Animals have always been an important part of Minnesota agriculture. However, the breeds and types of animals that are raised have changed over time.
Shorthorn Cattle were a common 19th-century breed. Bulls that have been neutered (steers) and trained to do farmwork are called oxen. Young farmers would often train steer calves to work in the fields for four years until they were fully grown. Oxen are very strong and easy to take care of, but they are very slow workers. Kelley eventually invested in horses instead because they could get more work done, even though they were harder to care for.
Females that have had a baby are called cows. In the 19th century, farmers would milk cows by hand. Generally, a family would only have one dairy cow that could provide the household with enough cream and milk. The milk was used for cooking and the cream for making butter. Any extra butter could be sold in town or to people coming to the farm for produce. Cows were too valuable (because of their offspring and milk) to be used as oxen.
Modern cattle are raised for beef and dairy, rather than as working animals. Beef cattle and dairy cattle in Minnesota have different lifecycles and are typically different breeds — bred specifically for one use.
Common beef cattle breeds include Angus and Hereford. Beef cattle spend most of their life grazing on pasture, then move to feedlots where they eat grain for 4-6 months prior to slaughter.
The most common breed of dairy cattle is Holstein; these are the black and white cows you probably picture when you think of a cow. Many dairy farmers raise their dairy cattle in open-sided “freestall” barns where cows eat, drink, sleep and move around as they like. Milking is done with machines in a separate parlor. Milk is cooled, tested for safety and quality, and pasteurized before it makes it to the store.
“Market farmers,” who were trying to make a profit from farming, started selling oxen and investing in horses in the mid-19th century. Horses were faster, more nimble, better in mud, and able to work individually, instead of in teams. Farmers also did not have to walk alongside them, and instead rode on the farm equipment and controlled the horses with reins. Horses and the harnesses they needed were very expensive, but Kelley believed the increased farm yields would pay off the investment in a short period of time.
Horses were generally work animals trained to pull and power equipment and were not used for recreational riding. This is still true for the Historic Farmstead horses.
With the rise of mechanized equipment such as tractors came the decline of horses used for power. Farmers with tractors could work more effectively and efficiently, and didn’t need to worry about the health and care of working animals. Between WWI and WWII most farmers made the switch. Today, horses are raised primarily for recreation and entertainment, from driving competitions to racing. In 2012, 66,384 horses were raised in Minnesota.
Hogs, pigs, and swine are interchangeable terms
Most farmers in Oliver Kelley’s day would let their native pigs roam and forage in the woods for food. It took 3-4 years for these pigs to reach slaughter weight of 300 pounds. Unlike his neighbors, Kelley kept his pigs in pens so that he could control their feeding and breeding. The Historic Farmstead has Berkshire hogs, a popular breed in the 1800s for those who could afford it, known for their lard and flavorful meat.
There are 3,300 pig farms in Minnesota, and Minnesota ranks second in the United States in number of pigs raised. Two common breeds raised today are American Landrace and American Yorkshire. Many farmers also raise crossbreeds. Most modern hogs live in climate-controlled barns where feeding, healthcare, and manure management are carefully regulated. Pigs are typically slaughtered at around 6 months of age, at which point they typically weigh 250-300 pounds.
The Silver-Grey Dorking and Dominque breeds on the Historic Farmstead today were common breeds in the 19th century. Chickens provided both meat and eggs for farmers in Kelley’s day. On a Yankee farm, the women were traditionally responsible for the chickens’ care. Most families only had enough to supply their immediate family, but the Kelleys kept up to 200 chickens and sold their meat and eggs right off the farm to neighbors. Due to limited daylight, however, the hens would stop laying eggs in the winter.
Though some farm families raised a few turkeys in the 1800s, the industry wasn’t commercialized until the 1940s in Minnesota. You might spot wild turkeys in the fields or sitting on fences down on the Historic Farmstead.
Minnesota is a top producer of eggs and meat chickens, and is the number one turkey-producing state in the United States. Poultry raised today are typically hybrid breeds, selected over time for increased production and efficient growth. Modern production farms tend to specialize in one type of poultry and one lifecycle phase.
Many farmers that raise turkeys or chickens for meat (called broilers) start off with poults or chicks that are within 12 hours of hatching. They then raise these poults or chicks inside climate-controlled barns with food rationed specifically to best supply the birds as they age and grow. Thanks to years of selective breeding and to careful management, farmers are able to raise poultry to a slaughter size quickly and efficiently. Turkeys can reach reach 35-42 pounds in 16-19 weeks, and broiler chickens can reach 5 pounds in 5 weeks.
There are approximately 10.4 million egg-laying hens in Minnesota, which produce nearly 2.9 billion eggs per year. Hens are kept in layer houses where they are given 14-16 hours of light daily to stimulate egg production. Eggs are automatically collected daily on belts and rollers and move into an egg processing room. There the eggs are washed, graded, sorted by size, and packaged by machine.
Oliver Kelley thought that the local climate would be great for raising sheep for their wool and meat. He talked about the importance of improving the local Southdown and Merino sheep breeds in the area. The farmstead has Southdown sheep and is trying to breed them back to the 19th-century coloring of black heads and legs. In Kelley’s day Southdown sheep did not have wool on their heads; this is a modern trait.
Farmers sheared their sheep every spring and shipped the fleece to market. Farmers produced more wool during the Civil War when there was a demand for wool for soldiers’ uniforms.
Sheep numbers in the United States peaked at 56 million head in 1945 and have been in decline ever since, with 5.32 million head in 2016. In 2016, MN raised 125,000 sheep, putting us 12th in the United States in number of sheep raised. Sheep in the United States are raised differently according to geographic location, with large sheep ranches found west of the Mississippi River and smaller, pasture-based operations in the eastern part of the country. Due to changing consumer demands, the industry has also moved from an emphasis on wool production to an emphasis on meat production.