Thursday, August 29, 2013

Question from a reader: Growing own feed

James L posed this question to me, and I think it's worth talking about

"Blogger  Hey Bruce,

You mentioned that you're thinking of attempting to grow much of your own animal feed. I guess you're talking about not just the cows, but also your pigs?

In your earlier posts however, I recall that you generally haven't been particularly fond of this approach for your farm. I think the rationale was that it simply wouldn't be worth the immense additional effort to plant, cultivate, harvest & maintain the pastures/crops required to feed the pigs....especially when compared to how cheaply grain can be purchased. Besides the huge amount of labour involved, there is also the costs of buying (or hiring) the appropriate machinery that would be needed.  "

My thinking hasn't changed, but my circumstances have.  I've been farming on a very small number of acres with a large number of animals per acre.  That system worked fine with the supplemental food I was able to get through basically industrial foraging:  Discarded food, mostly produce, provided the bulk of the calories. 

I did that for two reasons; one, I could get the food for a lower cost than equivalent feed, and two, it allowed me to carry more animals than I had acres.    It worked well for 7 years, and then my food supply got disrupted.   The fellow running the recycling center that I drew most of my food from moved 60 miles further away, and then got weird about parceling out the food -- he liked having multiple farms picking up his food, but he really didn't' have the volume to support all of the farms that he attracted.

So my feed situation got unstable.  I dealt with it a while by basically calling the guy every morning, but it soon became clear that he either didn't have the volume I wanted any more, or just plain wasn't able or wasn't willing to give me that volume because he was sending it to other farms.  Either way it was a problem. 

Over the last 3 months I've found other sources, and we're back up to about half the volume we used to get, but in the meantime I've had to purchase feed, and feed isn't cheap around here.  $540 a ton, and we go through a ton a week if I'm feeding complete ration feed only. 

My circumstances have changed:  I used to be in a situation where I had plenty of food that was relatively cheap, and not many acres.  Now I'm at a place where I have a lot of acres, and food is relatively expensive.  And the acres I do have are pretty darned good ground. 

My long-term goal is to find a type of farming that I enjoy, is profitable, and fits with this area -- both in terms of soil, weather, crops and so on.  I want to grow things on my farm that fit well with where I am. 

What you said is correct:  it is more effort to plant, cultivate, harvest and maintain pastures/crops to feed the pigs -- due to limited acres, I couldn't raise near enough feed to make it worth while.  But now, with 94 acres available, I have enough land for the economies of scale to start making producing my own feed possible.   And I've also found a farmer in this area who does custom work (cultivating, planting, harvesting) for a reasonable hourly rate -- so for those speculative crops I don't have to buy the equipment, I can hire him in, try it out, and if it works out and pencils out, THEN buy the equipment. 

The first thing that I've been exploring this year is growing corn without spraying down the weeds; I'd say that the sweet corn crop was pretty much a mess, but it provided a good learning opportunity, and i'm going to try it again next year with what I learned this year. 

With respect to what i'm looking at growing, here's the list: 

Pure alfalfa
Alfalfa and Orchard grass mix
Orchard grass
Winter Wheat (both as harvest and cover crop)
Oats (cover crop and graze)
Sweet corn (version 2, hopefully better next year)

These are the things that i'll try in larger plots; from a few acres to 20 acres each.   They are mostly aimed at ruminants (beef and dairy cows) but also serve a dual purpose for the pigs, providing forage to supplement their offered feed.   I'll also have a kitchen garden, but you wont' see farm scale production out of it.  Talking about

Some of this I'll be planting this fall;  some will be next spring and some won't be until may of next year (sweet corn, for instance). 


Funder said...

Who are you feeding the sweet corn to? (In addition to yourself, I hope!)

Joe said...

When it comes to the corn did you do any blind cultivation before it germinated or shortly thereafter? With the corn I grew this year (blog entry soon) I ran the rototiller down the rows when the weeds weren't even thread stage and then did it again when I side dressed Urea. The weeds between the rows got pretty big, but have flopped over like a bowl haircut from the 90's... Haven't slowed the corn down at all.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the follow up post Bruce!

It certainly sounds like you have an ideal situation in which to experiment with out committing too much.

I'll be eagerly watching to see how it goes and especially interested to see by how much you are able to reduce your usage of purchased feed.

George said...

Cultivating corn takes almost no time at all with a decent rotary cultivator.. especially in sandy soils. I can travel 6-8MPH through the corn..

A tine weeder can be used when the corn is newly germinated and up to about 4 inches or so tall, then use the rotary cultivator until it is around 2-3 feet (or the tractor is bending them over too much).

The farm I manage raises organic poultry feed, enough to produce 6-8 tons per month, year round.

Approx 20 acres of corn and soybeans each.

We have a few customers who buy our broiler mash to feed to their pigs as well. Seems to be working well for them.