A lot that is half an acre up to five acres and beyond gives you room to do most anything you should want to do, using only a modicum of restraint. You may have room for a little pasture, or even a small woodlot or a large pond.
In fact, on a piece of land this size, you may want to consider a small tractor or loader to help you keep up with the work. As with all farming, you still need to be efficient, but the possibilities are endless.
Tools and construction
The challenge of a small lot is trying to find a place for everything you want to do. With a larger lot, the challenge is trying to find the time to do everything you need to do. If you want to, you can keep yourself busy all day, every day on an intensively planted acre.
One to five acres may be more work than you ever counted on. If you do have that much area, though, you’re going to need certain tools.
In addition to the regular hand tools you’ve used before, here are a few things that you probably haven’t needed up until now:
- Chainsaw: If you have acreage, you should have a chainsaw. It’s as handy for rough carpentry as it is for landscaping chores.
- String Trimmer: You need one of these to keep weeds out of the way. The more fencing you have, the more you’ll need to keep brush from growing up in the fence lines.
- Hand Winch: A “come-along” that performs a single job cheaply and can be indispensable at times, it will pull or lift with more strength than five men.
- Fence-Building Tools: If you use wooden posts, you’ll need a 13-pound post maul. If you use fence wire, you’ll need wire stretchers.
When you’ve got all the tools you’ll need, you’ll find that a barn, or a large utility building, will be a very handy place for keeping feed dry, parking machinery out of the weather, and perhaps housing some of your livestock and a milking parlor for goats or a cow.
A chicken coop can be incorporated into the barn if you like, and if you have a small pasture area that can be accessed from one side of the building. The barn should be connected to a corral that will enable you to move your livestock between two or three pens as well as load them into a truck.
You can accomplish these ends with several smaller buildings, but it would be more efficient to utilize the old tried-and-true design of the two-story, gable-roofed barn.
Luckily, this structure doesn’t need to be made from the latest materials, and in fact, it doesn’t even need to be made from new materials. All it needs is to be strong enough to hold a considerable load in the upper loft and tight enough to keep the rain and wind out.
As simple as the barn can be, it is still a large building, and constructing one will be a major undertaking. However, barn construction is typically such that you can erect a roofed framework and put that to good use as you complete the partitions and exterior walls over time.
Investigate the term “pole barns,” which are large, empty shells that can be erected for a very reasonable cost. Once you have the roof on, you can add the rest as time and money permits.
In the simplest terms, you’ll find that having a large enclosed area at your disposal will be one of the handiest things you can have for all manner of reasons, so if there’s any way possible, plan on building yourself a barn. It really doesn’t have to cost that much.
For my woodworking projects, I’ve often used:
You can build a small greenhouse very cheaply from plastic sheeting, plastic plumbing pipe, and scrap wood. Once you have a greenhouse, you’ll have room to plant all your own bedding plants, plus some to sell.
You can start your growing season early by starting plants in tubs inside the greenhouse or make the season last longer by bringing things inside when it starts to frost in the autumn. A greenhouse can also be used as a place to create potted plants, bedding plants, and hanging baskets for resale.
Using your land
If you have as much as five acres, you’ve got room for a sampling of just about any agricultural project you might want to consider. This presents you with the opportunity to experiment and to make some critical decisions. It is a foregone conclusion that some of the pursuits you attempt will meet with greater success than others.
When you have the room, you can experiment with different crops, animals, or ways of monetizing the operation. You’ll quickly become aware of which work best for your particular situation and which doesn’t.
This opportunity can give you a significant advantage in creating a self-sufficient, profitable backyard farm, as you’ll expand on the areas that prove most rewarding and minimize the less successful ones.
You may want to devote some of your acreages to larger meat-producing animals than chickens or rabbits, such as sheep, alpacas, small cattle, or, if they won’t bother your neighbors, maybe even pigs.
