That highlights lesson one of my continuing life course of study in stockmanship. It is, simply, go out and go out often to look at, listen to and really study the animals in your charge.
I was raised in a house full of books and given a pretty broad view of my world from the seat of an old Studebaker pickup, atop many a sale barn gate, and perched on straw bales at livestock shows and breeder auctions. Dad began and ended each day with the stock, and I believe he could eventually spot one just when it was starting to get sick.
Thirty minutes just before full light and just before sunset are optimal times to walk among the creatures in your care. During those times they are generally more closely grouped, are settling in or rising up from a night of rest and are more easily approached for closer examination. These are also times when livestock are more vulnerable to predation.
I find much benefit in watching hogs rise up and come off of their beds. It is at that moment that they will demonstrate the earliest signs of lameness, their feet and legs are most observable, and they will often then demonstrate early respiratory ill precursors in the form of coughing, sniffling and/or labored breathing. Those last animals off of the beds and slow movers should be noted for further observation.
2. Avoid Barn Blindness
Point two of understanding stockmanship is the need to be totally honest with yourself as you look at and appraise your livestock. As the old-times would say, don’t be barn blind — blind to the problems in the home barn and pastures. Really see what you have in the fold or the stable, warts and all. This also means honestly appraising their offspring and how they go on to perform on your farm and for others. If you had 10 cows and they had 10 calves last spring, but you had to sell those 10 calves in eight different lots at a fall sale, you have problems.
Too often herds and flocks, regardless of size, carry too many poor performers. I have often made the point that very few herds or flocks cannot be made better and more profitable by simply removing the bottom third of their numbers. They take away from the better performers crucial, often limited feedstuffs to needed attention from the producer, and the presence of individuals of poor quality will reduce the selling price of all in the lot or drove.
Drive 75 good red feeder pigs into a sale ring with one poor-quality black shoat among them. I guarantee that the little black rat will move to the outside of the group, circle the ring every few seconds and be seen by every farmer for 10 townships around.
3. Stockmanship Quality Trumps Quantity
The small stockman, most especially, has to emphasize quality over quantity. Too often I have seen animals of poor quality enter the marketplace and automatically be tabbed or dismissed as “just the production of a small farm.”
It is or should be the small farmer who has the time and focus to see that all management practices are fully carried out in a timely fashion. No one expects small herds and flocks to be headed up by purple-ribbon winners, but the pigs and calves from small farms shouldn’t look like they have been sired by opossums and buck deer either.
We had a neighbor with two dozen cows of 25 different colors whose calves sold in at least 18 different lots each fall. They would come off the truck ranging from a bull calf with horns that would have been impressive along the Chisholm Trail to a mouse-colored heifer so small that she had to stand up twice to cast a shadow. The more even in size and uniform in appearance a group of animals can be made on the farm the more they will make when sold.
4. Know Your Market
Point four is that what the producer knows and does with that knowledge now has an ever-growing value in the marketplace. Building sales and selling prices and drawing new customers hinges upon being an accessible presence in the marketplace, being knowledgeable and a good communicator and arriving in the marketplace with animals that will perform well for others.
We had a 35-plus year marketing niche selling swine breeding stock to other small farmers who sought seedstock produced in a manner and facilities similar to their own with breeding current for the times. They wanted stock to fit their farms and markets and that meant that we had to know about those farms and what shaped those markets. That is true whether marketing seedstock, brown eggs, grass-fed beef and lamb or heirloom pork.
5. Avoid Fads
Point five of understanding stockmanship also touches a bit on the issue of fad-chasing. I have seen potbellied pigs, emus and ostriches and even the raising of chinchillas in garages come and go. The simple truth is: that which is produced for greatest success from the small stock farm is that which is produced in a more traditional and natural manner. Livestock should stay to the middle-of-the-road in terms of growth and carcass performance and be produced with respect for consumer concerns and be produced in a cost-effective manner. Even the most ardent of foodies are beginning to question when and how much to pay for organic production. I have seen complex and costly livestock rations formulated to reduce the use of corn and soy and performance from them often falters when things get even slightly out of balance or new sources of ration components must be tapped.
