Abnormal. Not Weird.

We farm. That’s what we do. It’s not who we are. It’s not what we’re about. It’s what we do. I try to use this blog to write about what we do…not who we are. I could start a Family Blog-O-Rama if you want to read about me but I think that sounds boring. However, sometimes, in order to add meaning to what I do, I have to tell you about myself.

My name is Chris. I am abnormal. Abnormality is necessary for doing what we do. Based on peer interaction and lack of dates as an adolescent I must look abnormal but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about being. Not looking. Not acting. Being.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not weird.  “Weird” describes somebody’s uncle or that really, really hairy neighbor who mows the lawn wearing only a speedo. (I grew up near a man who mowed his grass in a red paisley speedo. Yeah.)  Not only do I actively avoid wearing a speedo under any circumstances, I don’t mow my grass. (And isn’t it weird that someone with a riding lawn mower would also own a treadmill?)

If we were normal we would be average.  Average Americans have $15,000 in credit card debt, owes $25,000 on college debt, owns 2.28 cars, a home in the suburbs and are divorced.  The average American man is 5’8″ and weighs 195 with a nearly 40″ waist.  I don’t fit that description at all. I don’t want to be average. I am not average…not normal. Abnormal. I didn’t watch football Sunday afternoon, I told cows where they could eat.

I feel safe suggesting that if you’re going to take on this whole farming thing then you’re abnormal too. “Normal” meat comes pre-cut, wrapped in plastic and is magically created moments before the grocer places it in the cooler for sale. It is absolutely abnormal (in the current era) to brine a wood surface before cutting(!) a chicken with a sharp DANGEROUS knife, let alone kill a pig in your back yard.  I know, right? It borders on weird to, like, ruin your lawn so you can, like, grow, like, broccoli or whatever.  Like, sometimes, there are, like, little green worms crawling on the broccoli!  Gross! But that’s what you do when you are abnormal.

Now, you ready for the hard part?  Even among farmers I’m abnormal.  Normal farmers don’t grow broccoli or butcher chickens. In fact, normal farmers don’t grow food – they raise commodities. They certainly don’t tell the cows where they can eat! Normal farmers play cards at the coffee shop.  Normal farmers collect big, expensive hunks of metal. Normal farmers shake their heads when they drive past my house. It is obvious that we are abnormal.

Sometimes life on the frontier can be lonely. Do it anyway. In some ways, the more abnormal (maybe even weird) your idea is, the more likely you are to succeed. However, as you are chasing down your own specific abnormality (even if it is not farming), don’t overlook the need for community.  Maybe that’s why I blog. I suspect there were some seriously crazy people out on the American frontier.  We’re not shooting for crazy.  We’re just stepping away from the herd to do things as they should be done.

So that’s what it takes. Step away from the herd. I may talk more about our own lengthy transition to farming sometime but it starts by doing something abnormal. Not weird. Maybe not even smart. Just abnormal.

So now for a hard question: What do you do when your own specific abnormality is no longer abnormal?

Broilers and Layers

In recent years I have been running my layer flock in the same fencing with our broiler chicken tractors.  This presents certain problems but solves some others.  In short, the layers always seem to find a way to get where they don’t belong but the layers clean up the feed the broilers leave behind. They also knock down the forage ahead of the tractors as they hunt for insects.  That kind of helps when moving the tractors but it slightly soils the clean sheets we give the broilers each day.


Anyway, we have run this way for several years and I always swear I won’t do it anymore.  But it’s kind of nice to only have one set of fence to move.

Failing to Plan for Fall Egg Demand

I get this all the time.

“So, Chris, my 14 year-old daughter just watched Food Inc.  Now she’s not eating.  How much are your eggs?”

“Chris, we just started this new diet (Paleo, Zone, Sally Fallon…you name it) and need a source of clean food.  Do you sell eggs?”

“Chris, my sisters are coming in town this weekend and we are hoping to do a bunch of baking.  Can you get me 3 dozen extra?”

Well, shoot.  Our eggs are $4 (that’s $0.50 less than an inferior egg costs at Walmart!) but I’m afraid I can’t take new customers until Spring.  I would love to publish more on the topic of working to lower food costs and prices but for now, see what Salatin had to say about it in his speech about going full-time.

