If I Were Homesteading Over Again…

I appreciate and welcome email correspondence with readers. In fact, probably the coolest part of the blog is the people I have met through it. There are a couple of themes that most emails follow and I would like to address one of those today: What to start with.

The typical letter I get goes something like this (please understand I’m having fun with this):

Chris,
My wife and I really enjoy reading your blog (though we never leave a comment) and have been making plans to move to a few acres of our own. We would like to keep goats and a few chickens. Do you have any tips that would help us get rich from goat milk and chicken eggs on our two acre lot?

Thanks,

A. Reader

Mr. Reader,

We have been all the way down Goat Road. I don’t find that goats are the easiest animals to keep and I’m not alone in that thinking. They are sweet. They won’t break your foot if they step on you. But they have specific nutrition requirements, need the best hay you can buy in the winter and they tend to turn half or more of their hay into manure-covered bedding. They are hard to keep fenced…and it is especially difficult to keep them fenced out of your orchard. They can jump over fence, crawl under fence and they have a built-in, natural resistance to electric shock. Really. Salatin jokes that he won’t keep them because he can’t keep an animal that is smarter than he is. Julie and I found the goats would stay put with a hot fence and plenty of brush to eat but when they run out of food the fence may as well not be there. Maybe it’s not that bad but they can be rough. And what do you get out of the deal? A quart of milk? Talk about a recipe for a fast homestead burnout!

Olive4

Instead of focusing on what I wouldn’t do (herd of elephants) I would rather break down what I would do if I were homesteading all over again. Sound cool? I have to admit, I surprised myself with my choices as I wrote the posting. Stick with me here. This may not apply to you. It may not be what you expect. But it is where I am today.

I can’t imagine a homestead without three types of animals. Maybe four as time goes on…five if conditions are right. Feel free to disagree but if I was me (and I am me) and I was moving to a couple of acres to start fresh, goats just wouldn’t make the cut. Again, you are probably thinking of the ideal farmstead with cow, pig and chicken. Maybe include a duck or a goose or a cat like in the Little Red Hen. But this isn’t the Little Red Hen. This is a homestead.

This is not a zoo. Too many animals will damage your soil. Too many can put too much pressure on the land not allowing adequate recovery and requiring you to buy feed, draining your budget. Miss Coulton was talking of supplying additional feed to livestock saying,

…but these things are only required when you keep more stock than your land can support,—a fault very common to inexperienced farmers on a small scale.

So let’s keep it simple and pare it down to bare bones. Knowing what I know now, what would I do if I was homesteading on an acre or three? I want to keep my workload to a minimum, keep the infrastructure costs to a minimum and allow a maximum amount of time to be a Human Being not a “Human Doing”. You with me here? I want to improve my soils and enjoy my livestock but not wake up every morning dreading the day’s chores.

Since we are homesteading, I would want to put in a big garden and plant a few fruit trees appropriate for my climate but, though my diet will be positively impacted by growing my own broccoli, my budget really won’t be. In fact, growing my own veggies could add significantly to my total food costs. And I would need a source of fertilizer and something to do with all of my weeds and garden wastes. I need to partner with livestock to significantly impact my budget…raising and butchering my own meat and sourcing my own natural fertilizers. But I need animals that will work for me efficiently and that will require a minimum amount of my resources in terms of daily chores and protection from predation. Ready? Let’s go.

Pigs

No surprise to long-time readers, pigs are on the top of my list. I hate it when we sell out of pigs. Usually I only make it a few days before I go buy more. I enjoy their intelligence, their curiosity and their ability to break down and convert waste products into bacon…and what’s better than bacon? The book Harris on the Pig breaks down what makes a pig worth keeping in the opening pages of the book.

The hog is a great eater. He can eat and digest and assimilate more nutriment in a time in proportion to his size than any other of our animals.

But more to the point, the pig assimilates what would otherwise go to waste.

…roots nuts and worms and other animal matter the natural food the hog.

and later…

We can in no other way utilize the refuse from the house and the dairy so advantageously as by feeding it to swine. On grain farms pigs will obtain a good living for several weeks after harvest on the stubbles and in some sections they find a considerable amount of food in the woods.

