Friday, April 23, 2010

Burrs, stickers and prickly things, Oh my

Our place is overrun with burrs, stickers, prickly things, etc. Here are a few samples of what we have to deal with.

Innocent looking weed that grows up into a million burrs

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Like this

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Another variety of sticker

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Traditional Cockleburr

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As you can see on the top of the cows head, cockle burrs galore that get carried to the far reaches of the place

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Pretty blue plant according to my little girl. You may not be able to tell but that is a gazillion burrs waiting to populate

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As you can see these burrs are often dispersed especially around watering holes or any area animals, humans, or the wind can deposit these pesky plants.

We have been told that cutting down does not work because of the great root systems these rascals have. We are not going to spray chemicals which is by far the most recommended approach to weed control.

What to do?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Basic farming activities

Most farmers derive income from either producing and selling products or renting out land or services to other farmers. For the past two years we have fallen more in the renting out side of the equation.

We have had 3rd parties buy alfalfa on the stump and have rented out pasture land for other farmers. Selling on the stump has advantages including the following:

  • No equipment is needed as the 3rd party cuts, bales, and hauls off bales decreasing costs needed to run operation
  • Depending on the contract the seller can minimize risk as the buyer will deal with weather timing issues
  • We have found a buyer will likely come back for future cuttings thus limiting the need to advertise and find a buyer
  • The 3rd party does all the work other than irrigating

Selling on the stump will bring you anywhere between $65 and $120 per short ton (2000 lbs) depending on the quality of hay, the location and which cutting the hay is (1st, 2nd, or 3rd). The second and 3rd cut will give you a better quality hay and will sell for a higher rate but you usually get around 1/3 less hay. Last year we got $85 for the first cut $100 on the stump for our second cut.

We did not go for a 3rd cut. After seeking advice from other farmers (we have a crusty old farming uncle with lots of experience) we’ve heard if you go for a 3rd cut in our locale it dramatically reduces the 1st cut in the following year. The hay doesn’t have enough time to recover that late in the year.

We have thought of a few ways to potentially make more money off of our hay selling.

  1. Invest in some equipment and sell end product
  2. Produce small square bales instead of large square or round bales
  3. Use Fertilizer

All 3 options seem challenging at the moment. We don’t really want to spend too much money on equipment in the short term. Small bales come with a bunch of labor with us not being close enough yet to manage or do ourselves. And we are not too high on using fertilizer. We haven’t figured it out exactly yet but we are very concerned with commercial chemicals and want to keep things natural and organic. I guess you could call us environmentalists, hippies, tree huggers, etc.

Renting out pasture land is pretty straight forward. You get around $20 to $40 per pair of cattle, usually the cow and the calf, per month. The renter takes care of watering, moving pastures, fixing fence when needed, etc. We had about 30 pairs on our place last year and moved the cattle around fairly often which enabled us to use about 60 to 80 acres for about 4 or 5 months.

As the above indicates we have not invested that much time in our farming activities over the past year. Thus performing basic farming activities which is less time intensive than other activities.

Any other activities we could be doing that is less labor intensive?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Can you make land pay for itself?

I have some good friends that operate an efficient, diversified, and functioning family farm in Northern Montana. They do all their activities on about 6 acres of land. We're talking cows, pigs, laying hens, broiler chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, an acre worth of garden etc. Since we are still urbanites for the time being we like to get our eggs and dairy needs from them. On one of our previous visits I asked the farmer (I definitely consider them farmers) about their adjacent land. He responded "I'd love to buy it but they are asking a lot for it". I'm sure if they had the money they would expand in a heart beat but here lies the conundrum in being a farmer. Unless you:

  • Have parents that are rich
  • Inherited land
  • Are willing to mortgage the farm
  • Sell body parts other than the animals you are raising
  • Spent many years saving
  • Have a job other than being a farmer
  • Or are big enough economies of scale come into play

It's really hard to make the land pay for itself.

Let's do some simple math. Say you were able to come up with $100,000 to buy a piece of land. I don't care how many acres that buys for the time being. How much money would you have to earn to make that investment worth it?

Assuming you wanted to be paid back your money in 10 years you would have to net $10,000 a year after tax and expenses. This doesn't even take into consideration the time value of money.

Skip the next part if you are not an engineer, math wiz, or numbers person.

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For you finance majors, assume you want to keep up with inflation at 3%. You want to be paid back in 10 years and have invested $100,000. You would need to net $11,723 in cash per year for the next 10 years. Not to hard right? Well assume you only get to keep 50 cents of all you earn as the other 50 cents goes to expense (interest payments, taxes, gas, utilities, irrigation, feed, labor, etc.) Your gross revenue would have to be just under $24,000. That is probably doable. Yippee, you get to keep up with inflation. You might as well put your money in a GIC or money market account.

(I really got depressed after crunching more numbers. For example, say you wanted an 8% return and only got to keep 30 cents of every dollar. You would then have to gross nearly $50,000 a year to have a positive net present value on $100,000 worth of land.)

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So can you net after all costs and taxes $10,000 a year on $100,000 of land?

I’ll leave that as an open ended question. Here is what we’ve done in the last two years on our farm. We have net roughly $3,500 per $100,000 worth of land not including mortgage. I actually think that is quite good as all we did was sell 40 acres of alfalfa on the stump and rent out pasture land for 40 head of cattle.

So a couple of recommendations to try to get the most out of your land:

  • Consider investing as little as you can - ($100,000 is a lot of money, you wouldn’t need that much of a return on $20,000 worth of land). My wife said it best with “Don’t buy the garden of Eden, build it.”
  • Specialize your outputs – Alfalfa isn’t going to make enough in proportion to the cost of a small piece of land
  • Don’t invest in big or costly equipment – The smaller the investment the easier it is to have a reasonable payback

So how in the world are we going to go from basically loosing money to actually getting a return? I am convinced it will need to come from specialty products such as free range eggs, hormone free super duper good beef, honey, jam, organic vegetables, and maybe a few body parts.

Monday, April 12, 2010

My story

I am not a farmer. Neither are my wife or 3 children. However we are in the process of selling our home and hopefully making the move near a small village in Alberta Canada where we have purchased a 50% share of 140 acres of farmland and 100 acres of river bottom land (there about's depending on river flow.) There we expect to eventually build a house and start a simple farm.

Crazy? Maybe

I’d like to think we are more adventuresome than totally off our rockers but more than a few of our friends and acquaintances beg to differ.

We have actually owned this land for the past couple of years and have done some basic farming (future blog to indicate what I consider basic farming) as well as can be expected from 3 hours away. It has taken us some time to work out some details to make this move possible. We are not there yet but are feeling closer to our next big step.

So why would you want to read my ramblings? I would guess you are reading this as you have a similar desire to increase your knowledge and capability in the general following areas:

  1. Sustainable Farming
  2. Real Food
  3. Simple life
  4. Renewable Resources
  5. Animal Husbandry
  6. Toxin Free Living
  7. Self Reliance

(Ah man, my bullet points are flowers. I’ll have to figure out how to change that)

I have learned several things over the past couple of years regarding the above and expect to learn tons more as this whole process unfolds.

Hopefully along the way I can entertain, unite, and/or inspire other non farmers, farmer wannabe’s, and current farmers on the above. I am convinced in the future more and more people will want to do what we are attempting to do but have no idea of how to do it.

Who knows, maybe one day I will actually become a real farmer.