How much pasture to allow per animal is a complicated question. First of all, if your area has real winters with heavy frost and below-freezing temperatures for extended periods, you’ll need to supplement your animals’ diet with hay and grains or meal.
People manage large dairies just outside cities in the Southwest that don’t have any pasture at all, so you can’t say that there’s any maximum number of animals that any given area will support—it just depends on how much other feed you want to give them.
Beyond that, it depends on how good your pasture is. If you can find a small farming or homesteading forum on the Internet that has members from your local region, you can ask them for their opinions.
Sometimes small things are more productive than large ones. For example, it’s been proven that you can get more fruit from an orchard of dwarf fruit trees than an orchard of standard-size trees. More than that, you won’t need ladders or equipment to pick the fruit.
A typical one-acre orchard of standard trees has room for around 100 trees that begin to bear fruit in five or six years, whereas dwarf trees can be planted at 400–600 per acre, or even more, and most will start to bear fruit by the second year.
Recommended article: 10 Must-Knows Before You Plant Fruit Trees
Even large producers have found that dwarf trees are the most efficient way to produce fruit and nuts. In fact, a study done by the University of California at Davis found that dwarf peach trees could be planted as densely as 1,500 trees per acre. They had yields of 13.4 tons per acre the first year, which grew to 30 tons per acre by the sixth year.
While there are some fast-growing species, it probably isn’t practical to think about growing your own woodlot from scratch. Trees don’t grow that rapidly, and as a general rule, the slowest-growing ones make the best firewood or furniture.
On the other hand, if you already have a stand of timber on your property, you can improve your stand for growing efficiency and get free firewood in the process. There are many variables involved if you want to burn firewood to heat your home exclusively. It depends on how large and well-insulated your home is, what part of the country you live in, and what sort of wood burner you’re using.
Obviously, if you have a drafty five-bedroom home in Maine, you’ll need a lot more firewood than if you have a small cottage in south Texas. Then you’ll need to consider the differences in growing and burning rates of the various species of trees.
To get a reasonable idea of how much land you’d need to grow your own firewood, calculate how much wood you use and how you use it, and then compare this against the standing timber you have now.
Developing a pond
Also referred to as a tank in the South, this is a body of water smaller than a lake. Digging a pond isn’t all that expensive, considering what it’s worth, and it will last for the rest of your life.
You can have a sizeable pond dug in a day’s time (which is to say eight hours or so heavy-equipment hire), but you’ll need fairly clay-like soil that will hold water, or you’ll have to line it with bentonite clay or plastic.
You’ll also need enough slope to your land that you can divert rain runoff to keep the pond full. Once your pond fills up with rainwater, it’s only a matter of stocking it with a few fish and waiting. If the pond is large enough, you won’t need to feed your fish, but they’ll grow a lot faster if you do.
If raising fish is your desire, you can build a shallow pond with a plastic liner draped over berm walls. This is a better solution than an inground pond if you want to raise a lot of fish intensively. It isn’t a solution for a livestock watering hole.
You might also want to read: Plant An Impressive Edible Water Garden For Extra Food
Growing Your Own Feed
If you have an acre or more that you might want to devote to field corn, sorghum cane, or other sources of animal feed, then you probably need a small tractor to handle the tilling.
Judging exactly how much you can expect to raise during any given year is subject to many variables; some you can control, and others you can’t. It might give you a rough idea, though, to know that the national averages for field corn production are between 125 to 150 bushels per acre.
As with all the other crops you grow, you’ll need some method of storing your homegrown feed. Traditionally, field corn has been kept in whole ears in corncribs, which can be kept in just about any room in an airy barn that is then filled with corn.
Smaller grains can be kept in large cans or sacks or loose in a particularly tight storage room with a cat or two, keeping watch for rats and mice. Feed crops like sorghum cane are traditionally made into silage, a fermented, high-moisture fodder. You can make silage on a small scale by packing the silage material into plastic bags and allowing anaerobic fermentation.
