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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on the economics of bison production?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on the economics of bison production, including production budgets.

For information on raising and marketing bison, see the ATTRA publication Bison Production. The following resources go into detail on developing a budget for a bison production enterprise.


Foulke, Thomas, Steven J. Torok, Tex Taylor, and Edward Bradley. 2001. Enterprise Budget: Bison Cow-Calf. University of Wyoming.

Metzger, Steve and V.L. Anderson. Commercial Bison Production: Economic Analysis and Budget Projections. North Dakota State University.

PSU. 1995. Agricultural Alternatives: Bison Production. Penn State University Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project.



Permalink What are some resources for information on alternative farming methods?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on alternative farming in Virginia.

Organic Prices

Organic Farmgate and Wholesale Prices – USDA ERS
Monthly organic and conventional farmgate prices for broccoli and carrots; monthly organic and conventional wholesale (first receiver) prices for poultry (broilers) and eggs; monthly organic market (f.o.b. or spot) prices for grain and feedstuffs; monthly organic and conventional wholesale prices for broccoli, carrots, and mesclun mix; and a limited set of organic prices (and corresponding conventional prices) for other fruits and vegetables from the Boston and San Francisco wholesale markets.

NewFarm Organic Price Report
Tracks selected prices from the fruit, vegetable, herbs, and grain sectors, comparing organic prices to conventional prices in markets across the country.

Statistics on Alternative Farming

Industry Statistics and Projected Growth, Organic Trade Association

A comparison of conventional, low-input and organic farming systems: The transition phase and long-term viability
. UC SAREP Progress Report 1993-1995.

Organizations and Organic Certifiers

Virginia Association for Biological Farming
Conferences, publications, and links to local and regional organizations.

Appalachian Sustainable Development
Focuses on developing healthy, diverse, and ecologically sound economic opportunities through education and training, and the development of cooperative networks and marketing systems.

Virginia Organic Producers and Consumers Association

Advocacy and information.

North Carolina Crop Improvement Association
3709 Hillsborough St.
Raleigh, NC 27607-5464
Phone: 919-513-3444
Organic certification services.

Pennsylvania Certified Organic
106 School Street, Suite 201
Spring Mills, PA 16875
Phone: 814-422-0251
Organic certification services.


Consider such marketing avenues as Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, on-farm stands and u-pick, food cooperatives, buying clubs, restaurants, and supermarkets. If there is stagnant demand for organic produce in your town and local region, look for opportunities to market crops in areas such as Blacksburg, Lynchburg, and Roanoke.

The ATTRA publications Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions: A Resource Guide for Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Institution Programs, Community Supported Agriculture, Direct Marketing, Farmers' Markets: Marketing and Business Guide, and Selling to Restaurants are good places to start for learning about these venues.

All publications from ATTRA are available in downloadable PDF or HTML format, or can be ordered free of charge in hard copy by calling 1-800-346-9140.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or figuratively, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Members or shareholders of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land. Members also share in risks, including poor harvest due to unfavorable weather or pests. Below are several resources to learn more about establishing a CSA farm.

Local Harvest
Maintains database of farms, markets, CSA’s, restaurants, and retails outlets that sell locally grown food. Webpage for creating a farm listing:

Robyn Van En Center, Community Supported Agriculture

Fulton Center for Sustainable Living
Wilson College
1015 Philadelphia Avenue
Chambersburg, PA 17201-9979
Phone: (717) 264-4141
Maintains a database of CSA farms nationwide as well as numerous resources on CSA’s.

Henderson, Elizabeth and Robyn Van En. 2007. Sharing the Harvest, Revised and Expanded. A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture. White River Jct., Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing. 800.639.4099
Selected topics covered in the book:
• Creating a CSA: The Decision to Form a CSA , Steps to Forming a CSA , Regional CSA Support Groups
• Labor: Family Work, Hiring Help, Interns
• Share Pricing and CSA Budgets, CSA Legal Structures, Distributing the Harvest, Regional Networking for Farm-Based Regional Development

Organic Resources, Reports, and Publications

1 – ATTRA has several free publications to assist you in transitioning to organic production, which can be downloaded from Titles include:

• Organic Certification Process
• Preparing for an Organic Inspection: Steps and Checklists
• Transitioning to Organic Production (A Sustainable Agriculture Network publication)
• Guide to ATTRA’s Organic Publications

2 – The Transition from Conventional to Low-Input or Organic Farming Systems: Soil Biology, Soil Chemistry, Soil Physics, Energy Utilization, Economics, and Risk. SARE Grant Project Number: SW99-008

3 – Growing for Market Magazine: The monthly publication of Growing for Market provides a lot of practical information, much of which is written by farmers, on production and marketing topics. The contact information for Growing for Market is:

Growing for Market
P.O. Box 3747
Lawrence, Kansas 66046
Phone: 785-748-0605
Toll-free: 800-307-8949
Fax: 785-748-0609



Permalink What information can you give me on small fruit production?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information regarding small fruit production.

Gooseberry and Currants:

Gooseberry and currants are closely related (both are Ribes spp. ) and have relatively the same management requirements. Currants have three different distinct varieties-black, red, and white and gooseberry varieties range from greenish-white to red. While they will tolerate a wide range of soils, a well-drained soil high in organic matter will bring the highest yields.

Plant currants 2-4’ apart, depending on the variety, and gooseberries 4-5’ apart. Currants and gooseberries have relatively little pest pressure. White pine blister rust used to be a big problem with Ribes species, but there are resistant varieties available now. Mature plants will yield 4-5 pounds of fruit per bush. Gooseberries have thorns and this should be a consideration in the harvesting of fruit.

Elderberries tolerate a wide range of soils, but are best in a well-drained, slightly acidic (pH between 5.5 -6) soil. Plant the elderberries in the early spring into well-tilled soil.

Elderberries respond well to pruning. In a study on different pruning methods, the plants responded best to selective pruning, but yields were also quite high in pruning the plant entirely to the ground with a brush hog in the fall (Thomas 2008). The cultivar Gordon B consistently out-yielded the other cultivars in all trials. You can expect typical yields of 15 pounds per bush for elderberries.

Elderberries are susceptible to Tomato Mosaic Virus which is transmitted by root knot nematodes. Biofumigation using mustard cover crops has shown to be very effective for nematode problems. For more information on this see the ATTRA publication “Nematodes: Control Alternatives”. You might want to plant a mustard cover a year before in the area you are planning on planting elderberries.

General pest management issues for these small fruit crops:
Birds can be a significant problem on all of the small fruits you inquired about. Netting, raptor perches, and bird alarms are effective tactics for managing birds in fruit orchards.

It is critical to create a space that has very little weed pressure, since the perennial nature of these crops will make cultivation difficult. This can be done through cover cropping before planting, and mulching the shrubs annually after planting. Mulching also helps to keep the soil cool and moist during the typically dryer and hotter months of summer, which all of these plants would respond well to.

Thomas, Andrew. 2008. Elderberry Trials Bear “Fruitful” Results.” Southwest Center “Ruminations” Newsletter. Jan. – March 2008. Vol. 14 No. 1. University of Missouri Agriculture Experiment Station.

New Crops Opportunities Center. 2008. Gooseberries and Currants. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

California Rare Fruit Growers Association. 1996. Gooseberry. California Rare Fruit Growers Association web site.



Permalink What resources can you give me for starting a beef and poultry operation?


Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on starting a beef cattle and pastured poultry farm.

Several key areas come to mind that need to be considered in developing a more ecologically appropriate, and healthier, beef and poultry production system. In this letter I will address the following production factors:

1. the pasture resource,
2. animal breeds, selection, general health and nutrition, and
3. small-scale, local marketing alternatives.

I have included in this letter a resource list for more information on starting a farming enterprise, grassfed beef and poultry production, and a list of appropriate ATTRA publications.

The Pasture Resource

Grassfed beef cattle production, whether you’re raising 100, 10, or one, is predicated on, as the name implies, grass. But here grass is referring to the whole pasture resource. Cattle are, of course, primarily grazers, which means they eat grass and other herbs such as clovers, vetches, medics, as well as many other plants we might at first consider weeds. I fact, I have observed cattle eating thistle, knapweed, dock, and certainly dandelion. Most plants are edible at least during some stage of their life. Usually this stage is the vegetative stage, before a seed head emerges on the plant. During this stage plants have the highest concentration of nutrients and are the most palatable to livestock. We as cattle raisers can take advantage of this state of affairs by managing our pastures to stay in the vegetative stage as long as possible. To accomplish this it is necessary to implement some type of grazing management plan.

