Motivating my Volunteer Corps

Bad weather is on its way. They are calling for a mix of sleet and snow Friday, Saturday and again Tuesday. Temps should fall back into single digits again, wind chills deeply negative. There is quite a bit of work to do beforehand so I asked the kids to get the laundry done, firewood brought in, pine cones collected, the pigs and chickens bedded, and the house picked up. There is much more to do but the kids can handle those few chores. I left a list on the fridge this morning including a suggested timeline. Before 8, do this. Before noon, have these done. Before 5, be sure to have everything behind you.

I got some negative feedback from my oldest. Actually, my wife called me at work and asked me to talk to my son about his attitude.

So I talked to my son. I didn’t talk down to my son. I didn’t yell at my son. I didn’t even lecture my son. I said, “A storm is coming. If you guys can do those chores, I’ll have that much less to do when I get home after dark.” He felt foolish and agreed that the work just needed to be done and really wouldn’t take all that long.

But I am not finished. With him or with me. I’ll start with me.

I am significantly larger and stronger than my children. In fact, there have been several recreational wrestling matches pitting my four children and my wife against me (they try to get a toy out of my hands). I always win. I could easily force my children to submit to my will. But even if I couldn’t physically overpower them, I have absolute power over them. I could restrict their freedoms, remove favorite toys and prove to them in many ways, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not only someone to be respected and feared, I am an enemy to be escaped from. That is not what I want to teach my children.

Let’s talk about my relationship with my wife for a moment. My wife is a sovereign partner in our marriage. She is a willing participant. She is not my slave. I have no ownership claim on her as she is not my property. Her body is her own, not mine. The success of our marriage is not the result of my command but the result of conscious, daily choices each of us make to respect the other. Julie has full authority to act without my permission but chooses to limit her actions in favor of partnership with me. For example, she could easily drive to the airport, hop on a plane for Jamaica and spend a week on the beach without us but she doesn’t. She could spend what little money we have but she doesn’t. She could, behind my back, sell all of our livestock or attract the attention of any man. But she doesn’t. And it’s not because she is afraid of me. We live on the farm, not because I said, “You are my wife!” and she said, “Goodbye city life!” but, instead, because we agreed to live here.

I have to teach this to my children. My children are not yet sovereign individuals but as they approach sovereignty I have to turn loose a little more. At age 3 it is enough to command. After around age 5 it becomes appropriate to reason…but not negotiate. To say, “We’re doing this because…” but not ask your children for permission to act. But then there will come a time when my children have full authority to act without my permission. I have to handle that transition correctly. They have to know they have the power and ability to either hurt or honor others as well as the freedom to make their own choices…and earn their own consequences. I want them to learn to express their freedom, not simply to exert power over others. So I work to avoid expressions of power. I try not to dominate. I try only to set the example and to show them love and respect.

I should have made a better presentation for my children this morning. I should not have simply written a list of things to do. I should have spelled out why each is important. I like wearing clean socks so we need all of the laundry clean in case the power goes off for the next two weeks (as has happened in the recent past). We need firewood stacked indoors in case the storm really packs a wallop and pine cones to help light fires (since we are out of stick bundles). The chickens and pigs need fresh bedding for their health and it is easier to add today than it will be when the sawdust is covered by snow and ice. If the laundry is all put away and the tables are cleaned off we’ll be more comfortable when we are all stuck indoors. I know these extra chores add a lot of time to your day but all of us will be better off for the next few days if we just pitch in and do it now.

So tonight when I get home I’ll sit with the family at the dinner table and review the day’s activities. I’ll pull up the weather forecast on the laptop and show them what is predicted to come our way. I’ll lay out the whole list of chores that have to be completed before bad weather hits tomorrow night (lay out cow pasture, haul, stack and cover hay, make sure coolers are clean in case power goes out, verify our pantry is sufficiently stocked, etc.). Then, after dinner, I’ll lay out the work I hope to accomplish tonight and in the morning and what they can do to help out. Maybe it won’t work. I don’t know. As a friend recently said to me, there are no “do-overs” in parenting. I think it is better to make a mistake while being respectful toward my children than to make a mistake being abusive.

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My Mountain of Gold

OK. Not so much a mountain. And certainly not gold. I hope the scale works in this picture. The pile is as tall as me.