Silage is a more nutritious meal for your livestock than dried fodder like hay. Some root crops, such as sugar beets, are also grown as livestock feed.
Root crops are easy to store, and they hold onto their nutrients well, but getting an acre or two of beets out of the ground at harvest time will require a particularly dedicated effort.
Raising small livestock
If you have an acre of good pasture, you can easily keep a milk cow. The better question is whether or not you want, or can use that much milk.
Milk is a favorite food among humans as well as most animals, but selling raw milk legally will often involve more complications from state and local authorities (they will frequently require more licenses, approvals, and inspections than the small operator will find to be cost-effective).
For that and other reasons, you may want to consider slightly smaller livestock, like a herd of goats, or some of the following:
In recent decades, a number of breeders have developed miniature cattle, some not more than 36 inches tall. These tiny bovines have all the benefits of larger cows, in that they are raised for meat and milk, but they need a lot less pasture area, are much easier to transport, and cheaper to feed.
While they go by different names, there are micro versions of all the more common cattle breeds, including Hereford, Angus, Jersey, Holstein, and even Brahman and Longhorn. Since these are still an oddity, it would probably be more lucrative to raise and sell the offspring as purebred breeding stock than as meat animals to be butchered.
For the home, however, one of these little steers might be just the right amount of beef for your family. Owners of miniature Holsteins claim they get 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day, so if you prefer cow’s milk to goat’s milk, miniature cattle might be just what you’re looking for.
Like its larger close relative, the llama, the alpaca is related to the camel, which is readily apparent in the shape of the body. Llamas have been used traditionally in South America as beasts of burden, whereas the alpaca is grown for the value of its fiber, which is similar to wool, and highly valued, as it is less itchy than wool and hypoallergenic as well.
There are two breeds of alpaca: the Suri, which has long, straight hair, and the Huacaya, whose hair is wooly and dense like the wool of a sheep. All alpacas use a common dung pile, making the collection for composting easy and leaving pasture areas less of a “minefield” to walk through.
A typically grown alpaca will be a bit over 3 feet tall at the withers and weigh less than 200 pounds, making them ideal for the backyard.
Sheep are probably the longest-domesticated farm animal, due in large part to the fact that they produce meat, milk, and especially wool, the most-used animal fiber on earth. Getting started with sheep requires tight fencing in good repair.
Traditionally, American farmers have used woven wire, but most of the stone fences in Great Britain and Ireland were built to contain sheep. Ideally, you’ll have room enough that your sheep can alternate between rotated pastures.
Sheep need fairly lush pastures, and, unlike goats, they aren’t prone to eating leaves from taller plants. A mixture of grass, clover, forbs, and other pasture plants suits sheep for pasture; they’ll also eat hay, silage, and grains. Your sheep will need an open-front shed and plenty of clean fresh water.
An old rule of thumb is that you can maintain eight sheep on the land required by one Jersey cow. Each sheep will excrete more than a ton of manure per year. In the compost pile, sheep manure is somewhat hotter (more potent as fertilizer) than that of cattle.
Swine are mentioned here because pork is one of the most universally loved meats and because they can be raised successfully and humanely in very small areas. Having said that, a wise person would only introduce pigs into a suburban neighborhood with extreme caution!
You’ll find that even the most relaxed and farm-friendly communities, those that will permit just about anything, draw the line at pigs. Folks advocating for pet pigs like the pot-bellied breed will tell you that pigs are naturally clean animals that do not smell bad.
A must-read: The Quest For Perfect Hogs For Your Homestead
Unfortunately, there is nothing natural about keeping any animal in a small pen, and you will find that pig pens live up to their reputation in terms of both cleanliness and the smell that they produce.
It’s also said that raising pigs in a pen is unhealthy and that pigs don’t like standing in their own filth any more than humans do. However, no one has taken any pig-polls on the matter, and there is much evidence to the contrary, as pigs are raised successfully all over the world in relatively close conditions.
