The Pitfalls of Animal Feed

21 Jul

In the past few days I came across a few posts that I’ve mentally bookmarked as case-studies in how farming can go wrong in a hurry.  Both hinge on skyrocketing feed costs, which Bruce King covers pretty thoroughly here in his post from last week.

First up we have a lady named Chris Chinn who raises hogs here in Missouri. Chris was one of the panelists in a particularly maddening radio program that I wrote about a while back. Their farm is a pretty typical hog operation and they are getting absolutely hammered by rising feed costs and a flooded hog market. While I might not agree with her on many things, I can only imagine the terror of seeing so much of your hard work and investment evaporate almost overnight. I’ve heard that the past few years were good times for hog producers, as pork prices were pretty high, and feed prices reasonable.  I only hope that the good times were good enough to outweigh the next year or so, as I think it’s going to put more than a few farms under.

Next up, in a completely different setup, we have Soul Food farm, a small farm right outside of San Fransisco, California.  They supply eggs and chicken to a number of ritzy customers such as Alice Water’s famous restaurant; Chez Panisse. Even with the advantages of direct-marketing, affluent clientele and lots of community supprot, they couldn’t overcome their reliance on purchased feed.  Chickens eat feed, and chickens are all that Soul Food Farm raised.

“Looking back, the hardest thing to overcome was our lack of diversity. I didn’t have the time or the understanding that a farm has to have diversity. We should’ve planted fields, had vegetables and other animals, so there would be rotating plants and crops. That was a huge mistake, but a part of learning.”

Hindsight is 20/20 and Monday-morning quarterbacking ain’t too difficult either, but I’d like to avoid these kinds of mistakes on my farm. For now the pigs are easy because I don’t have any.  In another year, I’ll be trying to follow the example of guys like Bruce King and Walter Jefferies, raising pigs on pasture with as much non-commercial hog feed as possible.

The chickens are especially interesting (and challenging) for me right now. Soul Food Farms raises Freedom Ranger Broiler Chickens (Label Rouge if you’re French) which I’m thinking about trying for this fall.  Ideally, we will be able to skip buying chickens all together if the great chicken breeding experiment starts paying dividends.  But even chickens that you breed on the farm have to eat and nothing we can do will change that.  We can put chickens out on pasture, which will reduce feed consumption up to 30% (per Joel Salatin). We can also diversify away from just corn and soy, though in a drought this prolonged and widespread it’s doubtful that it’d do much for the bottom line; but every little bit helps.

One Response to “The Pitfalls of Animal Feed”

  1. bc July 21, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    Thanks for that soul food farm link. Very entertaining.

    For a start, the comments there are excellent. I do like the foie gras idea. 🙂

    There are things that don’t ring true. The chickens raised by their competition eat grain, too, so that part of pricing should be the same across the board.

    $13k a month is a lot of chicken feed. Even if you estimate their organic feed costs at $500 a ton that’s 26 tons of feed a month! For real? Holy cow.

    One commenter said that with 55 acres they could grow a lot of chicken feed, but I think the problem is with the costs of those 55 acres. They’ve bought or rented a lot of really expensive land and are doing a project that requires just a couple of acres. Why do they have 55 acres for a chicken farm?

    Forget crop diversity, they just bought a very expensive farm and are doing an intensive form of farming on it. They’re servicing the mortgage or paying the rent on way more land than they need for the work they are doing. The crop diversity is their way of saying ‘we should have done something with the 55 acres’.

    The organic chicken farm 100km away with land prices half as much and running on a 10ac property is going to be way more profitable even if it is in a less sexy location.

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