Sawdust

We order a load for our place and a load for the horses every year. This entire load will be spread this winter in the greenhouse under the pigs, rabbits and chickens. We also take any wood chips we can get from the power company and local tree services. And I am overdue to rent a chipper for some brush I have piled up. It all comes in handy, soaking up odors, making animals comfortable and increasing pasture fertility. That represents the entirety of our annual fertilizer bill.

Three cheers for Sawdust!

Grazing the Not-Stockpile

The cows are just East of the house right now. They finished up grazing the primary stockpiled ground further East and I needed somewhere to go with them. Really, they should be North of the house in the bottom where the grass is 10-12 inches tall and still green (somehow). But that’s a long way to drag a hose.

East and South of the house lies the remains of pasture that the cows passed over in October. Forages they just elected to skip. Lots of fescue. There is a fair amount of grass there but it is only marginal in quality…at best. I am offering large grazing areas and two whole bales of hay each day.

GrazingJanuaryThis is mostly a South-facing slope that will start recovering mid-February and will really be ready to graze again in March. Certainly by St. Patrick’s day. But right now it has bunches of fescue and tall stalks from chickory and other forages. Mixed in are a few thorny saplings that I need to manage. If I do this right, the cows will crop it all close, add nearly a ton of manure and expose the thorny trees so I can deal with them. 

GrazingJanuary2

Speaking of fertility, I have to keep an eye on their manure. Yes, every day I look at cow manure. This is looking too dry and stiff. I need to up the protein in their diet. For now I’m calibrating it with alfalfa hay but as we graze our way North I may need to do a little more for them. The pasture to the North is tall, dry, brown bermudagrass. I’m sure it’s about as delicious as straw and will require protein supplementation for digestion.

GrazingJanuary3

The slope they are on sheltered them from NW winds above 45 mph Sunday night and a wind chill toward -20. That’s quite a change from Sunday’s high temperature of 50 degrees that left several of the cows panting in the heat.

I still have a few acres of stockpiled fescue but, for now, we’re going to ask the cows to do their best with this stuff. I’ll have to keep an eye on things.

As a note to myself in this public diary, Flora came up with a limp in her rear left on Saturday morning. Picture #2 above shows her standing with weight off of that hoof. The cows had been in the hickory grove. I suspect she either slipped on ice or she has a thorn in her hoof. Sunday it was less pronounced. Monday it was still there but less so. I’ll try to catch her Tuesday morning and check out that hoof.

Just a Couple of Pigs

We shipped out last pig out on Tuesday of last week. We were scheduled to pick up a new batch of piglets on or after Feb. 1 but I couldn’t stand it any longer. 5 days without pigs was 5 days of misery. Julie saw it coming and laughed at me. She knows I love having pigs around.

Sunday morning we made room for and assembled a pig pen in the greenhouse. We use a big water tank for a drinker and it would freeze solid if we tried to keep the pigs outdoors. Since ice is a problem and frozen piglets are unhappy piglets I chose instead to ask the chickens to share space.

I made plans to meet Mike Butcher at noon for a couple of 60 pound pigs. Mike raises hogs for a couple of well-known major organizations, each with their own audits and specifications. His sows farrow outdoors and never see a gestation crate. His pigs are raised on deep bedding and he uses no antibiotics. Mike has a clean, neat hog business. He gives me a discount on pigs since they are, in his own words, going to a good home that appreciates their health. Not only do I appreciate their health, I appreciate their breeding. These are the best eating hogs we have raised and fatten quickly. Mike does it right.

Pigs1

Plus he generates mountains of compost.

pigs2Mike is justifiably proud of his business. He is also proud of his herd of large black hogs that he has kept for decades. He is always anxious to show us all around the place, look in any and every building, play with newborn piglets…whatever. I have never seen a sick animal on his place. Dad was with me yesterday and commented on how clean all of the pig pens were. Mike works hard and it shows.

