Temporary Fencing Tips

There are some subtle things I do when building temporary fence that make a huge difference. It’s the difference between having the cows where you want them or having the cows in the neighbor’s field. It’s the difference between a fence that shorts out and a fence that registers nearly 10,000 volts.


Keep in mind I’m talking temporary divisions, not permanent or seasonal perimeter fencing. The kind of fence you build each day to hold the cows that one day only. We typically make paddock subdivisions with a mix of pigtail posts and rebar posts. I use pigtails on the ends and rebar in the middle. I would prefer to have all pigtails but they are more expensive than rebar and money is an object. But you have to do it right to be successful. Let’s start with a common error I see in our fencing. I’ll exaggerate each of these to make the point obvious.


Do you see what is wrong? The tension on the string will pull the string out of the insulator. We are just one stray deer away from disaster. Disaster! Any small disturbance and the wire will pull free of the insulator, the fence will hit the ground and the cows will walk out. So we try to put the wire on the far side of the post like this:


This is more like it. But even this has flaws. Too much tension on the fence (possibly caused by deer or just overtightening) can twist the insulator and allow the wire to short against the metal post.


So the real right way to manage a sharp angle is to use a pigtail. The pigtail wraps entirely around the wire, holding it securely with no chance of a short. On top of that, pigtail posts have a foot that will lend stability to the corner. And they are flexible so when that tree branch falls on the fence the corner will give, hopefully preventing the wire from breaking.


Which is just fine when you are dealing with single-wire temporary fencing. But you aren’t always using single-wire temporary fencing. Which is why you should build your temporary fence in straight lines whenever possible. However, pigtail posts are sized for cow noses, not pig noses and certainly not sheep noses.

Now, I have to share a caution about the pigtail post above. I have several that now short out. Here’s the deal. See that open end on the coated wire above? Water goes in there when it rains. Water expands when it freezes. Brittle plastic coating doesn’t take abuse. Split plastic coating gives the circuit a shortcut to ground. What a pain in the rear. Check your pigtails early and often.

Finally, at the end of the fence is the reel. We hang our reels from the perimeter fence when possible. Otherwise they hang from pigtails. But there is a right and a wrong way to do this too. The twist of the pigtail can either help or hurt us. You may not understand this by looking at pictures but the lean of the reel has either solid pressure against the pigtail or it will fall off in a slight breeze, shorting out your fence, allowing your cows to go for a field trip. This is right:


This is wrong:


And for Pete’s sake, make sure the reel is off to the side of the post, not allowing the wire to make contact with the post!

There is more. If your fence runs along a hill, the transition from slope to flat can be problematic for hooked insulators. You need both hooks to have a firm grasp of the wire as below:


But if I turn that same insulator around, putting the wire on the other side of the post only one hook has a secure hold on the wire:


These insulators are made with two hooks, not just one. You need to leverage both hooks. Otherwise, the cows will get out. Believe me. I have some experience with this.

One final tip: always carry a fence tester with you. Ours can turn off our fence remotely…bonus. It’s not enough to know that the fence snaps when shorted. You need to know if you are at the full 10,000 volts or just 5,000. If you don’t, the cows will get out.

Let me know in the comments below if you have any other fence building tips.



Hatchet Job

I broke my hatchet handle last spring. Sigh.

The local hardware stores don’t seem to carry hatchet handles anymore. Axe? Yes. Sledge? Yes. Hatchet? No. Just buy a new one with a fiberglass handle.

But that’s not what I want.

I like my hatchet. I like my hatchet a lot.

SO I ordered a new hatchet handle from Amazon. It turned out about like you would expect.

Have you ever played baseball with a wooden bat? How do you hold the bat? You put the label up, right?


So the strength of the wood is oriented to apply pressure on the ball…and so the bat doesn’t break. You want to leverage the grain of the wood. If you hold the bat wrong the bat will flex and lessen the pressure on the ball or, worse, break.

And that’s the problem with my hatchet handle. I couldn’t dig through a bin at a store to find the one that has the right grain orientation. I just asked Amazon to send me one.

So here it is.


Well, that’s nice. I can use it again. It won’t hold up but I can use it again. Here’s a close-up of the grain so you can see more clearly.


This stinks. I use my hatchet for everything in the winter. I cut sprouts, trim limbs from trees, hammer fence posts and chop holes in ice. I keep my hatchet with me all the time. Usually it is sharpened and painted. Give me a little bit.