I sell a better egg than you can buy anywhere at a better price than you can find in a store. Consequently I don’t have enough eggs. Any chicken owner will tell you that egg availability changes through the year.  In the spring we are swimming in eggs.  In the heat of the summer the girls slow down (understandably) and heading into fall they molt. We’re in the lean times and it will get worse before it gets better. To account for this, most chicken owners start pullets in the spring so they begin laying in the fall. That way when the older hens molt they can be retired (either to the freezer or to Craig’s List) and the new hens will pick up the slack through the winter. I realize I’m not using specifics here but I’m just relating a general trend.

I failed. Our spring was so busy I just couldn’t raise pullets.  My travel schedule, my work schedule, the endless amount of work the farm requires of us…I couldn’t get it all done in the spring. Something had to give.  Since I didn’t sow, I don’t get to reap.  No pullets? No eggs. Not only can’t I accept new customers, I’m struggling to satisfy the demands of my existing customers.  I should have ordered pullets in the spring…like we always have.

Pullets On Pasture

Chalk this one up as a mistake we will work to avoid going forward.  If you focus on making a quality product, customers will find you.  You need to anticipate and accommodate that demand. I could have put down a book one evening late last winter and gotten everything ready for a few hundred chicks.  I just didn’t. As a consequence, I’m missing an opportunity to feed more people. Lesson learned.

…and Then There Were 60

Why so many posts about the budget recently?  Because yesterday was the day.  We bought another 40 acres to complete the property purchase.  I literally bought the farm.  I have to tell you, it’s weighing on me.  It isn’t enough to simply pay the note on the loan, we have to build several businesses AND keep a job in town AND raise children AND remain somewhat socially involved all at the same time.  The first goal is to get to 30 cows.  30 cows and we’ll raise their calves, always keeping the best heifers.  60 acres.  That way we can de-stock the farm if the weather turns sour without impacting our core breeding herd.  Then, someday, we’ll rent more ground and increase the core breeding herd.  First things first.

30 cows.  I have 10 now.  I need 20 more.  This year we should have 4 heifer calves.  16 more $900 heifers.  $14,400.  Where is that going to come from?

And we need more eggs.  Many, many more eggs.  Customers are demanding more eggs.  More chickens.  More fencing.  More money.

And we need to raise more pigs.  Maybe start farrowing.  That will require additional infrastructure.

And the current farm infrastructure needs a LOT of repair.

I’m going to stop talking now.  How about a tour of the new land instead?  Let’s just see what’s out there with a little commentary.

Am I Doing This Right?

My farm didn’t come with a manual.  No formula.  Nothing set in stone.  No function you plug values into.    “You take X cows, you take Y acres and you allow Z time and voila, wealth, drought-resistance and ecological diversity.”  No 8-minute YouTube video that will teach you the simple secrets of livestock management on this farm.  Just soundbites here and there.  Things you glean from years of reading books, listening to presentations and, ultimately, doing it all wrong.  I just have to do the best I can and make mistakes along the way.  As an added bonus, I brag about my mistakes on the internet for all to read!

Allow me to describe the farm as I bought it then we’ll take a look at where I hope it’s going…eventually.


We moved to the farm house because we had to.  We had a beautiful home in suburbia with really nice neighbors.  We felt safe.  We were obviously weird owning one car, mowing the grass with a reel mower, home schooling our kids and cooking our own food but still, we were able to find meaningful relationships and fun.  I installed hardwood floors, updated the wiring, built bookshelves galore, cabinets and a window seat.  We made the house a home.  But somehow it wasn’t our home…just a place we were visiting.  We began looking for a few acres.  We thought we would go ahead and list our house and by the time it sold we’d find a new place to live.  Well, word of mouth travels fast and before we got the house listed we sold for our asking price.  We had a month to get out and no place to go.

“Well, Grandma’s house is empty.”

