Making Your Small Farm Profitable (Storey, 1999) by Ron Macher offers tips to help turn your farm into a profitable business. Whether you're buying a new farm or jump-starting an old one, this expert advice will keep you on the path to success.
In the beginning stages of getting your farm off the ground, you’ll be making some crucial decisions, and there are a few fundamentals that will help guide anyone toward success. In addition to deciding where and what to farm, you’ll need some basic guidelines on farming itself. If you learn these basic principles and apply them to your farm, they will help you to avoid many future headaches and heartaches:
• Plan your farm and your goals carefully.
• Farm goals should be family goals.
• Look at the whole picture.
• A farmer should learn and grow through reading and meetings.
• Read, research, and experiment.
• Old is not always obsolete. New is not always better.
• Natural fertility and slope of land are critical.
• To be sustainable, a farm must be profitable.
• A farm must be profitable.
Now, let’s explore some other important principles.
PRINCIPLE: To be sustainable, a farm must be environmentally sound and socially acceptable.
For your farm to be sustainable, you must develop cropping and livestock systems that are environmentally sound and somewhat socially acceptable. Hear us out. For instance, plowing up and down the hill so your soil washes out onto a public road is not environmentally sound, because you lose a lot of healthy soil. Nor is it socially acceptable, because everybody pays for the cost of cleanup. As another example, huge feedlots of large numbers of concentrated animals are encountering more and more opposition today, some even from neighboring farmers. Lack of social acceptance could prevent this type of farm from being sustainable into the future.
PRINCIPLE: Avoid debt.
Dealing with bankers is like selling through a middleman. The farmer makes less profit because he has to pay interest and principal. Start-up debt is OK if you can pay at least 20 percent (preferably 50 percent) on the land and stretch the payments out as low and as long as possible with no prepayment penalty when you have a good year. For all other projects, grow into the enterprise rather than borrowing into it. The principle is to avoid debt as much as you can and to make payments in line with farm production ups and downs.
PRINCIPLE: Keep costs down.
Whenever you try something new in the way of crops or livestock, do it on a small scale and grow into it while learning.
PRINCIPLE: Do things on time.
Accomplishing tasks on time is an important principle of farming that requires your labor and machinery requirements to match. Fields are best sized to what you can do in one day. You can drive only one tractor or tiller at a time. Timing is important because of the seasonal and cyclical nature of farming. If you want your cows to calve close together, the bull must be with your cows for only 60 days, or two heat cycles. Close calving means more attention on your part, and a more uniform-sized calf crop for selling purposes.
Principle: Plan your farm to minimize labor.
Work can be minimized by planning your farm layout wisely. Run a travel lane with access to crop fields and pastures down the middle of your farm, to allow for efficient movement of livestock and machinery; create square or rectangular fields to maximize the efficiency of your machinery; and plan placement of sheds and gardens for best access from the house and fields to save time and energy. If you are raising herd-type animals, maintain several animals whenever possible. Herds of animals are more content than are one or two animals, who are always wanting to rejoin the main herd. Uniform bunches of animals enable you to creep-feed calves on higher-quality forage than is needed for the mother cows. Remember that culling is important.
PRINCIPLE: Develop a system of production that balances farm resources and available labor.
Small acreages lend themselves to good timing. Due to their small size, you can reach locations quickly. With low numbers of livestock, tasks do not take long to perform. This often allows you to beat the weather or use it to your advantage.
PRINCIPLE: Keep good records.
It’s essential to keep careful financial and performance records. One of the most important things you need to know is the cost of production for each enterprise. It is nice to know ewe No. 29 had triplets for the last three years. It is nicer to know that it cost “X” dollars of feed for the ewe and “Y” dollars for the lambs, and the cost of the pasture, hay, equipment, and so on, allotted to her was so many cents per pound, because now you know what price you need to sell at to be profitable.
PRINCIPLE: Learn basic veterinary skills and tasks.
