In readying for retirement, the world changed. As a result, we redirected our efforts into an endeavor which would mitigate the reduction of purchasing power when living on a fixed income. We are planning for a Weimar Republic hyperinflation scenario. During the hyperinflation years of the Weimar Republic, the farmers made out fine. Applying lessons of history, we wanted to acquire a farm or ranch or land.
We chose to become homesteaders. It was an educated decision to become as self-sufficient as possible. We are not spring chickens anymore. We are an older couple, ages 65 and 57 this year. So, with that in mind, choosing to become homesteaders also took on a different slant in that we wanted to minimize the workload for a couple of old farts playing the homestead game.
Over the past three and a half years, we left the comfortable lifestyle of our urban home for a ranching lifestyle with Himalayan Yaks, Buff Orpington chickens, our livestock guardian dogs: a Great Pyrenees and an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, mouser barn-cats, a garden and a hay crop. Before making the plunge into this latest life endeavor, our prior experience was limited to some exposure to running big equipment (airplanes) and tractors, a well developed urban garden, and food harvest and storage.
Economics of a Homesteading Retirement
In the process of deciding how to become homesteaders, it occurred to us that not only could we grow our own food, but that we could also generate revenue from an agricultural piece of property. The right property might support an agricultural crop for income, livestock for income and food, as well as producing livestock feed, our own garden, fruits, and nuts.
These factors influenced our property selection priorities. Where a modest home and one to five acres would likely have been enough for us to retire and be mostly self-sufficient, it was unlikely to produce the income desired to replace retirement income, nor adequately grow our own livestock feed.
Farmland is very expensive, especially bottomland. Finding a property with agricultural potential meant finding a property which was mostly flat, which had good southern exposure, good soil: not too much clay, decent drainage, and adequate water. The facilities and home became a secondary concern compared to the features of the land. In addition, we were looking for a fenced property. This is a huge labor/expense-saver when it comes to considering livestock. Finding a property that met these requirements was a tall order, especially one within our budget constraints.
The Acquisition: How Did We Get Here?
Over a two-year search, we surveyed real estate in three states. Features we were seeking included water, good soil for gardens and agricultural endeavors, land for livestock, good southern exposure, buildings enough to house us and our stuff. There is an incredible amount of information available via the internet including real estate brokerage websites, county property searches which provide a lot of background on a property often with aerial and terrain maps with parcel lot lines, Google Earth terrain, and aerial views, and Department of Ecology Well Logs – which also have terrain maps, all allowed us to walk a property without leaving our living room.
We only set foot on maybe a dozen properties after eliminating literally hundreds for bad sun exposure, too steep to grow crops and livestock, too wet, inadequate water, well-depth too deep, too difficult an access – especially in winter where one would need to plow-out of your own driveway, and so forth.
We acquired a “fixer”. It was all we could afford. Since bank financing is not available for “agricultural” properties unless you have three years of agricultural experience, a stick-built house, with an approved well, so that left us to self-finance. We liquidated IRAs, and the 401-K, set aside the funds for the tax man first, set aside funds for the move (and the box truck), set aside funds for repairs (not enough), and then what was left-over was what was used to make an all-cash offer for the ranch, which was accepted. It was wonderful! Now, after a flurry of moving and fixing, we finally had a ranch, with no livestock. However, we had made the first step towards being Homesteaders. We were ecstatic!
For us, we passed on goats and rabbits due to the daily workload. As we moved into our ranch, our hay crop was ready for harvest. Luckily, the former owner had already arranged for a sharecropper to bring in the hay. A hay crop can be shared with the sharecropper doing most of the work. We maintain the fences, and a few other things, and still get a cut of the hay as the landowner. Yea! That resulted in minimal work for the maximum benefit.
With our portion of a hay harvest, we could sell it or use it to feed livestock. Our first year was without livestock, so we sold it. The proceeds paid for property taxes. The second year, we acquired livestock so we kept our portion, one-third of the crop, to winter-over our animals. We now have a herd of ten yaks. If we get four to five calves a year, we will be able to sell at least one yak a year to cover the same property taxes and also have a yak to butcher for our own meat.
