If you follow my blog at all, you’ve no doubt noticed that I have not had the time to write any posts this summer. We have been busier than normal with the farm, and most of my “spare” time has been invested into the podcast that I’m doing weekly with Diego Footer of Permaculture Voices called “Grass Fed Life“.
For those of you who really value the information I’ve put out on the blog over the past three years, hopefully you’ve found the time to the listen to the podcast. Episode number 22 (8 Reasons Why You Might NOT Want To Start A Pastured Poultry Enterprise) came out today, and with it there are now over 23+ hours of audio for you to listen to. Contained within that audio is a lot of what I hope you would agree to be very valuable information. In all sincerity, there is way more content there than I could ever write for the blog during the same time period. We have covered everything from production on poultry and pork, to marketing dynamics and business basics. All in all, I think it’s a pretty solid replacement during the growing season for the written blog. But rest assured, I’ll get back to writing more blog posts this winter.
Many of you have been e-mailing and asking about when our next workshop would be scheduled and I’m happy to announce that we have one on the calendar for November 3rd-5th near our farm in Martinsville, IN. The Farm Business Essentials 3-day workshop is going to be intense, and I’m extremely excited about it! My excitement stems from two main sources: First, the curriculum we’ll be covering in this workshop is the meaty stuff that really matters if you want to make a legitimate go of farming for profit. This is the teaching that I really get into and enjoy sharing because it is so profoundly important to your success. Second, I’ll be co-teaching this workshop with my friend Diego Footer. Diego brings a lot to the table in terms of transitioning from one career to another, as he is currently working to build an income source that will allow him to work from home and spend more time with his young family. On top of that, he has spent countless hundreds of hours talking with and interviewing farmers in the regenerative agricultural space. The knowledge base he has to share in a workshop of this nature is incalculable.
I want to be clear that this workshop is specifically aimed at for profit farming, and not homesteading. The main focus will be aimed at helping aspiring farmers and existing farmers create a personal plan to transition towards an intentional part-time or full-time farming venture. We’ll certainly spend some time (about 25% of the workshop) on the “nuts and bolts” of how-to produce poultry and pork as well as an exhaustive tour of our farm. But the majority of our time will be focused on things like selecting the appropriate enterprise(s) for you on your farm at this point in time. We’ll also cover things like how to set realistic expectations for your farm, how to get your family on board and how to create a comprehensive year to year growth plan. We’ll also talk about balancing family with farm business startup, running a business, scaling up production while balancing marketing and refining your farm venture to decrease costs while increasing profits. This is not a class you will sit in and simply listen to the speakers talk – this will be an interactive experience where your participation will be expected in order for you to get the most value out of the workshop! You can read the entire itinerary on the Permaculture Voices website. We also have hotel accommodations listed as well for those of you coming in from out of town (please note the group rate discount code!).
So what’s included and what is the cost?
We have worked very hard to try and pack a lot of value into this workshop, and I think we have done just that. Please note that our three days together are going to be long and intense! But if you are serious about farming for profit, then please consider investing into yourself! For an in depth conversation about the workshop between myself and Diego, please listen to Episode 22 of Grass Fed Life.
$499 PER PERSON – EARLYBIRD PRICING ($599 after October 1)
$449 PER PERSON WITH TWO OR MORE REGISTRATIONS ($499 each after October 1)
We also have 12 VIP Spots Available (as of this writing only 3 of these remain available):
There is no extra costs for these spots. The first 12 registrants will be given VIP status. Each VIP attendee is invited to a special dinner on the farm on the night of November 5, will receive the whole PV3 Broadacre Video Package ($99 value), and get a free 1/2 hour of consulting with Darby AFTER the workshop. Darby will answer any questions that you might have and address any issues that you might need help with. These VIP spots are limited to the first 12 registrants.
There are a total of 25 workshop tickets available. The attendance of the event is limited to make the event more personal and allow a more customized and tailored content for the attendees.
What is else is included:
Lunch provided each day. Local and organic, meat provided by Darby’s farm.
Snacks, coffee, water, and tea are provided throughout the workshop.
Printed workbook containing all workshop notes and worksheets.
Pre-Workshop Videos- Available immediately upon registration.
Darby Simpson: Farm Marketing & Business Planning: Real World Proven Strategies (3HR)
Greg Judy: Successful Implementation Using High Density Planned Grazing (3HR)
Greg Judy: The Economics For Leasing Land, How To Find It and Develop It For Maximum Income (3HR)
Farm tour of Darby’s farm. See the systems in action.
Access to 3 monthly follow up webinars AFTER the workshop to help keep you on track and answer any follow up questions.
30 minute consult PRIOR to the workshop to help make sure that your concerns are addressed during the workshop.
Please note that this is the only workshop and/or speaking event that I currently have on the calendar. If the above content sounds like a good fit for where you are at with your farm, then please join us for this upcoming event this November! I’ll look forward to meeting many of you in person and I promise you’ll get way more value than you pay for at this event. Knowing what I know now, if I could travel back in time and attend something of this nature I would do it in a heartbeat. I feel strongly that this is one of the best investments you can make into yourself, your family and your farm business!
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NOTE: This event has been cancelled
If you have been considering signing up for the June workshop at our farm, we still have seats available for this two day event. However, in order to plan our event we have set a registration deadline of June 1st. If you are thinking about coming, you’ll need to sign up before date.
Learning the skills that will be covered from our host of instructors will save you the time and pain in learning to be your own butcher, and show you how to confidently and successfully raise your own animals. The meat in your freezer will be of higher quality and quantity due to having gained the skills and confidence over these two days rather than through trial and error on your own. On top of that, we’ll simply have a blast during our two days together here at the farm!
You can read all about this workshop and see for yourself the value that is jam packed into these two days. To see the complete schedule for the workshop, checkout our weekend itinerary page.
The cost for this workshop is only $375/person or $725/couple, but please note spaces are limited. Please visit our registration page for complete details.
For additional details including where our farm is located, lodging options, directions, on-farm policies, etc. you can visit our general information page.
We look forward to seeing you in June at this fun, exciting, learning filled event! For questions please email us directly.
The post Workshop Registration Deadline: June 1st appeared first on Darby Simpson.
As many of you know, I had the pleasure of being asked to be a presenter this past March at PV3 in San Diego. In addition to speaking at PV3, another opportunity was extended to me from Diego Footer of Permaculture Voices.
Diego asked if I would be interested in doing a weekly podcast with him this season in which he follows our farm week by week from April thru November. I love to speak and teach, and jumped at this new opportunity to share an in depth look into our farming lifestyle.
On April 4th, 2016 the first episode of “Grass Fed Life” debuted on the Permaculture Voices podcast and was downloaded over 3,000 times in the first 24 hours (extremely humbling to say the least). Since then, three additional episodes have been released covering a broad range of topics from the nuts and bolts of pastured poultry to the ins and outs of farmer’s markets and how we plan our whole farming season.
So far the feedback on the show has been fantastic, and I’m having a great time doing it with Diego. He asks such great, insightful questions that really prompt me to dig deep and think. As a result, we’ve had some great conversations that many listeners have found to be very helpful.
Please take a moment to check out the Grass Fed Life podcast. Also, please consider supporting what Diego is doing with PV by contributing to keep the content both free and void of commercials. You can contribute as little as $1/month, equaling only .05/episode. I’m pretty sure there is at least a nickels worth of advice in each podcast on Permaculture Voices!
There is a new show every Monday, all season long and we’ll cover a broad range of topics – topics that don’t get discussed in this space nearly enough (or at all) and need to be. So tune in, have a listen and give us some feedback.
One final note: I’m doing this podcast because I love to teach, and I want you to be successful. It will be a long farming season, come along for the ride with us each week. I hope that you learn something new and can apply this knowledge to your own farming endeavors.
The post Introducing: The Grass Fed Life Podcast appeared first on Darby Simpson.
We have put together a spectacular workshop on our farm for June 10-11 that will show you everything you need to successfully raise and butcher poultry, pork and rabbit on your homestead. While the information presented will be aimed at personal production, all of the information and mechanics are scale-able for those interested in starting a profitable business. But don’t take our word for it, take a look at what one of our students had to say from our 2015 workshop:
Instructors at the workshop will include Darby Simpson (Simpson’s Farm Market), Greg Burns (Nature’s Image Farm), Patrick Rhoerman (MT Knives) and others including local homesteaders Seth Ross and Andy Higginbotham. You’ll also get to meet Rob Kaiser of Deliberate Living Systems who will emcee our barter blanket session at the end of our event.
The two day workshop will include the following (and much more):
Eight hours of classroom instruction that include:
Raising pastured meat broilers
How to build a chicken tractor
How to make and assemble a poultry killing cone
Raising pastured pork
Low-cost infrastructure for pigs
Breeding and raising pastured rabbits
How to make and assemble a rabbit tractor
Proper selection of knives for butchering
How to properly sharpen and maintain knives
Costs associated with all of the above
Eight hours of on-farm instruction that includes:
How to butcher chickens (broilers and old laying hens)
How to process a hog from start to finish
How to butcher rabbits
Required equipment for all of the above
An exhaustive tour of Darby Simpson’s farm where you can see everything up close and in action for yourself
A spiral bound notebook of all presentations given that will also include lots of how-to photos. This valuable reference material is yours to keep and take notes in as we go thru each presentation. You’ll have it on your bookshelf to reference once you return home!
We’ll also be providing all three meals for each of the two days with GOOD FOOD (all local and/or organic in nature) that will be prepared by local chef Joshua Henson (Fermenti Artisan). The food will include all meats raised by Simpson’s Farm Market, local/chemical free veggies and fruits, homemade dessert, snacks, bottled water and locally roasted organic coffee (Harvest Cafe).
Two nights of informal campfire chats with all of our presenters in addition to our weekend finale: the barter blanket! If you have never attended a “barter blanket” then you are in for a real treat. This session will be hosted by Rob Kaiser of Deliberate Living Systems who has attended other TSP/PermaEthos events and is a TSP Barter Blanket veteran!
The barter blanket is just that: A place to barter goods and services with all of the other attendees you’ve just spent the weekend getting to know. Typically, the event host will open up the festivities by offering something of value that anyone can bid on. After hearing all of the offers, they can accept their favorite deal or decline all together. Whoever wins the first item then has the floor to present the next item to barter. This continues until everyone is done bartering and it can last several hours. You’ll often find side deals going simultaneously as well, which is completely allowed and encouraged.
Examples of barter items are: silver, seeds, plants, gear (tactical stuff, flashlights, etc), professional services, vacation stays in a guest house, homemade goods (soaps, foods, household items), ammo, HAM radio gear, etc. Please feel free to bring as many items as you would like for the barter blanket!
The cost for this workshop is only $375/person or $725/couple, but please note spaces are limited. Please visit our registration page for complete details.
To see the complete schedule for the workshop, checkout our weekend itinerary page.
For additional details including where our farm is located, lodging options, directions, on-farm policies, etc. you can visit our general information page.
