A Fair Amount of Bull

We bought our heifers from Moore Shorthorns in Jerseyville.  They also have a grass-raised, red, slick, small-framed (4-5), young, calving ease shorthorn bull.  Try saying that three times fast.  He’s fairly light and has good conformity.  He came from another nearby farm and, more than anything, he was raised on grass.  We asked if we could use him…for a small fee.

Bull1Tom delivered him Monday afternoon and he instantly detected that Flora was ready for service.  We had no idea.  No sooner was he unloaded than he was hard at work.  Well, here’s to hoping for a Shorthorn/Jersey cross.  Hope we get a bull calf….mmmmm…steak.

Bull2His disposition is good.  He doesn’t seem to mind us being around but we are still mindful of him.  He’s so busy chasing girls he doesn’t seem to notice us but we still keep an eye on him.  6 weeks from now he’ll go home and we’ll be back to our normal routine.  We’ll also get our two new additions at that time.  This little heifer:


and this one:
WhiteHeiferBoth are small heifers compared to the rest of their graduating class, weighing 450 pounds at weaning.  I expect them to be 4 or 5 frame cows.  Tom had a giant shorthorn heifer that just won grand champion at the Madison county fair and will probably win again.  She was at least a 7 or 8 frame heifer and she’s due to calve in September.  I let him know I’ll soak up the smaller calves he produces…all high quality animals, just smaller-framed (In a grass operation, a cow has to eat a percentage of its weight.  That’s obviously easier if they are smaller.).  Tom’s show calves tend to be sold or selected the day they are born so I don’t even see them.  Really, Tom picked these two out for me ahead of time knowing what I’m looking for.

Hopefully this bull will throw small calves and, hopefully, the calves will be pre-adapted to performance on my pastures.  A few generations from now I should have just the cow we need.  Weather red, white or roan….she just has to be small.  Truth be told, I’m partial to red.

What’s This Stuff For?

“What’s this stuff for?” my kids asked me.

RopeAndClamp“Well, Freezer was not a vigorous young calf.  We don’t want to allow him to become a bull.  So, today we’re going to make him a steer.”

I held the rope.  Julie held the tail up.  Steve used the clamp.  The kids got their answer.

Freezer went back to the pasture to be near mom.  Really not a big deal.

FreezerFreezer should turn a lighter color again soon.


Budgeting Your Day

Two recent posts (here and here) were entirely concerned with money.  If you live in town your budget may not be radically different than living in the country…except it is easier to save money on food out here.  You could build a business in town though…say…lawn care.  Either place, how do you fit building a business into your schedule?  Not just running a business (mowing the grass) but building the business (finding more lawns to mow).

Stephen Covey shared time management quadrants in 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.  Those quadrants help you to identify what is important and what is not important then what is urgent and what is not urgent.  If you don’t get important things done in a timely manner they become urgent.  If you have nothing important to do…well, maybe you should revisit your goals….like…establish some.  Ideally, the bulk of your time should be spent on tasks that are important but not urgent, like planning out your week, building relationships, etc.  Though sometimes there really are fires you have to put out, your farm or business will not continue if all of your important tasks have become urgent.  Plan ahead and complete tasks before they sneak up and bite you.  For example, last year we were butchering chickens and the cows needed to be moved.  Their need to be moved became so urgent they took matters into their own hands.  That delayed our chicken butchering by several hours giving us an urgent and immediate need to sleep.

Julie and I sit down on Sundays (well, most Sundays) with our planners to line up our calendars.  We look at what is coming up this week and plan out larger events ahead of time.  This helps us avoid being double-booked.  It also helps us identify chores that are beginning to shift toward urgency…like butchering ducks.


So what is MOST important?  Moving cows is important.  Gathering eggs and feeding chickens is important.  But none of it matters if I don’t have any customers.  It is of the highest importance that I spend time building my business…building relationships…meeting my commitments.  In could write a whole series of posts about the importance of building your business and ways to go about it.  To keep it short, the business side makes the it possible for me to have cows because I would rather do nothing for nothing.  The most important thing to do is build my business in a myriad of ways, including this blog.

But it’s not always that simple.  There are only so many hours in a day.  With my work schedule (which I can’t modify) and with my commute (which is long) I get at most 3 hours to work on the farm on weekdays.  In the winter I work outside in the dark.  In the summer I work in the fog of mosquitos.  But the weekends are the real chance for me to catch up on chores.  On a typical summer day I get up early, check my live trap for kittens that trapped themselves then turn on the watering hose and go look at the cows.  Everybody still where they are supposed to be?  Good.  Then I mosey on over to the chickens.  Some mornings I go ahead and gather the 18 or so eggs that are already in boxes.  I move the chicken houses, check feed, fill water and head on home to shower and shave.  I usually remember to turn off the cow water when I’m in the shower.

