there are tons of tips to pick up on and ideas that can be applied to your situation no matter the size of your livestock operation.

Improve your animal husbandry skills today

There is no better teacher than experience, so jump in and get started! Time with the animals will be your number one teacher.

Read up on some people you admire, watch videos of people with happy, healthy livestock and see how they approach working with their animals.

An internship may be an option for you, or attending a school or workshop if that makes you feel more comfortable.

Whichever you choose, nothing will take the place of and help you to learn faster than working with livestock hands on. Start somewhere and build.

Start your animal husbandry research

Here is a short list of articles on my site that would help get you started with your own livestock.

Some are animal specific but the main ideas for selecting high quality livestock are the same across all species. Good Luck!

Family Cow; How To Choose And Care For Her

Easy Livestock To Raise For Beginners

How Much Land Do I Need For Sheep

Beef: Grass Fed Vs. Grain Fed, Differences For The Cattle And The Eaters

Beautiful grass fed half Jersey half Angus steer that we raised on our farm. Note the fat on the tail head.

Looking for the best beef for your family yet confused about what all these labels mean?

What is the real difference between grain fed, grass fed, naturally raised, pasture raised, organic, etc.?

Grain fed beef is raised on grass and finished on grain and hay or grass. 100% Grass fed beef is raised and finished on grass only.

We are going to dive into the differences between the methods of raising the cattle, the reasons why it matters to the cattle and what differences you will notice when you eat the beef.

We will go into the differences you will not notice when you eat the beef, like nutritional differences and improving or degrading the soil.

You will see:

  • type of beef as it is commonly labeled
  • the main idea of this type of beef
  • pros and cons for the cattle
  • pros and cons for people, eaters and cattle raisers
  • no spin zone means taking out the industry spin (misleading statements)

If you are interested in raising your own beef, consider reading my article Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? There’s quite of bit of data here for you.

Grain fed beef was raised with grain

Main idea: Grain fed beef is the most common type available in the U.S.

Pros and cons for the cattle:

  • Cattle generally have all you can eat grain
  • Grain feeding cattle reduces predator problems
  • Grain fed is not exclusive, the cattle probably are eating some hay too
  • Grain increases likelihood of digestive issues
  • Grain fed cattle are in a smaller area, not range fed
  • Grain increases carbohydrates in the diet, so cattle can grow faster
  • Hormone implants are commonly used to maximize growth on grain

Pros and cons for people:

  • Faster growth generally equals less costly meat in the store
  • Grain allows people with less land to have the calories to raise their own cattle more quickly than grass/hay alone
  • Grain fed cattle have an altered ratio of Omega fatty acids, higher Omega 6 (inflammation promoter) lower Omega 3 (inflammation reducer)
  • Keeping cattle in a smaller area increases odor and potential run off problems

No Spin Zone-this beef is from feed lot cattle

Grain fed beef means that the cattle were given grain to eat when they were growing. Most beef in the store is grain fed beef.

This does not mean the cattle ate only grain, just that they ate at least some grain. Feed lot cattle would be producing grain fed beef.

The person keeping a few steers in a barn and giving them grain and hay would be producing grain fed beef.

Grain is not needed for cattle to grow, they can do just fine without it, but it does provide a boost in calories that will allow for faster growth.

Any cattle we have had love grain, it’s like candy to them. This is good news and bad news.

Good news-using grain as a treat, like training treats for your dog, works wonders to make cattle that are a bit nervous around people are now glad to see you.

Because before the grain you were the weird/new guy that they don’t want to get too close to, but now with the grain you are the yummy snack guy and they are glad to see you (and your bucket of grain).

This isn’t just cattle, most any animal is glad to see you show up with snacks.

The bad news-This grain is candy thing is where the potential for problem with grain comes in.

Just like living on candy or other junk food will make a person unhealthy, living on grain alone (or a very high amount of grain) will make the cattle unhealthy.

So, is grain for cattle bad? No, just keep it to a snack or the occasional training treat, not the main meal.

High grain rations in cattle cause problems

The problem with grain as the main source of calories for cattle is that cattle are ruminants, meaning they need plant fiber and lots of it for their digestive system to work as designed.

High levels of grain take different gut microbes than forages and will cause the whole body to become more acidic.

Scoop of ground feed
Ground feed made of corn, soy and minerals. Cattle are also fed shelled corn.

This is a problem because while the stomach is acidic the rest of the body is alkaline, this is how the stomach acids kill bad bacteria.

But if the whole system of the steer is acidic all bacteria in the animal are adapted to a highly acidic environment, even the bacteria in the poo.

High grain cattle rations produce acid resistant E.coli

So what? Well here’s where things get gross.

Industrially raised and processed meat is all about speed, not health or nutrients for the eater.

When a steer on a high grain diet is slaughtered and the super fast processing in the industrial processing facility spills poo on the carcass, that poo is full of bacteria that are used to an acid environment.

So when you hear of e. coli in a person from beef, guess what just happened?

They ate industrial beef that had acid loving e. coli in it (from the poo that spilled on the meat during processing) that did not get killed in cooking.

Since the e. coli loves acid, your stomach acid, which normally kills invaders like this, doesn’t work and you get sick.

So why feed all this grain?

It’s cheap and the cattle will reach market weights sooner on high grain rations, like eating junk food all the time makes you fat.

Want to avoid most of the problems? Get your beef locally

Want to get carefully processed steaks or pack of burgers? Get your meat from a local butcher shop that processes the beef in house.

Local processors are your neighbors and they care about their customers and their reputation.

Local butchers do not have a team of lawyers to hide behind or other people to pass the blame to should things go wobbly, so they take time to do things right the first time. Support your local butcher.

Grass fed beef can still have grain

Main idea: Nearly all cattle in the U.S. are grass fed at some point in their lives.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Grass (and other forages) is the natural diet for cattle
  • The cattle are outside on pasture
  • Cattle interact normally, they can move away from a mean peer
  • Grass eating means being further from the barn=closer to predators
  • Cattle will be out in the elements, rain, wind, heat, etc.
  • Harder to monitor and treat for health issues

Pros and cons for people

  • No manure to haul
  • Need to have more land available to grow the grass
  • Need fencing that requires initial cost and maintenance
  • Grass only grows part of the year in most places, feed must be brought to the cattle at least part of the year
  • Healthier living conditions=lowered stress on cattle=tastier beef
  • Grass fed cattle have the correct Omega 3 to 6 ratio balance
  • I feel better about what I’m doing for my cattle

No spin zone-Grass fed does not mean grass only!

