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Make the Most of Winter Months at Your Eco Farm

BY DARBY SIMPSON

This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. Magazine. The author creates educational content, including a podcast and online courses, on pastured livestock at grassfedlife.co.


One of the things I most enjoy about our particular niche of livestock farming is the seasonal aspect of it all.

Because we live in the Midwest, we have a true winter, and as such the predominant portion of our farm’s meat production takes place from the beginning of March through late November. As you may have no doubt discovered, the old adage of “make hay while the sun is shining” came from this mindset of going gangbusters for nine months while the weather allows. This of course is followed by a well deserved three months of winter, and by the time late October rolls around I’m physically and mentally ready for the production season to come to an end. 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 to care for through 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 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. 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. From a farming standpoint, our longest day of the week remains Saturday, since we do a weekly indoor farmers’ market from November to April. 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.

Darby Simpson is farmer and educator in Indiana.

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 1 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 — not only the upcoming season, but possibly for many years down the road.

For instance, for 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 makes 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. I can also put together a very accurate cost estimate in a spreadsheet, making certain that I have appropriate funds set aside to complete the project.

Another thing I have tackled in winters past 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 is also a good idea to have your hatchery dates planned out in advance, particularity if you order in larger quantities. Just try calling a hatchery a week or two before you need 600 chicks and see what happens!

By late January, I will 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 — it also helps our butchering 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 bulk 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, 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 a great time for me to make that purchase and block out some time to absorb the course. At Grassfed Life (grassfedlife.co), we offer a number of online video courses, and I can tell you that a lot of content is watched during the winter months when folks can afford to sit, learn, digest and implement what I teach. There is always something new to learn, and for me the best time to do it is while I only have a handful of cattle to care for in the winter months.

Lastly, we also take time during the winter to evaluate our marketing strategy for the upcoming season. Applications for summer markets begin going out in February and are often due by the end of March or the start of April. If you are considering changing, adding or starting 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 late the following year. My customers’ cash deposits become the cash flow mechanism to implement our two-year strategy, so planning and marketing is absolutely crucial.

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 grant? 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 wintertime 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.

Living on his family’s seventh generation farm, Darby began his own farming enterprise in 2007 after reading Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin. For more information, visit grassfedlife.co.