A grazing management plan need not be complex. It merely has to direct the grazing animal to eat when and where you want them to in order to keep the plants in their growing stage (vegetative stage). The basic principles of grazing management include:

1. proper timing of grazing (corresponding to plant stage)
2. proper intensity of grazing (duration on the pasture)
3. residue or plant height after grazing

For instance, in Alabama, pasture green-up might occur sometime in March. It is important to allow the plants to get to sufficient height prior to turning the cattle onto the pasture. By waiting until the grass is 5 to 8 inches high the roots have become well developed and the plants can handle defoliation. Grazing intensity, or duration, can be taken care of by designing a suitable rotational grazing system. Rotational grazing, as the name implies, involves moving the cattle periodically from pasture or paddock to paddock. For instance, a good rule of thumb is to split a pasture into 10 to 16 paddocks with electric wire or electric tape, and stock each paddock heavily for a short amount of time. Most graziers stock 25 cows to the acre in this system, and adjust as the season progresses. By doing this you are forcing the cattle to eat all that’s there, grass, weeds, and all. But before the animals eat the plants to the ground, you move them to the next pasture. This takes into account the third principle. It’s important to leave several inches of grass to allow adequate leaf area for subsequent regrowth. Depending on the species, you will need to leave from 2 to 6 inches of plant stubble at moving time. A 10-paddock rotational grazing system that allows animals to graze each pasture for 3 days will give each paddock 27 days of rest. Most grasses in your region will need 20 to 30 days of rest between grazing events to allow adequate regrowth.

Cattle breeds, general health, and nutrition

Selecting the right genetics for grassfed production is important. In general, you will want a breed that combines maternal traits like milking ability with growing and marbling ability. For this reason the English breeds usually fit best with grass operations. Breeds in this category include Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and other, rarer breeds such as Devon and Dexter. Information on rare breeds can be found at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website at

As far as animal health goes, prevention is the only way to deal with health issues in a livestock operation. The loss in production that accompanies illness in cattle can often eat away at any profit you would be expecting. Cattle on grass tend to be healthier than cattle in confinement because of several factors. First off, grass is a natural feed for cattle, whereas the high levels of grain that is fed to confined animals in a feedlot contribute to digestive disorders and liver abscesses. In addition, cattle on pasture tend to be freer from parasites and pathogens that can hamper production in a confinement situation. Regardless of these anecdotes, a sound vaccination program should be administered to protect your herd. Most herds need to be vaccinated against a complex of clostridial organisms and a series of respiratory problems. Your females should be vaccinated against brucellosis as well. Your veterinarian will be able to tell you which organisms are important in your area.

Since your cattle will be consuming predominantly or exclusively grass, your nutrition program will be critically tied up with your grazing management plan. Remember, growing grass and clovers that are consumed while in the seedless, vegetative stage are the most nutritious feedstuffs your animals can get. A pasture that is composed of 70 percent grass and 30 percent clover will have from 13 to 21 percent crude protein and as much as 60 percent total digestible nutrients during the vegetative stage. However, a growing steer often needs more nutrition than your average pasture can deliver in order to put pounds of lean beef on. This is why, for a growing operation, your pasture has to be primo. If its not, you might consider supplementing with high quality alfalfa hay or cottonseed meal for protein or corn for energy. Again, a good rotation and careful attention to pasture management can offer a good nutritional package to growing cattle.

Grass-fed Cattle Production

Pasture management is the basis of a sustainable grass farm. Pasture serves as the main source of nutrition for the cow herd, dry cows, steers, and developing heifers on the farm. To accomplish this it is very important to first establish a baseline of information by conducting a systematic assessment of the grazing resource. A grazing plan can then be implemented and periodically assessed with a pasture monitoring program.

