August 2011
For What It's Worth

Fundamentals of Livestock Welfare

This article addresses potential or novice producers with an interest in raising some form of livestock (cattle, goats or sheep [meat or dairy], rabbits, pastured poultry or any possible combination) on limited acreage. We have all seen the occasional incident where someone attempting to raise a few animals fails to properly care for their animals, and ends up in the local news media (television, newspaper or radio). Sometimes it is neglect or, occasionally, lack of knowledge. Either way, a little bit of education, practical application and pursuit of knowledge can go a long way toward circumventing a bad situation whereby livestock suffer and owners are embarrassed. Basic considerations for livestock needs include space, shelter, nutrition (including water) and healthcare. These go a long ways toward enjoyable, stress-free livestock production. For more detailed information, seek information from your local Extension office,, and other printed material or Internet resources. Verify all information by seeking out several sources for verification.


Whether your choice of livestock production includes cattle or chickens, they all need space; the amount of space necessary is obviously relevant to the animal’s size. My typical answer for space needed per animal is "that depends"—depends on number of animals, grazing material available on a seasonal basis, willingness to provide supplemental feed and hay, etc. General minimum guidelines per animal would include: large-frame cow (approx. 1,000+ lbs.) requires two acres per cow with calf; four adult goats or sheep per acre including young offspring; rabbits in cages need six cubic feet (2’x2’x1.5’); and hens in a portable confinement (chicken tractor) need four square feet per bird with plans to move them about. Another option for chickens is free-ranging, allowing them to roam free with a shelter for home. These are all minimal space guidelines and will require additional space in the long-run. Overcrowding of animals can lead to stress, in-fighting, lack of sufficient grazing capability, parasite and health issues, etc. Situations will vary depending on pasture conditions, seasonal availability of forage materials, number and size of animals, etc.

Also relevant to space is containment, in the case of cows, goats and sheep (meat or dairy) some type of fencing is necessary. Options include electric, woven and barb-wire; all have their role and effectiveness. Barb wire is not one of my favorite choices and not effective in the case of sheep or goats, but generally works for cattle. For goats and sheep, make sure to avoid woven wire with six inch openings, as they tend to get their heads trapped in this size squares. Choose woven wire with four-inch squares, or eight-inch squares or larger. Electric wire will work for most ruminants (goats, sheep and cattle), but effectiveness is dependent upon proper spacing of individual wires, effective chargers and a continuous supply of electricity or solar charger. For more information, seek the advice of your local Extension agent; an excellent resource of effective electric fencing is the NRCS publication Electric Fencing for Serious Grazers, a downloadable version is available on the Internet. While rabbits being raised in cages might sound inhumane, it is in their best interest (protection from predators like birds of prey, dogs, cats, raccoons, possums and coyotes). Stressed rabbits are less likely to reproduce, which defeats the purpose of raising them as livestock.


Most livestock have minimal shelter needs, which include protection from excessive sun, wind and cold. Cattle, goats and sheep need shade from continuous direct sunlight in the simplest form, whether it is shade trees or covered shelters. Goats, sheep, rabbits and poultry need shelter from heavy rains, strong wind and extended below-freezing temperatures; not heated shelters, just the ability to keep dry and generate sufficient body heat to keep comfortable. Heat stress is common among all forms of livestock, a cumulative effect of above-normal temperatures, continuous direct sunlight and high humidity can stress any form of livestock and therefore reduce productivity. Rabbits are probably most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions and need overhead shelter, and protection from strong winds and rain. Airtight confinement is not healthy for livestock as it results in air stagnation, respiratory distress and potential health complications. The biggest challenge for any form of livestock production is to prevent drinking water from freezing. Options are numerous including electric deicers for ruminants, but require more hands-on initiative for poultry and rabbit care.


All livestock have minimal nutritional needs including access to sufficient quantities of clean water. Nothing is sadder than to see bones showing through the skin of a starving or underfed animal! The least expensive form of nutrition for most livestock is to insure ruminants and poultry can graze on pasture supplying appropriate nutrition. Ruminants require a variety of quality grasses, legumes and other vegetation; poultry prefer bugs. Supplemental feeding for ruminants can take the form of hay or pelleted feed and grains. Chickens will eat pelleted feed, vegetable and fruit discards, and bread. Rabbits need pelleted feed supplemented with limited hay and vegetable scraps or grass cuttings. Nutritional needs for ruminants and rabbits vary depending upon an animal’s stage of production. For example, lactating animals have higher than normal nutritional needs in order to maintain their body condition and to provide sufficient quantities of milk for their offspring. Chickens laying eggs need adequate nutrition to insure continuous egg production or frequency of egg production will diminish or cease.


Due to time, space and varying interests, this article will not go into detailed information regarding specific healthcare for each form of livestock. The management practices mentioned thus far will go a long way toward prevention of extreme health complications. There are other health management practices like recommended vaccinations, a working relationship with a veterinarian, quick response to animals exhibiting health problems, maintaining good body condition of individual animals, frequent observation of animals and ability to isolate sick or new animals. Two essential recommendations: (1) All the publications, Internet resources and advice of fellow producers will not replace the value of a good working relationship with a licensed veterinarian!! (2) Animals continually needing medical attention (professional or owner) may need to be culled; they are most likely to be a health threat to other farm animals, are costly to treat and are a financial drain on potential profits.

This article does not go into extensive detail on any particular topic. Its purpose is to help potential or existing livestock producers realize the role and relevance of space, confinement, shelter, nutrition and healthcare. All serve best management practices for proper animal husbandry. All of us hate to see animals suffer; simple strategies for practical applications go a long way toward humane animal treatment. Once the press gets hold of a story about suffering animals, it tends to create a negative image for the majority of livestock producers. There is an abundance of resources on the aforementioned aspects of livestock production. Lack of knowledge can be corrected through education.

Robert Spencer is a contributing writer from Florence.