Grass fed beef means that the steer had access to grass. This doesn’t mean only grass, just that it could eat at least some grass.

Cattle that are listed as grass fed could still be eating some grain.

Most cattle raised in the U.S. would at least start out in this category, as calves.

Things change when the cattle are sold and raised to finishing weights in a different system, which could be grain or grass or any combination of the two.

Ask the farmer/rancher about the cattle’s diet

To me, this is where things (labels and categories) start to get confusing, and where knowing your farmer (or rancher) would really help you out.

Grass fed does not mean the diet was exclusively grass, it just means the steer ate grass sometimes.

When and how much depends upon the operation (this is the part where you would ask your farmer!).

Does grass fed mean mostly grass and a tiny bit of grain every week or so to keep the cattle friendly?

Or does grass fed mean a mostly dirt lot with a few leaves of grass here or there, so the cattle are hardly eating any grass at all?

These two examples are the extremes but hopefully you get the idea.

Do not assume anything about the beef you are buying-ask. Get the details. Ask about feeding methods and decide if the answer is acceptable to you.

If you are at the grocery store and see grass fed on the package of beef, assume that steer was fed grain.

If that steer never got any grain, the label would say grass only or 100% grass fed, since that is viewed as more valuable (and can be priced higher).

Info graphic showing the differences between  grain fed, grass fed, organic, and 100% grass fed and finished beef.

Grass finished beef cattle are not feed lot cattle

Main idea: Grass finished beef is from a steer eating grass right up to butchering day.

Pros and cons for cattle:

  • Cattle eating grass have a healthy digestive system
  • On grass cattle can behave in a more natural way
  • More likely to be around predators
  • Outside in all manner of weather conditions

Pros and cons for people

  • Grass finished beef has the correct Omega 3/6 balance
  • Higher levels of CLA in the meat
  • A natural environment for cattle makes tending them easier
  • No manure hauling
  • Need to provide water to the herd
  • Requires more land
  • Requires adequate fencing

No spin zone-Grass finished does not mean grass only!

Grass finished beef means that the cattle were finished, reached butchering weight and condition (fat cover) while on grass.

Once again this is not a diet of exclusively grass, it just means the steer ate grass up until maturity.

Grass finished beef could include grain in the ration, as long as the grass was available the entire time as well.

Grain finished beef finishes faster

Main idea: Grain finished beef is from a steer eating grain right up to butchering day.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Never have to walk far for food and/or water
  • Cattle get more heath problems with high levels of grain

Pros and cons for people

  • Cattle finish (get to selling weight) faster by eating more calories/day
  • Easily puts a nice fat layer on the beef (fat = flavor)
  • Grain must be moved to the cattle
  • Grain must be available daily
  • High grain levels increase digestive problems to be monitored
  • Low priced grain can be fed to cattle to increase crop value

No spin zone-Grain finished means high levels of grain in an animal that is not biologically designed to eat grain.

Grain finished beef means that for the last few months before slaughter the steer was given plentiful, probably all it wanted to eat, grain.

The reason for finishing cattle on grain is the grain provides plenty of calories to give ample fat cover on the body and marbling in the meat.

The beef must have fat in the meat for flavor.

How much fat is right for the eater? This is an individual taste thing.

Some people like fattier meat and others do not. Generally, it seems to depend upon what you grew up eating as to what you prefer.

Dairy cross steer, he was raised on grain and hay.
This is a grain fed dairy and beef cross steer. He was raised on grain and hay.

Organic cattle can eat grain

Main idea: Organic beef is from a steer eating only organic feeds.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Organic cattle are raised with their biology in mind
  • Not eating chemicals and pesticides common in other crops
  • Non GMO feeds only (not having to eat creepy stuff)
  • Do not always get pasture
  • Can still be a confinement operation

Pros and cons for people

  • Less likely to get chemical/pesticide contamination in food
  • Non GMO source of beef=no creepy stuff in your beef
  • Many organic cattle are on pasture
  • More money per steer = family farm profits more likely
  • Takes more knowledgeable management
  • More money to purchase feed/hay
  • More difficult to source feed/hay

No spin zone-Organic beef can be raised in confinement!

I hate to say this because of all of the wonderful, good hearted animal loving farmers and ranchers who are raising animals in exactly the way you (as a consumer) think they are raising them.

These are the people you should be buying your beef from!

But, and this is a big but, once organic started showing real money making potential the people only concerned with larger and larger profits got into organic (not because they believe, they just want your wallet).

Next thing you know they had successfully lobbied to get watered down regulations to make it easier for themselves! Truly sad, but still true.

This section has the potential to ruffle some feathers, so to speak, especially if you have been spending extra money on organic meats.

Organic just means fed with organic feeds, it does not mean raised on pasture. Grass is not mandatory in organic cattle production.

Are you surprised? Unfortunately, I’m not surprised, I’m just disappointed.

I feel this is deceptive and many consumers are paying for something that they are not getting.

I don’t think organic beef is bad, not at all, I just think that the advertising leads consumers to conclude all organic livestock (cattle, chickens, sheep, whatever), are on pasture and that is not the case.

It might be the case that the beef you specifically sought out and paid extra for was raised on grass, but it’s just as likely that it was not.

Organic Livestock Requirements is a PDF with a quick overview of the organic standards for livestock in an easy to read and understand format put together with the customer in mind.

100% grass fed and finished beef only ate forages

Main idea: 100% of the time this steer ate only grass and other forages (or hay) but never any grain.

Pros and cons for cattle

  • Eating their natural, biologically appropriate diet
  • Live in naturally functioning group=normal behavior expression
  • Outside in all kinds of weather
  • More exposed to predators

Pros and cons for people

  • Healthy, nutrient dense beef
  • Improves soil health
  • Less health concerns for the farmer/rancher to manage
  • More land needed
  • More time needed
  • Some cattle (genetically) do better on grass alone than others

No spin zone-100% grass fed and finished beef will cost you more money.

As a consumer, you probably don’t want to read the cost you more money part but I will write it anyway. 100% grass fed and finished beef will cost more.

This is important to understand, especially if you have no experience raising livestock.

