It’s been said that a farm or ranch is not truly sustainable unless it employs at least two generations. I believe it’s imperative that as producers we recognize that even if we become both ecologically and economically sustainable, but fail to pass our mission and work on to the next generation then we’ve failed the ultimate test of sustainability.
According to the most recent census of agriculture: from 2007 to 2012 there was a decline of over 95,000 farms in America. A quick look at the current trends tell us that most of today’s family farms and ranches will not succeed to the next generation.
I believe there is hope for a bright future.
This hope is not based on wishful thinking but rather a ground swelling of innovative farmers that are indeed beating the odds and are building thriving operations. A few names you may recognize are operations like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia, Gabe & Paul Brown of Nourished By Nature in North Dakota, as well as Will Harris’s White Oak Pastures in Southern Georgia. These are just a few of the many operations that are shining a bright beacon of hope to the greater agricultural community.
If you visit any of these operations there is a very obvious, but all too often overlooked, common thread of success. Each of these operations spring forth with a multigenerational team of people that bring intellectual diversity to each acre of their land.
Most of us in agriculture are at a road block because we’re too narrowly focused on a production mindset and we’ve lost sight of people and relationships. We must make the critical distinction that people create profits – profits don’t create people.
Those of us pursuing regenerative agriculture understand the value that biological diversity brings to our land, but we often forget about the value that human creativity and diverse intellectual capital can bring to our land.
At Seven Sons Farms we’ve stacked multiple enterprises on only 550 acres. By creating synergistic relations between our land, livestock and people, we are able to employee over 10 full time people as well as several part-time positions. We refer to our team as our intellectual human polyculture:
Any successful leader knows that their organization’s most valuable asset is having the right people in the right place.
Zig Ziglar offered this belief: “You don’t build a business – you build people – and then people build your business.”
If the above statement is true then it begs the question – how is agriculture as a whole doing at building people? The graph below shows a plummeting decline in the number of human minds in agriculture.
The erosion of human capital:
SOURCES: Agriculture in the Classroom, 2014; BLS, 2014; NASS, 2014a,b; U.S. Census Bureau, 2014a,b; USDA, 2012
Over the course of time we have eroded much of our land’s precious resources in the form of minerals and soil organic matter. But no greater erosion has taken place than the depletion of human minds from each acre of our land. In the early 1970s we reached a critical point – for the first time in the history of American agriculture the number of human minds per acre involved in agriculture fell to a negative ratio.
Interestingly, it was around this same time period that the farmer’s share of the food dollar began to plummet as well.
The erosion of the food dollar:
There are many factors at play but it only stands to reason that if we want to capture a wider diversity of the food dollar, it requires wider diversity of intellectual talents. This is exactly why at Seven Sons Farms we have sought to foster synergistic relationships with people that enable us to capture a greater diversity of the food dollar.
To sum up the past half century of agriculture, one could say that in pursuit of production, we’ve attempted to trade people for profit. In the end we’ve yielded neither profit nor people.
At Seven Sons we believe that the people connected to the land represent the most valuable asset a farm could ever possess. To illustrate this point, imagine for just a moment if you were to remove Joel Salatin, Gabe Brown, or Will Harris from their respective farms. These farms would look nothing like what they do today without the creativity and vision that each of these leaders bring to the land that they are called to steward. The same holds true for your farm as well. The beliefs you operate from, the vision you put forth and the people you inspire to join you – these are the game changers that will empower your operation to beat the odds and succeed to the next generation.
There are unprecedented opportunities ahead of us…
I believe we have unprecedented opportunities ahead of us when you consider many of the recent breakthroughs in regenerative agriculture as well as the rapid shifts we’re seeing in our food culture.
So if you’re looking to exchange new ideas and be challenged to think outside old paradigms then I encourage you to join myself and hundreds of likeminded people at this year’s Grassfed Exchange in Albany New York.
The very mission of the Grassfed Exchange is to catalyze the exchange of practical knowledge, ideas, and strategies that you can take home and begin applying on your operation. Bring a family member, friend or budding young agripreneur who is looking for their way forward in agriculture.
Here’s an old article and our operation has changed a little bit, but we still very much appreciate and use management-intensive grazing (MIG). All our pastures are subdivided into 20 acres or less paddocks with hi-tensile electric wire. With the focus on managing the grazing, our animals and soil benefit from good health.
Allen & Tauna Powell Named 2004 “Grasslanders of the Year”
A Linn County farm family was named “grasslanders” at the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council annual meeting at the Lake of the Ozarks in November, 2004.
