Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Simple Cattle Mineral Feeder

In everything we do on our farm we are always looking for simple, inexpensive and functional methods to accomplish a task. Constructing a basic mineral feeder has been on my to-do list for quite a while. With winter comes the slower months on the farm and I finally got around to tackling this much needed project. When I set out to build a mineral feeder for our cattle, the first thing I did was to perform a quick image search to see what others were doing. That search was very productive and generated a bunch of ideas for me to consider. As per usual, I employed elements of several different designs to generate my own solution. I created a quick, basic isometric sketch along with a material list and dove in. What we came up with has worked very well so far (with limited use), was very inexpensive, and should last for many years to come. In short, I’m thrilled with what we built and it only took about 3-1/2 hours to complete with two men.

Our feeder is complete and ready to head out to the pasture!

This feeder is servicing 24 cattle currently and has two compartments. While I have considered building and using a mineral feeder with up to 16 different compartments as a free choice “buffet” for the cows, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much money on minerals. I’m not saying they aren’t worthwhile, just that they are expensive and thus far we have had really good results without doing anything fancy. Many times, we haven’t even had mineral out for our stocker cattle at all, but just a basic mineral salt. That coupled with good grass in the grazing season, and decent quality grass hay (again, nothing great) has served us well. All that said, I should have built this feeder a long time ago, but I could say that about a lot of projects on my farm! A basic 1:1 mineral mix from Helfter Feeds and Redmond mineral salt are not super expensive, and do provide a lot of benefits for the cattle.

It took the cattle all of about two seconds to begin using the feeder. 

Now that we have our first cow-calf pairs on the farm (and the cows should be bred back) I’m getting more serious about making sure we don’t have any deficiencies, especially for the mamma cows. Growing babies is serious business! On that note, once the ladies are within 60-90 days of giving birth we’ll be segregating them so that we can put them on a grass based organic feed for good development and nutrition. I’m certain I’ll be building another one of these feeders soon, but perhaps with some dividers in the barrels to make it a four compartment setup. For now, two compartments is fine and works great.

Our mineral feeder is constructed out of treated 2×4 material. We screwed it together with anti-corrosive coated screws (both 1-1/2” and 3” long) and bolstered everything with some 3” long galvanized lag bolts. The metal was secured with some rubber gasketed roofing screws to keep moisture out of our compartments. The lumber ran us about $50 at the local 84 Lumber store and the lag bolts about $4 at our Rural King farm store. All of the screws were left over from other projects as were the anti-tip boards (2×6 treated scrap) on the bottom of the legs. The metal that was used was new, but was free (it came as a protective layer on some new metal we custom ordered for a small deck on our house). The barrel that was used cost around $12 a few years back, but should you buy one today I don’t think it would cost much more than that if any. All together, we had less than $70 in this project thanks to the free metal. Had I purchased the metal, it probably would have cost nearly $125 but would still be a very worthwhile project as it serves a really important function.

The basic framing for our mineral feeder is complete. Using all 2×4 treated lumber, it is approximately 6′ long, 2′ deep and 5′ tall in the front.

Overall our feeder is approximately 6′-0” long, 2′-0” deep and 5′-0” tall in the front. We made the rear about 4′-6” tall to shed rainwater with the back facing West. I’m not listing specific dimensions however for the simple fact that the horizontal framework is based entirely upon the size barrel one might use. The only critical dimension I will mention is that we set the top of the feeder at 2′-0” from the ground so it would be an easy reach for our smaller calves. We’ve settled upon Lowline Black Angus as our breed of choice to build our herd with, and with their smaller frames we didn’t want to make this difficult for them to reach. That dimension was a really a guesstimate on my part, and it seems to be working just fine but I’m glad we didn’t make it any higher. If all else fails I can always make it shorter!

Two 3″ coated screws as well as one 3/8″ diameter x 3″ long galvanized lag bolt were used on nearly all joints.

We secured our two barrel halves with 1-1/2″ long coated screws. Each side got 14-16 screws so that the cows can’t knock it loose. Note that the top of the feeder is set 24″ above grade.

Some scrap 2″x6″ treated material leftover from another project provided the anti-tip support for the legs.

If you are in need of a mineral feeder, you will be hard pressed to find a simpler design for the basis of what you build. This style could also be easily modified to work for smaller livestock like sheep or goats and could even be used to feed small amounts of hay. Just be sure to have a friend lend you a hand when constructing this as it really speeds up the process. Good luck!

