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How to Prepare a Farm for a Pandemic and Other Emergencies

It’s been some time since I’ve posted anything, and for that I apologize. 

As you likely already know, things have been quite hectic around here with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the announcement that many facilities, services, and workplaces in New York State are being shut down.

What has been interesting here – and a source of confusion for many – is what businesses count as “essential.” A grocery store? Easily essential. A pharmacy? Yes. Hospitals? Absolutely.

Farms are, of course, categorized as essential operations, and so it’s been easy for us to rationalize the need to go to town for animal feed, supplies, etc. We’ve been taking all of the necessary precautions and, besides occasional ventures out for food for the animals, staying at home. 

That’s not to say that the concerns about coronavirus have not reached us, though. There have been a lot of questions – some I’ve received from blog readers – about how you can prepare yourself for a pandemic if you have a farm. 

After all, it’s important to keep yourself prepared so that you are able to care for yourself and your animals if you are unfortunate enough to encounter this pandemic – or really, any kind of emergency – on your farm. 

If you’re looking for more guidance on COVID-19 and the precautions you should be taking as a citizen, check out the latest CDC guidance here.

Please do not interpret this article as medical or veterinary advice – it is simply the best suggestions I have based on my personal experiences. 

**J&R Pierce Family Farm is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to allow sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products on Amazon. I often link to Amazon when recommending certain products, and if you choose to purchase, I may earn a small percentage of the sale. It costs you nothing extra, and all recommended products are ones that I personally vouch for. **

What is Coronavirus?

As you probably already know by now, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from a common cold to the more severe illnesses, like SARS, MERS, and of course, COVID-19. 

Typically, coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means they are transmitted between animals and people. SARS traveled to people from civet cats and MERS from dromedary camels.COVID-19 is also believed to have been transmitted to us from animals, although the exact species is still debated (bats are suspected).

Naturally, you might be wondering whether your own animals are safe – or whether they pose a risk to you and your family. The information is reassuring.  

Can Pets and Livestock Get the Coronavirus – and Vice Versa?

When COVID-19 first made its appearance here in upstate New York, one of my first worries was whether it could be passed to my animals (including the sheep, chickens, pigs, and even my dog) – or vice versa. 

The short answer is no – you aren’t going to spread coronavirus to your dog, and you probably aren’t going to get it from him, either. 

There was one instance of a dog being infected with coronavirus in Hong Kong, but there’s no evidence that a domestic animal or livestock species can spread COVID-19. 

Dr. Niels Pedersen at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine writes, “Although coronaviruses can  jump from one host to another, this is a slow process and requires significant genetic change. There is no evidence that coronaviruses of our common veterinary species have entered humans in the recent past or vice versa. However, the tendency for coronaviruses to jump species is an ongoing occurrence and it is possible that a coronavirus from a common pet species such as a cat or dog may enter humans and cause disease sometime in the future.”

The article goes on to say that, if the virus should make the jump, it wouldn’t be a dog or cat virus but instead a human virus. 

That’s not to say that animals are immune. Coronavirus is the name of a family of viruses that have adapted themselves over more than 50,000 years to include almost every species of animal, including humans. However, they tend to be species specific and remain in that species-based host. 

You should still be following appropriate precautions when interacting with and caring for your animals, of course. Wash your hands after working in the barn or feeding your animals. Make sure you take your shoes off outside and don’t wear them into the house. Monitor your animals on a  daily basis for any signs of illness – and keep an eye on your own symptoms, too.  

How to Care For Your Animals During a Pandemic – or Any Kind of Emergency

Limit Unnecessary Visitors

Now is not the time for agrotourism – if Sally doesn’t need to be in your barn, Sally shouldn’t be in your barn. 

Although there is no evidence that this current human coronavirus can jump from humans to animals or vice versa – and most scientists agree that it is unlikely – the best thing that you can do is to make sure your animals are not exposed to people who may be sick. Limit visitors, and you’ll reduce everyone’s risk.

Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best

When this pandemic first started gaining attention in China, there were media reports of pets trapped inside homes with nobody to care for them. Large-scale rescues mobilized shortly after, helping to provide cats, dogs, and other domestic animals with the food and supplies they needed. 

Even if you don’t plan on leaving the house any time soon – hello, quarantine – it’s important that you have a plan in case something does happen. What if you can’t get back to the farm to feed your animals? What if you become extremely sick and can’t even get out of bed – let alone go outside to feed the pigs?

If you have a spouse or other family members that live with you, you will of course be able to rely on them. But what if they become ill or otherwise immobilized? I recommend having a written emergency plan that you share not only with all the members of your immediate family, but at least two or three people outside of the home as well. 

This should be in writing and cover everything, including:

  • What animals need what kind of food, and when
  • Where extra food is stored
  • Where additional food can be purchased
  • What to do if “x, y, or z” medical situation arises (for example, if your pregnant ewes start to lamb or your ram begins to limp)
  • Phone numbers for your veterinarian and others who can help out in a pinch 
  • What to do if fences are down and animals get out

Think of the worst possible situation, and have a plan for it. 

We haven’t yet formed one of these for our farm, but it’s on the list of things to do. It will likely take the form of a similar document we already have in place for when we need to leave the farm, as we did this summer for a wedding and a few years ago for our honeymoon. 

This kind of “farm emergency plan” can easily be adapted for when you want to go on vacation too – so if you have time right now while you’re quarantined at home, I recommend making one. It will save you some time later on, even if (hopefully) you don’t have to use it now.

