Farm’s Annual Report: 2012

Background:

It has been three years since I published the 2009 Annual Report for our farm.  I guess I have recovered enough to give it another go.  The intervening years have not been profitable, but that isn’t exactly true.  We seem to have accomplished an equilibrium (for three years running) whereby we essentially break even.  If we purchase more animals than we slaughter, we lose money and gain herd size (this was the story of 2010 and 2011).  This year—2012—is slightly profitable, but only because we have achieved peak herd (as many head, for now, as our land can accommodate) and slaughtered one more animal than we purchased.  So while we in past years have been extremely profitless, we are now not exactly profitable (like Eskimos with many words for snow, we farmers know numerous subtle variations of economic distress).

Introductory Rant:

This 2012 Annual Report of Up the Lane Grass Fed Beef Farm (located in Johnstown Ohio) comes towards you, dear reader, like a homemade drone launched from the roof of our barn; armed with Truth; guided by a Spirit of Transparency.  Or like some lone straggling goose; hungry and cold, yet unwavering; honking and flapping its weary way across a troubled sky.

Is farming a vice?  Is it stupid to farm?  If so, what is this Annual Report?  A cry for help?  A confession?  A warning to others?  These are rhetorical questions.  Please do not answer.

Oh farming!  If loving you is wrong—I don’t want to be right!

Part One: Income Plateau

This year’s income of about $30,000 is essentially the same as our income in 2011.  We have topped out—limited by the number of cattle we can support on our pasture.  If we overstock our farm we will rely too much on hay, undermining the benefits of expansion.  We need to respect the limits of our ground.  We need to keep the number of days we hay the herd down to 100 or less per year.  We must watch patiently as our soil improves (conservation through production…), stocking additional cattle to match its increased strength.  Happily, this is happening already, but slowly.  This is not right on time manufacturing or supply-chain logistics.  This is farming.

Certainly our income is not constrained by demand in Central Ohio for grass fed beef.  In fact, the public is so ravenous for such meat, it is more accurate to say that we are disappointing demand rather than meeting it.  Our income comes from retailing at the Worthington Farmers Market.  This is how we get paid.  The support of our customers is always invigorating and on any given Saturday can put a thousand dollars or more in our cash box.  We are absolutely rationing how much meat we bring to market—presently about half an animal’s worth each week.  We typically sell out about halfway through each market morning.  We could sell double the meat if we had it.  And that’s just Worthington.  If we had enough product to participate in other Central Ohio Farmers Markets (Granville, Clintonville, North Market…), we could sell five or six times as much meat as we sell now: incomes of $150,000-180,000 per year.

Doing multiple Saturday markets would be expensive.  We would need to hire folks to run additional booths.  And it would compromise one of the best things we offer the public—direct access to the farmer, a personal connection—, the kind of holistic assurance and intimacy we could not provide customers shopping a booth of ours staffed by a hired worker.  Diminishing returns for us, diminished experience for the public—this makes such ambitious scaling up unlikely in our future.  But to double production in order to meet demand in Worthington; perhaps triple production to also accommodate a weekday market such as Westerville—we have every incentive to strive to get this done.

Our primary strategy for increasing production is to rent ground from other farmers nearby.  We are getting the word out but so far we have not found the right situation.  It is proving to be another thing we will need to innovate—crafting lease agreements that suit both parties while addressing the awkwardness of placing livestock on another person’s property (including the animals’ need for water, the multiple-year return needed to repay initial pasture seed cost if needed, fencing maintenance, insuring liabilities from possible animal escape, and the list goes on).  We will keep working this possibility, as we have decided that purchasing additional ground ourselves is not a good option.  Since buying our home with 12 acres in 1998, we have bought four adjoining parcels, one at a time, for a total of 80 acres.  But that’s enough.  Purchasing an acre of ground for $7000 in order to potentially make $100 a year profit farming it is not a bright idea.  Better to rent such ground.  Better for us to invest that $7000 elsewhere, diversifying our assets beyond land values here in NE Licking County!

Incidentally, we have decided we are not interested in direct marketing beef produced by other farms.  We are good direct marketers, and there are a number of quality grass farmers who have no interest in coming to town and retailing their beef; however, this would put us in the business of talking about farming rather than actually farming.  At some point we could end up struggling to remain more genuine than pastoral drawings on milk cartons containing milk from confinement dairies!  (Hello, California!)  It might be more lucrative, yes, that’s likely true; but it’s farming we love—not money.