Allen and Tauna Powell, Laclede, Mo., were named Grasslanders of the Year. The Powells operate a 3000-acre farm stocked with 800 cows that use management-intensive grazing systems. Though the majority of their calves are marketed through traditional commodity channels, the last couple years, they have been finishing calves on grass only and marketing the beef locally and on the Internet.
They now serve on the advisory board for the research farm and have been instructors at the grazing schools.
The award was accepted by the family, which includes Jessica, 12; Dallas, 11; and Nathan, 8. The children are home schooled and attended the educational meetings at the MFGC conference after doing their regular homework.
Tauna said, “I thought raising pasture-finished beef was a crazy idea when I first heard it from Fred Martz (former superintendent of MU FSRC.) Now, 12 years later, we are doing it.”
MFGC is an educational association made up of graziers, educators, agency representatives and businesses. It provides support for state and regional grazing schools.
They have also initiated and support a grassland evaluation contest for high school students and travel scholarships for college students attending national meetings.
The Powells were nominated by Fred Martz, retired MU professor and grassland farmer at Columbia, Mo.
Management-intensive grazing improves production and health of pastures, increases livestock gains per acre, and reduces soil erosion. The system is based on dividing large pastures into smaller grazing paddocks. Livestock are moved every few days to give forage time to rest and regrow. Livestock always has fresh pasture to graze.
This was the first question posed to me after my speaking engagement with Farm Service Agency personnel in Kansas City on July 15. It was after the fact because it wasn’t pertinent to my purpose of being there and we had a limited time frame. Too bad on that, great group of people who truly seemed interested in the ‘boots on the ground’ aspect of farming and ranching.
Now, if you raise sheep and it is not difficult for you, then that is great. But my take on it is that they are far too time-consuming for my lifestyle choices and from a cost effective viewpoint. So bear with me. You can tell your story in your blog and I would like to read it!
Taking the emotion out and just putting economics to it:
Right now, the biggest economic advantage that sheep have over cattle or even goats, is the initial purchase price. Consider that a young bred cow costs $2500-$2800 compared to 5 bred ewes costing a total of $900-$1125. A cow will produce one calf ready to sell in about 10 months. Five ewes can potentially have 10 lambs to sell, but realistically, more like 7 lambs and they can be sold at about 7 months. Now, bearing in mind, that calves and lambs can be sold earlier or later, weaned and unweaned, etc, etc. So, I will try to compare the two the most fairly as possible, but market and weather conditions can often dictate a different scenario.
A 10 month old steer calf with no creep and unweaned, on average comes off momma at about 450 lbs, a heifer maybe 400 lbs. The steer, at auction at today’s prices, will bring $280/cwt or $1260 per head. The heifer about $1008 per head. Since the calf crop is typically 50% steers and 50% heifers, the average will be $1134.
A 50 lb lamb will bring about $1.75/lb and there is no differentiation between wethers and ewes. The average then would be $87.50/head. Better lambs should weigh 80 lbs at seven months, resulting in $980 total – but most likely, not all seven head will do that well.
Seven lambs to sell per year – $612.50-$980
One calf to sell per year – $1134
Labor – significantly more with sheep. They need nearly daily inspection since they tend towards getting caught in brush, fences, ditches, whatever, and need extracting. If not found at least in 24 hours, they will die. Even grown ewes can fall prey, resulting in not only the death of the ewe, but her unborn lambs or orphaning the ones she may already have. This means more work for you if you can figure out which ones are hers. You get to be mom for however long you keep them, including feeding them multiple times per day. The best investment for that task for me is a lamb milk bar with seven nipples.
Consider: 100 ewes and their lambs will consume about 3% of their body weight (similar to cows), so assuming ewes weighing 180 lbs times 3% equals about 6 lbs of grass per day or 600 for the entire flock. If your pasture offers 200 lbs of forage per inch of growth and you have 7 inches of growth and want to leave a 3 inch residual (to facilitate regrowth), then there is 4 inches times 200 lbs or 800 lbs forage on offer. Say you only want to move them every three days, then they should have at least 3 acres. To fence 3 acres in a square takes 1450 feet. Electric nettings are 164 feet long, so you are moving 9 nettings every three days. Don’t be fooled by the advertising that touts that it only takes 10 minutes per net. No way. I’m pretty darn fast at it now, but by the time, you pull the posts, fanfold them, roll them up, tie them, walk to the next location (or load them all up and drive them to the new location), unload (but first you have to untangle them from each other if you stacked them), walk them back out, then step them into the ground (if it’s not frozen or the ground isn’t hard that is). So, for each netting, taken down and reinstalled, you’ve logged at least 656 feet, not counting if you’ve had to pack it a long distance before setting up again. I’m going to give a general 20 minutes per net. This doesn’t really allow much for when you have to hammer the feet of the posts into the ground or unhooking from snags, removing sticks, and just general untangling.