We loaded up four piglets in a homemade crate (more on that another time), wrote Mike a check and headed off down the road. That sounds too easy. I caught 3 piglets, dad caught a fourth and we carried them to the truck. That still sounds too easy. I walked through groups of pigs, called out the one I wanted and we (my son and I) sifted through the group until I could get my hand on the specific one I wanted to take home while Mike’s Jack Russel Terrier worked to add to the confusion. But it’s not enough to get your hand on a 60 pound ball of muscle. You have to hang on to it. Ugh. Then, wriggling pig in hands, I climbed out of the pen and wheelbarrowed each pig over to the truck. Then I lifted each one, stepped up on the tailgate and gently lowered each into the crate. I still didn’t describe it well enough because I left out the amount of manure that gets all over me during the operation. But you could probably figure that out on your own.

The pigs are comfy in their own portion of the greenhouse where they will remain until April. They went to work digging in the bedding right away.

I have a lot more to say about pigs and why I found it so hard to go without a pig on the farm for even a full week but I’ll save that for another time. I do have to say, catching and wrestling pigs was just exactly the kind of workout I was discussing in yesterday’s post. I’m sore today.

CrossFarm 2014

In a prior life I did the main page Crossfit Workout of the Day (WOD) every day. I write about this from time to time. Speaking from experience, the main page Crossfit WOD is not for normal humans. All these years later the main page WOD has been accelerated to the point that it’s not even for exceptional humans. It is made for super-humans. Truly elite fitness. But 10 years ago I couldn’t wait to knock out the main page WOD and post my results. I should also add that Crossfit came along at just the right time in my life. If you think I write about Crossfit too much…well, please understand there is more going on here than just push-ups.

Let me summarize what I believe Crossfit is. Crossfit is for everyone. It calls itself the sport of fitness. In short, they put up a workout 3 days out of 4 to measure your own ability to perform work in time. (The fourth day was a rest day and there was usually some suggested discussion topic ranging from history to liberty to economics.) In a normal workout you might deadlift 300 pounds 21, 15 and 9 times. In between deadlifts you might have to do 9, 15 and 21 handstand push ups. Yeah. Handstand pushups. But it’s not enough to just pick up the weight and stand on your hands. The workouts are designed to be completed quickly. You wouldn’t think of lifting 300 pounds as a cardio workout…until you try to lift 300 pounds 21 times in 30 seconds. Total intensity followed by rest. You learn very quickly where your body is weak, where you want to quit and when you really need to quit. Crossfit is for everyone…but you probably need to scale it back for your fitness level, age and ability. Don’t believe me? Pick up a grandchild. That’s a deadlift. If you don’t do it correctly you will probably injure your back.

There was a time when my hands were covered in callouses from deadlifting, the pull-up bar and from gymnastics rings. I became monstrously strong in a short period of time. But as much as I admire the program and its benfits, I don’t crossfit anymore. I have a farm.

I reached a point in my Crossfit career where I wanted to do more than just the main page WOD. I would practice skills like juggling or tumbling. I cut a big oak log out of dad’s woods to carry on my shoulder as I walked through my neighborhood (true story…total dork!). I would use a rotary mower to mow the grass while wearing a weight vest…for time. Yeah.

But things are different with a farm. Now I walk/jog to the barn, grab a 60 pound bale of alfalfa, deadlift, power clean and rest the bale on my shoulder then walk a half mile over an obstacle course, up and down hills to feed the cows. And because I’m almost late for work I have to do this work for time. I have to make decisions about firewood. Should I make one trip up the hill with one big log or should I make 10 trips up the hill with firewood-sized chunks? And because I have 10 other things to do today this too is for time. I pull up fence posts, drive in new fence posts, string electric fence all for time. Then it’s back up the hill to the house in time to fill a wheelbarrow or two with wood to stack next to the wood stove before it starts sleeting (for time). I have to process 100 birds for time. Water the chickens for time.

carrying hay

Everything is for time. Crossfit measured my ability to perform a given amount of work in time. Farming is only a little different. Not only do I have to work hard, I have to get my work done or something might die! But Crossfit also emphasized the importance of rest and proper nutrition. (Clearly this had an effect on me. It’s why we started growing our own food!)

In one of my very first posts on this blog I referred to the action of the livestock working our soil as Crossfit for the farm. The cows, pigs and chickens create a varying and seasonal but intense pattern of disturbance and massively increased microbial action after which the land recovers, heals and becomes stronger than it was before. The varying workload involved in caring for the animals seasonally keeps me both fit and entertained. The hardest part is limiting sugar intake so I can recover more fully between workouts…I mean…chores.

