Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"I want to grow my own feed"

When I hear people talking about their dream farm, or their back-to-the-farm ideas, one thing that comes up pretty often is a desire to grow their own feed, or to be in some way self-sufficient as far as feed goes. 
Part of the land at the new farm; it was in corn last year, harvested for silage

I've heard it from folks who feed their animals -- like chicken owners who want to grow their own grains -- and also from people who want to raise their own animals on forage.  It's really the same thing, and I think it comes from the same place.  there's an attractive quality to the idea of growing your own food. 

And I am not immune from it myself.  When I look at the new property, any input (input = farmer speak for stuff you have to get from off-farm, usually purchased items) that I can eliminate is very attractive.  The more self-reliant my farm, the better control on costs I have, and I also have less dependency on other peoples farming practice. 

Let me give you an example:  If I buy hay from someone, I have to figure out first whether they know what they're doing, and then wonder about their quality control (because even people who know what they're doing make mistakes or lose a crop here or there) and I have to keep an eye on how their year is going.  If my hay guy has a drought and her production gets decimated, or his tractor breaks during haying and the hay gets rained on or any number of other things happen, I may have to find someone else to buy hay from.  

And hay is a particular problem, because around here the window to make hay is pretty small, and it's cheapest during that window, so I really have to be on it to get the best price and that usually means picking it out of the field.  If I don't find out about the supplier problems soon enough I can get stuck having to buy hay at higher prices.   

If it's hay that I'm producing I have much more information about it, and I know exactly what the quality is because I've been there the whole time. 

Now I'm using hay here as an example because while it does cost something to produce, the majority of the cost of hay in this area isn't the cost of the hay, it's the transportation of the hay from where its made to your barn.  So by producing my own hay on my own property I'm basically eliminating the road cost.

But to generalize this, everyone likes the idea of making your own feed.   If it's so good, why don't more folks do it? 

One of the biggest things about producing your own feed is that for most of us, actually harvesting a crop is really, and I mean hugely, labor intensive. 
Do you know how much work this is? picture courtesy of ylmb25
American farmers do almost no hand harvesting today; most food that we use as feed goes through some sort of mechanized harvest.  In the case of most grains, like wheat or soybeans or corn, they're harvested with a combine.  One person with a combine can easily harvest and initially process many acres.  In the case of feed corn, the combine will pick the ear, shuck it, and then store the shucked corn in a hopper, which can then be unloaded into a dump truck or grain truck.  you can unload the grain while you continue to harvest, and there are companies who move from field to field doing this harvest for hire, "custom harvesting"

What this means for most of us is that someone out there can do the harvesting for a very low labor cost.  A harvest specialist  (or planting specialist, actually you can hire both ends out) can do the job for less time and money than you can.  It's not like I sit on my hands all day and look for things to do; my time is already consumed by all sorts of farming stuff that I have to do -- and that's one reason that even though there are good things about raising your own feed, there's a strong attraction to hiring it done. 

There are things that I will do myself, by hand, like having the kitchen garden with its stand of sweet corn that I pick for dinner, but when it comes to feeding animals, I have to look at the overall cost, and when I figure my limited time into it, off-farm feed gets pretty competitive. 

But there's another aspect to it, too.  Buying feed off-farm means that I can have a larger number of animals on my land than it would otherwise support.  Michelle, over at the collie farm blog,  does a great job in caring for her sheep, but buys hay every year to tide her through the winter.   She's effectively carrying more sheep than her land will support, which both allows her to specialize in sheep and to be able to avoid supporting the equipment and expertise required to make good hay.  Since her primary occupation is an an engineer, she's not terribly sensitive about prices or profits, but that's ok.  She likes sheep, enjoys working with them, and that's a return that's worth more than a profit to her.   If she were to have the number of sheep that could live on her land without a hay supplement it would be a much smaller number than she has now, and she isn't raising all that many as it is. 

I think that's a great approach, but I draw a harder line when it comes to the farming venture.  I want the farm to be able to support itself and pay a good wage (not the $2.75/hour that Michelle says is her rate!) and that means that I either have to get a really good price for a small production, or I have to ramp up my production to produce the income required.  So I do a little of both. 

My goal is to raise the feed that is most cost-effective to raise, but carefully consider the off-farm feed to allow me to carry either more animals or to avoid having to invest in custom planting/harvesting equipment & expertise. 


Andrew said...

I've been looking into growing my own feed, and the biggest hurdle I'm running into so far is equipment. We have a tractor and planter, but we'll hire out harvesting. Storage is a problem, even a small operation will need at least an 18' grain bin, plus bulk bins or covered gravity wagons for the protein part of the ration. Add in the price of a PTO-driven grinder-mixer and you're talking at least $5k just to get into the game. If you're growing your own soybeans, you'll have to find someone to roast or extrude them to get rid of the trypsin inhibitors.
On the plus side, making your own organic or GMO-free feed is the only way to get such feed at a reasonable price.

off grid mama said...

Mmm.. why harvest it if you're feeding the livestock? Let them harvest it. The only reason you need to store it is if your animals are confined. Electric fence is a wonderful thing. Plant fodder crops for larger volume for grazers. Plant grain and root crops for hogs to forage. Chickens like grain harvesting as well. Stock your land in a manner your land can support them without buying in feed.Maybe not going to be a huge operation where you bring in large amounts of income but enough to pay bills and live well enough. Granted this is hard to do if you're not debt free. I.e. mortgage

Bruce King said...

Andrew, I agree completely that about the only way to get "organic" feed is to grow it yourself. The price premium for organic feed in this area is between 30 and 100%; I got an email from an outfit that produces organic hog feed and their bulk price is north of $800a ton. Conventional feed is $520 a ton right now. The same is true for forage feeds; alfalfa and various kinds of hay.

Bruce King said...

Off grid mama, for most of the season it's absolutely cheapest to have the animals harvest it themselves, and that's the direction I'm thinking too.

The time of year when it's harder to do is winter; particuarly for ruminantes like cows or sheep; root crops can be fed to them, but you have to dig them up and if you're talking about a commercial quantity of cows, digging them up will be a very big task.

To keep the pastures in good shape I prefer to keep my animals off them during the non-growing months. We never get cold enough here to freeze the ground all winter -- this year the ground really didn't freeze at all, actually -- and the cattle/sheep hooves will cut the sod up and make mud.

So I put my cows into a smaller paddock, which I sacrifice (hence the name "sacrifice paddock" ) and feed them hay until the grass is growing again.

Spring, summer and fall self-feeding animals work great. It's winter that's the problem.

off grid mama said...

Ya after I wrote my comment I was pondering those issues... if you can keep growing season feed prices down then buy in winter feed it should help significantly.

Now, for pigs a standing field of corn and beans will go a long ways in the winter. Add field pumpkins and you'll really keep them happy. Even through a great deal of the winter. They'll clean up shattered grains as well. The pigs knock the cornstalks down.

Cattle can be harder but winter wheat planted in July or August gives a good stand of green feed. Combine that with winter radishes (i.e. diakons) you've got good winter feed. Run the pigs after them and they'll clean up.

You can do things for winter as well but DO keep some hay and grain when bad bad weather hits you'll need it! Especially ice storms! We keep straw for pig bedding, works better than hay.

Jeff said...

I'm bummed that I'll have to be abandoning my acre of Austrian Field Peas planted in the fall. I'll do a post on them before I move for good. Right now, they're about an inch tall, and the jury is still out as to whether they will grow fast enough to outpace the grass.