Grass-fed Cattle Resources

Blanchet, Kevin, Howard Moechnig and Jodi DeJong-Hughes. 2003. Grazing Systems Planning Guide. University of Minnesota Extension Service.
University of Minnesota Extension Service Distribution Center
405 Coffey Hall, 1420 Eckles Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108-6068
Delineates the components of a grazing system by taking the farmer through the grazing management planning process. Information on grazing resource inventory, plan development, pasture management, and system monitoring is provided. Each section has a series of questions that will lead you through the decision-making process of developing your plan. Your grazing plan will become customized to fit your operation depending upon how you answer the questions and integrate the components. Pasture-based livestock systems can be profitable enterprises if the available resources are managed effectively. You can also view/download it at

Ruechel, Julius. 2006. Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
This book is a comprehensive work covering all aspects of pasture-based beef production from a practical standpoint. Well-written and full of anecdotes on the reality of beef cattle farming and ranching, it is a must-have for anyone considering raising and selling sustainably raised beef.

Beef Cooperatives and Marketing Firms

Dakota Beef, LLC
980 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400
Chicago, IL 60601
Dakota Beef has partnered with International Certification Service to assist cattle ranchers interested in becoming certified organic producers. They can also provide producers with contact information for veterinarians who specialize in organic health management, and sources for 100 percent organic feed. If you believe your operation could be certified, or if you are interested in learning more about the process, please call Steve Hanley at 605-772-5339 (email Steve at or check out International Certification Service’s website at (from the website).

Laura's Lean Beef
1517 Bull Lea Road, Suite 210
Lexington, KY 40511
All Laura's Lean Beef producers must fill out a Pre-Approval form. This form will qualify you as a knowledgeable producer of cattle for the Laura's Lean Beef Company. The Pre-Approval form is available for download at (from the website).

Tallgrass Beef Company, LLC
103 East Main Street, Suite 1
Sedan, KS 67361
Grass fed and finished beef marketing firm. Partnership opportunities available for seedstock providers, cow/calf producers, and grazer/finishers. To obtain the Producer Protocols Document
and the Production Affidavit (Two separate files) go to (from the website).

Recordkeeping software for cattle.

Probably one of the most workable and accessible programs I have seen is the OSU Animal Science Extension Computer Software, which can be downloaded from their site at Some of the spreadsheets require Lotus 1-2-3, and I have not been able to work them on Excel.

Another very good program is Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA). SPA Software identifies ways to lower the cost of production while practicing resource stewardship. Using information gathered from production and financial records, this software program enables cattlemen to blend data to provide benchmarks like rate of return on assets, net income per cow, pounds weaned per exposed cow, grazing and feed costs per cow.

SPA was initiated by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) producer-led effort. It is designed to help producers reduce their cost of production and improve their production and marketing efficiency. More information on SPA can be found at and

Direct Marketing and Farmers Markets

Most beef cattle in the US are marketed through the traditional commodity beef channels. In the commodity marketing chain, cattle are raised on cow-calf farms and ranches that sell calves either in the spring or fall through such outlets as cattle auction barns or directly to a feedlot through an order buyer. Order buyers typically buy truckloads at a time, and auctions are utilized for smaller lots. The commodity cattle marketing channels are effective at moving large numbers of product but don’t necessarily provide adequate returns to farmers and ranchers. In order to bypass the middleman, some cattle raisers are marketing their beef directly to consumers through farmers markets, restaurants, and other venues. Grassfed beef is becoming more popular with health-conscious consumers and those seeking food produced more ecologically and in keeping with good stewardship practices.

Some very useful resources for direct marketing include the publications and websites below.

Holden, Jan. 2005. How to Direct Market Your Beef. Sustainable Agriculture Network. Sustainable Agriculture Publications
PO Box 753
Waldorf, MD 20604-0753
“How to Direct Market Your Beef” portrays how one couple used their family’s ranch to launch a profitable, grass-based beef operation focused on direct market sales. From slaughtering to packaging, through labeling and advertising, Jan and Will Holder transform their real-life experiences to a compelling narrative rich with practical tips.

