Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The $5 calf, 2014 addition

This post is about raising holstein bull calves for beef -- either for your table, or for sale.  I first wrote about this 6 years ago, and I've been raising bull calves (and eating them) since then.  I'm writing this for people who are interested in the economics.

The original 2008 $5 calves
First, I'm going to say that in 2014, there's no such thing as a $5 calf.  As I write this, the price of day-old or barely-started holstein bull calves at the auction is $160-200.  That's the SAME calf I was buying for $5 in 2008, but in 2008 everyone thought that the stock market was going to melt down and the economy was going to crash, and the patriot act was a really good idea.

Buy calves direct from a dairy if you possibly can
I have purchased these cows at auction, and I've purchased them direct from a dairy, and if you can do it, I suggest finding a local dairy and buying direct.  You get to ask questions about the calf, and what you really want to know is that the calf stayed on the mom for at least 24 hours to get a good dose of colostrum, a special milk that gives the calf an immune boost by drinking it.  More time, a couple or three days, is even better, but dairies sell the colostrum milk too, and get a good price for it, so they'll typically pull the calf off very soon.

If you can't buy direct, use the crowd knowledge of the auction.  If you're the only bidder on an animal, it's probably not a good choice.  You want bright eyed and "shiny" -- clean fur and no evidence of diarrhea, and the older a calf you can get the better.  7 days old is a lot better than 1 day.  It's worth paying more for a bigger started calf.    Many dairies contract with someone and don't sell their calves individually, but you can often find the contractor and buy a calf from them, too.

Dairy bull calves won't be as efficient converting feed to meat as a beef calf would be.  So if you're in the position of buying food for your calf, you want to consider starting with a beef breed, not a dairy.  But if you have grass and can handle the bottle feeding for the first couple of months, there's no reason that a dairy steer wouldn't make a good addition to you and your families table.

So I'm pretty formal about my calves these days; I use calf-domes (the actual brand-name is polydome ), the current model is pictured below.
I buy these calf domes off of the local craigslist for about $150.  They come with two buckets and a bucket holder that fits into the door, and a bottle bracket (that black square to the right of the door).  I bed the calf with a yard or so of wood shavings, plop the dome down, and put the calf into it.  One bucket holds water, the other feed and hay, and I use the bottle bracket to bottle-feed the calf.  So twice a day I'll go out, fill the water bucket, fill the hay/feed bucket, and drop a bottle into the bracket.    It's sometimes a little bit of work to get the calf to find the bottle, but you can do it pretty easily by dipping your finger in milk, offering it to the calf, and then leading it over to the nipple.  They catch on pretty quick.

You can do this with a little plywood box or a stall, too.   When I'm raising calves, it's just as easy to raise 3 or 4 of them vs just 1, and so I'll just make a row of calf domes, with the doors facing each other.  The cows watch the other cows and moo at each other and keep each other company.

For feed I use a bale of good alfalfa ($9 or so) and give them a portion of a flake each day, and then some calf manna (kinda expensive feed, but the calves do like it, $0.75/lb) and I use a dairy-based milk replacer for the milk.  Milk replacer can also be made out of blood, and it's probably good feed, but I just stick to the milk-based.

It takes about a whole 50lb sack of milk replacer per calf to bring it to weaning age; a sack of milk replacer is $99 or so retail around here, so here's the cost-to-weaning age for 2014:
  Calf:  $180
  Alfalfa: $9
  Milk replacer: $99
  new 3 quart bottle $10
  Calf dome: $50 (figure that 1/3rd of the cost per year.  they do break)
 Giving a cost-to-wean of $349.

Note that I'm not including any expense for labor.  If you're doing this for your own table or as a hobby, well, well all enjoy our hobbies.  If you're checking this out as a business, figure 30 minutes a day total.  15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the evening, and rebedding the cows about every 2 to 3 weeks at an hour, for 3 months.  As you're probably thinking, labor raises the cost of this calf pretty substantially at any wage.   The only way you have a chance to reduce labor is to raise a lot of calves all at once.

Raising your own may not make economic sense
So if weaned calves in your area are selling for $349 or less -- or roughly $1/lb live weight - you won't save any money by raising your own, you'll be money ahead by buying one already weaned.   It only makes sense for me to do this because calf prices are crazy-high right now.  I'm seeing 300lb dairy-cross calves at the auction for $2 and higher per pound, live weight.

I purchase my calves in the early spring;  first or second week of march.  I want them to be weaned about the time that my grass is growing great, and I want them to be on that great grass through spring, summer and fall.  

Cows eat all year - even in winter.  Buy your hay smart
In the middle of the summer, when it's hot and everyone is haying, I'll purchase hay to keep these calves over winter.  I figure that each calf needs about 50lbs of hay per day (or they will by the time fall rolls around) and that I'll have to keep them on hay from october to april, which is roughly 6 months, or 180 days.
50x180 = 9000lbs, or roughly 4.5 tons of hay per cow for winter hay.

Last summer hay was selling for $40 for a 600lb bale, which works out to be about $133/ton.  Now you guys who are buying hay for your horses are probably thinking that's pretty cheap hay -- and it is.  But it's a bit of work.  First, it's second or third cutting orchard grass, and I'm picking it up out of the field.  They'll load it for me, but it's my truck and trailer.  Second, I'm paying cash and this is a negociated price.  Other folks who are buying the same hay are paying more, but for the quantity I'm buying and working to their production schedule, I get a lower overall price.  If you're buying hay from a feed store you are going to have very expensive beef by winters end.