So that’s where we are at:  scaled up enough to cover basic operating costs, but not enough to start securing substantial profit.  We can amend our income by getting into sidelines.  Last year we grew and sold about a thousand dollars of garlic.  In years past we have done well selling John’s Portuguese Sweet Bread and Marie’s Jams.  If we can develop the right situation, we will take the opportunity to at least double beef production.  And we will continue (though it does not serve our farm’s finances directly) to encourage and bring along any other farmers interested in producing and retailing grass fed beef in Central Ohio.  We worry that current clamoring demand, so profoundly frustrated, could start to fall apart.

Cost of Animals: Going Up

We are at the point where 75% of our income selling beef goes into what I call our Cost of Animals.  This year for example, a year of $30,000 income, we spent about $10,000 buying calves (32%).  We spent about $9,000 buying hay (28%).  And we spent about $5,000 on processing (15%).  There is little wiggle room in any of these categories of expenses.  Taken together, they are unlikely to ever come down below say 65%.  Even that figure would require some harmonic convergence of favorable circumstances.  And we cannot afford to have them go at all above 75%.

We are raising our prices in 2013, on average 15%.  This is quite a big increase.  But I just heard from the processor that his prices have to go up this year, about 8%.  Meanwhile calf prices are at all-time record highs, up over 30% in the past two years, and now I’m learning that hay will cost about 12% more this summer.  We’ll see if the price of calves subsides.  It is possible we will need to raise our prices even more, as early as November 2013, just to keep our Cost of Animals at 75%.

Expenses: The Art of Doing Nothing

Expenses were 17% of income.  There were no major purchases.  Other than Supplies (5.4%), the list is mainly stuff like Insurance (1.6%), Licenses (1.0%), Market Booth (1.0%), Fuel (1.1%), and Fencing (1.7%).  I would like to keep expenses down to 15% but that’s not easy when it comes to needing another freezer ($700) or a generator ($1,000).  This January, to start off the new year with a bang, we spent $1,900 repairing our Polaris Ranger.  That’s going to be over 5% of our annual farm income.  Ouch.

Anyone consulting the viability of a farm such as ours needs to understand two hard truths.  First, farm income might cover operating expenses and provide a bit of salary, but it can never pay for infrastructure.  If you are lucky enough to grow up on a farm, your family can set you in play as a farmer with free land, a tractor or two, an old truck, a livestock wagon, fenced pasture, some old barns.  If you are like us, you need to buy the land and the truck and tractor and livestock wagon.  You need to build the barns and put in the fence.  And then you can start farming—but without the possibility of recovering any of that initial investment.

If land prices go up over time, then getting reduced agricultural use taxes on the land is a way that farmers can profit long-term—by being able to hold the land and then having a big capital gain when selling much later.  Of course these days land values have been stagnant, for nearly a decade, which is seriously disappointing.

The second hard truth about farming is that you may cover operating expenses and provide yourself a little salary, but you will certainly not be buying a new pickup truck with farm income.  You will not be buying a new tractor with that money either.  Additional acreage?  Another barn?  That’s all going to have to come from somewhere else.  Don’t even think about it.  (I didn’t even mention health insurance!)  Another successful season at Farmers Market is over!  What are you going to do?  I don’t know, but you’re sure as hell not going to Disney Land!

Profit:

So this year we show a profit of about 8%, about $2,500.  This would be our first profit ever.  And I am using that term loosely.  For one thing, this does not account for our labor.  Counting my labor at 1,000 hours plus Marie’s at 300 (mainly at market), that’s about $2.00 an hour.  Considering ourselves volunteers, which of course we really are, then this year’s margin reflects more than anything else the fact that we butchered one more animal than we purchased this year.  In years past, when we were growing the herd, we might lose $6,000 but end the year with 8 more animals in the herd.  This year, if we had butchered one less animal, we would have broken even and had one more calf in the herd this spring.

Conclusion:

Barring major purchases, we are breaking even as farmers, not counting our labor.  This doesn’t sound very good, I know, and it’s not what prospective farmers or loyal customers want to hear.

