Posts Tagged ‘chicken’

David’s Eggs


Our son is responsible for the egg business, and just started selling them.  It’s wonderful to see him so excited to do the work, keep the records, and care for the chickens and eggs.  The text below is from the flyer that he puts into each carton (you can click here to see his webpage).

Hi, I’m David, and I run the egg business at the Flying T Ranch!

I feed the chickens and water them, and I take care of them.  Every morning, I check the chickens to see how much food and water they have, and I look for eggs.  Every morning, I find some!  Then, I wash the eggs and put them in the cartons.  We eat some, and give some away, and sell some to other people.

With the money I make, some of it goes in the egg jar (to pay for chicken food), and some goes in my spend jar, and some goes in my giving jar.  I give the money in my giving jar to people in Haiti.

My chickens are free range.  I don’t feed them any chemicals or other bad stuff, so their eggs taste great!

The chickens roam all around our farm, and lots of times they follow me around wherever I go, so they get plenty of fresh air, exercise, and natural food.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed getting them for you!

– David

Organic?


When we first started dreaming about our farm, “organic” was high in our priorities.  This flows out of our family mission, to glorify God in all ways, and to live that out on our farm by raising, managing, and using His creation in a healthy, sustainable, humane, and respectful manner.  Since we planned to produce food for others, organic certification seemed like the way to pursue this mission.

Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T

However, as we started researching exactly what organic certification involved, our dream crumbled a little.  This crumbling was due to two primary factors:

1. A realization that “organic” just wasn’t the utopia we’d imagined, and…

2. The unrealistic requirements for a very small farm to maintain both organic certification and solvency .

At the risk of making ourselves vulnerable to claims of “sour grapes,” I’ll say that the first reason was the most disheartening to us.  Previous to our research, we had held special reverence for the word “organic.”  We’d paid extra for organic produce, animal and vegetable, and assumed a lot about organic certification.

Organic certification requirements are pretty complicated – not as bad as the US tax code, but it’s obvious that the authors went to the same law schools.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it helps make sure that folks that stamp their goods with “USDA Certified Organic” have met certain standards.  For animals, those standards in a nutshell are:

1. Appropriate housing that permits natural behavior, including outdoor access.  Depending on the animal, this may include a minimum number of days on pasture.

2. Certified organic feed, including pasture.  Again, some types of animals require a certain amount of their feed to come from pasture (I believe Dairy cows are now above 30% of total Digestible Dry Matter, which is a good thing).

3. No antibiotics, drugs, or synthetic parasiticides unless they are published on the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) list.

4. Organic processing of meat, milk, and eggs.

5. Record keeping in accordance with the regulations.

6. An “Organic system plan,” a lot like a business plan that shows how the farmer plans to maintain organic practices.

7. Measures to prevent contamination of soil and water from production (such as manure runoff).

8. Absence of genetic modification, ionizing radiation, or other such interventions/contaminations.

This sounds pretty good, and it is.  But any time you get a bunch of lawyers to write rules for folks to follow, those folks are going to hire lawyers to make sure that those rules don’t get too much in the way.  Let’s use the organic chicken industry’s lawyers as an example, and to keep this from becoming a book, let’s focus on rules 1, 2, and 8:

Rule #1:  When the lawyers get here, they run square into the 2010 Access to Pasture rule, requiring that any bird raised indoors must have free access to pasture except in certain circumstances.  What this has been interpreted to mean is that a factory organic farm can raise 2,000 chickens in a 100′ x 40′ pen (2 sqft per bird) as long as those birds have free access to outside “pasture.”  This pasture can be enclosed and covered, and doesn’t have to have anything growing on it.  Access can be satisfied with some small openings leading to a few 30 sqft outdoor “porches.”  All the food and water is inside the big room, but if the birds want to leave that behind to go see the reflection of the sun, they’re free to do so.

Organic chicken farm, from http://www.myessentia.com

Rule #2:  Now if you’re running that many birds in that little space, there is no way they can support a majority of their dietary needs on forage.  Any vegetation that might exist at the beginning will be gone in a matter of days, and with it will go all insect life.  So 100% of their feed will have to be what the farmer provides.  Rule #2 requires that this feed also be certified organic, and most of this will come in the form of processed grains from organic farms, the various components of which were grown, harvested, and transported to the mill with fossil fuels, processed using more energy, and then trucked through the distributing train, again with fossil fuels.  Of course, it is possible that this farmer lives next to a grain mill that in turn has local access to organic corn, soybeans, alfalfa, limestone, monocalcium phosphate, kelp, diatomaceous earth, clay, salt, DL methionine, vitamin & mineral premix, garlic, horseradish, anise, and juniper berry (all ingredients of one brand of certified organic chicken feed).

