Tag Archives: soil

Too Many Farmers & Ranchers?

In these slow times made so by inclement weather (snow, cold, ice, wind, mud, rain), my energy level increases because i’m not working as physically hard.  These past couple years, too, i’ve begun going to our local YMCA at 5am to walk and lift weights for a couple hours.  All this contributes to a restless feeling that i’m not accomplishing all that i can.  My children, now grown, are good at reeling in my ambition and crazy ideas a bit, which is good because i have a natural tendency to get too many irons in the fire.

However, the perspective of age has tempered and honed those expansive ideas as either increasing work or increasing investment.  The latter is much more attractive to me now as my physical strength wanes.

All that shared to relate an irony of agriculture in the United States.  Although, some would cry ‘save the family farm’ few actually have a real look at what the family farm is.  Are we dooming the modern family farm by idolizing the farms of the past?  or those small holdings in distant lands?  The reality is that farming/ranching has never been financial lucrative in the sense of ‘getting rich.’  Margins are slim, startup is pretty much insurmountable now, and i never thought i’d say it out loud, but i fear there are too many farmers/ranchers in the United States.  That is to say, that despite the average age of farmers is 58 or 59, farming of the agrarian sort (actually farming/ranching – not some related field) is more competitive than ever!  Outside investors and to an even greater degree, neighbouring prudent and successful farmers with disposable income bid up land to amounts beyond production value which keeps new farmers from entering.  Oh, yes, i know that mantra is that you don’t have to own land to start in farming, that is absolutely true, but at least here in north Missouri, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything to rent – pasture or crop land.  And, to be honest, most of the land in our county is not crop land, yet it’s been under the plough for decades and much has washed down the creek.

How did this happen?  Technology, bigger and better equipment, government support programs, and the never ending pressure to produce food cheaply.  All these contribute to fewer farmers necessary to farm the massive number of acres to produce crops with slimmer and slimmer profit margins.  Often, the only profit is the check collected from the federal government (you, the taxpayer).  But don’t blame the producer!  It’s just our system.

For some time now, interest rates on saved income has been lower than the inflation rate, resulting in outside investors hoping to get some return on their money, whereas farmers buy land to spread out the equipment costs.  Consider that for a row cropper here, land to purchase (it’s a rarity to find) will cost upwards of $4000/acre. (a small parcel just sold in the county next to us for $8000/acre!)

Thank A Farmer Kitchen Farms wheat harvest in Missouri by Finney Aerial Photo

There are a few farms asking less than that, but most are worn out (soil loss, erosion, and fertility may take decades of proper farming/ranching to reverse or restore) and should never have been cropped in the first place (steep slope, poor production indicators, etc).  Yet, the asking price is out of reach for anyone wanting to raise livestock.  One such farm near me would take at least $400/acre up front cost to restore it to even marginal pasture.  Add that to the asking price, and already it’s over $3500/acre! (Racks & Tracks listing)

So, is land more expensive now than in the past?  Consider my property just across the road from the above listing and of similar topography.

1857 – $1.83/acre – Today’s dollars = $53.19/acre

1870 – $13.41/acre – Today’s dollars = $258.87 (this buyer lost the farm)

1872 – $3.90/acre – Today’s dollars = $80.84/acre  (appraised value was $64.67/acre)

1875 – $4.79/acre – Today’s dollars = $110.12/acre

then several surveys and set aside for Morris Chapel Church and cemetery – finally back together in 1945

1945 – $11.97/acre – today’s dollars = $168.17/acre

1949 – $26.95/acre – Today’s dollars = $286.36

1966 – $92.81/acre – today’s dollars = $724.39*

2018 – $3100/acre – today’s dollars = $3100/acre (asking price of farm across the road)

Working backwards – what would a $3000/acre farm bring in 1949?  $282.34

*1966 is when my grandparents purchased the farm, it shows, too, another reason land owners won’t sell property – basis.  Since this farm was gifted to me, the basis from 1966 remains in place.  In other words, if i sold the land for $2100/acre, capital gains tax would be paid on the difference between $92.81 and $2100.  This tax could be as much as 23.8%!  However, if i die and the land passes to my heirs, it can be appraised and establish a new basis.

Tenants compete for acres by bidding up rental fees because of their massive investment in machinery.  Absentee farmers and investors generally accept the highest rent bid (which is usually the one that will least take care of the soil) and hope the fertility and productivity outlives them, then the property will sell.

Change comes one funeral at a time.

Rather than me stumbling about putting together numbers, here’s a great article written in 2017 with sample startup costs for someone wanting to start and make a living farming.