The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing, by Neil D. Hamilton. 1999. 235 p.
An up-to-date, well-written primer on all the legal considerations related to direct marketing of agricultural products. Underwritten by a USDA SARE grant. Includes a chapter on marketing of meat. This publication is available for $20 through the Agricultural Law Center.

The Agricultural Law Center
The Law School, Drake University
2507 University Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50311

Food Safety and Inspection Service Technical Service Center
800-233-3935 (toll-free Hotline)
The FSIS is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
The Technical Service Center serves as the Agency’s center for technical assistance, advice, and guidance.

From The Carcass To The Kitchen: Competition And The Wholesale Meat Market
By Marty Strange and Annette Higby. 1995. 52 p
A hard-hitting look at the components of meat marketing and what they mean for farmers. The report addresses how wholesale meat is priced, changes in the retail grocery market, which has market power, legal issues regarding anti-competitive behavior and policy recommendations. A summary of the findings of Competition and the Livestock Market is appended. #Y7 $10.00
Center for Rural Affairs
145 Main St
PO Box 136
Lyons, NE 68038-0136
402-687-2200 FAX

AgMRC – Ag Marketing Resource Center
A National Information Resource for Value-added agriculture

Pastured Poultry Production

Listed below are several poultry publications. These publications focus on alternative production, for which information is less available. It contains real-life observations and highlights several innovative producers. These “how-to” manuals address production systems and outdoor access for poultry, as well as information on breeds, nutrition, health, economics, and housing.


ATTRA Publications

Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers
Beef Marketing Alternatives
Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers
Alternative Poultry Production Systems and Outdoor Access
Growing Your Range Poultry Business: An Entrepreneur's Toolbox
• Pastured Poultry Nutrition
Range Poultry Housing
A Brief Overview of Nutrient Cycling in Pastures
Rotational Grazing
Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Management
Paddock Design, Fencing, and Water Systems for Controlled Grazing
Agricultural Business Planning Templates and Resources

Further Resources

The Stockman Grass Farmer Magazine
P.O. Box 2300
Ridgeland, MS 39158-9911
Published monthly. $32/1 year; $58/2 years.

Resources for Beginning Farmers: Building a Sustainable Future by Beth Nelson, Caitrin Mullan, Jill O'Neill, and Debra Elias Morse, and published by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). The complete document is located at, or by contacting MISA at:
Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA)
University of Minnesota
411 Borlaug Hall
1991 Buford Circle
St. Paul, MN 55108-1013

Exploring the Small Farm Dream
New England Small Farm Institute, P.O. Box 937, 275 Jackson St., Belchertown, MA 01007, 413-323-4531
The Explorer Program is intended for those who are considering farming. Its purpose is to help pre-venture, aspiring farmers learn what it would take to start and mange their own commercial agricultural businesses, and decide whether this is a path they really want to take. Its workbook and supporting resources are designed for use in a variety of learning settings: introductory workshops, formal four-session courses, and independent or guided self-study. Created as a decision-making tool, Explorer can help you establish the clear vision and goals you will need to guide a new agricultural venture. It will help you identify and assess personal motivations, business and farming skills, and available resources. It will help you clarify values. The goal of Explorer is to help you decide whether starting an agricultural business is right for you, and-based on that decision-to help you plan practical next steps.

Informational Toolkit for Beginning Farmers
Ag Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University
The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center is an electronic, national resource for producers interested in value-added agriculture. The Value Added Agriculture Program staff at Iowa State University Extension has compiled some potentially useful information for operators of new farm start ups. Included are general information about farm leases and farm management, new farmer loan programs, beginning farmer training programs, mentoring programs for beginning farmers and more specific information about developing agricultural business and marketing plans.

Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses. 280 pp; published in 2003.
Developed by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Saint Paul, MN.
Co-published by The Sustainable Agriculture Network, Beltsville, MD. Available free online at
Sustainable Agriculture Publications
PO Box 753
Waldorf, MD 20604-0753
(301) 374-9696

Salatin, Joel. 1998. You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farm Enterprise. Polyface, Swoope, VA. 480 p.
Perhaps the best single resource for beginning farmers, this book also provides good information on enterprise differentiation and evaluation. Available from the author at:
Polyface Inc.
Rt. 1, Box 281
Swoope, VA 24479
The book is also available from:



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