Let me state clearly, I’m not for or against Crossfit. I promise you, the main page WOD is not for everyone. It is probably not for you. It’s for the athletic elite. But if you are planning to move to a farm to begin your adventures in agriculture, I strongly encourage you to consider your physical condition. Maybe find a program that not only builds strength but also builds endurance. ’cause you’re gonna need it. Also pay attention to your diet, rest and sleep cycles. The whole farming adventure can be stressful. Lack of sleep or proper nutrition only compounds the issue.

How to Win Every Game Ever and Even Life Itself!

How’s that for a flash title?

My kids ask me how I seemingly always win. Let’s be clear. I don’t always win. Munchkin is anybody’s game. But if you involve a sheep or a Mario or a Settler of Catan, I do pretty well. Or at least my kids think I do. Some of this is due to luck. Some of it is due to experience (30 years with Mario), but most of it is a recognition of strategy. I know where I’m trying to go before I begin. I figure out what I need to do. I’m prepared for bad dice rolls. The kids don’t stand a chance…yet.

Also included in the title is the notion that I feel that I’m ahead on points in life itself. That is not a joke. I have already won. I married Julie. Nanny-nanny boo-boo. Besides, I’m always harping about vision. Knowing where I am going…figuring out I need to do to get there. I am prepared in case of curve balls. You can see why these kinds of games appeal to me.

We are enjoying playing Agricola. When you first set up the game you will likely be intimidated by the apparent complexity of the board but it’s really not so bad. Here is a finished game played in family version. It takes up a lot of room.Agricola

Each round you send your people to work for you. They can gather clay, rock, lumber or reed. They can bake bread, fetch livestock, expand your family, sow crops…you get the idea. Any action you take this round prevents someone else from taking that same action this round. Additional resources pile up weather you take them or not so you might try to hold off taking that big pile of wood this turn because it will be even bigger next turn…if nobody else takes it. Whatever else happens, you have to have enough food available to feed your people at harvest time.

Then there are key strategies to employ to help you maximize your points. Keep in mind there are only 14 rounds and 6 harvests…and harvests come faster and faster as the game goes on. Stone houses are worth more than clay huts or wood houses. Grain is easy to sow and harvest but grain is only useful up to a certain point. There is zero return in points on your investment in plowing more than 5 fields. Fencing is cheap and will wait till later. More people helps you get more resources and more points…as long as you can feed them.

So…what comes first? Well. If you don’t plow fields, build stone houses or fence barns in you won’t get many points. But if you don’t eat, you’ll have to beg for food. And nobody wants that. It takes away 3 points at the end of the game.

I feel the early part of the game comes down to one key strategy: Create a flexible food generation machine. A fireplace allows you to make food from anything. If that is not available, build an oven and bake bread. Once you can feed your family, everything else falls into place.

OK, Chris. You like Agricola. That’s nice. How about we bring this back to the real world?

Agricola does not allow me to assign a specific one of my meeples to a specialized task but real life allows that additional complexity. Julie, the kids and I are not interchangeable. Any of us could get stone, clay or reed. No doubt. But we can do so much more! And each of us are different…different motivations…different desires…different strengths. How can I leverage these differences to give our family an advantage in the game for generations of players still to come?

The current strategy (still early in the game) is to build a revenue-generating engine. If we miss payments at the bank we lose points. We can’t afford to lose points. We don’t particularly want to make payments. So we have to work hard, right now to secure our financial future. All of us chip away at the same set of chores day after day…feed, water, gather eggs, haul firewood, cook, clean, fold. There is no assigned cook. There is no assigned dishwasher. There is no assigned egg gatherer.

gathering eggs

But the time will come when our farm grows to the point where Julie and I will have to step back a bit. We will have to specialize. We may move from field work to administration, accounting or sales. The current strategy is focused on accumulation (knowledge, skill, resources). The later strategy will be utilization. Efficiency. The kids may take over portions of the farm to run as their own business units. One may keep pigs, one may be an auto mechanic, one may raise cut flowers.  The current unification and generalization makes sense. The later diversification and specialization may make sense. But the strategy will evolve as the game continues.

The difference is that the kids, Julie and I play Agricola against each other. In real life, we are a team. A winning team.

