Drought & long-term animal management decisions

Our exceptional drought continues, with only .02″ of rain over a weekend widely forecast for 1″-2″. Rainfall for the year is now about 10″ behind average, and the reality is worse given the very high evapotranspiration rates due to high temperatures and low humidity. While some rain from Isaac would be welcome (too much at once will cause soil erosion, crop damage, and other problems), it won’t be enough to change the overall picture and the damage already done. In these conditions, we’re faced with making a number of significant decisions on how to manage our goats, chickens, and pigs for the rest of the year and through the following year(s). Our animals are an integral part of our farm management (and our personal lives), but as we’re not sure conditions can or will recover before sometime next year at the earliest, we need to make some short- and medium-term changes. Here are some things we’re facing and contemplating.

CHICKENS
All feed prices are skyrocketing given drought-devasted grain fields, and organic feed is no different. The next batch of chicken feed we buy will be 20% higher, and I doubt the prices have stopped rising. Even though we supplement as much as possible with farm scraps, all poultry eat a basic ration of grain that has to be purchased because the subsidy system for large growers makes it uneconomical to raise our own. Will we be able to get $7.00 or more for our eggs next year to make up this increased cost? I doubt it.

Drought has already annihilated most of the green material & insect life in the open areas we rotate chickens through, so their feed consumption is higher than in a normal year where they can forage for bugs, grass, and more. The flock is already doing damage to the sun-baked soil by compressing it and removing most remaining green material due to their foraging instinct, and we worry about doing even more damage long-term until the ground recovers. They’re getting out of their assigned net-fenced paddocks more often than usual, because they’re smart enough to know there’s little left to eat, but this raises their risk of predation significantly. We’ve kept them off one paddock all year, where we seeded clover in the spring that’s just barely staying alive: even a few days of chickens would kill it entirely and set us back a year or more. So even the current-sized flock risks doing even more damage to the stressed landscape than the drought alone already has, and is costing us money (and higher predation risk as they roam abroad in search of natural food).

Every bird we carry through the winter for next year’s laying has to be fed that entire time at the higher price, and we don’t know whether their pastures will even recover for next year. So is it worth trying to maintain a laying flock big enough to sell eggs from next year, or should we just butcher most of them and maintain a personal-sized flock with a core of good genetics until we’re sure pastures will recover and feed prices go back down? Loss of income has to be balanced against future management concerns.

DAIRY/MEAT GOATS
We’ve already had to make serious decisions here, butchering all the kids in mid-summer to cut down on herd size and thus pasture use, which meant losing half the meat yield we’d have gotten if they’d grown to near-full-size in late fall. We also dried off half the milkers, keeping just two does going for personal consumption, meaning we’ve lost the rest of the year of milk sales we were counting on for income. This has made a noticeable difference in the speed with which they eat through pastures, but we’re still about out of fresh places to graze them and nothing has regrown since spring.

Hay costs are going through the roof; we’ve already purchased twice our normal supply of alfalfa at a higher price to get us through a coming winter & spring with no viable pasture. Though we feed very little grain, what we do use is going up in price just like chicken feed. We’ve started spending significant time weeding poisonous plants out of the woods just to have somewhere fresh to put the reduced herd in September (and beyond) when the last regular pasture is finished. We’ve culled all the animals we can without losing really valuable milkers we intend to have a long-term future here.

So we’re seriously considering only breeding two does this fall, just enough to maintain a milk supply for ourselves next year, keeping the other two as barren does for a year to minimize their food/pasture consumption. We have to make this decision by October, our usual breeding time, though the ramifications ripple through the entire coming year. But can we really justify breeding all four goats, thus increasing their feeding needs throughout the coming year, on the hope that enough moisture will occur between now and spring to allow our dead pastures to recover? This takes away next year’s potential milk sales, but we don’t see another responsible option. Like eggs, we don’t see how we can raise the price of milk enough to pay back all the risks and costs of keeping the larger herd going under these conditions, and the risk to the long-term health of the landscape just isn’t worth it despite the loss of income.

PIGS
This is less urgent than the other two, but still a management question. We haven’t been moving them to fresh ground as often as we’d like, in part because the ground is baked so hard we can barely get the electric net-fence posts in. The last time, we had to water each post location with a bucket just to get the fence set (we have similar problems moving goat & chicken nets to new areas). Plus, this year we don’t want them tearing up grass like we usually do; we need every ounce of plant material we can get, even if it’s fescue that we’d long-term like to remove. So by next year, will we have very many areas we can justify putting pigs on if pastures take a long time to recover?

Like the other two, feed will be more expensive despite our best efforts to supplement with on-farm materials, and the damage they could do to stressed pastures could have long-term implications. Yet pigs are now an important part of our self-sufficiency and diversified diet, and help significantly reduce our on-farm food waste. We’ve found that pigs, very social animals, are happier together than alone, so we’d rather not raise just one but can we justify the cost & impact of two? Should we skip pigs altogether for a year and go without pork, lard, bacon, & sausage? We managed the first years we were here…

CHOICES MADE
We’ve made the decision that we’re only breeding two goats next year, are close to convincing ourselves to cull the chickens down to a personal flock, and are still considering the pig question. There are some benefits to these hard choices: reducing the animal workload frees more time to focus on vegetables as we increase the CSA membership next year, and fewer animals means they’ll consume a higher proportion of on-farm feeds, thus helping buffer the cost of purchased feed.

Given that all animal products (whether meat, milk, or eggs) have very narrow profit margins, we’re probably best off with these choices from an economic point of view. Frankly, we can do better raising vegetables than animals; ever wonder why the local farmers market has lots of produce growers but only one dairy, and just a few egg & meat vendors, the only organic one having just gone out of business? But our diversified farm relies on the fertility and other benefits of animals, and it’s hard to put a price on that. We have, however, achieved a good stockpile of very nice compost this year, and we think we can get by with a year of reduced manure output. In the long run, we have every intention and desire to maintain diversified, income-producing animals on the farm even if we take a temporary step back next year.

We like selling animal products like milk & eggs as a way to buffer the increased costs of our ethical and sustainable management choices, but aren’t sure how to attach a price to those decisions that pays for the real costs of doing do. And how do you put a price on long-term landscape damage from stocking more animals than drought-stressed land can handle, or on responsibly NOT doing so but losing food & income while doing it? These are the questions we’re wrestling with right now, along with everything else the drought is throwing at us.

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