An amazing resource, not to be missed in the development of a back-to-basic lifestyle, is raising animals for fiber. Whether it is hair or wool, these animals produce excellent fiber to make yarns for knitting and crocheting, felt for crafts, batting to make extra warm quilts and coats, and filling for pillows, pads and other furnishings. When many people think about wool for yarn, they think sheep, but sheep are just one of the many animals that produce a regular supply of spinnable, plush fiber for use on the homestead.
When city people think of rabbits, they think cute, cuddly pets. When most homesteaders think of rabbits, they often think meat. Even when homesteaders think of rabbits for pelts, they think fur, but they need an introduction to the “hair breeds” – the Jersey Wooly and the Angora. With hair breeds of rabbits, as any of the wool or hair fiber animals, they don’t have to be killed to make use of the by-product. In fact, you harvest the wool or hair, and it grows back so you continue to get more and more from a single animal.
Sheep are well-known for their wool production. While all breeds produce wool (and a couple produce hair), there are some that excel at wool production. If that is your goal, you should consider these breeds: Merino, Rambouillet, Romney, Jacob and Lincoln.
Other great sheep that are more dual purpose (good for meat and fiber) are Suffolk, Hampshire and Dorset.
Hair sheep have long, silky hair instead of tight, curly wool. The best known hair sheep are Dahl, St. Croix, Katahdin, and Dorper.
Llamas are funny and full of personality. They are very smart and good livestock guardians due to their territoriality and strong, large size. On top of all that, they produce thick, heavy wool coats that make great spinning fiber. Alpacas are a close cousin to the llama, and they produce very soft, luxurious wool that makes fantastic yarn for knitting and crocheting.
The one animal most people would never think of for fiber by-products is the goat. Certainly, most of them have coats far too short to make use of, but the Cashmere goat is legendary for producing the softest and silkiest fiber of any fiber animal.
Where to Find Fiber Livestock
There are several places you can look to find the type of animals you wish to raise for your home fiber production. You can look in the local papers for other area farmers or homesteaders who have the breeds you want and are selling offspring from their animals. Local yearly county fairs or livestock shows will have plenty of breeders to select from, and your local feed store that stocks food for livestock such as cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats and rabbits will likely know of other breeders in the area that might be of interest to you.
If you can’t find anything locally, which is sometimes the case, you may have to drive a fair distance to pick up your new stock, or have them shipped. There are many livestock shipping companies you can find online to make arrangements to pick up your animals and bring them home to you.
To find fiber animals in other parts of the country, check out the publications associated with those breeds. For Goats it could be the “The Goat Magazine” or for sheep it could be “Sheep!”
You can also look up breeders online using the search engines to find breeders of specific types of livestock that interest you. Another great source of information on what is available in the local area is your large-animal (or in the case of rabbits, small-animal) veterinarian. Since you are going to want to have a great relationship with the vet, talk to them about what you are interested in, and ask for any information they can give you about local fiber growers.
Visit the farms whenever you can so you can tell the conditions the animals are raised in. Check for overall health: no runny noses, gung in the eyes, matted dirty wool or hair, crust in the ears, and always check the hooves for good condition. A down sheep, goat or llama, is a dead sheep, goat or llama. If they can’t stand, they can’t get to the food to eat, and the weight of their bodies will eventually take a toll on their lungs.
Getting Started with Fiber Livestock
Do yourself a favor with fiber livestock, and any other type of livestock you decide to do for the first time. Get into it slowly. Buy a couple of animals and make sure you enjoy that particular animal. See that it works out the way you want it to before you invest the time, energy and money into a large flock or herd of animals. Starting small will also give you plenty of time to learn the methods of animal husbandry that work best for you, without making you feel overwhelmed by the time it takes to care for the animals properly. You will also learn a great deal on feeding, and can also get started with less money spent on supplies with just a few animals.
Typically the best small start is with two females and one male of whatever livestock you wish to raise, but with fiber animals, since breeding is not necessary until you are ready to build your herd/flock, you can easily start with just two females. That makes things easier as well because it is usually the males that can be more difficult to handle, although some are very nice to be around. In the case of goats, it is the males that stink. Females do not smell bad the way males do, although due to the strong-smelling males, all goats have gained a reputation as smelly animals.
Do your homework first before getting any livestock for your homestead, and be sure you have what you need to care for them properly. It will be the start of a beautiful experience for you and your family as well as teach you some additional ways of being self-sufficient.