Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Farm - My Original Plan When I Started Farming

I wrote about the farm and how I got it into my head to try farming in a few previous posts, so now I'm going to talk about what my original plans and how I would farm were. 

 Any discussion about farming or starting a farm should also have some sort of detail about how much land is being talked about, so even though I'm a little superstitious about talking about how many acres I'm farming or how many cattle I own, I'll go ahead and give some details about how much land I'm talking about (although I'll probably be a little less open about the numbers of cattle).

Right now, I'm farming 400 acres of family-owned land and I also rent another 160 acres about 4 miles down the road.  When I started out, I just had the 400 acres, so that's what I'll mainly be talking about.

On the 400 acres, there's about 140 acres of cropland, about 20 acres is a railroad right-of-way, about 10 acres has always been a hay meadow, and the remaining 230 acres is pasture (about 185 acres of grass and 45 acres of wooded areas).  

In this area and on this farm, winter wheat is usually grown and the typical livestock is a beef cow-calf operation. Calves are weaned in early-October and are either sold or are kept through the stocker phase to graze wheat pasture and then sold in the spring as feeders.   Most of the time (in a good year), cattle are grazed on the wheat fields until about late February and then the wheat is harvested for grain in the summer.

Combining cattle and wheat makes it a relatively flexible system.  Depending on the growing conditions and the markets, wheat can be grown for grain only, grazing and grain, or grazing only.  Cattle can be sold as weaned calves, or at any point between a weaning weight (~500 lb.) and a feeder weight (~900 lb.).  Only part of the typical farm is suitable for cropland, so you use cattle to utilize the rest of the farm to produce calves to graze your wheat to add more value to your cropland.  There can be a lot of options when you grow wheat in combination with cattle.

It is a type of farming that produces products for the 'commodity' market, which is looked down on by a lot of the local-food, direct-marketing, 'Joel Salatin' wannabe, 'Food, Inc.' documentary types, but it's a way of farming that works in this area.   I started thinking about farming, and was actually farming before any of that type of thinking really started moving into the mainstream, so sometimes I don't agree with everything that is advocated in that part of the world of agriculture (although I do agree with some of it).  

When I was thinking about farming that's basically the model of farming I was planning to follow.  It was a relatively simple plan, I was going to grow wheat for both grazing stockers and a grain crop, and I planned to do things like trying  to graze year-round as much as possible to cut my hay expenses and increase the profit potential of the cattle.  I was going to be grass-fed because I thought it would cut my input costs, not for the healthier beef reasons.     

It was so simple and almost the same exact thing that everyone else was doing in this area that I'm actually surprised that it worked.  Sometimes with a little luck, not trying to re-invent the wheel pays off.

As a hopefully entertaining addition, I thought I'd share some of the outlandish ideas I also had in that time period when I was thinking seriously about farming and trying to come up with a plan.

I had a pair of bird dogs (Brittany Spaniels) in that period of my life, and I had a grand plan to raise gamebirds like bobwhite quail, pheasants, and chukars.  I planned to sell live birds to  game preserves for shooting and bird dog trainers for training, I could release some on the farm for my personal hunting, and I'd also direct market the meat (adding a pair of pheasants to the Thanksgiving turkey dinner would make a memorable meal).    I'm not sure if I could make a living doing that, but once in a while, I still think about raising a handful of gamebirds  (I like the idea of jumping a covey of chukars once in a while while walking around the farm).

As a tangent to that idea, I also had the idea that I could raise and train bird dogs.  Since I had my hands full trying to train the two that I already owned, and there didn't seem to be that many quail or quail hunters around anymore, that idea would have been a colossal failure.

Raising buffalo also sounded like a great idea at one time.  There was even a big buffalo farm/ranch (it's still there) about 30 minutes away that I used to drive by once in a while when I was thinking on the subject. They supposedly took care of themselves, and only needed a pasture full of dormant native grasses to survive the winter.  All I needed to do was strengthen all the perimeter fences, turn them loose on the farm, then round some up once in a while to make a pile of money (the meat, hides, mounted heads, skulls, etc. were supposedly all worth a bunch).    What could be cooler than going out to your farm and watching some buffalo roam all over? 
Scimitar Horned Oryx (I think that's what they are?) on the local deer farm

There's a farm about 10 miles away (I even had a friend that was friends with the owner's son) that raised various exotics like fallow deer, mouflon sheep, corsican sheep, etc.   They'd sell live animals to exotic game ranches down in TX and they also direct marketed the meat.  At the time that sounded like a cool way to make a living (almost like my buffalo raising plans).  All it would have taken to get into the business would be a high-fence (8-10' tall woven wire fences) all the way around the farm, a bunch of connections to a bunch of people in the exotic game business down in TX, and a few head of really expensive breeding stock.  Since that time, I think the exotic game ranch business has slowed down (not exactly sure why, it might be due to Chronic Wasting Disease?), but the deer farm is still there.  The last time I drove by I happened to see a small herd of what I think were blackbuck right next to the high-fence.  Having a herd of blackbuck or fallow deer on the arm would be a little interesting, but I'll bet they taste about the same as my whitetails and aren't as profitable as my cattle.    