Then a bunch of stuff happens at work and suddenly it’s late afternoon.  The paid work day has ended.  Once I get home it’s time to get moving.  I’m not heading off to play cards at the Moose and I’m not watching Wheel of Fortune.  I’m sharpening my chain saw, laying out the next day’s pasture or otherwise keeping myself busy.  Maybe broadcasting seed in the pasture, weeding or harvesting the garden.  Maybe just estimating pasture and checking recovery.  Maybe chopping the goldenrod the cows didn’t trample or picking up that pile of firewood I forgot about and the cows discovered.  I have to do my level best to knock out important tasks before they become urgent.  It’s getting late.  Better head in and see what the kids are doing.

Did you know I have children?  Sometimes they are out working with me.  Sometimes they are sledding while I’m cutting wood.  Sometimes they are hiding from bugs, playing legos, reading books or otherwise waiting for me to come inside and crack a few jokes.  There’s a good chance the kids ate without me since they go to bed at 9.  I have a few minutes to work my Lego magic, show them who is still king at Mario Kart and have a few laughs together.  Then the kids go to bed and I read a book.  At some point, I’ll turn to my lovely bride and ask her the question she knows is coming…”Want to watch Star Trek?”  Then later one of us will ask the other, “Why did we stay up late watching that stupid show?”


That’s a fairly normal day.  The evening varies widely but that’s about the shape of it.  How much time did I spend building my business?  Well, I didn’t really build my business, I just worked an hour in the morning, maybe 2 hours in the evening.  That’s plenty of time to run cows but not enough time to build a business and it’s certainly not enough time to raise broilers.  What can I cut out?  Well, I could go to bed earlier but it’s dark after 9 anyway.  I could skip supper…oh I already did that.  How about the kids?  Do they really need me around?  Shoot.

And don’t even get started on Julie’s day.  I have 12 hours of showering, driving, sitting and writing code.  She has 12 hours of …well, I asked you not to get me started.

Weekends are, if anything, worse.  Basically the same chore list plus an opportunity to attack bigger projects like putting up hay, butchering chickens or hauling scrap to the scrapyard.  To be honest, in 12-15 hours on weekdays and another 20-25 hours on weekends we’re barely getting ahead of the work.  Buildings to repair, fence to rebuild, brush to cut, fallen limbs…the list never ends.  We only have so much money…but you can borrow money from the future.  You only have so much time and that’s it.  You can’t beg, borrow or steal time and my business needs more time.  My kids need more time.  My wife needs more time.  I want to watch Star Trek!

Dad suggested that my time on the farm is less valuable than my time at a desk…hence the desk job.  So maybe I should hire someone to run the farm while I’m gone.  Trouble with that is, while there is always more work to do, the work isn’t always worth paying for.  I haven’t built my business to the point where I could keep an employee busy and maybe I never will.  Maybe I should stop retailing products.  I could ship all of my beef to the commodity market.  I could shrink my layer flock to just what we need for the house and only raise enough broilers to fill our own freezer.  I would certainly have more time and the commodity market would absorb anything I could produce, I just may not always get a price I’m happy with.  More on this when we talk about beef a few in a few days.


In my discussion about budgeting for the farm I focused on money.  Money is kind of a big deal.  Money is a big deal even if you live in the suburbs but that longer commute to the sticks means you will have even less time at home…less time to build/repair fence…less time to eat…less time to build relationships with customers.  Greg Judy talked about building fence in the dark with a headlamp but his entire business is grazing, not retailing product.  Well, maybe consulting and speaking.  The point is, he, a grazier, was building his business by building fence.

Watch how you spend your time as time is more important than money.  Are you building a business or just running it?  Are you busy doing important things or are you stuck in a rut lacking direction?  Soon we’ll get specific about things to spend time on and the realistic return on investment starting with laying hens.

Strolling Through The Pasture July 2013

I enjoy documenting the changes in my landscape month by month but it’s difficult to find the time.  Time is precious.  More on this later.

A cold front has been rolling through and finally set in solidly.  We got 1/2 inch of rain last night and it got into the 50’s.  It was cool enough that, after hustling through the pastures taking pictures, I could see my breath.

Remember this from July 10th?  I am standing in the shade of a black locust tree in the late afternoon.  This picture is representative of much of the area we gave them that day.

LitterHere it is again, from a different angle and 3 weeks later.  No rain fell until we got half an inch last night.


There is an ancient walnut tree just to the right of the picture above.  It shades a large area.

WalnutThe plant density under the tree is low, in part because of the shade, in part because cattle have shaded themselves under this tree for …how many years?  and the soil is compacted.  I’m not going to eliminate the shade.  I do try to rest the grass and allow it to break up the soil.

PastureWalk2Down the hill to the West and we’re in the triangle (cleverly named for its shape).  What a weedy mess.  This is also compacted both from cattle and from the road that went through here ? years ago.  But it has recovered and is ready for grazing.

PastureWalk3Down the hill to the North I stop for a shot of Grandpa Tree…only I can’t seem to get far enough back to fit him in the shot.  What a massive old burr oak!  It would take three of us to link arms around it…you know…if you were inclined to measure a tree in terms of arms linked.  That tree has just always been here and has always been enormous.  Hope it is still standing when I’m not.

