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The Challenge of Small Farming Operations

Maintaining pastures with a wagon, clippers, and a lawn tractor

Last week, we sold our ram, Elijah to a large farm in NY. A free night in our B&B comes with every livestock sale so that our customers can pick up their sheep on a more leisurely schedule. Sunny and Tom Bixby of Liberty Ridge Farm spent one night with us before heading home again with their new ram. Sunny and Tom began their farm in the early 1970’s. They began, as many of us do, with one sheep. In this case, it was a bred ewe Tom had bought for Sunny so she could have wool to knit herself a sweater. Their farm quickly grew from this one ewe to over 300 sheep. They have down sized their flock considerably but it is still far larger than our small hillside farm.

While they were here, we talked about the differences between small farming and large farm operations. They have 12 border collies-we have one. They have 50 breeding ewes-we have 6. They own a “Bobcat”, hay equipment, and tractor-we own a pitch fork, shovel, and lawn mower. They own a fancy hay wagon that picks the hay up out of the field and stacks it in the barn for you-we hurl each bale of hay up to the hayloft by hand. The loss of one lamb during lambing is a very small percentage of their lamb crop-we need every lamb to live as the loss of one represents a huge percentage of our lamb crop. There in lies the challenge of small farming operations.

Everyone helps pull burdock from the field

My question for the day-how does a small farming operation grow? After talking with Sunny and Tom, I began to realize our limitations here on our farm. As it is, feeding our sheep, maintaining pastures, and cleaning paddocks present our largest challenges. We have to rely upon other farmers for hay and the past few years, this has not been easy. Many farmers have gone to round bales and we do not have the equipment to move round bales or store them. Those still doing square bales, are in demand and finding a source close to home can be difficult. Then, once we have a hay source, we ideally need to have it delivered to us or we must make multiple trips in our pick up truck. Unless the farmer delivers the hay and brings a hay elevator, we must toss each bale up to the hay loft by hand.

The sheep and llamas do a pretty good job of maintaining our pastures, however, after grazing an area, we need some way to knock down the invasive weeds. If left in an area long enough, the sheep will eat just about everything there but I have found there are some things which they refuse to eat, burdock, and thistle. I have literally run our lawn tractor in the ground using it to mow pastures. This fall, our little John Deere lawn tractor completely gave out leaving us the winter to decide how or with what to replace it.

Cleaning shelters and barns must be our most laborious and back breaking task. We try to not allow a deep manure pack to build up as it becomes almost too much for us to clean if allowed to go too long. This spring, I spent two weeks cleaning out our goat shelter. I did a little every day so as to not stress my back. I never got around to the llama shelter and this weekend, my husband and son took on the job. They cleaned the llama shelter one shovel full at a time. At one point yesterday, I engaged my husband in a conversation about how we could possibly continue to farm this way as we get older. Changes must be made if we want to continue as the years pass and the children leave home.

We decided that we ideally need several things, all of which are on my “wish list”:

  • A new shelter that allows a tractor to come in and clean it once a year.
  • A tractor or “Bobcat” to do the cleaning.
  • A hay elevator and reliable source of hay.

With these things in place, we could continue farming long into life and allow our flock size to increase. We pondered all these things, walking the pastures looking for a new spot to put the new barn, and  looking at the ads in the paper for used tractors, and hay elevators. After spending about an hour of daylight dreaming and talking-we felt the weight of the expense and went back to the pitchfork and pick up truck deciding to leave these decisions for another day.