Lowest Cost Production III: Efficient Until it Hurts

In a recent posting I was suggesting we, as cattle producers, need to lower costs. I also wrote this ridiculous run-on sentence:

Is it more efficient to plant, fertilize and spray herbicide on corn and beans, harvest those crops, screen them, haul them to town, dry them in a bin, grind them into feed, haul that feed back to the farm where you feed chickens in long houses with high rates of death so we can manually pack the birds into crates, haul them to a processing plant, hang them on a shackle, dress the bird out on a conveyor, part the bird up and sell the tenders at the deli than it is to do basically the same process with cattle?

So why on Earth is chicken cheaper than beef? I have already demonstrated that I can raise slightly more meat per acre with chicken than with beef. Just imagine if I could raise 6 batches of 20,000 birds working year round? Then we can focus on mechanization of the process. I could just build a house, have my wife and kids clean out the dead birds a couple of times/day and every 2 months we could cash a check. In return, we could cover our pastures in 6″ of broiler litter each year! Beyond the increase efficiency, I would be handling feed in larger quantities, receiving chicks in larger numbers…economies of scale apply all around. But the birds would never see the sun. And they would probably stink. But a little efficiency here and there add up and pretty soon it is more efficient to plant, fertilize, spray, harvest, screen, haul, dry, grind, haul, feed, catch, haul, hang, dress, part and cook chicken than it is to do basically the same process with cattle. Largely, though, this is because cows aren’t built to digest grain and are therefore harder to mechanize.

In yesterday’s article I worked out that I need 2 acres of crop ground to support 500 broilers plus a third acre to raise those birds on sustainable pasture. If I built a 20,000 bird broiler house my ratio would be much closer to 2 acres per 500 birds, maybe less if I grow them to a mere 3 pounds. In fact, we may need less than two acres per 500 birds because I’m guessing that the feed ration is made from processed grains and by-products, not whole grains (which may even make the feed free!). I would also have to deal with the significant debt and maintenance of a long broiler house. It is difficult to determine what the true profit margins are for broiler farmers. This article indicates it’s pretty low but no financials are revealed. This article, though, paints a bleak picture and says the farmer keeps 3-5 cents for each pound of chicken produced out of which he has to pay a $550,000 mortgage…and buy groceries, make a car payment and plan for the future. I mean, it stinks for the poor schmuck but it’s great for consumers because we can buy a fully-cooked 2.5 pound rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for $6! And we only have to pay the rube $0.15 for the bird! (And here I have the audacity to raise my birds to 5 pounds and charge $15 for each one and not even give them a single dose of antibiotic!) Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting we should pity the chicken farmer. He may be doing quite well at $0.05 per pound. He may be living out his dreams. And maybe $6 chickens are just what the world needs.

But from where I’m sitting (and based on the high rate of turnover in the industry), it looks financially bleak for our chicken farmer friend. If he decides working 12 hour days to make $5,000 every two months  isn’t what he wants to do (BTW, the payment on a $550,000 mortgage is more than the chickens earn him each month)…well, what else is he going to do with those chicken buildings? The banker may have something to say about his desire for a career change. In fact, they may suggest he just borrow more to build another chicken house. Take care of twice as many birds. Then he can make some real money! Remember this conversation in Food, Inc.? He may find himself married to chickens…at least until the “mort” in mortgage happens.

So let’s review the comparison I made in the previous article. You could borrow a bunch of money, erect a 40×200 structure of concrete and steel, put in power and water lines, heat and cooling and never take a day off again in your entire life while depending on cheap fuel prices to continue ripping, planting, harvesting, drying, grinding and delivering grain to your chicken masters…OR you could buy or rent a little land, build a little fence and run some solar-powered cows you may or may not own. If you need a day off, build your daily pasture allotment larger than normal. If you need to make a little more money, build some chicken tractors and raise chickens SEASONALLY. Or quail. Or pheasant. Or layers. Or not. Let’s just stick with the cows. Are you going to get rich? Nope. But the chicken house doesn’t look like the road to riches either. In fact, the moving target that is “rich” may be a mirage. Another day. Besides, your neighbors may not want to live downwind of a chicken house. Who wants to be rich while polluting the commons and being hated by neighbors?

