Backyard Livestock 101: A Guide to the Most Common Animals for Urban Farming

Between chickens, goats, turkeys, and more, which is the right animal for you?

Cute little boy and his family on a family farm, spending a day with the animals
Photo: Aleksandar Nakic / Getty Images

Our way of life may have changed from homesteads and ranches in many parts of the Midwest to fast-paced urban centers of activity, but that doesn't mean that we can't embrace a quieter side of life. Efforts to reintroduce a more eco-friendly mindset to urbanized areas has opened the doors to some new regulations for allowing small farms and livestock within city limits. People can raise their own chickens and grow their own crops if they have the necessary permits and the proper setup for the care and maintenance of these animals. This is a great thing for the environment, but it also provides a livelihood for the people who cultivate these miniature urban farms.

Before you can introduce backyard livestock to your home, first research the local zoning laws and ordinances for your city. How many animals are you allowed to have? What kinds of livestock is permitted? What are the facility requirements and can you provide the proper care of these animals? In many cases, you will need to submit documentation to your city before you can set up a livestock farm in your backyard. There are also laws on how you can go about selling the eggs or milk from your animals.

Our founder embraces the backyard farm with her own farm in Bedford. "Ever since I've owned a house, I've craved backyard farmyard animals," Martha says in Martha Stewart Living. "In Middlefield, Massachusetts, where we had a woodland farmstead, the first animals were chickens, sheltered in a coop fashioned from our daughter Alexis's outgrown playhouse." These days, Martha has a menagerie of different animals on her farm from chickens and horses to geese and goats. What kinds of animals can you keep in your backyard?


Raising chickens in your backyard means that you have a steady supply of fresh eggs without ever having to go to the grocery store. But you'll also have to make sure to have an enclosure that keeps chickens in and predators out and coops that are large enough to provide adequate living space. Chickens also make great pets if you understand how to care for them and recognize their need for both mental stimulation and affection. New research has even uncovered the intelligence and empathy capacity of chickens, making them a charming choice.


Like backyard chickens, you will want to make sure that you have the right space and housing setup for your backyard turkeys. Turkeys are raised for both their eggs and their meat. If you are raising turkeys for meat, it's generally recommended to choose heritage turkeys as they are valued for their beautiful plumage and wonderful flavor.


Not all areas will allow you to have goats, so you should always check before bringing one home with you (as you should do for all these animals). Erect an enclosure that keeps your goat warm and safe from inclement weather and has multiple levels (they love to jump and climb). Straw bales, picnic tables, custom built platforms, and cable spools are all good choices. You'll want to make sure that your fencing is goat-proof (ideally, chain link) so that your little goat doesn't escape your yard and start wandering the neighborhood. For their nutritional needs, it's important that your goats have access to pasture or, at the very least, bales of hay.


Rabbits can be indoor pets, but you can also raise rabbits in your backyard. They are especially good for vegetable gardens because their manure is a fertilizer that doesn't require composting beforehand. And these animals also tend to be a favorite for people who want a companion animal or who can't have other backyard farm animals in their cities.


Do you have a small pond in your backyard? If you have a water source like a pond, whether human-made or natural, you might want to consider raising ducks. A kiddie pool can be a low-cost alternative as well. Provide a freshwater fountain for your ducks and a secure, safe shelter to protect them from the elements and predators. Feeding amount requirements change as the animals mature, so make sure not to overfeed them—an overload of protein is very dangerous to their health.


You can have a backyard bee farm and cultivate your own fresh honey supply. For an urban beehive, you will need to check beekeeping regulations for your area. Your backyard needs to have a fence, and you'll want to invest in a beekeeper suit to protect yourself from stings when you handle the hive. You may also want to let your neighbors know about the bees, especially if there's a risk of allergic reactions. Keep your beehive away from where others can mess with it.


Pigs make great companion animals in addition being a good choice for a small backyard farm. But keep in mind that they can also be a bit messy and that they like to eat everything. You'll want to ensure proper fencing and housing enclosures, and you also need a plan to take care of all the manure in your yard. You can try composting it or selling it as fertilizer.


While you likely won't be permitted to have an entire stable of horses in your backyard farm, you might be permitted to have a small stable with one or two horses. You need a large backyard with plenty of greenery for their grazing. They'll also need space to run around or you will need to take them by trailer to an approved area for running or riding. The stable should, of course, be kept clean and refreshed with hay on a regular basis. And, like you should with all animals in your care, have a veterinarian on hand who can help you with keeping your horses strong and healthy.


Game birds are great for small backyard farms. Quail tend to be much quieter than chickens with their soft coos instead of squawking or crowing. Another benefit to raising quail is that they don't need as much space as raising chickens or goats, but you do want to ensure that their living conditions are more than adequate.


When it comes to raising cows in the city, you need to have enough space for these larger animals and will likely need a special permit before keeping any cows on your property. Some areas may only allow you to have one or two cows in your backyard; an entire herd would only be recommended if you live in a more rural area. We love cows for their milk but, yes, cows can also become companion animals.

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