Are Small Farms the Future of Ag?
You would have to be living under a rock to not be aware that land fragmentation has and continues to occur in rural America. Many of us want to lament about the good ole days, when farms and ranches were large, families were fully supported by livestock operations, and close neighbors were rare. To be honest, I do too. But we must face reality and learn to adapt to a new environment.
If you are a long time reader, you’ll know that I tend to look at things “half glass full,” so lets look at the potential positive attributes of this trend. Land fragmentation typically will result in more people involved in agriculture. Naturally, small ruminants tend to fit well into these small scale farms and ranches. The recent USDA census indicates that there are more people raising sheep today than there were in the 1950s, when sheep numbers were at their highest. Strength comes in numbers, so this can definitely be a good thing, if we work together.
Before we get too much further in this article, I want to be clear that land fragmentation comes in many shapes and sizes. We can’t really say that small scale farms are less than a set number of acres. In Far West Texas, 1,000 acres may be a small ranch; whereas, East Texas that might be 10 acres. But if I had to put a box on this; I’d say that small scale operations are those that can’t run enough animals to justify the labor involved in management.
I don’t know land fragmentation is necessarily a problem or in some ways a good thing. Sometimes we bemoan about how more nonagriculturalists should better understand ranching and livestock production and what it takes to put food on the table. While I love the tradition of big ranches and having livestock at scale, I also worry that trying really hard to preserve that actually makes more people feel excluded from the agricutlural way of life.
Funny how times change but many of the issues that we face are not too different from our grandparents and great grandparents. An issue that is likely new for American animal agriculture is how do we feed so many people with smaller farms that aren’t highly efficient due to scale? Will we continue to see a trend towards chicken and pork, as these confinement operations can affordably buy feed and scale to meet the demand? And will we continue to rely on imported products to meet domestic demand? Or can we educate small scale sheep and goat operations to become more efficient and make up the difference in production from downsized large scale operations of the past?
Personally, I would like to see the latter of the three questions above. But that would go against historical trends. If one takes a look at the beef industry, it might suggest that it’s pragmatic. Nearly 80% of beef in the US comes from operations with less than 50 head of cattle. Obviously, Americans eat a lot more beef than lamb or goat meat.
So why can the beef industry do this and the sheep and goat industry hasn’t? Cattle are a first choice for many people who have a ranch. It is almost an American tradition to raise cattle if you have land. Second, cattle tend to be less labor intensive to manage. They stay behind fences easier, predation isn’t a major concern, and they don’t succumb to parasites in higher rainfall areas. The reality is, sheep and goats take often take more mangement than cows, and naturally if that mangement and labor is spread across a larger flock it is easier to pencil out. But I think as an industry we really need to lean into the idea that many of the new producers are not rasing small ruminants to make a full living or if they are, it is in an out of the box concept. I am continually excited about the way that grazing sheep and goats for wildfire abatement or weed control has become a booming business. Grazing under solar panels is also a really big opportunity for sheep and goats. Oprations that are direct marketing lamb meat and high quality wool are experiencing success. In all honesty, everywhere I look I see sheep and goat folks redefining what it means to be a “traditional” rancher.
In extension, we are going to continue to help support the needs and problems faced by traditonal and nontraditional small ruminant production. Sure, predation, parasites, range mangement are all major issues for large ranches and will continue to be for the newer, smaller operations, but through different educational approaches and research concepts, I am hopeful we can continue to improve in these areas.
I tend to believe that most of our problems are actually either self-induced or have been an issue for much longer than our lifetime. Creating solutions will take forward thinking individuals, whom have a good understanding of history, and work as a community of animal agriculturalists. I also believe that for some time the sheep industry has tried to make changes to revert back to “how things used to be”. That isn’t a sustainable concept for any industry. Land fragmentation is something that is a reality of modern times and we should all be looking ahead as to how to best include and support large and small scale sheep and goat producers.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.