Farming Smarter, Not Harder, Part 2: Herd Size and a Farm Business Plan

Reader Contribution by Mary Jane Phifer and Steelmeadow Farm
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You know you are short on forage when a cedar tree is a treat!

Last time, I wrote about the beginnings of our Missouri farm and our problems with grass. This installment will conclude with our continued struggles with numbers and how we finally (maybe) got smarter.

Keeping Track of Livestock Numbers

Numbers mean livestock head count as well as an annual business plan review. First: the census of animals on your farm. I cannot tell you how many posts I read in social media that are the direct result of problems from overstocking. (Caveat: I am also guilty of this.) Our cattle numbers have fluctuated between the five calves we started with up to about twenty-four when the “big drought” hit, then back down to about twelve or so. Our goat numbers went from the eleven we brought with us from Virginia to nearly sixty, then (again, after the drought) down to a handful.

As years went by after the Big Drought of 2012, the fields recovered and improved each year. Lower stocking rates in addition to Management Intensive Grazing (MIG)  and stockpiling forage has many benefits- the sod thickens, grass species improve and runoff all but ceases. Gradually our cattle and goat numbers increased in response to the surplus grazing. We would rotate grazing paddocks and move the cows and the goats here and there, but I was not really keeping track of the numbers/animal units we were attempting to carry.

We had friends contact us who owned livestock we had sold to them in the past, asking us to buy them back as they were cutting back on their own herd numbers. We had plenty of grazing and obviously we did not learn anything from 2012.

A breeding herd of a bull and a dozen cows would do fine on our farm. A herd of mixed goats of 50 or so would do fine on the farm. Both herds together however put stressors on the forage, in addition to the lack of rains after the haying, that I should have paid attention to. Livestock numbers had gradually increased, we cut hay again, had a drought, and now we are in a tight spot. Again. Would we ever learn?

Secondly, something that would have saved us some pocketbook-ache would have been yearly reassessment of our farm’s business plan which is more than just projected expenses and income.  We started with a plan but we did not reevaluate it. For a few years, we were certified by Animal Welfare Association, now A Greener World, which meant we had to update our business plan annually. Two years ago we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the certifications, and with that, our annual business plan evaluation stopped as well. Major mistake.

Had I been keeping a tighter check on our numbers, stocking rates, animal grazing units, I might have avoided the hay fiasco we now find ourselves in. Lesson point; make a plan and update it annually. “Farm blindness” happens to us all.

2020 Irish Dexter heifer calves ready to sell.

Smarter Thinking for Goatherds

As the fall months of 2019 progressed and the days shortened, we acknowledged our mistakes. Cutting hay was a big error, we should have left the forage in the field.  Allowing our stocking rates to exceed what the pastures would carry under stressed conditions was just as bad a judgement call, if not worse. We were putting out fires of our own making. It was time to get smarter. Also, we are aging. Even more outrageous, we want to do things off the farm, you know, things that start with a “t” like travel.

Since the MIG paddocks had been taken down for haying, we decided to redivide the 12-acre field into three permanent sections with 4-by-4 woven-wire fence. This would allow contained grazing for the livestock, including wee baby goats and calves, in the section we desired and the other two sections gated off for regrowth. The “east” field that once had been nine MIG sections was permanently fenced into two sections, following an old terrace etched across the field. We still use electric twine and a solar charger to subdivide, but one strand (not three) to keep the cows where we want. Goats can duck underneath, knowing goats will go where goats want to go, within the allowed woven wire section.

Will this be the best way to utilize our forage? Time will tell, but future haying is out of the question and we know for certain that stockpiling forage and MIG practices do pay off. These changes should help with our Grass Problem; but only in growing forage and grass. Next we needed to reduce the numbers of mouths eating the forage.

We advertised our cows, selling the youngest of our breeding females first followed by the middle-agers. Currently, we are back to where we started with a bull and four cows. The goats, bred for spring kidding, will be evaluated with pen and paper after the kids are on the ground and again at weaning. Kids and does will be weighed for productivity and rate of gain. Culling the bottom 25% annually is a surefire way to optimize your goat herd. We cannot afford to keep and feed the slackers but I do not want to cull goats too early as sometimes the best producers are the not the beauty queens. Reducing livestock as well as looking over our business plan in a regular fashion will address the Numbers Problem.

Smarter thinking also encompasses the garden, which can quickly turn a pleasurable thing into a dreaded chore. I love to can and learned we don’t have to grow tons of tomatoes, green beans, okra, cucumbers and such every year.  “Canning crops” are now on rotation, which also helps us with plant rotation. Compost from the goat barns,chicken coop and kitchen makes a fine soil amendment and by all means, put that pile near the garden!  Now that we are “gardening for two” our needs are smaller; reviewing the pantry stores and adjusting the varieties of vegetables we need. 2020 will be a green bean year and I found a variety of purple podded pole beans.  Purple pods should be easy to see- no more lost beans hiding in foliage.  Ditto for red okra. 

Yes, I would love our farm to make a profit every year by selling calves, goats, milk, soap and honey. How can we earn money while avoiding the unexpected expenses that are the result of our own farming ineptitude?  Farming smarter, that is how. Take a step back and look at your farm with the filter off- ask friends for their opinions, review that business plan and if you still do not have one, make one.  Do not get lulled into a false sense of security when you enjoy a few consecutive years of lovely, perfect weather.  Plan for the worst every year! You have read all the articles, posts, blogs and no doubt have come to the conclusion what works for one does not work for all; I am preaching to the choir. You can farm smarter and not harder if you remain flexible, set your goals, learn from mistakes and be fearless in making changes.

Mary Jane Phifer is a heritage cattle farmer and owner of Steel Meadow Farm in Mansfield, Mo., where she and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle and Spanish commercial goats on their farm. Read all of Mary Jane’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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