I don’t have high hopes for this handle. I don’t have high hopes for my handle supplier. I may have to start making my own.

So. There it is. Bat with the label up and pick your own tool handle.

Worn but Still Worn

Saturday my 10 year old son was wearing jeans with holes in the knees…under which he was wearing long johns with holes in the knees. “Dude, your knees have to be cold. Go change and bring me those pants.”

He said, “Old clothes are just more comfortable.” He changed but returned wearing jeans with a smaller hole. I asked Julie to get some iron-on patches while she was out.

20 years ago I raised open gilts on the hog lot for a nearby producer. He also kept a vasectomized boar with them so they could AI more easily later. My job was to call when the feeders ran low, give a shot if needed and scrape the floors clean. I did all that but I also played with the piggies. One warm winter day I had my coat unzipped as I scraped the floor. One of the girls gave an affectionate tug to the sleeve of my coat…so affectionate she pulled it right off me. Good thing I had it unzipped or I would have gone down. Off she ran, dragging my winter work coat through the manure. Thanks piggy.

So I bought a new Carhartt coat. 20 years ago. For years it would stand in the corner by itself. They take forever to break in. This time I bought a quilted coat instead of a blanket-lined one. I’m still not sure I like the lining. But I can tell you this, it’s warm and comfortable. Even with holes in the wrists, along the bottom edge and all along the zipper.



I don’t think there is any magic to Carhartt. Their zippers seem to hold up but I suspect a real farmer can’t make a coat last for 20 years. Just a computer guy who wears his coat for about an hour or two each day in the winter. Julie bought one around 1996 and finally had to swap it out two years ago.

But I want my wife and children to look nice. We don’t have all the money in the world but surely we can wear long johns that don’t have holes worn in the knees. But my coat? I don’t know. It is comfortable.

Should I Even Own a Small Tractor?

I have no idea. Are we clear on this? No. Idea. I am massively conflicted on this post. Not paralyzed to inaction, just conflicted.

Let’s start at the beginning. I bought an Oliver 550 on CL in May of 2010. Good rubber, soft clutch, weak brakes.

OliverThen, a year later, I broke it. I was mowing under an evil sycamore tree and a limb just reached right out and grabbed the muffler, breaking the cast exhaust manifold. (I have since removed the offending limb and the other three growing at its height.)

I thought to myself, “Self, it would be nice if this tractor had a drawbar (Oliver didn’t ship many of these with drawbars). Since we’re buying parts anyway…”

SO I bought a new exhaust manifold and an aftermarket drawbar kit. And a new PTO shaft…because…why not?

Perfect. Just perfect. The tractor really comes in handy raking hay, pulling hay wagons or pulling a trailer full of firewood, chicken feed…whatever. It’s a perfect utility tractor.

driving the tractor

But then it died. Dead. Wouldn’t start. Turns out it had a bad coil but it wasn’t just a bad coil. The tractor ended up at a reputable shop in town. Guy told me he couldn’t get it to show any oil pressure. The top end of the engine looks good but the bottom end needs rebuilt. I don’t know. Machine shop technobabble. Crankshaft. Bearings. Oil pump. Stuff. $1,400 worth of stuff.

Fast forward another year. We have used the tractor for several years now. I bought a blade I use for spreading rock, scraping up material or pushing snow.  No big. But something goes wrong when I’m using it one day. Maybe I stopped, shut it off and was about to change implements but the battery was dead. No big whoop. We’ll just pull start it. “Julie, hop in the truck and pull the tractor. When you hear it start, stop the truck.”


I press down the clutch to stop behind the truck but nothing happens. Tractor keeps moving.

I frantically shove the tractor out of gear before something bad happens.

But something bad already happened. The clutch had blown apart.

The tractor then sat in a tractor cocoon in my machine shed for nearly a year. Should I just cut my losses and sell it for scrap? There is an Oliver scrapyard an hour south. Maybe they will give me something for it.

Whatever. I obviously don’t need this tractor since I haven’t used it in a year.

November rolls around. The tractor dealership shows up with dad’s loader tractor. The guy peeks in the shed and asks about the tractor. Dad explains, the guy offers to fix it and the tractor goes down the road.

How much does a new clutch cost? $1,800.

That makes my $3,500 antique tractor perilously close to a $7,500 tractor…minus the usage we have gotten out of it.


So let’s play a little game of “How else could Chris have spent that $8,000?”

