Saturday, February 16, 2008

How Much Land Do You Need?

The question of how much land is needed to farm/hobby farm/homestead came up in a post on the Homesteading Today forums came up this week. At the end of the original post (click here to read the thread) the poster asked, "How many acres would it take you to totally support your family with today's economy in mind?" That is an interesting question and brought out some good answers on the post that you should read. But, it also got me thinking about land, farming, and sustainability.

One of the first things that popped into my mind is what exactly are you planning on "farming". If you want to run a cow/calf herd and a cow/calf herd only then you are going to need a quite a bit of land. But, if you are going to have a market garden, some cut flowers, and a couple of berry patches you can probably make a living on something like fifteen acres. And, if you add value by making jams, selling flower arrangements, or something along those lines then you can add even more to your profit.

But, I'm not much of a vegetable eater so I would have hard time running a market garden. I wouldn't know what is best, what tastes best, or even have a strong passion for what I'm doing. That made me think about how much land I would need to have a diverse operation that includes livestock, a small garden, berries, and maybe even some agri-tourism.

Of course it would really depend on the quality of land and soil in your area, but I live in the rather fertile soil of the Midwest so we will just stick with that as a basis. I'm thinking that I could sustain my family on 160 acres or maybe 120 acres if around 80 to 100 acres are pasture or tillable ground. We could use the woodlot to heat our house and do some selective harvesting of the best trees. On 80 acres of pasture I think we could raise a nice Dexter herd of at least 30 cows, a flock of sheep as big as 50 ewes, any number of heritage hogs running on the edges of the pasture and woodlot, heritage turkeys and pastured poultry following the cows and sheep, and of course some laying hens. I think we would be able to make enough hay off that number of acres to sustain the farm through the winter. If you add in some value added stuff like berries or a small garden I think you can make it work.

Now, that all sounds well and good except for one thing. I couldn't even come close to affording 120 or 160 acres of land in Iowa! So, let's tone it down a little and see what is possible...

What if a person had 40 acres (a common size of section in Iowa). If you had an acreage that size I would think about 15 acres would be a good size for the wood lot because one big piece of sustainability is the ability to heat your house instead of relying on the gas man or electrical company. So, that would leave you with 25 acres of pasture or tillable land. That doesn't seem like very much, but let us think about what we could do with it. Possibly you could run a herd of 10 to 15 Dexter cows, 20 or so ewes, a smaller flock of heritage turkey, pastured laying hens and meat birds following the livestock, you still would have room for pigs in the woodlot and on the edges. Making hay becomes an issue, but I think you could get close to enough if you had the right type of pastures (it may take some seeding and pasture management). I think this would be a great size of place to have some sort of agri-tourism and on farm marketing of berries. You could even add value by selling meat by the cut instead of on the half or whole. A lot of value adding would have to be done, but it may be possible.

Now, here are the wild cards. First of all, I'm assuming the use of management intensive grazing in all of these scenarios, and possibly even ultra high stock density grazing. Secondly, one of the biggest keys to a sustainable farm is that you are using your farm to provide as much food for your family as possible. What is the point of raising food and having the land to raise food if you aren't eating it yourself? But, that is what many modern farms are doing!

What do you think? How much land do you need to sustain a family in todays world?

As an extra . . .
In no particular order here are my 10 favorite books that help guide farming thoughts... for the moment. I have also included links for each book if you are interested in purchasing them. These links are affiliate links, so if you are interested in one of the books and enjoy the show it does support the show a little.


    Yeoman said...

    That's a topic I've the occasion to give a lot of thought to. I still don't know if I have the practicalities down.

    As I'm a stockman, not a farmer in the crop sense, I know that in order to support my family I need 300 head of cattle, all things being equal. 400 would be more like it here, as my idea of getting by and my family's probably aren't the same.

    If I add in that I don't own anywhere near enough land to do that, and would have to have to lease it, I need at least 400.

    If I'm going to buy land, I'd need at least 2,000 to 4,000 acres here. No way I can afford that. And I'd still be leasing some ground. 10,000 acres would be better.

    The sad thing is that, at one time, I could have actually bought enough property to get buy, as the value was so low here. I would have had to have the assistance of my family to do it, but they would have helped. I didn't ask, as I didn't think it fair.