Raising ruminants, like cattle, completely on forages takes great management, time, skill, observation and daily on the fly adjustments.

There is a learning curve here when figuring all of this out, sometimes a steep one.

Since we are dealing with biological systems in both the cattle and the forages, a lag between ideas and implementation and seeing the results.

Sometimes multiple years of not being able to see the results, even when you are operating effectively and efficiently.

100% grass fed Jersey/Angus cross steer we raised. His mom is our family milk cow.
Another picture of our completely (100%) grass fed Jersey/Angus cross steer with a dairy cow in the background.

An example with land: it takes a few years (at best) to return an area of land to high productivity if it was significantly degraded.

There are still bills for the farmer to pay while all of this is happening (and no money is coming back in yet).

A second example: certain types of cattle do well on all grass and others do not.

Depending upon what the farmer is starting with, there could be significant costs involved in getting genetics that will perform on grass alone and waiting until the results are marketable.

A cow bred today will have a calf in 9 months, that will be finished on grass (if the genetics and forages allow) in 24-26 months.

That is nearly three years to sell the results from the change made today!

Not all changes can be made immediately.

The decision to change can be made anytime, but the best time to put that change into your management system is scheduled by the cow.

Remember, in the exclusively grass fed system especially, we are working with nature’s, (not the farmer’s) time table.

Cattle genetics are a long term game.

Great sources of information on raising cattle on grass are Greg and Jan Judy of Missouri, this is a link to their site. They also have a very informative channel, books and host in person grazing schools.

Raising beef takes long term thinking

Most beef cattle in the U.S. are born and raised until weaning (when they don’t need their mom anymore) on one farm or ranch, then sold as feeders or stockers to someone else who will fed them until they are full size.

The feeder cattle are sold to generate yearly income for the owner of the brood cows (the moms).

Since it takes 18-24 months to finish out a steer (get it to butchering weight and condition).

The original owner of the cattle will not get paid for nearly two years and will have extra feed expenses keeping the feeders at home through the winter months.

Many farmer/ranchers and people raising beef for themselves don’t want to keep the brood cows or deal with reproduction.

They buy a weaned calf and leave the baby raising to someone else.

Another reason for getting feeders is to just have a few cattle for a short time then get a few more later, like to keep the pasture eaten down in the summer.

This way you don’t have animals in the winter when you would have to haul hay and would rather be on a beach in Florida for vacation.

Some farms/ranches do feed their cattle to butchering weight, called finishing the cattle, but that requires the land, management and feed to do it.

We raise our own beef from calves born here, but we just have a few cattle and we have the land and time to do it.

One of the main benefits of feeder cattle is that a family with more of a limited land base can raise their own beef from a few feeder steers.

If they had to have the steer for it’s whole life, people with smaller amounts of land can not give the steer enough to eat so they can’t get the animal.

But buying the feeder steer that is half grown means now more families can use the land they have available.

Since they have enough grass for the feeders for the summer but could not provide the grazing for an entire herd, even a small one, having feeder cattle for the summer only works great.


For the eaters: Quality beef is worth it

Consider that you are paying for food to build your body, literally you are what you eat, and what you eat eats.

Living on a tight grocery budget? Dig deep and track all expenses, every penny, you’ll see changes that can be made to free up more of your money for more important uses.

The right way to raise cattle is situational

What is the right way to raise cattle?

The way that serves everyone, the cattle, the farmers and ranchers and the eaters and neighbors, to the highest and best purpose of all involved.

There is no one best way-there are a few guidelines (health of the people, cattle and environment being tops) and then see what works in your area and in your situation.

To say one method suits all is completely inappropriate and actually leaning more towards crazy.

Our world is a beautiful, wondrous place.

Any method of raising cattle (or any other animal or plant) that helps promote animals and people living full, healthy lives is the method to use.

Ready for Piglets? What To Expect When Your Sow (Or Gilt) Is Expecting!

First time soon to be mom pig, just before she farrowed.

Giving your sow or gilt (a female pig that has not been a mom yet) a happy life before she has her babies will be better for all, her, the babies and you. Pigs are very capable animals, if given the opportunity they will get what they need.

Before a sow has babies she needs exercise, a low stress environment and nutritionally appropriate feed.

What do I mean? Your soon to be a mom pig will find a place that suits her to farrow (give birth) her piglets. If you give her choices, she will naturally pick an area that is best for her.

The pig we are caring for just had her first litter of piglets!

Golda just had her first litter of piglets yesterday morning. As I am writing this article they are just about 24 hours old and doing well.

She is a friend’s gilt that we are caring for. She came over here about 4 months ago to be bred to our boar.

Since he only has one pig, it was just as easy for us to keep her with our two (Toby the Berkshire boar and Whitney a white cross bred sow that had her first litter at the end of March).

You might be asking what is with the story? Here’s the point-for the last few days Golda has been looking around the barn yarn for the best place to have her babies.

How does the pig know what she needs?

She’s a new mom so how does she know that? Pigs, and most animals if given the chance to behave in accordance with their instincts, naturally knows that she needs to build a nest.

We didn’t tell her that or give her any of the material, she did it all herself.

Here is the real time video of Golda having her pigs. Skip through to the exciting parts if you want to! I put up the whole thing to give you an idea of the time it takes a pig to go through the birth process and what the piglets will look like and act like when they are born.

She found a spot in a small open sided barn that has a few broken bales of old hay and that is where she finally decided to build the nest.

She scoped out lots of places first, even in the barn where she was supposed to be in a pen beside the other two pigs.

Most pigs that are due to have piglets soon will get out of their pen, at least for us.

I moved her to the pen beside the other two but she moved herself completely out of that barn and into what she felt was a more suitable spot.

So how do you take care of your sow or gilt before the big day? The rest of this article will give you the scoop on easy and effective sow care.

The farrowing pens we built for our pigs, made from left over and recycled wood with purchased hinges.

Living area for your sow

Your sow needs to be in a comfortable environment.

This could be a deeply bedded pack, a spacious pen or out on pasture. She needs to live a calm, low stress life to do her best in the demanding days to come-birth and motherhood.

This is actually one of the easier things to figure out, just look around. Would you like to sit here in her pen? Sure it’s not as clean as your house, but if you sit do your pants get stained?

If so, she needs a new place to live or you need to manage that pen differently, starting with more bedding.

