The Hobby and the Farm, Small Acreage Livestock Producers

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Today’s landscape of the “American Farmer” changed. We see large acreage owners that plant thousands of acres across America and large ranchers that operate large livestock operations, but we often forget the thousands of small hobby-size farmers and ranchers. This is a growing segment of land owners in many states.

As baby boomers are reaching retirement age, many of them are choosing to move back to the country, having left the farm for industrial and white collar jobs in urban areas. As retirement age approaches, they feel the need to return to their roots.

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Young families are another growing community of land owners that recognizes the benefits of living in the country and owning a small farm. Most of today’s rural landowners are far from what our grandparents would have considered a “farmer”. Many just want to purchase some acreage and raise a few horses, goats, sheep, or start a small cattle operation.  This type of landowner is often referred to as a “hobby farmer”.

I grew up living on a beef cattle and poultry farm operation in East Alabama. My wife and I are raising our sons on a cattle operation and I would not have it any other way. Living on a farm instills some key qualities in you for a lifetime. I have been involved in livestock and agriculture my entire life. In a previous career, I covered 15 states for a livestock supplement company. In my 10 years of traveling the Eastern Seaboard and Southeastern States, I learned one thing- you can find all shapes and sizes of livestock farms and hobby farms.

It is during my travels that I met many interesting people with unique livestock operations. One fall day in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, I went to visit a very influential goat producer in that area. It is here where I had my first experience with Fainting Goats. Take it from me, you haven’t lived until you walk into a paddock with about 20 goats running around. I took a five gallon bucket and beat on it like a drum. In an instant, 20 or so goats fell to the ground like you had shot them all with one shot. The Fainting Goats laid there for about 5 minutes and finally jumped up like nothing every happened. This producer owned 24 acres and sold his fainting goats as a novelty, for $200 each. That goat producer was a unique individual with a unique livestock operation.

In the past 10 years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of meat goat, dairy goat, and sheep operations. Due to our ethnic diversity, there is an increasing demand for goat meat here in the US. Goat meat is the number one consumed meat in the world. Small hobby farms are the leading supplier for goats and sheep. A land owner with 10-15 acres of pastureland can operate a profitable goat and/or sheep farm in most areas of the United States. You don’t have to have 15,000 acres in Texas to operate a small ruminant farm. Often, I receive calls from buyers looking for a small acreage tract to start a hobby farm. Most are only looking for around 20 acres or less, which is just enough land in Central Alabama to begin a hobby farm with about 40 head of goats or sheep.

Another group that can survive on a small acreage is equine owners. Horses are a passion. If you don’t agree that they are a passion, just ask a horse owner. Horse owners make large investments in their livestock. Many times when someone with horses is looking for real estate, they prefer a small 5-20 acre piece of land with suitable pasture. Unlike production livestock owners, many equine owners have horses simply for pleasure or companionship. Of course, there are exceptions for trainers, breeders, and those who raise working horses, but the majority owns a horse simply for pleasure.

The last group would be the cattlemen. The people that say “Where’s the BEEF?”! Unlike goats and sheep, cows are large and take up more space and acreage. In my hometown, we can run one cow unit per acre comfortably. In Western Montana, you would need 100+ acres for that same cow, so farm or ranch sizes can vary for cattle producers and the area in which you are living. My market area consists of many small producers that own 40-50 acres and have 25-30 cows. Across the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest there are thousands of these producers. These landowners work off of the farm and have a few cows to utilize the land they possess. Much of this land is often inherited from previous generations, but the current owners have a pride in their operations and its heritage.

We are experiencing an increase in first generation cattle producers. These are people that feel the pride in land ownership and stewardship. The Cattle Industry in the USA is experiencing a generation flip at this time. Many of our older generation producers are passing the operation to the next generation or when the next generation has no interest, they simply sell the property. What happens to some of these farms is somewhat unknown, but much of the land that these cattle producers have been utilizing has a highest and best use in forage production. So the cattle industry is a little different than the goat industry. Many of the goat producers are first generation, having started their farms in the last 20 years.

Many people have discovered the tax benefits to owning a farm.  It is this fact that has driven some to purchase a few acres. Others simply want their children to experience what they remember on their grandparents’ farm. 4H and FFA clubs across the country are seeing record numbers of children with livestock projects. Most of these children live on small family farms that do not derive their sole income from the farm. Like most businesses today, small family livestock operations will not make millions. It’s a slow process that is typically cash poor and land/asset rich. It will take most operations several years to realize a true profit. In a positive light, if someone wants to purchase a small farm, livestock production can help pay for the land. Many of the acres that are in livestock production are not fit for tillable ground or residential land and grazing this land is its “highest and best use”. Sure , you could plant some of it in trees for a future timber harvest, but trees are kind of boring to some land owners.

