Friday, October 14, 2011

Farming For A Living

As we drive across the state of Missouri the fertile green pastures are dotted with livestock, mostly beef cows.  It is more unusual now, more than it was forty years ago when I was a kid, to see a family sized dairy farm.  I remember the 1960's and many neighbors of ours milked twenty or thirty cows and appeared to have plenty of food on the table.  And it was unusual for the family to have to have permanent jobs off the farm.  Today it is almost impossible to find a family farm where at least one of the family members if not both adults don't hold down full time employment off the farm and then come home to their night job with the livestock. 

Something very significant has taken place on today's farm that has changed this system.  I believe this change has not been for the good.  Yes, part of what is going on is that we expect a higher and higher lifestyle as each generation comes by.  Just take a look at our costs of housing we demand and the dollars we are willing to put into our transportation.  I mean really now, can any vehicle in which its main purpose is to simply get you to town and back be worth over $50000.  We are talking a pick up truck here.  But the problem is also related to the methods we employ today compared to the methods of farming decades ago have changed.

Cows, both dairy and beef, have historically been allowed to graze in order to supply their primary daily fix for nutrition.  Somewhere along the way, maybe the upswing was about 1971, we began to think we knew more about nutrition than the cow did herself.  Regardless of the fact that she does have a few more years of experience than we do, we chose to begin the process of taking feed to her instead of allowing her to walk to the feed.  Now this sounds really simple, and it truly is simple, but most of us will never understand this concept. What I mean here is that instead of allowing these animals to do what is natural to them, graze, we chose to pen them up and began a very expensive process of mechanically harvesting, storing and then mechanically feeding what was already feeding the cow at a very low cost to begin with.  We then got real smart and started mechanically planting different crops in order to 'be more efficient', because we didn't think the old crops were producing enough milk or meat.  This added even more costs.  Then came the next step.

We thought since we are now feeding all this expensive feed including the most expensive feed of all which would be grains, we needed cows that would 'be more efficient'.  So we began breeding for animals that only produce high quantities of milk and meat when fed grains. We began a breeding process known as single trait selection.  The only thing we became interested in was production.  This is primarily because we mistakenly confused high production with high profits.  When in fact, these two are almost always antagonistic.  That is when one goes up the other goes down.  Something else also happened during the last fifty years or so.

Many of us old guys who can still remember that a cow can feed herself by grazing, died off, got lazy, or just quit talking about the old days because we got tired of being made fun of.  So during this period of time we completely changed the genetics of these cows, some refer to these new cows as welfare cows because they can't seem to make it on their own accord.  These type animals have much shorter lifespans, reproduction problems, and higher nutritional demands which equate to higher production costs.  We chose to increase the size of not only the animal but also the size of the farm because we got confused and thought increasing numbers was the direction towards profitability.  When that didn't work we sent our wives to town to get a job.  After a few more years, her pay check wasn't near enough.  So then we went to town and got a job as well and began working the night shift on the farm.

We now have gotten to the point with most livestock production that this once thriving industry is nothing more than a past time or hobby.  If you doubt this statement, I challenge you to locate three persons you know who now can say they make their entire living from their farms.  Most will never find a single person in this category.  We must accept the fact that agriculture as a hobby is not sustainable for the human race.  We will become extinct ourselves if this system of failed agriculture continues.  I have spoken about animal agriculture in these few words but I see the same scenario in most all areas of food production.  We do not have to live in quarter million dollar houses and drive fifty thousand dollar transportation devices.  But we do have to eat regularly.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Fall Planning

Today is the first Monday of October and as I just got back in the house from morning chores I can report a fantastic temperature of 58 degrees F.  The gardens got frost bit for two nights in a row so they are really shrinking fast.  Thank goodness for cool season grasses though, our fescue has really taken off.  We will have enormous growth for the next 60 days in our pastures.  It is our ability to have not only substantial forage growth in the spring time, like most places, but our fall growth is like earning 10% over prime. 

However, this fall growth is not a time to begin stockpiling for winter feed.  If we have done nothing all year long to prepare for this growth spurt, little can be gained over the next two months, of almost perfect growing conditions to reduce and especially to eliminate winter feeding of hay.  What I mean is all year long up to this point we will have had to be moving the herd through our many paddocks in a planned grazing program in order to keep the root system and biology in the soil ready for this time.  It is also very important how we managed these paddocks in the prior year.  How I grazed this spring will have a direct consequence on next years growth. 

 Even if you do not farm or ranch where cool season grasses thrive, a system of planned grazing is absolutely necessary for optimum growth of forages.  Even in Southern Missouri where stocking rates can be very high, we can easily double our forage production or more.  Other types of growing areas will have even a greater need to learn the requirements of capturing every drop of rain water that falls during the year, gain the understanding of feeding the biology in the soil, how to maximize photosynthesis, so that mechanically processed feeds can be reduced or eliminated.  First we eliminate these high costs of processed feeds then we begin to add additional animals.

Not only will the need be to add more to your current herd once progress appears in your paddocks.  But the need will be to add other species to not only promote more growth but to better utilize what grows there already.  It has been a naive agriculture community to believe that single species farming was sustainable.  Farms of distant past involved rotations of crops and many different species of animals and plants.  This was not only a good idea because of nostalgia, but because of the symbiotic relationship between these different species and the improvement in the whole system when the farm is not subjected to the limited potential that single species environments perpetuate.  

So I encourage all to learn more about multi-species farming and to implement a strategy to gain from what advantages it will bring.  Farming without animals is not farming at all.  The life cycle of birth, growth, death and decay are essential for a planet based on a biological structure.  Science has benefits when applied in a constructive manner.  It helps teach us how and why a system functions in such a way for all to benefit.  A science that makes an attempt to replace a biological world with man made chemistry and or technology will surely succeed.  It will succeed so vehemently that all biology will in deed be ultimately and completely dismantled.