How Many Enterprises Should Your Farm Have?

This is something that has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of good-intentioned people out there who want to start farming, ranching or homesteading. That is great! However, they are unsure as to what type of livestock they should purchase in order to start their business or feed their families. Additionally, there are many influential people out there who have very successful farms and on those farms there are a lot of enterprises. For example, chicken, beef, pork, eggs, cheese, rabbits, gardens, market and raw milk. Again, let me reinforce that I don’t think this is a bad thing! I spent 3 months with the James family in Durango, CO who had almost everything you could think of going on and for their family, it worked.

You might have noticed that I described a farm that is similar to Polyface Farm which is located in Virginia and run by the Salatin family (among many other people). This farm is greatly diversified, organized and efficient. However, many people just starting out don’t realize how many people there are working at Polyface in order for it to function. The amount of work that goes into Polyface farm is staggering. Again, this is not a bad thing. However it can be deceiving for some people who haven’t read all of Joel Salatin’s books and have just seen or heard about his farm. Joel states in his books that you should have one centerpiece enterprise. This could mean that meat chickens are your main focus, and you should only add something else that compliments those chickens. What is that? I don’t know, it depends on you, your climate, your proximity to markets etc.

It took Polyface quite a while to get to where they are today. What they have today is an incredible achievement and my hat goes off to them. The message I’m trying to deliver is this: Be careful when you are starting your farm/ranch and add enterprises slowly. Reading all of these farming ranching books is great and motivating, it’s how I got started on all of this! But please realize that you will be in a world of hurt if during your first season if you go out and start grazing cattle, raising meat chickens, grazing sheep and raising rabbits. Yes, eventually you can get to this stage! I’m not trying to discourage you, I want you to be successful. But please realize that Polyface has 15 or more interns working for them during their growing season. Chances are you won’t have access to that amount of labor. You might be able to pull off all of the enterprises I listed above, but you will soon burn out and then what will you be left with?

Last but not least, and I know you’ve heard me say it before. What works for Ian Mitchell-Innes in South Africa might not work for you in Wisconsin. What works for Joel Salatin in Virginia might not work for you in Alabama. However you can use their methods of production as motivation and tweak them to fit how you want to farm.

Start slow, experiment, monitor your decisions and then one day you can have a well diversified farm with all of the livestock you’ve dreamed of.

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  • Thanks for the articles & perspectives you share!!

  • Godsson thank you for reading! I’m glad you enjoy them.

  • Lisa

    There is no magic number for the number of enterprises a farm should have. The first step is researching each possible income stream intensively. Read many books on each subjuct, visit farms, and take classes at the extension office. There is a wealth of information available online through land grant universities. These colleges post the most up to date research on agricultural enterprises. Most of our decisions are based on cost and everything has its cost. What can you afford to do? Do you have enough land to sustain it? Is there a market nearby? Are there resources reserved for purchasing land, animals, build housing etc. For some people starting a homestead set up is easiest, growing to meed the needs of their family. Knowledge, experience, and marketing allows for later expansion.

    • Hi Lisa. I agree with you that there is no magic number for enterprises a farm should have. Researching income streams is also a great idea, but I don’t think people should have too many income streams. This might sound counter-intutive but we are human and we can only do a certain number of things well. Sure, I could have 10 income streams in a farming operation but I bet they wouldn’t be nearly as productive if I had 3 income streams that I did really well in (cattle, sheep and goats).

      The questions you posed are a great place for people to start asking themselves what they really want. However, I seriously disagree with you when it comes to contacting extension agents and land grant universities. I’m not criticizing YOU personally, but I think that is the last place people should look for information. These people at extension agencies and land grant universities DO NOT make their living from farming or ranching, therefore they should be the last place you go for advice. There are of course exceptions. There are many great extension agents scattered throughout the country, and if you are lucky enough to have a good one, then great. Land grant universities get their money from large corporations that push certain agendas onto farmers, which has caused such a disaster in agriculture in America since the “green revolution.” Again, I’m not criticizing you Lisa, but I can’t in good faith not speak up about an issue I feel so passionately about.

      There is a time and place for contacting extension agents. For example you might be trying to figure out the most common stocking rate in your county for cattle. In this case, an extension agent would be a good place to start. Then move on to neighbors, etc.

      Thanks for your comment Lisa.

  • Shane

    This is an excellent article and I learned this lesson the hard way starting out with Broilers, Hens, Turkeys, Rabbits, and Hogs my first year. Needless to say I have not taken any days off although I do love the work. I am also spoiled because I joined an existing produce company and didn’t have to spend any time with marketing and sales which would have killed me otherwise.

    I read Joel’s book “You Can Farm” and his section on picking a center piece is excellent advice, however, I would suggest trying a couple of these if your going to try and make this your full time work. For example I made excellent profits on my broilers and turkeys, but lost money on the hogs due to massive increases in feed cost. Putting all your eggs in one basket can be quite destructive as well.

    • Shane,

      Thanks for sharing your story of how having all those enterprises didn’t necessarily work. It’s good to hear that your chickens and turkeys were profitable! This is why I’m such a huge fan of cattle because you are converting sunlight into a sellable product and avoiding the importation of grain. This is not to say that importing grain is a bad thing, you obviously were successful doing that for your poultry. Great job on being successful your first year, I failed miserably my first year! That is awesome that you found a marketing channel for your products without going through the expense in time and energy to set all of that up.

      • Shane

        I would love to get into the Cattle business and as a kid I did raise beef for our family. The problems I face with Cattle living in NW Washington State is the price of land is incredible, buying starts at $10k an acre for borderline swamp. Leasing is not to bad being an organic farmer $300 an acre is doable. Also on the west side of the mountains land is parceled up fairly small; 20 acres is the largest chunk I have been able to lease and most of my farms are 5 acres.