Grandpa TreeDown the hill from Grandpa Tree to the North and we’re in the bottom.  Last time we grazed here I was in Florida.  The water tank was overfilled making a muddy mess in a large circle around the tank from cow hooves.  That hasn’t recovered yet.  It may not recover for a couple of years.  Not much I can do.  Otherwise, the bottom is recovering nicely.  Dad is concerned about the broadleaf weeds out there.  I understand and kind of agree.  On the other hand, it’s nice to catch sunlight at different layers and put down roots to different depths.  It’s nice to mine nutrients differently and offer the cows variety.  It’s nice to not start the tractor.  As long as on species doesn’t dominate all the others I think I’ll let it go.  Maybe I’ll bunch up the cattle more tightly as we graze through this time and knock more things down.  I am going to have to do something about the thorny saplings down there though.

PastureWalk4The most interesting thing I saw across the creek was the damage the Japanese beetles had done to the multi-flora rose bushes.  Those poor bushes are just skeletons now.  Wow.

PastureWalk5Recovery across the creek looks pretty good.  Tons of forage down there, all recovered, all lush, green and ready to graze.

PastureWalk6It looks great, in spite of the fact that it’s a weedy mess full of thorny trees.  In spite of the fact that it’s July and we haven’t had any rain for 3 weeks.  In spite of the fact that my neighbors are running low on pasture.  For comparison sake, I took a picture across the fence (at my own property) a cousin runs cows on.  There is no rotation.  There is no recovery.  Every blade of grass is ragged from grazing.  If nothing else, compare the percentage of brown in the picture.  That is not to disparage my cousin but to show the value of plant recovery.  I should also point out that he is running 12 cow/calves on 40 acres, I am running 8+2 on 13 acres…and I can’t keep up.

PastureWalk7Remember looking at recovery earlier this month?  The grass should look like it has never been grazed.  We looked at this clump of grass as an example of incomplete recovery.  This may not be the same clump but it’s within 5 feet.  Pointed blades of grass?  Check.  Yellowing blades of grass adding to the litter?  Check.  We are recovered.  I won’t be grazing this plant for another two to four weeks but it’s ready if I need it.

RecoveryDisemmemberment hill is recovering slowly.  It’s a matted, tangled mess of goldenrod stems, grass, manure and whatever else was growing there at the time.  There are still some solid stands of goldenrod growing there.  I think I should go ahead and chop them with my sicket.  I don’t think we can mow this hill without having to repair the tractor tires when we are finished.  The whole hill is a thorny mess.

Disemmemberment HillThere is a good layer of litter on top of the hill.

ManureThe grazing plan worked out a little differently than we expected but we’re roughly where we should be.  If you follow that link you’ll see we should be on #27 today.  The layout worked differently in situ.  We have actually spent two days grazing an area somewhere between #26 and #27 and look how fat the cows are.  They wouldn’t even get up when I walked over to them.

HappyCowsThere is some sort of grass growing there I haven’t identified but I’ve always called “water grass”.  It’s nearly 6′ tall and has a thorny-looking seed head.

PastureWalk8The cows seem to like it.

PastureWalk9They also appear to like willow trees.

WillowBack toward the house the steep, south-facing slope is always a dry, hot area.  I don’t know if you can see but there are a number of cow paths cut on countour around the face of the hill.  That added compaction makes it harder to get forage established here…keeping things dry.

PastureWalk10Pastures change and it pays to watch your keylines.  Where the slope ends 10 feet downhill from the picture above we see lush forage.

PastureWalk11Wrapping things up, walking West through the chicory field, can you see where the fence was last time I grazed through?  We had a big rainstorm and a tornado nearby the night the cows were standing to the left half of the picture.

PastureWalk12We needed to service our well so we mowed a path through this pasture on the hottest day this summer.  It looks like a dead zone out there.  It will be interesting to watch that for recovery in the coming weeks.  I’m going to have to graze over that ground even though it has not recovered.

PastureWalk13Well, time for breakfast.  See you later.

Budgeting Time…a Preview

There are only so many hours in a day.  I only have so much money.  The money thing is variable…I could do any number of things from a bake sale to a kickstarter campaign to make more money.  No amount of kickstarter could give me more time.  In theory I could hire an employee but there are things I just want to do.  Me.  You know?  For example, I can’t hire someone to play with my kids.  I also can’t hire someone to read for me.

Here is a list of books I’m currently reading or have in queue.  Several I could finish in a couple of hours, some will require several sittings.  At least one will require some serious rumination.

Mach II With Your Hair On Fire: The Art of Vision & Self Motivation

Sales book with an emphasis on seeing the world as you want it to be.  Julie won’t stop talking about it so it’s high on my list.

