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Resources for the Beginning Rancher

gamboling lambs at play



So, you're interested in ranching. Maybe you already have land, or maybe you're in the planning stages. Either direction, you're about to embark on one of the most intensive lifestyle changes you could ever dream of, short of signing your name on the dotted line and enlisting in the military. Folks gravitate towards farming and ranching for all sorts of reasons, from all sorts of backgrounds, but there are a few things that everyone should know, before committing to that big land purchase. This page is by no means a comprehensive guide, but it is a rough set of steps of how to get to know what you need to know to go forward.

Notes on Ranching





Homesteading vs Ranching

There's a pretty big disconnect out there about what life is actually like in rural America, versus what the commercials and glossy magazines show you. Understanding what you want is pretty essential to actually accomplishing your goals, and it's at this point that we should talk about the difference between homesteading and ranching or farming. Simply put, it's all about the money.

Duck in grape vinesA Homestead is a small subsistence level farm. The goal is to provide self sufficiency as much as possible, with all, or nearly all, goods produced on the farm being consumed by the family which resides there. Homesteaders often have a combination of gardens, orchards, and small animals, providing fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat and dairy to themselves and their immediate friends. Many homesteaders have begun to call themselves "farmsteaders", meaning that they may sell their excess produce in a farm stand or even a local farmer's market, but their primary goal is still self suffieciency vs commercial production of food or fiber.

Ranches are commercial operations geared towards the production of animals. Generally ranches are distinguished from dairy and poultry operations as being oriented towards the production of live animals, meat, and fiber as their primary products. Ranches come in a whole sliding scale of sizes, from the hobby farm size of a minor enthusiast or lifestyle rancher on up to the massive rainforest devouring operations of South America. Here at Dot Ranch, we fall smack dab center into the small ranch side of things, with our primary production being geared for fiber, meat, and breeding stock. Like many small ranches and farms, we do have a more diversified product line up than most conventional agricultural enterprises, but we don't sell produce, fruit, or canned or pickled goods.

ewes and lambs

So why does it matter if you're homesteading or small scale ranching? I've got two words: legal issues. A homesteader doesn't have to do much more than comply to local regulations in regard to what sort of animal they can have on their land, and how many per acre. Ranchers have to navigate a multi layered morass of laws. If you intend to commercially produce meat or fiber, you need to track local law (county and state), then federal law, and then insurance and legal liability.Freezer full of meat For example, while it is legal to process a cow on our own land for our own use, we can't just gut ol' Mabel, throw her in some Ziplocs, and then sell our sketchily cut steaks on the side of the road or at a farmer's market.

Just as an example, in order to sell at a Farmer's Market, we have to first have a USDA approved processor, then have the proper state permits and permitted premises to sell prepackaged meat, have the proper market association memberships for the farmer's markets we want to sell in, have insurance for liability in case our customers get sick, have a food saftey plan in case, Heaven's forbid, there's been contamination at the packer or our site, and then have a market for our meat in the first place. This isn't even beginning to address all the nitty gritty details, like legal labeling requirements, third party certifications, USDA certifications, animal welfare standards, or safe transportation of the animals to the packing facility and safe transport of the prepackaged meats back to our own holding facilities. So yes, it's a little complicated, and you need to know how to find out what you need to know before you even think of throwing your coolers in the back of your rusty not-so-trusty pickup truck and heading to market.



How to Learn Your Legal Requirements

OR Dept of Ag snapshotThis is going to sound heartbreakingly simple in comparison to all the reading and research you've got ahead of you. The easiest way to find out what you need to know about the legal requirements for your ranch is to use the internet. Now, I'm not talking google everything, but you are going to look up a few things. First off, look up your state's Department of Agriculture. There should be a pretty comprehensive website with a list of different sections, and then in each section, some major headers. The ones that concern you most are legal requirements, food laws, and animal production rules for your state. Some animal regulations are federal, but those will also be listed on your state Dept. of Ag website. One example is the Federal Scrapie Eradication Program, which has rules that affect all sheep and goat producers in the United States. Each state will have their own veterinary team who provide your premise with a unique identifying code and the federally required scrapie ID tags. In many states, these tags are subsidized at no cost to the producer, in order to make compliance easier for ranchers and shepherds.