Sadly, the Toyota Prius Combine release date has been pushed back again

Rule #8:  What can the lawyers do with this rule?  They can ensure Cornish Rock Cross hybrid chickens, most likely the organic or non-organic chicken you buy at the supermarket or farmers market, qualify as organic.  They’re not genetically modified, just specifically bred to grow extremely quick (usually harvested from 8-12 weeks of age), with sparse white feathers (easier plucking with no pigment left on the skin), and broad, tender, white breasts.  They also can exhibit extreme mortality rates past around 4 months of age due to heart failure, exhaustion, or skeletal problems.  They taste great, by the way, and I don’t have any problem with folks that raise them.  They just don’t fit into our plan right now.

Cornish Rock Hybrids - from tinyfarmblog.com - notice they're growing faster than their feathers

These principles, of course, also apply to other areas of agriculture, whether producing fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, or other products.

This isn’t to say that organic practices or certification are bad.  We are not to the point yet where we can produce even the majority of our food on our farm, and though we patronize several farms in the area as well as farmers market, we still do a lot of shopping at the grocery store.  When making food choices for our family there, we lean heavily on certified organic produce.  The National Organic Program (NOP) rules and regulations are far from perfect, and subject to a bit of controversy, but by and large, they provide guidance under which which healthier and more wholesome food can be produced.

Not certified organic, by the way...

That’s where the strength of the NOP lies.  Though it’s obviously not perfect, in a world where the vast majority live in densely-populated cities far removed from farms, the NOP provides a framework for consumers to make smarter decisions about the composition and quality of their food.  It does this by holding larger producers accountable to these better (again, not perfect) practices.

Why do I say “larger producers?”

That gets us to point #2.  Besides the fees involved in organic certification, maintaining organic practices obviously carry some expenses that can be difficult for a small operation to bear and still present a price consumers are willing to pay  (Slowmoneyfarm has several excellent posts on this topic, particularly this one).  Much of this is because of competition with larger producers both able and willing to take advantage of the loopholes in the system such as discussed above.

Ability is one obstacle.  A volume producer will always have advantages that come with being able to purchase in larger lots and lower prices while combining and reducing other production expenses.  Still, if small farmers can find a supportive market, it may be possible to approach competitiveness here if they are willing to take advantage of some high-volume practices, though again Slowmoneyfarm does a good job explaining how this is extremely difficult.

That willingness to do this is the second obstacle.  Profitability (or perhaps even solvency) requires taking advantage of practices such as use of non-heritage breeds, stocking stables/pastures/pens at much higher rates, using higher levels of confinement to minimize labor costs, culling rather than treating many sick/struggling animals, and stockpiling feed.

Willingness is the obstacle that stopped us.  We have the facilities that with a bit of modification would make this work with organic chickens and ducks.  It would mean confining them and stocking both our laying and meat flocks at what to us seems an absurd density.  We would need to use non-heritage high-production hybrids for both operations.  Besides the problems these present to our values, such confinement would eliminate the benefits of free-range poultry.

Do you really want to put us in a pen?

We could do this also with meat goats.  Again, we would stock at much higher rates, and manage both the confinement systems and available pasture to ensure they maintained a 100% organic diet.  This would include separation from our poultry, horses, visitors (and probably our kids) to make sure that they didn’t end up eating something improper.

For all of our livestock, this would drive us to breed for size and speed of production, not non-production values such as temperment.

So what is a small farmer to do?

Photo by John Vachon.Oct. 1938. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. America From the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the Farm Security Administration-OWI, 1935-1945.

I believe the solution is an old one.  In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face.  The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods.  The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires.  Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.

The only way this can happen is through local consumption… and that is a subject for another post.

NATO Peacekeeping, Family Harmony, and Automatic Chicken Doors


I spent 10 years in NATO assignments, so I’m pretty acquainted with the challenges of trying to accommodate seemingly incompatible desires.  Hey, if I could somehow deal diplomatically with both sides of the Aegean Sea dispute between Turkey and Greece, I should be able to figure out a farm, right?

Right.