Remember to buy your hay when it's being produced, and to store it somewhere.  50lbs/steer/day allows for some wastage.  I stack my hay on pallets so that the air can circulate under the pile, and I tarp it well.

Beef for $1/lb
So cost-to-wean at $349, hay at $600, and that gets me to their second spring.  Out they go on grass again, and I'll slaughter them in august or september while they're still on the best grass of the year.  At the end of this, I'll get a hanging weight of 800lbs at a cost of $949 (again ignoring labor, equipment, etc).

I've learned that grass-fed beef, for me, is a seasonal product.  Like an peach, you want to harvest at the right time.  for me, 18-20 months and on very good forage is the start of many very good meals.

 I'm raising 12 calves this year; 11 dairy heifers and 1 holstein bull calf.  The bull calf will be my families and relatives beef in the fall of 2016.  the last holstein beef I raised we just butchered two weeks ago.

Why holstein?
I choose to raise holsteins because they have white-colored fat.  Jersey bull calves and other dairy breeds have varying degrees of yellow fat that appears when they're grass fed.  They all taste fine, but in the event that I give someone a steak, or sell a quarter or half, with holsteins there is nothing to explain:  the beef looks like americans have been taught that beef appears.  With jersey or other yellow-fat cows, there's some education to do, so I just skip them.  They are cheaper, however.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring planting season

 The alfalfa/grass that I planted last year didn't produce a stand that I liked enough to keep, so I'm plowing it under and trying again.   The previous owner of this farm would contract out the work, but I have the equipment and the tractors, so I'm doing it in-house to save a bit of money.

It does save money, but it also is a lot of work.  My equipment isn't as big as the custom guys -- my disk is 12' wide, not 30, and my plow is a 4 bottom instead of an 8,  and my tractor is only 125hp instead of 200, so each step takes me a little longer, but for the cost of maintenance and some diesel, I can get my 60 acres prepped and planted.  It takes 22 hours to plow the ground as the first pass, but I spent some time grading before I started plowing -- removing little hills and valleys that some flood in the past had put into the ground.  When I hay the ground later this year I don't want the mower to hit the ground, so I spent a day rounding all of the little hills and smoothing the valleys out so that all of the slope are gentle and mower-friendly.  

I'm choosing to plow the ground because it got packed hard by the harvesting of the corn last year; the corn chopper weighs a lot, and the semi-trucks loaded with 20 tons of silage each also contributed.   When it's hard-packed there's no space for water, and it's harder for plants to thrive.  Plowing increases the water holding capacity and softens the dirt for root development.
 Smoothing, then plowing, gives results that look like the picture above; it's not in condition to plant into; to break up the clods you need to go over it at least once with a disk harrow; once is best-case; you actually continue to run the harrow over the ground until you're satisfied with the texture of the dirt.  Plowing is relatively slow; discing is pretty fast, about 4x faster than plowing.

can you see the cows?
 This shot is when i'm halfway done with plowing.  It's a big field.

closeup of the same shot, showing cows

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Natures harmony farm for sale

Tim Young over at natures harmony caught my eye a few years ago when I saw a video he made of turkey processing,  which I thought was pretty well done.  At the time he was writing a farm blog and he seemed to be pretty involved with farming.

In fact, very involved.  He seemed to have no end of money, branched out into all sorts of animals all at once; laying hens and hogs and turkeys and sheep and cattle...  and after a while I started reading what he was writing closely, and over time found that his views on animal husbandry didn't match mine, and in fact, when people tried to talk to him about it, he'd basically boot them -- and I got booted, too.   I wrote an entry about this and he didn't like it at all.

He'd talk about his flock of sheep, and how they were all having parasite problems, and then when people pointed out that he could just worm them and they'd be fine, he really didn't take that well.  He came up with the idea that feeding his flock of laying hens 50% of what they needed would promote foraging and was surprised when his egg production dropped off, and then more surprised when hundreds of the hens died.
He talked about his terrible losses in his book, accidental farmers -- and if you'd like to see what other farmers thought of his practices, just read the "most helpful" review comments.

After a while, he apparently got tired of actually doing the farm work, and put an ad out looking for farm help.  But he called them "interns" and apparently wanted to pay them around $4/hour, which I wrote about here.

So now, after years of promoting his decision to "turn his back on corporate life" and proclaiming his joy at homesteading... he's selling the farm.   Guess a few years of life on the farm isn't really your dream anymore, Tim?

It's an interesting exit strategy.  he's spent, by my reckoning, more than a million bucks on this farm, and while he claims to be open, it's not clear why he's selling it.   He's listed it at 1.5 million and claims that it generates $10k a month in free cash flow.  I'd be curious to see his books.

What's odd about this is that he just did a kickstarter project begging for money to build a cheese cave for this farm.  If you're making $10k a month, do you really need to crowdsource money?  just save your pennies for a few months.

first listing with pictures here

Second listing here

Update 4-15-2014: More listings!

I'm not sorry to see him get out of farming.  Kinda happy about it, actually.  If you'd like to get booted off his facebook page, ask him why he's selling his farm.   Or better yet, what does he do with the bull calves that his dairy herd generates.  This is the guy who wrote a blog entry decrying the hatchery practice of killing male chicks.  "a life not wasted"...

So long, Tim.