Our pigs get spoiled milk, apple drops, all the acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts they want. It’s fun to watch a pig try to eat a walnut…sounds like they are trying to eat marbles and keeps them entertained for hours. They get tomato vines and bad tomatoes, split watermelons, etc. from the garden and relish any weeds we can throw their way, especially lambsquarters. And as much as they will eat, they really don’t ask for much from us. They need shade, shelter, food and water and a place to dig. No problem. We need to go away overnight to attend a wedding? Put down some fresh bedding, fill the feeder, check the water and we’re good.

HamAndApples

If I had limited space available I would confine the pig or pigs on deep bedding. I know, confinement. But this is exactly what Salatin does when he puts his pigs in the cow shed. Feed, water, shelter and a place to dig. That’s it. The pigs will decide to manure in one specific place and that’s the place to pile on extra bedding. When the pig ships, heap up all the bedding, let it cook through and age then add it to your potato bed. I might even suggest you overwinter a small group of pigs in an area you want to break sod and turn into a garden. To keep it simple you might pick up four 16′ combination panels then put a cover over one corner and hold everything in place with T-posts. That’s your $50 hog confinement facility. Add in a watering nipple for $2 and a feeder pan and I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Group2

Finally, I have to add that pigs can be an excellent centerpiece to your farm even beyond providing your own meat and scrap conversion. This is a business line you could grow into over time, building on skills as you go and can fully utilize your acreage, rotating through over time while keeping infrastructure costs low.

Rabbits

This may be something of a surprise but after getting a pig on my farm I would set up 4 cages, get 2 males and 2 females and start building a rabbit tractor or two to grow out the bunnies. Not unlike pigs, bunnies relish weeds and require little of the owner, though, as with pigs, we haven’t gotten around using a bagged feed. You have to work to keep them cool in the summer but they can produce a terrific amount of meat in short order and are easy to dress out. My great-grandpa Brown kept meat rabbits in his garage in Indianapolis and, apparently, my great-grandma Brown made rabbit-skin coats. I realize fur isn’t fashionable right now because we would rather save the world with polyester but some day we’ll return to utilizing natural resources…or at least I can hope.

HarePen3

Rabbits also produce copious amounts of manure…the kind you can put directly on your garden without composting and it acts like a time-release fertilizer capsule. But if you choose to compost it you’ll only make things better. Maybe make a compost pile with alternating layers of leaves and rabbit manure in the fall. But to keep odors down you’ll need to either clean and haul the rabbit manure regularly or cover the pile with sawdust regularly. Your nose will tell you…but if you wait to hear from your nose the rabbits will suffer. Be proactive about manure management.

After meat, fur and manure we are left with the offal. If you aren’t into eating rabbit livers (pretty good, really) you can save them for dog food. Same with kidneys and hearts. In fact, the head isn’t a bad thing for a little pooch or for your pig. Yup. The pig will eat every part of the rabbit you don’t…they are omnivores. We typically compost the heads, feet and intestines.

Worms

I know what you are thinking…Chickens didn’t make the top 3? Nope. Worms did. I was surprised myself. There are some things you just can’t convince a pig to eat. There are some things that you are better off not taking to the pigs. Our kitchen generates coffee grounds, banana peels and citrus waste in small portions. Pigs really aren’t interested in those but worms LOVE them. And worms do a thorough job of composting everything at a low temperature for use in our garden. After an initial thermophilic composting of pig bedding and manure we can give it to the worms for finishing, ending up with the best stuff in the world. Not to mention, worms we can sell or feed to other animals…fish, chickens…whatever.

Like the others, the worms don’t need much from us. Make sure they are damp, not wet. Make sure they have something to eat. Make sure they are not too hot or too cold. That’s about it. I highly recommend the book Worms Eat My Garbage for additional reading on the topic.