But I do not count this a discouragement.  From here we move forward to establishing whether a livelihood can be made producing and selling grass fed beef.  (And we do so confident that in order to explore this possibility one need not risk or lose a fortune.)

There are several things we must do:

First, expand production considerably—to about double—through leasing more ground.  This will drive fixed expenses down considerably.

Second, shorten the hay season.  Haying is costing us about $75 each day, so even trimming the need to hay by only ten days saves us $750.  This is probably where our biggest possibility to improve our margin lies.

Third, raise prices.  I regret this.  I am a discounter by inclination after thirty-plus years working at Half Price Books.  I want folks who are making a purchase to have the double pleasure of getting what they want and having a terrific bargain at the same time.  But as I near retirement, when my fancy salary will not be there to back up the farming, and when—as Marie and I get older—we will need some hired help with the physical farm work, we are going to have to bring in more money, plain and simple.

Incrementally, as gently as we can, we need to bring the public along toward paying what it really costs to produce grass fed beef.  Who knows what those prices will need to be?  $8.00 for ground?  $30 for Filet?  I don’t know.  Perhaps instead of selling out in a flash each week to incredibly enthusiastic and grateful customers, we will lose some of that excitement but sell out just the same, more slowly.  Ultimately the public will decide whether it is willing to pay prices high enough to establish a solid incentive for farmers to bring meat such as we are producing to town.  It may be that they will decline and find that grass fed beef—proving unsustainable financially—puttered out and disappeared.

I guess I am coming to appreciate that, because I have somewhat deep pockets and love farming, I have not been entirely honest with our Farmers Market customers.  I have been conspiring, along with some other farmers at market, to shield them from the hard truth—that the cost of production of much of what they love to buy at market is often well above retail prices at a store like Kroger’s.  I am not sure customers will like this truth, or will be ready to accept it.  I am always touched when a customer seems shocked I have a fulltime job in town; bless their hearts, they want to think of me as earning a solid middle class living, replete with health insurance and vacations and going out to restaurants and shopping at the mall, on nothing more than farm income.  (The same thing happens to me when a fellow farmer, for example Ed Snavely, a superb hog man and a farmer I look up to, mentions in passing something about his factory job.  Curly Tail Organic Farm, BTW—best pork chops ever.)  This cannot go on forever.  We farmers need to force the issue of whether our participation in Farmers Markets is genuinely sustainable economically.  If it turns out the public has been effectively “bought off” by the cheap prices of an industrial food system supported by government subsidies, we cannot compete against that system by subsidizing our offerings by working for next to nothing, even if we love what we are doing.  We need to trust the public enough to offer them the chance to step up and do the right thing.  That’s the partnership I believe they are capable of.  And anyway, it’s not like there is any real comparison between our beef and what you can buy in the grocery—not even in Whole Foods.

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Funny Farm Song

I’m My Own Intern

Sung to the tune I’m My Own Grandpa, lyrics by John Wiley
 
Many, many years ago when I was forty-three
We bought a fifty acre farm way out in the country.
We thought the perfect cure for all that nervous city strife
Would be the easy-going slow lane pace of country life.
 
We got some cows and chickens and some goats and pigs and rabbits.
We struggled with all the chores until they became habits.
We grew more vegetables than it would ever take to sate us
So we thought we’d sell the surplus and get CAUV status.
 
Chorus
I’m my own intern
I’m my own intern
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
I’m my own intern.
 
We composted and transplanted and pruned and irrigated.
We fed and milked and weaned and when we had to we castrated.
We certified and took great pride in never having cheated.
We kept a blog and Facebook page and for a while we tweeted.
   
We went to farmers markets and we made deliveries
To local-sourcing restaurants and co-op groceries.
We hugged friends and took workshops at eco farming conferences.
Wrote letters to Senators about how mean Monsanto is.
 
Chorus
I’m my own intern
I’m my own intern
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
I’m my own intern.
 
If I don’t count my time, the mortgage, or the pickup truck
Or the tractor or the many times I’ve counted on my luck
Then you could say our farm is almost sort of self-sustaining.
Not that it matters much, I’m too tired for complaining.
 
Chorus
I’m my own intern
I’m my own intern
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
Oh, I’m my own intern.

