|For What It's Worth|
|Time to Re-evaluate Production Methods|
by Robert Spencer
The past year has been a tough year for livestock producers and others who depend on forages and grain-based rations to feed their animals.
Whether you raise cattle, goats, sheep, horses, alpacas, etc., the cost of fertilizer, hay and grains have significantly increased over the past year. Despite the increasing costs of inputs, prices (at the sale barns or direct farm sale) received for these animals, livestock or pleasure, have not increased accordingly; if anything, they have decreased. A possible explanation is animals being sold have significantly increased in the past year and markets are saturated. The past two years of drought and other environmental factors along with rising grain futures prices could be considered the culprit. Existing pastures were in no shape to support the current number of animals and/or people could not afford to feed their animals as cost of hay and feed increased at an astonishing rate. The purpose of this article is not to point fingers or lay blame, but to encourage producers/hobbyists to reconsider their management practices for feeding their animals.
Over the past few years, I have begun to realize the on-going situation will force the average producer/hobbyist to question how "dedicated" they are to their livelihood/hobby. Every year about this time (taxes), for the past five years, I go through price sticker shock at the cost associated with being a small-scale farmer and the limited returns.
After years of reviewing enterprise budgets relevant to various forms of alternative agriculture production and having the actual "farm experience," it continues to amaze me the challenges faced by those with a sincere interest in farming. I keep on thinking, there has to be a better way.
During several recent visits to a farm in Northwest Alabama the owner kept talking about two books, one on natural sheep production and the other on natural goat production. Having the experience of raising goats for seven years, I had to question the concept of anything "natural." During our various conversations the person encouraged me to order the books; so I did, and they were very enlightening. The author is Pat Coleby. She is the author of Natural Farming, Natural Cattle Care, Natural Horse Care and two other books on sheep and goat production. While she does not have a PhD, she has something more relevant—30 years of experience in animal husbandry, with a special interest in the relationship between the health of the land and the health of the animals it supports. It says this in the credits on the back of her books.
Her books tend to follow a certain format. She presents a background on the species and various breeds, discusses the various purposes they serve and then addresses the "meat" of the book with such topics as feeding requirements; land management; minerals, vitamins and their relationship; and the possible correlation between nutrient imbalances and potential health problems. Ms. Coleby and her experiences originate in Australia and New Zealand, but the challenges they face are no different than what farmers face here: concerns with parasites, animal health and natural resource management. The more I read her books, the more convinced I became there may be something to her concept about the role of micronutrients and their relationship with animal health.
Over the past few years, livestock nutritional experts have begun to realize the important role micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) play in the health and heartiness of animals. It has been known for years regarding humans and the need for a well-balanced diet, but has been overlooked with animals. An example would be copper, which is considered to be important in enhancing an animal’s immunities.
So what does one do to address this approach? The first aspect is to insure natural resources/production factors are in compliance for quality production. (1) Soil testing. Make sure soil fertility is prime for production, including micronutrients. If they are not readily available in the soil, the vegetation cannot absorb or process them. With the cost of fertilizer, it is important to avoid what may not be needed and apply only what is necessary. (2) Forage testing. Have forages and hay tested to verify their entire nutritional value. (3) Know the nutritional requirements of your animals. Knowing the difference between what is readily available and what is needed allows the farmer to accommodate the difference with supplemental feed rations and hay. Next, (4) monitor, evaluate and adjust accordingly. From time to time visually assess the condition of your animals, monitor their health, determine if improvements are needed, then react accordingly. Finally, (5) expect positive results. Spending all that time, effort and money could be a waste if one chooses to "settle" for whatever happens.
I hope this discussion helps you to evaluate your situation and reconsider your options. Consider whether some of these approaches might help reduce input costs, increase the overall health of your animals and offer the overall goal of helping reduce the gap between expenditures and returns. Be sure and take the time to invest in the relevant version of Pat Coleby’s books and evaluate if what she suggests might work for your situation.
Robert Spencer is a contributing writer from Florence, Alabama.