So we rented Grandma’s house, not intending to stay.  It was just a place to put our stuff until we could move closer to town again.  Just a couple of acres.  That’s all we needed.  We couldn’t find a couple of acres.  Our business began to grow.  We could no longer sustain our meat, egg and goat milk business on an acre (the yard).  We had to grow.  So we made arrangements with my grandma and my uncle to buy 60 acres of the farm…20 acres now, 40 later.  Hoo boy.  20 acres.  20 acres of thorns.  20 acres that had been grazed almost continuously my entire life and, apparently, had pigs on it constantly before I was born.  20 eroded, weedy, nasty, thorny acres of hills and eroded creek bed far from our primary customer base with the promise of another 40 of the same.  (Did I mention the buildings were (are) in worse condition than the pastures?  How about the fences?)


OK.  What’s the plan?  On top of a decade spent reading, studying and getting some hands-on experience we spent the first few years on the farm allowing a tenant to graze the land while we cut brush.  Dad mowed the pasture so we could sled.  Then dad got his tractor tires repaired from thorn damage.  We added chickens and goats in rotation around the tenant’s cattle.  Where the goats and chickens had been the grass grew best.  The tenant’s cows spent most of their time on my 20 acres (not the other 40 acres they had access to) eating, tromping and manuring, though unmanaged.  It was obvious that the pasture was improving, the grass density was increasing and the thorny things were being pushed back (though never defeated) by the goat grazing and the goat and chicken manure.  There were fewer thorns in the sled trails every year.


That takes us to now.  The tenant’s cows are mostly fenced out of our 20 (hungry calves still break in from time to time because we have standing grass in the winter and they don’t).  Summer is coming to a close and we are 4 weeks from frost (though it’s over 100 degrees out today).  Our cows are grazing tall pasture in tight, managed, planned rotation.  The girls get fresh forage each day and tromp and manure the ground as they pass.  We overseed where the cows and pigs have already been hoping to increase the diversity of grasses and forbs available in coming rotations…hoping to stretch grazing further into the year with increased plant diversity.  6-12 weeks later we graze the ground again meaning that I have at least 6-12 weeks of standing forage at all times.  Over the winter we’ll graze in strips working to stretch our limited hay supply.  Greg Judy says every inch of grass you can grow is a day you don’t have to feed hay.  If the fall is mild grass could continue growing into December…even if slowly.  Next year we’ll manage all 60 acres.  The plan will stay the same.


Will this work?  The books say it should.  But am I doing it right?  I hope so.  Heavy animal impact for short periods of time with long recovery periods in between grazings.  The picture above was grazed this week.  Am I setting my grass back long-term?  Am I initializing a cycle of pasture improvement or continuing (or accelerating) pasture decline?  I think I’m improving the pasture.  There is definitely more grass out there than in years past and the cow paths are covered in grass.  I’m not using a tractor, a plow, a disk, a harrow, a drill…just hooves, seed and a little hay.  How many years will it be before I won’t need the hay anymore?  All the books say I’ll start stretching later and later into the year without hay and then I won’t need any.  Is that a function of land improvement or of increased management skill?  Dunno.

I enjoy writing this, in part, to give our customers a window into our business.  I also believe I’m making a contribution to a community that has inspired me…contributing to an open-source farming movement.  Am I doing this right?  I hope you can stick around for a few years to find out with me.  I’m writing the manual for my farm.  Hopefully my kids will be able to refer to it.  Your farm manual will be very different.  Are you writing a manual for your land or just playing it by ear?

Time for Change

Every day I sweat through my clothes before work then I sweat through another set of clothes after work.  You can imagine my wife’s appreciation for the amount of laundry I am generating.

Looks like today is the last hot, hot day for a while.  In fact, it looks like we’ll get a chance to light our wood stove two nights from now!  Compare “Feels Like” to Friday’s low below.


Picture captured from Weather Underground

That’s a pretty wild change.  I can’t wait.  Maybe we’ll cook on our wood stove Saturday morning!  That may be the last time until mid-October but I’ll take what I can get.