        Purchasing beef cattle tends to go for about $1 lb live weight which makes entry into the industry expensive and with out owning a barn over wintering can be an issue, my recent leased barn just went up for sale and I have to be out by January 1st. With chickens and turkeys making about $5k an acre is not that difficult and with the rain we get here I can run chicken tractors in the spring on an a piece of acreage and finish turkeys later in the summer on the same chunk of land $10k an acre per year. I would love to work out an estimation on what I could expect raising cattle in the NW, how would you go about estimating the return on cattle?

        • greg schwab

          Shane if you can make that kind of cash per acre I would own the whole damn state pay for an acre from production in one year that land is free, Greg

          • Shane

            There are serious issues with scalability pushing those kind of numbers. The market size is limited our chicken costs four times Costco’s prices even though the products are hardly comparable a lot of people choose cheap over quality. The labor is intense like Chris pointed out in his post most farmers doing this have a lot of apprentices and/or laborers. However, you did hit on my ultimate goal in raising livestock and that is acquiring farm land from the positive cashflow coming out of each acre with out my labor being directly required in its production.

          • greg schwab

            I do see your piont but you young guys that direct market are light years ahead of us old farts . For one you have energy that left use long ago . Go for it giveim hell. I think there is more money in ag to day then ever in history .This organic thing is going to get hugh ,people are becoming aware of what they put into their bodys and there is your unfare advantage.I think the next big deal in ag is making a living on a small piece of well managed land the key is direct market. Greg

          • LOL, that is a great cash flow.

        • I bet raising cattle is not as profitable, initially, to the tune of $10k per acre. This is pure profit your are talking about? What is the cost of labor (time)? What is the cost of grain? What is cost of energy for you to get to the land, and then get home? What is the cost for marketing? I’d like to see those figures if you have them, but if you are able to make that kind of money from that small area of land, more power to you! That is awesome.

          Regarding cattle, why have cattle in the winter? Put some weight on a couple of groups of cattle in the growing season and then sell them. Feeding hay in a barn during the cold rainy weather in the PNW is not my idea of fun. Maybe you don’t mind. But your costs will be dramatically lower if you don’t even bother with hay.

      • Craig

        Chris,
        Just discovered your website through one of your videos on YouTube. Thanks for the work you put into this site and for sharing what you’re learning. One question, what were some of the reasons that your first attempt into grazing failed? I’m curious for several reasons. I would love to start a cattle enterprise on some rental land. I have no experience other than what I’ve read from Greg Judy, Joel Salatin, and a few others. I have no first hand experience and it would be hard for me to get having a full time job. I know books are no substitute for hands on experience but if that’s all you have can it be enough to start small and simply learn from your mistakes?

        • Hey Craig,

          You are not alone in your desire to start farming/ranching even though you have no experience. Book are good to read, but take the advice in them as that, advice. You situation is going to be SO different from Joel Salatin that it makes sense to read what he says, but not really put anything (10 million enterprises with 30 people for labor) into practice. If I were you, I would find some land to lease that is close to you, like 20 minutes or less. Then you could start out by putting up an ad for custom grazing in a local paper or craigslist. Custom grazing is grazing someone else’s cattle for them and they pay you a certain $ amount per month. That way you have very little risk. I think Greg Judy’s books are excellent reads, and also read my free eBook, which can be found at the top bar titled. “FREE EBOOK”

          My first attempt at grazing failed because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I didn’t have a written land lease agreement, and the landowner was a huge a**hole.

          So, start out small, get a few rolls of polybraid and reels, and a mobile fence charger. This should cost you about $400. I agree with start small, go slow and learn from your mistakes. You just gave me an idea that I need to do a video on what a grazing setup would like on a smaller scale. The tools, techniques and process. Do you have any suggestions of things you’d like me to write about or cover in the video?? The video probably can’t and won’t be uploaded for a few more months until I get back to the States. Thanks for stopping by!

  • S S

    Where can I learn more about, if I wanted to, how chickens follow cattle? Not so much, the benefit, but the mechanics, timing, does the manure ruin your pastured “chicken tractor”,…?

    Same with goats – should they graze before or after cattle or with, how does that effect parasite load,…

    Many thanks!

    • Joel Salatin has written about it. However I’m not the biggest fan of it. What most people don’t realize is that Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm has a virtual army of labor working there. 20+ Interns. Do you have access to 20 people that want to work for free? No. Carefully consider any enterprise before you jump in. Chickens, in my opinion are more work than cattle. Cattle can harvest their own food from the sun (Grass). Chickens require pampering by having their food and water brought to them.

      Regarding goats and cattle, before or after cattle, doesn’t matter. With cattle, doesn’t matter. One following the other will be more effective. If you graze properly, even with just cattle, your parasite problems will be very small, depending on the area you are in.

  • S S

    I like reading the books from the 1800s and early 1900s on farming, homesteading,… I am still surprised how forward thinking some were.

    Many of those books describe as a normal farm having and growing several thing – orchard, berries, different types poultry, different livestock(beef and dairy cows, pigs, goats/sheep), farm plot growing different vegetables(some for consumption/canning, some for selling the “the city”, some for your livestock), and even selling manures to other farmers.

    I think your advice to me about starting my ventures is wise for looking at other ventures, start it small, see how it goes, start another one,… For example, grow rabbits in cages above worm grow-beds – rabbit droppings are an ideal feedstock for worms. Worm castings are THE absolute ideal soil amendment and, if you had enough, you could add the worms back into the ground or sell them. I’m a big believer in multiple streams of income.