A similar new tractor, though one with a loader, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. At 4.5% interest that’s $4,000 each year. So I could have had a small loader tractor for two years instead of this one for 5.

Point to the Oliver.

But the new tractor would have a loader.

Point to the new tractor.

And front wheel assist.

(No points given for showing off)

The Oliver is mechanically simple. No computers. All standard bolt sizes. Few wires.

Point Oliver.

New tractor comes with a warranty.

Point new tractor.

Yeah, but why do I need a tractor at all? I mean, really, why?

And that’s where it sits. I own an Oliver 550. It’s great at what it does. It’s not heavy enough to pull small trees out of the ground but perfect for pulling chicken houses, hay wagons, etc. I would like to have a new tractor but…I mean…if I keep replacing parts I will have a new tractor…lol!

I don’t know how to suggest you apply this. The antique tractor has needs but on an annualized basis it is cheaper to own…so far. And I’m not really sure I need to own it or any tractor since dad lives next door. I think I would rather have more cows. But if dad didn’t live here? If we didn’t trade work and help each other out? Fortunately…

So, to the fella who came by unexpectedly last week to look at the tractor, wanna trade for bred cows?

’cause Ahm Too Skeered.

I have gotten a lot of things from my father. If memory serves, my first paid roofing job with dad was when I was 8. Like teaching a man to fish, roofing paid for my college education…well, the balance of the loan anyway. Look at the title of this post. Ask my dad to recite “Our Hired Girl” by James Whitcomb Riley. I have an appreciation for that poetry (in fact, any Hoosier colloquial writing I can find) because of my father. The only poem my kids are likely to learn from me is “You Can Call Me Al”. I can’t begin to list the number of ways I have benefited from knowing my father. But it didn’t get me a free tractor. Access to one maybe…

Why did dad buy the tractor? Was it because he knew I was paralyzed into inaction and needed the loader tractor just to get some stuff done around the farm including, but not limited to, moving round bales and bedding his horses? Yup. I’d say that about sums it up.

In fact, I can do better.

I wuz skeered. Bad skeered.

But dad said,

“Clear out o’ my way!
    They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!”

So I cleared out of his way. What if I screwed up? I mean, I don’t want to buy some used tractor just to have the clutch go out. But I don’t want the payments on a new $26k loader tractor and what if that one is a mistake? What if I buy that only to find out it’s too small? Before you know it we were staring down the barrel of a new 60 horse red one with a cab or a new 74 horse yellow one with a cab for around $45k. Sheesh! That happened fast!

$40k. 8 years of easy payments and a warranty. But what if I buy the wrong color tractor? What if something happens to me and Julie needs to sell the tractor? What is the resale value of the yellow tractor from Korea with a mechanical self-leveling bucket? I dunno. What if the tractor had green paint? I dunno.

I dunno.

So I went to work. I worked around the farm. I flew off to important meetings in important places. I wrote my ever-pretentious, self-aggrandizing blog. I leaked to my readers and friends that Julie and I were thinking about buying a loader tractor. The reply was universal. “Go forth and get thyself a loader tractor.” But it was like the seventh day or something. I rested.

I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

I looked. I lingered. I dithered. I made loud proclamations.

I did nothing.

So dad did.

Was it pity? Was it grief? I don’t think so. I think it was just something we needed on the farm. Right now I am accumulating cattle. I have a little equipment but not much. Dad has most of the equipment. All of the hay equipment. The big tractors. I have the machine sheds. I have the horse stalls. I would really prefer to think this is a multi-generational cooperative effort. And I hope to have another 30 years of working beside my father as I continue to puzzle him out.

But he seems to know me pretty well.

Now before we finish up today let’s consider one other possibility. One that seems so far-fetched it nearly escaped our notice. An idea brought to us by our friend Kari. Maybe…just maybe…maybe dad wanted a new tractor.

One Day, One Month of Work

It finally happened. After months of me sitting on the fence dad gave up on me and bought a loader tractor himself. Let’s not focus on the machine. Let’s talk about the first day of usage. We filled in a hole in my yard, hauled 8 loads of lime and manure out to the fields. Then we put a nice layer of bedding into the cattle barn so my moos would have a nice, comfy, clean bed for a few days of forecasted cold rain. All in about 5 hours.