Making the Transition to Full Time

This spring we attended the 2013 Family Economics Conference.  We feel this was a good use of a few hundred dollars and a couple of days off.  We bought, and recommend, the DVDs of the presentations.  Among other speakers, we saw Joel Salatin speak 5 times.  We limited ourselves to bothering him just 3 times after he spoke including a small gift of some essential oils.  One of Joel’s topics was titled, “Going Full Time with Your Part-Time Farm”.


Again, I think the DVD or the MP3 are worth your time.  Rather than go point by point in detail I would like to focus on one point of his talk: becoming a low cost producer.  He also discusses value adding but I’ll leave it to the reader to obtain a copy of the speech for yourself.  I think the whole conference is worth buying and I might prefer the MP3 over the DVD as you get more for less money.  Also, one of the speakers tends to flap his arms quite a bit and that’s distracting.  You don’t notice that in the MP3.

Chism Heritage Farm sells premium products.  We sell things you can’t buy elsewhere and are in demand but our supply is limited because we are small.  Our marketing ability is also limited.  These ideas come together when we realize we can only ask so much for our eggs before we begin driving customers away.  The best way for us to widen our profit margins is not to raise prices.  The best way is to lower our production costs (which will enable us to lower our prices).

Utilization and Ownership

There are several things we can do to help keep costs low.  The first is to make sure that everything we buy is fully-utilized.  The most utilized equipment on our farm is a 5-gallon bucket.  We use them for everything.  We haul water and feed (rabbit feed, chicken feed, pig feed, cow minerals).  We have used them to carry 5 or 6 chicks at a time when moving from brooders to pasture.  We use them to hold chicken offal when butchering.  Apple drops, peach pits and skins and kitchen scraps for the pigs. They make handy containers for moving gravel, for protecting wheat for long-term mouse-proof storage. I use a bucket to carry matches, paper and tools when I trim brush and cut wood in the winter. If all else fails, we can use a bucket to catch water that drips in the leaky roof. Not every bucket is full every minute of the day but we spread the cost of the bucket across each additional function. Now, apply that thinking to a lawn mower. How many different operations can you spread your lawn mower across? The utility of the good has nothing to do with the initial price. Tractors are very useful and can power any number of implements…but those implements, like lawn mowers, tend to only perform one function.  Our wagons can be useful but this year the baler put up less than 500 bales.  Now it will sit for another year.  And we have a spare.  And a shed to keep it in.  Not to mention the mower/conditioner and the rake that were barely used this year.


So to keep costs low, we have very few farm implements and barter/borrow the use of the rest from my dad. That’s the closest I’ve come to asking my parents for help since I got married. Salatin says, “A profitable farm looks pretty threadbare.” Our feed grinder was purchased for scrap price and we have kept it together for four years so far. We initially bought it to grind chicken feed but we also use it to grind hog feed.  The initial cost was low and we spread that costs out between two operations. Now, truth be told, we really shouldn’t grind feed at all.  We should have it delivered and allow another operation to spread that machinery cost across a wider number of customers while also saving ourselves time and labor. As we grow, this situation will be changed. Along with this thinking, we should not own hay equipment.  We should allow someone else to have the joy of ownership and maintenance of that equipment.

As a final note on this thinking, remember Gordon Hazard?  The following quote is from this article.  As you read this, remember that Hazard raises 1,800 steers on 3,000 acres.

Hazard operates with a 1996 Dodge Dakota truck, a Polaris Ranger, a 14-foot stock trailer, one horse and saddle, a portable loading chute and $100 of fencing tools.

“I can get everything else I need done from custom workers or my neighbour. Why are you going to bother your neighbour? Cuz he’s got payments to make on that trailer.”

Stack Enterprises

Just like spreading equipment costs across multiple functions can lower the production costs associated with that equipment, spreading land use across multiple enterprises lowers the impact the cost of land use has on each enterprise.  Salatin gives the example of his hoop houses holding rabbits, pigs and chickens in the winter then vegetables in the summer.  What does that greenhouse cost?  What does the square footage within that greenhouse cost?  It’s nice to run cattle around your farm but cattle tend to be low-margin, even if low cost.  But if each acre covered by cows is also covered by sheep, pigs and chickens we’ll see higher resource utilization, higher nutrient cycling and lower land costs per enterprise as now we’re spreading the land cost over 4 businesses instead of just one.  Can this go further?  Sure.  We could add fruit and nut trees and shrubs.  We could harvest timber and firewood.  We could build bird nesting boxes and invite birdwatchers to our farm.  The possibilities are endless…the more we keep stacking enterprises per resource, the more the cost per unit of production continues to fall.  It’s this kind of thinking that allows McDonald’s to lose money on a hamburger and make it up on sales of soda.  Eggs may be a loss leader for us until you factor in the value of the manure and pest control.