Living At Nature’s Pace: Farming And The American Dream

A series of essays about farming and the need for agricultural reform.  I have read this before so it should be quick.  I’m looking through several of Logsdon’s works for a few specific quotes for an upcoming post.

Restoration Agriculture

This book is turning my world upside down…and I’ve read a few permaculture books in my time.  Wow.  Just wow.  Look for more later.  He’s wanting me to tree my farm…for grazing.  Wow.  Use chestnuts as a source of High-Fructose Syrup.  Yeah.  He was recently on Agricultural Insights but you’ll have to pay for access to the archives.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead

This is a book you should have on your coffee table.  It’s beautiful.  Beyond that, Faulk does a great job of explaining base permaculture concepts and his ideas of proper implementation.  I don’t agree with everything anybody says but I find Faulk’s ideas to be appealing.

For The Love Of Land: Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature’s Image

Just came in the mail today.  Bigger book than I expected at 470 pages.  My hope and understanding is this book gives real-world examples of grazers implementing holostic management.  I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it.

Now, when we get to the real post about budgeting your day and I talk about the time I spend reading, you’ll know specifically what I’m chewing my way through right now.  Just know that I read for a little bit in the morning, read when I’m not driving the carpool, read over lunch and often read for a little bit in the evening.  I have to read and it just has to fit in where it can.

What are you reading?  How do you find the time?

More Budgeting…Lord Help Us!

My previous post was a somewhat fictionalized version of what I’m up against.  Now, as our friends at SailorsSmallFarm pointed out, it’s not all that different than what someone could be up against living in suburbia (though my mortgage was never more than $120k…and I thought that was a huge number!).  But it is a big, sobering number.  Today I’m going to revisit the subject briefly, smoothing some rough edges I left behind.  Hope I don’t make things worse.

I’m not really wanting to compare city mouse and country mouse.  I’m not even wanting to dive into earnings vs. expenditures.  Really, I was wanting an honest assessment of the pure cost of my chosen lifestyle which, from my perspective, is incredibly pricey but far, far lower than I see in much of my peer group.

But, for you city mice, running a business has nothing to do with location.  There are an infinite number of businesses that can be run from a suburban home.  But in any case, you have to make some decisions about your personal financial condition.  15 years ago I spent 90% of my time traveling for work.  As a newlywed.  Yeah.  To pass the evenings I spent a lot of time reading, studying and talking to people: my wife, my father, my father’s father…and my wife’s grandfather (Alan).  Alan was one of several who helped me to change direction in life.  To paraphrase him, “If you want to get ahead in life you have to work a little harder than the next guy.  Your job won’t get it done.  You have to do a little extra work on the side.  Who are arguably the smartest people?  Would you count college professors among them?  They spend a lot of time writing books.  If some of the smartest people need extra work, what does that tell you?”  He then emphasized the need for a business, not another job.  So if you are stuck in town, start mowing grass or bookkeeping or cleaning houses or take on a few remodel jobs.  The point is, you have to do something.   That said, beyond just working, you have to make a few changes.

You have to start questioning every dollar you spend.  Otherwise, that new business income will just float away.  The farm will be lost.  Every action you take is a decision.  In the words of Geddy Lee, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”  How do you decide where to deploy your money?

We have made (and continue to make) certain sacrifices to support our lifestyle.  I could rattle off a long list of “weird” things we do that really are pretty normal.  Anything from cutting my own hair to canning peaches.  What percentage of the population make (or eat) sauerkraut anymore?  Butcher hogs?  How many women are content to get their ends cut once every 6 months to a year?  In reality, these things aren’t all that weird at all, it’s just that nobody knows how to can anymore.  …or how to cook.  …or how to bake bread without the help of a machine.  …or are comfortable with their natural hair color.  So we are able to save money because we have preserved these skills across generations and picked up from books…and because we’re weird.

And, look.  I know this is little stuff.  I cut my own hair every month saving as much as $120/year.  Not a huge savings.  But I also cut the boys’ hair.  (I know I’m not saying anything new here.)  The little things add up.  The $30 magazine subscription, the extra $x to get cable along with internet, the extra $x to get that premium channel, that cup of coffee to reward yourself…even if you “reward” yourself every day.  I’m not even talking about boats, motorcycles, vacation homes, swimming pools or Disney vacations or tractors, diesel dually pickups or 4-wheelers…none of which you will die without.  I’m talking about daily decisions that affirm and enable a certain lifestyle choice…making positive choices to enable your financial future.

This has nothing to do with being a farmer but it has everything to do with staying a farmer.  Not only do I have to spend less than I earn (which is easy by the way (more on that in a bit)), I have to plan what I’m spending money on.  I’m attempting to run a business.  A few days ago I described a need for a return on capital.  If I don’t get rewarded for my risk, why take the risk?  What’s the point?  I need to see increase (If you need motivation here, go read Matt. 25:14-30).  I only have $X.  I only have Y time.  I need the XY product to be great.  Raising more chickens requires more time but returns more cash compared to cattle.  Chickens also require higher inputs.  I’ll talk more about our experiences with the economics of cattle, pigs and chickens in later posts but none of the dollar values matter if I lack time.  Budgeting time itself is critical and is the subject of the next post in this series.

