Having a backyard farm can sometimes be tricky, but it is well worth it!
The first thing to do is find out what animals you can legally have. Talking to someone in the Animal control dept of the police station is the best place to start. They can tell you what the zoning laws are in your town or a town you are interested in moving to.
After making sure that you can legally have animals, you need to find out the laws about shelter placement in relationship to your house, fence lines, and streets.
After determining what kind of animals and how many you can have, you will know what kind of shelters to build. There are a lot of resources on the 'net including plans for a myriad of styles.
Rabbits are a good choice of meat animal for a backyard farm. From conception to birth is only 4 weeks, wean the babies at 6 weeks and breed the mama again and butcher the babies at 3 months. They are a good choice since start to finish it is such a short time, it is easy to breed them, they take up very little space and eat very little compared to goats/sheep, pigs, or cows for meat, not to mention the butchering is lots easier!
New Zealands and Satins are two good breeds because they are large. Take a look in The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery for a list of good meat breed rabbits as well as butchering techniques. The manure can be used as a great fertilizer for your garden too. The things to be careful of with rabbits are:
heat; make sure that they are never in direct sunlight in hot weather and that they can get out of the sun if they get too hot in cooler seasons.
Keep them protected from drafts in the winter; they can stand the cold, but not drafts. A shed is a great place for them during the winter, or if a shed isn't available, block the drafts with tarps.
Make sure they always have water; nothing will kill a rabbit quicker than having no water to drink.
There are many hutch styles for rabbits, but the features that I look for are: the droppings can fall through to the ground or a dropping pan; the sides are of rabbit wire that can be cut to fit a feeder, rabbits will tip over and waste their food, so it is nice to have the feeder tray be inside the cage with the rest of the feeder on the outside of the cage for easy filling. There is a picture on the right hand side with the other pics that you can click on to see more detail.
Chickens are a wonderfully easy critter to raise for eggs or meat. Unless you are hatching out your own eggs or can get chicks for cheap, though, rabbit meat costs less and is easier to come by. But if you love chicken meat, a home grown chicken can't be beat: no hormones or antibiotics, and free range is very best. I like chickens for eggs, myself. I love how the yolks are a rich yellow instead of the watery, pale yellow from commercial grown chickens that never see the light of day or scratch and peck a day in their life.
Chicks will need to be under a brooder light until they get all their feathers. Simply hang the brooder light above the container you keep your chicks' in. Your goal is to keep the chicks warm but not too warm. The best way to get the light hung at the perfect height is to hang it up and watch the chicks. If they try to get as far away from the light as possible, it is too hot and you need to raise the light just a bit. Raise the light and repeat the process: watch them and see where they go. If they huddle under the light, they are too cold, so lower the light a bit. You'll know that the brooder light is at the perfect height when they just mill around and peck and scratch.
The first day after you pick them up from the post office they will be quite noisy and restless. The second day they are pretty quite and sleep a lot. Your birds will make noise to let you know that they are cold, hot, or hungry, so listen for them and check if they are restless.
My container of choice for chicks is a big galvanized wash tub because their are no corners for one or two to get trapped in and die if the others crowd them. Simply put layers of paper in the bottom. Put a small chick waterer and feeder in there and keep them full; the chicks will be eating a lot so that they can grow. I recommend putting electrolytes in the chicks' water for the first week after they hatch. Change the paper at least once a day, making sure the chicks can stay clean and dry. If they soil the paper too badly, add another piece of newspaper or change the tub completely.
I keep my chicks in the house for the first couple of weeks until they are just a little older. It helps me to be able to keep a close eye on them so that I make sure they have sufficient food, water, and are warm enough. I put them in the basement, but anywhere would be ok. Just make sure that your cats and little ones can't get to them though.
Just like any newborn, chicks need to get plenty of rest and unlike a newborn baby, they don't hold their own body heat well, so they will get cold after being away from the brooder light. I suggest keeping them under the brooder light without being held much. Though your children will want to hold and play with the chicks, I'd keep that to a minimum and have the children just watch them while they are under the brooder light in their container instead.
When the chicks get bigger they will start flying out of the tub; just add a piece of metal screen, like rabbit or chicken wire to keep them in.
My husband and I built chicken tractors out of wood and chicken wire and they work great for chicks when the outgrow the tub. We built a 2' high, 4' wide, X 8' long tractor. The first 4' is a little house with one side of the roof lifting up on a hinge and having wooden walls (plywood works well) and a small door for them to go out into a 4' chicken wire run with the holes being no bigger than 1" (chicken wire the sides and the top, leaving the bottom open to the ground so that they can scratch and peck).
In the house area, hang the brooder light up on the roof's center beam on a nail. If it is cold outside, put a piece of wood up to act like a door so that the chicks can't go outside; if it is warm outside, take the board down so that they can venture out during the day, but make sure that they don't stay outside at night until they have their full set of feathers. You'll have to check on them until you see that they know to go in at night (they are kind of stupid.)
Once they have their feathers and are big enough that a cat can't kill them, you can let them out into a run with a 1" chicken wire fence. You can then get a bigger feeder and waterer to accommodate your flock's size.
Goats are a great alternative to a cow for milk. A nannie will give about 1 gallon of milk per day as compared to a cow which will give about 2 gallons a day. For a single family, one gallon is typically sufficient.
A goat's milk is pretty hypoallergenic too. A person who is allergic to cow milk can typically drink goat milk just fine. Even babies who have allergic reactions to formula can usually drink goat milk without any problems.
A goat's milk tastes very similar to a cow's on the first day. After the first day it will start faintly tasting goaty. You can mask the taste by adding chocolate syrup.
Goat's milk is naturally homogenized, so don't look for the cream to rise like in cow's milk.
Don't forget to use the milk for yogurt! It will be a tasty treat.
As you breed your nannie to freshen her, you can either sell the kids or expand your herd. I recommend castrating any billies because they really are smelly animals; believe me when I tell you that your neighbors will thank you! We kept a billy for a year and by the end we could smell him in the front yard even though he was kept in the back.
The only downside to keeping goats is having to buy hay. Typically a backyard farmer won't have the resources to produce their own hay. A good tip is to buy all of the hay you need before fall; sometimes trying to find hay in the winter months is impossible. If that is the case, feed stores sell hay cubes and hay pellets. You can supplement your goat's diet with a special goat feed, too. If you wanted to raise sheep for the wool and meat, that might be a good idea too. I just haven't ever done it.
Ducks are a fun animal to keep on a backyard farm. They don't have to have water to swim in, but they like to be able to get all wet. I like to make a shallow watering hole that they can splash in it a bit. I've heard that they will weed your garden and leave the plants alone, but I've never tried it before. They do lay eggs, and 1 duck egg will equal 1 1/2 large chicken eggs. The Khaki Campbell will lay over 200 eggs a year! And kids love getting them for Easter!
Raising animals is a rewarding activity for children to learn the value of work, and a great source of wholesome food!