Use Your Time Efficiently

Labor is expensive.  Everything you do takes time but the time spent with the cows is mostly accounted for in the travel to and from, not in moving the cows between pastures. It does not take significantly more time to move 500 cows than it takes to move 50 cows but the travel time is split between more animals. Salatin connects two eggmobiles so the resources used moving one chicken house moves two houses instead. Beyond simply economies of scale, Salatin delivers hog feed once per hog pasture. He delivers just enough for the entire time the hogs will be in that location.  No return trips with more feed, just move the pigs to the next prepared space.  Every feed delivery comes at a cost.  Minimize those expenses.

Rent or Lease Before Buying

Salatin points out how many acres have been abandoned…land that was in use for agriculture 15 years ago and is now entirely unused (reverting to forest). He sites a Cornell study that identified 3.1 million acres that have been abandoned in New York. There is more productive land out there than people to farm it. Often that land can be rented or used for much less than the cost of ownership. With your high-use, portable infrastructure it’s no big deal to just pack up and move to the next land lease. Salatin says “You don’t have to own any land to farm” and later, “Because the price of land no longer bears any resemblance to its productive capacity, we very well may be entering a time where people buy land for economic defense […] and people that don’t have money are going to become the farm managers.” In his book You Can Farm he suggests that renting is the way to build wealth in agriculture, land ownership preserves that wealth.

Practice Function over Form

Pretty does not equal profitable.  The pretty white-picket fence, well-manicured lawn and a new home tie up capital that could otherwise be employed toward productive endeavors.

“A profitable farm looks pretty threadbare.”  Borrow a tractor.  You don’t need much equipment.  In his video Pigs ‘n Glens (which I highly recommend) he says everything you need to fence in x pigs can fit in a 5-gallon bucket.  Sure, you need some way to deliver feed but you don’t need to handle the pigs.  He WALKS them to and from pasture.  That’s what we do too. ChangingPigPastures3

Use your infrastructure.  Just like the 5-gallon bucket example, if you have a tractor, use it as much as you can. If the equipment is single-use (like our chick brooders) build them as cheaply as possible and make them last. Our farm does not look like one you would see on a magazine cover but I’m not paid to produce magazine covers.  I am paid to produce chicken, pork and beef for your table.  Pretty, painted fences won’t make the steak taste better, just more expensive. A new machine shed would be nice but how will I pay for it?

We are working to provide you the most nutrient-dense, safe and flavorful products you can buy at the best price possible.  To accomplish this we don’t drive new cars.  We rarely buy clothes.  Everything on the farm could use a coat of paint.  We use it up, wear it out, make it work or do without.  It is even painful to us when we have to retire a 5-gallon bucket.

It is these thoughts I keep in mind as we continue to farm part-time.  There are a number of reasons why I have to keep my town job, not the least of which is I still have so much to learn.  Over time, application of ideas like those presented by Salatin above will enable us to make the switch.  Let me know if you have any other ideas to give us a boost.

Looking Through the Calving Window

Our borrowed bull arrived on July 29th.  He has been a good boy and we’re just about finished with him.  In fact, I believe he has completed his work…we’ll just keep him around for a couple more weeks for insurance.  It was interesting to watch him pair up with a different heifer every few days though he was fairly discreet about his work.

July 29 he was not discreet.  That means we should be ready for a calf around or before May 7th.  So, realistically, our calving window is all of May and most of June.  That puts calving a little…maybe a lot…later than I would like but we should be safe.  It’s late enough for good grass for the last 30 days of gestation, early enough to avoid the punishing heat…well, most years.