On Spending Less Than You Earn:

I feel somewhat silly saying this.  Figure out how much you earn.  Figure out how much you are spending.  Cut the spending till it fits, no matter how much it hurts.  As a rule, increasing earnings results in increasing expenses so you just have to do this and do it now! (though increasing your earnings is, generally, a good idea).  It’s so simple, anybody outside of government can do this math.  I understand that simple != easy.  I get it.  This practice gets even better when you can hide a portion of your income from yourself and cut your spending further.  And further.  Pretty soon your credit cards are paid off, your school loans, car loans, mortgage…it’s all behind you.  So.  There you go.  Really, hiding money from yourself and not extending additional credit is all the budget you need.  Can you believe people write whole books on this stuff…mollycoddling or, more likely, patronizing their readers?  Can you believe people buy books on this stuff?  No wonder they are broke.  This is the voice of experience talking.  My name is Chris and I’m a recovering spendaholic.

One Final Thought:

Money is a societal bug-a-boo.  We don’t talk about it.  We don’t like to think about it.  If you are my age it is quite likely that you think of rich people as bad.  That they have obviously done something wrong or immoral to get that money…or their ancestors did.  That having money proves one is immoral.  That poverty is preferred over prosperity.  I don’t think this post is the place to refute such nonsense.  Just understand, if you think money is bad…if you think money is your enemy…if you confuse the verse and think money is the root of all evil instead of the love of money, you will find it always eludes you.  (I really don’t think Paul is condemning rich people (1 Timothy 6), he’s condemning people who desire riches rather than the source of blessing.  See Solomon, Abram, Jehoshaphat, Job….) Money is a tool.  A powerful tool.  A tool you can use to save the world.  But you have to have it to use it.  If you think money is bad, you really need to change your mindset.  Money won’t stay where it is not welcome.

Budgeting, Planning, Dreaming and Praying for a Miracle

This is a continuation of a series about deliberately succeeding…or trying to anyway.  Thanks for sticking with me this far.  I apologize but I’m not going to share my family’s annual income either from on or off farm.  I think this post gives an idea of what our current farm income is…by that I mean it’s low.  We’re learning and education is not free.  I’m working off the farm 12 hours each day so that limits our options and our farm income somewhat.  I do have some ideas to share for moving to full-time on the farm but that will be handled separately.  Please don’t be discouraged by this post.  These are just numbers.  These specific numbers may not apply to you but you should figure out what numbers do apply.  Ready to fix my math?

Let’s do some quick math on a napkin with a mix of fictional and real numbers. I bought a farm. For simplicity’s sake let’s say I paid $4,000 for each of 60 acres of mixed Illinois ground (I know, right?). I would owe some bank $240,000. That’s not a small number. Now, let’s say I borrowed this at 4% fixed over 30 years (I wish!). These numbers are bogus but let’s run with it anyway. I have to find a way to generate $1,145 every month or the bank invites me to leave. We’ll round that up to $14,000 per year.  (People regularly pay this for houses in the suburbs on 1/4 acre lots!)

It’s not enough to pay the bank. I have to pay the king for the right to stay on my own land. Let’s tack another $3,000 on to that annual expense.  Hail Caesar…er…Macoupin County!

Now, the bank (and rational self-interest) requires that I insure my land. I need to be covered in case of flood, tornado, fire, theft, unemployment or death. In short, I have to make a bet that something bad is going to happen so my wife won’t be homeless in case something unlikely happens. Let’s tack on another $3,000 annually though that number is probably high.  (My wife will never be homeless.  She’s so pretty it will just be a chance for her to upgrade to a better husband.)


I realize that ownership may not be for everybody. It might be better to rearrange those numbers a bit and rent or lease. Those options have significant advantages but are not free either. Stay with me as we move forward. To this point, just to own my farm I have to come up with $20,000 each year for the next 30 years. Let’s peel the onion a bit with additional rough numbers.

We get 4 seasons here. We usually have 4 months that don’t require any heating or cooling, 4 months that require heating and cooling and 4 months that require either heating or cooling. With me? My propane company just sent out a mailer to all subscribers asking that we get our bills up to date before the next heating season starts. It’s July. I’m not bothered by a company wanting to get paid for delivering a product. I’m troubled that late payment is so normal that it was handled in a mass mailer rather than just a quick letter to a few individuals.  I keep our drafty old home at 58 in the winter and heat one room with wood so our propane usage is kept to one tank per year. Even still, that propane isn’t free. Let’s put down another $600 to stay warm and have hot water, leaving out the little bit it takes to make my chainsaw run.


