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Stockmanship: 7 Lessons for Success

Pigs raised outdoors.

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.

1. Observation

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.

Healing Clay: How to Harness the Power of Clay to Heal Your Horses and Pastures

For centuries, clay has been used to heal both livestock and pastures.

One of my horses, an 8-yeaphoto1r-old mare, came in from the pasture walking with a distinct limp. I found that she had a horizontal cut (3/8 of an inch deep by 1¾ inches long) on the fleshy back of her left foreleg’s pastern, just above the bulbs of the heel. An equine veterinarian inspected the wound and advised me that healing would be slow due to the wound site’s new tissue being flexed with each step. He also assured me that after healing, the previously able animal would always be lame from scar tissue forming too close to a tendon.

Swelling soon occurred on the leg from the wound up to the knee joint. Periodically, I support-wrapped the leg from fetlock (joint just above pastern) up to the knee with elastic banding cloth. The cut began to heal with applications of a comfrey gel, but after a week the new tissue cracked open because of November’s change to colder, drier air. Healing stopped. Later, I realized that applications of a moisturizing salve had been needed.

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Starting a Small-Scale Livestock Venture: Understanding Market Considerations

Kelly Klober

Farmer sitting near pigsA number of years ago a neighbor called with questions about starting a purebred swine operation in our area. It was going to be based on a breed not already present in the area, but one that was well-regarded and had been used often to produce some good, rugged cornfield shoats across the Midwest.

I agreed that it was a good idea as the breed was one that we had once considered. I was about to advise a small, careful start when he told me that they had already purchased 30 gilts and two rather pricey breeding boars. Within two years they were out of the purebred swine business. It was a case of too much too soon.

MARKET RESEARCH
A livestock venture and the market for it tend to begin small, and it will take time for both of them to develop. Along with acquiring needed skills and experiences, the producer must determine to what level of production the venture can be grown and continue to garner good selling prices and returns.

Price is set by the quality of the output and the demand for it. The producer can certainly shape the quality and, to an extent, have control over the amount of output (at least from his or her farm into nearby markets where most direct sales are generated). Before selling a single boar of his chosen breed our neighbor had the numbers in place and the money spent to be producing them by the score.

It is a mistake that we have all made, and some of us have made it several times. A young man of our acquaintance once ordered 50 quail chicks, grew them out with comparative ease and sold them quickly for a tidy profit. He next placed an order for 1,000 quail chicks, and the results were disastrous.

Small creatures though they may be, 1,000 quail chicks taxed his facilities, almost immediately problems began to arise that were beyond his level of experience, and a market that bought 50 and wanted a few more had no need for them by the hundreds. His losses of birds and dollars were substantial.

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Snap! Build a Weasel Trap to Protect Your Poultry

It’s another idyllic evening on your patch of rural heaven. Tired from a long day, you drop off to the Land of Nod, but all is not peaceful in the kingdom this night. A feathered commotion shatters your slumber. What could it be? Grabbing the flashlight, and perhaps your trusty scattergun, you plunge into the inky darkness to defend your livestock. Needless to say, mayhem ensues and your light reveals your worst fears. A weasel has been on a murderous rampage. What do you do when nature invades the coop? Bite back!

Few wild creatures have the reputation for barnyard mayhem that the tiny weasel does. A member of the mustelid family, it shares the same bloodlust as its cousins the mink and wolverine. Tipping the scales at just a few ounces and barely a foot long, this tiny hunter is well-equipped for relentless pursuit of a meal. Slim and slinky, it is astounding the cracks they can crawl through to get at a rabbit hutch. Poultry fencing is no barrier either, and they can find a way into any building.

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Tips for Marketing and Selling Your Pork

446px-American_Pork_Cuts.svg

• Begin by making sure you have all your bases covered in regards to
rules and regulations.
• Get your pig transportation and pork delivery methods set up, or at
least have an idea and a plan of how you will go about solving these
critical logistics.
• Create the backbone of your Internet presence — your website — with
the help of web-savvy friends, business partners, or pay for professional
web design services.
• Begin your social media campaign immediately, and spend time every
day updating it all.
• Go out into the world and sample the heck out of your product.
• Work with event people to be showcased at relevant gatherings.
• Make sure your pork ordering webpage is clear and attractive. Include
information on payment, shipping costs and delivery schedule.
• Set up your inventory system so that you have a general idea of what
you have on hand at any given time. You should be ready to fulfill
orders when you add an email link or phone number for customers
to submit orders and begin to advertise your pork and request orders
on your social media or any other marketing materials you produce.
When a customer emails you or calls you with an order you can now
create an invoice in Paypal or other format. Utilizing online invoicing
or a simple invoice pad and cash/check system is up to your preference,
but definitely keep an ear open and listen to what your customers
want. After you receive your orders for the week, it is time to map
out your delivery route. Your invoices become your packing list.
• Deliver your products on the correct date and time with a smile.