Avoid Relying On Others

While everyone is encouraged not to leave and to follow appropriate social distancing measures, it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, you are responsible for yourself. Think of ways you can improve your self-reliance.

This might include:

  • Stockpiling seeds so you can grow all of your own vegetables and animal feed
  • Knowing how to make your own bread (which you can do without yeast, by the way – here’s a link on how)
  • Canning food so you don’t have to rely on the grocery store during the winter
  • Learning basic skills like carpentry, equipment repair, sewing, and animal husbandry so you don’t need to rely on others for these services 
  • Acquainting yourself even with basic first-aid (and stocking up your first aid kit) so that unnecessary trips out of the house don’t need to occur
  • Learning how to take care of basic animal care tasks, like trimming sheep hooves, administering basic vaccinations, or butchering chickens

There are all sorts of things that you can not only learn to do yourself, but are remarkably easy to learn, too. I’ve taught myself a lot of skills in the last year or so not out of any sort of dire need, but because I think it’s interesting and valuable. 

To name a few, I’ve learned how to:

  • Make my own essential oils
  • Cut hair (not my own yet, but my husband’s)
  • Bake bread from scratch
  • Cut up a chicken for the freezer
  • Castrate and vaccinate pigs and sheep 
  • Operate a tractor 

The list goes on – but what I hope ist that, with this state of emergency that we’re all in, everybody takes the time to learn a few skills that will be valuable in the future (and when things eventually go back to normal). 

Stockpile Grain

As we watched everybody hoarding things like toilet paper and milk, my husband and I sat back and shook our heads. 

I understand that it’s important to have the essentials on hand. But for us, we knew it was more important to stock up on other supplies. We made sure we had plenty of feed on hand for all of our animals and also purchased all of our lambing and farrowing supplies a bit early in case there were store closures. 

I also made sure I had my seeds ordered – I’m not planning on letting a pandemic stop my March seed starting, that’s for sure! 

Anyway, while it’s important to keep a stockpile of food for yourself, don’t forget about your livestock and pets, either. They can’t fend for themselves if something happens, and you might not be able to get out to get them grain. This is especially true if you’re worried about caring for your animals in the midst of another type of emergency, like a weather emergency.

When you store grain and other foodstuffs, make sure it is protected so that rodents and other pests can’t get to it. We use food-grade barrels with locking lids for our grain, which works well. 

Research Alternative Food Sources

Although I doubt it will come to this, we have already begun discussing and researching potential alternative food sources for our animals. We can grow and produce most of our own food here on the farm, but with only 22 acres or so, a large scale grain production would be a bit more challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.

So we have started to consider other alternatives. Could we plant some forage turnips or beets for the pigs? Will our local grain supplier still be able to give us grain for the chickens – and if not, how can we feed them?

Do your research now so you don’t have to panic later on. There are plenty of alternatives, especially when it comes to chickens and pigs. Here are a few suggestions on how to make and ferment your own chicken feed and some information on feeding sheep and pigs.

And remember, in the summer, pasturing your animals is the best thing you can do for them. Consider building a few inexpensive chicken tractors now to get your animals fresh pasture without the risk of predators.

Put Together an Emergency Supply Kit

I already mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again – put together a supply kit of essentials, both for you and your family along with your livestock. A household kit would of course include all of the vital items like first aid essentials, water, food, etc, but for your animals you’ll want to take a look at this post for my suggestions on what to keep on hand at all times.

Make a List of Farm Inventory 

To go with the earlier tips, make sure you keep a running tally of your inventory. This could be everything from the meat you have in your freezer (I use this method to keep track of what we have in stock) to the grain you have in the barn for the chickens. 

This will give you peace of mind and also help you keep track of what you’re running low on.

My farm inventory includes things like:

  • Canning supplies, including jars, lids, and bands 
  • Iodine and Blu-Kote 
  • Bandages and antibiotic ointment
  • Dry goods, meat, and nonperishable foods 
  • Animal feed 
  • Seeds 
  • Bottled water
  • Batteries 
  • Medications 

Keep your kits in designated locations where you can get to them quickly. They should be cool and dry and you’ll want to make sure you check them regularly to replace out of stock or expired items. 

Keep Everything Clean

Although a clean farm is important at all times of the year, keeping things clean and sanitary is even more vital now. You will want to make sure you take the time to thoroughly muck out and add bedding to your barns and coops. Give everything a good scrub down. 

The same goes for inside the house. Clean the house from top to bottom and don’t be afraid of the bleach right about now. Remember to clean often-forgotten areas (in the home and in the barns) like door knobs and handles, too. 

Know When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

I absolutely hate writing this last tip, but it’s necessary. 

Luckily, COVID-19 hasn’t been proven to have a serious impact on most types of animals. 

Know when to cull farm animals to keep the rest of the animals healthy and safe (doesn’t apply as much to coronavirus but for other epidemics or emergency situations). It can be heartbreaking to have to put a sick animal down, but know that you will ultimately be doing that animal a favor. 

I know so many people who have dozens of chickens, many of which are old, ill, and suffering, and they refuse to put them down because they don’t think it’s right. 

Obviously, you should always do whatever you can to help an ill or injured animal – I’m not saying we need to go full “survival of the fittest” here. But in some cases – especially in these current trying times – you might not be able to do everything you might want to.

Have some perspective and be prepared to make these difficult changes if you need to. It might feel tempting to ignore that possibility right now, but sticking your head in the sand won’t change things later on – so be prepared. 

Stay safe, everyone – and stay home! 

Want to learn more? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.

Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

(1) Comment

  1. Super useful information. Thanks for sharing!

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