The get-rich-quick schemes of raising ostriches and emus had already crashed and burned by the time I was trying to come up with ideas, so that idea never really entered my mind.

Like I said before, sometimes it's better to forget about trying to re-invent the wheel.


  1. "although I'll probably be a little less open about the numbers of cattle"

    I don't blame you. I hate it when people ask me that question. It's like asking, "so how much money to you have in the bank". It's not like they're pets, after all.

    1. I know exactly how many cattle I have, how old each one is, can remember when and where most of the ones I've raised were born, whose related to who, but I'm pretty superstitious about telling anyone exactly how many I have. I don't know where that comes from, but that's the way I am.

      When asked, I usually say something like I've got somewhere between 6 and 600, they haven't all finished calving and I haven't had a chance to count them lately.

    2. I'm not superstitious about it, I just don't like being asked it.

      For that matter, I don't really like being asked how many acres I own (I do own some). I'm a pretty reserved person, really, and while I'm enjoying the discussion we're having, there's certain questions that I don't ask and don't like being asked myself, those being the principal two.

      Usually the person asking the question doesn't actually know what the answer actually means. Is 50 cattle a lot, or is 500 a lot, or 5,000? They generally don't know, and they don't understand the context. Besides that, they usually think of animals in a pet like fashion, rather than in a "stock" fashion. The question isn't much different from asking somebody "so how much stock do you have in XYZ Corporation?" It's called "livestock" for a reason, even though every rancher I know usually is very well informed on the individual animals.

  2. "Combining cattle and wheat makes it a relatively flexible system. Depending on the growing conditions and the markets, wheat can be grown for grain only, grazing and grain, or grazing only. Cattle can be sold as weaned calves, or at any point between a weaning weight (~500 lb.) and a feeder weight (~900 lb.). Only part of the typical farm is suitable for cropland, so you use cattle to utilize the rest of the farm to produce calves to graze your wheat to add more value to your cropland. There can be a lot of options when you grow wheat in combination with cattle."

    Very interesting.

    That's not really an option where I am, so it's really interesting to see how it works elsewhere.

    Indeed, farming here is mostly hay farming, and it's mostly ancillary to some other pursuit, including ranching.

    1. There are a whole lot of stockers shipped in from out-of-state that are grazed on wheat pasture in OK, TX, and KS, so it's possible some of the weaned calves you sell in the fall are stopping off to graze on a wheat pasture for a while before going to a feedlot (although I'm not entirely sure where WY cattle are typically shipped).

      So you might be indirectly involved in the whole wheat-cattle combination, since the possibility of better wheat pasture usually means better calf prices.

  3. "It is a type of farming that produces products for the 'commodity' market, which is looked down on by a lot of the local-food, direct-marketing, 'Joel Salatin' wannabe, 'Food, Inc.' documentary types, but it's a way of farming that works in this area."

    And that's true for most other areas as well. Being an agrarian yeoman would be great, but I suspect that there's few that can engage in that model. Some do, and some succeed, and there are things to admire in that model, particularly moving forward. But its a work in progress, and requires a lot of thinking both on the production and consumption side.

    1. It would be nice if the direct-marketing model would work everywhere, but I have to admit that I don't know if I could make it work for me.

    2. I know that I've had it suggested to me by those who do it elsewhere from time to time, but the market simply generally wouldn't work in that fashion here. In the rural west, it's a production market for the most part.

      It certainly is here. We do market some beef directly, and I like doing that. It's nice to be able to sell cattle directly to the consumer, and frankly I like my own beef better than what I get at the store. But in a state where there are more cows than people, and where only a small percentage of the population would purchase beef directly, and where nearly any of the local ranchers will sell a beef directly if asked, it'd be very tough to make a living that way.

      Not that I don't like a lot about that model. I do, but a person must be cognizant of the market. I hear, from time to time, of some Wyoming ranchers who have developed that as a niche, but when I look into it there's almost some other element to their story.

    3. It's not really a good way to survey market possibilities, but I've read a bunch of blogs about small farms and I've only seen a few that seemed like they could make a go of it.

      The most notable one I've seen is Ethan's Crooked Gap Farm over at the Beginning Farmer blog. It seems to me like he is the type of person that likes to interact with his customers which might be the key to success, and he sells his meat based on the quality of the meat instead of the fear-mongering type of marketing that a lot of the direct-marketers try to use.