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This Life is in Your Hands (Book Review)

Newly published in April 2011: a memoir by Melissa Coleman, daughter of well-known organic vegetable farmer and author Eliot Coleman. She is young to be writing a memoir, barely in her forties. But the life she is writing about in This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is primarily her girlhood, the first decade of her life (the decade when her parents established their roughhewn homestead in the Penobscot Bay region of Maine). That life ended abruptly. And in her telling of it now, Coleman turns out to be a wise as well as gifted writer. In her Prologue she says, “Only in looking back can you see a pattern in the threads of life, interwoven with the events that would tear them asunder, and within that pattern lies the knowledge I’m seeking-the secret of how to live.” One feels she has found this secret.

It seems fitting she has written a book about her family’s early homesteading years. A most significant pattern running through those years, after all, is the influence of books. Coleman says, “…it was a certain book that set my parents on this unexpected course of their lives together. Thinking of that book, I imagine it as an old genie’s lamp waiting in that dimly lit health food store…as my parents opened its worn pages, their future was released.” This was a second hand copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954). Her parents made a pilgrimage to Maine to visit the Nearings in 1968, made a good impression, and were sold (for practically nothing) some of the Nearings’ land, so they could begin their own homestead next door. Other influences at this juncture of their lives included Thoreau, as well as John Burroughs and a Dr. Ralph Borsodi, who experimented with “voluntary simplicity” and wrote, in 1933, Flight from the City. Living the Good Life.

When Coleman’s mother got pregnant, she and Eliot read Natural Childbirth, by Grantley Dick-Read, and had a home birth. Years later, when city relatives came to visit, they would spend tentative afternoons at the Colemans’ rustic homestead (no electricity! no plumbing!), but in the evenings “…they were glad to retreat to a nearby ocean-side guesthouse…owned by Carolyn Robinson, who with her husband, Ed, wrote The “Have More” Plan: A Little Land, a Lot of Living, a bestselling do-it-yourself gardening book…credited with launching an exodus of the middle class from the city to the suburbs after World War Two.”

Eliot Coleman’s approach to vegetable growing came from a number of books, including the Nearings’ The Good Life, which taught him succession planting; the writings of Leonard Wickenden (a chemist who set out to debunk natural farming in the 1940s but was won over and argued in the end against farming with chemical inputs); and, most importantly, Sir Albert Howard’s book, An Agricultural Testament. Howard did not look for natural substitutes for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He argued instead that plants need to be made healthy and strong in the first place, so they are not vulnerable to pests and disease. Feeding and enriching the soil is the way to ensure plant health, using natural inputs such as compost and manure.

The job of carving a homestead out of the woods (living in a tent while racing to build a small cabin before a Maine winter arrives; using an axe to chop down trees, then removing the stumps manually to clear the way for vegetable beds; carrying each day’s water hundreds of feet using a yoke designed to support a couple of five-gallon buckets, digging and then keeping stocked a root cellar)–, this absolutely enthralled Coleman’s parents. One could say that Eliot Coleman, as athletic as he was strong-willed, enjoyed a challenge a bit too much. His daughter refers throughout the book to Eliot’s hyperthyroidism (Graves ‘ disease), which, she says, drove him headlong into the intensity of such challenges and the rigors of gulag-like labor, which she says were a drug for him. And no doubt this is true. However, such behavior relentlessly characterized and suited him decade after decade, through all his life, and seems an inexorable expression of his personality and will, of who he is. (Can a clinical diagnosis really manage to untangle the issue of who somebody is versus what syndromes they have? Can it really be that simple?) As a young man he enjoyed mountain climbing, except for the part where he got to the peak and then simply came back down. He embraced homesteading as the “mountain with no top” he had been longing to find-a challenge that would not let him down. “Farming is no picnic,” he would tell new interns. “I’m working sixteen hours a day for survival,” he told the first newspaper reporter who came to write about their homesteading. “This isn’t any game I’m playing.” A solicitous daughter can appreciate how it must have sometimes been for her mother, when, isolated on the homestead, she “longed to relax in Eliot’s arms,” yet stood by helpless as he “…went out the door, and the back of his head disappeared into the day.”