Being a family of computer-users and avid readers, we enjoy having power on. Further, a little air-conditioning on a hot day is a good thing. I’ll go big and tack on an additional $150 per month ($1800). We use city water at $100/month. We call in our trash pickup once/month paying $1.25 per bag ($63/year). We don’t but we could easily buy $500 worth of groceries each month (including Kleenex and TP). Our ONE CAR needs a bit of repair each year and we continue to make a $300 payment to ourselves so we can replace it in the future ($4,000) and don’t forget fuel ($4000 which would go down if I didn’t commute to work each day) and car insurance ($600). Oh, and the wife needs a cell phone for $240 and home internet costs $600/yr and since we have internet we should get Netflix for a mere $100/year.

So we’re at $39,203 just to live – and live comfortably – for a year. Missed several things like house repair($800), medical expenses ($1000), hobbies ($300), overdue book fines ($50), clothing for 6 ($900), Homeschooling supplies ($600), Tithe (10% of earnings) but we’ve got a starting number.  Rounding to $51,000 should cover to this point, $44,000 if you aren’t one to tithe…basing tithe on expected required income.

To this point, to live on my 60 acres I have to produce $51,000 each year after taxes…otherwise I’ll either eat into my savings or have to get a job off-farm. I have chosen the off-farm option.

But we have only just started.  All I am doing is paying for land and going through the motions.  It’s not exactly a Spartan existence (Netflix) but it’s also not posh.  The dentist smacked me with my own mortality this week.  One of these days I’m going to get old…possibly ill.  That’s going to require some cash.  Let’s put aside $10,000 each year and hope it earns 10%.  Now we’re at $61,000.

There is that dream of knocking down the current house ($10,000) and building a new one ($100/sq ft).  Sometimes, when farming, a truck is helpful.  Or a tractor with a loader.  But if we’re not careful I’ll have a new house, a 4-wheeler, a pickup truck a tractor and loader and no business.  Let’s add $5000 to develop our farm business.  We aren’t advertising.  We’re not building an online order system.  We’re just buying animals, housing, fencing and feed plus any licensing we need.  So now we’re shooting for $66,000.  Oh, heck with the house, tractor and truck.

Oh, and the tax man cometh.  To get to $66,000 after taxes we need somewhere in the neighborhood of $72,000.  The tax man is going to penalize me under the Affordable Healthcare Act if I don’t buy some health insurance too.  You will know better than me what that will cost you but for the sake of offering a number, insurance through Samaritan Ministries would cost my family $370/month bringing our total to $76,400 before taxes.  Another reason to keep that off-farm job.  Ugh.

If I make $1 for every dozen eggs I sell (I don’t but let’s play here), I have to sell 76,400 dozen eggs.  That’s 209 dozen each day…that’s a highly optomistic, hard-working 3,000 birds, the magical limit imposed on farms of my license type by the state of Illinois.  BTW, 3,000 birds would need 600 next boxes.  60 10-hole boxes would set you back $10,000, not to mention the $4,000 you paid for chicks, $2,700 for 16 lengths of PermaNet, and, assuming each chicken needs 25# of feed up to point of lay and if you can find feed around $13 per bag, you’ll need $20,000 worth of feed to get started.  Then you have to ship 7 cases of eggs every day!  So.  Let’s not start with 3,000 birds.


Still thinking about farming full-time…abandoning the prison job?  I think it is possible.  Keep in mind, though, that I work off farm.  …that Joel Salatin‘s dad worked off farm.  …that Herrick Kimball built his business while working off-farm.  …that Greg Judy had a job off farm.  …that Gene Logsdon kept writing and working off farm.  …that J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote about working off-farm.  That working off-farm and living frugally to pay this mutha off is a normal thing.  We recently heard Salatin speak about transitioning to full-time and I’ll explore some of those ideas in an upcoming post, also sharing our trajectory and how we’re working to avoid the ridiculous $37,000 first egg scenario above.

Luke 14:28 says:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?

Pencil these numbers out for yourself.  Add in Scouts, sports and music lessons.  Planning for the kids’ college?  Don’t feel discouraged.  Eat less food.  Make that car last an extra year.  Cancel Netflix.  Don’t get sick, old and don’t ever retire.  Floss!  Seriously, I don’t mean for this to be a “glass is half-empty” post.  I just think it is important to define the target before we begin aiming for it.  Next time we’ll start aiming.


Dad pointed out I have to come up with the same money weather I own a $240,000 house in the suburbs or a $240,000 farm in the stix.  Both of these have their advantages but those advantages have to be realized.

May As Well Do Nuthin’ for Nuthin’

Yesterday I said it helps me to feel better about the workload if I’m getting paid for the work.  Now, I’m not talking about gross farm income, I’m talking net…after expenses and taxes, but I repeat myself.  Let’s see some return on investment here!  If it costs me $12 to make a product that sells for $10, we’re not going to last.  I can sweat through my clothes before 8, pick mountains of berries, eat fresh chicken and pork while restoring the local ecology right up until the day the county shows up asking me why I haven’t paid my taxes.  Then the reality hits home.  Caesar wants his propers.

I have to do more than just work.  I have to generate a surplus.