Now, after you've thoroughly confused yourself checking out your state department of agriculture website, the next thing you're going to do is look up your local county website, and see if you have an agricultural extension service. This is a service that is usually tied to your closest state university or land grant college that has an agricultural program.OSU Linn County Extension Service Basically, it works like this: The college has faculty members who work for the county as extension agents. These are the folks to go to with your local legal questions, with your land use questions, for soil and water testing information, and for questions about animal health. If you do have a local county extension agent, by all means, get the right info down for who to go talk to, and go over and introduce yourself! Personal interaction and a friendly demeanor will pave the roughest roads with much more ease than hitting every pothole on the wrong side of the law later. You might also stop by the tax assessors office and get educated on farm deferrals or timber deferrals, if you have a stand of timber on your land. Remember, your county officials work for YOU, but that doesn't give you the right to be a jerk. These guys get razzed all the time, and if they're a little less than helpful at first, don't give up your cheerful demeanor. When they see that you're real, and realistic, they'll usually get a bit less brusque with you.





Navigating Online Resources

Most folks know you shouldn't believe everything you see on tv as being the facts, but it always amazes me how much faith the same folks will put into the internet. But wait, didn't we just tell you to use the internet to look up legal stuff? The truth of it is, the internet can be a useful tool, but it's also filled with stupid cat gifs and armchair warriors who don't actually know what in tarnation they're talking about. So, yes, the net can yield great resources, but double check who sponsored the site you're pulling from before you go running out to buy that wonder garlic-grapefruit seed-dandelion root-turmeric-diatomaceous earth-powdered narwhal tooth supplement that everybody on chickensinmyyard.com is raving about as the miracle cure of everything from mites to parasites to doldrums in their hens. Unicorn Spam from ThinkGeekIt is a fact that many companies pay people to go into forums related to their commercial sales, then brag up how the product worked for them, when in fact they have no idea what the heck colic is, let alone how this miraculous oil eased their nonexistant horse of it. You can't trust that a .org on the end of a web address really means it's a reputable non profit running the site either, because anybody can buy any unoccupied .com or .org domain.

So how do you tell good information from bad? Well, you gotta just put your hip waders on and crawl right through it. If there are citations to books or publications both on and offline, you can trust it a bit more. If it's making huge claims for common items, like anti cancer properties of a kitchen spice, you can probably figure you're reading a whole lot of hyperbole. If the site is focused on pop culture or conspiracy theories with an occasional ag related article, you shouldn't really be putting your faith in accurate reporting there either. If you want solid ag information, go to an ag site, not clickbait sites off of facebook. If a site claims that "science" proved something, and lists but doesn't link a paper, look the paper up and read it your own self. If the paper is from an actual peer reviewed publication, it's still just somebody's hypothesis, but at least it's been reviewed by brains bigger than the bubble gum popper writing "18 Things You Won't Believe About Dairy Cows--Number 9 Had Us CRYING".

Sheep is Life event Don't get your information on regulations and laws from third party sites, always go directly to official government websites to confirm. Regardless of whether you believe in the government's good intentions, they are the one calling the shots, so their word is THE word. Accredited universities and colleges often have great ag websites, and while there is still some inaccurate and outdated information out there, the majority of it is trustworthy when it comes direct from an academic source. If the main purpose of the site is to sell something, you probably shouldn't believe everything you read on it. Websites aimed at education tend to have wide networks available for resources offline as well, another indicator of respectability. Remember, "real world" education is still more valuable than webinars, and you should take advantage of as much of it as possible.





Credible Online Sources for Ag Information

A note: If some of you are the sort who are obsessive about researching sustainable agriculture, you'll notice some omissions here. There's a reason for that. Here at Dot Ranch, we are firm believers in sustainable agriculture, stewardship of our land, and responsible marketing. We are firmly dedicated to environmental justice, food justice, and ending barriers to people of color who are interested in a career in agriculture. We aren't fans of fads. We aren't fans of racism, even when it comes from "liberal" fronts. We aren't fans of unquestioning adherence to principals that are set on cultural mores vs sound reason. It is really hard to find unprejudiced agricultural news, and as of right now, we haven't found any. The sites below are listed because of their focus, not because of their overall fairness or evenness of coverage. The sites we've left off altogether, are because they are so grossly skewed towards their own internal politics, both left and right, that we don't feel they have enough of value to the critical thinker to bother listing. Any organization that charges you to indoctrinate you is not one in which we believe you should place your unswerving faith and trust.

News and Market News

Ram face USDA daily market reports

The Weekly Livestock Reporter

Livestock Weekly Internet Edition I promise this really is a different site than the one just above.

High Country News

Capital Press

Educational Resources

Extension.org This is THE go to site for extension services nationwide. This covers everything from nutrition to organic agriculture, child care to meat processor networks.

ATTRA-the National Center of Appropriate Technologies Sustainable Agriculture Project There is a dizzying array of information here, so prepare to drink from the firehose.

