I’m sure in your area like ours, there are numerous news stories of livestock being rescued, and worse, abandoned because their owners can no longer afford to care for them. In good times, it is easy to have non-productive animals around. In hard times, when money is scarce it can become difficult to take care of the animals we have bred, or purchased. Not only is the economy tanking, drought and rainy weather have taken their toll on feed crops, making supplies short, and subsequently prices are higher, and quality can be lower. All these factors combined make keeping livestock challenging in tough economic times.
We realized several years ago, that we were too top heavy in grain consuming animals. I live on the West coast, shipping in grains from the Midwest quit making sense, and finding out that it may even be actually coming from South America, or China weighed heavily on our minds. It was hardly a sustainable part of our operation. We liquidated our pastured laying hen flock, despite having orders for more than the 400+ dozen eggs a week we were already producing. Had we continued, we would have rapidly been between a rock and hard place. The price of fuel, shipping and corn being utilized for ethanol production doubled the price we were paying for chicken feed and minerals. And we were buying huge quantities.
The next big consumer of grain on our farm were the feeder pigs we purchased to grow out and sell at butcher weight. The price of weaner pigs went up along with the feed, and processing costs. It takes a huge cash outlay to raise animals to butcher size before you ever see a $1.00 back. In the meantime, those animals need feed every day, and since they are growing, they need quality feed. Growing our own piglets would require a boar and sow and continual feeding of breeding size hogs, no savings there for us. Pigs are great for dairies who are value adding and making cheese, but I only have one dairy cow, so sometimes I have extra milk, but not enough to count on raising a pig(s) for 5 months. We raised less pigs this year, and the pigs we sold, paid for our pork. But, it was still a huge cash outlay, until the pigs were in the freezer.
As we realized the grain situation was getting more and more difficult, the ruminants on our farm were starting to look better and better. We have beef cattle, and they can harvest all their own feed during the grazing season. We put up hay to take them through the winter. But, we also were grazing more animals than we could support on our home farm. We were doing custom hay, and buying standing grass for haymaking to supplement what we made on our place. Not feeling comfortable with some of the land management practices, we made the hard decision to cut our herd and to keep the animals that could be sustained year-round on our own property. It was a good decision, quality hay in our area is very expensive, and in low supply. There is plenty of cheap, fodder type hay available, but we are selling meat, and to have good meat quality, the animal should never experience a check in growth. For beef, that is at least two years.
Are we there yet, I don’t know, winter feeding time is not over yet, the barn is still pretty full, it takes a lot of feed just to maintain an animals body condition during cold weather. During bitter cold weather we feed twice as much hay. The weather has moderated so the hay pile is not disappearing so fast, but like our other winter stores like food and firewood, we manage it very closely.
Here are some tips to save on the feed bill:
♣ Raise grain eating animals in the warmer months, they will grow faster with ample sunlight and can get supplemental feed from your pasture or garden.
♣ If you have grazing animals, consider rotational grazing to keep your grass growing and in a palatable stage during the growing season.
♣ If you are buying your hay from a farmer, contact him now, and make a deal early, you may be able to get a discount for speaking up early. If you can pick up the hay in the field you can save even more money. Like a CSA, the farmer will be glad to know his crop is “presold” or at least spoken for and that will be a big relief for him.
♣ A pantry for livestock if you will, should be on your stocking up list. Have your winters hay/feed in the barn before bad weather hits. This goes for pet food too. As I write this, the major Interstate Highway is closed between Portland and Seattle because of flooding. Two weeks ago, the Interstate was closed because of snow and ice. Fuel and human food was not getting through. Let alone animal feeds. Hungry animals get destructive, getting out, and wreaking havoc. That is the last thing you need during inclement weather.
♣ Consider growing root crops to replace grain for the winter months. We raise parsnips and carrots for our family cow. These store easily, and provide energy during the winter months. Other good root crops are: mangels, and turnip type crops. One tip though – turnips and other brassica plants can produce off flavors in your milk.
♣ One other thing while not feed related, but worth mentioning, if you are just procuring your livestock, is that if times get tough, purebred animals will still only be worth what the current meat prices are. If you are going to raise animals for meat purposes, purchasing grade animals may be a better choice.