ASK THE EXPERT FARMER – Winter 2012

This season, CFSA asks about record keeping, spring calving and production planning.

By timing calving for March and April, we can ensure the lactating cows have access to the best nutrition to nurse a baby calf.

OUR EXPERT FARMERS:
Casey McKissick – Crooked Creek Farm in Old Fort, NC
Jamie Ager – Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, NC
Leland Gibson – Gibson Farms in Westminster, SC
Tom Elmore – Thatchmore Farm in Leicester, NC
Don and Susan Brant – Brant Family Farms near Grays, SC

1) What are some tips you have for record keeping?

TOM: We track market sales, income, payroll, sowing schedule and field layout with simple Excel spreadsheets. Richard Wiswall has some more complicated versions in his book – The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook.

DON & SUSAN: After 5 years of farming, recordkeeping has by far been the most neglected element of our overall farming operation.  We collect our harvest data simply by using a chalkboard in the field shed.  Invoices are now duplicated and retained for customer volume and pricing data.  Although minimal, it’s a good starting point.

CASEY: Record keeping in livestock operations – as in any enterprise – requires discipline and consistency. Especially when profit margins are as thin as they are in meat production, if a producer does not keep good records, they can only guess if they are making money or not. I keep my livestock records in digital files on my laptop and on a very large wall calendar that shows the entire year. The computer files are for archives; the wall calendar serves as a graphic organizer of chronological events such as births, worming, harvesting, breeding, and arrival of chicks. Of course, none of this information would ever make it to the office except for the fact that I carry a tiny notebook wherever I go, making it easy to write information as it happens. A smartphone comes in handy as well; some have a voice recorder which is an easy way to make notes.

JAMIE: We use and like a program called Cattleman that helps to organize the cattle records on the computer.

LELAND: Record keeping for the farm as with any business is a vital tool to measure the success (or shortfalls) of your farm operations. We are a certified organic farm and good records are required. I record everything I do in a daily diary both on paper and the computer. Like most farmers, I would rather be out working the land and livestock rather than sitting behind a desk doing paperwork, so my advice is to make it simple.  Like Casey, I keep a simple daily calendar, but I keep mine in my truck, not on the wall of my office.  Each time I check my herd, feed a bale of hay, repair a fence, discover a new calf, I make a note of it on the calendar. I also make a note of the weather, daily temperature and rainfall.  I spend 10 minutes or so each week to transfer everything I wrote on my calendar to my computer so I have a digital copy as well.

Our record keeping for the cattle is rather simple as well.  We keep a log book that lists all of the cattle on the farm. Each animal has an ear tag to identify the animal and their herd.  Any activity is recorded in the log book such as the birth date of each calf, the ear tag number and date of tagging, and any treatments such as de-wormers or probiotics.

2) What are your best tips for spring calving?

CASEY: Now is the time to make sure you have calving supplies on hand – emergency colostrum, electrolytes, and assist tools that may be needed. I like to keep gloves, lubricant, iodine, a good flashlight, obstetrical chains, a roll of paper towels and some cotton towels in a 5-gallon bucket with a lid. If calves are born on open pasture, try to time your animal movements to ensure cows are moved to the cleanest, driest paddocks you have. Wet, cold, muddy ground is an invitation to infection in newborn calves. Of course, proper nutrition and cow health is paramount, especially in the last 2-3 months of gestation.

JAMIE: Spring calving has been a successful time for our farm.  By timing calving for March and April, we can ensure the lactating cows have access to the best nutrition to nurse a baby calf.  It also is getting warmer at that time of year so the risk of a frozen calf is minimized. We tag all calves with their mothers tag number so we can keep track of the calves when we move them.  We practice rotational grazing and keeping track of new born calves can be a challenge.  Spring calving also lets you wean the calves in the late fall/early winter so we can dry the cow off to reduce her nutritional needs to get through the winter with less nutritional requirements.

LELAND: Regardless of the season, proper nutrition for the mother-to-be is the most essential part of a successful calving season.  Ideally, the mother should be in good condition prior to breeding, which means a body conditioning score of 5 to 7, and she should maintain her weight throughout the pregnancy by having access to good forage grass and mineral supplements. If good forage grass is in short supply, make sure to have plenty of hay on hand to supplement through the winter.  Also, the springtime is the time of year when most parasites thrive. Make sure to check the herd regularly and if a dramatic weight loss is noted, make sure to test for parasites and treat as needed.  A good rotational grazing program will reduce the risk of parasite infestation.

3) What are some tips for produce production planning?

TOM: Our sales records drive modifications to our sowing list, which in turn drives production.  If we sold out of lettuce the second week of August, we plant more this year to mature in that week.  If we brought home habaneros week after week, we plant less of that crop. Without good records, it’s hard to make those adjustments.  For a steady supply of lettuce, we sow an equal amount every other week in the spring, every week around the solstice and twice a week in late summer.

DON & SUSAN: We use a spreadsheet for production planning, which made us realize the importance of upfront planning and our need to drastically increase growing space to meet expected market demand.  The spreadsheet requires the farmer to give serious thought to every aspect of the planning process, including products, row feet, seed volumes, planting dates (seed/transplants), harvesting dates, and succession planting.  It worked for us in 2011 and will be repeated for 2012.

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