Worms

Let me pause here to say that you SHOULD be able to raise all three of my top 3 while still living in suburbia with less than $100 invested in infrastructure. Many places allow “pet” rabbits and pot-bellied pigs (often available for free) and there is no law against worms. You don’t need acres and acres of ground. You don’t need a huge amount of debt. What you do need is a plan to contain odors. You need a source of carbon. Do you live near a cabinetry shop? How about a sawmill? Do you have deciduous trees that you can gather leaves from? Can you collect newspapers from neighbors or buy some from the local recycler? If so, run composted animal wastes through your worms and sell the worm castings. Homestead at home. You’ll be amazed what you can do.

About a decade ago all the hog farmers around me who had sold out of hogs in the late ’90’s crash got caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. Don’t get caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. It strikes me that with a minimal investment in infrastructure, you can make superior compost for your garden using worms. This could be a serious money-maker but I’m really talking about a nutrient cycling resource.

So that’s my top 3. I’m as surprised as you are. But since we’re here, let’s talk about the rest as you may have your own ideas.

Need help mowing? Try Cows or Sheep

Cows are great at solving problems with surplus forage. You are probably going to have a hard time making a single cow happy as they are herd animals and you would probably have a hard time feeding a cow from a suburban yard (several yards maybe but watch for land mines). But on larger acreages…I mean, what else are you going to do with all that grass? You won’t save the Earth with a mower. Sheep may fit into suburbia but, again, you are better off in the stix to help you rotate away from parasites and avoid odor issues. In fact, I think you could make a case that a cow and 4 sheep count as one complimentary unit, utilizing pastures and breaking pathogen cycles, not to mention the cows keeping sheep predators at bay.

Not only do they take a low-value product (grass) and turn it into something better (steak or milk) but the grass sward improves because the cow tugged at the grass, salivated on it, urinated on it, stepped on it and manured all over it. If you want to build fertility in a hurry, if you are anxious to fix carbon and quickly save the world, hire a cow. The grass gets mowed and fertilized in one pass, nutrients are pushed into the soil and the mowers can reproduce themselves. Just add salt and water.

CompleteRecovery1

All that said, they are herd animals. What is a herd? Julius Ruechel says cows don’t really act like a mob until you have at least 500 in one group. I have also read numerous places (this is the most convenient) that you need one hired hand per 1,000 cows (commodity cows anyway)…which is the same as saying that you need 1,000 cows to pay the salary of one man…or one you. That’s a long way of saying, this is a low-margin, land-extensive enterprise. But it sure beats mowing.

HappyCows

I’ll forgive you if you include a dairy cow on your 1-5 acre farm. John Seymour includes a dairy cow in his homestead plans. Just know that milking isn’t for everybody. It just might be easier to drive 20 minutes to buy milk 6 gallons at a time once/week than to deal with 6 gallons/day from old Bessie. But, that’s why you have the pigs. Though it is only mentioned briefly, Eric Bende learned about this and shares his milking experiences in the book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Also keep in mind, milk cows don’t take any days off. I hope Paul Atreides will forgive this joke but the milk must flow. Every day you bring Bessie to the barn in the morning, brush her off, wipe her off, check each teat, milk her out then clean up the barn after filtering and chilling the milk, sterilizing the milking pail…the list goes on. Matron says it takes her 15 minutes to go from her door to the cow and back again…twice each day. So, again, I might suggest you should make that 20 minute drive once/week instead. Cow or no cow is a quality of life decision and I can see both sides.

Milking

Let’s round out the top 5 with Fish.

I know, right? Look. We have a couple of ponds. They came stocked with bluegill, crappie and bass and we threw a couple hundred catfish in for kicks. Those fish don’t need anything from me. But if I chose to feed them the feed conversion rate for fish is the best it can be. For every pound of feed eaten they gain a pound. Every year I threaten to put Japanese Beetle traps over the pond to feed the bluegill (who love Japanese beetles, btw). How many meals could I pull from an acre pond in a year? How many hours do I have to spend maintaining fence to keep the fish in? None. How many hours fighting raccoons to protect my fish population? None. That said, maybe fish have just displaced pigs on my list. Nah.

Pond

You can look into aquaponics, and I encourage you to do so, but I’m attempting to list things that can take care of themselves. Our first attempt at aquaponics was a dismal failure. Since I have a pond…well, that’s easier.

