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You've been designing and planning your small farm in your head for years.

Now you're ready - you have the time, energy, and land to make your dreams a reality. But the choices can seem overwhelming. So, where do you start? Is Farming Right for Me? That's really the first question you need to ask yourself. Some things to think about: what are your reasons behind wanting to farm? What knowledge do you have of farming - the labor, the techniques, how to garden? Will you be able to slaughter an animal, or part with one you've become attached to?

Should I Farm?

Set Goals Before you start scouring the local paper for livestock, take a step back. What are your goals for your small farm? What kind of farm are you planning? It might be a hobby farm, where your farm is a supplement to a full-time job, something relaxing you can do for fun in the evenings and on the weekends. It could be that you want your farm to actually make money, eventually replacing your current job. Or, your goal might be to produce all the food (and possibly power) that you and your family need - homesteading or self-sufficiency.

Set Goals for Your Farm

Consider Animals and Crops A small farm can range from a half-acre with a few laying hens and a small veggie garden, to 40 acres with cattle, dairy cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, and acres of field crops and veggies. Some of your choices will be limited by your land and resources, but we'll get to that later. First, let yourself dream. What animals appeal to you? What vegetables, fruits, and grains do you want to grow? Make a list of everything you envision on your farm - even if it's years from now. This is your dream, your ideal small farm.

How to Choose Animals and Crops for Your Farm

Assess Your Land and Resources This is a great exercise for learning about your land and what's on it. It will give you the information you need to take your vision past Step Two and plan your first year of farming.

Assess Your Land and Resources

Plan The First Year Here is where you marry your dreams with reality. Look at your list of things you want to grow and animals you want to raise. Read a bit about each animal to get a sense of how much space and care they require. Now check your farm resources. Do you have enough pasture land for those five cows, or will you need to build that over time? Do you have the financial resources to buy fencing for goats? If you plan to begin a farming business, you'll want to write an entire farm business plan. The dreaming and assessing you just did will help you get started with your mission statement, which is a great place to begin.

Make a One-Year Plan Write a Small Farm Business Plan

Monitor and Reassess

Farm planning is an ongoing process, a work in progress. As you implement your plan, you may find it needs adjusting. Every season, take out your list of dreams from Step Two and the pencil-and-paper sketch of your land from Step Three. Have your dreams changed? Is there more to add, or things you now know you don't want to do?

Each year, sit down with your farm plan and decide what you want to tackle during the coming spring, summer and fall. Before you know it, you'll be well on your way to making your small farm dream a reality.

In this article, I discuss five (5) important farm production records a poultry farmer needs to diligently capture, to ensure s/he can take timely farm planning decisions that will result in the best possible performance. The records discussed are operational in nature, and NOT financial. Relevant financial records - and related Key Performance Indices (KPIs) - useful for farm business evaluation will be highlighted in a future write-up. At various points below, I have highlighted certain important farm production KPIs. The idea is to illustrate real world relevant uses, to which the records advocated can be usefully put, for the benefit of your farm business. (Note: You may wish to consider using a simple MS Excel spreadsheet to track and analyze your operations data as time goes on. Use a paper based form, to record the data during farm operations. Then retire to your PC, to post the data into your spreadsheet. I have inserted screenshots from an MS Excel based poultry farm management application built for a 12,000 layer farm in 2009. They show formats you can adapt to your needs). 1. Flock (or Mortality) Record At the risk of stating the obvious, it's important to always know how many birds you have on site. In computing your farm's value, the birds - and their eggs - are your farm's greatest asset (in equivalent market price monetary terms). It goes without saying therefore, that getting a loan (or attracting investors/partners) can be much easier, if you keep accurate records. The following are various aspects of flock records that need to be kept.

