Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Choose Your Own (Homesteading) Adventure

In the wide world of project management, there's an old saying that goes something like this:

You can do this project fast, cheap, and correct. But you can only pick two. -Old Saying

I would call the setup of a farm, the initial infrastructure build, as a "project." And in something like building a portable cow care station, or constructing a winter dry lot, or designing a movable chicken coop, this "law" still hold sway.

Where's the "all of the above" bubble?

But what about everyday life? Is there a pattern that can look at the bigger picture of managing the day to day activities of a homesteader?

I believe there is. I've found that day-to-day life on a farm follows a similar pattern - you can't have it all. I've said it before, and I guess now I'll say it in print:

You can make farming as difficult or as easy as you want it to be. -Bubs

For example, if you wanted to cut a hay field, driving a tractor with a sickle bar mower is faster than hand-scything it. However, there is a trade-off. You gain something and you lose something in each of these two very simple scenarios. In the first, you opt for "quality" and "speed," but pay out the nose for the equipment. In the second, going for "quality" and "price" means it takes longer.

Projects are one thiung, and we all undertake them. But I've been thinking about the everyday activities - stuff we do every single morning and evening, as opposed to one-off or once-in-a-while projects. I like to call this daily flurry of activity "farm management." I think farm management, especially hobby farm management, boils down to a dance between four distinct elements:

You can design a farm to maximize health, convenience, cost, and production. To the degree you pursue one, the others proportionately suffer.

Let's look at each of these items individually.


Health relates to the overall health of the animals, soil, and plant life on the farm, as well as the overall health of the output designated for human consumption. On the one end would be a CAFO-style feedlot, pumping rBGH into the GMO soy and chicken litter feed while using re-pumped water from the hog factory down the road to spray down the herd. On the other end is a meticulously clean cow environment where the barn is disinfected daily before being laid with virgin straw, the cows are moved to fresh grass every day, there are no hormones or modified food, and all of the water goes through a reverse-osmosis system before ever reaching the animals.

I'd lump this one in the "not healthy" bucket.....

Big difference, to be sure. Reality is, of course, in the middle. But cleanliness and animal health can swing wildly from farm to farm, and one of the main reasons people get into homesteading is to produce a healthier product. But the health of the animals and the soil are both vital. I just don't see how one can use Sevin and Roundup to help increase production in a garden and claim that it's healthier.

Health, in the broad sense, is achieving a state of being as close to that design by God as possible. I believe this includes eating produce free from chemical interventions and picked at the pinnacle of ripeness. This also means eating meats from animals that are raised as close to the animal's natural instinct and diet as possible. Feeding "feed" to goats and sheep just does not make for a healthy end product. It makes for a fat lamb, yes, but a healthy animal? I just don't see it that way.

I think the health of the farmer is another aspect that is often neglected. technology allows a farmer to essentially work a desk job - sitting for hours at end not behind a desk and computer but behind the wheel of a tractor. It may be worse than an office environment due the dust and exhaust that encircle the area.


Convenience cover a multitude of more specific things, such as time to complete a task, time of day to complete a task, frequency, distance, difficulty, and so on. For example, it is very convenient to stick a few pigs in a space and come back later to find a fertilized, tilled garden. On the flip side, using a hand tiller to break up clay soil and pulling weeds all weekend before you can even plant anything is not very convenient.

More convenient than a hand tiller, I guess.....
Convenience also has its own weight scale. it it more convenient to use a milking machine? Sure - for several cows, and provide it doesn't break down. the time spent cleaning it ends up being less than the extra time it takes to milk. Do you make back the price tag in convenience? maybe. With one cow, I don't, so I hand milk. This is more convenient for me than a machine, in terms of time, setup, efficiency, and overall cost.


Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat. But chickens and turkeys and cows and goats and rabbits gotta eat, too. They also need vaccines, and housing, and equipment, and repairs to said equipment, and so on. Housing, feed, and fencing are the biggest expenses in any farm. If an animal can be sheltered with recycled materials, fed with a natural and renewable (and free!) food supply, and fencing in an already-existing or outside-the-box method, then cost goes way down. Build a barn, put up a post-and-rail fence, and feed alfalfa all day long to watch the cost skyrocket.

