Maple the pot-bellied pig and Winnie the silkie chicken (left), pictured in 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Livestock can be pricey to purchase and care for. When selecting what varieties to raise, farmers and homesteaders are wise to consider profitability as well as which livestock can help feed a family with the least cost.

The best livestock for any given farm is going to depend on a number of factors, including what kind of land you have, what you want to sell and how much feed and infrastructure the animals need. When it comes to bang-for-your-buck, though, some livestock stand above the rest.

While there are no guarantees when it comes to farming, some livestock can be more profitable than others.

Best livestock investments for small farmers and homesteaders

When it comes to meat — which is not only a common product to sell, but also what you are most likely considering when raising livestock to feed your family — perhaps the most important factor is the feed conversion ratio (FCR). The value is calculated by dividing the mass of the input divided by the mass of the output, so higher values will require more feed for an equivalent amount of meat.

For example, beef cattle have a FCR around 6, meaning they require 6 pounds of feed for every pound of meat, while pigs have an FCR around 3 to 4. Chickens have an FCR around 2.

“As far as bang for the buck on input versus output, you can’t hardly beat chickens,” said Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Rabbits also have a low FCR — between 2 and 3 generally — but if you want to sell meat for a profit, it can be harder to find a market for rabbits than chickens.

“Rabbits are great. They’re easy to butcher yourself. They’re very lean meat,” Knight said. “It’s easy to find people to buy chickens and you have to find people that want to buy rabbits. If you have a market to sell rabbits, it’d be a little different.”

A Rex rabbit at a farm in Pittston is shown in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Ducks are also good if you are raising meat for your family. Like rabbits, the demand for duck meat is less reliable, but Knight said that Pekin duck is more efficient at turning feed to meat, and you will get a much meatier duck in seven weeks than you would a chicken. However, ducks are a bit more work because of their affinity for water — Knight said that cleaning a wet, messy brooder to keep ducklings healthy is a particularly burdensome chore. Duck feed is also more expensive, and ducklings generally cost more than chicks do.

Trickier investments for small farmers and homesteaders

FCR is not a sure bet, though, especially if you’re trying to sell meat. Pigs, for example, have a fairly low FCR, but that belies the hidden costs for things like licensing, butchering and the like.

“Pigs are very hard to make money with, as they will quickly eat their profit if not grown fast enough,” said Jacki Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Turkeys are similarly finicky. Knight said that turkeys take longer to grow than chickens, and the only time there is really a market for turkey is around Thanksgiving, whereas other meats you can sell year-round.

“Cutting or grinding it to make it more saleable in the retail market [requires] that it’s slaughtered under inspection [because it’s not] allowed to fall under any state exemptions,” Perkins said. “On the homesteader side of that, turkeys need extra care and attention, and eat a lot.”

Ruminant animals are not going to be as good of a return on investment, but it depends on the kind of land you have. Then there is the issue of economics of scale, or the savings that come from increased levels of production. While large farms can have enough cattle to pay off infrastructure and buy feed in bulk, small farmers generally are not going to be able to reap the same benefits for livestock like beef cattle.

Beef cattle are a lot more work than some of these other animals,” Knight said. “Grass-fed steer is going to take anywhere from 25 to 36 months to get to the size it needs to be before you can slaughter it. You’re looking at a multiple-year investment.”

The investment is even higher in a place like Maine.

“Because we have such harsh winters in Maine, you have to have a barn to put it in [and] a way to store the hay,” Knight said. “You can raise a couple animals for yourself, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re talking about making a profit off of it, that’s where it becomes more difficult. You have to have more animals to take care of the economies of scale.”

And, of course, animals that people don’t eat are going to be money sinks — namely, horses.

“Horses are hard to make money with in a sustainable way,” Perkins said. “I love them, but they’re hard on pasture, we don’t eat them, rarely milk them and seldom use them for draft power.”

Beyond livestock for meat

There are products beyond meat, and if you have a market for them, they might be profitable. However, Knight said that making value added products like cheese, soap or even fiber may require expensive infrastructure, and there’s less of a surefire return for their investment.

“On a small scale, it’s often not profitable,” Knight said.

Agritourism, or making money off of visitors enjoying a farm experience, also has potential, but it is by no means a guarantee. Perkins cautioned that animal rights activists can make agritourism ventures more trouble than their worth.

“They are often militant and not afraid to liberate animals and engage in property damage,” Perkins said.

If you want to make money beyond selling meat, Knight said one more stable way to do so is to raise animals for heritage breeds. You may have to navigate regulations, pay registration fees and learn about genetics, but the animals will fetch a fair price and it will help to maintain the heritage stock of livestock.

“Especially in the homesteading world, those people seem to be more into the heritage breeds than the commercial breeds,” Knight said. “You sell them for a lot more than you would for the meat. It’s definitely easier than learning how to make cheese.”

However, Perkins said that in general, small scale farmers should look beyond the potential returns when choosing their livestock.

“Bang-for-your-buck isn’t really a thing for home-scale livestock production,” Perkins said. “Resources like feed and bedding are only offered at a price break at a large scale. Even production farmers in Maine suffer because of needing to compete with large farms in other parts of the country. The reason to grow animals at home is more of a holistic journey.”