Cheers!

tauna

HOW MUCH $ DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A FARMER?

THIS IS WHAT IT TAKES TO GO FROM ZERO MONEY TO A FARMER.
I was talking with a couple of farmers recently, discussing the barriers to entry for new farmers. Some numbers were thrown out as to how much capital it would take for a young man or woman to get started into farming.“$1 million, $2 million, more” were amounts bandied about. This made me curious, so I decided to drill down on the actual capital requirement.

First of all, we need to decide what kind of farmer we are talking about here. For this article, I’m assuming someone with no family farm who wants to become a full-time grain farmer in Iowa, Illinois, or Indiana.

The first thing a budding farmer might do is get a degree in agriculture, since he/she would not have learned farming on the family farm. This will cost somewhere between $20,000 and $120,000, depending on where he/she goes and what scholarships are available. The average of those two numbers is $70,000, which will require student loan debt for most young people. Of course, a degree is not required, but it might come in handy for convincing banks to loan money or landlords to lease cropland.

The equipment requirement could be an extensive discussion; however, I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. One could buy all new machines, but to get started, let’s assume the acquisition of decent used equipment – about 5 to 10 years old.

The basic list would include: a combine with corn head and grain platform for $175,000; a big tractor for plowing and planting at 125K; a grain truck for 60K; a planter that runs about 75K; a grain drill for 40K; a disk at around 30K; a chisel-plow for 30K; a field cultivator at 25K; a pull-type sprayer costs 35K; a grain dryer is 30K; a utility tractor for brush-hogging/ditching/grading at 35K; a grain cart for 15K; a trailer at around 15K; an ATV for 10K; and a full complement of tools costs 15K.

The building requirement probably includes a couple of metal buildings ($200,000) and at least a few grain storage bins to hold 75,000 bushels, about $75,000. There is no hard-and-fast land requirement. However, the farmers I spoke with said that someone would need at least 500 owned acres and 1,000 leased acres to make a living.

The quality of the land certainly affects those numbers. For this article, let’s assume 150-plus corn bushel-per-acre land for about $7,500 an acre. If you bought 500 acres as a base of operations, the total land cost would be $3,750,000.

Add it all up, and we arrive at $5,157,500. Wow! That’s a big number, and it’s out of reach for most young entrepreneurs.

Because of the cost of land and equipment today, some farmers are concerned about who will be able to follow them into the industry. How will they fund the enterprise, even with family land and equipment?

Because of greater access to capital, more corporate farms are likely.

The problem is not just start-up capital but also surviving drought years and low commodity prices until they turn around. Unfortunately, even though you are already a biologist, engineer, equipment operator, accountant, carpenter, and mechanic, you have to become an expert financier, as well, to get into farming and stay there.

Written by Shawn Williamson, Certified Public Accountant (CPA) MBA in Missouri and Illinois. This article is designed to be a commentary on the amount of capital required for a row-crop farm in the Midwest. It is not meant to be a guide on how to get started in farming. 

 

Regenerative Farming

One of the best educational conferences, Missouri Livestock Symposium, in the state of Missouri, with an outstanding lineup of speakers every year is free to attend and a free lunch sweetens the pot.  But all that aside, it is an excellent opportunity for farmers/ranchers/beekeepers/horse owners/stock dog enthusiasts to learn, not only from ‘experts’ but mostly from each other.  Like most industry, farmers learning and networking with other farmers often results in more improvement.

Of the many takeaways from the symposium was a brochure that hubby, Allen, picked up from the ATTRA-NCAT booth on “Building Healthy Pasture Soils.”  While the bullet points they make have been known for millennia, it doesn’t hurt to revisit them to see if a return to the old ways will be profitable and regenerative for today’s farming.   The answer is already a resounding ‘yes’ for the hand’s on land owner, but is debatable (short term anyway) for the renter or absentee land owner.  As my son’s fiance pointed out, it takes at least 4 years of regenerative farming practices to turn that soil health around.  Renters will not want to invest in a long term fertility strategy; absentee landowners are typically only interested in immediate returns in the form of annual cash rent.

Excerpt from article:

Strategies for Building Healthy Soils
Let’s consider the agricultural practices that help build healthy soil. In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance. Sounds like a lot, right?

Well, not really, if we break them down into six basic principles. Let’s take a quick look at the principles that will define our soil management practices:

  1. Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs. Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in CO2 release. We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum or no-till of cover crops.
  2. Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.
  3. Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we are covering the soil all year, forming an “armor” to protect it from loss of moisture and nutrients.
  4. Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial-pasture mixes. Try to incorporate warm- season and cool-season plants, both grasses and broadleaf plants, in the same fields.
  5. Managing grazing is accomplished by planning for an appropriate grazing-recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content. Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil, decreasing soil life. Proper grazing builds soil.
  6. Finally, utilizing animal impact and grazing impact provides nutrient cycling in pastures, and contributes to soil organic matter. Additionally, the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.