Observe how the other pigs treat her and how she acts. If she has scrape marks and other pigs are chasing her around then get her out of there!

Be sure to consider air movement when thinking of where to keep your sow. Fresh air makes for a better place to live, a stuffy barn is not comfortable and hard on their lungs, just like it would be for you.

Plenty of bedding material keeps her busy

If you do not have your pigs outside, give her something to do. Pigs of all ages love to have bedding to play with, they like to move it around and play in it. Pigs like to be doing something, keeping busy.

It’s in your best interest to give her somewhere to focus her attention, otherwise she will be busy doing something you probably won’t like.

Nutritional needs of your sow

Sow cubes and shelled corn. This is the daily ration for two adult pigs. It was measured out by weight.
This is one day’s worth of feed for 2 non lactating adult pigs. The sow cubes are the big pellets on the left and the feed scoop has shelled corn in it. The cubes have all the protein, vitamins and minerals the pigs need for maintenance and/or gestation.

The nutritional needs of the sow or bred gilt are different than the needs of the fast growing market hogs, or her own needs once she has piglets.

You need to give her the feed to supply all of her nutrient requirements yet not get her fat.

A fat sow or gilt will have more trouble with birth, be harder to keep comfortable and have more metabolic issues when starting to milk.

Sows can be fed a ground feed just like you would give to any other age of pig. The gestation ration would be of a lower protein value to keep them from getting fat.

Weigh out what you are giving them! Keeping her at the right body weight is important!

We feed shelled corn and sow cubes as a gestation ration

We feed sow cubes and shelled corn. Sow cubes are a big pellet that is given one pound per head per day as a gestation ration.

The cubes have all of the protein, vitamins and minerals that the gestating sow or gilt needs for a healthy pregnancy. Along with the sow cubes each adult gets 4 pounds of shelled corn, once per day.

I like feeding the sow cubes because it means we don’t need a feeder for the sows and boar, he can eat this ration as well. I just throw in the cubes and shelled corn and they eat it off the floor.

Obviously, this means the floor of their pen is nice, dry place to get their food,

While you don’t eat off of the floor (except for the 5 second rule, of course!), pigs naturally do eat from the ground.

If the floor of your sow’s pen is poopy, you need to change your ways and definitely do not throw the feed in there!

Have your sow or gilt out on pasture? You still need to give her feed, or some other way to get the calories and nutrients she needs. She can not get enough to eat on grass alone.

Peer group for your sow

Since pigs are a herd animal, they like to be with other pigs. But if the other pigs are beating her up, she (and the other pigs in the pen) need more space.

Crowding is stressful and leads to more behavior problems including fighting.

If a big pen/area with plenty of space for all doesn’t work she needs to be moved. It could be as simple as moving her to the pen just on the other side of the gate from where she used to live.

Either way figure it out, that stress is bad for her.

Since we just have three adult pigs right now everyone is in the same pen until one of the sows is close to farrowing.

While a pig wants buddies when for most of her activities, giving birth is a time when she want to be by herself. This is what she would do on her own.

Getting ready for the piglets

Your mom to be pig will want to arrange her area to her liking, this means building a nest. She wants to have a comfortable place to lay and birth the babies.

The sow will build an oblong nest in some sort of bedding material. Or she will just hollow out a pile of bedding to the shape she needs (an oval big enough for her to lay in).

Newborn piglets in their nest.
These are Golda’s new piglets! She has them in an oval shaped nest she made of old hay.

Most modern pigs would not have the option to make a nest and fulfill the deeply instinctive need to be ready for her babies.

Being unable to do all of the pig type things she needs to do before the babies are born will cause her stress at a time when you need her to be calm.

The majority of pigs born in this country are born on a confinement farm, no nesting material in site. Obviously, it can be done, but why stress your sow?

Let her express all of her natural behaviors and be calm and happy.

Expecting Piglets? How To Care For The Sow And Her Babies

Newborn piglets nursing

Expecting piglets is so exciting! The little guys are so cute and amazingly capable in the first few hours of life.

The first few days are a critical period in the life of the sow and her new piglets, they bond with their mom and get off to a running start, or not!

A sow and her litter need a clean, spacious pen with plenty of bedding material for her to build a nest. She will need a lactation ration, water and a quiet, comfortable environment.

This is completely dependent upon what you have set up for them and how you manage these last few days of pregnancy and first few days after the sow farrows (gives birth).

Ready For Piglets? goes over the things you need to have planned out and ready before your first litters are born!

Sow gestation is 114 days

The gestation (pregnancy) period for a sow is 114 days.

The easy way to figure out when the piglets are due is to remember 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days.

This won’t be as exact as counting out the 114 but it will be close and give you a good idea of when you need to be getting things ready.

As with all animals, the gestation length is just an average of all pigs, of all breeds.

Some breeds will tend to be a bit on the shorter end of things and some on the longer side.

This is a natural process that will follow it’s own time schedule. A few days early or late is actually very normal.

Last days of pregnancy show udder development

Your sow will be looking pretty big by now and she should have some udder development.

From what we have seen, sows tend to act completely normally until a day or two before the birth. They tend to act just as they always have, being part of the group.

Then the sow will decide that she needs to be somewhere else.

If you have a really large pen she might be fine with staking a claim to her favorite corner, she just wants to be by herself now.

If she is still in with other pigs that are not due at the same time as her, she needs to be moved out of that pen.

She needs to be by herself to feel comfortable when giving birth, this is instinctive.

Sows want to build a nest for the babies

Along with wanting to be by herself, is also the need to build a nest.

Your sow will want to burrow into a pile of straw or under the side of a round bale where she can make a shelter for herself and her babies.

Even if she is in a building, she still wants to make a special nesting area.

Pigs are amazingly versatile and can use all manner of material for the nest.

Don’t worry too much about what the nesting material is, just that she has something to work with.

If she is outside, she could even build her nest out of dirt, just digging around and hollowing out a spot that suits her.

Keep sow’s feed the same until farrowing

Up until this point she should still be getting her gestation feed, whatever you have been giving her keep with it. Now is not the time to switch feeds!

How Many Pigs On 5 Acres? goes over pig numbers, both adults and growing pigs.

Sows need plenty of fresh water

She will also need plenty of water. When I have a pig by herself I use a rubber feed pan for the waterer.