We look forward to seeing you in June at this fun, exciting, learning filled event! For questions please email us directly.
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This article will wrap up the series on Farmer’s Markets which has covered the Market Master, location, timing of the market and how you can research a market before taking the plunge. Today I’ll focus on how you know it’s time to pull the plug as well as some additional thoughts on markets in general.
Lets face it: Not every market is going to work out. That has been the case for us and the reasons for leaving have been various. If all you hear is price, price, price, price….you are at the wrong market and need to make a change. We were once recruited to a mid size market of about 35 vendors on the Northwestside of Indy and it appeared to be a perfect fit for us.
There were two things in particular that really drew my attention to this market:
First they did not have a steady meat vendor, which meant that while this was a smaller pond, we would be the only fish in that pond. Second, this particular suburb has the highest income per capita in the state of Indiana! And to polish it all off, we had a few customers on that edge of town that wanted us there as well. What could go wrong? Well, as it turned out there was plenty to go wrong.
The first issue we ran into were the sales hours, as the market was only open for three hours each Saturday. If you spend all that time to pack, drive, setup, tear down, drive home and unpack you want as much time under that tent each week as possible. Three hours cut our sales by potential by 25% right from the get go. We knew going in that this could be an issue but we proceeded on anyhow.
Also, the market didn’t start until mid May and wrapped up at the end of September. Most Saturday markets in our area run from the first week of May thru the end of October, giving you a full six months of sales at that market. This compliments our winter market time frame nicely and keeps us in front of customers 50 out of 52 Saturday’s per year. But this scheduling structure cut the length of the sales season by 25%!
Next, the city owned the lot that the market operated out of and shut down the market about 10:00 a.m. once per month for a festival, carnival, parade, etc so that they could have the additional parking required for said event. Every time we turned around, our potential sales hours were nibbled away until there was so little left that it simply didn’t make the effort worthwhile.
Lastly, and we could have never seen this coming, all we heard up there was how we were more expensive than Kroger and Marsh Supermarkets. Seriously, this city is loaded with wealthy business people who easily have the means to support local food but just chose not too. And in addition to this curve-ball, what we witnessed once there was that this was a social gathering and not a shopping excursion. Ladies dressed to the nines came out and bought cut flowers, a bag of pasta, and a couple tomatoes while drinking a cup of coffee and eating a danish. They weren’t there for real food, that simply wasn’t the culture and I wasn’t about to stick around to try and change that.
It was blatantly obvious that the market leadership had no desire to move the location, change the hours or fix any of the other issues we discovered. Even though we did our due diligence in research, or so we thought, sometimes you just hit a dud. If you find this to be the case, don’t be afraid to finish up your commitment and simply find a new market to do the following year. If it is really terrible, then consider pulling out immediately if you can get into another market mid season. You just never now until you try and again, if you don’t fail here and there then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.
You may also find yourself wondering if a once good farmers market is worth continuing to attend if you see a major drop in sales due to mismanagement, a change of venue, over crowding of similar products you are selling, etc. Just about the time you get things figured out, things change and this can happen for the worse. You’ll need to continually reassess your options and how your existing markets are doing in order to remain profitable and viable. Marketing is a fluid and moving target and you have change with the times to stay ahead of the curve.
Some additional considerations:
Only you will be able to decide for yourself what the allowable travel time is to a farmers market to make it worth your while to attend. But it is my opinion that even if you have to drive one and a half hours each way (or more) you can probably justify the time spent for a good farmers market. You will also want to find out what insurance requirements you need to meet in order to sell at a particular market, and what permits might be required by the city or county in which it is located in. Know that at many markets in our litigation happy society you can’t sell if you don’t have liability insurance for not only yourself, but for the market entity as well. The market master should be able to easily answer all of these questions for you.
Also, ask what the fees are for a booth space on a weekly and seasonal basis and don’t let a bigger number scare you. Often times, you get what you pay for! If a market only charges $50 for an entire season, expect $50 worth of management and marketing in return! If they charge $350-$500 for the season, then ask how those funds are allocated. The markets we attend use those funds to hire a part time market master that does a great job of managing the market and all of its functions which in the end benefit our business and bottom line greatly. They also use a lot of those funds for advertising and marketing efforts. $500 to attend a top-notch market is a drip in the bucket from my perspective, that investment will pay itself back ten fold if it is well run. It also helps to dissuade the re-sellers and hobbyists from attending, and what you end up with are a solid core of full-time farmers and unique artisan products that draw customers in.
While farmers markets are not for everyone it is absolutely the fastest way for you to come into contact with a great number of consumers who are looking for the type of product you have for sale. This is the best format I’m aware of to build a large customer base that you can market all of your products to through the use of a free email list and a top-notch website. While farmers markets are not the only means to sell thru, you should give them ample consideration before deciding to pass. If you want to capture every possible dollar of profit, this is a great way to do just that.
The post Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 5 appeared first on Darby Simpson.
So far in this series I have covered various components of how to select a farmer’s market worthy of your time, energy and money. I’ve covered how a Market Master is the single most pivotal individual at the market, how location is key to sales and why the day and time the market is held matters so much. In part four of this series, we’ll cover why the market should marketing for you and what research you can do ahead of time to help choose the best option for your business.
A huge aspect of farmers markets that is often overlooked is that of marketing. You need to dig deep and ask a lot of questions about what any potential market is going to do to help you be successful. You should be doing everything you possibly can do market yourself, but what are they doing to market themselves and hence you?
One of the markets that we attend works with local businesses to sponsor a gift certificate giveaway once per month. On that Saturday morning the first 300 shoppers who walk through the door receive a five dollar gift certificate token that can be spent with any vendor in the market. This is a huge draw for shoppers! They show up early and on fire to go shopping just because they have a free $5 token in the hand. You wouldn’t believe how that changes the entire chemistry of the market.
You’ll also want to make certain that they have an excellent web, e-mail and social media presence. They should be actively promoting their vendors and what products that can be found at the market, especially seasonally available products. The same market mentioned above sends out a weekly e-mail indicating which vendors will be in attendance, and highlights one of them each week in great detail. This helps shoppers to build a relationship with those vendors.
Is a perspective market going to consistently ask you what product you’ll have in stock so they can pitch that to their audience in they days leading up to when you’ll have something available? Also consider any advertising they might do on behalf of the market. Ask what kind of marketing budget they have and how is it allocated. Ask if they seek out sponsors in order to increase revenue for additional marketing efforts.
If it all possible prior to applying and attending a market I would encourage you to do some reconnaissance work. Take your family out on a Saturday morning and walk through a handful of farmers markets that you are considering applying to.
Consider the following as you stroll about in the market: How busy are they? Do you see a wide variety of products available for sale? Are there lots of actual farmers there, accented by artisan vendors like locally roasted coffee, baked goods, raw honey and mushrooms? Do they have not only veggie farmers, but local small fruits and orchards as well? Are the other vendors happily engaging in conversation with shoppers? Is there an information table that is operated by market staff where shoppers can get their questions answered? Do they have a hospitality tent were shoppers can elect to sit down and drink a cup of coffee or some prepared food they have just purchased from vendors at the market? What is the overall feel and ambience of the farmers market? Do you see any amenities like live music or kids activities? Is it a market you yourself would want to attend and shop at? What are the hours of operation? Is it logistically easy to walk around and see what products are available? Is the product you are raising underserved at this market or saturated? How many weeks is it open?
A well run and busy farmers market will be Open from the first week in May to the last week of October. Conversely, a good winter market will situate itself to be open from sometime in November thru April when the outdoor markets are closed. In warmer climates, and outdoor market should be open nearly year round.
You also want to inquire of the market master how they balance the number of vendors from each niche that are allowed into the market. There are two modes of thought that I have on this subject. One market we attend in the summer on Saturday mornings is so large and so well attended that the market staff operate it on a true free market basis. In short if you apply to the market and your products qualify for sale at that market you are allowed in – period. There is no discretion given to how many tomato vendors are there or meat vendors or people selling flowers etc. All of that said this market is so popular that seniority is used to divvy out the permanent spots at the beginning of each season. As such a new vendor may not get a permanent spot and may have to move around from week to week for the first season or two. However in time you can earn enough seniority that you get to select a permanent spot at the beginning of the season. Now this may not sound like a great way to run a farmers market, but in this case it works just fine due to sheer numbers. An average Saturday in the summer might see 5000 to 7000 people walk through this market in only five hours. With that kind of foot traffic there are ample customers for all 100 vendors that might be in attendance.
The other aspect of how a smaller market might be run in which there is much less attendance is to make certain that there is a balance of vendors allowed to attend. Another market we attend on Saturday mornings usually has about 45 to 50 vendors. And on an average Saturday we might see 2000 people walk through this market in four hours. Since this market is smaller and there are less customers, they pay very close attention to the number of vendors from each niche that they’ll allow to participate each season. If you have too many of one niche, that can cause the sales to be divvied up so much that it becomes not worthwhile for all of them to attend.
Any good market worth it’s salt is going to have hard concrete data they can give you as a perspective vendor when you ask these questions. As the market grows, they can add additional vendors based on sales data you provide and requests from shoppers of that market. To that end, you should inquire if the market conducts surveys of not only its vendors but also its shoppers and if it is constantly tweaking the makeup of the market to meet demand.
Something else I would strongly encourage you to do while you are out investigating markets is to carefully interview the other vendors who sell there. Be courteous and observe when a vendor is not busy with a customer, and then ask if you can pick their brain about the pros and cons of that market. Do yourself a favor though if you are selling pastured meats, and pick the brain of a chemical free veggie guy, baker or value added food vendor. Because in that conversation you are going to get asked what it is you will be selling, and if you tell a meat guy you are selling meats you may not get all straight answers!
Ask them how well attended the market is and ask them if the customers who attended are actually there to shop. While there should be a healthy social aspect of any farmers market, I have seen markets that are so social people are there to be seen by their friends instead of there to purchase real food. No market is perfect and you will have to do your own research, but there are a lot of key little things to consider when choosing a market. And make no mistake about it, you can do all the research in the world and think that you have found a real gem of a market to attend that is underserved in your niche and have it fall flat on it’s face. This is one area where I don’t mind telling you that if you don’t fail you are probably are not trying hard enough. Finding a good market and a good fit for your business is a bit like fishing – you just have to keep throwing lines in the water until you catch a good one. That being said, it does take time to build up a clientele at a market. Expect to spend two or three seasons at a good, well established, busy market before you really start to get things rolling. The lesson here is not to give up too soon and give it some time to develop.
Once you think you have found a winner, apply with zeal! Give them every reason you can think of to bring in your farm as a vendor. Supply references, offer product samples, talk about the environmentally friendly aspects of how you farm. You need to sell yourself well in many cases to get into a well established, highly sought after market. And if you don’t get in the first time, take it with class and keep trying each year. Ask to be placed on a waiting list or as a fill in vendor and don’t give up. Be pleasant and communicate with the Market Master that you understand and are willing to wait until they can work you in. You need to be open to selling at a second tier market until you get your shot at a larger market, but remember that is okay! If a market is that tough to get into, then it’s a place you want to be and is worth waiting on.
