The Farming Manual: Studying Farm Work

TheFarmingManualThere is no limit to the work that needs to be done. Reducing the effort involved in one task means I am free to pursue another task…not that I will ever be out of work. Less time spent caring for cattle each year means more time sitting on the couch with my family reading books. Or more time throwing stuff away. Or more time reading books about throwing stuff away.

So how do we reduce the effort involved? It is more, Henderson suggests, than merely the application of common sense in an organized way.

…with livestock something more is involved than the dumping of a certain quantity of food in the right place at the correct time.

It is possible to devise dry-mash hoppers and automatic water troughs for pigs which only need attention once a week. By their adoption it might be possible to reduce the labour charge from 365 hours to sixty-five in the feeding of 365 pigs annually. But if the system permitted each pig to waste 2 oz. of food daily, either down its throat or on the floor, the saving would be entirely wiped out. Also if the man failed to notice a bunch of pigs which were off their food in time to isolate them and prevent an outbreak of disease it might be calamitous. On the other hand, if a little reorganization of the work did give him time in which to study the pigs no time could be better spent.

That is a much longer quote than I normally share and may be more than is fair to Henderson. I can’t reprint the book. However, that quote sums up what we need to discuss today…with this slight change. Henderson later says,

The ultimate test is not the time or mileage saved, it is the stock units which can be efficiently managed.

Well, yes. But no. The ultimate goal is not more animals. The ultimate goal is not more money. The ultimate goal would be more like safe and efficient management of animals we enjoy utilizing our land, earning us enough return that we can spend time with those we love most. Don’t get me wrong, I like money. But, given the choice, I would pick more time with Julie and the kids. And if I didn’t like the animals I wouldn’t have them.

And in achieving these goals we may find our infrastructure is not what we need. That our fixed, specialized buildings should be replaced with general-purpose, portable structures.

We are all too familiar with the ranges of brick and tile pig-sties of an earlier generation, which seem a sin to destroy, but are quite out-moded.

That applies directly to me. What can I do with my hog floor besides keep hogs there? And I really can’t keep hogs there efficiently. Not efficiently enough to make it worth doing. (Look for a post in the near future).

Julie and I waste a huge amount of time dragging and draining hoses to water stock. We should have spigots everywhere. Lighting everywhere. Solid roads everywhere. We put hay in the loft of one barn just to spend the winter throwing it down and hauling it to another barn to feed the cattle. What is the sense in that?

A careful analysis is then made on the basis of: Why is it necessary, Where should it be done? When should it be done? Who should do it? and What is the best way to do it?

I like square bales of hay. I hate loading them into the loft. How could I keep hay at the cattle barn? I could put a loft back in that barn but, again, I hate loading hay into the loft. What if I kept bales at ground level under a portion of the roof? The building is not set up for that. What would it take to correct the setup? How much easier would feeding the cattle be if we could carry a bale no more than 15 or 20 feet?

Henderson spends the rest of the chapter illustrating his efficient building design and farm layout, discussing the merits of his approach with an emphasis on designing routes for harvest equipment or manure delivery to any field. In an earlier book he says they try to haul 600 loads of manure and spread it across the entire farm.

I have a lot of manure to haul and I have a number of fields I can’t begin to hope to cover with manure from the barn.

While I may have given the reader the impression that we are a horribly inefficient operation and feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson the truth is we are a horribly inefficient operation and I feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson. And, while I would love to tell you more about it, the sun is coming up and I have to take a bucket of water to the chickens in the greenhouse, walk to the cows and evaluate the remaining pasture, open the chicken house (next to the cows), give the chickens a half of a bucket of water from the cow’s trough, walk to the pigs (quite near the cows) carrying a bucket of water from the cow tank, feed the pigs, walk to the barn to feed the milk cow, drop a fresh bale for the calves in the calf pen across the way, stop at the grain bin for a bag of chicken feed that I will then carry on my shoulder 1/4 mile back to the greenhouse where I started.

Could that be better? Yes. But not a whole lot. Not on foot when the well is broken anyway.

But today the well gets fixed. And that will save all of us a lot of time.

2 thoughts on “The Farming Manual: Studying Farm Work

  1. Salatin and Henderson are peas in a pod on the issue of efficiency, for sure. It was a point I picked up the first time I read Henderson years ago. Both Henderson and Salatin talk about the dangers of getting locked in by infrastructure and it sounds like you and I are both in that boat. It may be a topic du jour in farming cirlce right now, since the book “Lean Farm” just came out recently. I’ve kind of fizzled on the book, but if there’s one take away from it for me, it would be that it’s possible in farming to take efficiency too far – because then you end up with giant hog floors and broiler houses and CAFOs. Not that I’m in any danger of reaching that tipping point whatsoever 🙂

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