Now for some news: You can manage your cattle differently than your grandpa did. You can bunch them up into a tight herd, fitting more cows on fewer acres while building and improving soil and forages. You can have your grass and eat it too. It’s true! Use dense hooves to trample uneaten grass in to feed the soil. Just allow the ground to rest between grazings and make a few (just a few) dollars on little more than harvested sunlight and rain. And you can do it with just a couple of hours each day. And the more cows you have doing this work the more impressive the results are…within certain constraints.

I started this series by weighing MY chicken operation against MY cattle operation. And the figures I reveal show that I should be growing chickens across all 60 acres, not across a mere two acres. But that is a lot of work. I fit birds in where it is appropriate and when I want to. Pigs too. Both of these act as additional profit centers and diversify my risk and income potential. None of these activities are my master.

Compare that to a commercial chicken house.

So, back to my original posting. If we are going to take on a low-margin, land extensive enterprise like raising cattle, we better find ways to keep our costs low. The good news is that cows were originally designed with grass in mind. And a blade of grass is a solar collector. Just add water. No tractors are needed. No feed grinders. I don’t even need to own a truck. I suppose, if it came to it, I could walk my cows to the local slaughterhouse. Heck with the concrete, rebar and unpayable, intergenerational debt. I do not desire to be a slave to chickens, to mechanization or to bankers…any more than I am.

Chicken vs. Beef II: Grudge Match

In a recent post I discussed seeking increased efficiency of production. This led to a long talk with my dad (a good thing). Among the points he wanted to discuss was efficiency of feed conversion of chickens compared to cattle. There are some interesting components to this discussion and some confusing data out there on the Google. If you want to discuss which animal can convert corn most efficiently chickens win compared to cattle. Hands down. If you want to discuss which converts grass most efficiently…well, chickens don’t stand a chance. And that’s important because most of the information you will find includes data on corn poured through feedlot cattle.

If we just narrow the scope to say, “Which animal grows the most pounds of meat per acre?” Well, the answer is chickens. Well, the answer is sort of chickens. Maybe. But it may depend on how you define “per acre” and how much work you want to do to enable that production.

According to Joel Salatin, and from what we have observed, we can sustainably raise 500 broilers per acre per year during the growing season where we live. That’s about the limit of the soil’s ability to metabolize the manure. But that’s not how much ground I need to raise those 500 broilers. I also need half an acre of corn ground, an acre of bean ground and about a third of an acre of oats, along with fish meal, kelp and soft rock phosphate. Let’s just go with 3 acres per 500 chickens resulting in 2,000 pounds of dressed meat or 650-ish pounds per acre. I did similar math for pigs a few years ago. In fact, that post addresses a number of issues I’m going to tackle again today and again tomorrow. ’cause it’s my blog. And I want to. Let me point out, though, that the chickens are not harvesting their own feed in this model.

SO I can sustainably raise 650-ish pounds of chicken on an acre in around 6-8 weeks. Compare that to grass-fed cattle. I need 22-30 months to raise a calf from birth to finished weight. Let’s just say 2 years. In my part of the world (where we grow a state average of 155  bu corn) I can raise one cow per acre. (I think we can push for 1.5 cows per acre but that will take some time.) Also note that the cow is harvesting its own feed. A two year old calf has accounted for one acre for each of two years before bringing me any money and we are really only going to harvest 800 pounds of beef from that carcass. So, really, I’m only raising 400 pounds of beef per acre per year. (Even if you run a stocker operation, that calf has exactly one mother out there in the world somewhere eating grass on an acre of ground (well, unless it’s a twin. Just let that one go.). I’m counting the cow/calf as one animal unit, same as a stocker is one animal unit. Same as 1,200 pounds worth of sheep would be one animal unit.)

Clearly, our winner and still champion…chickens. (Now, I know I’m skipping a lot of analysis and detail here. This is a blog post – a free blog post! – not a book. But play with these ideas for a minute with me and we might both learn something…or at least have a little fun.) To add insult to injury I can sell a pound of whole chicken (dressed right here on the farm) for $3. The neighbors (I use the term “neighbor” loosely here) are selling for $3.40 so I should probably re-evaluate my costs and prices. But compare any chicken price to beef. I have to find customers who are interested in at least 200 pounds of beef all at once, haul the cow to the slaughter plant…garnering somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50-$2.00 per pound on the hoof. So that’s a gross of $1,800 per acre for chicken vs. a generous gross of $1,400 per acre for beef. But the chicken work was finished in under two months.