The post “Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 4” appeared first on Darby Simpson.
Late last year, I kicked off a series on selecting a farmer’s market. In part one I discussed the most pivotal part of any market: The Market Master. In part two I covered how location can play a much larger role than you might think towards the success of a market.
While summer markets may seem like they are a long way off, applications for those markets could be due as soon as the end of January! You should be doing your research now to determine which markets you’ll apply to. And while you are thinking about which market to select, the next thing to consider when choosing a market is what time of day and what day of the week it is open. Attending a market for six months or more takes a tremendous amount of energy, do your best to make certain you are not spending that energy in vain and that it is well worth the investment of time and money.
Trust me when I tell you that I have tried every type of market possible in terms of variation in the time it was open and the day of week it was open. Again while there are exceptions to any rule, generally speaking your best bang for the buck is going to be to attend a busy market that is open on Saturday morning from 8:00 a.m. until at least 12:00 noon. In my experience markets that are open on weekdays simply do not do very well, but I’m sure there are some out there that are just the opposite. The ones I have attended do okay and when you’re first starting out you may have to do a midweek market in order to get your customer list built up, or in order to increase cash flow for the sake of running your business. You might also not have any other options if all of the Saturday markets are full with vendors in your niche, which is a distinct possibility.
If you go and do a midweek market and only earn $300 to $400 that may not sound like much, but over the course of six months you could be looking at $6,000 to $8,000 in income. Long term, that is a drip in the bucket for a full-time farming income but in the short term it is huge. This is exactly how we started out at farmers markets before graduating to Saturday markets! If you have the time and energy to do a midweek market by all means explore that option. But your long-term goal should be to attend two or three prime time markets that are held on Saturday mornings. If you offer a delivery route option to customers during the week, then picking up a mid-week market located in the same general area could be extremely advantageous. Just realize that you’ll be investing an entire day into marketing and that you or someone have to care for the critters back home at some point.
Early on, Wednesday was by far my longest day of the week. I would wake up at 4:00 a.m., go out and do animal care then run back in to clean up for market. I would pack my coolers and head out by 7:30 a.m. to be in downtown Indy by 8:15 a.m. I wouldn’t get back home and unpacked until about 3:30 p.m., precisely the time I had to back out and take care of the animals again. By 6:00 p.m. that night I was beat! But alas, the kids need attention and there are e-mails to return, marketing to be done, etc. Choose your battles carefully! If you don’t, you’ll never make it to the finish line.
The post Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 3 appeared first on Darby Simpson.
If you have been considering signing up for a one-on-one consult with me, this is a great time to jump on board! I have decided to run a promotion for two different consults: You can sign up for a two hour session and receive a 20% discount, or a 4 hour session to get a 25% discount.
In every consultation I do, it is custom tailored to one person: you. The form you fill out for our time together is very strategically thought out so that we can make the most of your time and money so as to focus on what you need assistance with. Be it infrastructure and production, to marketing and cash flow planning, or anything in between it is all about you, your farm and your specific situation. A consultation is a great investment into your farming operation that will save you way more money and time than you spend on it. But don’t just take my word for it, read thru some of the testimonials on my website to see what others are saying.
However, there are only 5 slots for the 4 hour session and 10 slots for the 2 hour session available. And once they are sold out, they are gone! There is only one catch, the consult must take place in either January or February of 2016. You don’t have to use all of the time at once, but simply use it all in the allotted time frame.
If you are ready to sign up, simply fill out the consultation form on my website and I’ll be in touch to get our time together scheduled.
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Recently, I sat down and recorded an hour long interview with Diego Footer of Permaculture Voices. The conversation was a blast, and we covered everything from how we started farming in 2007 to what our operation looks like today. We discussed the transitional period while I was working full-time off farm, and dealing with the startup phase of our operation simultaneously. We also talked about how difficult and stressful that time was, as well as the many blessings that come from this type of lifestyle.
I think that this interview will give anyone who listens to it an excellent view into what farming full time is really like. If you have ever wondered “how” I got my start, you’ll find this chat with Diego very informative and a bit entertaining. As a teaser there is also some really exciting news at the end, but you’ll have to listen for yourself to discover what that is!
You can listen to the interview at Permaculture Voices, and be certain to chime in afterwards and let me know your thoughts.
The post Interview With Diego Footer of Permaculture Voices appeared first on Darby Simpson.
Recently I kicked off a new series on how to find and select a good farmer’s market. In part one of this series, I discussed the Market Master and how they play one of the biggest roles in a markets success, or demise. In part two, we’re going to delve into some logistics to consider when you are out looking for the best market to sell your products at.
Back in high school I took a basic entrepreneurial class and one of the main lessons from that course still sticks with me to this day. It was true then and it is true now, and it applies to not only a farmers market, but all other brick and mortar businesses as well. The top three things needed for success at a farmers market are as follows:
While there are always exceptions to the rule, by and large and successful market will be located in a busy urban area. It will need to be settled amongst lots of upper middle-class neighborhoods and be located along a busy roadway with great visibility to the public. While I think it is fantastic that many smaller communities are attempting to establish their own farmers markets to promote local food, the reality is (at least in our experience) that you must travel to a large urban area with a large populace in order to make a farmers market worthwhile. What we have found is that nothing can make up for sheer numbers of potential customers walking thru a farmers market. We have also found price not to be an issue at most of the markets we do in larger urban areas, but there are exceptions. Conversely, markets located in outlying towns tend to draw shoppers who are very focused on price. If you continually hear how much cheaper Wal-Mart and Kroger are, you are in the wrong place!
Fortunately for us we are located only about 45 minutes south of downtown Indianapolis. There are a fair number of larger urban neighborhoods like I have described within Indianapolis that have busy farmers markets to attend. Your nearest large metropolitan area is going to be no different. We are also only about 35 minutes from Bloomington, Indiana which is where Indiana University is located. The Bloomington farmers market is something to behold as it can host up to 110 vendors on a Saturday morning and provides us with a second viable farmers market to attend during the summer months.
The final issue to consider when looking at the location of any market is ease of access. You will want to make sure that there is ample free parking for customers to attend any market you participate in. Proximity to customers, ease of access and ample parking or all key things to consider when selecting a market. If there isn’t much parking available, then seek to find out if the market is well attended by those within walking or biking distance. One market in Indy that we do not attend has very little parking and no visibility from the main street nearby. It’s limited to only forty-eight vendors and the logistics are terrible. That said, it’s in a very hip area of Indy and those who live nearby walk and bike to this market in droves. There are no shortage of vendors on the waiting list attempting to get in because it is so busy and well attended. Again, there are always exceptions to the rule but by and large I think our experience will hold true for most markets.
The post “Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 2” appeared first on Darby Simpson
Back when we first began grazing cattle, it was the most labor intensive part of our day. We would painstakingly tear down and set up portable electric netting for our cattle, move a solar energizer, and layout as much garden hose as required to water them. And we did this every single day! Thankfully, our business has come a long way since 2011 when we were last doing that for our cattle. You do what you must to pave the way for smoother sailing, and crawl before you walk. The growth of our business has allowed us to invest into infrastructure which now makes moving cattle the quickest, easiest and most enjoyable part of our day.
While building lots of permanent fence and putting in buried water were the big tasks to make our job easier, the day to day tools that have been useful are the portable reels and fence posts. These simple items can quickly subdivide your larger grazing areas into small paddocks for the daily rotation of livestock. Daily rotation is a key management practice used to really keep your grasses in that fast growth stage, which will fatten up your cattle the quickest, and make you the most money per acre. We like to have 30-45 days of rest on a grazing area before we hit it again. By using the portable posts and reels, we can quickly size up or scale down our paddock sizes to meet the current demand of our herd, grass conditions, future grazing needs, etc. These tools are excellent for this task, and have proven themselves the last two and half seasons on our farm.
First up is the O’Brien Fence Reel. While you have several choices to pick from, it basically boils down to a geared reel or non-geared reel, with several variations there of. In short, a 3:1 “geared” reel will turn three times for every one crank of the handle. A “non-geared”, or “standard” reel, is 1:1 and turns one rotation per one crank of the handle. We started in early 2012 with the 3:1 geared reels because the 1:1 geared reels were out of stock from a local farm store. As an aside, I was told I didn’t need a 3:1 reel unless I was going to drop the wire on the ground, stand stationary, and reel it up quickly. I’ve used the O’Brien 3:1 reels the last two and a half years and absolutely love them. They are very well built, durable and do the job well. I’ve dropped them, run over them, tossed them around like a rental, and they are still ticking. You can feel the heft and quality in this unit the moment you pick it up. It will also hold nearly 1,400 feet of portable electrified fence wire (twine) which is very handy when moving animals long distances.
This Spring, my favorite online farm store (Kencove Fence Co.) was out of the stock on the 3:1 reels from O’Brien (and as far as I can tell, as of this writing, has dropped those completely in favor of a Stafix brand 3:1 standard sized reel). Not giving it much thought, I ordered three of the 1:1 O’Brien reels. Well, evidently that advice I was given about not needing the 3:1 reels was bad! I guess I must walk pretty fast when reeling up fence wire because I figured out pretty quick that I really prefer the 3:1 reels much more than the 1:1. I won’t say I hate the 1:1 reels, but I do dislike them very much. I find that I have to walk much slower when winding these, which slows me down, and it’s also harder to keep the wire taught on the reel (which is a big deal when winding wire). I also feel that the 1:1 reels are a lot flimsier in construction than the 3:1 reels. They are not as well balanced with the wire on them and I can often feel them “wobble” significantly from side to side when reeling. In short, for about $10 more, stick with a 3:1 geared reel from O’Brien. And while I can’t comment on the Stafix reels Kencove now carries, I do recommend the Stafix 9 wire electric twine for your reels from Kencove.
Concerning Kencove, I’ve generally been really happy with them and recommend them highly to anyone. However, I recently had a frustrating experience with them when buying the 1:1 reels. The 3:1 reels come with a plastic gate handle that ties off your loose electric wire and connects to your high tensile fence. Not thinking about this, I ordered the 1:1 reels and they showed up without these handles. With no handle, they are worthless equipment! I called Kencove to let them now they forgot my handles, only to be told you have to order those separately on the 1:1 reels. They cost a whooping . cents each, but cost me an additional $7 in shipping and a boat load of frustration in the interim while waiting on them. I still love Kencove, but I let them know in no uncertain terms they either need to warn you when ordering to add the handle or to simply add $1 to the cost of the reel and add the handle as standard! Be forewarned if you order from them to include the handle if you get the 1:1 reel. It’s product number “GPL” on their website, and don’t forget the jumper leads to connect your reel to your electric fence!
Next up is the O’Brien treadaline step-in fence post. Let me say up front that I first heard about these posts from a very well known grazer: Greg Judy. Greg once commented in a seminar I attended that he had bought every different step-in fence post style and brand known to man. He also said that everything except the treadaline posts were laying unused and/or broken in a pile in the corner of his barn. When a guy like Greg Judy speaks, you listen!