    Discouraging. A normal person would give up, but then, there's something about it, so we keep on keeping on.

    Kramer said...


    Why do you feel you need so many head of cattle and so much land? Just wondering. 400 head of cattle would net me a whopping $800 grand a year. I don't know if you are factoring in sale barn selling or direct marketing grass fed beef to customers. Please consider direct marketing grass fed beef so it won't seem so discouraging.

    Yeoman said...

    Kramer, I'll consider that, but in this region of the country, everything is a cow calf operation. There's not much of an opportunity to direct market here really. Or, perhaps, nobody is, which would be a different equation.

    I think, in part, this shows the very regional nature of agriculture, even in a national market. In this very arid region, an acre of ground won't support a pair all year long. So lots of ground is needed. And there's not, or at least I don't think there is, much of a market to direct market, but perhaps we're missing it.

    The smallest viable operations I'm aware of here are 150 to 200 head outfits. In those outfits, the debt load is really low, so they're able to make a go with fewer cattle.

    I'd like to think I could make it on cattle alone, so I'll consider your point and see if I can puzzle that out somehow, in terms of this location. Sometimes, getting somewhere takes seeing it from a fresh prospective.

    Ethan Book said...

    I think no matter where you live the key to farming on less land is to direct market and add value any way you can. On one hand I would think it would be difficult to direct market in Iowa because there are so many farmers that practically everyone has one or two in their family ... but, new direct market farmers continue to pop up and I know there is room ...

    Kramer said...

    In the direct marketing scenerio, you, as a farmer, will not be catering to many other farmers. After all, you will be hard pressed to pass innovative farming into the minds of traditional farmers. Innovative, although done forever in other countries, regarding Managed Intensive Grazing, High Stock Density Grazing, Companion animals, Direct Marketing, etc.

    Your market will be made up of suburbanites who wish they could be farmers but know they never will. Those that really want to know where their food comes from and are willing to pay a premium to ensure their family is being feed good quality food. If you do a traditional cow/calf operation, you will never make it. There is no money in it because the inputs are too high. Rising fuel and grain prices give you little profit from the sale of calves. I have a friend who runs 350-400 cows and he has to do several other operations to make ends meet, ie. custom baling, jigg and hay planting, AI'ing cows for other people. This is insane. There is no reason why you can't make it with that many cows.

    The true problem here is indeed being diversified. No different than you would when investing your money. In direct marketing, why stop at beef. If someone is willing to drive to your farm, which I support, or order from the internet, what makes you think they won't buy many other things. Hence the purpose of the supermarket. Along with beef, offer pork, chicken, lamb, goat, eggs, dairy, etc. By using companion animals, you can run animals together at full stock densities and not affect one or the other. Actually, your land will become more balanced.

    Then comes the kicker. Scaling back. I know that everyone will say, "If I scale back anymore I will be walking around naked," but that is not what I mean. Work your land in a manner that you allow your land and animals to work for you, not you work for your animals. Try to provide food for yourselves, or at least 80-90% of it. Come up with some form of fuel source for yourselves. Fuel for tractors, power for your homes, etc. Quit using herbicides, fertilizers, and chemical wormers. All these things make your land depend on other forms of energy other than natural energy they know how to reproduce themselves. The chemical ones cost way too much money to put out each year.

    Direct Marketing can be done anywhere in America. There are too many large cities around us even though we are on our own Utopia of land. These people want the farm experience and are willing to pay for it. Once up and running, there will probably be days when you wish people would leave you alone because they just want to hang out outside around your farm. Yeoman, you said it best, we all came from farming, somehow most people have just lost touch with it. It doesn't mean it is gone completely.

    Yeoman said...

    In terms of direct marketing, I wonder how much of a local population base there actually has to be? The nearest city has a population of 50,000, which is 10% of the population of the entire state. I'd guess that's enough of a market, but off hand I don't know. On the other hand, we lack a lot of the support type of industries (packing houses) etc., that exist elsewhere.

    My costs are likely lower than some others. There are no herbicides, etc., in use here as we're range cattle. We do have feed costs, however. Wouldn't feed costs rise in a direct market scenario? After all, I'm not finishing beef.

    It's an interesting idea.

    Kramer said...