For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management. These simple concepts are described by ranchers Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis in a short video on how grazing management and cover crops can regenerate soils. View the video Soil Carbon Cowboys to get their take on soil health practices.

Managing means planning AND implementing.  All the planning in the world will not enact change or improvement; action and motivation drives profitability and regeneration.  If you are not motivated, not able to get things done in a timely manner, then get someone to come alongside you and map out a plan – yet YOU are the one to ‘git ‘er done.  Too many times, i see people with excellent plans stymied by their inability to get out of the chair and off the paper – i call that analysis paralysis.  Don’t be a victim!

Cheers and happy farming!

tauna

 

Ultimate Recycling

The most recent issue of Rural Missouri carried a short article on composting.  I never seem to get around to building a compost pile, but i compost all the time on the fly.  I compost straight into the garden or pasture.  The less materials have to be handle the better in my book.  BUT, on a small scale with limited space for growing plus needing a place to ditch those apple cores and coffee grounds, backyard or porch composting is awesome!

Composting:  The Ultimate Way to Recycle

Author,  Pamela A. Keene bases her article on the expertise of Joe Lamp’l, founder of www.joegardener.com and “Growing A Greener World” television show.

Backyard Composting: A Simple Recipe for Making Great Compost

 

Happy Gardening!

tauna

Trees and Timber Management

The benefits of managing trees and timbers far outweigh the tree-hugger (an environmental campaigner used in reference to the practice of embracing a tree in an attempt to prevent it from being felled) concept of saving all or specific trees.  Biblically, we are instructed to tend and keep the garden – not let it run rampant into total chaos.  Work is not a four-letter word in the negative sense and it behooves us all to manage for effectiveness, efficiency, helpfulness, integrity, and beauty.

As Greg Judy shares, there are two ways to establish silvopasture or savannah.  One way is to clear out dead or unproductive trees in existing timber or to plant a diverse mixture of productive and valuable trees.    Planting and establishing a new timber will take decades before reaching its full potential, but if you didn’t start decades ago, might as well start now.

Unmanaged timbers will eventually become worthless – full of scraggly crooked trees which will never grow if the older trees are not harvested at their peak of quality.  The heavy canopy old tall trees prevent youngsters from reaching their full potential.  Even though the old fogy’s will eventually die, the young trees may never recover and the timber itself will fail.  This may take a millennia, but why not manage it, sustaining, regenerating, as well as taking off a cash crop to help pay the bills.

Trees and timber are so important in our environment – for people, livestock, wildlife, soil.  Shade is the first benefit which often comes to mind.  Evapotranspiration is the ‘coolest’ sort of shade there is – much better than that provided by a shade cloth or roof.  Additionally, we harvest fuel, wildlife, forage diversity, shelter, lumber, and a beautiful landscape.  But management is more than harvesting, it also requires protection from overuse by livestock and even wildlife, yet on the flip side, excluding animal use will allow brush overgrowth and a buildup of fire fuel, which during a dry hot spell could catch fire and destroy your timber in a matter of moments.

Trees which are allowed to grow large around ditches, draws, and branches destabilize the banks.  Their large roots won’t hold the soil as well as millions of deep rooted grass plants, so it’s best to keep those sprouts cut out so grass can grow.  My observation is that once trees are removed, sunlight can reach the bank which allows the grasses to grow, especially with the ready supply of water!  Include timeliness of livestock impact (to knock down the steep eroded banks) and grass will quickly cover those leveled areas as well.  This all works together to hold soil, reduce erosion during what we call gully washers and slow the flow of water across the landscape.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch the land heal.

Spring 2013 (1)
Note how the left side is devoid of trees and the bank slope is less steep and covering with grass while the right side had a fairly large tree grown into the bank.  It could not hold the soil which has washed out from under the tree and it is falling down and will become another liability not to mention the loss of potential lumber or fuel.

A word of caution in all this!  It will not work if you hire a bulldozer and push out trees – roots and all.  This moves too much soil which may cause a lot of erosion and make the scarring even worse.  The trees must be harvested leaving the roots in place.  I find it more attractive to cut the stumps fairly level to the surface, plus the convenience of not having a stump to run into, but it probably doesn’t make any difference from a soil saving aspect.

