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Long break spent begrudgingly but responsibly planning farm venture

I have not posted since November. The truth is that I started crunching numbers in order to formulate a true business plan and the outputs of those calculations did not look pretty.

If all of my calculations are accurate (which is a big assumption), including pigs, cattle, laying hens, broiler chickens and apiary products, the first year would net $24258.85889 of income but this only considers direct costs of producing each animal while omitting general start up costs like fencing, water troughs, mineral feeders, plumbing, etc. Certainly not bad in of itself but it relies on a few assumptions, mainly that I will be able to sell each finished animal to 1-4 people as regulations require the processed meat to be sold as a full, half or quarter animal to a customer who must pick up the meat at the processing facility themselves. Being honest with myself: Marketing and sales are the most intimidating part of this farm venture so that assumption may be a dangerous one.

I will go into more detail about all of my calculations soon, but the spreadsheets are quite messy and require either re-organizing, lots of explanations, or both. They will also be subject to change as I find errors, new information or updated information (ie: major shift in market prices of animals or hay).

In the course of researching for then making all of these calculations, I discovered a two major things: Sustainable agriculture/permaculture is generally extremely exploitive of labor and that most small farm ventures operate at a loss or gross under $10,000 annually. To the latter point, that means the most farm ventures cannot be the sole income source of the operator.

To the first point, I attempted to find a single example of a sustainable agriculture/permaculture business with open books that is successful without exploiting labor or relying on other income sources for its very existence including off-farm jobs or a reliance on speaking/book deals for financial success. Spoiler alert: I couldn’t find a single one.

All these revelations lead me into a bit of soul searching as well as research that showed me that most sustainable farm enterprises MUST have a business plan to provide structure and goals. From gathered anecdotal evidence: most farms fail because they choose what they will produce and expect it to sell on its own thus the operators figure once they start farming, income will sort itself out. From USDA research: In 2012 small farms that gross less than $10K average -9% of the operator’s income (aka: a loss) while farms that gross from $10K to $250K only yield 10% of the operator’s household income. The “Family Farms” category averages $3,140 of farm income while averaging $80,978 from off farm sources. ( Source: 2012 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey.)

As to the exploitive labor practices of the industry, I did not have any objective data to back up my observations. So I decided to dig in a bit deeper and dust off my computer programming skills to collect data from sustainable agriculture internship postings. After analyzing the 135 most recent internship postings on the top sustainable agriculture job board, the results seem to back my observations. Now I just need to finish my report!

Lastly, now with a more practical approach that came with all the revelations of the industry, I realized I could be doing all of this objective planning while working to maintain a source of personal income. When the business plan is done and I have concrete figures and goals, I can move into the farm operation full time with minimal gaps in personal cash flow. So I took a seasonal job while applying for position in the field in which I hold a degree.

 

In conclusion, all my time since November has toward the seasonal job, applying and interviewing within the GIS field and working through the laborious but absolutely essential calculations involved in planning the farm business. There was simply no creative or analytical power left to maintain a good blog. From here on out, expect the normal blog content plus some boring, technical analysis of my calculations!

 

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Garden

My lasagna method for establishing garden bed without tilling

With incredibly well established crabgrass, killing it organically in order to create garden beds, tree planting sites, etc. seemed like quite a challenge. As time is on my side, I elected to lasagna garden!

The concept is simple.

  1. Existing plants (turf) are mowed down as low as possible.
  2. A biodegradable barrier is put down to smother out the existing turf. I used cardboard as businesses are happy to give it away but brown paper bags and even multiple layers of newspaper are adequate.
  3. Compostable layers are laid down on top of the biodegradable barrier: Anything compostable: mixed nitrogen/carbon (green/brown) material, manure, mulch, etc.

Working simultaneously with the composting materials from step 3, the layer in step two smothers out the established turf before composting both that now dead plant material and the barrier itself. Between the organic matter used in this procedure and what is provided in the roots of the existing, smothered plants, the worm and microbe activity will be exceptionally high yielding quality soil for planting in the following season.

Don’t forget to remove all tape, glue and staples from the cardboard. Also avoid glossy cardboard as it is coated in plastic.

Here are some pictures of my process.