    That is the best part of grass fed beef. 100% grass-fed all the time. So grain costs never affect you as far as feed goes. Downfall is that you have to get your pastures in soil and grasses that can sustain going 100% grassfed. Good news is that the animals grazing, using high stock density grazing, do most of that work for you. Also, through providing grass-fed products, the way nature makes them, your prices don't sway with the markets. The are several instances when cattle prices were at their lowest, people direct marketing grass fed beef were unaffected. Your now in a niche market rather than the norm.

    I'm not saying that direct marketing is easy and I am sure it is harder for some farms vs. others. But, scalability through the internet sure makes it easier for you to succeed outside of your local economy until your local need catches on. The biggest lack of interest in grass fed, grass finished beef, pastured pork, free-range chickens and eggs, etc, is lack of knowledge of the health benefits. You start getting info out and attending farmers markets with your products, getting your farms name and product out in the public, and things begin to take off. Intelligent people will want superior food because once informed, they can't plead ignorance anymore. That always seems to be a good excuse when it can be used.

    Ethan Book said...

    Whew ... lots of thoughts and meat in these comments. Let me throw out just a couple of things.

    Kramer - I agree that you will not be marketing to other farmers, but in a state like Iowa where agriculture is the main industry I would venture a guess that 50% - 75%, at least, of the population has a farmer in the family or even grew up on the farm. Because of that they have preconceived ideas that buying from the farmer should be way less expensive. I would be considered a potential direct market customer. I grew up in the city (30,000), but farmer is directly in my family roots ... it is in my wife's roots ... in fact I'm guessing everyone in my church has a relative close by that is in farming. With that in mind (and something like that is probably not the case where you live) you have to market to "farm families" by showing them you produce a better product.

    Yeoman and Kramer ... Grass fed direct marketing is probably one of the best opportunities out there, but it can not be what you do. I think at most it can be 50% if you want to make it full time other wise you would need too much land. Kramer, I do understand that where you live a pasture is nothing like a pasture in Iowa so I don't have a clue about cutting hay or how much tonnage you can get per acre.

    Oh yeah, like has been mentioned before ... low input is the key! I think MiG grazing or Ultra High Density Stock Grazing is just as important

    A city of 50,000 I think is plenty to make a living direct marketing, especially if we are talking about beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, and possibly some produce. If managed correctly I think it works!

    Lots of good points in this post! I think I will need to make sure people check it all out by pointing them here from the front page. This kind of discussion helps everybody learn and is what this site is all about. Thanks everyone!

    Donna. W said...

    Hello! Homesteading Today linked to several of us with blogs, so I'm checking everybody out. I was born in Iowa, by the way. Many moons ago. In spite of the fact that we have 42 acres, I'm afraid my blog isn't as "country" as most of those HT linked to, but it's nice to meet new people.

    Anonymous said...

    Another reader from HomesteadingToday. . .I don't know how many acres I would *need*, but I figure I can get buy with a couple thousand. Hey, there are untold numbers of acres of land in America, all I want is a couple thousand. That's not too much to ask. . .is it?

    In the meantime, I'll try to get by on 80 acres.

    Ethan Book said...

    Donna and Husted - I'm glad you came over in the absence of Homesteading Today. Thanks for your comments and input ... I hope you guys stick around and join in the fun!

    Yeoman said...

    I spent a fair amount of time yesterday pondering this these comments, and I want to thank everyone for posting them. It's really given me something to think about.

    To add a little detail, I run my cattle in with my inlaws. That is, we all run them together. This would make switching over to local marketing tough right now, as they'd have to want to do it too, and I can't afford a place of my own right now. But, it also occurs to me that we already do a little of this, but just by word of mouth. Why not more? I can't switch over all at once, but I can do more of this, and I think I shall.


    Yeoman said...

    Husted said:

    "Hey, there are untold numbers of acres of land in America, all I want is a couple thousand. That's not too much to ask. . .is it?"

    Well, that's a highly topical question.

    In a country of 300 million, maybe it is too much to ask, if we all ask it. Society has to work out what it values here at some point.

    Anonymous said...

    Yeoman - Have you discussed your desire to run a profitable cattle operation with your in-laws? Speaking from past experience, I have made the mistake of assuming that relatives would have different and/or opposing future goals. After having a frank open discussion with them, I recently found that my relatives were just as interested in my success as I was.