So, What about…

Laying Hens

OK. Well. Not really a high-margin enterprise here. And everything likes to eat chicken. Everything. So, if you can keep them alive, you’ll get an excellent source of protein on a near-daily basis. Since the margins tend to be so tight (or negative) and we’re talking just a couple of acres here, it might be better to trade for eggs with your neighbor so they can go to war while you stay home. But if you want your own birds for household use you should plan one bird for each member of the household plus two birds…with a minimum of six birds. You could pickle surplus eggs or send cracked, checked or otherwise unwanted eggs to the pigs (you have to have pigs!). And I would buy the birds as ready-to-lay pullets so you don’t have to invest in brooding equipment, though chicks are cute and fun. Just understand, when you are coming home from Bob’s house after sundown on a Saturday evening and nobody was home to close up the chickens…well, you may have one less chicken and a fat skunk stuck in the fence. Good luck with that.

Chickens were the first livestock we bought and every step of the way has been more difficult than advertised. Numerous people have told me tales of the chicken wars recently. Here’s a real example.

Friend: “Well, we started with 15, got down to 1, bought 10 more and now we have 5.”

Me: “How many eggs have you gotten from those 25 birds?”

Friend: “None.”

Me: “Maybe you would be better off with pigs, rabbits or worms.”

Broilers

This is also a low-margin enterprise. If starting over, I would be tempted to find a farmer who raises broilers and work out a deal for the 50/year I need for my own household. 50 whole birds weighing 4 pounds at $3/pound is $600. Maybe you could trade him a fat hog or a litter of shoats for 50 frozen birds. Maybe you could just pay him the $600. There are big advantages to running broilers on your farm seasonally but there are also big expenses.

Hoop

Sigh. I guess I would go ahead and raise my own birds. I enjoy the work and with 3 weeks in the brooder and 5 weeks in the field it is not exactly a life-sentence…the way milking a cow is. I would probably fit broilers in either spring or fall on my homestead…but I say that grudgingly. I’ll hold further comment on broilers for another blog post.

So that’s about it. There are any number of animals I have intentionally overlooked on my list. Please don’t be offended if you are a fan of geese. I think geese could be a good source of grass-fed meat on a farm but I don’t have any experience with them. Ducks are comical but I don’t really like them. You may have your own ideas for an ideal homestead starting lineup but that’s mine. Pigs, rabbits and worms…animals you could start with while you are still in town. Feel free to disagree…but if you are disagreeing before you have dipped your toes in the water, let me know when you dream up your revised list. You will ultimately have to follow your heart’s leading but whatever you do, start small. Start where you are. Minimize your expenses. Start slowly. Step into each enterprise carefully…but for Pete’s sake…take a step!

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Around the Farm in 80-ish Days

We are returning to pasture that was last grazed in early July. Through the summer we ran 10 cows on 13 acres of pasture. In that time we sold a heifer, borrowed and returned a bull and bought two new shorthorn heifers. 87 days ago our pasture looked like this:

Molly

Then it recovered.  What we found most interesting was the transition from fescue (a cool season grass) to bermudagrass (warm season). The cows like the bermuda grass much less than they like the fescue but that’s a little bit like picking which of two shoes to have for dinner. The fescue seems to trample better as it makes a dense mat and the bermudagrass leaves a standing tangle. We also overseeded with a mix of clovers, millet, cowpeas and sunflower. It gave us a nice crop.

SunflowersWe harvested the sunflower heads and, as usual, let the cows have the rest in small one-day pastures. Obviously we’re packing the cows in pretty tight to stretch 13 acres into three months…though I hope to do better next year. During that time we grazed our drought reserve for the first time this year.

EarlyMorningMoveThen the cows moved on. As the weather allowed we grazed open ground away from the shade. Fortunately we had unseasonably cool weather the first week or so of August and we could graze some ground I had written off until fall. We also stretched our pasture by grazing around the odd edges of the hay field and the pond.

