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 if you own a 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 there are many 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, pigs 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 can 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.  Perhaps there is an online course I want to pay for and take, winter or early spring is great time for me to make that purchase and block out some time to absorb the course.  Although I’m quite 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 a couple of years ago and up until that point I had only been purchasing stocker cattle for our beef operation.  Cow-calf pairs were a whole new world for me and I found myself needing to learn how to wean calves, understand the differing nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating cows, prepare for calving and more.  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 winter 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 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 the current year will allow me to add additional stocker cattle in April that will finish in late the following year.

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.

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