OK, we’re not talking international incidents, but our chickens did provide us with a challenge, caused (as most challenges are) by competing agendas:

1.  We want to raise our chickens in a natural, free-range environment (for all of these reasons)

2.  We want our chickens to feed us, not the local predators, and

3.  We want to be able to leave the house every once and a while and not have to chase the chickens inside before we leave, or wonder if we remembered to close the door for the night, or have to rush back home to close the door before the raccoons, possums, and skunks start prowling.

As I’ve said before, I’m a gadget guy, and we tend to accumulate gadgets that don’t necessarily save time or effort.  However, every once in a while, I do find a gadget that does some good.  In this case, it was a gadget that met all those agendas… an automatic chicken coop door.

I’d heard of them before – pretty cool gadgets that open the door in the morning to let the birds out, then shut in the evening when they’re roosted to keep them safe for the night.  I put on my Google-Fu gameface and went to work.  Sure enough, I found all types of doors available… simple to complex, hinged doors, vertical sliders, horizontal sliders…

… and they started at about $200 shipped, and went up almost to $400.  Ouch.

Undeterred, I added “DIY” to the start of my search string.  And boy did I find some great designs.

One had an electronic schematic involving diodes, transistors, limiting switches, solar panels, and a flux capacitor.

I’m a pilot, not an engineer, and I couldn’t afford the Mr Fusion required to run the sun-following solar panel positioner.

The next one used an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock.  No kidding.

Simple, promising, but it lacked bling, and I worried about Homeland Security knocking on my door.

Here’s one that uses a power door lock actuator to drop the door closed.

Getting warmer, and the “no raccoons” sign was a big plus..  But I wanted one that would open the door also.

Finally, I found one done by the same guy that used a car antenna motor, a lamp timer, and a couple transformers.  Simple and straightforward, and made a cool electric motor noise when it operated.  It wasn’t the kind of status I could get by installing the Cheyenne Mountain blast doors, or the Star Trek elevators with their “swish-swish,” but pretty cool nonetheless.

Now this one used diodes also, but I figured I could bypass that nifty-keen aspect and replace the light-sensitive timer with a manual lamp timer. Winner, winner, chicken dinner (for me, not the foxes).

So, I started shopping around for the components.  Holy diminishing returns, Batman!  We were up past $100 again.

Enter the wonderful folks at www.backyardchickens.com, who not only have simple, step-by-step instructions for how to make this, but also tell you how to get the materials for about $50 total.

http://www.backyardchickens.com/web/viewblog.php?id=8400-automatic-pop-hole-opener

I ended up saving even a few more $$ when I realized aftermarket Wii controllers are 12v, 3.7A (plenty to run the motor) and were on sale from Amazon for $4 each (and free shipping with the antenna motor)!

Once the parts came in, I essentially followed the instructions and put my door together.  One thing I changed was to use a clear Lexan panel for the door (again, because I found one for cheap).

Worked like a charm… a few mods to make it open and close smoothly and we were in business.

Except the chickens wouldn’t use the door.

Seems they tried to go out while the door was closed, through the crystal-clear Lexan, and bumped their beaks one too many times.  Evidently, they decided that just because a cool noise went off, and it looked like the door had moved, they weren’t going to get tricked by the invisible Lexan forcefield again.

Easy fix – I covered the Lexan with spraypaint (now that I think about it, I should’ve used a “No Raccoons” picture), opened the door, and pushed the chickens out by hand.  By the next day, they’d figured it out.

Everything was now working great.  The door opened in the morning.  Chickens filed out and started reducing our tick population.  In the evening, they filed back in to the roost.  The door closed.  Everyone was safe.  We got to stay out late keeping Tractor Supply and Home Depot in business.  Life was good.

Then we got goats.  Within 24 hours, both of them (these are pretty dang big goats, mind you) had squeezed through the 8.5” x 11” opening to get to the chicken feed, shattering the Lexan door in the process.

However, that’s another story for another day.

Guest Blogger: “Chuck” the Chicken-Duck


Please welcome the Flying T’s first guest-blogger, our 13yo daughter…

I mentally go through the birds as I check on them for the night. 5 ducks. Check. 6 Rhode Island Red hens. Check. 3 Araucana hens. Check. 1 Araucana rooster. Check. 15 Barred Rock chicks. Check.  1 chicken-duck. Check.