Here are a few tips for anyone looking to purchase a hobby or small farm:

  1. What are your goals for your property? Always know what you want to do with the land prior to purchasing. Make some visits with other area producers and do your research. If done properly, it will pay off.
  2. Fit the type of operation to the type and size of the property. If you have 10 acres in Central Alabama, you can probably comfortably run 5-6 cows and maybe 25 nannies or ewes. In West Texas or Oklahoma, 10 acres would be a good start for a cattle operation with one cow. Make sure you research your particular market area for forage types and number of head per acre for each type of livestock.
  3. How much capital will I need to invest after I purchase my land? Purchasing the land is just the first step. Subsequently, you will need to factor in the cost of the livestock, fences, water, barns or shelters, working pens, shade, and basic equipment.
  4. Analyze the size and goals of your operation. Many producers may see an economic benefit from hiring out some of the work on the farm, like spraying pastures, clipping pastures, hay harvesting, and livestock hauling. Equipment costs are high today. Many times you can hire a neighbor to do that work for a fraction of the cost.
  5. Livestock are very time consuming. If you cannot be there or have someone to check on your livestock, you probably don’t need livestock. It will be when you are not around the cows are out, the goats are in the neighbor’s garden, and the bull is standing in your neighbor’s heifer pasture having a good time. Owning livestock is time consuming but very rewarding to those who are capable.
  6. I cannot stress this enough, do some research before you purchase a farm or pursue a livestock operation. Go talk to the old timers that hang out at the local feed store. Also, talk to the younger producers. Get out and go to some livestock sales and shows, as these are great places to meet producers. Take a little bit from what each producer tells you and form your own opinion on the direction you should take.

Owning a hobby farm, mini farm, “farmette”, or whatever term you would like to use, can be very rewarding. There will always be a need for livestock and the majority of livestock production in the US comes from small family farms. Being a land owner of any type of land has responsibility. You can control your destiny. Land is a solid investment that you can walk on and see every day. Unlike the stock market and other Wall Street investments, put your money into something that you can enjoy- land!

About Author

Randall is a land agent at SonUp Real Estate, a family-owned business in Lineville, Alabama, and his family has been involved in the poultry, cattle, and timber business for four generations. Randall’s entire life and previous careers have all been tied to the agriculture industry. Considering himself privileged to have grown up on the family farm, Randall credits his love of the land and agriculture with shaping his career in real estate and subsequently helping it thrive. He enjoys working with buying and sellers in negotiating the purchase and sale of timberland, farmland and recreational properties. Randall and his wife Tiffany, along with their sons Bence and Aiden, reside on a small farm in Lineville. He is a member of the Alabama Association of REALTORS® and earned Top Producer at SonUp Real Estate in 2011.

7 Comments

  1. Randall thanks for submitting this article to LT. It is always helpful when someone with years of experience shares some insights. I have never had the desire to own a cow, but I would really like to have a couple of donkeys, a few goats, and maybe a llama.

  2. Great article. In Kansas, the average (it varies by region of course) is about 4 acres per cow or horse. However, with the drought this year and so many dry creek beds and ponds – watering livestock is the bigger issue than the amount of land.

  3. We are running a pair per acre here in Iowa through grass season. Couldn’t agree more that its important to do research prior to buying, especially with the investment that goes into livestock, its a significant amount of money, any death rate above 0% is obviously a loss.

  4. I found your hobby farm article interesting since I have sarted down the same road. Unfortunately our town is more interested in “Best Use” of the land than preservation thru farming. My words of warning to anyone considering this idyllic lifestyle of self production of food, be sure your tax assessor and town is on board first before you invest in your dreams or you’ll be in for the fight of your life. The court system has taken years to pass any judgement so have deep pockets. We have won our battle, however the town still has not submitted to the judgement or the deining/dominant state law. All in all getting into the farming venture will give you great book material. Good Luck but don’t be naieve.

  5. I just recently got married and my husband and I own 4 cows,3 horses, and some chickens I love this article it helps alot!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. We have started raising sheep. We are selling hairsheep lambs off the farm. Until recently we had always sold our lambs off the farm, however, a man that ran a goat and sheep auction picked some up to run through his auction and nearly gave the lambs away, and now we find out our lambs may have never been sold through his sale. So, sellers be careful, if a cosigner wants to get your livestock to sell at his auction.

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