    Partnerships are always an option, one partner could run the cow/calf portion, and another could run the finishing operation, the direct marketing could be run jointly, etc.

    Walter Jeffries said...

    I can provide for our family of six on five acres. I want at least 10 acres and 30 acres is better. We have more than that...

    We use about 10 acres for farming. Most, virtually all, of our farming income comes from raising pastured pigs using intensive rotational grazing methods. We also raise most of our own food in the form of fruit, vegetables, eggs, chicken, duck and lamb. This supports our family, pays the mortgage, provides our food, etc.

    Part of the trick in making that work is we have very low inputs. We don't have much equipment, no barns, we don't clip fields, till or mow, the animals spread the manure - I don't shovel shit. My wife jokes we're the "No Shovel Shit Farm". We've got better things to do with our time.

    We also don't buy commercial feed. We use pasture, winter hay (which we do buy from a near by farmer) and excess dairy to provide a complete and balanced diet for the pigs. Not buying feed keeps our costs down so we're not losing $5 per hundred weight like the big commercial hog "farms" who make up for it in volume. :) Ironically, the non-grained / non-commercial feed pork that we produce gets a higher price than grain fed pork.

    Add another 10 acres for expansion of our farming to bring it up to 20 acres. That allows for rotations and resting of the land more effectively.

    Add another 10 acres for woods to provide our firewood to heat our home. That's sustainable. We don't use much. We could probably do it on a small fraction of that but 10 is a nice number.

    That is how much I would want at minimum - about 30 acres. I could make do with just 10 acres. More for elbow room is very nice.

    What we have is another story because we bought our land a long time ago. We have about another 1,000 acres for forestry. Forestry takes a lot of land. It's a long term crop. That includes our sugar bush, about 50 acres(?) or so. Forestry and sugaring don't produce much income per acre compared with our pastured pigs but it is diversity. It also soaks up a lot of carbon which makes up for the likes of Al Gore jetting around the world, burning petroleum and preaching about Global Warming.

    We have about 70 more acres that are simply habitat for wild animals, marsh lands, etc. This is 'unproductive' in the business sense but very enjoyable land.

    All this is based on our location which is in the mountains of northern Vermont. In some other areas you would need more, in some less. We have a short growing season, poor soil, steep hills but plenty of water, sunshine and rocks. Each area has its pluses and minuses.

    We bought our land back in the 1980's and I bought as much as I could direct from the previous owner saving money by not having a real estate agent taking their 10% tithe. The mortgage is almost finished. Today we wouldn't be able to afford it. Land prices have skyrocketed too much. This is our savings, our retirement, our investment, our insurance, our land, our home.

    We have been providing our income from our land for years so this isn't just theory. However, I didn't buy the land with money from farming. Our initial capital came from another business I started which I had started off the back of my computer consulting which I bootstrapped. The land has paid for itself since then.

    Lastly, live frugally. It is much easier to live on little land if you don't need a lot of money. Keeping the need for income down keeps down the percent that goes to Uncle in taxes which further reduces the need for income. A pleasant cycle.

    Ethan Book said...

    Walter - Thanks for that great insight into the question of how much land! I think you have a very good approach to the question and you hit the nail on the head when you finished by mentioning living simply.

    I'm not sure if I threw out my exact number, but I think I can do it on 40 acres of land here in Iowa running a diverse small scale farm and growing and raising much of what we need. I don't have the experience that you have Walter, but I do think it can work. Plus, it is probably all I could afford!

    Unknown said...

    Needing 400 head to support your family is not necessary. Get yourself out of the rut that the bulk of cow calf producers are in and learn how to make money by being the least cost producer. I sell $600 feeder calves through the sale barn. I net in excess of $400 each. Your doing that would gross you $160,000 per year. Half that would provide nicely.

    Yeoman said...

    Larry said:

    "Needing 400 head to support your family is not necessary. Get yourself out of the rut that the bulk of cow calf producers are in and learn how to make money by being the least cost producer. I sell $600 feeder calves through the sale barn. I net in excess of $400 each. Your doing that would gross you $160,000 per year. Half that would provide nicely."

    I'd be glad to explore that, but I'll have to start off by asking for a bit of assistance.

