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Alternative Livestock


Raising alternative livestock is gaining in popularity throughout Colorado. Several areas should be explored before making any decisions. Are you under any regulatory, covenant, or zoning restrictions for raising alternative livestock? Will the land resource meet the nutrient requirements for the animals, or will supplemental feeds need to be provided? Will the potential profits (economic and recreation/enjoyment) outweigh the fixed and operating costs? These and many other questions should be objectively answered prior to initiating this unique enterprise.

Unlike domestic livestock operations, many alternative livestock enterprises must be licensed to operate in the state of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Agriculture assumes these regulatory requirements under the Brand Inspection Division. According to a press release available on their web site, they administer 37,000 brands to identify ownership on cattle, sheep, mules, burros, horses, elk and fallow deer. They also license and inspect elk and fallow deer facilities.

One problem that alternative livestock owners faced in the past was the lack of qualified veterinary care for sick animals. Through specialization of veterinary students, increased demand for treating alternative livestock species, and increased diversification of skills in veterinarians, this problem is becoming less and less. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to locate a veterinarian knowledgeable and willing to treat alternative livestock species. They will also be helpful in setting up a sound herd health program for the prevention of disease. This benefit will result in increased weight gains and production of other products.

One negative aspect associated with some small-acreage landowners is the lack of stewardship on grazing lands. Overgrazing, manure mismanagement, and other mistakes by a few have created a negative impression in the eyes of legislators and neighboring landowners. Care must be exercised in how byproducts of any livestock enterprise are handled. Dust, flies, manure, stored feed, and other necessities of animal management must be planned on and managed in ways that are friendly to neighboring landowners and businesses.

Facility design and building materials are important for any livestock enterprise, but especially for alternative livestock enterprises. Some design details are regulated (fencing and setbacks), but some are a convenience for animal management or aesthetics. It may be helpful to network with current livestock owners to evaluate their facility design.

Networking with people currently involved in raising alternative livestock may help avoid pitfalls and novice mistakes. Observation of various management activities, facility design, and development of markets for products will help the industry remain viable for several years to come. Many breed associations are also active for alternative livestock species.


Buffalo are herd animals. Buffalo follow structured social orders (pecking orders) determined by age, size and gender. Buffalo are well adapted to Colorado’s winters because of their tolerance to cold temperatures and ability to utilize low-quality forages. Historically, eastern Colorado rangelands evolved under grazing pressures from buffalo herds. Buffalo may be marketed for their meat and byproducts (including mounted buffalo heads, skulls and hides).


One of the fastest growing alternative livestock species is the domestic elk. These majestic animals attract many newcomers every year, aiding in its current good profitability. Captive elk production is relatively new to Colorado, though has been active in Canada, New Zealand, and states like Missouri. It is gaining in popularity because elk adapt well to many different habitats. Colorado also has an active breeders association, which actively promotes the business' expansion. Elk ranching produces a number of diverse products including meat, antlers (termed velvet), breeding stock, trophy hunting, and tourism (such as bed and breakfast places). Of the least importance at this time is the meat production.


Emus are ratites, which encompass a group of flightless birds. Other ratites include the ostrich, kiwi, rhea, and cassowary. Emus have poorly developed wings, making them flightless, and have three toes on each foot whereas the ostrich has only two. Emus are native to Australia. Commercial production there and in the United States is a relatively new enterprise however, They tend to be rather docile, but injuries to humans can be sustained through improper handling.

Emus are produced for their leather, meat, oil, and breeding purposes. Leather is used in clothing, and is finer textured than cattle or ostrich leathers. Emu meat has been marketed as a low-fat, low cholesterol red meat, again similar to ostrich. Emu oil has been marketed as a skin care product in Australia for years. U.S. producers are developing markets for emu oil here as well. Of least importance is the breeding-stock market.


Ostriches are more readily recognized as alternative livestock species because they have been raised for many years in the United States. They have been looked down upon in recent years because they were marketed as a "get rich quick" species. Many of the investors who bought into this marketing approach did not find this pot of gold, and since have been warned against this risky venture. Ostriches are raised for their leather, meat, and breeding purposes. Ostriches meat is marketed as low-fat, low-cholesterol red meat, similar to emu. Carcass weights will be slightly larger than emu.

Miniature Horses & Donkeys

Miniature horses are becoming popular recreational animals. They are known as a height breed. Only horses that measure 34 inches or under may be registered with the American Miniature Horse Association. They have been touted for their usefulness in companionship and rehabilitation, as well as used for pulling carts. Costume classes are a favorite at fairs and shows throughout the United States. During the 16th century, they were developed for children of Royalty, and considered prized possessions. Miniature horses and donkeys are raised for pleasure, breeding stock, and tourism.


These are but a few of the many alternative livestock species present in Colorado today. Information on other species of livestock is becoming easier to find each day, but sources of information should be evaluated as to their reliability and applicability to Colorado circumstances.

There are risks with any agricultural venture, but there may be added risks with novelty or specialty crops or livestock which must be carefully weighed in the decision-making process. Many people have been hurt through venturing into alternative livestock enterprises throughout the United States. Careful planning and self-assessment of your personal aversion to risk should be conducted when considering these enterprises.

There is also a great deal of satisfaction available with raising many alternative livestock species. The mystique surrounding elk ranching, raising bison, facing the challenges with introducing new meat products to consumers, and many other successes have been enjoyed by many people in these businesses. Creative minds can find success in these ventures.

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