Raising Animals to Fail: Profit, Herd/Flock Size and Manageability

I chat with a lot of people who raise animals.  They raise poultry, pigs, sheep, goats, cows and other things.  Almost none of them say that they’re only raising these animals for their own use.  All of them have some sort of business plan, though it may just be an idea rattling around in their heads.

Hang with me because this is going to be briefly boring.  There’s a pattern that I’m seeing when I talk with these people.  If I were to build some graphs, I would see a bimodal pattern.  That’s the “two hump” graph.


I see this pattern over and over.  I’m going to talk about herd/flock size, profitability and manageability.  Manageability is what I really want to talk about, but we have to take a trip to get there.

Ask people how many chickens they own.  Some people will fall into the 3 dozen or less category, others will fall into the 100+ category.  Very few fall in between those.

Do the same for goats.  Most people own either a dozen or less or over 50.

I can hear some of you screaming.  You say that my perspective is skewed by region or other issues.  Possibly.  Let’s keep graphing.

Let’s do a graph of the people who art trying to raise animals for profit.  Most will fall into a losing money category.  Very few will fall into a breaking even category  And then you have people that are making a profit.  The profit hump is smaller than the losing money hump, but there are more people making a profit that breaking even.

Let’s take our graphs and compare profitable farms to herd/flock size.  Looks like most profitable operations have lots of critters.

Some of you are thinking that people who have a lot of money can afford a lot of critters, marketing, etc.  You’re thinking that money is the key.  You’re right.  Partly.  You’re wrong as well.

The other factor is manageability.  How hard is it for you to raise pigs?  Difficulty is measured several ways.  Let’s say labor, time and money are how we measure manageability.

A small flock or herd seems like it would be more manageable than a big flock or herd.  Less feed, less pasture, less everything, right?  Again, some of you think you know where I’m going.  You’re saying, yes, but I can buy feed in bulk for more critters, renting pasture is cheaper by the acre when I rent a lot.  All of that is true, but it’s only one piece of manageability.  It’s the immediate cost (money).

The other problem is that a small herd/flock is not fault tolerant.  Let’s say you have a few gilts and one boar.  You bought them as weaners.  You’ve fed them for 6 to 8 months.  You have $1,200 in feed alone invested in them.  It turns out that your boar isn’t trying to get your gilts pregnant.

Your options are to

  1. Fix it with money.  buy a boar old enough to do the job. He’s going to cost a lot, may bring in disease and behavior issues to your herd.  Why is he for sale?  Chances are he isn’t the best pig in the world.  You’re going to pay a minimum of $300.  $500 is more likely.
  2. Fix it with time.  buy another weaner, raise him until he’s old enough to do the job.  He needs to be big enough to cover your gilts who will be over a year old by the time he’s six months.  He’ll probably need to get to be at least 9 months old.  You’ll have given those gilts around $1,600 of feed before he’s old enough to cover them, plus the feed you lost from the first boar, plus the feed you’ve given the new boar.  $2,400 in feed.  Just to get to the point where the gilts are fertilized.

None of the above is a real issue if you have a big herd.  The boar that doesn’t produce goes to freezer camp.  There are plenty of other boars in your herd.  You make profit on the meat of the boar that didn’t take.  You move on.

The no-go boar scenario happened with me last year.  I only had one boar and he didn’t get the job done.  I went to a neighbor who had a boar.  My gilts went to him to get covered.  I ended up sharing the litters with him.  It was a great way to dodge complete failure, but I missed profit because I didn’t have as many piglets to sell.

Are there challenges with bigger herds and flocks?  Definitely.  I would argue that there are a lot more with small herds.  Try to look for proof of this (or against).  Do you remember when you went from a 5 gallon watering trough to a 20 gallon one?  Do you remember when you figured out ways to not carry buckets everywhere?

Food for thought.