I am a farmer myself, and I have been accused of working too much. If I have some condition or syndrome spurring me on, I remain undiagnosed. Perhaps I should look into it. But the proclivity to “disappear into work” is farming-appropriate behavior. The rugged imperative of farm circumstances demands a certain mindset, a kind of unthinking resolve to keep going till everything is taken care of (which of course it never is). This is why people flee the farming life and head into cities, most people aspire to a life full of leisure and free of mud and callouses. But I recognize myself and some other farmers I know in Eliot Coleman. I am still smarting from the Thanksgiving years ago when I stopped working, cleaned up and went visiting door to door with my wife, socializing with neighbors. This seemed the right thing to do. Until we went to my neighbor Mike’s house. His wife let us in. “Mike’s still out there, he’s building a barn,” she told us sheepishly. And so he was, on Thanksgiving Day, in a driving snowstorm. I didn’t decide he was nuts; instead I was chafing on the parlor furniture, pulling at my collar, wishing I could get home and into my overalls and back at it.

Eliot Coleman made his own toolbox when starting out on the homestead, and carved into it Scott Nearing’s saying, “Work as well as you can and be kind.” Sue Coleman wrote in her journal that it was best to “work for enjoyment, not for money. With money one’s goals become greedy (if you succeed) and angry (if you don’t).” These are educated thoughtful people who are quite deliberate about their philosophy-in-action. Sue Coleman also wrote in her journal, “We believe in the individual who can be trusted, who is capable of loving, who can carry his own weight and who has a basic goodness.” As her marriage began to get more complicated, even troubled, however, Sue Coleman found herself missing the “compass” that organized religion traditionally provided “small tribes of outcasts like us.” Instead of a book like the Bible, the Coleman’s had only the Nearings’ The Good Life as guide. Melissa Coleman says her Mother “knew how to put away food, but what she needed was advice on… more esoteric matters.” She concludes,” the Nearing formula of four hours a day each for work, intellect, and society was missing the quadrant of the spirit.”

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times brought some celebrity to the Colemans and their farm. They and the Nearings were gregarious enough to make welcome numerous interns and additional younger homesteaders. They were teaching and sharing that which they were yet refining. Later, this would lead to Eliot’s publishing books, advocating on behalf of organic farming, doing a decade of television gardening shows, and generally becoming an icon of the sustainable farming movement that has more recently flourished, now that, as Melissa Coleman writes, “organic gardening rose from the derision of hippie stigma to find its place in a changing world…and a more balanced off-the-grid-with-internet lifestyle has developed.”

There is such focus and deliberate resolve through the homesteading and farming and living that Coleman’s parents were engaged in while she was a young girl. And she captures a surefooted portrait of all that as well as the excitement and wonder of a child’s perspective. But the wisdom of the book, and the deeper meaning in it, emerges like ripples expanding from a single event, the kind of traumatic moment that is so significant and overwhelming that it takes a lifetime to absorb. I am uncomfortable writing about the details of that tragedy. Melissa Coleman is the one who has worked so hard and well to be able to do that.

Read this book. You will come to appreciate what a big accomplishment it is.  And it will give you a measure of hope for all of us–that we might, when all is said and done, not only endure but actually prevail.

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Bobolinks!

Bobolink
Male Bobolink perched on tall grasses…

 

About a week ago I am out in the pasture watering the cattle when I see this beautiful little fellah.  He is perched on a fence post out in the middle of one of the paddocks.  I watch him as he keeps appearing on this fence post, or a few others near it, day after day.  Yesterday for the first time I spotted two males simultaneously.

 I am not a bird watcher.  But this bird was so distinctive and charming that Marie and I (any my visiting Mother) spent a good hour at the kitchen table looking through bird books until voila, there he was–the male Bobolink.
 
I have heard older neighbors, who have lived in this rural landscape for seventy years or more, talk about Bobolinks with great affection, typically mentioning with excitement fresh sightings of the bird they have had.  Until this I had never seen one.
 
It is exciting for us Up the Lane because the environment we are creating with our rotational and mob grazing of cattle turns out to be ideally suited to the nesting needs of the Bobolink, a bird whose prescence in this area has been declining for nearly a hundred years as less and less land is in tall grass and meadows.  Modern hay-making does not suit the Bobolink for example.  Neither do newly constructed townhouses.
 
 The Bobolink migrates up here in May to nest and raise their young.  In July they return to extensive grasslands in Argentina and southern Brazil.  They build their nests in the tall grasses, preferring timothy and clover (the predominant elements of our pasture Up the Lane).   
 