The treadaline posts are expensive (about $4/post shipped if you buy a box of 50 from Kencove) but man do they work. And they last! To be frank, I’m hard on equipment and I’ve yet to bust one of these posts – some are a little bent and twisted, but still working just fine. You can literally bend one around your knee into a u-shape and it will not break. What really makes these things tick however is the extra long spike on the bottom that goes into the ground. A small detail, but big difference in quality can be noticed by how far up into the post the spike goes. It’s a good 2″ longer than most, and goes above the “step” you place your foot on to drive it into the ground. This keeps it from breaking off like many other posts, rendering it a piece of junk for the corner in your barn. Add to that the versatility of 4 electric tape clips on one side, and 8 electric twine hooks on the other and you have a winning product. You can also use these posts for cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. If you know much about me, you know that I like equipment that has multiple uses (function stacking) and this post fits that bill. Personally, I like spending my money on stuff that will take real world farm abuse and keep on ticking. The O’Brien treadaline posts meet the challenge and is worth twice the cost of a cheap post at your local farm supply store. You get what you pay for, and no doubt this will fail on you at the worst possible time: When you are using it for its intended purpose!
Remember when buying any equipment, you can’t “unbuy” it. And it’s better to buy something that will last versus something that is cheap and will need to be replaced. I hope you find this review helpful and the equipment productive in making your grazing efforts faster and more profitable.
The first few years that we raised pigs on our farm, our largest struggle was that of drinking water. We didn’t have any issues getting them to use a water nipple connected to a pressurized hose, the issue came from the rooting that occurred around the drinker. This required frequent relocation which was always a pain in the neck, and sometimes extremely laborious if the ground conditions were dry. Since most of our pigs are finished on the farm between May and November, dry ground is usually the rule and not the exception.
After years of frustration and testing different ideas and methods, I finally developed what we affectionately call the “piggy drinking deck”. This simple solution has since saved me countless hours, loads of frustration and mitigates large holes (wallows) appearing everywhere. I don’t mind the pigs having a good wallow, and in fact they need one! But they don’t need dozens of them which can ruin equipment and break the legs of both man and beast. Once new pigs on the farm figure out how the drinker works, it doesn’t take them long to make a wallow in short order. I’ve actually witnessed them holding the nipple valve “open” and intentionally not drinking, allowing the water to hit the ground, thereby enhancing said wallow construction.
The piggy drinking deck is very simply a 3′ x 3′ x 4″ platform with a diamond shaped hole cut in the center two boards. Materials include one (1) 2″x4″x12′ treated board cut into 3′ long sections and mitered for the base. Two (2) 10′ long, 5/4″ treated deck boards are then used to make a simple platform to stand on. We space the deck boards for water drainage. A t-post is driven through this hole using a 3lb. hammer and a double nipple drinker is then mounted to it using two adjustable pipe hose clamps. This allows the height of the nipple drinker to quickly be changed, based on the maturity size of the pigs. Water is supplied via a pressurized garden hose with a shut-off valve. This is routed and tied to a second t-post on the outside of the pig paddock, which keeps the hose up off the ground and away from the pigs. The nipple drinkers I have found are smaller than the garden hose and come with a male 1/2″ threaded connection. We simply buy a 4′ or 6′ washing machine supply hose and use it to connect between the shut-off valve and the drinker. Be certain to use double rubber washers on each end of the washer hose to avoid leaking. It’s not a perfect fit, but works just fine for pigs.
Here the drinker is all setup and ready for use. A small amount of grain is set out to lure the pigs to this area for water. Note the washer hose is up high where the pigs can’t reach it and destroy it!
Pigs are a number of things, and one of their traits is a very high intelligence. Even if they have never been exposed to a nipple style drinker before, they are quick to learn. By simply hanging around the ole’ watering hole and waiting on them to come into the area, you can reach through the fence with a stick and actuate the waterer for them to drink. After doing this a few times over three or so days, one of the pigs will pick up on how to use the nipple drinker. Within another day, all of the other pigs will learn from him how to do the same thing. Plenty of fresh water is paramount for good animal health and performance. And after years of toiling with other ideas that didn’t work, this one tip will save you lots of time, frustration, poor performance and, in the end, money!
Pigs enjoying a nice, cool drink on a hot day. The hose is connected to a post hydrant just about 50′ away.
This week I had a question about laying hens who are only 18 months old and have dramatically dropped their egg production. The change occurred after their housing and feeding went from a completely free range system to a fixed coop with a large run area. After the move, the hen’s egg production, which had been pretty steady, declined greatly and continued until it was nearly zero. In addition to ranging, the owner also feeds some mixed/bagged chicken feed as well as corn, both of which are from a local tractor supply. He was pretty stumped as to why the sudden drop in production occurred and wanted to know both what had happened and what he could do to fix the situation.
So what happened?
What occurred is that by moving the birds from their free ranging situation to the coop and run, the owner unknowingly stressed his hens. And when laying hens get stressed even a little, it can show by the amount of eggs they produce (or lack thereof). Layers are extremely finicky about everything in their environment: their surroundings, habits and routine. Even a little change can have a dramatic impact on egg production. A major change like switching up their entire living environment will have profound implications on them. And, in this case, while he didn’t mean to, he also changed their diet greatly because they can’t free range as much as they used to and are eating more grains to make up for the lost grazing. Couple with that with the fact that we are losing daylight as the winter solstice nears, and production will go down this time of year anyway. The changes he made simply accelerated the entire situation. When it comes to laying hens, anytime you make a change – where the nest box is located, where they roost, where they live, what the eat, etc., it is going to negatively affect production. The more you change, the worse it will be and the longer it can take for them to bounce back. Eventually they will get used to their new surroundings and come out of the production slump, but it could be spring before they totally recover. At a year and half of age, they could also be going into a molt, which will almost halt production in and of itself. One other thing I’ll mention is that if the area they were moved to and are now using as a run has at anytime in the recent past been treated with chemicals or roundup, that could also play a role in egg production going down.
What can he do to fix this current situation?
The short answer is simply don’t change anything else for a while and implement new changes slowly. And when the weather permits, he should let them range outside of the run by using portable netting, if at all possible. They will deforest the run in no time next spring, turning it into a mud lot in short order. If they are out ranging like chickens are wired up to do, they will be happier and hence the more eggs they will lay. And, obviously, the eggs will also be healthier as they contain more nutrients. This also cuts down on the feed bill as well, so it’s the best all around solution. There is nothing wrong with using the fixed run during the day when you are not around to keep an eye on things, but when you are home open up that run and let them out.
Concerning the store bought feed
I would encourage anyone feeding grain to livestock to buy a high-quality feed that is consistent in content of inputs and nutrients. Pre-bagged, off the shelf feeds can be very inconsistent in quality and quantity of inputs. Try and find a local source that makes its own rations using GMO-free grains and high-quality organic inputs for the fish meal, minerals and vitamins. Sure it will cost more, but your health, the animals health and the production of the animals will all be better off for it. If you live in Central Indiana, I would highly recommend you contact Central Indiana Organics and get a bag of their organic 16% layer ration if you have laying hens. I think you’ll find it doesn’t cost much more than a bag of questionable feed from a box store. In my experience, inconsistency in feed is the fastest way to negatively impact egg laying production.
Now while switching feed can be a detriment on production, you aren’t going to get much worse results than you are currently and, if there is a time to change, it’s now while the winter solstice is close at hand and production is already low.
In this article we’ll be discussing how you can better understand the availability and function of EQIP grants provided by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Normally when I think about the above quote, I’m as reluctant as the next guy to believe anyone from the federal government can be of much help with anything. That being said, and as odd as it may sound, there is one division of government I have found to be very helpful when it comes to farming the right way. In a recent podcast interview, I mentioned a grant we received and used on our farm called the EQIP program through the NRCS, which is a division of the USDA. I have received some emails asking about this program and it’s obvious that since we didn’t cover many of the details about it in the interview, there is some confusion about what this is and, more precisely, what it is not. While I’m not a proponent of government handouts, I’m a huge cheerleader of the NRCS for a number of reasons I’ll discuss in this article.
A little background: The NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) is what I would call the mentally balanced division of the USDA. If you are looking for a sustainable, quasi organic bent on how to do farming within the USDA, the NRCS is it. They have a vast number of financial and technical resources, and, in my experience, the knowledge base of the folks working there has been pretty outstanding. We are fortunate enough to have a gentleman here in Indiana who is a top notch grazer on his own farm, and his day job with NRCS pays him to help dispense his knowledge and experience to the rest of us. In meeting other NRCS speakers at various conferences, I have found that same depth of knowledge to be the norm.
Simply put, the main goal of the NRCS is to help farmers conserve our natural resources and heal the land, creating healthy ecosystems. In the case of grazing, there is funding available to take lifeless, destroyed row crop fields and convert them into living polyculture grazing systems. They want farmers and homesteaders alike to take the cattle, sheep and goats to the food and not take the food to the animals – what a concept. They promote mob grazing, rotational grazing, soil building and low energy input systems. There are grants (more on that later in this article) available to install fencing systems, buried water systems and to seed things like grasses and legumes for the sole purpose of grazing. There are even some smaller grants available for simply practicing rotational grazing within existing systems. Who among us can apply for these grants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a seed things like grasses and legumes for the sole purpose of grazing. There are even some smaller grants available for simply practicing rotational grazing within existing systems. Who among us can apply for these grants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a seed things like grasses and legumes for the sole purpose of grazing. There are even some smaller grants available for simply practicing rotational grazing within existing systems. Who among us can apply for these grants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a seed things like grasses and legumes for the sole purpose of grazing. There are even some smaller grants available for simply practicing rotational grazing within existing systems. Who among us can apply for these grants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a ants? Anyone with access to land. And you don’t have to be a full time farmer to tap into these grants. I know of homesteaders in my county who own as little as five acres and received a grant to fence it off so they could raise their own beef.
Yet another function for the NRCS is all about helping row crop farmers improve yields while decreasing or eliminating the use of chemical based pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. They also teach how to improve soils by the use of green manures, no till cropping and even promote “chop and drop” to create a think layer of mulch to plant into. If you really want to get schooled by the NRCS on healthy soils, think layer of mulch to plant into. If you really want to get schooled by the NRCS on healthy soils, watch this YouTube presentation by NRCS agronomist Ray Archuleta. I’ve never seen anyone get as fired up as Ray about dirt!
The greatest practical example I have seen of this particular model is from a man I met at an NRCS conference named Gabe Brown, who farms with his son, Paul, in North Dakota. They have a large row cropping business, as well as a grass-fed beef enterprise and are even doing pastured poultry. Gabe row crops thousands of acres and has not tilled since 1993 and uses zero chemicals on his farm. You can watch a pretty neat video on YouTube of Gabe talking about his farm and how they transformed it starting over 20 years ago.