    You're running feeder calves through your sale barn. Where are you and how close is your barn, and how far do they travel to where they go? It makes quite a difference in practical terms.

    The reason I note that is that cattle markets and practices are far more local than we often imagine. Markets that work in one locality will fail in another. I've witnessed that first hand when people with successful cattle operations move in here and go bust in about two years.

    It's not that I'm saying that it must work the way I'm doing it. I'm willing to look at alternatives. But you can't just say "do it". It has to be something that will work. Here, everything that comes out of my herd is going to be range raised, and have to travel. If I finish anything, I'll be trucking in feed from at least 200 miles. You probably see my point.

    That's probably why everything is cow calf here. Something else might work, but it has to be realistic.

    Yeoman said...

    Following on this, I wanted to note that I'm sincere in my request for more information.

    I've long thought that one of the things that really hampers farmers and ranchers is that they don't often communicate with each others except in a hands on way. That's why a forum like this can be, and is, so valuable. We can share our mutual suggestions. Some of them will work in some places, and others will not.

    But, in order to do that, we have to be pretty clear in our suggestions. I'd guess that some references I may make to practices here make no sense, if you aren't from here. Likewise, suggestions without some added detail might not make too much sense to me here, even if they do to you there.

    Pure crop suggestions often are a mystery to me, as I have no experience in them at all. I'm interested in them, but without added detail, they're a bit of a mystery, to provide an example.

    Ethan Book said...

    Larry I would love to here some more details about your operation, as would Yeoman I'm sure. If you have a chance please fill us in because it sounds like you have something good going.

    Thanks for everyone's thoughtful insight on this post ... makes for some very interesting reading!

    justcountry said...

    As far as beef cattle go, is there a head to acreage ratio? I don't have a lot of acreage, but I would like to provide my family with beef and make enough to compensate for about a $25,000 income. I am not considering a calving farm.

    Yeoman said...

    "Justcountry said:

    As far as beef cattle go, is there a head to acreage ratio? I don't have a lot of acreage, but I would like to provide my family with beef and make enough to compensate for about a $25,000 income. I am not considering a calving farm."

    It's entirely dependent on where you are. In one region, it takes acres and acres to support a cow. In others, the opposite is true. Your answer is unique for your location.

    Anonymous said...


    Please take a look at John Seymour's book "Self-Sufficiency".

    He describes how a family of six can perfectly well live on a five acre holding.



    Anonymous said...

    I can't see on what planet you need 800 catttle to support a family! A milking cow can produce upto 40L of milk at a single milking, now take in your daily milk bill, what is it? 4pints (2L), 6 pints(3L)... that means one milking on one of the modern hi yeild fresians would last you well over 10 days... of course you might want to churn some of that to butter, maybe some for ice cream, but in truth for a family of 4, you probably actually only need one healthy milker at any one time. Taking that, you possibly need 2, one on, one off, and room for 2 calves, so they produce milk, some to keep on etc.

    As for beef cattle, I doubt you'd eat your way through more than 13 full size beef cattle properly jointed per year!

    Crops wise, you probably need about an acre or less for mixed vegetables etc and another acre for wheat and cerials...

    Glasshouses might be needed for luxury items depending on your local climate...

    Wood? You will probably only burn less than 3 tonnes of wood per year, depending slightly on your particular thermal insulation and other uses depending on how sufficient you might want to be, as you might want to dry your own grain, in which case more fuel will be needed for that.

    Possibly another Acre to allow for a rotation system. I don't think your estimate of 120 Acres is even remotely close, try 12!

    Anonymous said...

    Each milking cow requires roughly 1/4 of a hectare (about 1/3 of an acre)... but it will also have to support a calf to make it produce, a dairy bull, and it will not produce for 12 months continuous every year and will need substitution, resting etc, so your minimum theoretical herd is 4, so 1 hectare of dairy cattle... would be just about self-seuffient, with excess milk to spare, depending on the land, its yeild will be anywhere between 10L and 40L per day... so to be "self sufficient" for milk, you will need about 2.1 Acres. This will still produce more milk than you need as a family, in the region of anywhere between 70L and 280L per week... excess can be made into butter, cream can be seperated etc... that's one point. Beef cattle require a similar amount of space, but not quite as much, at roughly 5 or 6 per hectare... sometimes more or less, depending on your climate. So 13 would take another say 3 hectares, thats a total of 5 hectares... chickens etc, you will not need much space at all, an acre... sheep can be herded at about 5 ewes + lambs per acre...