These tips appear in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Tips to Boost Egg Production

Brown and white eggs found at an outdoor market in NYC.

Fresh eggs sold at outdoor market in New York City.

Finding tips to boost egg production is important. Why? The fruit of the hen is one of the great staples of the human diet and is one of the major pillars of the local foods movement. Based on the many questions I have received, one of the great challenges now is how to put available poultry genetics to use to boost egg production.

Every hen needs to produce just two fertile eggs each year to maintain her lineage. Beyond that point, factors such as breeding, nutrition and bird comfort and well-being will determine the productivity of the birds.

Right or wrong, the natural food movement and the modern poultry-keeping renaissance have come to be very heavily reliant upon the brown-shelled egg and the birds that produce it. Brown egg shell color can range from terra-cotta and deep, chocolate brown to a very pale brown hue. They are largely produced by breeds and crosses that were developed to be either meat birds or multi-use birds producing some eggs and meat from birds with a moderate growth rate.

Early in the last century, extensive work went into boosting egg production within many of the brown egg laying breeds, but most of that ended with World War II. Since then, most poultry breeding has been along the lines of hybridization or to amend breed type to produce an industrialized bird for the colony house and the laying plant. They will look the part, but they aren’t what they once were and may even be coasting along on performance data derived from birds from that earlier era.

The larger-framed, heavier-bodied brown egg layers were never meant to compete on par as egg layers with breeds like the Leghorn. They are larger-framed, slower to develop, will consume more feed while growing, and to maintain condition, will need more housing and nest space. They will also produce fewer eggs per hen. The larger size can give them an element of durability that may be lacking in birds with higher metabolisms, even some brown egg laying hybrids.

The brown egg laying hybrids often have a rather rapid burnout factor, and many flocks are turned after but a single season of laying. And, sadly, their smaller size and the wear and tear of that time in production tends to leave them with very little salvage value. The better laying lines of purebred brown egg layers tend to come from the plain vanilla breeds such as the White Plymouth Rock, Australorp and the single comb Rhode Island White.

With concerted programs of selective breeding, flocks of these breeds can be made steadily more productive. A quite modest flock of closely bred females can produce the replacement pullet chicks for even quite large laying flocks. Such a venture then becomes truly sustainable as the most important of all inputs, the seedstock, comes from the farm.

This venture will hinge upon identifying the most productive females and their male offspring and then using them to create a line that will perform on the home farm which is exactly like no other.

The Hogan method has been taught for decades as a tool to evaluate the layer potential of young stock and the continuing performance of birds in production. It is fairly easily taught, but does require that each bird be taken in hand. The laying flock should be worked at regular intervals to remove poor performers and ill and injured birds, and to ascertain that the valuable feedstuffs are going only to those birds that are most fully and profitably utilizing them.

The egg producer now needs to get as serious about breed choice and performance improvement as the producer of fine Hereford cattle or blooded horses. If your flock is rooster-heavy, filled with hens past their second year of lay, has at least one of every breed in the big hatchery catalog, and the only culling is being done by the raccoons and foxes, you are seeing some of the answers to your laying performance questions.

To build upon the key elements of sustainability and predictable performance the good egg producer must become a good poultry breeder. Good foundation stock does not come cheap, and better-bred pullet chicks may now cost $7 each or more. Of late, I have seen many trios of adult breeding birds (one male and two females) priced at $75 to $100 or more. For chickens? Well, it is still a lot less expensive than the going price for even the most commonplace feeder calf.

Successful, profitable egg production begins and ends with the hen, her breeding and her care.

Good feed is the fuel from which eggs are produced, and a thoughtful plan of nutrition is essential for chickens at all stages of development.

Individually, they consume rather minute amounts of feed daily, and their rations must be nutrient-dense and consistent in form. Depending on her size and breeding, a hen at lay will consume between 4 and 8 ounces of feed daily. Those concerned with paring feed costs should thus begin with birds that will produce eggs in a truly feed-efficient manner. And to that end, the producer should be doing the record-keeping and performance monitoring needed to determine the actual pounds of feed fed to produce each dozen of eggs.

Of late, some rather exotic poultry ration formulations have been bantered about and many reasons given for them. The feeding of some may be a condition of a particular market outlet, but that market must then pay a sufficient premium to offset the added costs of such feedstuffs. Some can be quite costly to formulate; some of their components might not be readily available, and specially formulated rations may have to be bought in lots no smaller than 1 to 3 tons. The old rule of thumb is that to be able to afford the on-farm equipment needed for feed processing, you will have to produce a minimum of 100 tons feed yearly.