If you have a spare actual waterer go for it, but we only have one and it is in with the feeder pigs for now.

Since the feeder pigs would drink more in a day than the sow, I just water her in a pan.

How do you know if she’s had enough to drink?

Is there water still left in the pan from last watering? If so she is getting enough, if not she needs more frequent waterings or another pan.

Happy, Healthy Pigs shows the things you need to have to keep your pigs happy.

A sow gives birth on laying her side

A sow or gilt gives birth on her side. She will lay down and seemingly zone out for the entire process.

It’s almost like she is in a coma, which is probably not what you are expecting to see, but completely natural and normal.

Small Scale Pig Keeping has a wonderful series on pigs, this one is about farrowing. Click through and read all of them, it’s well worth your time.

During labor, your job is to be quiet

Your job while the sow is in labor? Your job is to keep quiet and leave her in peace.

You can quietly pop in to the farrowing area and see how things are going and if any piglets are born yet, but stay quiet and let her work.

As of now, she is on her own. You can only distract or even annoy her, so give her the space and time she needs to birth those babies!

I keep a pan of water near her, but really once labor starts she is not getting up for a drink.

At this point she should not have any feed in the pen, just water.

Newborn piglets cuddling with their mom.
Whitney with her piglets snuggled up to stay warm.

Give the sow water only the first day

You still need to be quiet and respect her space. She will need water, as much as she wants but no feed.

Start feeding her the second day, not the first. This gives her body time to recover from birth, without the energy drag of digestion.

Only keep well mannered sows

A caution: Some sows can be mean. Most of the sows we have had over the years are not, but we have had a two really aggressive ones.

If you are grabbing up piglets and they are screaming bloody murder (a bad idea, to begin with) then she will definitely be concerned.

This protection of her babies is normal and her being a good mom.

Sell any sow with aggressive tendencies

If you just showing up has her whipping around in the pen to get you, that is not normal. A mean sow should not be kept, sell her.

I don’t care how many babies she has, if she is trying to hurt you she needs to be gone! As soon as you can wean the litter, that sow has to go.

Mean sow we have now-a little story

The gilt we bred and kept for a friend is turning out to be mean. I call her Golda and she just farrowed a few days ago.

She’s very aggressive towards my husband, as in chasing him down and biting him.

The only reason I can think of is he shows up and “bad” things happen, like we grab her piglets, but just me means feed and water.

Either way, there is no reason to hurt a person, so she’s gone as soon as the piglets are weaning age. She’s just not safe to have around.

piglets on grass
These are Golda’s cute babies. Nice little piglets, not nice mom.

Good attitude on the part of the sow is mandatory for small producers

In the interest of giving you complete information, keeping the sows away from people (in gestation crates) would have prevented this.

If she’s stuck in a pipe jail barely big enough to get up and lay down in, then she’s sure not able to chase either one of us.

We don’t think that type of sow environment (pipe jail gestation crates) is an acceptable way to treat sows.

That means good attitude on the part of the sow is mandatory.

When we have a sow or gilt (or even the boar) that will not behave appropriately it has to be sold for slaughter.

It is not safe to keep mean animals around. There are plenty of great pigs that have good attitudes. Sell your meanie and get something well behaved.

Increasing the sow’s daily feed

As of the second day, your sow will need a lactation (milking) ration.

She needs to eat enough to maintain her body, recover from birth and make the milk to feed all those piglets!

The lactation ration will be a higher protein percentage than what she was eating before labor.

A common lactation ration will be 17.8% protein.

Your sow will need 6 pounds as a base amount then .5 pounds for every piglet that she is feeding. Golda is getting 12 pounds total, 6 pound twice a day.

6 pounds for the sow + 4 pounds at .5 pounds x 8 piglets = 12 pounds total feed per day

I weighed a scoop of feed using a kitchen type scale to know how much she is getting and adjusted from there.

For her, it is a scoop chuck full of feed to equal 6 pounds.

You should be gradually working up to this amount of feed so that by a week or so you are up to the full amount.

Dumping all that feed to her during her first few days as a new mom is hard on her digestive system.

I explain the amount of feed your sow should be getting and talk about how to increase her up to the pounds of feed she needs now that she is milking.

Feeding the sow in pans vs. bulk feeder

You could set up a bulk feeder and just let her eat whatever she wants, but then it is all too easy to not check on her!

I give the feed twice a day in the rubber pans.

This way I can see that she is excited about the feed, a sign that she is healthy, and get a good look at the baby pigs while she is busy eating.

Set up a creep feeder for the piglets

Once the piglets are a few days old they will start doing more exploring.

As soon as they show interest in the sow’s feed you should give them some of their own.

You will need to set up a creep area (baby pigs only, no moms) where you put their feed.

If you just set the pan of piglet feed out in the pen, the sow will eat it as well as her own feed!

The piglets will stay with their mom until weaning, which is can be as early as 30 days, but we prefer more like 8-10 weeks.

Staying with their mom longer makes the switch to eating on their own easier and less stressful.

You’ll need to castrate the piglets

This is a hot topic for a few reasons, one is the humane treatment side, the other is does it even need to be done? We’ll tackle these issues separately.

Regarding castration as being inhumane, I’m not sure of that.

And here’s why-if you have spent any time with pigs and specifically piglets they are screamers. Pigs are very vocal for all kinds of reasons. Pick one up to hold it and you’ll hear exactly what I mean!

No matter the reason why you would pick it up, a piglet will scream bloody murder until you put it back down again. This is normal.

In the case of castration, or any other time you grab a piglet, like for shots or deworming, they squeal, loudly.

Judging castration as inhumane based on a pig squealing is not logical, a piglet squeals just as loudly when you pick it up to pet it.

Second, do you even have to castrate male piglets? Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm has written some interesting articles about this subject.

He has done some research and found certain lines of pigs have the “boar taint” (a smell in the meat that is fixed with castration) and other lines and breeds do not.

He doesn’t castrate any of his male piglets, because he has the genetics and customers to do so. Check it out-very interesting information.

We do not direct market pork, we sell through the auctions. All of our pigs need to be castrated in order to get market hog vs boar prices, a difference of $80-100 per pig!

Castration can be done early, at 3-6 days or later when the piglets are weaned. We do it early, it’s fast to do, fast to heal and less stressful for the piglets than castrating when they are bigger.