This is important so I’m going to dwell on it further.  I want to pause to clarify that this is not a “Wait!  Don’t do it!” post.  I’m all in favor of you chasing down your dreams as I chase mine.  We need more producers and that’s “we” as in the community of innovative, alternative farmers, “we” as in consumers of quality food, “we” as in a national economic body and “we” as in inhabitants of a rock that needs a little TLC.  Maybe a few more “we’s” as well.  Now is the time to start.  There is so much to learn…so much to do…you better get started…but take a moment to consider what you are going to do and how you’re going to pay for it.

The Problem

I have to get paid for my work.  Work may be its own reward but profitable work brings home the bacon.  The Labor theory of value (put simply) states that “The value of a commodity increases in proportion to the duration and intensity of labor performed on average for its production.”  Adam Smith wrote that the exchange value of a good was “equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command.”  Much later Marx defined “Labor” as “the actual activity of producing value.”  So, according to this theory, I can make black caps or red caps with the same labor so they should be valued the same.  Unfortunately this is entirely wrong.  Black hats are, like, soooo 2012.  Red hats are in fashion now.  Neither are useful to people living in the frozen north who want ear flaps.  Value comes not from the laborer but from the consumer.  I can put an enormous amount of labor into creating something but for any of several reasons consumers may reject it as value is subjective and customers are fickle.  Betamax was arguably a better technology than VHS but we all ended up with VHS players…until we got DVDs and later Blue-Ray and later streaming technology.  Just as there is always more work to do there is, apparently, always more stuff to consume…we never get enough.  People will buy anything, pay any price no matter the labor that went into the production of the good.

Back to the point, it may cost me $12 per pound to produce a chicken but I’m probably not going to sell many $48 chickens as long as there are alternatives available for less.  You must produce efficiently or you will price yourself out of the market.  Further, just because you are working and money is flowing in doesn’t mean you are getting ahead.  You can’t simply be busy.  We often see people at craft fairs losing money on every transaction but filling the boring days of their retirement.  This practice won’t buy a farm (or power a nation).  You have to create more value than you consume and the value of your creation is defined by consumers.  You have to provide a good or service that people want…and $48 chicken is a hard sell but, apparently, an $85,000 Tesla S is a bargain.  Well, it must be.  They sell a lot of them.

The Problem With the Problem

We are, as defined in Mises’ Human Action, actors.  We weigh options and take action.  If the option before us will not benefit us we do not act.  As a consequence we always act in our own best interest…unless we don’t.  I like the taste of Coke products.  Mmmm.  But it is to my long-term detriment to consume Coke products.  I have to believe a heroin addict is following his own perceived best interest by using.  Similarly, owning a farm may be the fulfillment of a dream…until the dream turns into a nightmare.  In Knowledge Rich Ranching Allan Nation points out that there is a 99% turnover rate of “Urban Pioneers” in Montana in only 9 years.  That means people took what appeared to be positive action but either it proved to be a mistake or they followed the wrong path.  9 years into it, they gave up on the dream.  From my own experience, they then spend the next 50 years telling other potential “urban pioneers” not to go because they tried it and it doesn’t work and there’s no money in it.  You rarely hear an honest, “Well, I think it could be done but we went in starry-eyed and naive.  If we had only tracked our expenses and planned for a multi-year learning curve.  We had so much to learn and do but didn’t give ourselves enough time.  We needed a mentor.”

Look, I have made a little money in my time.  Not much but some.  I have rarely made money on accident.  You have to plan.  You have to find an edge.  You have to get up early after a snowstorm at age 10 to make a few bucks shoveling driveways.  You have to call your buddies the night before and work out who will go to which house, going to bed praying it will actually snow during the night.  You can’t show up too early or an angry woman in a robe and curlers will invite you to leave.  You have to show up early enough to beat the tractors that will plow the driveways for free.  It’s all about market timing and timing takes planning.  You have to plan…even if you’re 10.

You have to plan!  Who is going to buy those eggs?  How will you sell that pork?  How much will it cost to produce?  How much time are you spending on this?  Are you producing for the commodity market or will you retail every stinking one?  What’s the plan here?  What’s the backup plan?  How are you going to pay for this farm?  How long will it take to build fertility?  How many years will it take you to learn how to repair the soil?  How are you going to keep it going when you break your leg?  How are you going to support your family if something happens to you?  Want to retire someday?  Take a vacation?  What’s the plan?

The Summary of the Problems

So the problem is this: I have to make something that people want…and have to do efficiently enough that I have something left over.  The problem with the problem is that there aren’t always immediate consequences for mistakes.  Your 5-acre horse farm may not wipe out your bank account immediately.  Those 5,000 broilers may only lose you $1 each this year but, over time, if you aren’t providing value to consumers – and doing so efficiently – you’re heading for disaster.  If you’re going to keep this farm thing you have to at least break even.  If you’re not getting paid to work….why are you working?  It is worse than a waste of time and materials to make insulated wool hats with ear flaps to sell at a July market in Oklahoma.  Though Smith and Marx disagree, we would all be better off if you had done nothing.