The final argument to address is to define my use of the word ‘management.’  One way to manage is to bulldoze, another is to clear cut, but i’m referring to managing for regeneration.  Sustaining my unmanaged timber is not smart – improving for the next generation (regeneration) is more respectful all around.

Create something beautiful today!

tauna

12-8-use-existing-water-sources - Alan Newport
These grassy banks will hold against much erosion around this pond.  However, the roots of the trees on the right will grow through the bank eventually causing the pond to leak as well as shade out soil saving grasses.

 

 

 

 

Grazing Management Primer – Part 3

Pond fenced with poly wire electric fence
Alan Newport
You can save a lot of money on water development by taking cattle to existing water sources with temporary electric fence.

Here’s a primer for managed grazing, Part III

A few more thoughts on grass regrowth, animal production and timing.

Alan Newport | Dec 08, 2017

In the first two stories of this series we covered some terms used in managed grazing, provided their definitions, and explained why the terminology and the ideas they represent matter.

In this third and final article of our managed grazing primer, we’ll cover some important concepts that aren’t based in terminology.

Plants: Taller and deeper is better

Early in the days of managed grazing there was a huge and largely mistaken emphasis on grazing plants in Phase II, or vegetative state.

Pushed to its logical end, this resulted in what then grazing consultant Burt Smith once commented about New Zealanders: “They’re so afraid of Phase III growth they never let their plants get out of Phase I.”

Young forage is high in nitrogen/protein and low in energy, while older forage is higher in energy and better balanced in a ratio of nitrogen/protein, although it has higher indigestible content.

This older attitude foiled the greatest advantages of managed grazing. It never let the plants work with soil life to build soil. It never let the grazier build much forage reserve for winter or for drought.

Last but not least, we were told for years the quality of taller, older forages was so poor that cattle could not perform on it. That is not necessarily true of properly managed, multi-species pasture where soil health is on an increasing plane and cattle are harvesting forage for themselves. It’s all in the management.

Balance animal needs with grass management

One of the most important concepts to managing livestock well on forage is to recognize livestock production and nutritional needs and graze accordingly.

If you have dry cows or are dry wintering cattle, you might ask them to eat more of the plants.

Remember the highest quality in mature, fully recovered forage is near the top of the plants and the outer parts of newer or longer leaves

Again depending on livestock class and forage conditions, an affordable and well-designed supplement program can let you graze more severely, also.

Erratic grazing breeds success

Nature is chaotic and constantly changing, so your grazing management needs to be also.

If you graze the same areas the same way and same time each year, you will develop plants you may not want because they will try to fill the voids you are creating and you may hurt plants you desire because they will become grazed down and weakened, perhaps at critical times.

If you move those grazing times and even change animal densities and perhaps also add other grazing species, you will create more diverse plant life and soil life.

Remember, too, that your livestock don’t need to eat everything in the pasture to do a good job grazing.

Cattle legs are for walking

Water is always a limiting factor for managed graziers, but the low-cost solution in many cases is to make cattle walk back to water.

Certainly you can eat up thousands of dollars of profit by installing excessive water systems and numerous permanent water points.

This can be overcome to some degree with temporary fencing back to water and using existing water sources.

Read Part I or Part II.

Grazing Management Primer – Part 1

Alan Newport, writer for Beef Producer magazine outlines basic managed grazing terms and techniques.  A perfect foundation from which to begin an in depth study on how to improve soil quality, animal health, wildlife habitat, and human quality of life.
Cattle behind electric fence
Photo by Alan Newport

Alan Newport

Properly managed, adaptive grazing should create profit in its own right, but it also sets up other profitable management options.

Here is primer for managed grazing, Part I

When it comes to managed grazing, there’s a lot in a name.

Alan Newport | Dec 06, 2017

Mob grazing, planned grazing, cell grazing, Savory grazing, MIG grazing, AMP grazing – All these terms and more have been coined to describe managed grazing. When we say managed grazing, it means cattle are being moved to fresh pasture often enough that the manager has some control over consumption level of the cattle, as well as the graze and recovery times for plants. It also implies the manager has a plan (planned grazing) for grazing that meets certain goals of both the soil-plant complex and the livestock.

MIG is management intensive grazing. AMP is adaptive multi-paddock grazing. Savory grazing was a colloquialism based on consultant Allan Savory’s early advocacy for multi-paddock grazing in the U.S.

Cell grazing refers to the once-common label of a grazing unit as a “cell,” with a grazing unit being the area where one herd is managed. This is less common terminology today. Mob grazing refers to very-high-stock-density grazing and has either Australian or South African origins.