Good how-to skills are important. Vet calls today are easily $25 just for the trip, plus labor and medicine, so it pays to learn how to dock sheep tails, castrate calves, and deliver babies.
PRINCIPLE: Learn carpentry, electrical, and machinery repair skills.
Carpentry, electrical, and machinery skills all reduce costs. If you do not have these skills, some courses could be helpful.
Principle: Learn stockman skills, and keep gentle livestock.
Stockman skills are also important, but you may not be able to learn them in school. Talk to someone in the business and see what he or she knows, or read books and magazines. A basic example is knowing where to stand when herding cattle — standing in a place in their field of view saves time in herding and reduces the animals’ stress level. Research has shown that gentle livestock reproduce and grow faster and better than do wild, nervous animals. But there are other reasons that gentle livestock are important. If you have a pet cow or ewe, for instance, one that will always come to a feed bucket when you call, that animal will help you move your livestock from one pasture to the next or into the working corral area with minimal trouble. They’ll also bring the herd in for a close visual inspection for new babies, bad eyes, sickness, or other problems. Being around your animals, patting and scratching them, and observing all help keep them gentle. Using a treat like cattle cubes or an ear of corn also speeds along the process.
PRINCIPLE: Take good care of your buildings, machinery, and livestock.
Buildings and machinery that are taken care of will always cost less to maintain and will rarely need replacement. Obey your engine care instructions on machinery, and frequently inspect your buildings and machinery for wear, weather damage, and general condition.
Livestock also respond to better treatment. Healthy, stress-free livestock will gain weight more quickly, stay in better condition, and have better performance in birthing and raising young. Learn everything you can to keep your livestock healthy and unstressed, and make sure they have adequate shelter, feed, and water.
PRINCIPLE: Have a good water system, and save as much water as you can.
A good water system for livestock is essential. It is better if your livestock can go to the water, instead of you hauling it to them. Your own pond or lake with a submersible pump and plastic pipe makes life more pleasant for you and your livestock.
Water can be stored in ponds and in the soil itself. For instance, if your soil is 4 to 5 percent organic matter, it can absorb 4 to 6 inches of rain per hour without erosion, which would cause runoff. If your organic matter is only about 2 percent, your soil can absorb less inches of rain per hour.
PRINCIPLE: Maintain or improve the soil fertility.
Maintaining soil fertility is a process of thinking about the “why” of the way you do things on your farm. Several processes improve and help fertility, like composting on either large or small scale, animal manures, and green manures for cover crops. Always be thinking of ways to build your soil.
Animal manures can be good for the soil. One of the best ways to spread manure is to let the animals do it. Hauling piles of manure from animals standing in a muddy barn lot requires that you spend time and labor forking out the manure, plus fuel and expensive machinery (the manure spreader) to spread it. If you keep your animals on pasture instead, they will spread their manure across the field while they graze. This method lets your animals do the work for you.
PRINCIPLE: Let the animals do as much feed harvesting on their own as possible.
It is much easier to stockpile fields of grass for winter feed and drive the livestock to that field one time than to haul hay daily. To put up hay for winter forage requires time, money, and equipment. You may not be able to avoid hay altogether, but the cost savings when you can is money in your pocket.
PRINCIPLE: Have two years’ worth of hay and grain in storage.
This is a goal you should try to achieve for a number of reasons. The obvious one is weather. You never know when the winter will be longer, or the summer hotter and dryer, and you will need extra feed to supplement your livestock on pasture. When you have your own feed, you are more likely to make it through to rain.
And finally, some advice for you to practice on yourself:
• Be disciplined.
• Don’t procrastinate.
• Practice scheduled, efficient, and productive work habits.
• Keep a positive attitude.
• Be happy.
Food for thought
Learning the basic principles of farming will provide you with the tools needed to run a successful operation. Though all of the principles here are important, the most important ones are the last few mentioned. A positive, happy attitude and a disciplined approach to problem solving will make your goals easier to obtain.
Excerpted from Making Your Small Farm Profitable, © by Ron Macher, used with permission from Storey Publishing.