I am telling you from experience, based on my availability, that’s about a month’s worth of work. Probably more than that as it encouraged us to do work I was simply not doing. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that other jobs came first on the list. After you fill a manure spreader three times in one day by hand it’s nice to just sit on your tookus for a minute. It’s hard to get into the back corners of the horse barn to clean out the manure but it was easier since the machine did the heavy lifting. Plus I work off-farm and that takes more than just my daylight hours, I come home tired…so it’s just hard to get it all done.

Let’s put a few numbers to this deal. It takes me the better part of an hour to load up a manure spreader. First I use the pitchfork and pry out a bit of material about 4 feet from the spreader and toss that in. Then I work in a line toward the spreader tossing in each little scoop. Like a typewriter, I work line by line backward and toward the spreader. This leaves lots of small, loose crumbles of compost behind that I alter scoop up with a flat shovel. Then I use a round point shovel to put an even layer of lime on top of all of that. Each shovel of lime weighs maybe 10 pounds. It takes a lot of shoveling to cover the spreader with a half inch of lime.

The loader tractor filled the spreader with four scoops of composted manure and one scoop of lime. It may have taken all of 5 minutes to load up the spreader. Happy days!

So we scraped up manure here, scooped out manure there. There were places we couldn’t get the tractor so we had to dig manure out by hand but we had been so lazy all day we had the energy remaining to get the work done. It was great! Dad drove the loader, warm in the cab. I spread the material (driving into the wind!). Then we filled in groundhog holes with lime, spread fresh bedding for horses and cattle, moved material that had been sitting for multiple years and called it a day. We still went home tired but we were tired after doing much more work than we could have accomplished previously.

So two things. I don’t know if bigger is necessarily better. A smaller tractor or a Bobcat could have gone places this tractor just can’t go but this tractor never even hesitated about scooping up lime. Second, the farm simply can’t afford a loader tractor at this time. Dad bought the tractor. But now that we have it around I have to agree that we can’t afford to be without it. On that line of thinking I got a series of notes from a friend some time ago encouraging me to buy a loader.

We did it, we bought a loader.  We just no longer can lift or move anything without getting hurt, and renting or borrowing a loader to clean out our deep bedding was too expensive.  We figure it’s an investment for our daughter. I don’t want her broken down like we are.  I got a leg up of sorts with my brothers used equipment, which we have slowly upgraded.  My husband is good about taking care of things, and he’s good with equipment so the tractor should last our farming life and as long as she wants to mess with it.  Too many things were left undone, now with forks and a loader we have been cleaning up like crazy.  Now if we can just get rid of the things we have gathered up that we don’t need we’ll be looking like a respectable farm.

and later…

BUY YOUR LOADER!!  You don’t want to end up broken down at 57 because you dug manure by hand and carried how many bags of chicken feed…

and later…

[Husband] is a heavy equipment operator, and skid steers are a [bear] to work with compared to a good loader.  Too low of ground clearance etc for deep bedding, he was stuck all the time, and subsequently we were stuck too, renting it from the neighbor or the rental business.  He only got stuck once with the tractor, and since he didn’t get stuck he didn’t tear up the ground like usual with the skid steer.  You know I think you should buy a tractor, maybe a used one?  I’ll stop now.  Because I am going to take a pallet of hay over to the corral for my heifers…with the tractor 😉

So there you go. Dad bought a used loader tractor big enough to replace his primary machine. I think I would have gone smaller but he bought a lightly used 60 horse tractor for the price of a new 40 horse. Plus it has a cab for a little dose of A/C when he’s putting up hay, wind protection and warmth when we are horsing around in the winter. Now all we need is a PTO-mounted post hole digger, some gates, a mountain of fencing, a new roof on the barn…

5 Things I Won’t Farm Without

The last couple of years we have worked to change and streamline our operation, limiting the amount of time we spend on daily chores while also focusing on increasing the quality of our products. There are several things that have really made a difference. I’ll link to a couple of places that sell each but I am in no way endorsing a supplier. I don’t care where you buy it. I just want to be clear what I’m pointing you to.

Poultry Range Feeder

This is, in my opinion, the greatest thing ever. Ever. 100 birds don’t quite eat 50 pounds of feed in a day but it’s near enough when you have to lug the bag. Instead, we just drive the truck out to the birds, dump in enough feed to last until the next move and drive off on our merry way. The feed stays dry in the rain and we have had no trouble with bridging. The unit has proven durable. My only complaint is the ring in the feeder keeps falling out. Maybe I didn’t make it tight enough. Maybe I made it too tight.