Measuring 6 feet between beds (4 foot bed plus 2 foot aisle). These dimensions are simply my preference. Being 6’4″, there is nowhere I can’t easily reach in a 4 foot bed. Plan your garden beds to your preference!

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Fill with compostable layers (composting manure in my case) then mulch with whatever you have available to inhibit weed growth. I also planted a cover crop of red clover as an experiment. It seems to be germinating best where the compost is old or where some soil was mixed into the manure compost such as where I excavated to install root barriers in the middle of some garden beds.

 

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In retrospect, I can use old pictures to show the process from start to finish!

Lasagna bed being built in November of last year:

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Asparagus planted into that bed in May. All but the very top layer of manure had composted:

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3 weeks later in June:

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I also use this method for establishing flower beds or tree planting sites. Here is a little filbert (hazelnut) seemingly content in his lasagna bed:

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Cattle

Manually harvesting hay

Believe it or not, there are many places in the world where hay is still harvested by hand. Barring economic reasons, manual hay harvesting to provide winter fodder for animals is generally found in mountainous, rocky or uneven areas where machinery will break or simply cannot be run. As I will only be running 1-2 goats and 1-2 heads of cattle on the 10 acre pasture, there will be plenty of pasture that will grow into maturity and be wasted. Plus my hay requirements for 2-4 animals is very low. Remember from my early post on Grazing Sciences, that the most nutritious grasses are harvested before maturity and left with 3-4″ of photosynthetic material that creates the ebergy needed for grass to regenerate.

I learned the ropes from this article from a 1979 Mother Earth News article titled The Art of Cutting Hay By Hand written by a french author who at least at the time of publication, manually harvested all hay for her farm. Below is a simplified gist of the process

1. Swing the scythe that has been sharpened to a razor edge allowing the blade to do the work instead of force.

2. Re-sharpen scythe approximately every hour or every few rows of grass.

  • While my uncle is a master, I am absolutely terrible at sharpening blades with a whetstone. I found this tool very useful in the kitchen on low end knives and honestly will try it as a scythe-sharpening shortcut (Amazon kitchen knife sharpener). For my nicer kitchen knives and hunting knives, I use this kit which is fantastic, but more work (Amazon Spider Co sharpening kit).

3. The scythe naturally rakes the hay into rows so the fodder needs to be fluffed and spread to dry

4. Rake into rows

5. Once dry, bail the hay using a homemade piece of canvas (or similar material…maybe a tarp?) and tie it up. This is entirely optional! Alternatively just load the unbailed hay into its transportation method.

6. Transport hay to covered storage place

7. Unbail if bailed or spread and fluff to ensure complete drying of hay and prevent spoilage. Salt can be applied to any grass clumps that are still wet to discourage fermentation. Obviously I would use a salt meant for animal nutritional supplementation!

Thats it! The stored hay can be fed in the winter as needed.

There is an antique scythe already in my barn and I absolutely love manual labor as long as the tasks are varied. Harvesting hay manually limits the economic pit of buying single purpose equipment that dooms most failed farm operations. To put it bluntly, in the first year of starting my farm operation, I will have way more time than cashflow so the task would fit well as something productive with no extra equipment-requirements. It is also an homage to a pre-industrial way of life, provides a fun outdoor task and prevents me from buying or renting expensive equipment that would likely end up broken due to the uneven and rocky pasture. Most importantly, I will get to learn what is entailed by cutting, raking, bailing and storing hay without burning a single bit of petroleum. Assuming cattle or goat operation are expanded in the future that requires acquiring haymaking equipment, I will definitely have a deep appreciation of said equipment!

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Garden

Landslides and Gardening?

Having only books and radio for entertainment at the farm is one of my favorite reasons for wanting to make it my full time lifestyle. I have nothing against learning from the internet but I find I absorb information much better through focused and singular vectors like books and magazines. While reading How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons, I came across a claim by Alan Chadwick who is one of the pioneers of modern organic gardening. The claim is one I have seen many times and is usually qualified by phrases like “by observation”.

Apparently, Greeks noticed that plants grew best on soils from recent landslides. The idea that these during the landslide, the soils were highly aerated which provided easy root penetration that facilitated nutrient absorption.  While I not found any scholarly source to back this claim, it is logical and inline with plant ecology knowledge regarding plant succession following a major soil disturbance. Having made these observations, the Greeks invented the raised garden bed in an effort to emulate landslide conditions. I do want to note that the book also mentions contributions by other civilizations to organic gardening practices and was both informative and enjoyable to read.