OctoberGrazing

3 months is more than enough time to break the pathogen cycles. More than enough opportunity to rest the ground, more than enough time for the grass to fully recover. But recovery is coming to an end. Grass will continue to grow, though slowly, through mid-December. Every inch of grass that grows is a day I don’t have to feed hay. This is a week’s worth of fescue growth.

FastRecovery

The plan now is to continue the slow rotation on everything but the stockpiled ground as long as it lasts. If things go well, that will take me to December 1st. However, after we get a solid freeze that kills the alfalfa I plan to graze through the alfalfa stand. That could tack on a month of grazing…so now we’re looking at January 1st. There are also a few acres of reserve hay ground that we couldn’t mow this year. If we could graze that I could gain yet another month. So now we’re looking at February 1st. At that point, we’ll put the cows on the stockpile which is conveniently located near the hay barn. By strip grazing the stockpile a little each day we should be looking at March 1st…maybe a little less. Then we’re in the heart of mud season and the hay feeding will begin in earnest, though much of our farm will have standing forage that has been recovering since October. When the thaw completes we’ll hit that recovering ground before moving on. Who knows when that will be though.

GrazedAndUngrazed

Grass in the foreground was grazed a week ago.

March 1st is an important date for us as that’s the date our tenant will remove his cattle from the additional 40 acres we purchased. That ground will need to recover until at least April 5th before we start moving the cows quickly across large pastures. Then we’ll set aside a portion of farm to rest for the year (probably planted with a number of new trees), a portion of the farm we’ll only use during calving, a portion we’ll stockpile for drought and winter, a portion we will cut hay from…you get the idea. I have a lot of plans for how to utilize 60 acres but 11 cows and their calves can’t do it alone. I’ll share more of next year’s grazing plan in detail as I firm it up but it really won’t take shape until I’m stuck inside this winter. For now my focus is on grazing from now until March 1, leaving as much hay in the barn as I can in case next summer is a doozey.

Zen Cows, Intense Pigs

Cows and Pigs are the two favorite parts of my farm day. Chickens? Meh.

Pigs are just crazy. Pigs learn about things with their mouths. They bite to feel. I had a pig feel the wrist of my Carhartt jacket when I was about 18 and dang if he didn’t just pull it right off of me, dragging it through the hog lot. I never wore it again. Pigs want to explore you. They want to rub on you and be scratched. They want to smell you, make noises at you and they will never leave you alone. It’s fun but pretty intense. I know the pigs would just love to eat me. It goes both ways. I do think the pig below (Newton) is smiling.

IntensePigsCows on the other hand want little to do with me. The milk cows may want me to scratch them on their poll and the steer may be a little too tame for his own good but otherwise, the cows are content to do their thing and let me do my thing. It’s peaceful. They don’t bellow at me the way the neighbor cows do when a tractor starts. They just munch away at their cud. Maybe get a drink of water. Maybe a lick of salt or kelp. When it’s time to move, we move. No big whoop. It’s all very zen. Nobody is trying to eat me.

ZenCowsI could sit in the shade and watch the cows all day.

 

Farming and the Application of Force

I read a large variety of books and blogs mostly in the alt. agriculture umbrella but also a few that fit in an alt. economics category…if you’ll allow that term. I enjoy the way Bill Bonner writes…tying humor, criticism, common sense and wealth advice all together in a fun little package. He also overuses ellipses…and I like that. I wrote about a book of his I read a year ago if you are interested.

On a recent blog post Bill wrote,

Force doesn’t work in human affairs, because it doesn’t bring people what they really want. Force doesn’t give you a ‘win-win’ trade.

Instead, force sets up a ‘win-lose’ transaction. A man robs a liquor store. He has booze. But the liquor-store window is broken, and the store’s insurance rates go up. The world is poorer as a result.

Force rarely works in domestic affairs, either. A woman coerced is rarely a happy woman. And an unhappy woman rarely makes a man happy for long.

Nor does force work in an economy. When the Fed forces interest rates down, it is driving buyers and sellers to do something that they otherwise would not do. It is exercising brute force on markets.

Does it work? Ask any jackass who has ever tried price controls or centralised economic planning. The answer is no.