Castrating weaned pigs, 50-60 pounds is doable but harder. It’s a two person job, one holds, one cuts, and that size pig is hard to hold on to.

You could have the vet out to castrate for you, or just have a friend show you how. It’s not hard, but can easily be put off until they are big, and then it will be hard, at least harder on you!

Beef Quality: What Makes The Most Flavorful Results

Jersey and Angus cross steer grazing

We all want the best tasting beef we can get! Often, it is confusing to sort through the opinions and propaganda to get to the results.

What are the factors that really affect the taste of your beef?

The most flavorful beef comes from animals that are raised in a low stress environment, are treated well, are healthy and have ample forage to eat.

If you are going to put in the time to raise your own beef, it might as well taste wonderful, right? I agree. Let’s dig into how you can raise the best beef you’ve ever had!

Cost To Buy A Starter Beef Herd goes over your options and places to start doing price research when getting started with beef cattle.

Diet affects taste of the beef

You are what you eat, a familiar saying that is just as true for cattle as it is for you.

I would like you to consider that all beef should be amazing, tons of flavor from an animal that had a great life.

This is the steer (castrated male bovine) at the pinnacle of taste and anything less is an animal living below it’s potential.

We are told that for extra flavor you have to add …. (fill in the blank with whatever suits you), but I think that you don’t need to add anything.

Great tasting meat stands alone.

I’m not anti sauce, not at all. I love them, especially barbeque, but I am opposed to needing the sauce to make up for lack luster flavor.

It makes more sense to start out with great flavor and add to it vs. trying to make up for a deficit.

Cost To Butcher Your Own Beef goes over your costs to get your steer into the freezer.

Beef flavor comes from forage variety

The most flavor in beef comes from cattle that are eating a variety of forages.

Ideally, a mix of grasses and forages (plants that are eaten by livestock but not just grasses) to give the steer the wide range of nutrients he needs for optimal health.

Think of all the forages that make hay, like alfalfa, orchard grass, timothy, clovers, along with herbs and “weeds” like chicory, plantain, ragweed, goldenrod and many others.

The steer should eat what grows in your area. It’s really that easy.

Raising Beef Cattle On Grass will show you some of the things you need to know to manage your grass fed cattle.

Steers are ruminants so need forages for gut health

The best flavor comes from animals getting a full spectrum of nutrients, the ones you know about and the ones that we don’t hear about that are available in plants.

Remember, since you are feeding a ruminant here, the actual eaters are all of the bacteria in the gut.

The best health and most widely available food source for the steer and his legion of gut bacteria is forage.

This could include occasional grain, but not grain as a main part of the diet.

There is nothing wrong with animals eating grain.

However, cattle are ruminants. That means they need lots of forages to make their digestive system work properly and don’t need grain at all.

They like it but they don’t need it. An all grain or high grain diet gives them an upset stomach, just like a kid eating too much candy.

Stress affects growth and beef flavor

Stress is a resource hog.

A stressed animal has to use nutrients and energy that should be going into repair and growth and instead use them for “fight or flight”.

Since stress is internally an immediate threat (read threat to life), the steer will naturally put off or delay other processes that won’t help it survive the looming danger.

Things like maintaining the immune system get put on hold, even if the looming danger is not actually life threatening, it just has to be regarded as such by the body.

A happy steer will grow at the most efficient rate and produce the best meat. A big part of being happy is living in a low stress environment.

This is true, once again, for you as well as all other animals.

Low stress living will have the steer using the majority of his body’s resources for upkeep of his immune system, maintaining a healthy fat cover, body growth and general maintenance and repair.

This will naturally grow the healthiest animals and provide the set up for optimal growth of the animals.

beef chuck roast
Beautiful, locally raised beef.

Fast growth does not equal beef flavor

Generally speaking, fast growth does not equal the most or best flavor.

I’m not saying the flavor from fast growing animals is bad, but it is not what that beef could have been had the steer been raised differently.

The flavor from a steer raised in a more traditional way and with traditional feeds/forages will have more flavor and that flavor will have more depth.

Older steers have more flavor

The simple explanation here is likely to be age. An older animal, of any type, will have more flavor and a younger one less flavor.

The trade off here (there’s always a trade off) is a younger animal is usually more tender than an older one.

To be clear a good (read fast) growth rate is important, slow growers are not economical to raise, but good/fast growth is a relative term.

The fastest growing cattle are strictly grain fed in an industrial system, that’s not the good kind of fast growth.

Cattle need forages to be digestively healthy

Why not? Because biologically, cattle are ruminants, ruminants need forages (plant fiber) to have a properly functioning digestive system.

No forages=not good for cattle, no matter how fast they grow. Think of an obese 8 year old, that kid grew fast, too.

We as cattle raisers want good growth rates while keeping the system ideal for cattle, meaning not a feed lot.

Cattle can be put in industrial production systems and gain faster than traditional systems, but it is good for the cattle?

Ultimately, whatever is good for the cattle is good for the cattle raiser and good for the cattle eater.

Cattle breed selection does matter

As long as you are choosing to raise a breed, or mix of breeds (called a crossbred), that is appropriate for your area, you or your farmer should be set up to produce the best flavor possible.

Match the cattle breed to the local conditions

Here is an example: A breed known for it’s hardiness and cold tolerance is the Scottish Highland.

They are beautiful and pretty easy keepers, we had some 15 or so years ago. Highlands are a smaller cow that’s big on horns and hair!

Highlands would be a poor choice for a tropical cattle raiser, it’s too hot in the tropics for this breed.

A tropical cattle raiser needs a breed with superior heat tolerance and insect resistance. There are other breeds like brahmas that would work great.

Use cattle suited to your area

As long as the cattle breed or mix of breeds is workable for your situation then really the more important factor is method the steers are raised in and diet.

There are breeds that have certain characteristics like more marbling in the meat or a wider framed body, but overall as long as the animal is suited for the area there are at least a few great choices, genetics wise.

Wondering what breeds of cattle might be a good fit for you? Read my article 14 Docile Breeds Of Beef Cattle.

There is breed specific beef available

Breed is also a factor in area specific meat production like Label Rouge.

This is a French program that certifies meat raised in a specific way starting with a specific breed or breeds that are originally from the area.

Kind of like Certified Angus Beef, not all cattle sold in America meet the criteria for this program, the same with Label Rouge.