You can also read more about his operation on his website. Gabe and his family are a model of success for anyone to look towards on how to farm in conjunction with what the NRCS teaches and promotes, especially when it comes to large scale commercial row cropping. If all row cropping were done they way Gabe does it, our soils would be a model for the whole world to admire.
Another reason I’m a huge fan of the NRCS is a larger issue not many people think about: Our country cannot sustainably feed itself with our current agricultural model. Today’s food system is predicated on cheap oil, cheap chemical inputs and massive subsidies whereby 2% of the population is feeding the other 98%. It does not take a degree in rocket science to figure out that, at the end of that road, is a civilization destined to implode. By promoting systems whereby we are taking the animals to the food, cutting petrol inputs, improving soils and decentralizing food production, we may have a fighting chance of saving our country. Now that may come off as a doom and gloom perspective, but demonstrate to me where I am wrong in my thinking. We have implemented, with great efficiency, just-in-time manufacturing principles into our food production and while it’s innovative, the risks are downright frightening. What happens if tomorrow morning we wake up and the subsidies are gone? Or diesel fuel is $10 per gallon? Our vertically integrated food system would fall apart in a matter of weeks, leaving the citizens of this country in disarray. While I believe it is the personal responsibility of every citizen to produce as much of their own food as they can, obviously not everyone can raise all of their own protein needs. This is why I believe we need to work with programs like the NRCS for solutions that will actually strengthen our overall food supply, and hence our national security, with sustainable grazing systems. This will decentralize food production, invigorate new farmers to take up the mantel of “real food” production, and point this thing in the right direction.
My personal belief is that the NRCS is one way we can begin to do that. Like myself, there are many out there who have the will, determination and drive to farm with sustainable methods, but may lack some of the resources they need to be successful. In my case, we had property available to us and were able to fund our poultry and pork operations with our own seed money. But when it came time to really get rolling with beef, we were talking about big boy money! I held off using the grants for a long time out of pride, but finally changed my mind after moving portable cattle fencing a quarter to half acre at a time every day for two years. And before you think about passing on a resource like this, go and rent a 20 acre field, fence it, route buried water to it and see how much you spend. For example, an 18 acre pasture we just completed this spring took 15 months of work and required over $11,000 of investment before we ever put the first animal on it. Could we have gotten there on our own? Yes, in time with a lot of diligence. But in my mind, we need to jumpstart this decentralized sustainable food model now, while we still have the opportunity to do so. If you have deep pockets to fund large projects, great! Not everyone does. Add to that the fact that we, as small farmers, are fighting an uphill battle against government bureaucrats and huge food corporations with an army of lobbyists, paid for politicians and lawyers, at their disposal. This is a tough fight. Again, I’m not a proponent of government handouts, but time is of the essence. In my mind we either accept a helping hand from a program that is all about farming the right way, or we accept that our personal health and what's left of our soils are goners. A country that cannot feed itself is destined for failure! And in the end, we are talking about are our own tax dollars, so we might as well put them to work doing something that is going to heal our country and not further destroy it. And this is money well spent, laying the way for multiple generations on a farm to raise healthy, nutrient dense food and make a good living while doing it. Personally I think this is the best investment our country can make in itself and is why I have changed my attitude about accepting grants from the NRCS.
Now that I’ve climbed down from my soapbox, you are probably wondering how these NRCS programs work. Well, the first thing you need is access to land. You can own it or you can have a contract drawn up to lease or rent it. Either way, you have to have legal control of it in order for the NRCS to get involved if the grants are to be in your name. As an aside, in the case of renting or leasing, I would personally want to know that I would have control of the property for a long period of time prior to putting the in the effort for something like building fence. Now, another solution might perhaps be that a family member, friend or adjacent farmer owns some property but is willing to sign off on the paperwork in order for you take advantage of the programs. The grants could all be done in their name, while you do the labor and project management and simply rent or lease the property on the backend. And maybe the “lease payment” is the sweat equity from you building the fence, planting the grasses, etc. However you can work it out, my advice is to do it and make this happen if you are serious about truly sustainable farming. And that advice goes regardless of scale, it could be 2 acres or 500 acres.
Next, call your local NRCS office (you can find your local office here) and tell them you would like to schedule a time for them to come out and view your property. You’ll want to mention that you are interested in the EQIP grants, and if you haven’t had any (or little) farm income on your tax return in the last 10 years, mention the Beginning Farmer grant as well. If you qualify as a “beginning farmer”, then you will get a slightly higher reimbursement rate on projects. Think of it as a bonus for being a newbie. If you have an existing farm with systems in place and have been going about things from a conventional manner, or if you are above taking a grant, you might just want some technical assistance and how-to advice. The NRCS is happy to provide that as well, and you would be wise to tap into the vast amount of knowledge available to you through their staff.
Before your meeting, you’ll need to have in mind what it is you want to accomplish and some idea of the systems you are looking to put in or improvements you want to make. Are you wanting to graze cattle? Produce surplus hay? Install a freeze proof livestock watering area? In the case of a conventional farm, you would want to be open to how you can change your practices to increase yields, profit and quality of life through sustainable practices. On our farm, we have built high tensile fence, installed buried water, planted grazing areas, and have received grants for all of the above. So consider printing out an aerial view of your property and doing some basic sketching, showing where you are interested in installing fence, water, seeding or all of the above. You might even want to show this in phases over multiple years. How do you see the whole thing coming together? Maybe you have an existing grazing area that is overrun with fescue, you can get small grants to help inter-seed new stands of grasses and legumes into these areas. Tell them what you want to accomplish where, list the obstacles, and let them help you find the right solution.
After you meet and discuss your ideas, they will draw up plans, put some cost estimates together and give you a preliminary set of paperwork to look over. If you want to make any changes to the systems or time frame in which they will be installed, now is the time to do it! Realize, at this juncture, there is no commitment to do anything and if you are going to back out, this is your chance. If not and you want to move forward, sign on the dotted line. But be warned, once you sign, you are committed! You have just entered into a contract with the United States government! Scary, huh? It’s really not that bad, but there are penalties if you decide to change your mind after signing the contract and tying up funds. From my understanding, if you don’t complete your contract on time and to the specifications given to you, there is a 10% penalty. So if you default on a $10,000 grant, be prepared to pony up $1,000 to your favorite uncle. Each district only has so many funds given to them via the farm bill and they don’t want to tie those up with folks who are going to back out. Those could have gone to some other guy who would put them to good use.
Once your contracts are signed, that money is locked up under your name (or the name of the landowner) and is all yours once you complete the project(s). This is where a lot of the confusion comes in: With NRCS project funding, you have to front the capital to complete the project. It s a grant, not a loan! Once work is completed, the NRCS will inspect it and have you finish any punch list items to meet the specifications they gave to you prior to work starting. After that, your paperwork will be submitted for reimbursement. Please note that all systems have to be installed with new components, and you can’t begin work on something prior to getting your contracts signed. So if you have already begun building fence and ran out of money, they are not going to come to your rescue. And while you and I may believe that a used telephone pole would make a great end post, they disagree. Remember, no used materials! The only exception I have seen to this is the use of certain used materials for fence posts. The NRCS has allowed the use of existing oil and gas fiberglass piping for fence posts all over Indiana. Some of this stuff is truly used, but a lot of it is new “reject” material, meaning it didn’t meet the specs for the intended use. This fiberglass material sure does make fine fence posts though, and being thick and heavy, they will outlast me and my kids. I don’t know if the use of these materials is an Indiana NRCS thing, or something nationwide. Be certain to inquire about it in your meeting with your NRCS representative if fence is on your agenda.
My experience with their cost estimates is that they are pretty spot on, and maybe a little on the high side for certain things, but this is in our favor. The way it works is they will look at your intended system and give you an estimate, including labor and materials. They might say a 5 strand high tensile fence will run $1.05/foot installed with labor at “x” linear feet, so your project money equals “y”. That includes posts, gates, wire, ratchets, labor, equipment, etc. You can then hire the whole thing out, hire it partially out, or do the entire thing yourself. That is totally up to you as project manager! But remember, there are specifications to meet and crooked fence posts won’t fly very far towards getting reimbursed. Things like digging a 4′ deep trench and hydraulically driving 10′ long single end fence posts are best left to contractors with the proper heavy equipment, in my opinion. Pulling fence wire and installing buried water pipe are skills that you should have as a farmer, and you can pay yourself to do it with these grants. A hybrid approach is my suggestion. Of course, there will be tools to acquire, but you’ll need these for system maintenance anyway. In the end, your system costs what it costs and you get reimbursed a flat amount based on your contract. You may come out ahead, break even or get into your own pocket, it just all depends. While you can pocket a little money if you do some of the labor yourself, you are best off to not skimp on the materials. The way I view it is that I’ve been blessed with this grant, so I’m going to install the best possible system I can with the best materials I can afford. You can install PVC fittings for buried water, if you want, or you can install a solid brass tee that will outlast you and your kids, if properly installed. And who wants to go digging holes looking for a leaky fitting anyhow? Spend the money you’ve been granted to put things in right, especially the buried ones!
The final thing I want to mention is to keep your expectations in check in terms of turn around time on meetings, plans, and especially the reimbursement process. We are talking about the federal government here and sometimes things move slower than we in the private sector would prefer – like at the speed of molasses flowing uphill in January. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it can take a couple of months for you to receive your reimbursement from NRCS after you complete your project and get it signed off on. Please note that the reimbursement comes with a 1099 attached to it that you or whomever the landowner is must claim as income, so there are tax implications. Be certain to speak with your tax advisor about that beforehand, as many of these systems have to be depreciated over time and can’t be written off in whole the year of purchase.
But in the end, my opinion is that the NRCS is a good organization with good people who are genuinely trying to help those of us that want to raise food in a sustainable manner. And regardless if you are a beginner or seasoned farmer, homesteader or full time farmer, or if you need a grant or just some technical help, the NRCS is a worthy ally that you should involve.
This week, I had an e-mail from a man who is interested in raising his own livestock. He is currently in the learning and planning phase and had the following question:
“One of the guys at my work said it is impossible to raise hogs without antibiotics. Is this true? I don’t think it’s true, but thought I’d ask.”
Below is my initial response to him:
“In five years, I have used one antibiotic on a pig, and that was this past fall. I had one that caught pneumonia and was sure to die if I didn’t (watched that happen three other times). I’ve raised over 220 pigs in that time so, no, that is absolutely false. He doesn’t know what he is talking about, or more likely, is just regurgitating what he has been taught. Now, in a confinement application, what he states is true, due to the rampant disease and bacteria. But that isn’t farming, and it’s a lazy way to raise animals.”
Let me expound upon this question, as it routinely comes up in farming circles about not just pigs, but most any livestock. The main reason farms give antibiotics is a preventative measure, not to actually treat an acute problem or disease. Sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in watering system and medicated feed accounts for 80% of all antibiotic drug use in the United States! That’s right, only 20% go to human beings. And we wonder why antibiotic resistant strains of bugs are popping up everywhere!