Clearly I should raise 60 acres of chicken and ditch the cows altogether. But I did say “gross”. As in before costs. A chicken eats 3 pounds of feed for every pound it gains in weight. Plus there is a big difference in labor needs of chickens and cattle. Now the math gets more difficult. In fact, it may tip the scales decidedly in favor of spending a little time each day moving temporary fencing.

But I don’t have to choose! The two can occupy the same ground (stacking), at different times, and are mutually beneficial. Heck, throw in some trees, ponds and berries and we can really create some diversity! But that’s not the point of today’s story. Not at all. Heck, I can grow cows and corn and chickens on the same ground…over time. Gabe Brown is doing it (well, he doesn’t have broilers…) and his row-crop methods look pretty attractive.

But if you want to live in a world where the sun shines, the rain falls and your animals feed themselves…cows. Maybe you and a horse and a dog keep the herd together and moving from day to day. Maybe you use electric fence for the same purpose. But diesel fuel is not required. What if we measured non-renewable energy units consumed per pound of meat produced?

So I still suggest that cattle are more sustainable than chickens but I admit, I can probably raise more chicken on an acre than I can beef…and in less time. Solar-powered cattle are independent of fuel and grain prices and harvest their own feed. Stacking broilers and cattle together helps lower my all production costs by spreading land costs across additional profit centers while increasing soil fertility and at the same time, helping break parasite cycles among other benefits. Especially since we live right where chicken feed is grown.

So, yes dad, I can probably grow more pounds of chicken per acre than I can pounds of beef but one does not exclude the other. I’ll talk a little bit about specialization and exclusion next time.

Natural Herd Doubling

Yesterday’s post was about maximizing my purchasing power by looking for things that are lagging inflation. Price relationships between goods are complicated and subject to interpretation. This is an imprecise thing. I can be much more precise about other aspects of that post.

I found a comment about my post in another internet, far, far away suggesting I should just increase my herd naturally. That time is often easier to come by than is money.

Well, that’s not…wrong. But I wanted to look at that in detail because it is helpful to see how much time is involved.

The cow math is fairly simple. Feel free to use excel. If you have a good group of cows you’ll still cut out 10% of them every year.  We cull the three Os; Old, Open and Ornery. Early on it happens easily. You cut out cows that won’t stay fenced, cows that always have their head up in alarm and cows that come up open. Beyond that, I’m working to improve my herd over time. Aiming for some level of uniformity. Most importantly, I am building toward a group of cattle adapted for my little piece of Illinois. That may take my entire lifetime. So each year we plan to remove 10% of the herd and plan to continue that practice indefinitely.

Half of the calves born will be heifers.  A heifer will have her first calf at 24 months (or else). Only a portion of the heifers born will be worth keeping. Let’s make things move quickly by suggesting I could keep 75% of the heifers born.

Every year I lose 10% of my breeding-aged animals. I keep 37.5% of calves born as future breeding stock. At two years each of those first-calf heifers bring me a calf. If we carry this through I’ll successfully double my herd of 10 heifers by 2021. I’ll successfully stock my farm in 2027. The year I turn 51.

So, yes. It will happen in time. I can’t get those years back. My pasture will be weakened by undergrazing until my farm is stocked. What were those years worth?

Then again, I have to balance this thinking with the knowledge that I’ll never find just the right cow at just the right price. There is a certain measure of make-do in my herd. There is a large measure of financial restraint expressed in my herd. And that’s how it is.

Cows are more like the farm’s savings account than the farm’s primary revenue generator…both in terms of finances and in terms of fertility. Another comment yesterday suggested I focus on building cash in a hurry so I can build the herd…so I can save toward my future solar-powered cash-generation engine. More on that another time.

What SHOULD a Cow Cost?

What SHOULD a cow cost? I don’t know. But I think it’s worth figuring out…cause I don’t have enough cows and I also can’t afford to waste cash. It’s not that 11 cows aren’t enough for me, personally. It’s that 11 cows aren’t enough for 60 acres. But I’m afraid this blog post can’t answer the question. It can only explore the idea.

Flora

In Feb. of 1976 live cattle were selling for $0.42. If you want to use the BLS Inflation Calculator, start in 1976 with $0.42 and you’ll see the current price should be $1.71. But cattle are selling for an all-time high price of $1.40. So…does that mean cattle are behind on inflation? Maybe we started at the wrong place.