If you have a considerably larger area you’d like to devote to raising a pig, this will result in a much more aesthetically pleasing situation. However, don’t expect it to be okay with the neighbors.
Helpful machines you will need
Although they look alike, there are a lot of differences between a riding lawn mower and a small tractor. It’s sort of like the difference between a golf cart and an all-terrain vehicle.
A riding lawn mower probably has about three speeds forward and one purpose: mowing the lawn. A small tractor will have four to ten speeds forward, a three-point hitch, hydraulics, and serious, heavy-duty construction that means it won’t break easily.
Also, when it does break, you can fix it. Small tractors have more implements than you can name, but the more popular ones are bush-hog, mower, plow, loader, grader blade, log splitter, and post-hole auger. Tractors are also quite handy when you need to pull a trailer full of things that are too heavy to lift.
Tractors make short work of long rows and make it easy to move very heavy items, such as full water tanks or several bales of hay. When you have one, you’ll do a lot of jobs that you wouldn’t even consider before.
Because tractors are so well built, and because they have so many uses, they aren’t cheap. However, like most good equipment, a good used one is the most logical purchase.
On a place the size of five acres or less, you’ll want the smallest tractor you can get, so this means you’ll be choosing one of two types: a small import from India, Japan, Korea, or China; or an old Ford N-Series.
Recommended reading: Tips You Should Know Before Buying A Tractor
Here are the pros and cons of each kind of tractor: the imports are more modern and come with some features you will find handy, such as very low range transmissions, many forward speeds, four-wheel drive, and modern hydraulics.
Some people believe that the imports do a better job and probably won’t cost much more than the Fords. The advantage of the Ford N-Series is that they are extremely simple. If you know the first thing about machinery—or even if you don’t—and you have an owner’s manual, you can fix everything yourself.
Some of the Fords are quite old (they first started making them in 1939), but they’re very good simple designs, and there are still thousands of them available in running condition. They’re a little larger and heavier than the imports, but parts are cheap and easy to install, and you can probably get a good one for a little less than you’ll pay for an import.
Instead of a tractor, you may choose to purchase a small skid loader. As the name implies, the skid loader doesn’t steer like a tractor, it pivots by braking one side or the other. A skid loader can turn around in its own length, which is extremely handy in close quarters.
Where a tractor is good at pulling mowers, plows, etc., in a straight line, the skid loader excels in working in one spot in a very precise manner. If you need something moved and placed within an inch or so of a certain place, that’s a job for a skid-steer loader.
Like the tractor, they have lots of available implements, but whereas most of the tractor implements fit on the back of the machine, virtually all skid loader implements fit on the front, and are more devoted to lifting and moving things.
Typical implements include buckets, grapples, tree shears, and stump grinders. Tractors may be fitted with a loader on the front, but they still don’t have quite the ability the loaders do.
A loader with a tooth bucket, for example, can dig into the earth and do several light, bulldozer-like jobs; a tractor, not so much. You could dig your own pond with a skid loader, provided you had a few days to do it and the certainty that it wouldn’t start raining before you finished.
Loaders are particularly handy around the farm because they can virtually eliminate lifting heavy items. Sacks of feed, hay bales, planting tubs, and building timbers all become infinitely portable when you have a skid loader on the job. If you expect to be farming into your later years, a loader is a worthwhile investment.
Also known as “walk-behind tractors” or “rear-tine tillers,” these little machines can till up even a pretty heavy garden in short order. Not to be confused with a front-tine rototiller, a two-wheel tractor can do this with little input from the operator other than steering.
If you’ve ever used a front-tine tiller in any soil other than the finest, smoothest, and most rock-free, you’ll appreciate the difference. Two-wheel tractors can also perform a few other jobs with attachments, such as pulling a cart or blowing snow.
If you have ground to till, this is the machine to use, but if all your growing is done in containers and beds, you won’t have much use for it.
This article was submitted by A.J. Stewart.
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