Cows can be a money maker or a bank breaker -
depending on how you manage them.
Cost is one of those tricky things that often goes to improve the other elements. For example, the cost of increased convenience via, say, a 4-wheeler to haul stuff is the sticker price of the 4-wheeler plus the price of gasoline. The cost of better, healthier shelter is the price of materials plus the value of the labor.


"Production" is a dirty word in the ag business. Especially in commercial dairies, interruptions to production ultimately impact the bottom line. Milk goes out, money comes in. When less milk goes out, less money comes in. So the trick is spending less to make more go out. It's basic economics, and I totally get that.

Production - but sacrificing what else?

However, "production" techniques get extended to the homesteading crowd. When a backyard herd is focused on production, it cares less about health. I think that getting used to "high-producing" animals means getting desensitized to nature's designs. "High-producing" crops are those that have been hybridized and modified to the point of being near unrecognizable to our forefathers.

I believe there is a modesty to pursue in regards to production. The entrepreneur, the businessman, the executive focus on production. the homesteader needs production, sure, but it must strike a balance. To pursue production as an end means that another element suffers.


One can certainly take each of these measures to the extreme.

To radically pursue health would likely coincide with a high cost, a high amount of maintenance (read; inconvenience), and a dip in ideal production. Production and health can certainly coexist, but maximum health will yield less.

When convenience is the main goal, costs will go up. Production will also likely take a hit, as convenience means less time being involved. Health will also suffer, since the decreased involvement in the system means fewer opportunities to take preventative and emergency measures.

There are a limited number of bars to go around.....

Aiming for the bottom line of cost means that health is secondary. lesser-quality feeds become the norm, since they are "cheaper." Production in this scenario becomes at odds with health. Cheap labor is no big deal, so a hard, difficult system can be maintained so long as margins remain high.

Pushing production as the ultimate end means that the final say is volume. Pesticides and hormones are fine so long as the pounds going out keep going up. This can lead to long hours and high costs, with the hopes that revenue outshines expenses.


You can design a farm to maximize health, convenience, cost, and production. To the degree you pursue one, the others proportionately suffer.

I think most farmers generally don't think in these terms. I also think that most people have more than one end in mind. Two is common. For example, a very healthy and very productive system will require lots of labor and lots of money. A cheaply-built system that provides good health may require more labor, but may also not produce as much as other systems. And a hands-off design that also maximizes production may lead to disease and a less-healthy end product, and will require more infrastructure.

To design for three of these goals means that you really suffer in one aspect. A productive, healthy, time-friendly farm will be expensive to set up. Materials, fencing grids, land, water delivery systems, and the like cost money to do well.

My Designs

Of course, I'd love to humor everyone by saying I did all 4 in perfect balance. Wouldn't that be nice? In truth, while I do strive for balance, my most pressing concern is health, with cost and convenience coming in tied for third. production, for now, takes the back seat.

Health is number one for me. In part, this is reactionary against the modern American lifestyle and diet. A few years ago, I was overweight with high cholesterol. Diabetes runs in the family. My exercise routine was crap, at best. I was young, but on the verge of cresting that slippery slope of decline into chronic health problems. Wife and I call homesteading our "retirement plan." Without health, what would we retire to? A nursing home bed? No thanks. I'd rather work hard and set myself up for lifelong health now.

Trouble is, I am not a rich man. If I were a rich man (la da da da da da da da, da da da da ta ta taaaa.......), I would have fenced and gated paddocks, underground water piping, faucet manifolds, active solar greenhouses, and so on, so forth. But i don't. So, I build with recycled materials, and I intensively graze cows using a combination tether system. It is semi-convenient in that it allows the cows to have superb health, being moved to clean ground and monitored at least twice daily.

Bridget is all grass-fed, meaning she won't throw down 6 gallons a day for me. She just will not without supplemented grain feed. But the 1.5 to 2 gallons a day we DO get is totally grass-fed, organic, and super healthy. The sheep will not dress out to 150-lb. carcasses on grass alone, and the chickens won't become 8-pound roasters. But they will be very healthy.

Over time, I hope to bring these elements more in alignment. I would love to focus on everything BUT the cost. I guess I will need to build an infrastructure slowly over time.

Not very convenient, but healthier.

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