Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Time vs. Profit for small farms

Anyone who farms, even as a hobby, quickly figures out that there is such a thing as 'economies of scale' and this applies to us at the moment. Let me start by describing our day during the lambing season:

6am  First check of ewes.
10am Check ewes, feed & water
2-5pm Check ewes, top up water, walk dog for an hour, chores and check sheep before leaving
10-12pm Final check, feed & water 

Doesn't seem to bad does it? If we have a ewe that seems a bit iffy then I'll stay longer to keep an eye on things so that could mean spending the night in the barn, a chilly proposition in this weather. Thank goodness for a wood stove and lots of herbal tea. (Only thing you need is a toilet if you drink too much tea!)  Here's the schedule once we have lambs born because we know we'll be bottle feeding some of them:

2am.  Check and feed youngest lambs
6am.  Check and feed lambs, check ewes
10am Check and feed lambs, check and feed ewes, clean water, clean pens.
2pm.  Check and feed lambs, check ewes, walk dog
6pm.  Check and feed youngest lambs, check ewes and feed them again.
10pm.Check and feed lambs, check ewes

Feeding times of lambs vary depending on their ages and also on their vigour, obviously a lamb taking the bottle well will drink more at a feeding and so will eat less frequently. And once they begin to eat a little hay and some pellets they will need less milk feeding too and most lambs will only be bottle fed for one month before being transitioned to hay, grass, pellet and water.

So what, you may be asking, does this have to do with economies of scale? Well, Right now I am checking the sheep every 4-6 hours and sometimes I just stay out at the barn for several hours so that I effectively cover 2 time periods and only have to drive out there once. But I spend the same amount of time feeding 5 ewes as I would if I were feeding 25 or even 50 ewes. And the same amount of checking night and day is required regardless of numbers. The same goes for chickens or really any livestock kept together in a flock. Horses require mucking of individual stalls so they are a little different, but even cows if kept loose in a byre will show economies of scale. You get more work done (ie. more animals checked and fed) in the same time it takes to do just a few animals. Make sense? So it's about the same amount of work to keep 5 chickens as it is to keep 50.

It's this economy of scale that has led to time-efficient, large scale commercial farming where they keep 20,000 chickens together in a barn. or 500 cattle in a feedlot. For them, it's the most economical and time efficient way of doing business. But here on a small farm it's totally different. My sheep aren't just numbers...they're Dolly and Sweetpea and Freckles. Faces with a name and a history. And that's where the difference between a small farmer and a commercial one come into play. Small scale farmers have a closer attachment to their animals because they spend time with them and form relationships of trust, care and even love. I'm not saying all commercial producers don't respect their animals, because many of them take fantastically good care of their stock, but it's different when they're at your small home farm.

Obviously then there's a need to find balance between your goals as a farmer and the amount of work required in order to optimize your resources and time is a valuable resource that small farmers often overlook. Because we don't pay ourselves it's not something we see as an expenditure, but unless you have a balance between your work, farming, home, and relationships, something will suffer.

It's easy to get carried away doing good things and being productive but I'd like to encourage you all to have a plan in mind, and to strive to find a balance so that no one area of your life suffers. Relationships are easy to neglect, sleep is another aspect that's easy to let slip especially at lambing time, trust me I know, so just do what you can and try to have a plan in place and follow it. In addition to what looks like a busy shepherding schedule I still have church responsibilities, laundry, housework, meals to prepare, homework to supervise and all the day to day things I do by myself because my husband works out of town during the week. I sure appreciate his help and the extra sleep I get on the weekends when he's here!

A plan is important if you are bottle feeding lambs. Younger fellows feed less milk at each feeding but more frequently say 5-6 feeds a day of 85 ml whereas older lambs may only eat 2 or 3 bottles a day but drink 500 ml at one shot. It's important to keep track so that you know how much to feed to whom and how often. You're responsible for helping them to grow healthy and strong while avoiding scours from over feeding. Once our lambs are a little older we use a bucket for feeding that has 5 nipples and cold milk inside. They can eat whenever they like and because the milk is cold it doesn't go bad and it stops the lambs from eating too much at one time and making themselves sick. Also, because they're not all eating at the same time it is more time efficient and one bucket with 5 nipples can be used by multiple lambs. This is a picture of one of the nipples that comes with a feeding bucket. They contain a ball valve to prevent back flow and to stop the milk from all running out the bucket when the nipples are not being used. Very handy!

Well, guess what...it's time for me to get to the barn and check my sheep again.

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