Paddock — is the term defining an enclosure where cattle are contained for a brief grazing period. This might be a week, or more, or less. It might be a few hours. It could be made with permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary fencing.

Stocking rate – Typically refers to the number of cattle that can be run on a ranch, or more specifically the total pounds of a livestock type and class that can be run year-around. It is typically based on the number of animals that can be grazed on one-half of one-half (or 25%) of the total forage grown in a year. Arguably, this carrying capacity would not include additional animals dependent on purchase of hay and other supplemental feeds. It can be a way to measure ranch productivity, but improvements in consumption, regrowth and soil health under well-managed grazing should improve stocking rate immediately and long-term.

Why does stock density matter?

Stock density is inversely related to grazing time. The higher the stock density, the fewer pounds of forage will be available for each animal and therefore the shorter must be the grazing time. The longer you graze livestock in a paddock under any circumstances, the less residual forage you leave in the paddock and the more forage animals will consume. High stock density also increases trampling. Managing stock density also helps determine the evenness of grazing and of urine and feces distribution, and whether less-desirous plants will be grazed or left behind.

Further, high stock density is directly correlated to length of recovery time and to number of paddocks needed. Put another way, higher stock density requires more paddocks and increases length of forage recovery. In turn, that allows greater forage production and the chance to leave more forage behind, preferably much of it trampled onto the soil surface to make more available for consumption by soil life while still protecting the soil.

Like what you are reading? There’s more! Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Permanent Ley Scheme

Horribly dry here and no chance of rain in the forecast!  However, it’s perfect for disk ploughing and rotatilling sod pastures so that they have ample opportunity for the grass that is turned up to die.  On the four paddocks i’ve selected this is mostly toxic endophyte infected fescue and other weeds.  Except for the 18 acres that i had tilled this spring and were involved in the annuals scheme, the remaining 32 acres is established pasture – pasture that has been grazed for at least 55 years.  Tilling it up created quite a clatter on my rotatiller.  Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.  There basically is no topsoil on my pastures except in the low spots along ditches.  Sad – very sad.

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Rainfall on 21 August 2017 – very nice and quickly absorbed by thirsty soil, but hot, dry, and often windy even until now 17 September 2017.

 

 

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Settings we used for a mixed sized seed batch on our John Deere 1590
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John Deere 7220 and John Deere 1590 planting permanent pasture mix.  I hope to never have to work the ground this much.  I’m no farmer!
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Seed ordered and mixed by Welter Seed & Honey.
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Note the difference sized seeds which makes how to set the no-till drill tricky.  At least for us; we are just learning.
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Dallas loading the no-till drill while Allen and Andy discuss what settings to use.

 

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Using the 7220 John Deere tractor which has front wheel assist to pull the JD 1590 no till drill.
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Here is the mix i ordered from Welter Seed & Honey, Onslow, IA.  Really appreciate their personal and quick discussion and advice.  Mixed and shipped very quickly.

 

So how in the world did i come up with this mix?  After reading Robert Elliot’s book The Clifton Park System of Farming and Laying Down Land to Grass, i’ve been interested in his trials and observations.  I used a permanent mix found from Cotswold Seeds and interestingly it is even labeled Clifton Park mix!  How weird is that?!  The link here describes it in depth;

‘LAMINS’ Drought Resistant Four Year Grazing Ley Dry, Light Land

Pulled into the first sod bound pasture land (Paddock 15) with the John Deere 4250 and the Howard Rotavator on 29 August 2017.  Granted, i know most recommendations are to have this seeding done and in no later than the 20th of August, but this year just wasn’t going to allow it.  And thankfully, i didn’t get in earlier; had i put these seeds in slightly moist soil, they may have germinated, sprouted, then dried up in this heat and dry weather.  As it is, the seeds are just resting in that super dry soil waiting for just the right conditions to grow and thrive.  The concern at planting late is that there won’t be good growth before freezing weather and a long winter.

 

(On the 1st of September, i mustered my bulls and hauled them (Allen and Dallas helped a lot), i spent too much time outside and became overcome with ragweed allergies.  This kept me sleeping and recovering in the house for two days.  Andy was able to take over for me so we kept on schedule.)

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16 September – RAIN!  Slow and gentle, but with damaging winds.  Total amount received two inches – perfect!  Yah is gracious.

 

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So to wrap it up with costs:

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Figures from 2016 Custom Rates for Farm Services in Missouri

That’s a lot of money!  and doesn’t even include the $60/acre spent earlier this year in lime spread.  Hope it all pays off – i don’t want to ever have to do it again and with managed grazing, it should last many lifetimes.

Shalom!

tauna