Everyone was once a beginner, even if you were a child growing up on a farm, you were once a beginner. As the back-to-the-land movement gains momentum, I’m noticing many more people considering and even jumping head-first into farming. This is wonderful; a more agricultural society breeds hard workers, appreciation for food, respect for animal life, and a more sustainable lifestyle. I think it is wonderful.
That being said, I believe that some advice is in order. I know that every beginner has to start somewhere, but I also believe that listening to and acting upon others experiences is of the utmost importance for a new farmer, particularly when livestock is involved.
So, here are ten pieces of important advice I would like to give to any new farmer, or prospective farmer.
1. Get books.
Books. I own at least two dozen farm books, some date back to 1970’s publication. I actually find those to be incredibly helpful because usually the older books were written first-hand by people who lived the life. When lambing season begins, I bring my lambing book to the barn and leave it there. When I am planning a garden, I use a book. Books are invaluable. READ them. REFERENCE them. Take notes, write in them.
Tip: USE a farm journal! Buy a blank book every year to record expenses, dates of important things like transplanting or breeding dates, to record lineage of animals you are breeding, to record temperatures, feed, etc.
2. Find a mentor.
Find someone near you with a similar mindset who is already farming. For example, if you want to do organic or grass-fed, your best bet is to find someone who is doing that. Once you find them, visit them as often as you can. Write down your questions and write down their answers.
Ask to be around for birthing time, breeding time, veterinarian visits, feeding, culling, etc. Once you’re ready, participate with complicated tasks. But absolutely find a mentor, because without practical experience and someone telling you when you’re screwing up, you will never learn.
3. Visit agricultural events, pick brains.
Go to fairs, go to exhibitions, go to competitions. Go to local farmer gatherings, go to extension events. Ask everyone questions. Especially ask the old people. The old timers have not only decades of experience, but some of the best tricks of the trade. They also aren’t going to blow sunshine up your ass, they’re going to tell you like it is. These are the people you want to get to know. Bring a journal, write down ideas, write down answers. Don’t be afraid to sound stupid if you ask a question. The reason fairs and exhibitions exist is to spread information. Often you can find a mentor or at least someone to shadow by going to these events.
4. Start with plants
There are no breaches of ethics if you kill a plant, first and foremost. You don’t cause suffering if you screw up a garden. I mean, you may be upset and be out some money, but you’re not causing undue suffering or hardship upon a living, breathing, thinking, feeling animal. Did you know that most farm animals are highly intelligent? Chickens, for example, can sense stress and are also arguably the second-smartest barnyard creature. (Pigs come first). When an animal is mistreated, malnourished, starved, deprived of water, or the proper shelter, that animal will A) figure out a way to get food and you won’t like it and B) Will have a terrible meat carcass and C) will not perform the way you want it to. Period.
Start with plants. Do one year of plants-only. You’ll know if year-round farm work is for you. You will know that you can handle responsibility. You will know if you are capable of following the sage advice of farmers before you without messing up. You will understand that things don’t go as planned. Start with plants because if you mess up with plants, you don’t starve something or cause undue suffering. I strongly, strongly suggest this.
5. Buy local.
Buy your seeds and your animals and your feed locally. Buy pigs, chickens, etc., from another farmer who bred them. If you buy from a local farmer, you also are “purchasing” a relationship. When you have questions, you know who to call. Most farmers want you to be knowledgeable about your animals or produce, so most are willing to receive phone calls well after the deal has been struck and the livestock are in your possession.
On top of that, you also gain leverage in terms of future purchases. Maybe the farmer knew you were a greenhorn when you first bought that cow, but now may give you a legitimate or bargain price because you have established a relationship. You also will gain word of mouth recognition and the potential for bartering, etc.
When you buy a pig from a box store (Seriously, you can do that…) you get nothing but a stressed out pig (or chicken or duck or whatever) with no ties to the origins of that animal. No farmer to ask when your pig won’t eat, no farmer to come back to when you liked your pig enough to want to buy another one from the same stock, etc.
… Not to mention all of the buy-local benefits like keeping money in the community and supporting the cash-only economy.