2015 Southern Indiana Grazing Conference

The 2015 Southern Indiana Grazing Conference agenda is set and once again I’m looking forward to this years cadre of speakers.

This is one of my favorite events to attend each year, and it is one of the best values out there for a continuing education in grazing!  This is a smaller, one day event but it is an extremely reasonable seminar to attend and worth the drive to a rural area of Indiana.  Register by February 18th, and the cost to attend is only $35 and includes refreshments as well as lunch ($45 after that date).  On top of that, the speakers are second to none.  Previous speakers include Greg Judy, Gabe Brown and Jim Gerrish to name a few.  Also new this year, you can register online (small processing fee added).  Please note that the conference is moving from the previous location to a newer, larger venue.

This year grazer and author Gerald Fry will be the featured speaker.  Leading off for the days speakers however is Kate Yegerlehner, who is a full time grazer.  Kate and her family run a 100% grass based dairy.  She is a frequent contributor to Stockman Grass Farmer and is also a personal friend of mine.  If you are interested in grass only dairy, you will find no better resource!  The Yegerlehner family was also instrumental in helping me personally get started in farming.

I’m certain that as usual when I attend a conference, I’ll walk away with several pearls of wisdom that will save me countless dollars and heartache for years to come.  If you are within a few hours drive of Oden, IN it would be well worth your while to attend this conference.  There is even a small trade show that you can walk thru during the breaks.  And if you happen to run into me, please stop and introduce yourself!  I love chatting with all of you in person when the opportunity presents itself.

To learn more, you can visit the Davies County Soil & Water District website.  I hope to see many of you there!

Planning Ahead Your Farming Season

One of the things I most enjoy about being self employed in my niche of farming is the seasonal aspect of it all.  Because we live in the Midwest, we have a true winter and as such our poultry production takes place from the beginning of April with our meat chickens and runs thru late November with the turkeys.  While we also raise cattle and hogs, poultry is by far the largest labor input in our operation and by the time late October rolls around I’m physically and mentally ready for it to be over for certain.  Once Thanksgiving hits, a big mental hurdle is reached and a sigh of relief can be felt in the Simpson Farmhouse!

With only our cattle and perhaps a few pigs to care for thru the winter months, I have the opportunity to take a much needed and extended physical rest in December, January and February.  The further I get into my personal “lunatic farming” journey, the more convinced I have become that we are hard wired by our Creator to work cyclically throughout the year just as nature does.  In nature, you see a slow start followed by months of intense production which then culminates in a dormant time of rest.  Speaking for myself now that I’m in that groove, like nature I feel revitalized and ready to hit the ground running come spring.  Personally I don’t mind working as hard as I do for nine months out of the year because my batteries get recharged during the winter break.  My longest day of the week remains Saturday since I do a weekly indoor farmers market from November-April.  The rest of the week often times finds me sleeping in and my greatest task each day is keeping the wood stove toasty warm.  Now that isn’t to say I don’t have things to do, that is never the case on a farm and your own business.  However, I can chip away at things or work on small projects as I choose rather than working like I do during the rest of the year.  And if I want to take an entire day and do nothing beyond checking on the cattle, I have that luxury.

With all of that said however, winter offers us a great opportunity not only for a physical break but also to make the rest of our year physically (and mentally) easier as well.  I’m not one to make any resolutions once January 1st rolls around, but after a month of limited physical work in December and with the holidays behind me I do find myself recharged and thinking about the coming year.  This has become my greatest opportunity to read and plan ahead for the upcoming season.  While I’m getting a respite from the daily rigors of farm work I can do a lot of things that will save me time, money and frustration for not only the upcoming season but possibly many years down the road.

For instance the past three years we have built a large section of fence each spring.  I have used my winter break to plan, route, measure and prepare a cost estimate for that project.  Once I have my plan in place I call the contractor that assists us and get my name in line for the upcoming spring.  Obviously, fence makes your life easier and allows you to grow your business if you are raising cattle or lamb.  If you don’t plan ahead you’ll never know if you can stick to your budget or get the contractor to show up before the middle of summer.  Around here, there are few livestock fence contractors to choose from and even fewer good ones.  They all book up fast so waiting until April or May to make that call is a huge mistake.  Fence is one of the greatest investments we have made to date.  Long term, our cattle will be the backbone of our financial income stream and the fence makes them the easiest and most enjoyable part of my day from a labor standpoint.  A well thought out system make cattle very easy to manage, but attempting to plan that system on the fly after the contractor shows up is a very bad idea.  Taking the time to sketch it out, mark it in the field, mentally chew on it and revise it before construction begins is a wise use of time, time that winter affords me.