The point is to consider your farm or your local growing area and your resources.

Match the natural characteristics of the cattle to the specific needs and challenges of your area and growing conditions.

The savvy cattle raiser takes advantage of this opportunity.

Jersey and Angus cross steer grazing
Crossbred steer grazing a low area on our farm.

The steers that will do best in your area are ones that naturally like the conditions your area has available.

Since all areas are different it only follows that different areas and management systems will do best with different cattle.

Terroir: unique flavor from a specific location

noun. the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma: the high quality of the region’s terroir. Also called goût de ter.
Terroir | Definition of Terroir at

I know the quote is speaking to taste of wine specifically, but the same idea applies to any food, how it is raised will be apparent in the taste.

This is why in the EU place specific names for food are such a big deal, for instance the original Parmesan cheese, actually called Parmigiano Reggiano, can only come from Italy and a specific area of Italy at that.

Why? Because of the unique combination of environment and aging conditions of the area are need to make the real deal Parmesan cheese.

All others cheese makers are doing their best, but can never replicate the exact set up and therefore resulting cheese.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is named after the provinces in which it is made, namely Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua. True Parmesan cheese has a hard, gritty texture and is fruity and nutty in taste. Cheeses mocking Parmesan or inferior Parmesan may have a bitter taste.

Parmesan –

The same applies to any animal, range feed sheep, cattle and goats, for instance, are going to taste noticeably different than the same animals raised around here (Ohio).

Wine producers have recognized terroir for ages and it is true for all foods.

Here is the place to mention Label Rouge again, since it is a program that has a few critical pieces that all must be in place, how the animal was raised, the breed of the animal and the area in which the animal was raised.

Meaning genuine Label Rouge beef must be from a French breed, raised in France under certain conditions, like being on grass, etc.

Granted, Label Rouge’s flagship product is chicken, but the same thinking still applies.

So, what is the big deal here? Taste.

The best flavor comes from happy cattle

The proof is in the results, that’s the bottom line. Whatever your ideal cattle raising situation there are positives and negatives associated with that particular method.

Cattle with lots of room to move usually have to move, meaning there is a lot of walking involved to get to water and to find enough forage for daily calorie needs.

Cattle inside a more enclosed area, even just a smaller paddock, have less freedom of movement.

But they also have everything thing they need close and easy to reach, like plentiful grass and farmer provided water in troughs.

Happy cattle are calm and chew their cud

If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit your steer at his home farm before he goes to the butcher here are a few things to look for so you can tell if he is being treated well.

Remember good treatment of the animal equals good eating qualities.

  • Hair coat-cattle in good health naturally have a nice smooth, shiny hair coat
  • Demeanor-interested in you and active, eating or chewing cud-try to spy on them before they see you so you see their normal activities
  • Surroundings-overall how do things look? How do things smell? New doesn’t matter, cattle friendly environment does matter

At a farmer’s market or a natural foods store? Look at pictures and see what you can find online.

Farms that want your business and are providing exceptional quality beef are proud to show you their cattle and the way they raise them.

If you can’t get the pictures or video-ask, maybe the farmer just didn’t realize customers would want to see a video.

Or they are uncomfortable with video and unaware of the difference it would make for their sales.

While we do not currently attend farmer’s markets, this “avoid technology” person would have been me as recently as six months ago.

Give the farmer the benefit of the doubt and just ask.

Jersey and Dutch Belted cross cow
Sophie, a Jersey and Dutch Belted cross, is curious about the camera. You can see she is happy-big tum full of grass, shiny hair coat and interested in me coming to see her.

Age and marbling affect beef flavor

  • Age of steer
  • Aging of the meat
  • Variety of the animal’s diet
  • Marbling of the meat
  • Exercise in the steer’s daily life

Age of the steer– older animals have more flavor. This is true of any animal. Most cattle are sent to market at the best balance of size and age.

The longer you keep a steer the more it costs to raise but the bigger it will be (up to a point) when it sells.

Aging of the meat-beef needs to hang (age in a meat locker/cooler) for 2 weeks before the carcass is cut up into the steaks and roasts that you want for your freezer.

Aging allows the bacteria (good bacteria that are naturally in the air) some time to break down the meat a little. This is all about tenderness.

Beef does not need to be aged to be eaten, but if you want tender beef aging is a crucial step.

Variety of the steer’s diet-the more variable the grasses, forbes (shrubs), herbs, “weeds” and other forages that the animal had available to eat the more flavorful the meat will be.

This is why you can find beef from Texas that has the selling point of the steer grazing on mesquite and therefore giving the meat a special flavor.

Corn fed will taste different than grass fed. Range fed will taste different than pastured in Ohio (where we live).

None of these feed choices are better or worse than the other as long as the animal is healthy.

The only rule here is that cattle are ruminants, meaning they are made to eat forages.

Exclusively feeding grain is not good for the animal’s digestive system therefore not good for it’s overall health.

Find local beef with great flavor

An easy first step to eating beef with great flavor is to shop as locally as possible.

Locally produced meat will have more flavor, since the steer did not have to be trucked very far (trucking is stressful).

When you find multiple choices for buying local beef, now you can be more specific in your requirements.

If you can only find one source, either look harder or go with it, since locally raised just makes more sense compared to an animal raised far away and trucked all over the place.

If no one in your area raises beef, then get some from a butcher shop that buys local beef sourced from as close as possible, but definitely within your state.

Check online ads or put up an ad yourself online or at the local stores that sell cattle supplies.

If you have a local livestock auction, look there or ask at your local butcher shop.

Beef takes more time and money to raise

The short version on cost of beef (or any food): The more resources that are put into the finished product, the more it will cost.

A biggie here is time, it is an easy one to overlook but a huge factor, especially with animals.

To grow out a steer for you on grass alone will take at least 6 months longer than a grain feed steer.

For the same weight, the farmer has to put off payday for 6 more months than if the steer was fed in a way that promoted faster, yet less healthy, growth.

For a steer raised industrially and pushed for maximum growth on a very high grain ration, the time difference would be even longer.

Time is money, so more time and/or other resources (don’t forget to include the cost of the grazing, grass is not free!) spent to produce the beef equals more cost for the beef when is is sold. It is basic economics.

For the eaters: So you want better tasting beef? You’re going to have to pay more, but that’s only right because you are getting more.