You may be wondering about that last bird. No, it is not a new-fangled hybrid of some kind. It’s just a Araucana hen that thinks she’s a duck. It’s true. And it just goes to prove that we didn’t buy chickens just for the farm-fresh free-ranged eggs, we also bought them for the amusement they give.

Daisy... not a Chuck

This particular hen, we think, has had traumatizing brain damage in the past. When she was a chick, just 2 or 3 days old, she got stuck under the gallon water feeder. Really, with 12 chicks jumping around squawking “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”, it’s kind of hard to tell if all of them are on the other side of the cage. This one barely survived. She was held so much during the fact though, for basically an hour or two straight, that she is friendly to this day. She has earned her ticket out of freezercamp, insane as she is.

As I mentioned earlier, she thinks she is a duck. So we call her “Chuck the chicken-duck”. This happened when we first got the ducks a few weeks ago. Layer pellets taste good to a chicken still on grower food! Ever since she learned that this yummy delight came from the grain bin, she follows us around, trying her hardest to “trill” like a Muscovy Duck. They sound like “crrrrrooooooooo”, she sounds like “crrrrooAWWWWWWK!”. But she tries.

Chuck the Chicken Duck

Chuck has not yet started sleeping over at the ducks, but she is close. As it is, she follows them around like they are the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When we fenced off part of the horse’s stall (where the chickens usually come in under the gate) for the goats, Chuck thought it was so unfair that her supposed kin were on the other side of the fence, and she couldn’t get to them. She ran up and down the fence, squawking out her version of trilling. We finally picked her up and let her out with the ducks.

Chuck even joins them for their midday snooze. They won’t let her into their private dog pile in the hay, of course, but she sleeps in the other corner of the duck’s stall, wings folded, head cocked back, imitating the way the ducks sleep.

We are looking forward to more chicken-ducks when Chuck lays her eggs in the duck’s nesting box. Rather like the story of The Ugly Duckling.

Chickens are so amusing.

On Gadgets


It’s a little known fact that the managers at the local Tractor Supply Co and Home Depot franchises have recently seen the same specialist to cure the same problem. It seems their salivary glands go hyperactive anytime they see me roll into the parking lot.

If you have a small farm, you know that there are all sorts of gadgets you can buy to “help” you.  Now, I’m a gadget guy – and my wallet and I are drawn to them like bugs to a zapper – but I’m also honest with myself.  I’m firmly convinced that very few of these machines, slicers, dicers, and automatic car washers actually result in a net gain in productivity, though some of them are just downright fun (as in the “Whiz-Bang Chicken Plucker,” which we don’t currently own… yet).

What’s a Whiz-Bang?  The story about it is on the inventor’s website, with some great photos and descriptions; however, while a photo says a thousand words, a video is even more verbose.  A bit of Google-Fu gives us an example:

Where were we?  Oh yeah, why gadgets rarely result in a net gain:

Say a person makes the US median income – about $45K a year, or $22.50 per hour.  He or she takes pride in his/her lawn and edges it every week from April to September using  an old-fashioned rotary-blade manual push edger for the task, a good workout that takes an hour to complete.  By the way, we’re talking about “a person,” not me.  I don’t edge my lawn.  It’s not visible from the road, I’m not exactly sure how one edges a gravel drive, and my wife normally mows the lawn anyhow… a long story involving lions, beavers, and USAF flight training.

Back to the story.  One day at Home Depot, said person notices that the Binford 2000 gas-powered Lux-o-Edger (with patented dual counter-rotating blades of turf death) is on sale for only $250.  The sales associate expresses horror when hearing about the old-fashioned edger our person currently uses and says “This baby will do the job in half the time.”

Our gadget guy (oops – I just lost the non-gender-specific edge, I guess) buys the edger, gas can, oil, extended warranty, storage cover, and auxiliary lighting system, and laser grass illuminator, checking out for $350.  Over the two-year life of edger (exactly the length of the extended warranty), he also spends another $100 in gas and parts, bringing the total cost to about $450.  In the end, he saves 20 hours of labor (24 minus  the 4 he spends changing the plugs and oil, and sharpening the dual counter-rotating blades of turf death), which at his hourly wage is worth about $450.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to close my Macbook and go spend some time adjusting our automatic chicken coop door.  Maybe I’ll use the tractor to turn the manure pile also, since it’s so much easier than using a shovel.  Afterwards, I’ll go scrounging for a food drum for a project I’ve been considering.  I’ve already got the motor….