Here is a link to plenty of information about the Bobolink.  I love the comment of one young reader at that site, apparently researching the Bobolink for a school assignment: “You people sure write a lot…”  http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/MigratoryBirds/Featured_Birds/default.cfm?bird=Bobolink
 
Everyone said we would see a resurgence of wildlife if we farmed this way.  And in the abstract this has always seemed likely.  But to hear the song of this newly present species, to become familiar with how it flies, and now to have read up on its history and migratory patterns and all, is way beyond abstract.  At this point it is personal.  How exciting!
 
 

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Worthington Summer Market Starts!

What a pleasure it is to be starting another season at Worthington’s Summer Farmers Market.  This May opens our fifth summer.  Our first year we were so nervous and insecure.  We didn’t know anybody and had never done a market.  We had no idea what to expect.  Since then, the market has become our home—the public’s enthusiastic support a bracing input for our farm.  Now we are happy to see longtime customers (and their children (and their dogs)) again, as well as the shining faces of new customers just discovering the energy and diversity of the market. 

 Hello again, U.S. Bank building, keeping us in its shade till (as if by magic) almost exactly noon, when it is time to pack up and go.  Hello, green plastic parking cones (old friends, durable martyrs).  And springtime itself, with its playful early morning light and friendly breezes—the portent of good things in the air.  “Morning!” I call out to passers-by as I set up our tent.  “Morning!” they respond without breaking stride, nodding as they go by.  All seems right with the world and we all share the satisfaction of knowing it.

 The indoor winter market is gaining momentum (its third season just concluded).  We are glad to be a part of it.  However, there are many people (customers and vendors alike) who remain happily fixed in the seasonality of the outdoor market, making in May a renewal of market life, which they will subscribe to weekly without fail till its conclusion in the blustery overcast chill of late October.  This makes the month of May at market a time of reunion.

 Farmers and market customers are mutually reconstructing an  innocence, a sense of place, a spirit of season and cycle, which was supposed to have been superseded long ago.  This is a mutual exercise, as tender and trusting as a band of actors working together on a play.  And it is happening in real life.  Children are growing up going to market on Saturday mornings.  Suburbs are striving to establish viable markets in the same way they work to have good parks and schools, as part of making their community special. 

 This is not a reenactment of some historic thing since made romantic—civil war battles and jousting tournaments (“Good day me Lady”) or other such creatively animated anachronisms.

 This is food.  Now, in May, it is rhubarb sticking way out of customers’ bags, delicate starter herb plants carried carefully home to the garden, crisp lettuce.  One Saturday the strawberries will be here.  Sugar snaps and baby zucchinis, nearly luminescent.  Then cucumbers, sweet and crisp.  Eggplant and luscious tomatoes.  Peaches!   Plums!   And late in the summer the sweet corn—mountains of it.  And the melons.  A succession of happy discoveries (Look!  Green Beans!).

 The best bread you have ever tasted.  The best milk.  Eggs and chicken and pork and beef absolutely unlike anything available in conventional stores and that means Whole Foods too. 

 One of the reasons farmers markets are so popular (you could look it up—there is an explosive renewal of farmers’ markets coast-to-coast), is that rather than being simply quaint, they in fact sync up neatly with the current pulse of things.  If you think of the market as a web page…then each individual vendor is a choice you can engage if you like.  You can review the vendor briefly and go on by.  Or you can click and explore, and suddenly you are being offered a world of information: the oven they built to bake bread with; how they inoculate logs to grow shitake mushrooms; how grass fed cattle are rotationally grazed; why chickens lay more eggs in the summer; how fruit trees are grafted and apples cold-stored; when garlic is planted.  You can drill down further, getting to know the vendor personally.  You can link then to their web page or even go visit the farm.

 Information-rich, story-enhanced, personality-infused—local food is not just better food.  Purchased at a market like Worthington’s, it is better shopping too.

 See you at market!

