One thing I have enjoyed learning, has been helpful for my understanding, and has increased my appreciation for the food I eat is learning more about the time and planning it takes for the food to make it to my plate – the math of farming is what I’ve decided to call it.
I never gave much thought to the food on my plate in the time period I like to refer to as BB (before Brandon). Growing up in school, when farming came up, I really just thought of it as caring for the plants and animals that you are growing and raising. I knew there were certain times of the year to plant certain fruits and vegetables, but beyond that I was as ignorant as they come. Learning more about the time it takes to breed and raise an animal to processing size is incredible. The thought and care that goes into planning how many babies our pastures can handle, so in turn which mommas we will breed, is impressive. Let’s look at the animals we have on our farm.
Beef: A heifer, or female cow, needs to be 18 months to two years old to breed. So, when we think about a calf born on our farm that we are keeping for breeding later, after 18 months, we’re ready to breed her. A cow’s gestational period, or the length of time they’re pregnant, is 9 months. Once their calf is born it takes 24-30 months for that calf to be ready to process (this may be longer than other farms, but our cows are 100% grass-fed and frass-finished, so it does take a little longer). So, from birth, through breeding, having a baby, and that calf getting to processing size is a total of around 57 months, nearly 5 years. Now of course, that momma can be bred again and have more babies to add to the herd, but from birth to that first calf is a 5 year investment!
Chicken: Our broiler chickens, or meat birds, hatch in 21 days. We do not hatch our own chickens, these are shipped to us as day old chicks via USPS, but I figured some may be curious. From the day they get to us to the day they are processed is 8-10 weeks. The first two weeks they are in the brooder and then for 6-8 weeks they are on pasture getting fed, watered, and moved every day.
Lamb: For our lambs, they only breed in the fall for spring lambs. Lambs can breed as early as 6 months, but usually it is closer to a year. They usually have a single or twins (triplets are very rare). A lamb is pregnant for five months and a lamb will be ready to process between 6-12 months of age. This is a total investment of time of over two years.
Pork: Pigs are interesting animals. They can be bred as early as 6 months and their gestational period is 3 months 3 weeks and 3 days and they can have almost 3 litters a year of 6-12 in each litter. (These factors contribute to how prolific they are in the wild – breed early, short gestational time, and large litters.) A pig is usually ready to process in 7-9 months. So, for a piglet born on our farm, raised to breed, then taking their first litter to a processing size is a time investment of around 20 months.
Eggs: Lastly, for our laying hens, of course, as I shared above, from the time the egg is laid, they hatch in 21 days. We do not hatch our own layers, just like our broilers, they are shipped to us as day old chicks. But a hen does not start laying her first egg until she is about 18-22 weeks old. They will lay consistently for three years and be a great backyard chicken for 6-7 years. At their peak, a chicken will lay about 250-300 eggs a year, so a hen can lay us 60 dozen eggs throughout four years of investment.
Each animal on the farm is different in length of time it takes for the animal to be at an age where it can produce offspring, how long it is pregnant, and then how long it takes for that offspring to be to processing size. There is so much time and care that goes into making sure the animals stay healthy through this entire process. And there is a great deal of planning that goes into preparing for these births, projecting the future of the farm, and preparing for what we will be able to produce and provide for our family and to our customers.
COVID19 has thrown a wrench in our country’s, and the world’s, food industry. With the emptying of grocery store shelves and the bare meat counters there has been uncertainty in respect to our food sources. This has impacted local farmers in many ways. One of these is at the processor. Local processors are small operations that service smaller farms that sell direct to the customer, rather than a large industrialized size farm that is contracted out by a much larger company and processes at large factories. These large factories have had to shut down throughout COVID for different reasons which has placed stress on the smaller processors, the ones farms like ours depend on.
First, let me share how it would typically work. Usually when we are getting close to having a calf ready to process, we would call the processor a few months in advance to get our name on the books. Same for lamb and pigs. Now, the processor we use is booked more than six months in advance. A farmer friend of ours has cows ready to process but can’t get a date. They are in a position where their pastures can’t take another cow, they’ve been planning for months that this cow would be gone before winter. As we are soon going into winter, if they keep this cow, they’ll have another mouth to feed hay, which will begin to cut into the profits of processing the cow and selling them meat. Another option for them is to take the cow to the livestock sale, where they will certainly loose money on the cow, possibly not even get out what they’ve put in, not to mention not the profit of raising it, processing, and selling the meat. Regardless of the choice this farmer makes, that farmer has been planning to take this cow to process for almost 5 years. We have had a similar situation with our pigs. They were ready to go be processes and we had to sit on them for a while because the processor is full. That’s more weeks on a pasture that needs rest and that’s more feed. We have also had to go back to processing our own chickens on farm over the summer and this past time just a few weeks ago due to no availability at the processor.
We are so thankful that many more people are looking to their local food sources to provide the meat that is on their family’s plate. This is amazing! We truly believe this is the way to go, that we should all rely on our local providers for the food that nourishes our families, but this high demand on the existent, not well prepared system all at once, has been difficult for the system to handle. There are many who have never used or had the need for a local processor who are getting on the processors books, and unfortunately are taking the spots that farmers, like us, have been accustomed to for many years. We don’t blame these individuals for moving to local processors, there just aren’t enough in our area to handle the current demand.
One may look at this problem and think the perfect and profitable solution is to open more processors. This would be AMAZING! But what if this demand on the local food market does not sustain after COVID? What if people all go back to the convenience of the grocery store? It is again a numbers game and, like most things revolving around farming, it’s a gamble as well.
The math involved in the planning of farming is way more than I ever anticipated. It’s more than just taking care of baby animals and making sure they have food. There is extensive thought that goes into when animals are bred and when they’re ready to process. There are expectations on when that offspring will leave the pasture and be one less mouth to feed before winter comes and you move to supplementing with hay. It is all a numbers game (and this blog doesn’t even begin to touch the numbers that go into the finances of a farm). Right now, it seems like the numbers aren’t adding up, but we are hopeful for better days to come. Farmers are some of the most resilient people out there. We know this will pass, but I am ever hopeful that what is going on, the realities of local farmers, sharing the story of our farm encourages many to open their eyes to the realities of where their food comes from and the incredible about of time, energy, love, thought, and planning that went into it getting there. If you haven’t already, thank a farmer today!