Steady improvements in poultry ration quality have marked the modern livestock producing era. The knowledge of nutrients that make better rations was often applied first to rations for baby chicks and laying hens. Now we see some of the major feed suppliers offering all-vegetable blends of poultry feeds, feeds with bolstered levels of omega-3, and rations fortified with components such as kelp and fish meal.

A few key aspects of poultry nutrition include:

  • Begin with a high-quality chick starter purchased in amounts to ensure the freshness of supply. Most starter/growers are now meant to be fed until the young pullets produce their first eggs. They are doing a twofold task of developing frame and an egg tract and need a high-quality ration to do so. After those first eggs appear, the young females should be gradually shifted over to a quality laying ration. As a very early starter feed some are going back to the old practice of offering finely chopped, hard-boiled eggs to the chicks several times each day. For wholesomeness, offer no more finely chopped egg than the chicks will clean up in 20 minutes or so at each feeding. This will work especially well for chicks that have had a hard time in shipment or otherwise been stressed. Within a short time they should be shifted over to a complete starter ration that is fed free-choice.
  • Laying rations formulated in a small or mini-pellet will help reduce feed wastage. The birds are better able to retrieve pelleted feedstuffs when they are flipped from the feeder.
  • Buying feedstuffs at roughly two-week intervals, if possible, is one way to safeguard ration freshness and to even out feed costs over the course of a year.
  • Once home, all feedstuffs should be protected from vermin and dampness. A 55-gallon barrel will hold a bit over 300 pounds of most feed types.
  • Most complete poultry feeds are now fully supplemented including needed minerals and grit. Though the offering of oyster shell was once widely prescribed, it was often set out in forms too large for the birds to adequately use.
  • Many old hands provide grit simply by dumping creek sand into low-sided wooden boxes made accessible to the birds. Cherry granite grit of the appropriate size is a clean grit product available at a reasonable cost.
  • Scratch grain is not needed in many feeding programs now. Birds will prefer it to the complete feeds that bolster egg-laying performance and egg output may decline if too much grain is consumed. It may be best to provide no more grain than the birds will consume in 20 minutes or so, and offer it at the end of the day to bring them back into the house before closing it for the night. Such a feeding of grain will give the birds an added boost of warming energy going into a winter night.
  • Feedstuffs and seedstock are never areas for cutting costs.

You cannot wring many eggs out of elderly hens and those bred for other purposes, but too many are still supplying rather costly feedstuffs to birds that cannot make good use of them.

Increasing egg output begins with practices as simple as supplying the birds with fresh and clean drinking water and feedstuffs. It continues with each producer gaining the experience to know which birds to replace, when to replace them and having developed the better birds with which to replace them.

Stress Can Slow Egg Production

Seasonal stresses can affect egg production. Producers in the Southwest have long known that extended periods of wind and heat can send egg production into a nosedive. Likewise, hard cold snaps of even short duration can send egg numbers downward. Here in Missouri, we have the good fortune to often get long spells of deep cold and harsh summer heat within a few months of each other.

Veteran producers have a bit of a bag of tricks into which they can dip when their birds are in need of a bit of a boost.

1. A boost in protein levels can often be helpful during these times. Some will top-dress hens’ regular laying ration with a bit of gamebird breeding ration that is substantially higher in crude protein content. I prefer a laying ration that is 18 to 20 percent crude protein. This is much higher than many generic laying mashes that top out at 16 percent crude protein.

2. A bit of green feed can be offered in the form of leafy legume hay fed from a simple mesh feeder suspended just above the birds’ heads. Stalks of one of the greens crops such as collards can be suspended above the birds in a similar manner. This practice works well in cold and damp weather and gives birds kept in the house a way to work off some energy. A flake or two of alfalfa hay offered every couple of days will also help maintain good yolk color and boost bird fertility. I had a vo-ag teacher that held that there wasn’t a ton of livestock feed anywhere that could not be made better by the simple addition of a bale of good alfalfa hay.

3. Get a vitamin/electrolyte product into the drinking water and keep it in use during periods of stress.

4. There are a number of appetite-stimulating/tonic-type products that can be added to drinking water. This can range from simple concoctions of red pepper or garlic or oregano to a wide array of commercial booster products.

5. Make sure that the birds are free of performance-robbing parasite loads. Just arriving on the scene from abroad are wormers that can be used while the birds are in lay with no need to discard the eggs.

6. Another trick even older than me is to drizzle a couple of ribbons of wheat germ or cod liver oil atop the laying ration in cold weather a couple of times each week.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.