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Mob Grazing Workshop in Ohio July 16, 2010

 

Missouri Mob Grazing Guru and author Greg Judy is coming to Ohio!  He is doing a Mob Grazing Workshop Friday July 16, 9:00–3:30, at Mark Yoder’s Farm, up in Amish country.  I have seen Judy talk and he is absolutely terrific–a likeable and genuine guy who really knows his stuff and is a good teacher.  The workshop costs $95.00 and includes an afternoon pasture walk.   For more information call 330.893.9512 and ask for Matt.  Call Monday thru Thursday between 9:00 and noon.  Location of the workshop is 8285 Township Road 615, Fredericksburg  OH  44627

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Grazing Plan: April 2010 thru March 2011

Well, it is March 25th, I finished grazing last season without leaving any pasture stockpiled for this time of year, so I am feeding hay yet— one 700 pound round bale each day.  I have ten bales left.  The cattle in their sacrifice area are in mud up to their knees when drinking at the water tanks.  It’s not that bad in general, and there is plenty of ground that is firm and dry enough for them to lie down on.  But they and I both have had about enough of this situation and are impatient to set out to pasture.

 For whatever reason (way beyond my understanding) their consumption of mineral has doubled or tripled in just the past couple weeks.  I have kelp; organic salt; and a High Magnesium Mineral Mix available free choice in a portable mineral feeder that is low to the ground and that I can move around easily by hand so it doesn’t inspire a mud pit (the way the water tanks do).

 Seems like whenever I am back there doing chores another half dozen geese or so are flying by low overhead, honking and flapping their way back north.  The deer (and we have many in our woods, perhaps thirty total in two main groups) seemed truly desperate for something to eat towards the end of the prolonged snow cover we were having last month.  Now they are still restless and flighty, but they seem a bit calmer.  I think they are starting to find just enough graze—the timid first growth of plants.  They, like our horse, can nibble down closer to the ground than the cattle can.

 I am smelling skunks; I have spotted my first couple possums when doing chores after dark and walking back up to the house with a flash light; there are raccoon prints everywhere, as well as some attacks on the household garbage cans; red winged blackbirds are everywhere; the buzzards are back and roosting in their favorite trees again. 

It is spring for sure even though the trees are still bare and we are having some freezing rain on the coldest nights.  With ten days of hay left it is high time for my big gut check—committing to an initial plan for how I will rotate the cattle on the pasture.  I have that plan in hand, both for how to move the cattle about and how many additional “stockers” to purchase soon (in late April or May).  I notice it is quite a departure from the plan I put down on paper some three months ago.  I think this new plan is a better one—more realistic.  Anyway it is the one I am setting out with.  I know it needs to be flexible, and that all sorts of variables, weather to name just one, could make me slow down or speed up the pace I intend to set.  Observation and improvisation has to be a big part of any grazing management.  But you do have to set out with a plan.  Here is mine for this year. 

 The Paddocks

We have nine paddocks, each about five acres.  Our aim is to make these nine paddocks support the cattle entirely for 300 days.  April 1st through January 1st (nine months) plus stockpile enough to support the cattle again through the month of March 2011.  This would mean feeding hay during January and February. NOTE: In the diagram below paddock 1 is the sacrifice area.  It will be ungrazed, and will serve as a reservethroughout the season.  Numbers 2, 7, ansd 12 together equal about 5 acres, constituting (mathematically) a ninth paddock comparable to the other eight shown.

paddock map 

The Cattle

We buy calves at 6 months of age (about 500 pounds).  We raise them till they are about 30 months old (1100 pounds).  Any of you who have grained cattle know how much slower this grass feeding approach is (a full extra year per animal at least!). 

 We are perpetually buying new calves to replace those taken to slaughter, restocking to a total of 35 head whenever we are down to only 28.  On average, we have about 32 head grazing throughout the year.  Their average size remains constant, always the same steady mix of younger and older calves.

 Animal Days Needed

32 animals grazing for 300 days means 9600 Animal Days will need to be provided by the pasture.

 [32 animals] x [300 Calendar Days] = 9600 Animal Days.

 Each of the nine paddocks needs to provide its share of Animal Days.

 [9600 Animal Days] / [9 Paddocks] = 1065 Animal Days/Paddock

For the sake of planning, I convert this into the number of Calendar Days needed per paddock:

 [1065 Calendar Days/Paddock] / [32 Animals] = 33 Calendar Days/Paddock

 This tells me that I need to get 33 days of grazing from each paddock (on average—they are not all equally productive, and they will be grazed at various times of the season, under varying conditions).