I could go on a tear about using voluntary transaction between individuals to build farm sustainability but, instead, to put this in line with other recent posts I have put here, I’ll tie on to the part where he is talking about relationships between a man and a woman. I am stronger than my wife. Significantly. (If you think this is an obvious statement you haven’t met enough farm wives. There are some strong women out here!) I can easily pin my wife to the floor while the kids tickle her. But I have to be careful to make sure she is having fun…that she’s part of the game, not a victim of the game. Everybody has to have fun.

Everybody has to have fun.

Did I move to my grandmother’s house, dragging 5 others along by strength of will or did the 6 of us agree and follow a prepared course of action? Years later, is everybody still having fun? Do we all agree that we are better off now than we were before…than we believe we would have been had we made other choices?

If I can answer these questions positively I have the foundation I need to answer the other questions. Why do we have cows? It’s the best way we can fix carbon and cycle nutrients in the pasture while respecting my family’s time. Why do I want to sell farm products? To make customers happy, to heal our pasture and preserve ecological resources, to heal our community to provide my family with the highest-quality food available and, importantly, to make our farm economically sustainable. How important is that? I’ll quote from another blog I’ve been reading through lately:

Want to know what I consider to be a sustainable farm?  Very simple:  One that stays in business.   It’s fine and good to be for the environment, and all farmers I know  care very much about their land, but you can’t save the world unless you’re a going concern.   If you, dear reader, are interested in farming to improve the environment, please do consider this point carefully.  …the bottom line is…  well, the bottom line.  Make a profit.  Keep going.

Well, OK.  I’ll go on a tear about using voluntary transactions between individuals to build farm sustainability.  I don’t want customers who buy out of pity. That’s not win-win. I want customers who are enthusiastic about our products. Customers who are sensitive to animal conditions and nutrient density, not customers who are looking for cheap food. I’m happy to provide food of the highest quality to customers who will pay a fair price. Cheap out on me and I lose. If I cheap out on you, you lose. We both hold up our end of the bargain and we both come out ahead. That blog post above points out that a business went broke, not because their quality was poor and not because of lack of customer demand but because they couldn’t meet their obligations.

But let’s pretend there are no expenses (including taxes) and there are no customers to satisfy…that no money is needed. How do I build enthusiasm in my children without forcing them to do the work?

Did you know we home school our children? My wife has a blog about it. She doesn’t write anything on the blog but it is hers. Anyway, I have memories of my lovely bride calling to say that our then 6 year-old daughter was crying and hiding her face in a pillow because she didn’t want to do reading lessons! “I just don’t think she is cut out for home schooling!” she said.

So we hit the books. What do other parents do when their students/children hit a wall? Some push through it…with apparent success.  Others just take a break and let the kid figure it out when they are ready…again, with apparent success. We found a home school philosophy that said we should inspire, not require our children to read. Inspire them. Rather than force our daughter to read we just focused more of our own time on reading. She noticed and it was almost as if she said, “Gosh, I don’t know what they find in those darned book things but there must be something in there.” So she started reading…and kept at it.

We didn’t have to force her to read. Will this work for all children? I don’t know all children. It has worked out pretty well in our family.

When we moved here we (the adults) led the way on butchering chickens. Three of our children were curious about it, one (the same one) wanted to stay in the house and do housework. OK. That lasted a couple of years. But now, we all help on butchering day. Everybody has a job. Nobody HAS to do it. We work together. That’s that.

And, I think, that’s how it should be. Some days you don’t want to have your shoes covered in chicken guts. I totally get it. But most days, you want to fulfill your role within your team.

If that role is washing dishes and baking pie with grandma, cool. But if you want to join us outside there’s a place for you. Here she is in purple, proud that she can cut off the feet.

GirlsIgnore the full crops on those birds.  We had some bad weather and just had to work when we could.

What Do You Do When She is Gone?

So, Mr. Steward, what do you do when your wife goes to a convention for a few days?

Well, I can get the farm chores done a whole lot faster than she can but I lean pretty heavily on the kids to help out with meals and household chores. Mostly, I focus on housework and, apparently, listen to a lot of Willie Nelson. Like, a lot. I know, right?