If we acquired used hay cropping equipment, we could harvest the hay ourselves and generate about a thousand dollars a month. However, we would have to do the work ourselves. With retirement in mind, we’re continuing to share-crop the hay. With fuel prices rising, we have decided to start acquiring used haying equipment as the opportunity presents itself and the funds become available. We already have a Case tractor. We would like to be capable of bringing in the harvest if we needed to. Our crop is Orchard Grass, champagne-quality hay which requires an annual investment to maintain this crop, yet fetches an annual income which is not likely to go away in the future.
Equipment to Facilitate Comfort
We spent our first season on the property getting ready for winter. There is real snow here. Temperatures can drop down to 30 degrees below zero and we needed to be prepared. We put up firewood in log-cabin style stacks and tarped them for the winter. Most of the firewood was seasoned deadfall gathered from around the property. A firewood shortage is highly unlikely on this ranch.
Slinging a maul to split wood is hard work. We split about eight cords of wood over the first two winters here, but it’d be nice to not have to work so hard in retirement for our heat, therefore, we have decided to build a log splitter! Building it ourselves is about a third of the cost. Every penny saved is another penny we can apply toward something else which we need.
One thing we hadn’t counted upon was the fence repair requirements of a ranch. After windstorms, several trees came down. In the eighteen months living here, we’ve had three trees which have fallen across our fences. It required removing the deadfall, then fixing the fences. It doesn’t take long to become familiar with fencing pliers and barb wire. Fortunately, yaks are much easier on fences than cattle. If they want on the other side, instead of leaning through the fence and wrecking it, the yaks just jump the fence. I think they’re related to goats… just kidding. They’re related to cattle, bison, and water buffalo. The good news is that they generally don’t jump the fences. The youngsters have a few times out of curiosity, but then panicked when separated from their herd and leapt back across.
To maintain our ranch, we use the Case tractor regularly for moving bales of hay. In spring it will pull a harrow to prep the hay fields. It also has a PTO (power take-off) which can power a sprayer if needed to spray for weeds. We use a 1989 Dodge flat-bed farm truck with a hay-bale lifter for hay deliveries to our local customers. Our little John Deere tractor is our workhorse. It has a mower underneath, rototiller attachment, and a snow plow blade. It keeps our drive clear in the winter, tills the garden, and mows the grass. We have three Goldilocks trailers (small, medium, and large) which are used between the little tractor and the Dodge, depending upon the task. Sometimes it is moving wood, sometimes fencing materials, trash, compost, manure, livestock feeds, etc. Life would be difficult without the trailers.
The Strategy with Garden and Livestock
Our goal has been to produce our own food for our own consumption. We assisted with a local slaughter of chickens for experience. Our county extension office has a Mobile Butcher Unit which can be rented. That is one possibility for slaughter of chickens, especially large batches at a time. Our local feed store also rents a chicken plucker at a modest daily rate. We could also build our own. Several of the locals in our community have their own butcher facilities. We’ll be looking into that down the line.
Yaks are large animals and we will have to haul them to a butcher until we build a facility to do it ourselves. For now, the nearby USDA butcher is easier to use. It will also give us the opportunity to sell meat which has been USDA butchered and inspected. Our yak meat sells for about $7.00 a pound due to the health benefits of a very low cholesterol, lean meat, as well as the fact that they take twice as long as cattle to mature. So, yes, they eat half as much, but it takes two years to get a grown yak.
We didn’t choose rabbits because of the daily work requirement. Growing their feed was another unknown. With cattle, yaks, sheep or goats, they just eat grass or hay. It is also easier to butcher a yak a year and can or freeze it to have a year’s supply of meat!
We know that for meat, rabbits will out-produce all other livestock, pound for pound in a given year. So, someday we may consider rabbits as a good alternative for dog and cat food, but not yet due to workload requirements in retirement. The ranch readily grows what the yaks and chickens eat, but not what rabbits eat. We’re trying to be self-sufficient in regards to livestock feed as well. A few extras will still be required, such as copper for yak minerals which they need, and oyster shell for calcium for the chickens. They could eat their own crushed eggshells if necessary. This option has been skipped to avoid the chickens discovering their own eggs and pecking on them.
Someday it would be nice to have Icelandic Sheep, but we’ve stopped adding livestock. We’ve discovered that with each animal, there is an additional workload. That is a significant factor in retirement. Initially, there is a significant start-up investment in time, facilities, and infrastructure for each animal. However, once that is in place, if properly planned, the workload drops back to a modest routine.