      I can't imagine needing to interact with a huge customer base all the time, or trying to direct market something like a couple dozen steers, or a hundred pigs.

  4. "Raising buffalo also sounded like a great idea at one time."

    I think nearly everyone raising livestock in the West has toyed with that idea at one time or another.

    1. Buffalo might be better suited to the rich or as an expensive hobby.

      There's a local guy that owns two buffalo and two big longhorn steers. He bought the buffalo as calves at an auction for his wife and told me that they were so tame that they were like big puppy-dogs. He claimed that the longhorns worried him more than those two buffalo.

      At the time, I thought to myself, "I'd be just as careful around those pet longhorns as I'd be around those pet buffalo, they'll all kill you deader than dead if you don't realize they're not as tame as you think they are".

    2. My experience with buffalo is very limited. I've never owned one, but I have spoken to people who have, and I've watched some of the operations that have them.

      The thing about that is that they're really the same animal that they were in the wild, and they're extraordinarily dumb. They're also darned near blind. That's a bad combination in an animal that's as big as they are.

      I don't doubt that some can be tame, but then lions and tigers can be tame as well. As with most animals, it wouldn't take much to kick their instincts in if they are frightened.

      In terms of instincts, another thing about them is that their instinct to wonder is really strong. When a storm starts to kick in the collective mass of them will begin to move. Years ago, while hunting ducks on a large buffalo ranch, I noted that a storm that had kicked up when I was hunting put an entire mass of otherwise calm buffalo into motion, and that they were jumping a three strand barbed wire fence like deer.

      Fences are no obstacle to them, and therefore fencing costs associated with them must be massive. One of the extremely wealthy individuals who like to come in to this country and buy ranches was going to put in buffalo and deal with that by having an enormous electric fence, until a regional revolt against that sort of thing got rolling due to what it would mean to the elk herds. But I think that demonstrates the degree to which they'd be difficult to raise. To really do it well, you'd have to have a huge amount of acreage to accommodate them.

      Indeed the largest such operation around here is in the Powder River Basin, which the Sioux fought so hard in the 1860s and 1870s to retain. That'd be the ideal set up, as the amount of land involved is so large that a person could basically approach the project as a managed wild herd.

  5. Great stuff!

    After I digest it a bit, I'll no doubt come back to pester you a bit more.

  6. I've seen a lot of different animal operations around here from deer to elk to buffalo and they all seem to last for only a handful of years before fading away. The elk farm a mile down the road has been around the longest at about a decade but it caters to breeding stock to other elk farms around the world.

    1. There used to be an elk farm in the OKC area, and I think a lot of their income came from selling the velvet to Asian markets (talk about a niche market!!).

      If I have my facts right, they had a case of Chronic Wasting Disease in the herd at about the same time as Mad Cow was in the news, and they had to destroy the entire herd and bury them on the farm (nothing could leave since it was contaminated).

      At the time it was a big local story in the news with all the typical hand-wringing and hysteria. People were up in arms that the local whitetails were all going to end up infected with Mad Cow and everyone was going to die a horrible death, and the government should do something about it.

      The wildlife officials came out and tried to calm everyone down by telling them that CWD was already present in the whitetail herd but it was rare and nothing to be concerned about, which didn't calm any of the hysterical people down at all.

      After all that, they decided to just leave all the high-fences up around the property to keep any whitetails out of the area that had had elk.

      Now developers are building housing additions in the area and slowly getting closer and closer, so it will probably eventually get developed and the proud, new homeowners in Staggering Elk Addition will be up in arms again when they find out that their new house was built on that elk farm.

      Personally, it always seemed somehow "wrong" to farm elk. Elk should be a gut-busting hike away in some thick timber up on a mountain, and not behind a high fence so someone can sell their velvet or on an exotic game ranch so some bozo can shoot it from the back of a pickup.

      I don't really have a problem with something like fallow deer being farmed or hunted on an exotic game ranch, I just don't like the idea of elk being farmed.

    2. We've had lots of similar hysteria on whitetail ranches around here in the past couple years.

      When we were looking for property in this area, we happened to look at an acreage that shared a property line with the elk farm. Although I didn't see an elk, I heard one bugle while we were walking the property. My wife asked what that sound was and I said it sounded like an elk but couldn't be since elk don't live around here. That is when she mentioned that one of the doctors that she knew also raised elk for breeding stock. As many times as I've driven by that farm, I've yet to see an elk. They keep themselves secluded well away from the highway.

  7. For anyone that's interested, I went by the deer farm I talked about to get a good picture of a high fence and happened to get a photo of a group of what I think are Scimitar Horned Oryx that I added to the blog post.