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Sustainable Animal Husbandry, Beyond the Pantry. Part 1

It is very common amongst homesteaders, hobby farms, and larger animal farms to grow out meat and butcher as much as your freezer or pantry can hold for a season. Growing out is the process of getting young livestock, whether they be sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, or fowl, and raising them until they are at their prime age for butchering. For small animals, it is around one year old, such as the case for sheep and veal production. For fowl, it is typically between 8-16 weeks. Longer if you are raising geese and turkeys. Larger animals can be butchered even after they have matured and have even been bred. All of these examples are outside the realm of commercial animal products which will not be referenced here in this paper. This is about the smaller businesses, locally raised and grown animals and backyard homesteaders.

I want to address a trend, it is not universal but a very common practice, which is this process of butchering prime animals for processing and buying new young for the next season. Let’s call it whole stock culling. This might make it easier to read. We will discuss the economic reasons, the energy usage reasons, and how these dictate our choices. The most common version of this practice you will see is where people having a breed of choice, will purchase very young animals, in an optimal season (spring to summer) and plan for their butchering to occur in the fall. This saves energy during the winter months.

One of the distinct economic advantages of whole stock culling is the overall cost of feed. This is a short-term loss for long-term gain. What you sacrifice in food purchases for the livestock is reimbursed when the product is produced. For most homesteaders, those who are not selling their product but saving it, their “animal price per pound” algorithm is fairly simple. How much did it cost to acquire the animal? How much feed did I use and what did it cost? How much time, effort, and infrastructure did it take to get me the product? Often, for dedicated homesteaders, this cost doesn’t necessarily seem wise, but in truth, they are accepting a financial loss in exchange for knowledge, wisdom, and skills now acquired by the doing. Also, they have a sense of accomplishment and food security. The first year, for any homesteader’s venture into private meat-producing, is usually the most costly. Their infrastructure, if not already present, must be built and there is a steep learning curve the first time they take on the responsibilities from start to finish. There are a greater number of homesteaders who are first-generation than those that have inherited the land with infrastructure in place. This means, the learning curve is quite high and will be a challenge to most, but a great challenge worth exploring.

Surprisingly, the most inspiring aspect of first-generation homesteaders is that I often see them reaching for much loftier goals and quickly. Once the satisfaction of accomplishing such a previously daunting task is concluded, they are ready for bigger and better challenges. So often this means expanding into other animals for production, adding to an existing coop, herd, or flock, and building even more infrastructure. Usually, they also realize they need more land and they were and are capable of working it!

This growth and forward momentum organically will lead to a balance in the margins. What does that mean? It means producing more with less cost and energy. For example, in chicken math, you need 1000 chickens laying eggs to begin turning a good profit. (This is just an example and the market greatly depends on your location, the health of your livestock, and a good customer base. Basically, results may vary.) The point is, if you are a small business, you will spend a greater part of the pie on supplies, to get the product out to customers. If your business grows, the pie can be divided into smaller or larger pieces. The amount you spend on supplies is reduced by percentages because you have more products to sell. Selling a carton of your eggs has a cost. You cannot charge a ridiculous amount, you have to follow local trends. If that means farm fresh eggs are an average of $4 a carton, you should sell for about that much too. Selling 20 dozen a month at $4 equals $80, minus cartons, minus chicken food, minus labeling. (This doesn’t even include your time). Selling 1000 dozen for $4 a month equals $4,000. Minus feed and cartons and labels but you buy them in bulk now for much less. Taking $60 from your $80 hurts. Taking $1,000 from your $4,000… not so much. It is much more economical to buy in bulk and your overall price per piece will be greatly reduced and you can afford to have your items shipped to you less often. Saving much more in the long run. It is not about price, it is about margins. Many of us with small home businesses, can not afford or even meet those quantity demands, as of yet. It takes time to grow your business and more is more when it comes to margins.

Growing more than you can use is becoming a popular start-up small business! I see this happening even in my small town. Granted my circle of influence is folks from the farmers market and other rural families. However, I speak to people at grocery stores and at the post office and this was the first year they gardened, or they finally built that coop they wanted and are looking for hens. We speak to a lot of people who are ready to do something more than the 9-5. So, after the infrastructure is built and time to learn is had, often, homesteaders start to look at the bigger picture. Why keep my 9-5? What if I can replace it? I think I can be just as happy with an older truck. If we are gonna be outside a lot more, maybe we don’t need cable. It’s time to sell the boat I never use, it would pay for the fencing we need. Once these ideas take root, it’s hard to stop them and that is a beautiful thing.

Now we need to address energy. Personal energy. At this point, the small business or homestead is learning about saving, producing more, and narrowing that margin. After your first year with a flock, you learn what went wrong and what went right. Most of the time, winter is the biggest kick in the pants. Winter will change you. You have to feed the animals, no matter how cold. They need water, no matter how frozen. You are their caretaker and they are not free to find their own way, and let’s face it, chickens probably can’t. The wild chicken flocks roaming the plains have become a thing of the past. (kidding) Winter lets you know how much food matters and the cost. Keeping animals through the winter will make it impossible to leave the house for longer than a few hours. It will limit your schedule. There is only so much daylight and you’ll need it. If you have an issue with electricity going out, who does that affect? Are the animals fine in their shelter or have you just lost an expensive incubator full of eggs hatching? Do you have lambs born too early out in the cold? Do you have a backup plan for your own home as well as the livestock? This all must be considered. Last winter, we didn’t have power for 2 weeks because it was so bad. We spent all of our time keeping a fire going and in the middle of that chore, feeding all our animals.

After the worst of the weather was over and it became warm, we had to take a break. I mean, get to the bare minimum of necessary chores and rest. We had used up all our energy. Our personal storehouses had been depleted. We needed to recharge. You will experience this too if you are thinking about getting into animal production. Whether personal or for business. Until you have all the odds and ends worked out, it will be hard.

So after a season or too most people decide to practice whole stock culling. Just like planting a garden and harvesting before winter, the plan to raise meat birds or meat animals has a season. It is desirable to have lambs born in the late winter, early spring. Why? Fresh spring grass and plants will be coming on and sheep do not require supplemental feed if the pasture is good. They even improve your pasture with rotational grazing. So you have a product that converts grass into meat or money. You want the sheep to be ready for market when they are 6 months old. Or you will butcher yourself in the fall. Either way, no supplemental food cost, and your labor involve moving them from one fenced area to another and loading them for sale. It is the same with fowl. We want our chickens in the spring, laying by fall. If they are meat birds, you can cull twice, raising a spring flock and a summer flock. You must have the freezer space and or canning knowledge to store all the meat. Otherwise selling locally is the next step.

There is one major downside I see to the whole stock culling method that should be discussed. That will be for our next installment. Until then, I hope this has helped you and stimulated your thoughts and ideas. At the very least, I hope we are all growing and preparing, and thinking ahead. Keep planting, growing, and learning!

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