So what’s the solution?

Beyond planting trees, moving cows and building fence, somebody has to pay for this lovely country estate.  If we can’t pay for it, some mean person will show up, demand the keys and explain that we have to leave.  Then someone else will get a chance to farm this ground.  Even if the land was ours free and clear we would still have to work and would still feel better about that work if the fruit of our labor found a ready market.  It is deeply satisfying to produce something that people enjoy…to add value to something that makes someone else’s life better…to be a part of a voluntary transaction where both parties come out ahead.  I get a little money in exchange for a little bird.  The money keeps my farm running.   The bird keeps your family healthy (for several meals).  The transaction strengthens both the local ecology and the local economy.  That feeling of satisfaction helps get me started early in the morning on butchering day.

Roasted Chicken

What does it take to keep a 60 acre farm running?  Stay tuned.  I’m going to share a realistic but somewhat fictional budget of a farm just like mine.  I also have a separate post coming where I want to explore why we have a moral imperative to produce more than we consume.

Working Hard is Hard Work…Sometimes

In its original form, this was a post justifying feeling sorry for myself because that’s where I was a month ago.  Fortunately I didn’t publish that nonsense.

So.  Put your hands in the air if you have ever had a bad day.  …or five.  …or if you have ever become emotional after several hard days and long, sleepless nights.  Any hands up?

Let me give you the skinny.  Working hard is hard work.  When it’s hot outside, you’re going to sweat.  Sometimes a lot.  If you are allergic to hay, putting up hay will make you sneeze.  Cows will get out.  At night.  In the road.  Rain won’t come when you need it but will always come as soon as you mow hay.  Rain will find its way into your home.  Ducks are hard to pluck.  Children need fathers who can set work aside and just hang out…just when the pressure to work is the highest.  Husbands need wives who understand that sometimes (and only sometimes) I just want to sit and play video games…accomplishing nothing, learning nothing, improving nothing…just shooting aliens with my brain in the off position…OK Boo?

Sometimes things are so difficult that I regret moving here…but who hasn’t wondered if they made the right choices in life?  If they married the right spouse?  …if they went to the right school?  …if things could have turned out better if they had only done that one thing differently?

Today I live on a farm.  This is where I am.  In some ways it’s who I am.  I could write about the bad stuff that comes with working a farm.  I could tell you what it is and what it is not from a strongly negative perspective.  I could do it in the name of “saving future homesteaders from the heartbreak of shattered dreams.”  But that is all meaningless.  A month after I wrote the first draft of this post I feel radically different about the farm.  It’s still hot out, the days are still long, there is still more work than I can handle but I feel pretty OK about it.  What is different?

You know that thing you love?  You would do it even if it didn’t pay.  You would want to share it with everyone you know and love…even strangers on the street.  It’s amazingly cool and you feel blessed to be able to do it…to be able to share it.  You know that thing?  Sometimes it really stinks.

But only sometimes.

Here’s a tip to make the work more tolerable:  Get paid to do it.  More on this tomorrow-ish.

Grazing From Now Until August

On or around August 1st our borrowed bull will arrive.  Between now and then I have to plan my grazing through my reserve grazing area.  Our heat-sensitive heifer needs us to plan for shade.  Our Jersey cows need to be AI’d before the bull arrives and we have to have the cows away from the perimeter fence so the borrowed bull and the neighbor’s bull don’t try to duke it out through barbed wire.

With me?  Lots of planning to do.  I need 15 or so days of grazing then I need to return to the top of the hill under the walnut tree where we can keep an eye on Mr. Bull.

Here’s the plan in picture form with thanks to Google Maps.  The projected (planned(hoped for(please God!))) dates are listed on the map in the order they will be grazed.

GrazingPlanWell, that’s the rough plan anyway.  Now, I’m not following keylines.  Well, I kinda am.  The lines marked are approximations, just giving an idea.  I am a little concerned about 23 and 24 as there is little shade available in those pastures.  I will probably give them access to 22 for 3 days so they can find refuge from the sun, though I am concerned about the concentration of manure under those few hedge trees.  Don’t worry that 27 looks much larger than 16, the grass under the pond dam is very poor in quality.  If feed runs short I’ll drop a few bales of hay.  It is important that the cows return nutrients to each paddock even if I have to import them.

If you want to see this area from ground level in winter, check out this post.  For readers of some duration, 17 is what the kids call Disemmemberment Hill“…sledding directly into massive, tangled, thorny hedge trees at the bottom of the hill.  Should be less disemmembering this winter as the cows and I have cleaned it up a bit.  In fact, over time it should become less and less disemmembering as I cut firewood and the cows make the slopes more gentle.  That’s the plan anyway.

At least I’ve got a plan.  To be honest, most of the time we wing it but I’m trying to do better.  Who knows where I would be when that bull gets here if I didn’t try for something.