So I'm writing a story with an island colony who mainly farm to support themselves. I'm trying to find an alternate to cows/bulls for what they do. Currently I'm using goats for milk, sheep for meat, and donkeys/miles for plowing fields. Is this good or should I consider something else. The island's climate ranges in the middle latitude Virginia area and this is a fantasy world so if there are maybe fantasy animals to consider that works too.
Oh, goodness, I love all these animals so answering this was real fun.
The animals you’ve chosen are all pretty good choices for that climate. Donkeys, mules, and goats are hardy animals (donkeys especially, since they can fluff up and flatten their fur to retain/dispel heat).
Mules/donkeys are less susceptible to disease than horses are (but it does still happen). They also have a strong sense of self-preservation, and tend to conserve their energy rather than overwork themselves. It’s why a lot of people think they’re stubborn - the animal doesn’t know how long they’re going to work, and if it gets tired, it stops. This is why, when mine animals were more of a thing, mules and donkeys were preferred to horses.
I’m just wondering how big your island(s) is (are). Is it enough to keep them all comfortable, and to grow the food they’ll be eating…maybe they’re going to trade for the food?
All of the animals you’ve chosen have smaller appetites than horses or cattle do, but each have different diets.
Ewes between 130 and 150 lbs (58.9 to 68 kg) need 3 to 3.5 lbs (1.4 to 1.6 kg) of alfalfa, clover, or mixed grass hay. They can also survive on pasture land, provided there’s enough. Your colony can practice flushing (giving the ewes more to eat before and during the breeding season) if they want - this is actually linked to an increase in the birth of twins. If they’re going to do this, then each ewe requires about 4.5 lbs (about 2 kg) of alfalfa/clover/mixed hay daily (or can be put to pasture). A nursing ewe (and, since I added flushing, she’s got twins) will need 4.5 to 5 lbs (2 to 2.25 kg) of alfalfa/clover hay, plus 2 lbs (a scant 1 kg) of coarse-cracked corn, or can be put to pasture.
Rams are alright with 5 to 6.5 lbs (2.25 to 3 kg) of hay or pasture all through the year. But around breeding, they may need more (0.5 lb or 0.25 kg of coarse-cracked corn, or 10% extra of their daily hay intake).
Compared to sheep, goats are (somewhat) easier to take care of. You can’t (or shouldn’t) feed them hay, because they have a harder time digesting tough fibers and cell walls, but trees and shrubs are fine (goats can detoxify the bitter tannins in bark, and don’t seem to mind the bitterness). You didn’t mention the colony raising goats specifically for meat, but I’m going to add that sometimes meat goats can eat as much as twice the amount of feed as cattle can. And for nursing/lactating does, protein is important! Alfalfa hay is pretty much the only hay with enough protein for them.
Donkeys and mules need a 4 to 1 ratio of hay to legumes. Alfalfa hay, and other rich feed, should not be fed to them. Friends of the family actually had a mule die because his feed was too rich…
It’s also important to know what size you want your animals to be. There are lots of different donkey breeds, for example, and a miniature is definitely different than a mammoth jack (whose average height is 13 to 15 hands high). Mules, too, depending on how big their parents were. And I bet you already know this, but mules are sterile (although there have been very rare accounts of a female mule birthing), and their average lifespan is around 20 years; if your characters are going to breed their own, then stud donkeys should be kept (the mammoth jack is good for this!).
Does the island have any predators? The donkey and mule are good guard animals, too…and they can be dangerous if they don’t know to be friendly around smaller animals. They’ll bite, chase, kick, step on, and even fling around intruder-animals (the mule I mentioned before loved to chase around his owner’s chickens, and pretty much hated the dog, but he didn’t ever get close enough to step on them).
If the number of animals you have are limited you can have multi-purpose animals. Donkeys can give milk (donkey milk cheese and soap are actually luxury products, although I’ve never tried them :P ), goats can be harnessed to carts (light work, though, no plowing), etc.
The ground might be a problem for animals, if it’s too muddy or swampy. I live in a part of the state where the ground can very quickly go from dry, grassy areas to swamp land (complete with l’eau de decay, how charming). The hooves of donkeys, horses, and mules are like suction-cups in the mud…
And fantasy animals are always good to solve problems. You could make up a breed of sheep/goat/donkey native to the area, or come up with a new species entirely!
I hope this helps. If you need more information, you can always email or message me. Good luck writing! (Whew, I feel long winded)