a. Opening Stock For operational effectiveness, weekly and monthly stock count of layers in production can be done. At the start of the week for instance you would count and document the number of birds physically on the farm. b. Losses (Dead/Killed, Missing or Culled) In every process, allowance is made for losses or waste. Poultry business is no different. But losses need to be kept as low as possible. Otherwise profit margins suffer. Good management may produce lower rates, but reports by extension specialists and farm owners suggest that a 10% mortality rate from start to end of laying would be normal. You will not know how well youre doing in relation to the above standard, if you fail to keep accurate records of birds that die (or are killed). Your record format could capture Dead/Killed, and Missing or Culled birds in separate columns. You want to do this because it will facilitate summing up the right numbers for use in computing the important KPI called Mortality Rate (%). Note that records of birds culled and killed (say due to disease outbreak) must be treated differently from those culled and sold off (say due to ageing poor laying). The former can be added to the number of dead birds for computing mortality rate. The latter should however not be so treated, to avoid skewing the mortality index results. Birds that are ill, deformed, not laying well or display aggressive vice habits are better off being culled (removed) from the laying flock. You will document the number of culled birds against the date the action was taken. Your farm record form could also allow you specify some detail about why a bird was culled - possibly in a small comments section. c. Additions (Transfers and Purchases) Sometimes new batches of birds are brought in, and others are moved out. Proper documentation of these movements is crucial for effective planning and decision making. For instance, in planning for your layer's farm, you could adopt a schedule which requires you to rear chicks to point of lay, then send them out to the laying pens. This is actually a best practice strategy employed by smart owners, to maximize the output of their farms. However, it requires accurate documentation to really succeed. You need to know which birds went where, in order to track their performance, against their history. For instance, a batch of pullets might have suffered an unexpected (but quickly curbed) disease outbreak or feed outage, during their last week or two in the rearing house. You would want to closely monitor them to see how well they fare in their laying cycle. If the output from that laying pen falls short of your birds norm, your farm records would offer some possible explanations. And it could stop you from embarking on corrective actions that are not necessary. d. Closing Stock At the end of the week or month, you should count and document the number of birds physically present in the pens or houses. Your closing and opening stock values are required for computing the mortality rate for your flock. To calculate Mortality Rate (%): Number of birds dead x 100 -----------------------

(Opening Stock + Closing Stock of layers) x 0.5

Mortality rate can be computed at weekly or monthly intervals. Whats important is to try and establish a trend with a view to keeping it low as possible. Any unusual spikes would signal a problem that needs to be proactively investigated. The ultimate purpose is to enable you take timely corrective action BEFORE damage occurs. 2. Feed Consumption Records About 41 kg of feed is said to be consumed by a bird from start to end of lay. Using this number as a reference, you can monitor the feed consumption of your birds, and determine how well they are doing. Your birds will not necessarily follow the same pattern. However, you should be able to establish a representative average for your own flock. Making sure an accurate record of feed given to them is documented, will ensure you make useful progress in this regard. To calculate Feeding rate (grammes per bird): Total Kilograms feed x 1000 x 100 -----------------------------(Opening Stock + Closing Stock of layers) x 0.5

3. Egg Collection Records (Crates and Pieces) Every farm has its own collection schedule. It's wise to minimize frequency of collections, to avoid disturbing the birds too often. You will decide on the best collection times for your birds, based on your observation of their laying performance over time. Your record format should allow entry of the exact number of eggs collected in crates, with any remainders not up to 30 units recorded as pieces, next to it. Your diligently documented records will be valuable in computing Hen Day Production (HDP) percentage. This index indicates the laying efficiency of your birds. Note that a layer takes about 26 hours to produce an egg. This means that not all your birds will lay an egg on each given day. The Hen Day Production gives you a working idea of how your flock is doing in terms of its laying performance. It goes without saying that you cannot achieve 100% HDP. The formula stated below takes into account losses arising from mortality. And it therefore helps to make your HDP result more realistic. Once again, you should aim to establish a standard, and monitor the trend your birds produce over time with reference to that standard, taking corrective action as needed.

To calculate Hen Day production (%): Number of eggs produced x 100 ----------------------(Opening Stock + Closing Stock of layers) x 0.5

4. Layers' Strain (Genetic Record) Egg laying performance is partly dependent on genetic quality of the laying bird. Hybrids have been in widespread use for decades in the poultry industry. Due to a variety of operational realities, farms are likely to have different strains and batches of birds in production. Without accurate record keeping, mix-ups can occur that could totally disrupt the farm managers ability to accurately assess the performance of separate batches or strains. 5. Age In Lay (Weeks) For proper management of the birds during their laying cycle, and also to plan effectively for their replacement, you need to track their age in lay. Pullets usually start laying from about 20 to 21 weeks.

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