Now, in a confinement application where animals are simply kept in a barn with no access to fresh air, pasture and sunshine (nature’s natural way of sterilizing things) this is a true statement. No animal can live in a manure and bacteria infested environment without the aid of drugs. But that is not how nature intended them to live now is it? Take for instance the lowly pig, often regarded as the dirtiest of all farm animals. And in these aforementioned conditions, it is. A hog will root through and eat its own manure when left to that end, and then turn right around and sleep in it. Obviously, this is going to stimulate disease and necessitate the use of pharmaceuticals.
However, if our goal is to mimic nature inside of a production model, then we will raise our hogs in the forest, just like is done in nature. When placed in this setting, the hog is actually the cleanest barnyard animal. When confined to an area out in the woods, they will actually establish a “bathroom” area(s) and will not eat the vegetation in that spot until all other vegetation is consumed. If we rotate them in a timely manner, this issue never occurs and we move them off of old excrement where bacteria flourishes and into a new paddock with clean vegetation. This breaks the cycle of many pathogens, parasites and bacteria that can cause disease. Add to that the fresh air and disinfectant sunshine and our problems are almost completely eliminated.
I mentioned earlier that I used, for the first time, an antibiotic in 2012 on an animal. Pigs are extremely hardy creatures, and very resilient even if they get sick. But, just like humans, their weakness is the respiratory system. Given that we are raising them in the woods with shelter provided by large, mature hardwood trees and bushes, it’s not uncommon for one of them to catch a cold. This can sometimes lead to pneumonia, which, in my experience, has not ended well. I’ve had three hogs die from this in the past five years and know the signs well now. I’ve also had two or three recover, and this most recent case was headed the wrong direction for certain. So begrudgingly I called our vet and picked up an antibiotic to give him. I will say, within 12 hours that guy was running around and bouncing all over the place. The drug worked, and we saved his life. Given that we have raised over 200 pigs to date, I don’t feel too bad about using one dose in one instance. However, my goal is still not to have to use anything ever again.
But, to say that you can’t raise hogs without antibiotics is not true. There are literally hundreds, and probably thousands, of small farmers just like me proving that every day all over the country. If we will simply try and mimic nature in our production system, the animals will take care of themselves, for the most part. We don’t have to over think things and simply need to keep ourselves from getting in the way. God wired these guys up to live just fine without our help, try and keep that in mind during your own farming adventures.
To be successful in raising pastured poultry, at least in my experience, you will need to find and use a great feed supplement or “pre-mix”. One great resource we have found has been that of Helfter Feeds located in Central Illinois (http://helfterfeeds.com).
Helfter offers a full line of livestock supplements that help make certain your livestock are getting the minerals they need in order to be productive, and, in our case, that means vibrant, healthy animals who have good weight gain. Even though we only use transitional organic corn and roasted soybeans for our feeds, the grains are often times being farmed on ground that has been abused for some time, and, in many cases, this means decades of farming practices that has killed anything good in the soil.
No organic matter finds its way back into the subsoil to feed earthworms and micro-organisms, leaving it devoid of real nutritive value. While many of these fields are now being repaired by caring row crop farmers who are using sustainable methods, the grains simply don’t have access to the minerals they, and hence the livestock, need from the soil alone.
Your animal is what it eats. This makes using a supplement like Helfter essential. But be warned, there is no shortage of supplements available on the market for everything from a carrot to a cow and anything in between. They are costly, often times promise the world, and it is easy to go overboard with them. In short, proceed with caution and look for real results. While the long term goal is to repair the land so that we can minimize costly inputs such as these, that doesn’t do us any good in the here and now. Case in point: After we began using Helfter feeds, we noticed an immediate improvement in our pastured broilers. We had fewer leg problems, fewer heart attacks and the birds simply looked more vibrant. This single supplement isn’t a one step cure all for the shortcomings of the Cornish Cross, but it sure goes a long way towards making your labor pay off in the end.
One thing I learned early on, however, about using these supplements is that you have to think for yourself. We originally began using Fertrell Company supplements, but due to a lack of dealers in our area and increased cost over Helfter, we switched. Our grain mill was also able to stock Helfter feeds which made the decision easy for us. However, Fertrell recommended using fish meal in conjunction with its pre-mix and Helfter did not. While I liked Helfter for many reasons, it seemed to me in watching the birds that they were missing something. Our weight gain wasn’t quite where I thought it should be and after two batches of sub-par weights compared with using the Fertrell product, I insisted that our grain mill call Helfter about the use of fish meal. Helfter contended that no fish meal was needed and that the protein requirements were met with roasted soybeans, but the proof, as they say, is in the proverbial pudding – and my pudding was lacking.
Finally, we got some numbers out of Helfter for removing “x” pounds of roasted soybeans and replacing it with “x” pounds of organic fish meal. The next batch of birds was off the chart in terms of weight gain. I’m not a biologist, so I can’t be certain what it was about the fish meal protein that made such a huge difference in our weight gain, but it sure did work. Protein is protein, but I can only assume that the amino acids in the fish meal are somehow more bio-available to the chickens or provided something they were lacking.
In any case, it has been a real success since then. No matter who you choose to use, be sure and do your research and track the progress. Don’t be afraid to try different supplement companies and compare them against one another. You are spending good money on these so you obviously want to get the best bang for the buck that you can. Keeping good notes and tracking the data will lead you to that end.
When selecting cattle for grazing, there are several things to consider to optimize your success and, hence, your profits. Having made several poor purchases myself, I’ve experienced the frustration first hand of animals that don’t perform in our grass system here at the farm. The real downside of those bad purchases is that they can stick with you for a couple of years before the animals get (almost) big enough to butcher and allow you to recoup your investment funds! Tying up funds in a poor choice of animal can set your business back exponentially. And if they don’t perform well by growing quickly, then a lack of marbling can occur which can lead to customer dissatisfaction. Oh the joys of producing grass-fed beef!
When selecting cattle for a 100% grass based system, it’s best to start with cattle coming out of a 100% grass based system. It’s really easy to get hung up on wanting a certain breed of cattle, but the best breed in the world with the greatest genetics won’t do you any good if they are coming out of a grain based feeding regimen. Does that mean that genetics aren’t important? No, not at all. In fact, they are of paramount importance! The point is that grain fed animals might fit all of the other criteria I list below and have smashing good looks and wonderful personalities. But if those cattle have been raised on and finished on grain, then they simply won’t perform as well as cattle with the same pedigree who come out of an all grass system. In reality, you want to find both good genetics and a grass based herd to buy from. My point is that if you only look at genetics or a specific breed, then you are missing the boat.
Another tip for success is that you also want to buy your cattle direct from the source, if at all possible, and avoid livestock auctions. This allows you to quiz the breeder, see the operation first hand, and inspect the animals carefully before making a commitment to purchase. It’s also a great way to build a long term relationship with a supplier until you get your own cow-calf herd up and running. Conversely, it’s near impossible to find out what the animals have been eating if you buy them at an auction. You also can’t see the parent stock, the living conditions, nor ask questions of the person who breed them. Auctions can be a way to get a great deal on livestock, they can also be a way to lose your shirt. If an auction is your only option, then take an experienced cattle farmer with you when you go and be on the look out for sick animals.
So beyond the above, what are we looking for when we go shopping? In general, we are looking for small framed, short legged, wide, fat animals. And we want genetics, coupled with being bred to perform in a grass based system, to allow them to finish out within 2-2.5 years. And when I say “finish out” I mean the cow is “done”. Done is different for every animal, but the brisket needs to be filled out and the rear end fleshed out. This takes some experience and, over time, you’ll gain an eye for it. But not every animal you raise is going to be done at the same age or even the same weight. As best as your finances allow, let the cow tell you when she’s finished out.
Notice the height to width ratio of this animal. The fence post to the left is roughly 54″ high and the top wire is 30″ high. If you look closely, a pre-drilled hole near the top of the post is at 48″. This animal weighed about 850-900lbs at the time this was taken and she is only about 4′ tall to the top of her back.
Again, notice the short legs and full body structure from neck to tail. We don’t want a skinny rear end, as that is where the choice steaks are located! This red steer is half red devon and half black angus. We find that the red devon genetics perform really well in all grass systems. Most of our animals finish around 1,000-1,100 lbs. and this guy is getting close to that mark.
In addition to the physical attributes, we want to look for docile dispositions and personalities who are easy to handle. This is especially important in a rotational grazing system where we are working with and moving the cattle every day. Jumpy, erratic animals with a bad temperament should be avoided at all costs, and gotten rid of as quickly as possible if they show up on your farm. Trust me when I tell you that one heifer who is jumpy can make the entire herd unsettled. Then they are all harder to work with and they are stressed, which causes them to not perform as well. This can really make you hate your work. In my experience, it is best to load that one animal up and make a trip to your butchering facility, regardless of the fiscal consequences.
Lastly, we want to look for animals close to home and here is why: micro-evolution. No, I’m not an evolutionist. But, animals do absolutely micro-evolve to their climates, surroundings, seasons and in the case of a cow – to the grasses, legumes, and forbes she has available to eat. If you can imagine what cattle in Indiana get to graze on versus that of an animal in the high desert plains of say Wyoming, you get the point. Each animal, over time, will have been bred and evolved to perform well in that geographic region. So, is it bad to drive 150 or 250 miles to get cattle that you really want? No, but if you can drive 25 or 50, you will be better off due to the likelihood that the forages they are eating there will be the same as what is found in your pastures. It may take some looking, but eventually, you’ll find someone with a few extra animals to sell close to home. And, as mentioned before, if you find some nice animals in an all grass system, really work hard to cultivate that relationship so that you can be a repeat customer. Good cattle are hard to find, and 100% grass-fed beef is in really high demand!
Recently, a reader emailed me and asked if I could do an article for some recommended reading on farming. Being that there is a daunting amount of resources out there from which to learn, I'm happy to provide a list of suggestions for you to consider.
For subscription based reading, there are really two main sources that I would suggest based on my personal experience. The first is Stockman Grass Farmer, which is run by a gentleman named Allan Nation, who has also authored several books on grazing beef cattle. SGF is the pre-eminent source for all things grass and grazing related. I don't care if you want to raise 100% grassfed and finished beef, dairy, sheep or milk a goat, SGF is your best source that I have found to date. Most all of the articles are written by actual farmers who practice what they preach and are simply sharing their experiences with you. Authors have included the likes of Joel Salatin, Greg Judy and many others. If you are serious about grazing, you should be subscribing to SGF.
The second magazine is ACRES USA and is always an entertaining read no matter what your area of farming or homesteading interests are. The neat, or disappointing thing, depending upon your perspective, is that each issue of ACRES will focus and place great emphasis on one specific area of farming. One month might be veggie production and the next dairy followed by pasture based meats. That being said, there is something to learn in each issue no matter what your bent is. ACRES also has a great bookstore and publishes many of the authors you'll hear me talk about later. You can also order audio copies of previous conferences (more on that later in this article) and learn from some of the best minds in the business of organic agriculture.