6. Animals before you.
Oh, you wanted to buy a new pair of $200 hiking boots? You want to take a trip to Spain? You wanted to …? Well, great! But… did you make sure you have enough hay to last through the winter? What about backup for vet bills? You can’t go out to dinner if one of your sheep is in labor and may need assistance.
Remember that an animal in a secure pen can’t get out to forage for himself. He can’t get out to turn on the water and fill up a bucket. He can’t get out of his own filth if you don’t clean it.
Sorry you’re hungover, but you still have to go feed those animals. Oh, it’s cold out? Still have to go muck stalls. Not sure you’re going to be back tonight? Sorry, not an option, you have to be.
Your animals come first because you have made it so they can’t care for themselves. It’s just the nature of the beast. If they were wild, y’know, you could do whatever you wanted with your money and time. But you committed to owning animals, so you now get to reap the rewards and also pay the price. Get over it.
7. Milking animals are a huge fucking commitment.
In line with the #6, I have to say: Milking animals are more of a commitment than having a baby. I am not kidding. If you want a milk cow or a milk goat, you NEED to understand that your life, as you know it, is completely over and committed to that animal.
Every morning at the SAME time and every night at the SAME time you MUST be out there, milking that animal. Your vet bills will be higher because milk animals are notorious for mastitis or (seriously) stepping on their own teats, etc., etc..
Instead of going on vacation and hiring a regular farm sitter who just feeds, cleans, and waters, you have to hire a farm sitter that knows how to milk a cow and handle a milk cow and handle your equipment.
And if you are feeling lazy and skip a milking, it is literally cruelty to animals. You simply can’t do it. I think this is my second biggest pet peeve about people who want a milk animal: You are perfectly allowed to buy a milk cow, but remember that you now have committed to the most significant commitment of your farming life. Period.
8. Buy in bulk.
It’s just common sense: Buy in bulk. You get a better price for everything, and the excess you don’t use, you can either store for next year or sell to another farmer. This includes animals; if you buy one sheep from me, it’s $325. If you buy five, it’s $250. Just simple math. Buy in bulk. Always.
9. Observe your animals.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the work that is involved with your animals; the endless watering, feeding, fence-fixing, birthing assistance, etc. But remember that the most successful and knowledgeable farmers not only take good care of their animals, but they understand their behavior and personalities. This is crucial for many reasons.
If you aren’t familiar with normal behavior of each of your animals, how will you know when something is off? Perhaps an animal that is normally a glutton is off his food, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew he was a big eater.
You also need to understand baselines of animal behavior and personality for birthing time; labor signs can be subtle, but you must understand the progression of normal birthing, as well as the red flags for labor difficulty. I would never have known that a curled lip during labor could mean serious difficulty if I had never observed it, looked it up in a book, and then spoken with my mentor.
Also, on a more feeling-level, spending time observing your animals also builds trust in you. If your animals know you for spending quiet time in their space just observing and being gentle, they are more likely to be receptive to things like moving pastures, catching them for medical treatments, etc.
10. Have a good relationship with a good veterinarian.
Find a good veterinarian that specializes in your animals. This is hard sometimes; we have like three good sheep vets within 150 miles of us, which makes emergency house-calls expensive. However, once I found the veterinarian I wanted to work with, I established a good relationship with them.
How do you establish a good relationship? A few ways:
a) Meet them before you have an emergency, preferably have them out to the farm. It will be worth the money for them to know your layout, your facilities, your animals.
b) Pay them on time. Don’t make them wait for payment for an emergency treatment. Large animal vets rarely make enough money to get by. Understand and respect that.
c) Call them with questions and call them out only for emergencies.
Additionally, I think it is really important for a good veterinarian to teach you things you can do yourself, such as shots, birthing intervention, etc. A good veterinarian wants you to be a good farmer and a good caretaker.
11. (Bonus) Whatever you think it will cost, it will NOT.
Whatever your budget is, add 25% to that. And then put in an emergency buffer. Hay inevitably will run out, some animal will have an emergency, you won’t produce as much as you thought, etc. Just remember Murphy’s Law. Just remember.
I really hope this helped! Pip pip, and as always, I welcome questions!