Nine nets times 20 minutes is 3 hours! that’s every three days for only 100 sheep! Compare the equivalent of cows and calves moving everything three days – about 30 minutes and that’s if you have to find baby calves that were left behind. The difference becomes even more significant when one considers that i can shift 250 cows and calves in maybe 45 minutes. These times are taking into consideration strip grazing in winter and taking out hay as well as the easier moves in the spring, summer, and fall. However, ramping up the number of sheep would incur significantly more netting and thus considerable more time. A single strand semi-permanent hi-tensile electrified wire is cheap and easy to install and wiill easily contain cattle and once the fencing is installed, it requires very little time to shift mobs of 1000 or more! Interior paddock division fencing that will actually contain sheep is definitely doable, but is considerably more expensive in materials and labor to install and maintain.
So to compare on a larger scale with 5 ewes equalling 1 cow.
250 cows with 80% calf crop – $226,800 income per year. Shifting every three days or 122 times per year at 45 minutes each for a total of 91.5 hours per year.
1250 sheep with 140% lamb crop – $183,750 (60 lbs times $1.75/lb). Shifting every three days or 122 times per year (this is used for comparison only – realistically, winter time will require set stocking and unrolling hay. The netting spikes cannot be pushed into and pulled out of frozen ground). If 100 ewes needed three acres, then 1250 need 38 acres. Perimeter at 5146 ft divided by 164 ft is 32 nets times 20 minutes per net equals 10.7 hours per move times 122 shifts. Hours spent annual moving fence and/or taking out hay is 1305 hours.
If you have better forage and soil health, paddock sizes could be much smaller, thereby reducing the amount of acreage needed for each shift which would subsequently require less netting.
Sheep in north Missouri must have good fences and excellent guard animals to keep them alive. Coyotes, foxes, eagles, dogs, etc nab them with abandon to feed their young. Sheep also have accidents – but so do cattle – but sheep seem to have a better knack for it.
The death of a sheep is a far less loss of investment than a calf or cow.
Sheep and cattle facilities are different, but if planned in advance there is a good opportunity to use the same corrals.
Some people do get along without netting. From visiting with them, they raise hair sheep and/or use aluminum electric wire which delivers a more powerful shock than hi-tensile. Wool sheep often cannot feel the shock at all, especially when in full wool.
Wool sheep are not ideal for range grazing since the wool clip can be practically ruint if they find a patch of cockleburrs or other clinging seeds.
Though i did not consider it in my time allotment, sheep, ideally, need checking everyday – that fence can be blown over or something chase the sheep into the fence and they get caught up or they flatten it. Rain and flood can knock it over, too. Animals can be caught up in it that need rescuing or they die and the rest will all get out and scatter! If you have 1000 acres and 2 sheep, in five minutes they’ll be at the far corners and separated. When the Scriptures talk about sheep going astray – there is the proof of it!
In my case, i have a 35 minute drive to my farm. Sheep are not practical at all if they are so far away that they cannot be checked on easily. With cattle, unless during calving season or unseasonably hot or cold weather, they don’t need attention anymore than once every three days or so. This greatly reduces my time spent on the road.
Sheep can be used to better clear brush and prepare pastures for renovation and improvement as long as their grazing is strictly controlled. Sheep get out a lot! Perhaps not out of the perimeter fence, but they, like all livestock, must stay within their alloted grazing or they’ll destroy a pasture. If you have beautiful, level pastures with no ditches, draws, dips, or washouts, yet shade in nearly all paddocks (sheep sunburn and get very hot in the summer), you may have an ideal situation for raising sheep.
The biggest advantage sheep have over cattle at least in today’s marketplace is the initial investment. And it is substantial. Taking our above example:
250 bred cow purchase@ $2500 is $625,000 (Requires 6 bulls for breeding – $5000 each or $30,000)
1250 bred ewes purchase $281,250 (Requires 25 rams for breeding – $500 each or $12,500)
However, nets cost $120 each and used regularly MIGHT last 2 years. And as shown the labor is much greater.
So there are advantages and disadvantages. To me, the market dictates raising cattle, because of the reduced cost of infrastructure and reduced labor. However, if one had 1250 ewes, in my opinion, the infrasture needs to be in place to eliminate the labor of netting. This is lots of posts and woven wire.