The USDA official site

USDA New Farmers hub

The Greenhorns Okay, honest moment here. I have pretty mixed feelings about this organization, but if you're a young, white, hipster, urban born and raised person, this is probably the non profit built just for you.

The Young Farmers Coalition These guys are the barefoot organic version of the Future Farmers of America, for adults.

Society for Range Management This is a great organization aimed at the preservation and conservation of the world's rangelands. These guys are range managers with a conscience.

OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems This is from Oregon State University, but they have online programs that are nationally recognized and highly useful.





Books Actually Worth Buying

We've all been there. At the used book store, looking for books on farming or ranching, you see the "Beginner's Guide to Beginning" and get all excited, only to get it home, read it, and discover that it was a poorly written memoir with very little useful information actually imparted. Don't feel bad for falling for it, you're not alone in your misplaced optimism. With this in mind, we've come up with a list of the books that are genuinely helpful, and organized them according to the level of knowlege required to get the most out of them. These aren't pretty books, they don't have photos taken for beauty's sake, and they don't make good coffee table material, but they are darn good bathroom reading and they will tell you what you need to know before bringing home animals.

Acta Non Verba logo The links are all for Amazon, via Smile Central, the Amazon charity benefiting service. The charity I picked was Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm Project, because it's a worthy project run by a reputable fellow female Farmer Veteran, Miss Kelly Carlisle. She provides opportunities not only for fresh food, but for savings accounts, faith, safety, and mentorship to some of East Oakland's most under-served children, and Dot Ranch believes there can be no better cause than to help the children of our nation. If you feel otherwise, you can easily look up the titles and authors yourself, and purchase these books in other ways.

Books for New and Aspiring Ranchers

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail DamerowEwe and lambs

The Sheep Raiser's Manual by William K. Kruesi

Farm Fences and Gates: Build and Repair Fences to Keep Livestock in and Pests Out by Rick Kubik. Pick this book up BEFORE bringing livestock home. Believe me, your neighbors will appreciate you more for doing so.

Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel

Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons

Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius

Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle by Heather Smith Thomas

Books for Intermediate Ranchers (Good for Everybody)

The Chicken Health Handbookby Gail Damerow

Barn Plans and Outbuildings by Byron D Halsted

Keeping Livestock Healthy by N. Bruce Haynes D.V.M.

yearling ramLamb Problems: Detecting, Diagnosing, Treating by Laura Lawson. This is one of my most treasured books, I keep it next to my desk for instant access.

Managing Your Ewe and Her Newborn Lamb by Laura Lawson. This book is in my barn all through lambing season, in a special box with all my lambing emergency essentials. Each year, I skim through the book about a month before lambing to refresh my memory of where to find things. If there were only one book to have during lambing, this is it.

Cash Flow Planning in Agriculture by James D Libbin, Lowell B Catlett, and Michael L Jones

Fearless Farm Finances: Farm Financial Management Demystified by Jody Padgham, Paul Dietmann, and Craig Chase

Practical Pole Building Construction: With Plans for Barns, Cabins, & Outbuildings by Leigh W. Seddon

The Cattle Health Handbook by Heather Smith Thomas

Books for Salty Ol' Ranchers and Aspiring Veterinarians

A special note on this section: These books are not intended to replace the use of a veterinarian in times of emergency or widespread disease and infirmity. You could read all these until you're blue in the face, and still not replace an actual vet. However, many folks live and ranch in areas where large animal and medium sized animal vets are scarce. Sheep producers in the U.S. in particular face a shortage of qualified veterinarians, and so this list is meant for those who have no other resort. In an ideal world, every ranch would have a nearby vet on call 24-7, albeit with an appropriate price tag to their services. The American agricultural landscape is, right now, far from ideal for sheep and goat producers. We cannot advise you to handle things that a vet by all rights should, but if you are forced in that situation, these are the references you'll need at your side.

The Merck Veterinary Manual 11th Ed. by Susan E Aiello, Michael A Moses

Huge mature ramVeterinary Parasitology Reference Manual by William J Foreyt. This is another one our own vet uses, and is a must have if you want to do your own fecal counts.

Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers by David C Henderson. This isn't a book, it's a tome of knowlege about sheep health and fertility management.

Sheep and Goat Medicine, 2nd Ed. by D.G. Pugh DVM MS and N. Baird DVM. This is the book our own vet uses as well. Lots of photos, but reading it late at night will make you ultra paranoid about EVERYTHING.

An Illustrated Guide to Veterinary Medical Terminology by Janet Amundson Romich

Cattle Medicine by Phillip R Scott, Colin D Penny, and Alastair Macrae. This book was written in the UK but it is relevant to cattle worldwide.