However for my purposes, I will stop at raised beds:

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Here is my longest bed being prepared. Beds are built into the slight incline with collected scrap and discarded, low quality wood from around the farm. Old fence boards were the main source of lumber while smaller pieces were split and made into stakes to hold the raised beds up. Its not pretty, but it is functional and free!

In order to smother grasses and weeds, I put down cardboard from which I had removed any tape, glue or staples. Normally I wet the cardboard first, but this preparation was hurried to beat the incoming winter storm which would saturate the cardboard anyway. I overlapped any joints or slits in the cardboard to ensure complete coverage. The idea is this one-time application will kill any perennial turf or broad leaf species then break down into organic matter once the soil microbes come out of dormancy.

On top of the cardboard, I piled well aged horse manure/bedding mix to a depth of about 2 inches. Once the soil is workable, I will perform a onetime deep tilling to incorporate all of the organic matter into the subsoil. Since this bed is for perennial plants, a surface incorporation of fresh compost will be performed as needed. Note: I started the far end of the bed with a load of manure when I was home from the middle east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It is almost a solid black and still hosted many worms despite the winter temperatures fluctuating between single digits and 40 degrees Fahrenheit over the past month!

On top of the manure, I mulched deeply with hay that was inside and underneath the manger inside of the barn. Livestock has not been on the property in about 15 years so the hay is old and useless as feed, but perfect for mulching!

There are also 15 huge round bails of 15 year old hay in the loft of the barn that I have no idea how to use. Since carbon is so precious on a farm, I think I’ll slowly use it as garden mulch, animal bedding (mixed with more absorbent material like sawdust) or in compost piles. Any other suggestions?

 

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Chicks

Objectively Determining a Chicken Sale Price: Part 2

Here are the quotes on bulk retail prices from the local feed mill.

Bulk, retail Quotes from Feed Mill
soybean 519 /ton
cornmeal 194 /ton
wheat mids 184 /ton
ground limestone 110 /ton
alfalfa meal 484 /ton
trace vitamins 60.35 /50 lb use at 5 lb/ton
salt 6.15 /50 lb use at 5 lb/ton
locally roasted soybeans 508 /ton 30% Protein and 20% Fat
probiotic
kelp from acadia 59.75 /50 lb 10-20/ton

By linking the percentage make up of desired ration (from Polyface Farms ration), I can get a estimate of the costs per 50 pound bag

My desired Ration
Ration Percentage Price per mixed ton Price per mixed 50 lb bag Substitutions Notes
Corn 52% 100.88 2.522
Roasted Soybean 29% 147.32 3.683 Soybean meal, cottonseed meal
Crimped oats 11% 20.24 0.506 Whole oats using wheat midds for now
Limestone 1% 1.1 0.0275
Fishmeal 3.50% not mentioned by feedmill Protein booster, not availible from rockingham
Kelp 0.50% 11.95 0.29875 Probably Topdress, unless increases to replace nutrient
Probiotic 0.10% Probably Topdress (fast track)
Nutrient booster 3% 72.42 1.8105 Maybe salt + Kelp + trace vitamin? See PDFs
100% Total 353.91 8.84775

Seeing it will cost me around $9 per 50 bag at retail prices, I can use the chart provided in my previous post to estimate the cost to feed an individual broiler chicken in its lifetime.

Age Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Total # of Bags
One Bird 4.2 oz. 9.2 oz. 3.7 oz. 18.8 oz. 26.1 oz. 34.5 oz. 38.5 oz. 42.6 oz. 46.5 oz. 14.63 lbs.
25 Birds 6.56 lbs. 14.38 lbs. 21.41 lbs. 29.28 lbs. 40.78 lbs. 53.91 lbs. 60.16 lbs. 66.56 lbs. 72.66 lbs. 7.32 bags
50 Birds 13.13 lbs. 28.75 lbs. 42.81 lbs. 58.75 lbs. 81.56 lbs. 107.81 lbs. 120.31 lbs. 133.13 lbs. 145.31 lbs. 14.63 bags
100 Birds 26.25 lbs. 57.5 lbs. 85.63 lbs. 117.5 lbs. 163.13 lbs. 215.63 lbs. 240.63 lbs. 266.25 lbs. 290.63 lbs. 29.26 bags

The above chart from The Organic Feed Store shows that I will need a maximum of 14.63 pounds of feed per chicken in its lifetime.

