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The math of farming

Posted 2/6/2014 10:26am by Samantha .

My family would be shocked to hear this, but I have a love/hate relationship with math. They wouldn't be shocked at the hate part, but certainly the love part. I hate that I'm not very good at it, and I really hate how they are teaching math in the schools now (what are ten squares? why does each question require a paragraph of writing, but no actual numbers?), but I do love how math can sort out so many things.

It seems that there is not a day that goes by on the farm where math isn't needed to solve a problem.

I need math to sort out what I am going to do with each days milk: I need 'X' litres of milk for my family, 'X' litres of milk for my sister. This then leaves me to sort out how much milk is left from that day, and if I will have enough litres of it to take cream to make butter. How much is needed for cheese? How much butter and cheese do I need to store up for when I have to dry off a cow for her next calving?

I need math to sort out grain costs. It seems that the cost of grain keeps going higher and higher. Now, we need to explore options like bulk deliveries in to large grain storage. Which means calculating the different costs of bulk totes, bulk trucks, fuel surcharges, and how much will those gravity wagons and that big hammer mill actually hold? To add to the fun, much of the farm equipment we have measures in imperial, but the feed is weighed and priced in metric.

Then there is the math of gardening. How many seeds do you need to feed your family and a few dozen others? How much space? How many garden hoses to irrigate? Thankfully, I don't have to sort out any of that math, as I've been told by my husband and my sister that I'm not in the 'Tomato Club.' I'll have to blog about the 'Tomato Club' in a future post.

There is all the math of organics, which again, is an easy one. We always aim to meet then exceed the requirements of the Canadian Organic Standard which is a large rather cumbersome tomme to read through. Now when building animal shelters or fencing pasture areas, we see what the standard requires, and just make it bigger. Makes life easier.

Now, calculating how much wire and how many fence posts are needed to enclose a new pig area that encompasses meadows and woods? That is tricky math when working over rough terrain. Make an estimate and then double it, I say!

There is the math of federal taxes, HST, inventory, expenses, and income. Hundreds of slips of papers that all need to be complied into various forms and spread sheets. It is really something to see when all the expenditures and income from a year of farming are gathered and tallied. 

There is the math of hay. How many acres of pasture and hay needed, factoring in grain crops into the rotation. How many hay bales will be needed to get through the winter? Once that is calculated, is there space enough to store it? 

There is the exciting math of how far can the truck go once the gas light goes on. Each farm vehicle has a different distance it can travel once that little light makes it's soft yet ominous glow on the dashboard, depending on the speed you are traveling. Then, factor in how far you are to the closest gas station, and depending on the time of day, will it be open?

There is the math of time. It takes about 10 hours for the cream on the milk to rise to the top. I can only fit 6 gallon jars of milk in my fridge, and it takes at least an hour to skim the milk, wash the jars and have them prepared for the next milking. So, after a milking which takes an hour or so, plus add on time for calf feeding and washing the milking equipment), how many hours do I have to complete the 'to do' list in town, then get home to sort out the mornings milk, and be back in the barn for evening milking?

There is also sometimes the math of loss. A failed litter of pigs born too soon in the spring when the weather is still too cold and snowy will have a trickle down effect that doesn't stop until almost a year after. A heifer of breeding age that dies unexpectedly, and leaves your farm plans for the next three years in turmoil. Losses like these mean trying to plan and compensate for what should have been, and now isn't.

The math never stops! I never would have guessed that farming had such math. But my favourite math is trying to calculate the value of what we get out of our farm. By that I don't mean the income we make, or the monetary value of the land and assets, that is something we won't really have until we go to sell it, or pass it on to our kids. 

How do you calculate a value on being a 'midwife' to beasts and birds of all sizes?

How do you calculate the joy you feel in your heart watching the cows kick up their heels in a newly opened spring pasture?

How do you calculate the sheer bliss at tasting that first bite of fresher than fresh, crisp, sweet, juicy apple in the fall, or watching your children's faces light up when they realize they could climb up into that canopy and eat till their little tummies are full?

How do you calculate the intense gratitude you feel when farm customers tell you that their kids are healthier than they have ever been because of the food you grew for them?

I guess it's not something you can tally, but I tell you this, I do store up all these little things in my mental savings account so I can withdrawal them on the days when the math goes bad.

This math of farming is something I have grown to love, almost as much as the land itself.how much hay does a cow need?