Another thing I tackle early on in the year is our poultry production schedule.  Much like the fence contractors, dates can book up for poultry butchering if you wait too long (especially for turkeys, I schedule mine a year in advance).  It’s also a good idea to have your hatchery dates planned out in advance as well, particularity if you order in larger quantities.  Just try calling a hatchery a week or two before you need 500 chicks and see what happens!  By late January, I’ll have all of my poultry hatch dates lined up and butchering dates scheduled for the year.  This not only helps me by locking up dates in advance, but also helps our butcher and hatchery plan as well.  With all of these dates planned out, I’m now ready to advertise and begin selling slots in our bulk chicken program.  Since I know my production dates, I can list the pickup dates and times right from the start for our customers.  I have to do all of this anyway, so it makes sense to get it done early so I don’t have any surprises later in the spring.  And our customers like knowing in advance which dates they will be headed to the farm to get their bulk chicken orders.

Like any bulk program we offer, we collect a deposit up front from our customers to secure their spot in our discount chicken program.  They get a discount for paying up front, and we get some much needed cash heading into the spring.  We then use that cash to pay for the first batch of chicks, feed, bedding, supplies etc.  Last year, we took a portion of that cash to purchase some of the fence posts we needed for our added grazing plan.  As you can see, sitting down and intentionally planning in advance when you have the time to do it pays dividends all the way around!  There is nothing worse than waiting until the last moment, when you are already swamped with day long farm work in the spring, to try and schedule something as crucial as a contractor or butchering date.  One frustration and lead to another and before you know it your whole summer is a mess.

I also use my winter break to read any farming books that I need to, attend a farming conference or to study up on something in particular that I might be adding in the upcoming year.  Although I’m a few years into working on my farm full time, I certainly don’t know everything or have it all figured out.  For example, we bought our first cow-calf pairs this past fall and up until this point I had only been purchasing stocker cattle for our beef operation.  Cow-calf pairs are a whole new world for me and now I find myself needing to learn how to wean calves, understand the differing nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating cows, prepare for calving and Lord knows what else that will be coming my way this spring.  I’m also intent on figuring out grassfed lamb as a part of our long term plan and hope to find some good sources to read up on that this winter as well.  If I begin studying lamb now and know what to look for, I’ll be in a position to take advantage of any opportunities that might present themselves later this year to potentially purchase livestock (or even more important: avoid bad opportunities).  There is always something new to learn, and for me to best time to do it is while I’m sitting next to the fire in my recliner while it’s cold outside.

Lastly, we also take time to evaluate our marketing strategy for the upcoming season in the winter.  Applications for summer markets begin going out in February and often times are due by the end of March or start of April.  If you are considering changing, adding or starting with farmers markets now is the time to be researching them to find out which one is right for you.  We also begin planning when we’ll be offering bulk pork purchases as well as how many beef we’ll be selling retail vs. bulk.  Again, we solicit our customers who make those bulk purchases for a deposit now which is then used to help offset the purchase of livestock, feed and equipment for the upcoming season.  In the case of cattle, I’m always working two seasons in advance so collecting deposits in February and March of 2015 will allow me to add additional stocker cattle in April that will finish in late 2016.

What about your upcoming year should you be planning now?  Are you going to add any new species to your operation this year?  Is it time to scale up an existing enterprise and if so what is your marketing strategy to sell that product?  Are you finally ready to build some permanent fence?  Will you be applying for any grants and if so when are those applications due?  I would suggest writing down what big ticket projects you want to accomplish, enterprises you want to begin or expand and new skills or knowledge you would like to acquire.  Once you have that done, list out some key dates you need to meet and put your plan into action!

Take advantage of the winter time and use it to both rest and plan.  I believe you’ll find that your summer will be much more enjoyable, and profitable, as a result.  Of course, if you need a little extra help getting your plans ironed out I’m available to meet with you for a one on one consult.  After all, I’ll just be sitting in that recliner next to the wood stove….