Your dream has come true. You have just bought that 40-acre piece of land you have always dreamed of purchasing. You have that old farmhouse your wife is dreaming of restoring, and it will be your side project for the next 3 years. You have an old wood barn that needs some TLC, and a decade-old metal shed on the land. You have an 8-acre field that was used to grow corn a few years back and a 10-acre hay field. There is some pasture land with fencing that has seen better days. What is now in your possession is the quintessential small American farm.
What I have just described is a very common situation new farmers jump into. Older farms that once had over a hundred acres now have 20-50 that comes with an old house and some buildings. As lot sizes continue to decrease in size, so has the average acres of the small family farm also shrunk. A new farmer just getting into the world of agriculture will need to learn how to do with smaller and smaller plots of land, and yet make enough money to provide a living or at least have the farm pay for itself.
Often the sense of being overwhelmed is the first thing that is felt by the new landowner. This is understandable. The upkeep of even 40 acres has a honey-do list the size of your forearm. Preparing to farmland that has not seen use in years takes time, resources and determination. It also requires a good roadmap to success before you first pull a plow across your fields.
Unless you bought the land sight unseen (very foolish), you should at least have an idea of what you are getting into. You may know the house needs a new roof. The internal roads of the farm need a new bridge and erosion repair. Your pasture needs better water access. The field has to be cleared and perhaps controlled burned. The list goes on.
Start with a list. Make two columns one of what absolutely has to be done, and another of what can wait. Any work on your home to make it livable must come first especially if you have a family. Assuming you are not moving into a shack, make sure your home is dry and warm, and the water works. You should have heat in the winter time. You get the picture.
Farm buildings can be repaired as time goes on unless a building is in danger of collapse. In the case of buildings collapsing, it is often best to tear down and rebuild at another time. Equipment can be stored under tarps temporarily until the new shelter is constructed.
Making sure you have the right equipment to manage your land is critical. Any land over 10 acres benefits greatly from having a solid tractor with at least 40 horsepower. A front end loader on said tractor is indispensable. I know some folks who eschew technology, I do as well, but I do not forsake good power equipment and diesel horsepower. You should have at least one tractor with a 3-point hitch as almost all modern implements utilize this.
To accompany your tractor, you should have a good brush mower, a solid 2-4 bottom plow, perhaps a disc plow, a rake, a seeder, and a utility wagon. Other implements can follow as finances allow. If you have a front end loader, a bucket and a hay fork attachment make life easier. Excellent used tractors brands include John Deere, International Harvester/Farmall, Ford, Massey Ferguson, and Kubota. These are my personal go-to brands.
A chainsaw is another indispensable tool. A Stihl or Husqvarna is more expensive than a cheap saw, but these two brands are known to last.
Preparing Your Fields
After you take stock and make sure your dwelling is at the very least habitable and you have at least a tractor and some implements you are ready to get to work. Before you buy your first animal, I believe you must prepare your gardens, fields, and pasture.
Fields that are overgrown need to be brought back as quickly as possible. If the fields have not been used in years it is a chore. Small trees must be cleared as will brush that has grown up over the past years of neglect. Much of this work will have to be by hand and with a chainsaw. Smaller brush can be brush hogged with a tractor. Burn piles should be utilized in the corners and sides of fields away from trees and brush that can easily catch fire. Pastures likewise must be given the same treatment as a field if overgrown.
As soon as the brush is cleared, hook up your moldboard plow to your tractor and break ground. Plow your field in as much of a square as possible. If you have cleared your fields in time, by all means, plant your first crop. If it is the late summer or fall, plant a cover crop to prevent erosion and loss of soil.
Pasture and hay fields can be sewn in seed as long as it is warm enough for the seed to germinate and at least take root. Do not allow any livestock to graze any pasture for at least a month allowing your grass to mature and thicken. I personally try to keep livestock away for 6-8 weeks.
Vegetable gardens should be built as soon as spring arrives and planted during planting season. You can build a garden without a tractor and a moldboard plow. Remove the topsoil and grass with a spade shovel and compost. Next, use a rototiller and till the top 8-12 inches under the grass you removed. This breaks up the soil and will allow your seeds to take root. Wait to till until the ground is reasonably dry unless you happen to like mud baths. When the warm days arrive plant when there is little to no chance of the frost returning.
Preparing your new farm for livestock requires planning and preparation just like anything else pertaining to agriculture. Forage and water must be provided for any animals you have on your land. Without forage and water, you have no farm. A shelter is needed for some species.
Begin to prepare for livestock, by making sure they have adequate access to water. This is easy for chickens and turkey, just fill up a waterer or a nipple drinker daily with your garden hose. For hogs, horses, cattle sheep and goats a well fed automatic waterer is a great asset to have. A 4-6-hole automatic waterer can provide all the H20 your livestock will need.
Keeping livestock away from ponds and streams protects these waters. It prevents erosion of the banks of our creeks and farm ponds. Water quality is improved when cattle are separated from these waters by fencing. In fact, lepto, e.coli, and mastitis can all be caused by cattle drinking dirty water. Keeping cattle from open water also will reduce deaths by drowning, and loss of calves and other young. On today’s farms, there is no reason not to use an automatic waterer. Installation is not that difficult and the waterers themselves are not that expensive.
Fencing around pasture areas will need to be repaired, or put in place. This can be costly and time-consuming, and needs to be done right the first time. Fencing pasture protects you animals, protects your crops from damage, and prevents erosion and over browsing.
As mentioned previously, be sure your pasture has at least 6 weeks’ growth before releasing livestock to feed on the grass. A better plan would be to let the pasture grow for 2-3 months before grazing livestock. In that time, it would be beneficial for you to cut and bale forage to reserve for when necessary.
Purchasing feed should also be completed before any animals arrive. Life happens and if your livestock lacks forage, they will starve. If it is winter time, lack of forage can be disastrous
Start a compost pile as soon as you move onto your farm. Manure from almost any farm animal, save for pigs (only from herbivores), vegetable matter, egg shells, coffee grounds, sawdust, grass clippings, ash from the woodstove, all can be composted. Start on bare, clean ground. Start with a layer of 6 inches of twigs, then add composted material, and a good scoop of manure to start the process. Every few weeks use your tractor’s front end loader or a pitchfork and turn the compost for even decomposition. Every 6 months to a year, start a new compost pile and use the old one.
Composted material should be spread on vegetables growing areas, such as your garden. It also makes very good plotting mixture for starting plants off from seed. In some locations, compost can also make a lucrative side business with people paying top dollar for organic compost.
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