An optional third source, which is definitely more of a homesteading publication, is called Countryside Magazine and Small Stock Journal. This magazine is a great read for a variety of ideas on a variety of subjects and do it yourself projects around the homestead.
Each of the above magazines will send you a free copy to read and see if it is for you. You have nothing to lose by doing this, and all kinds of wisdom to gain!
For books, there are a million directions we can go, so I'll focus on pasture based meats for the purpose of this article with a couple of honorable mentions in the areas of veggie production and the agrarian lifestyle. First is no shocker and most likely is already on your radar if you have spent at least five seconds researching pasture based meat production: Joel Salatin. Joel is, in my opinion, the godfather of the back-to-pasture based meat production movement. The great thing is that his books are completely useful for both the aspiring professional and the homesteader alike. If you haven't read anything, I would suggest starting with “You Can Farm” and quite possibly “Family Friendly Farming”. You get exactly what the titles suggest with each book! If you are interested in beef or poultry, follow those up with “Pastured Poultry Profits” and “Salad Bar Beef”. Moving on, I also really like Greg Judy and his book “Comeback Farms” is a great read which really focuses on one thing: Grass, soil and the how-to of mob grazing. If you don't have land, or don't have much land and are thinking you want to farm full time, then check out his first book titled “No Risk Ranching”, which teaches you how to lease property and operate a business without much start-up capital. Another farmer also hailing from Missouri is a man named Cody Holmes. His book “Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours A Day” is another great read on the how-to of a grass based enterprise as well as a holistic, whole farm approach to farming. Cody is also a CPA and brings a great “bean counter” mentality to farming. As an aside, Cody also does farm consulting in a manner similar to myself and if you need help with setting up your farm books and record keeping, you will not find a better teacher. I had the fortune of attending a pre-conference two day workshop at the ACRES USA conference in 2010 when it was held here in Indy. Cody is a great teacher and has lots of real world experience and success to back up what he teaches. From a marketing and business standpoint, the other book I suggest in addition to “You Can Farm” is titled “Making Your Small Farm Profitable” by Ron Macher. This is a good book which really helped me to tweak my thinking when it came to everything from marketing, enterprise selection, to placement of permanent infrastructure on my property. One lesson that Ron talks about which is still etched into my mind today is that “you can't un-buy a piece of equipment”. This is a guiding principle with any large purchase ($250+) that I make.
If you are at all interested in veggie production with greenhouses check out a man named Elliot Coleman. Back when I first began to investigate farming for profit in 2004, I was convinced that I would be a veggie gardner (God had different plans) and I was fortunate enough to meet and listen to Elliot speak at a small conference here in Indy that Purdue University put on. Elliot is the Joel Salatin of greenhouse based, organic veggie production and is half-farmer and half-scientist. This guy was experimenting with high tunnels back in the 1960's and, to my knowledge, was one of the first guys to develop and use a large, portable greenhouse allowing for soil amendments on a production scale. Elliot does till (which is anti my personal philosophy) but he gets results and lives off of his farming venture using just a couple of acres. The man makes a living farming in Maine – from September through April! That's results.
Finally my favorite book, which is more akin to a collection of short stories, is a book about faith, family and farming titled “Writings of a Deliberate Agriarian” by Herrick Kimball. This book covers everything from raising garlic and strawberries, to raising boys and giving them their first rifle, to a struggle with a family member's battle against cancer. It isn't so much a farming book, as it is a book about a farmer's life and experiences. You can find it, as well as several other books on how to build your own whizbang chicken plucker or cider press, on Herrick's website “Planet Whizbang”.
Lastly, my final suggestion has nothing to do reading books or magazines. If you really want to learn from some of the best teachers in the industry, you should attend farming conferences. The magazines listed above usually have a great list of upcoming events by states and months that you can look into. Two of the larger, better conferences you can attend are the ARCES USA conference held in December of each year and the MOSES organic farming conference held in February. Each of these will also offer pre-conference classroom style workshops with various teachers like a Cody Holmes or Greg Judy in any area of farming imaginable. No matter what you want to learn about, you can most likely get training for it at one of these conferences (Cody and Greg also do on farm workshops, see their websites linked above). If you are serious about farming, these workshops and conferences are a very wise investment.
You can also find some great smaller conferences as well, if you will look around. Here, one of our NRCS offices puts on the Southern Indiana Grazing Conference each February. I've met Greg Judy and Gabe Brown at that conference the last two years, as well as other great speakers and teachers. It's small (600-800 people), very inexpensive to attend and is a one day gig. Look around and see what's available in your neck of the woods and get out to a conference soon. November-March is conference season and will be a great use of your time in addition to the reading list mentioned above.
One of my largest frustrations in starting our farming enterprise has been that of figuring out what equipment works and doesn’t work. The wrong selection ends up costing you time, mental health and most importantly money. And trust me, I’ve made my fair share of poor choices. Anytime you can learn from someone who “has been there and done that”, make it your business to do so! It will save you a lot of heartache in the end, and is quite frankly the reason this website even exists.
In an attempt to save money, I have re-purposed, salvaged and built all kinds of equipment for the farm. And yes, there are some designs out there to build poultry feeders using PVC that work pretty well. My experience with them was that they allowed the birds to waste a lot of feed. A lot of feed! With that in mind, this is one area where spending some money makes a lot of sense to me. That grain you are setting out each day costs way more money than a good functioning feeder that keeps the feed off of the ground, and where it belongs: in front of the birds so they can eat it and fatten up! Such is the case with the Brower Equipment Reel Feeder for pastured poultry operations. This is a piece of equipment that doesn’t really care if you are a homesteader or commercial producer, it will serve you well and is worth the cost.
These feeders are molded, heavy duty plastic and work great for chickens on pasture aged 3 weeks up to maturity. We also double purpose them and raise our Thanksgiving turkeys with them as well. They don’t tip, they hold an enormous amount of grain and will take a beating. Holding enough grain is something that is often overlooked when raising fast growing meat birds. These birds are high octane sports cars, and if you don’t have adequate fuel in front of them they can stress out and really hurt your performance in a hurry. And, the design really keeps the feed in the feeder and not on the ground so long as you don’t overfill them. That simply is not the case with homemade PVC feeders that I have seen.
As your birds grow, you also need lots of linear footage so that a good percentage of them can belly up to the bar at once. The Brower feeders are 4′ or 5′ long respectively. In our 120 square foot tractors, one feeder will suffice for the first week to ten days on pasture and a second one can be added after that through maturity. These are well built and when I say they can take a beating, I mean it. I have run over these with my 1/2 ton truck and had ice build up bust holes into them. The darn things are so thick that you can literally just bolt or screw scab pieces of lumber or plastic onto them and repair them. We have some really ugly looking Brower feeders here, but they are still doing there job and some of them are going into their 7th year of use!
So is there any downside to this equipment? Nothing is perfect and these feeders have two negatives, one of which is easily remedied but creates an additional problem. The one physical flaw is how the handle is attached to the feeder itself. A single, not terribly long, really small screw is provided to thread into the PVC cap on each end of the PVC handle to attach it to uprights on the feeder. In practice, it’s good because it allows the “reel” feeder to do it’s job. The handle will spin freely if a chicken attempts to roost on the handle (and they will), throwing them off so they can’t poop in the feed ruining it. However, after a season or two of use and being moved each day out in the elements, the screws become loose and fall out. I’ve taken to putting lag bolts in the end so the handles remain in place, but then they don’t spin as freely allowing the birds to roost more than I would prefer. In time, I’ll figure out a better solution (or so I hope) but for now this is my one frustration with the design. It works really well initially, but the guy who designed it doesn’t have to use it everyday until that part fails. The second issue is simply cost. A 48″ feeder will run you $60 plus shipping and a 60″ feeder $65 plus shipping. But in my view, they are well worth the high expense. Easy to move, easy to fill, holds a lot of feed and will give you years upon years of solid service.
In the end, this is a great piece of equipment even with the two issues mentioned above and I highly recommend them. To view the feeders and download a PDF brochure or instruction booklet, you can visit Brower Equipments website. However, Brower doesn’t sell anything direct so you’ll have to order them from an authorized distributor. Never fear, I have two resources for you to consider that I have personally used and had good success with! My absolute favorite place in the world to buy equipment, laying hens, ducks, etc is Meyer Hatchery located in Ohio. This is a GREAT family owned business that once ran through a wall for us to correct a problem on their end. They carry both the 5′ long feeder and the 4′ long feeder. Your other option is an outfit in Florida called Double R Supply, and they carry both feeders as well. The pricing at each place is about the same, so use the one who can ship it to you less expensively. These feeders are also easy to put together in just a few minutes with basic PVC primer and glue, and will be ready to use in no time at all after opening the box.
Getting your birds off to a good start isn’t rocket science, but it is so very important. Good or bad decisions and management practices in the first three weeks follow these birds through maturity. Make sure your brooder is as air tight as it can be within reason, but also has flaps to offer ventilation when it’s warmer outside. If you are starting them in late March or early April when the overnight lows can dip down near freezing and the spring winds are blowing, a drafty brooder will cause you lots of problems. Conversely, a batch started in August that doesn’t have good ventilation will suffer just as much. We’ve added flaps that can be propped open for cross ventilation to help aide in this.
You want the air to move through the brooder, but not “on” the birds. I’ll also run a fan blowing out of the brooder in the warmer months to draw air through it. You’ll also want to make certain it is a nice and toasty 95 degrees on the floor no matter the time of year, with space enough for the birds to get away from the heat when need be. It is a delicate balance, and if it’s too hot or too cold, they will pile up and suffocate one another.
After they are a week old, weather permitting, you can reduce the heat slowly. If it’s in the warmer months of the summer, you’ll want to most likely turn the heat off in the middle of the day and flip them back on at dusk. I’ll admit that our brooder configuration has room for improvement, and every step we take to improve the first three weeks of a chicks life will yield exponentially good results all the way through to processing. The same can be said if the brooder environment is stressful, with exponentially poor results.
You’ll also want to make sure and give the birds plenty of grit to get their gizzards going. We’ve taken to using creek sand for two reasons. One, it’s free and store bought chick grit gets pricey fast. Two five gallon buckets take me only a few minutes to fill and bring back, which saves me buying small bags of chick grit at $6 per bag. If you use the store bought grit, you’ll find yourself cutting back on how much you use in order to save a dollar, when the opposite is what you should be doing. A healthy gizzard produces a healthy bird that yields a better finished weight in a shorter time frame. And isn’t that the name of the game? Secondly, the sand is full of minerals and bio-nutrients not found in pulverized rock that I believe are really helpful to the chicks. It also has various sizes of stone, similar to that found in nature. The chicks can pick and choose what grit size they want. Remember, we are trying to mimic nature in a production system. Everything we can do to that end will benefit our enterprise.
If you are planning on raising meat birds this spring, or starting some layer chicks, now is the time to be planning and getting things in motion. When buying chicks, you have a couple of different options available to you.