Field Drinker

This is, in my opinion, the greatest thing ever. Ever. We ran a nipple on a garden hose hanging from a t-post for years and it worked great. I stand by that recipe. Put the t-post through a pallet to help prevent the pigs from making a wallow. But if the hose breaks when you run over it with a mower (blush) the pigs are out of water. There is no reserve. Also, the water is not cool when it gets to the nipple on a warm, sunny day. You could put a nipple on a hose connected to a tank but the better solution, I think, is to have a large, heavy tank of water the pigs can drink directly out of. Because they can’t force it to leak like a nipple they have a hard time making a wallow. There are rubber plugs in the tank and in each side of the drinker you can remove to drain and/or clean the unit and that’s important because the pigs always make a mess of things. The only problem I have had with the drinker is when the pigs get above 200 pounds they are strong enough to tip it over. The solution appears to keep the unit full. You could put a float valve in the unit with a hose sticking through the top. There are also two places for heaters if you need to keep it thawed in the winter.


Pig Feeder

This is, in my opinion, the greatest thing ever. Ever. OK. That joke is getting tired. Really, the pig feeder isn’t that big of a deal but it is nice to be able to walk away from the pigs for a couple of days. Besides, pigs eventually grow to a point where you no longer want to climb into their pen twice/day. Problem solved. We don’t have to go in at all anymore. We just flip the lid and fill it up. It holds enough feed to last eight 50# pigs two weeks or eight 300# pigs one day. However, this specific model doesn’t hold up well to the kind of abuse a 300 pound pig can dish out. I prefer to use this unit to grow out as many as four pigs. More than that and, really, I would want a larger unit…capacity, durability and weight.


Chickens on Wheels

ChickenHouseYou can’t buy these in stores but I just love our new chicken house design. It is, in my opinion, the greatest thing ever. Ever. If I were to change anything I would make it longer to measure 8×16 and build 20 of them. That’s narrow enough to fit our gates but the added length would accommodate another 50 birds. We insulated the roof and the structure stayed cool. There is more than enough ventilation. The ceiling is high enough to make clean-out a breeze. We could close up the vents and plug in some heat lamps to make this into a portable brooder. In fact, future generations of broilers may live out their entire lives in and out of this structure. One feature we really like is having the nest boxes mounted outside so we can gather eggs easily but I think we’ll relocate them to the high side of the roof next time.

Nest Boxes

Nest Box
We used homemade wooden nest boxes for years and I felt a bit foolish when I splurged on metal ones. Forget the wood. I strongly suggest you go ahead and splurge on a good array of metal nest boxes….greatest…thing…ever. I prefer plastic bottoms over galvanized. I’m surprised to admit that I prefer the plastic roost bars over the wood but we have broken several wooden roosts…as evidenced in the patch my kids used for the picture above. The plastic ones are a bit wider and just droop a little.

Well, there you go. Four product reviews and one thing I just bragged about. I hope that helps. Please comment if you have any questions or if you want to share what you believe is the greatest thing ever. Ever.

Our Chicken Wagon

Julie and I needed to find a way to make the chickens more portable. We were already moving toward building an eggmobile on a wagon running gear when we heard Ethan Book discuss the same idea on his podcast. We just needed to simplify moving the chickens so Julie or the kids could handle it alone. Too much of our farm depends on my back.

chicken wagon

Ours is an 8×12 box. It is 6′ tall on one side, 5′ tall on the other. The roof overhangs by 2′ in all directions (12×16). The interior is all bedding and roost bars with a little room for supplies. The nest boxes are all outside of the enclosure. I think we can tweak our design efficiency but overall it’s a pretty efficient little unit because of dad’s input. It also stayed cool in full sun on a 90 degree day with a breeze largely because we put a layer of insulation board in the roof. Plus it casts a big shadow in the pasture. Chickens are cool in and under the box in the heat of the day.

inside the coop


I plan to hang a barrel on the front to feed watering nipples that will hang down under the edges. There is a second array of nest boxes next to the first you see pictured. We had to cannibalize it from the prior chicken tractor-type layer solution. Other changes will come along but I desperately needed to just get the birds moved so here we are.

So. Thanks to dad and thanks to Ethan. We already had the idea and the momentum, Ethan just applied the spurs and dad made it happen. It turned out well. There will be more and those will be even better. If you are reading George Henderson with me you know that he used something similar…but bigger.

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.

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.