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How much land does it take to grow feed for animals?

There are no stock answers, but here are some things to consider

We'd like to know how much land it takes to grow how much feed.

We have been searching libraries and book stores for such information. I can find all sorts of info on how to plant, harvest, store, etc. I'm sure the harvest per acre varies a lot from climate to climate, but we just want some sort of average. We know our animals eat approximately a bale a week, some slightly more, some less. We don't want to buy five acres and find out it takes 20 for what we want to do. Finances may limit our acreage anyway, but it would be nice to go into this with open eyes and not be disappointed later.

Jd replies: Averages aren't hard to find. The trouble is, they don't mean much.

As you note, climate has much to do with it. Even in a given climate, yields can vary tremendously. For this reason, the best place to get averages is from your local county agent or ASCS. But for your purposes, that's just a start.

The reasons should be evident to any gardener. Among them:

Weather: What was the average corn yield in Iowa in 1992? How about 1993, with all those acres under water? And it doesn't take a flood, drought, hailstorm, insects, blight, or early or late frost to knock an average into a cocked hat.

If corn, for example, doesn't get the proper temperatures at pollination time, it doesn't matter much what the weather was like before or after. Early summer rains can cause shallow rooting, with a subsequent dry period doing much damage, even though the summer's overall rainfall might have been "average." Too-cool temperatures at planting can delay germination, and too much water then can cause seeds to rot.

Every farmer knows there is no such thing as a "normal" year when it comes to weather.

Soil: Even a cursory look at a soil map will show a great diversity in almost any county, and in some places on every farm. The many gradations between even relatively good soils can make a big difference in production.

There can also be factors aside from native fertility.

As one example, I planted oats in one small field on a hill. At harvest time, I had to lower the combine header as far as I could, the stalks were so short - at the top of the hill. At the bottom the grain was four feet high!

In this case there were differences in soil type: the hilltop was sandy gravel, and the foot of the hill ended in a marsh (the kind landscapers get "black dirt" and topsoil from). But it was also apparent that fertilizer from previous years had washed down the slope. In addition, as I learned in later growing seasons, some years were so wet that the bottom portion of the field couldn't he planted at all, so it was often fallow and "rested."

I got more than 40 bushels per acre from the bottom, and not even 10 from the very top. So if the average was 25 bushels... so what?

In midwest dairy country the fields around the barn are often more fertile than those in the back forty. The reason? When the farmer cleans the barn when it's 20-below and the wind is howling, guess where the manure goes!

Cropping history: In addition to some of the foregoing observations on soil fertility, it can be helpful to know what has been done with the land in the past. If it's been growing corn for 20 years, your yield next year might be below the county average. If it's been neglected and full of Canada thistle and quack and foxtail and you want to farm organically... you might not even get your seed back!

Experience: This is the one most likely to trip up a beginner.

If you start gardening without any experience and guidance, heaven only knows what your yield might be. You could luck out and need more canning jars... but it's more likely that you'll be going to the grocery store for another year at least.

Farming is worse. If you have never driven a tractor, never plowed, and never calibrated a grain drill or corn planter, don't expect to harvest as much as the farmer who's been doing all that for 50 years.

Especially if you're using machinery someone else considered junk.

"Averages" are calculated mostly from the yields of people who know what they're doing.

If you put four bags of seed in the grain drill, "plant" 10 acres, and find out the drill is still full because a drive chain broke, consider yourself lucky. You can fix the chain and go over the field again, hopefully when no one is watching. It's worse to plant the whole field when half the drill isn't lowered, or some of the seed tubes are plugged, or all the seed falls on the ground without being covered... and you don't realize it until the crop starts coming up in straight but sparse rows with lots of bare ground in between.

Believe it or not, this isn't meant to discourage anyone. It is a warning to start out slowly, and without overly hopeful expectations. If you don't have farm experience, you're going to have to learn. And until you do - unless you're very lucky - your yields won't match the "averages."

By the way - what's an "average" bale of hay? More problems!

An "average" bale of hay?

For one thing, western bales are heavier than midwestern bales. For another, the food value - and how much your animals will have to eat - varies not only with the type of hay (alfalfa, clover, timothy, brome, etc.) but also with the weed content, whether it's first, second or even a later cutting, whether it got rained on, whether it was baled at the proper stage, whether it was stored properly, and more.

Now - if you still want to grow your own feed - how can you make use of all this information to decide how much land you'll need for specific numbers and classes of livestock?

First, you'll have to know something about the land. If you don't already have the farm you'll have to make some assumptions, one being that you aren't going to buy the best land in the county.

Next, get some local figures on average yields, from local agricultural offices, farmers, seed dealers, or custom harvesters.

Then cut those numbers in half for the first year, just to be safe.

And don't quit the day job yet.

In practice, here's what's going to happen:

You'll do all this homework and decide you need, say five acres. And you'll go looking for five acres of "average" land.

You won't find it. You'll find two acres, or 10, or 40. Or you'll find five that are half woods, or swamp, or hardscrabble. But you can afford it...and you love it!

Buy it.

Get some animals. Not all the draft horses and beef cattle and others you probably dreamed of and planned for, but maybe a few sheep or a pig and some chickens. Don't forget you'll have a lot to learn - and do - to prosper in the homestead livestock business even while you're learning to grow feed crops.

Then get started on the fields. You'll have to acquire some equipment and learn how to operate (and repair) it. You might need a tractor, plow, disk or harrow, grain drill, mower (preferably a mower-conditioner), rake, baler, wagon, bale elevator, corn planter, cultivator and maybe a rotary hoe, combine, maybe with both a corn head and a grain platform... (That's another article... but it's coming.)

Depending on your location you might start out with alfalfa and corn, or a grass hay and barley. Your local seed dealers, county agent and neighbors will help you decide what to plant if you haven't already learned from personal observation and study.

Then see what happens.

There are two possibilities.

The worst is you'll decide it's easier, cheaper, and better to buy feed. You'll either buy it, or get rid of the animals and turn the fields into a Christmas tree plantation or wildlife refuge.

Or you'll decide you like crop farming and you're very good at it.

In that case you'll have the personal experience to be able to predict yields (within the vagaries of weather, insects, and acts of God, of course). And you'll increase livestock to make use of the feed you can grow.

And the simple answer...

Now for the "simple" answer. Here are some averages for yields of major feed crops:

Alfalfa: U.S. average: 2.83 tons per acre; ranges from Arizona with 6.73 tons/acre to South Dakota with 1.43. (Alfalfa is not a major crop in the extreme southwestern states, Hawaii or Alaska.)

Barley: U.S., 44.8 bushels per acre; Arizona, 76; South Dakota, 28.

Corn: 87.3 bushels per acre; Texas leads with 120 bushels; Indiana, 110; Illinois, 107. Minnesota averages 59 bushels of corn per acre.

Oats: U.S. average: 45.4 bushels per acre; Arkansas, 76; South Dakota, 30.

Sorghum: U.S.,48.6 bushels per acre; Arizona, 73; and South Dakota, 26.
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Author:Gailey, Alisa; Belanger, Jd
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Cotswold sheep.
Next Article:From farmer to homesteader.

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