OK. 1981 was a particularly bad year for inflation. Let’s start with 1982. Cattle were $0.62. Start the BLS calculator in ’82 with $0.62 and it will calculate $1.50. We’re still not there.

And that’s what I do with my free time. I didn’t spell it out longhand, I just gave you a handy link. But I could show you my work if you want. My junior-high math teacher would be shocked. I think an 11 year old me would be shocked.

February cattle are listed on CME at $1.40. That means cows are currently priced 7 years behind inflation (if you base on the 1976 price). So are cattle expensive based on historical prices or are cattle discounted compared to official inflation statistics? I don’t know. I really don’t. But I tend to think a 1976 cow is reasonably comparable to a 2014 cow. Actually, I might pay more for a straw from a 1976 Shorthorn Bull as he’s probably closer to grass than most of the currently available breeding stock. Maybe that’s why modern cows are slightly discounted…they aren’t as good.

Let’s approach it a different way. My farm in 1976 was basically the same as it is today. The same sun shone overhead. Similar rainfall patterns were observed. But in 1976 average farm values in Illinois were $1,062 ($4,347.98 adjusted for inflation). 2013 average Illinois farmland prices are $7,900. Carrying the math forward from the BLS page referenced earlier indicates land prices are currently priced 15 years ahead of official inflation!

Fencing

Let’s try again. In Feb of 1976 the S&P 500 was at 99. Today it is at 1838.06. It is now where inflation should have carried it by 2050. So is the S&P priced 36 years ahead or is everything else behind the times?

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Maybe the “official” rate of inflation is understated. Maybe it is more like 6% or 8% as reflected in land and S&P. Then again, maybe demand for cattle is simply down and/or worldwide supply is up so prices are down compared to where real inflation rates would lead us to believe they belong. I don’t know. I’ll keep trying.

An ounce of gold is exactly the same as it was 38 years ago. No rust, no insect damage, it hasn’t gotten stale…no difference whatsoever. In Feb of 1976 an ounce of gold cost $130. Today (as I write this) an ounce goes for $1252. That means either gold is currently priced in 2040 dollars or real inflation is in that 6% – 8% range. If the S&P and Gold give a true picture of inflation, land could be 9 years behind the curve! Cows would be even further behind!

But I don’t care if the official inflation rate is the real inflation rate or not. I see the threat and have to work to preserve and grow my limited amount of capital. I have to plant my money where it will grow. If cows are at an all-time high…well…what goes up must come down. But if cattle are priced behind the centrally planned destruction of the dollar…well…maybe there is an opportunity. If real estate has gotten ahead of inflation maybe it’s time to rent. Maybe I should convert my 2050-priced stocks and my 2029-priced land into 2014-priced dollars to buy 2007-priced cows! I don’t really own any stock and I’m not selling the land. Anyway, I paid a price for my land that reflects the past, not the future…because the market was less crazy when I originally bought.

So I guess it comes down to faith. Do you believe the Federal Reserve will work to continue inflationary policies? Do you think they will be successful? Do you think people will still want to eat beef in the near future? Do you think that beef will necessarily come from North America?

Those last two are difficult and are at the heart of my recent post on lowest cost production. However long the time horizon, will beef be seen as a luxury item or as a necessity? More about this another time.

How much is a cow worth to the future of the farm? They really do a lot of work for us. $1.40? I don’t know. They create a lot of work too. Does the farm present other opportunities that are priced at a larger discount? I may have to scale back my herd expansion plans and focus on growth in other areas…at least in the short term. I mean, the labor participation rate is the lowest it has been since 1977. Land prices are higher than they have ever been. Cattle are higher than they have ever been. The S&P is higher than it has ever been. High prices and high rates of unemployment are not compatible. Will prices come down before employment goes up? Will my own employment rate go down? What happens then?

So back to the original question.  What SHOULD a cow cost? Which is another way of asking, “Is this the right time to buy cattle?” I don’t know. That depends. It may depend on faith. How much faith do you have? Faith in the Federal Reserve? Faith in the hamburger? Faith in the Almighty.

One final note:
If you find errors in my math, don’t bother telling my junior-high math teacher. She’ll just roll her eyes. Again.