I hate to break it to all of you free-spirited, go with the flow type homesteaders but recording keeping is a must. You simply have no choice in the matter. Even if you have a big fat pile of money to buy land and animals at your every whim, you need to keep records. If you are homesteading alone the task will surely fall on you, but if you have a partner in crime be sure to figure out ahead of time who is the keeper of the records. Accuracy is key and having multiple people keeping records could end horribly. Here are a few points to record-keeping on a homestead.
#1: You will forget
I'm telling you, no matter how ingrained you think this season of crops or animals is in your head, it's not. By this time next year, you will be struggling to remember exactly what you did or didn't do, hence making it harder to correct any issues or simply improve any of your homesteading activities. Homesteading is all about learning and if I taught you something today, and you didn't take any notes, and then I didn't ask you to do it again until a year later, would you remember?
#2: Even if you have money now that doesn't mean you'll have it tomorrow
This is too often the sad truth of homesteading. People get into homesteading when they are financially comfortable and go "hog wild" buying and building everything they want. Then, tragically, something happens and the money isn't there anymore. They need to decide either to cut way back on their homesteading activities or, sadly, liquidate the whole homestead and hopefully try again in the future. You need records in either situation. If we fell on hard times today, I'd know exactly what we needed to stop doing to cut back and what perhaps we needed to do more of to keep us afloat. If god forbid, we had to walk away from the farm, I know what hard lessons we wouldn't need to learn twice when we could start up again down the road.
#3: The devil is in the details
Details can make or break your records. This year I resolved to do a lot more record-keeping and I'm kicking myself for not doing this sooner. I kept a detailed log of when and what I planted in my garden. I also recorded what didn't make it and needed to be pulled out. I added to this, why I thought said plants didn't make it and what I want to do differently next year. It's a lot of detail but had I not done that I guarantee that next spring I'd be scratching my head trying to remember why I pulled all my rainbow bell peppers out when I love them so much. Also, speculating or flat out knowing why something didn't work this year, and noting it, will usher you along to grow your skills each year. My take away of information on my bell peppers is that I planted them in seed starters that were too small and didn't start them soon enough in the spring.
#4. Don't get discouraged if you fall behind
When I started my garden journal back in January, I was adamant that I'd journal all of my plant's progress every few days. I did just that for several weeks and was proud of myself. Then spring hit, and my journaling fell to the wayside. This will happen and it's okay. What you need to do is when you think about your journal just go pick it up and jot down whatever you are remembering at that moment. It's better than just resolving to ditch the journal and you'll still end up with good info. Also, don't put the journal away! I was doing great at consistently journaling when I had it on the dining room table, but as soon as I moved it into the spare bedroom to make way for dinner guests, I forgot it existed. Keep your journal in an obvious and, dare I say, inconvenient spot so you're constantly looking at it or touching it.
#5 Social media has helped me immensely with record keeping
If you're not on social media that's okay, you can also use just your phone's camera to help with record keeping. I, personally, am on Facebook and more recently also Instagram. Both are picture posting social media platforms. Facebook specifically has been great for me because it has this function called "On This Day" that shows you what you posted on each day last year, 2 years ago, 3 years ago, etc. I know when our original batch of hens were purchased and when they laid their first egg because I posted pictures. Every year, around mid-August, I get an "On This Day" reminder showing the first egg laid on the farm. This has also helped with our meat birds to determine if we raised them 9 weeks, 10 weeks, or all the way to 12 weeks during previous years. I always try to take pictures and post farm activities that seem memorable or important. You can do this same thing with just your phone. Simply take pictures of everything you deem notable and keep them on your phone. Those pictures will automatically be dated and you can even arrange them into albums to more easily locate them. I often revert to my photo library to see when that certain vegetable was harvested last year or what date we got our first batch of meat birds in the spring.
#6 You need to do this if you ever want to make money
Yes, this is very much true. If you ever want to make money or break-even, you need to keep track of just about everything. Regarding money, most people think "yeah I guess I would have to keep track of my expenses to make money" but it's more than that. Rookies loose money, people who have been casually homesteading for a bit of time may make some money, but people who actively work towards improving their processes are successful homesteaders and may be able to quit their jobs and live off their homestead. Which last time I checked is the ultimate homesteader goal.
I had a conversation with a family friend recently which was a prime example of this. He has been casually farming for 35+ years. He is now retired and was chatting with me about "really making his farm into a business" this year. I said that was great and asked what kind of plans he had. He typically raises beef cattle and pigs, just enough to feed his family and sell to a few close friends. He responded that he just needed to do "more of everything". I asked him which animals he made more money on and what his limitations were with his animal housing. Those two simple factors had never crossed his mind. He went on to reply "oh I'm not sure which one I make more money on but I got a bit more room for animals". Hmmm, two bad answers. This is, unfortunately, the result of casual farming and no record keeping. At a bare minimum, he should have records of how much per pound it costs him to raise beef and the same figure for his pork. I did this with our chickens this year and the beauty of this is that if you raise the same breeds, in the same conditions, year after year you don't need to keep these records every year. I now know how much feed a Freedom Ranger chicken eats from the time we buy it to the time it's butchered. Whether the feed prices increase doesn't matter as I can simply plug the increases into my figures from last year to get my new price per pound numbers.
Then he'd need to evaluate that if he wanted to raise twice as many animals, does he have enough room. That leads to the next question if he didn't have enough room, would it be financially smart to acquire more barn or pasture space to accommodate more animals. Without records, you are left guessing and that's how people end up losing money in the long run, if not immediately.
#7 Always remember that it is a necessary evil
Record keeping is tedious and sometimes downright painful. I hated documenting my gardening failures. Even though I knew the journal was designed to be read by me, putting my failures in print just made me feel like dirt. I also cringed when I completed the spreadsheet of our meat chickens "price per pound" figures and saw how little of a profit we were going to make. I should be glad that we made money and can justify continuing to do it, but had I been able to show a big fat number regarding profits I would have felt better. However, now we know we need to make some changes. I found that we need to cut down on the time that the chicks are in the barn because it results in an added pine shaving expense. We had a very sub-par tractor last spring and after I moved the chickens out into it, we had a huge rainstorm and it was cold. We lost one chicken due to the conditions and I had to move them all back into the barn for 2 more weeks until the weather warmed up. Now, we have a proper tractor and can move them outside out as soon as they are feathered. My point is writing it down, good or bad, will make you better. The information will be more helpful than you can imagine in the long run.