2012 was an unusually warm year and it started early.  My cousin planted corn on St. Patrick’s day, the same time I was planting potatoes.  It was lucky he planted early as that corn made where later plantings either didn’t make or were affected by aflatoxin.  By April 10 of 2012 our pastures were growing very well.

NewPasture1Compare that to April 9 of 2013 in nearly the same location from a different angle:

AprilPasture10I would love the early spring of 2012 if I could retain the mild summer of 2013 along with it.  Otherwise I’m content to hold off a little bit.

Moving forward a month we can compare again.  Basically the same stretch of ground on May 6,2012 but facing South this time:

PastureWalk3Once again, the same ground, same angle on May 4,2013.

TopOfHillIt looks like there is not as much forage available in the 2012 picture but you should know the goats and chickens both grazed across it that spring before the picture was taken as well as the tenant’s cows.  In the cow picture from 2013 the cows are running across for the first time, though I did feed hay on pasture the month prior.

Based on what we have recorded of our own pastures, it looks like we’ll have a terrific quantity of high-quality forage just in time for calving next spring, even if spring comes a little early.  Let’s push this out into June.  By June 11, 2012 the same spot in the picture above had reverted to a big thistle patch.

PastureCompare that to June 2 of 2013.  The thistle and weeds couldn’t establish in such high density because of our grazing practices and the increased soil health.  Just mountains of fescue.

TrampleSo May 7 may be a week later than I really want but if there’s a late spring I’ll be glad for it.  Going forward I think I’ll shoot for May 1st.  I am also anxious to tighten up the calving window from 6 weeks down to 3 or 4.  but I know that will be hard on the first-calf heifers.  Guess that’s part of the program.

Now I have to plan where to calve next year.  Where indeed!

Are you planning your pasture usage on an annual basis?  Did you plan for that weekend you’ll be in Sheboygan for a wedding?  Did you make room for a drought reserve?  Where will you put the cows during hot weather?  During deer season?  Better yet, do you have any tips to help me plan my own schedule?

After writing this post I have to pause to reflect on two things.  First, I’m really happy I took the time to document the state of my pastures on at least a monthly basis for the last 18 months.  I can see changes, though, the changes may simply be due to weather patterns rather than grazing patterns.  A few more years should really prove the grazing method out.

Second, I seem to spend a lot of blog time focusing on cows, an enterprise I don’t believe will carry the farm.  Why do I do this?  I feel it is necessary to give the cattle a lot of attention BECAUSE the margins are so tight.  I need the cows to cycle nutrients…to utilize a low-value resource (grass) and trample plant material, seeds and manure into the soil building the soil organic matter, water-holding capacity and soil life over time.  The cows are uniquely suited for these purposes.  They are the foundation on which I can build the rest of our farm’s future.  I have to keep my pencil sharp or my foundation become shaky.

Sometimes the Cows Get Out

Sometimes the Cows get out.  They usually escape when I’m away on business going as far as 30 feet from where they should be (not far).  Last night a limb fell from a tree onto the fence and made an opening where they could simply walk over the fence.  We have a HUGE cottonwood that has been shedding limbs all spring.  Recently I fenced over a fallen limb hoping to clean it up when the weather cools.  That was a mistake.  Not a huge deal except, as usual, I was not home to discover their jailbreak.  My wife noticed it.  She got the one escaped cow back in with little difficulty.  This is unusual but not unexpected.

cow sees her chance

Unusual but not unexpected.

It happens.  Chicks die in the brooder.  Pigs get out.  Raccoons eat chickens.  Equipment fails on butcher day…just when you need it.  The baler throws a bad bale or the mower breaks a tooth.  All part of the thrill of farming.  With chicks, you buy more than you expect to sell, knowing something will go wrong in the brooder and some percentage will die.  With equipment, you try to keep parts around for the most common problems…extra teeth or shear bolts.  You also try to build extra time into your schedule for a trip to town to have a tire repaired.  If the cows escape their daily grazing area, you hope your perimeter fence is in condition to at least keep the cows on the farm.

On any given day a lot of unusual but not unexpected things can happen.  Don’t let it wear on you.  It’s just part of the job.