Next in raising my broilers is moving a pen and refilling feed/water. A total of a half hour per day spread across the 75 birds per pen. Processing a 75 bird batch will take around 4 hours assuming my scalder/plucker builds are successful.

Hours Labor description
0.5 Labor for moving/feeding per day per 75 birds
0.006666667 ^ Per day single bird
60 Days birds are alive
0.4 Labor per bird over its lifetime
4 Processing labor for 75 birds
0.053333333 Processing labor for 1 bird
0.453333333 Total Labor per bird

From brooding to processing, the birds will need to be feed a maximum of 60 days in their lifetime so each bird will take .45 hours of labor to raise.

Adding up the feed and sourcing costs, I can figure my bottom line.

Bottom Line
2.23 Cost of chick at 50 Per order
0.5348 Cost of shipping per chick
5.35365165 Total cost of Chick in lifetime
90% 10% Loss Factor Constant
3.5 Average Dressed Weight
3.5 Price charged per pound
6.206713515 Profit
13.69127981 Hourly Wage

NOTE: I EDITED THIS CALCULATION TO CHANGE MORTALITY RATE TO 10% AFTER MORE RESEARCH

Manually inputting various pricing per pound, I found that $3.50 will provide an hourly wage of almost $15. Keep in mind that all estimated cost are done conservatively and the birds should source 20-30% of their feed directly from the pasture. Any increase in efficiency, decrease in feed costs, minimizing of losses etc. will give me a raise. As a centerpiece of my farm operation, seasonal pastured broiler production will support my desired lifestyle while I explore additional avenues for income.

 Here is a link to Google docs for my spreadsheet if you wish to download it.

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Cattle, Chicks, Side Projects

Experiment: Growing Bamboo for fodder

Turns out just about every livestock animal enjoys bamboo at different stages of its growth. Chickens will eat new shoots, cows/horses will graze the foliage and goats will browse any part of it that isn’t overly mature/woody.

 

About Bamboo:

I’ll always remember a poem from one of my rather-hippie forest ecology professors:

“Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints unless there are cops around.”

Therefore, bamboo is technically a grass!

Found on bamboofarmingusa,com, 2 laboratory analysis reports were shared that break down the nutrient content of bamboo.

From Dairy One Forage Testing Laboratory (PDF Link):

 

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From the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Customer Services:

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The crude protein figures above are high enough to be considered a “Premium” grass hay by USDA guidelines (retrieved from Oregon State University). Bamboo requires significant amounts of nitrogen so some sort of legume ground cover (likely peas or clover) would be a natural companion for the bamboo stands.

Letting animals graze bamboo also has the subjective benefit of breaking the monotonous boredom of extended hay feeding. As bamboo is an evergreen perennial, the stands could be opened to grazing in winter. I am not sure how nutrient composition changes with winter dormancy though.

Containing the potentially invasive bamboo:

Growing up in a metropolitan area that has spent countless resources battling the encroachment of bamboo, I want to take steps to ensure it remains contained. Originally meant for containing hops plants from taking over the garden, physical root barriers were actually invented with bamboo in mind.

Here are my two favorites on Amazon:

18″ x 100 ft

24″ x 100 ft

 

Time will tell how this experiment goes!

A friend brought up an interesting point in a comment on yesterday’s blog post. There is a species of bamboo native to Virginia and the Southeast US called Giant Cane. He provided a descriptive PDF from the USDA that explains the historical value and use of the plant. My favorite passage states:

According to environmental
historian Mart Stewart (2007), “Modern studies
have established that cane foliage was the highest
yielding native pasture in the South. It has up to
eighteen percent crude protein and is rich in
minerals essential for livestock health.” Livestock
eagerly eat the young plants, leaves, and seeds and
stands decline with overgrazing and rooting by hogs
(Hitchcock and Chase 1951).

Which demonstrates the plant is on par with bamboo as a nutrition source for livestock. Not to mention the renewable building material provided by mature stems. I could build chicken coops, green/hoop houses, storage sheds, etc. Interesting stuff to say the least!

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