I was corresponding with a young friend of mine, and she wrote to me about my farm. She said, "Sometimes I'm torn between farm life and having a lot of land. I think having a farm with lots of animals would be so cool! But I have no idea how to take care of them or anything! You seem very knowledgeable about it all. I sometimes wish I had been raised on a farm or at least some place with larger animals."
There is a misconception that I see all the time regarding farmers. Many people believe that you need to be raised on a farm to have all of the knowledge needed to get started in farming. However, this belief is totally untrue. My husband and I were not even raised around farmers when we grew up. So how did a couple of city-slickers turn into real farmers?
First of all, we had the desire to farm. That is the most important thing of all. We were interested in farm living and farm animals, so we took the steps needed to learn all we needed to know about farming. Second, we read books. Many books are out there to help wannabe farmers learn all they need to know about rural living and raising farm animals. Here are my top three choices of books to teach aspiring farmers what they need to know.
1. The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery
This book is packed with the kind of information you will find from having a good visit with an old farmer. Carla Emery explains the kinds of hands-on information that homesteaders need to know, and she relates it in a conversational, easy-to-understand style. She goes into many details about raising both beef and dairy cattle, but she also explains about biodiversity and how every animal on the farm can work together in an intricate web to create a sustainable farm. This book is not really intended for a large commercial farmer. She writes mainly to small farmers who are hoping to get started on their own little piece of paradise.
The Encyclopedia of Country Living is a quite a massive tome, with almost a thousand pages of information. While much of the book is devoted to gardening and other practical country skills, her chapter on cows is very thorough and gives you a great snapshot of what life is like with a few cows. She details day to day chores and basic health care of cows. Carla even discusses what you need to know to butcher your own steer.
2. Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle by Heather Smith Thomas
I have found that anything written by Heather Smith Thomas is extremely practical and helpful. This lady understands cows and can explain everything you need to know about them. From 12 years of age, Thomas was raising cattle, and she and her husband have owned a large cattle operation in Idaho for years. While her style is very approachable, Guide to Raising Beef Cattle also goes into great detail about some of the more technical aspects of raising cows.
This book talks about how to choose good feed for your cattle, how to figure the amount of hay you will need for the winter, and practical medical skills that everyone who raises cattle needs to know. Thomas also can advise you on the best set-up for your fences, sorting pens and barns. This book has been very helpful for us here on our farm.
3. The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon
The Contrary Farmer is not really a cattle-farming book per se. However, this book will challenge your thinking about many modern farming techniques. Mr. Logsdon explains in great detail how farmers can get back to a more sustainable, earth-friendly style of farming. Biological diversity is a good thing for small-time farmers, and learning to work with natural processes can be a profitable thing for a farmer. His book All Flesh is Grass is equally helpful to those raising meat or milk animals on the farm. Nobody is going to get rich farming, and Mr. Logsdon's insights in this book can help refocus the mindsets of those who farm the land from a profit-based mindset to a more contented mind set.
While I highly recommend these books to farmers who have little knowledge about farming, you should remember that no book is a substitute for common sense. For example, I was recently reading a book about raising cattle where the author advocated summer calving. Here in the South, our Black Angus calves really struggle in the intense heat of the summer, so I was scratching my head a bit. Then, I flipped over to the back of the book and read that the author lived in Saskatchewan, Canada. No wonder his advice was drastically different from what our farming experience has been!
Another source of information about getting started in raising cattle is your local agricultural extension agency. They often offer inexpensive classes for farmers to learn more about new cattle-raising techniques, and the agents are often super-helpful and encouraging people.
There is so much to know about farming, and while you may learn a lot from books, eventually, you just have to do it to get real, practical, hands-on knowledge for yourself.