I was at a farm conference some years ago when two ladies came up to me in tears. They had just paid high prices for a couple of trios of heirloom turkeys and were then handed a ration plan that was several pages long. There were many ingredients needed to achieve a balanced ration, some had to be added in quite small amounts, many were going to be hard to find and maintain in stock and some were going to be quite costly. It was, no doubt a good ration, but one not easily formulated. Very little thought had been given to real-world economics and product accessibility. I can still recall the look of relief that came over them when I recounted my experiences and success with a certain nationally available line of feedstuffs. That firm had begun using all vegetable sources of protein, had a continuing program of poultry research and was readily available even in rural areas. Practices that add meaningful value are worthwhile, but we must be careful of imposing constraints that will box out too many while trying to box in certain elements of production.
6. Pennywise Foolishness
Point six is an old one. Do not become pennywise to the point of being pound foolish. I remember the dressing down one of my vo-ag teachers gave the crowd at an FFA swine sale sitting on their hands for more than the Missouri March weather warranted. “It does no good to go home and tell your sows how many boars you bid on, you’ve got to buy at least one.”
An input is something you spend money on with the intent of making money. An old rule of thumb that I have tried to follow holds that a male capable of advancing a flock will have a cost to acquire of roughly the same value of the five best females to which he is to be bred. That is probably not true of the beef cattle trade at the moment, but there has to be far more to a good bull, boar or ram than merely “freshening” the females to which he is bred.
Likewise, feedstuffs, the crucial fuel for efficient growth and reproduction, are not a place for cutting corners. You cannot starve a profit out of an animal.
7. Record Keeping
Without the guidance of good records, how do you know if you are doing well or not with your own stockmanship? You can, for example, sell a dozen eggs that costs $1.95 to produce for $2 a dozen, but not very far nor very fast. If they cost $2.05 to produce, the taxman and the banker will tell you what you’re doing wrong, but not nearly as quickly as good accounting would have. More and more farmers are becoming involved in direct marketing of their goods and wares, and to carry that to successful ends they must know their full costs per unit of production — including a fair return on producer labor.
Whether it is a dozen eggs, a jar of honey, a 2-pound stick of whole hog sausage or half of a carcass of a grassfed beef animal, every cost in the trip from farm to fork must be accounted for and fully covered. In a direct marketing system expenditures will include the costs incurred in transport and marketing. Here I would cite a hard lesson now being learned by some working with what are being termed the minor and rare breeds or large fowl chicken.
While nearly all breeds of poultry and hoofed stock were developed for some level of economic proficiency in their performance, some were developed to produce in rather narrow and very specific economies and environments. A chicken that produces a few eggs in a very harsh climate is a good thing. A chicken that produces a few eggs on a Midwestern farm is not a good thing.
Most U.S. consumers are still cost-driven. To remain viable, to have a sustainable presence in his or her arena the producer must operate in a cost-effective manner. For every problem to be encountered in farming there will appear a solution that is simple, quick, inexpensive and absolutely wrong. Only time and experience will enable you to spot those kinds of quick fixes and then work around them. There is no book on stockmanship with all the answers — I know because I have spent a half century looking for one. What the producer knows and is able to communicate is worth every bit as much as what he or she has produced in the way of goods. No one should know your stock better than you. No one can better tell the history behind them than you.
You are standing on the shoulders of livestock producers reaching back to the sons of Noah, and everything that they knew to be true of that calling is still true today. Some things have been added, but the lore, the wisdom and the truth of it has stood the test of time. Do well by them, speak honestly of them, sell only the kinds that you would buy, and you will prosper.
Missouri-based farmer Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken, all available from Acres U.S.A. For more information, visit acresusa.com or call 1-800-355-5313.
This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.