First, you can order direct from a hatchery. The advantages to this are that you get to order exactly what you want, have them arrive when you want, and typically pay a lower premium than buying the chicks from a local farm store. However, shipping costs on smaller orders can make this prohibitive or eliminate any potential savings. Consider ordering chicks for yourself and friends, neighbors or relatives, to split the shipping costs and to take advantage of quantity pricing breaks. You may also find that this is the only way to get meat birds, or at least the faster growing varieties such as a Cornish cross. While some farm stores carry those, not all do. You might be able to find some heritage cockerels locally in a farm store, which can produce a nice meat for you, but they take considerably longer to raise (at least twice as long) and will have a darker, smaller breast meat than most Americans are accustomed to. If you want a heritage meat bird, then buying from a hatchery direct can be a great way to save money. The male chicks are usually a fraction of the price from a hatchery as those in a farm store because they are in low demand.
The main thing to consider when buying from a hatchery is it’s location relative to you! Shipping stress is your greatest enemy with day old chicks, and the longer they are in that box while in transit, the more problems (and deaths) you will have. Personally, I prefer to use a hatchery that will get the birds to me in just one night. Two nights are okay so long as you pick those birds up first thing that next morning and get them tucked into your warm brooder setup as quickly as possible. Most likely, your post office will have them on hand by 6:00 a.m. and are all too happy to have you come pick them up. Beyond that, use a hatchery with a good reputation. I’ll list several hatcheries I like at the end of this article. For more on brooder management, please check this article I wrote.
Picking up birds from your local Tractor Supply, Rural King or similar type store also has it’s own pros and cons. First, you can get as few (or as many) as you like and it’s easy to mix and match breeds to meet your fancy or satisfy your kid’s desire for a specific color. Also, the birds will be at least a few days old when you pick them up, which means they are past that crucial 72 hour period after they get unloaded from the shipping box. This lets the farm store take all the initial risk. And, they have been fed for a week by someone else. The bad news is, we have no idea what they have been eating for the past week! Typically, this will have been medicated, genetically modified feed which I’m adamantly opposed to for many reasons. I always suggest trying to source GMO free grain, or even spending the added cost for certified organic grain to feed your livestock. You are what your food ate!
Also, you will normally pay a much higher premium for layer chicks early in the season than if ordering direct. These chicks are also at the mercy of minimum wage store staff who may, or may not, be taking good care of them. Problems arising from mismanagement may not be evident until later on in the bird's life. The good news is, if the chicks are a week or two old and have survived in that environment, then you probably have some pretty hearty birds to take home and raise. It’s also a great way to buy 3 or 4 chicks, get your feet wet and give this whole chicken thing a try if you are new to it. Lastly, if you roll the dice and wait until later in the season to buy from a local store, just like everything else, they go on clearance. I had a friend of mine who once cleaned out a Tractor Supply of their leftover stock for .50/chick and they were already 6-8 weeks old, or a third of the way home to producing eggs. If you are an opportunist, this might be a good route to consider. You can also add your name to a mailing list for hatcheries who will sometimes discount overruns or orders that get canceled at the last minute. You can also call a hatchery to see if they have any extras they would be willing to sell at a discount.
Here are some hatcheries I’ve personally had good success with over the years. We are currently using S&G Poultry out of Alabama for all of our meat birds. While I have not tried any of their laying hens, I suspect they would impress just as much as their heritage white broiler has done:
S&G Poultry (Alabama)
Townline Hatchery (Southern Michigan)
Meyer Hatchery (Ohio)
Hoover’s Hatchery (Iowa)
Remember, the main thing is how fast the chicks can get to you. Every hatchery will be able to tell you how many nights they will be in the mail, make certain it isn’t more than two. While they will tell you chicks are fine for three nights, in my experience the shipping stress is just too much, especially for quick growing broilers.
Training new pigs to electric fencing can be an interesting process to say the least. If there is one thing about farming that I still don’t enjoy, it’s introducing these guys to electricity! The reason being is that, if something is going to go wrong with a pig, the greatest probability is that it will probably happen here. Pigs are short, stout, strong, agile, fast and powerful little buggers that can blow through a fence in nothing flat if they get fired up. The bulk of times that I have had pigs get loose has been when I first brought them onto our farm and put them into electric portable fencing, and even more recently into our permanent high tensile electric fencing that was installed this past spring.
So this article is designed to help you avoid having a loose pig, especially when you first bring it home and let it out into your pasture arrangement. Personally, I would much rather chase a handful of loose cattle than one loose pig. So anything we can do to avert disaster on the front end is well worth the effort. Once a pig is loose, it is no fun rounding him back up. The only exception to this, in my experience, is if they have been on your farm for awhile and are used to you and used to being fed daily from a 5 gallon bucket. If that is the case, once you call them and/or they see the bucket you most likely won’t have too much of an issue luring them back to captivity and your biggest issue might be getting out of their way!
Introducing New Livestock on the Farm
Introducing a new critter to your farm can be a really stressful experience for both them and us. My first advice to you is to remain calm and collected, as the animals can sense if you are wound up and their own stress can feed off of that. This is one area I still struggle with, as it is human nature to get worked up, but thankfully my wife is great at two things when we bring new pigs home: Keeping me settled down and praying the entire time for both the pigs and me. Having a supportive spouse with farming adventures is truly priceless. Second, if at all possible, I suggest leaving the new pigs in a livestock trailer overnight after you get them to your farmstead. While this might sound cruel, you have to realize that they have just been loaded up, removed from their home, and hauled down the highway to someplace new. This can be traumatic, and is compounded by then immediately dumping them into electric fencing with new surroundings and getting shocked. Personally, I’ve had the best success in training new arrivals by letting them sleep it off overnight in the trailer while it was parked in the shade. I give them a little feed (but not much, more on that in a moment) and plenty of cold water. Normally, they make a pretty big mess with the water but get enough to drink in order to stay hydrated. When feeding and watering in a livestock trailer, take extra care to guard the door or you’ll have pigs in your yard in nothing flat.
Fencing Options Available
Depending on what your physical setup is like, we can go a number of different directions in terms of “how-to” and each situation is different and requires some ingenuity on your part or guidance from an experienced lunatic farmer. For the purposes of this article I focus on a couple of different methods and ideas. Regardless of what your setup is, it’s always best (but not required) to train the pigs to your electric fence inside of something permanent. That might be a barn, woven wire fence or, in my case, high tensile fence. This is actually the first year we have had a permanent facility to train pigs in and if I could travel back in time, I would have built something to work with them in long ago. So, up until this year, all of our pigs have just been placed right out into the pasture or forest (we are currently using mature hardwoods to raise our pigs in) and directly into portable electric fence. And in short it works just fine, most of the time. For the first couple of years we used a pos/neg sheep fence from Premier fence but then switched to Premier's pig fence once it became available. I endorse either product for the purpose of raising pigs. The pig fence is a lot cheaper per foot than the sheep fence and much easier to move, especially out in the woods. But, you won’t raise anything other than a pig in it! The sheep fence is good for sheep, pigs, goats and in a pinch could be used for cattle (but is overkill for that purpose). However, it’s pricey and very heavy. Working with it out in the woods is a real chore, and I find it difficult to keep the top taught and not sagging without lots of additional fiberglass posts for added support. But if you are just starting out, utility is the key and having something that can be used for multi species is a wise investment. It also makes it easier to resell down the road when you no longer need it.
What we are now doing is placing the pigs into one of our cattle corrals that we have added additional wires to, which will keep the pigs in. This is our permanent outer fence for training. We then set up some of our portable fence inside of that permanent fence and train them to it first. This way, if one breaks out we still have a second line of defense and can put him back in much easier than if we were out in the woods. Two is one and one is none philosophy. If a new pig gets loose and takes off on you, good luck. Fortunately, we have never lost a pig and, generally speaking, if they get out they usually get themselves back in as they want to be with their buddies. I think we have been really blessed in this regard and have definitely dodged some big bullets through the years.
Ready, Set, STOP!
So now you are all set up and ready to let them out – ready, set, stop! The last thing we want to do is have them all meet Ben Franklin at once and go stampeding through the other side of the fence. What we do here is let them out one at a time to keep things in check as much as possible. We also have a nice full tub of feed sitting just a few feet away from where we let them out as well as fresh water. Remember I said not to feed them too much the night before when you get them home? We actually want them a little hungry and here is why: They will hop out and usually go straight to the food and chow down for a few minutes. But it isn’t long before their strong curiosity takes over and they venture over to the fence. Generally speaking, once they hit it they jump backwards and squeal, then head right back over to the food. This is why we want them hungry! They just figured out that the fence hurts and we want to give them something else to go focus on, and with a hungry belly that food becomes the focus. Once they have hit the fence a couple of times, we can go ahead and let the next pig out. Usually I’ll wait about 10-15 minutes between letting pigs out so we don’t get more than one excited pig at a time. Within a couple of hours, they will pretty much be done testing the fence at least for today and are happy to eat and sleep after being cooped up in the trailer.
A young Hampshire pig being trained to portable electric fence from Premier Fence Co. with permanent high tensile fence in the background
After 24-48 hours, we’ll take down the portable fence and let them experience the high tensile fence which is also hot. We have placed the wiring in the corral training area from 6” above grade to 21” above grade on 3” centers so it would be very difficult (although not impossible) for pigs to physically squeeze out between the high tensile wires. This helps me sleep at night until the pigs are fully trained.
Two young Hampshire pigs being trained to high tensile electric fence
For my own operation, I also want them trained to both types of fence so I have flexibility in where we keep them or for rotating within the permanent fence. I also do this for anther important reason and that is so we can segregate groups of pigs within our permanent fence using the portable product. One mistake I have made in the past is mixing different groups of pigs that I shouldn’t have. What I mean by this is that, like any herd, there is a pecking order and the big pigs will smack the little pigs around when they are first put together. So much so that the little pigs might try and get out of the fence to get away from the bullies, even if that means getting shocked and taking the fence down in the process. If your pigs are not too different in size, then this will be somewhat mitigated (but will still occur most likely) and you can pull it off. From experience though, if you have a way to do this inside of some permanent fence or structure after your new pigs are fully trained to electric, that would be best. It can get dicey for a couple of hours until everyone settles down. Two days later, they will all be laying together with no more fighting and by the end of a week it’s one big happy herd slopping around in the mud.
However, if you are thinking about more of a production model or butchering at different times of the year for your own home use, then mixing them is probably a mistake. If you have some pigs that are 200lbs and some new ones that are 75lbs, it’s best to keep them in separate groups. The big guys will really beat up on the little guys, raise their stress level and maybe even cause them to bust out of the fence. You will also want to be using different protein rations for each group, as well, which makes keeping them in different groups a no-brainer. It also makes it easier to sort when it’s time to load them up for the butcher, which is an entirely different article for next time.
So remember: Keep your cool, make sure your fence is hot, have the pigs calm and slightly hungry. Let them out one at a time and it should go smoothly! Good luck.