One of our chores is feeding the yaks in the winter. They are very hardy animals and they eat about half what cattle would eat. We put out a thousand-pound round-bale of hay with our tractor once a week. We’ve rigged their water to be gravity fed from the creek, perpetually running into a stock tank; an overflow drain is installed just below the rim siphoning off the excess water to a smaller tank outside of their feedlot area so as to keep their feet/hooves dry. The local wild turkeys and other animals, cats, dogs, and chickens drink from it as well. Since it runs all the time, it doesn’t ever freeze. The excess water drains into the hay field.
Cats get their food bowls refilled every four days. Other chores include feeding the dogs every day, and tending the chickens. Our daily chores consist of letting the chickens out in the morning, usually after 10:00 AM in order for the gals to have their laying done before they get to go play for the day. That way we’re not playing Easter, hunting for eggs. We close them in at dusk. After taking care of the wild turkeys with a little oats sprinkled around, corn is cast out for the chickens to have them out from underfoot for the next chore. We spread some shredded hay (shredded in our wood chipper and stored in a stock tank, covered with a tarp) which is used as litter in the chicken coop. With the deep-litter method, it’ll get cleared out into a trailer to be hauled to the compost pile when the snow is gone. The last cleanout was late October. The shredded hay works great and doesn’t build up too fast. With daily fresh litter sprinkled on top, it doesn’t smell bad at all.
There is about four days’ worth of food kept in the coop and fresh water provided daily. The coop has good ventilation with the gaps around the four doors, and tilt-out windows which are kept partially closed on very cold nights. We discovered that the heat lamps above the nest boxes shining at the roosts create a glare on the opposite window; a piece of black fabric covering the glass remedied the issue. The girls are cozy and rooster, too.
Come spring time, the portable chain-link fence dog kennel will be the coop for broody momma chickens and their chicks to protect them from being pecked and killed by the other gals. It is our plan to let broody mammas raise their chicks. One broody hen can cover about seven eggs, but once hatched, she can raise about twenty-one chicks by herself according to my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother. The other hens can be put into a cage for a day or doused with a bucket of water to break them of broodiness and they’ll go back to laying eggs.
This year their offspring will likely go into the freezer. Next year, it’ll be time to rotate the ol’ gals into the freezer as their egg laying dramatically drops off after two years. One of the nice things about Buff Orpington chickens is that, because they mostly all look alike, it’ll be easier to put them into the freezer. We have had practice already helping our sharecropper slaughter about forty-five chickens in one day. It’s another part of the homesteading jigsaw puzzle and it takes all the pieces to make the picture complete!
Our first spring on the property arrived with a to-do list which included gardening. Although we had had a wonderful garden in our former urban home, our new place had been the home to a flower garden, riddled with grass, weeds and trash. It was time to start over. With great effort, clearing more than weeds but also years of trash, cans, bricks, buried bathtubs, buried rotting logs, buried plastic, a garden finally materialized along with a crude effort to fence it. Finally, the garden sprung forth! Weeds grew faster! There were also volunteer daffodils and other flowers. It didn’t look half bad at first. The garden had corn, beans, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, spinach and marigolds all around.
As the season wore on and the other chores took precedence in preparation for winter, the garden was neglected. The deer found the crude fence a mere trifle before leaping it, dining on the beans and other treasures, and then bedding down before the morning. It seems that I had shooed away my livestock-guardian dog from chasing a deer when we first moved in and so she now thought they were part of the farm! She protected the deer, and not my garden! Oh well. Next summer we will have a deer-proof fence for sure!
Homesteading Freedom in Retirement
We have lowered monthly living expenses in retirement on the homestead. With much of the basics of moving, clearing and cleaning the property finished, we should be able to have significant accomplishments in 2012 for our garden. We have already added chickens and yaks and are currently in a maintenance mode. We are watching the female yaks get rounder due to pregnancies.
We have learned that reaping an income from the homestead requires thinking in terms of multiple revenue sources: livestock and hay sales, possible pasture leases, revenue from eggs and vegetable, fruit and walnut sales. Potential income should also come from marketable yak meat which, as I mentioned, brings about $7.00 a pound for hamburger, yak wool sales at about $16.00 an ounce, as well as yak hide and skull sales. There are also potential firewood sales.
People and critters need to eat and now we’re in the business of converting sunshine into food. We enjoy our retirement with food security and comfortable homestead lifestyle.