So, this all begs the question, ‘why did i purchase sheep in the first place?’ To be sure, my plan was that the sheep would basically live with and graze with the cattle and shift with them. However, this never came about since they would not be contained by the 3 wire hi-tensile electrified fencing I installed for this purpose. They learnt to jump through the two top wires, so that even though the wires were ‘hot’ the sheep were not shocked since they weren’t touching the ground as they jumped through. I don’t know if they learnt this by accident or watched the dogs do it. Plus any dip in the ground would provide a large hole for them to duck under. It honestly, is impossible, from a practical standpoint to make them stay within the enclosure. So, until i started containing them with the electric netting, they became regular fodder for predators despite guard dogs simply because they scatter like, –well, sheep. From then on, i have two groups of animals to shift, with the sheep requiring far too much time for what they were worth.
So, the sheep will be sold over the next couple of months to free up time for family matters, to improve my sanity, and give my poor old bones a needed rest.
There are other major expenses involved to have such a scheme. Not the least of which is needing about 1000 acres, which at current prices in north central Missouri is about $2800 to $3400 per acre. (IF you can find it for sale) Some people are very fortunate to find pasture to rent, but consider whether or not you’d want to make $150 per acre in infrastructure on someone else’s property. You’d need a lifetime lease to justify that and they can still sell the land and you’d be out. Plus the owner may not be agreeable to crisscrossing his or her property with fencing. Remember, too, the animals have health issues including treating for disease (albeit very seldom), vaccinations, castrating, as well as marketing and trucking expenses.
The opportunity cost of owning land is next to nil since the government insists on stealing our savings by keeping interest rates near 0% and printing money (inflation), so the easiest way to determine the cost of the grass consumed is by using current pasture rental rates, which in north Missouri is about $60/acre.
Too many times I read (even from producers, sometimes!) that grass is free. Whoa, Nelly! It is not free and, in fact, the cost of grass has sharply increased due to so much of it being ploughed up to raise more corn and soybeans. Folks, that is not sweet corn nor edible soybeans. This is commodity, GMO crops raised to be fed to animals like cattle, chickens, pigs, fish, horses, buffalo, and even lambs and deer!
But I digress – how much grass do pastured hens eat and how does that relate to a dozen eggs? Hopefully, these questions can be answered at least for our management style.
By measuring the amount of forage in a small paddock before the chooks are moved in and then again after they are moved out in 3 days (during the growing season, it is imperative to move stock at least every 3 days to prevent removing too much forage, however, if you need to improve the diversity, overgrazing is a good tool to use for establishment, but it must be part of the plan). As with any research, there are variables that are hard to control. While we will measure the amount of feed we give them and report that, there is no way of knowing how many bugs they will eat. We plan three replications.
Day 1 – Fourteeen mature egg laying Barred Rock hens – .039 acres with mature fescue and about 40% red clover. Estimated forage available is 4 inches times 200 lbs of grazeable feed is 800 lbs per acre or 31.2 lbs (800 x .039). I’ll measure what is left when we move them in 3 days to obtain what they actually consume. Chooks will mash down a fair bit, but that is okay since that will feed the soil microbes and organisms. We are offering 1 lb of seed cleanout consisting of wheat screenings – unsprouted. Sprouted would be better, but for this trial, we want to know how much forage they are eating out of the pasture.
Results: Eggs laid: Day 1: 12 eggs, Day 2: 11 eggs Day 3: 7 eggs. Indications are that without more grain – production decreases markedly, this may not be a bad thing – pencil out the costs and needs.
Grazing equivalent: The 14 chooks grazed in 3 days what 1 cows would grazing in one day
Bear in mind, however, the trampling/mob effect would be entirely different since cows would likely trample more and certainly put more poop in large piles which will then cover up more grass. With so much rain, even more grass would be destroyed. There would also be a considerable difference in mob effect with 500 or 1000 chooks vs 14 as well. Chickens range only up to 250 feet (extreme outer limits) from their nesting boxes, so more trampling would occur due to concentration. I would think with that many – chooks would need moving everyday vs 3 days.
Chooks will eat far more bugs than cows.
There are several differences in the grazing impact, so just comparing the potential grazing is just for fun.
Neverthess, this experiment demonstrates that no matter the species – pastures MUST BE ALLOWED ADEQUATE REST PERIODS TO IMPROVE AND ALLOW FUTURE GRAZING! Animal movement must be controlled and their keepers must balance animal performance and pasture production effectively.