 Part One: April thru June

During the flush of spring, with massive growth rates, as well as the likelihood of lots of rainy days and soggy ground, I want to move the animals through a rotation of all the paddocks very quickly.  The axiom I keep reminding myself of is: the faster the grass is growing, the faster you move the cattle; the slower the grass is growing, the slower you move the cattle.

 I intend to section each paddock into four pieces, each one serving for a full day’s graze. 

 [4 Calendar Days/Paddock] x [9 Paddocks] = 36 Calendar Days

 This will get me to May 6th, still way before the flush of spring growth has slowed down.

 A second round will follow, not quite so fast as the first one:

 [6 Calendar Days/Paddock] x [9 Paddocks] = 54 Calendar Days

 This makes a total of 90 days—through the end of June.  There is another full month of potential (though somewhat slower) growth ahead before the stagnant times in August and early September.  And I think I will be in fine condition to start in on round three with the first paddock thus grazed.  It would have been grazed May 7th through May 12th, and will have been sitting idle for 58 days by the time it serves as the first paddock grazed in round three.  The last of the nine paddocks grazed in Round Two (June 25th through June 30th) won’t be grazed again until lat November.  But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

 Part Two: July through November

Hopefully the first two faster-paced rotations of the pasture during the flush of spring have only served to keep the forage fresh and full enough by the end of June (but trimmed nicely and not going to seed), that now I can really mob the cattle up tight and get a long intensive grazing rotation accomplished.

 This time I intend to have the cattle on each paddock for 16 days.  That’s pretty intense grazing—about 32 animals on approximately 0.3 acres.  Visualizing this as a success, I see the initial forage downright lush and bushy and thick to start with and eaten clear down to the dirt by the end of the day.  This is the mob grazing style.  Destroy everything and move on for a very long time.  The first paddock, which would be grazed July 1st through July 16th, would then rest for 128 days, being visited by the cattle next on November 24th.

 [16 Calendar Days/Paddock] x [9 Paddocks] = 144 Calendar Days

 The toughest will be paddocks grazed through the most discouragingly hot and dry and stagnant times of August or early September.  There might be plenty of forage on the pasture then, but it might not be highly palatable.    It is possible I will need to feed the occasional bale of hay here and there to keep the cattle from rushing forward ahead of schedule.  For this round, intended as it is to provide me another partial round before New Years (relying on fall growth, which is reliable but not abundant), as well as some stockpiling for the month of March, it is going to be important to stay on schedule as much as possible. 

 Part Three: December

Not all of the paddocks will be recovered enough after the third (mob intensive) round of grazing to serve again this season.  My plan asks that the first four paddocks grazed—all of them finished with and resting no later than the last day of August—be able to support 9 days graze by the end of December.

 [9 Calendar Days/Paddock] x [4 Paddocks] = 36 Calendar Days

 This manages to get the cattle fed through the very end of December.

 Part Four: March Stockpile

This part of the plan is the shakiest, as it is something I have not done yet on any large scale.  It is important, because, at fifty dollars per day, this one month would represent an additional $1500 of hay purchases if stockpiling does not get the job done.  Already, haying through January and February plus some additional bales for insurance, I will have a hay bill of about $4000.  Another $1500 of hay spending I need like a hole in the head.

But, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that the two paddocks grazed during September, and having what growth is possible while they rest through October and November (there will be some growth as well during any warm-up in December or January, whenever), should each provide 15 days graze.

 They will need to, because surely the remaining paddocks (the three grazed in October and into November) will not have re-growth substantial enough to feed the cattle.  They may well be the first paddocks to feed in April, when the initial growth spurt is just underway.  But to feed as March stockpile, there needs to have been some considerable rest and regrowth that occurred in the fall.

 Oh well.  It is an experiment, and one well worth trying.  I will likely buy the additional hay this year, just in case I need all of it.  What I don’t feed can hold over and be part of next winter’s supply.  If this is like most things on the farm, I will get some of what I hope for but not everything.  Maybe I will get twenty days of graze rather than thirty…we’ll see.

 Summary

Round one:    4 days/paddock                                              36 days

Round two:     6 days/paddock                                             54 days

Round three:  16 days/paddock                                          144 days

Round four     4 paddocks @ 9 days each                         36 days

Round five:     2 paddocks @ 15 days each                      30 days

Total                                                                                               300 days

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