For the cattle raisers: You want to produce great tasting beef? Give your cattle a great life. Wonderful, full flavored beef comes from cattle that have a wonderful, full life.

Why Do Chickens Eat Rocks? What “rocks” to feed your birds and why

Flock of mixed chickens in the yard

Why do chickens eat rocks? Because they can not get dentures or false teeth! Just kidding about the dentures, of course.

However, the eating rocks part is real.

Chickens swallow food whole and eat small rocks, called grit, to help them grind up their food. Chickens that are loose can find their own grit, chickens that are inside need to have grit provided to them.

When a chicken, or any other poultry for that matter, eats, the food gets swallowed into an area called the crop first, then to the gizzard.

For you and other animals with teeth, there is no need for a gizzard, since you have the ability to grind up your food with your teeth.

Is Raising Chickens For Eggs Worth It? shows you how to put together a budget for your hens, from chicks to maintenance needs.

A chicken works a bit differently, she eats food that then goes to the crop. The crop is a holding area for the food.

The food slowly trickles out of the crop into the gizzard where it is ground up with grit.

From the gizzard the ground food goes to the small intestine to be absorbed for use in the body.

Animals with a simple stomach (like us!) use teeth grind up their food first and then swallow it.

Chickens do the opposite, they swallow first and grind later.

Hand drawn diagram of a chicken's digestive system highlighting the crop and the gizzard
Here’s a funny little white board drawing my husband made to show the position of the crop and the gizzard in a chicken. This chicken is modeled after some Salmon Faverolles that I have, that’s why it has a bit of a beard and the feathered feet!

Chickens eat small rocks or stones

Chickens need to eat, really more like swallow whole, small stones.

Yep, any small stone that can tumble around in the gizzard grinding up food for the chicken can be eaten.

To be more precise, the stone being used as grit is only eaten in the sense that it is in the body, the chicken can not digest the stone, only use the stone like a tool.

Chickens do not have teeth

Eating without teeth is easy, they just swallow the food.

The part that is more complicated is that the way a body, yours and the chicken’s as well, digest food is to break the food up into really, really small bits.

These small bits have the most surface area for gut microbes to latch on to and start breaking the food down so the chicken can get the nutrients into her body in a usable form.

Undigested nutrients just get pooped out. Not only is this a waste of money, it also messes up the ability of the chicken to take care of herself.

Feed only helps her body if it can be put into a form she can use.

Can You Keep Chickens In Your Backyard? shows you how to figure up if you have enough space to raise a few chickens!

Chickens need grit

If your chickens have plenty of time outside to run around and be on the dirt, not just a cage floor, then giving them grit is just to be sure they have some.

It is not mandatory. Our loose chickens never get grit from me, they find their own.

What breed are these hens? Click here to read my article about the do-it-all Wyandotte.

However, if your chickens are inside a coop, not on dirt or just not very aggressive foragers grit is a good idea.

Also if you feel that your birds are not doing as well as they should, giving them some grit is an easy way to make sure they aren’t missing out on any nutrients from their food.

Plus, a bag of grit is cheap and lasts seemingly forever.

Chickens are omnivores

Chickens are the ultimate omnivore. That means they eat both plant and animal sourced foods.

Why do I say ultimate omnivore, what’s so ultimate about a chicken?

Chickens are the ultimate omnivore because they will eat anything, seriously, anything.

There is nothing too gross, to slimy, or too anything else you can think of that is not appetizing at all.

If a hen thinks that a possible food source can be swallowed, she’ll give it a try.

As an example, chickens love, love, love cow poop. A fresh cow pie doesn’t last too long around here. As soon as the first chicken finds it, the others zoom over and start picking out their share of the snacks.

all the foods chickens need to eat grit in order to digest

Chickens do a great job picking through compost piles for snacks, being on bug patrol in your yard and eating any edibles that are easily scratched out of the soil.

They also love kitchen scraps or overripe or insect damaged vegetables, from your garden or from the throw away pile at the store.

Remember, since chickens are the ultimate omnivore they need to have both plant and animal protein sources.

Being an omnivore is her inherent biological design.

A chicken’s digestive system is designed to eat a variety of foods, both plant and animal sourced, in order to meet her caloric needs for the day.

Any way you provide for the chicken to meet her needs, from giving her all the purchased feed she needs to giving her access to a big yard, kitchen scraps and compost pile, is an appropriate diet.

A vegetarian feed ration is not an appropriate diet for chickens, unless she has access to a nice grassy yard or compost pile where she can find her own meat (maggots and other bugs).

Chickens need grit (not gravel) to digest food

Gravel is too big for your chickens to use.

Chickens need a small stone or rock to help grind food, but it is a small stone or rock. Anything that would make good gravel is way too big.

The gizzard, where the small stone goes, is a muscular organ shaped like a jelly doughnut that contacts over and over to scrape/grind up whatever they ate into smaller pieces for digestion.

This grinding takes numerous contractions of the gizzard and hours to grind up the food to digestible particle size.

Think about it like this, when you get a can of spray paint, you shake it so the little ball in the can will mix up the paint and the air inside the can.

This mixing takes multiple passes with the ball swishing around in the can to work.

The rocks in the gizzard work like the ball in the paint can, lots of swishing of a little mixer (the ball or the rock).

Grit for chickens can be purchased

two sizes of grit pictured beside a penny to show scale
Here is a comparison of starter grit (on the right) and larger grit, pictured with a penny. The larger grit is fine for adult chickens. Younger birds, even small chicks, need the smaller grit.

This is an easy one, the for sure method is get a bag of grit from your local feed store.

Around here it is a 50 pound bag for about $5. It will last you a long time.

The other easy way to get grit to your birds is to let them out onto soil and they will find their own by digging around.

If your birds can’t be out on dirt give them a shovel full of garden soil, not compost, you need the soil, since that is where the little grit size rocks will be.

Since a bag of grit will last a while, you could also get some from a friend who also has chickens.

Trust me on this one, if they purchased a bag of grit and have just a few birds, they still have plenty of grit left in the bag, even with you buying a small container of it.

Or get a bag to split between you and anyone else with just a few birds who doesn’t want 49.5 pounds (out of the original 50) sitting around in their garage forever either!

Grit And Oyster Shells: Do Your Chickens Need Them? is an article you can look into for another perspective on grit to chickens.