    Your best best is to look up the amount per acre you can get for what you hope to get... when you say "self sufficient", is that, for you and your family... or to be financially sufficient with massive loan repayments each month? because that is an entirely different problem... hence it is best to avoid doing anything on borrowed money!

    Anonymous said...

    Okay, I've seen lots of commentary about acres of pasture land per head, etc. However, we live in Wisconsin and pasturing over winter is not sustainable for cattle, nor any other grazing animal. I would love to be able to pasture through the warm months, but I'd like to find out approximately how many acres I would need in addition for hay, etc. per head. Any input would be appreciated!

    Anonymous said...

    If you are living on a few acres you may have the resources to raise a few beef cattle.
    There are four different enterprises to consider.

    1. Cow calf enterprise: keeping a few mother cows and raising calves from them. The
    calves normally would be weaned at about 6 months of age and weigh approximately 500

    2. Dairy beef enterprise:purchasing new born dairy calves and raising them until they
    weigh 300 to 500 pounds.

    3. Feeder or stocker calf enterprise:purchasing calves that weigh between 400 and 500
    pounds and feeding them until they weigh from 700 to 900 pounds. (Stockers are placed on
    pasture or on diets high in forage.)

    4. Market beef enterprise: purchasing 700 to 900 pound calves and feeding them to
    market weight (1100 to 1200 pounds).

    The resources available will determine which of these enterprises is appropriate for your
    situation. It may be possible to use a combination of two or three of these enterprises. In this fact
    sheet we will discuss implementing a feeder or stocker enterprise and a market beef enterprise.


    Location- One of the first things to consider is if the enterprise is compatible with the
    community. Is the property zoned for large animal production? How many animals can you
    have? How will neighbors react to the project?

    Land- Some acreages are suitable for pasture production. Is irrigation water available?
    When is the water available? What kind of an irrigation system is in place? Contact your
    irrigation company to find answers to these questions. A corral or dry lot must be available to
    keep the animals in when irrigating and when the pasture needs a rest from grazing. Corrals are
    also essential if finishing cattle on grain rations. If there is adequate acreage you may consider
    farming and raising some of your own feed. Realize that it is expensive to own and maintain
    equipment. It may not be economically feasible to own equipment, although custom operators are
    an option.

    Forage Production and Carrying Capacity- There are several factors that affect forage
    production in a pasture: season, rainfall, availability of irrigation water, soil conditions, soil
    fertility, plant varieties, and grazing management. In Utah, pastures are normally grazed from the
    first part of May through the end of September. Note that this is only a five month period.
    Nevertheless, during some years grazing will be available in April and October. The greatest
    forage production and quality on grass pastures usually occurs from May 15 until July 15.
    Cattle performance and carrying capacity are related to and affected by forage production
    and quality. Carrying capacity and cattle performance are not simple to predict and will change
    from month to month. For example, during the month of June you may be able to graze five, 500
    pound calves per acre and have them gain two pounds per head per day. However, during the
    month of August you may only be able to graze three, 500 pound calves per acre and have them
    gain one pound per head per day. Contact your county Extension office for more information on
    pasture management.

    The Human Resource - You and your family may gain a lot of satisfaction from raising a
    few cattle. Children can benefit from the added responsibility and families can be strengthened as
    they work together. However, the project will require a commitment of time. Even when cattle
    are on pasture they need to be observed daily to make sure that they have adequate feed and
    water and to assure that they are healthy.

    Anonymous said...

    Interesting question. How much land is needed?
    It depends on what you what your farming goal is.
    If your goal is to produce as much income as possible and exchange it for cash, then you will want the most land you can get your hands on.

    If your goal is to provide wholesome food for your family, and perhaps generate extra that you could exchange for cash, then you need less still.

    My perfect amount of land is the amount that provides for what I am raising. Animals eat the grass and fodder that is grown on the land and drink from the water that is collected on the land.
    If I can do that and not ever have to buy anything that I produce, then I have enough land.

    I know folks that raise and sell cattle but still purchase beef at the supermarket. That makes no sense at all to me.

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