Chickens, Lions, and Beavers… Oh My!


Our family has a weakness for free-range eggs.  You may be thinking, “what’s the big deal?  Eggs are eggs,” or “Can you really tell the difference?”  If so, you haven’t had a truly fresh, free-range egg.  I’ll have to save that discussion for a later blog post, but if you’re skeptical, just humor me through the rest of this story.

Anyhow, our weakness for free-range eggs, as well as a desire to be a little closer to our food is what led us to think about bringing chickens to the farm.  As the previous owner had run an emu operation, we had four out-buildings, one of which would be easily converted into a coop.  Space was not a problem – you can raise a small flock in most urban backyards if your city allows it, and we have just under 15 acres.

So, like most things to do with the farm, we had a family council to decide if we were ready to start a new venture.

Break, break… it’s about time to digress into a bit more backstory.

You may have had the opportunity in your life to take some sort of personality test… you know, the kind of test that tells you what your general personality type is, how you think, how you make decisions, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  There are myriad types – the one the Air Force uses a lot is the “DiSC,” with the categories being “Dominant,” “Influencing,” Steady,” and “Conscientious.”  Personally, I like Gary Smalley’s version, where the categories are defined pretty similarly, but he uses animals to label them – Lion, Otter, Golden Retriever, and Beaver, respectively.

I’m pretty pegged-out in the Lion category, with a good dose of Otter.  Both tend to be visionary and headstrong, not big fans of details, and better talkers than listeners.

In other words, after our family council I walked away figuring everybody was onboard with my vision for this and just as excited about it.  The vision everybody had signed on to was this: we’d start with a small flock, about a dozen egg-layers.  We’d raise them from chicks, have eggs a few months later, and in a couple years when they stopped laying, we’d send them to freezer camp and eventually the stew pot.

About a month later, we’d add a “straight run” of 24 dual purpose Barred Rocks to the flock, raising the pullets to add to our egg production and all but two of the cockerels for slaughter.

With everybody marching neatly behind, I called our neighborhood grain store and put in our order for six Rhode Island Reds and six Araucanas.

Shortly afterward, my wife said, “The kids told me you ordered the chicks.  I thought we were going to come to a family decision first.”

“Uhhh… we did.  Don’t you remember?”

“No.  We decided that we would all think about it, and have another meeting to talk about our thoughts.”

My wife is a pegged-out Beaver.  She remembers things that were said.  She follows rules.  Things usually work out better when Lions listen to Beavers, but it’s not nearly as “fun.”

“Oops,” I said.  “Well, it’ll be alright.”  That’s lion code for “don’t bother me with details.”

In the weeks prior to our chicks’ arrival, I started work on the coop, and planning for the timing for ordering our dual-purpose birds.  We had a couple more family meetings in which we set down the rules, the most important one being that we would not name the chickens.  I knew that if the chickens had names, they’d end up as pets, and when they got old and stopped laying eggs, I’d be stuck feeding them for the rest of their natural lives.

This rule caused a little bit of consternation, so using my best negotiating skills, I compromised.  Each of the three children could name one chicken, but only after the chicks were a bit older and their personalities emerged.  Those chicks would have a lifetime pardon from freezer camp.  Everybody agreed happily.  “Remember,” I admonished.  “No names until later.”

The day prior to the expected hatch date, we went over the rules one more time.  We had the warming lamp, the feeder, and the waterer ready to go.  That morning, as I headed off to work, I emphasized “the rules” one last time.  “No naming… got it?”

My wife got the call that morning that the chicks were in, and to come pick them up.  After scrambling to find a box that would fit in the car to pick up the chicks, she and the kids drove down the road, returning shortly afterwards with a dozen balls of fuzz-feathers and 50 lbs of chick starter.

By the time I got home, all twelve were named.

What Does Free Range Mean?


You can do an Internet search of “cage-free” and “free-range” eggs or chickens and see that there really aren’t a whole lot of legal requirements to claim those titles. 

"Free Range" Chickens at a Factory Farm

“Free range” at the Flying T means that as soon as our chicks and ducklings are safely able to live in the outdoors, we let them roam the farm. 

Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T

  Most of the chickens return to the coop at night to roost, and the ducks to the barn (some chickens may choose to hang out with the ducks in the barn, especially Henny Penny, aka “Chuck the Chicken Duck”), but otherwise they are out foraging for insects, bugs, spiders, worms, seeds, and plants during the majority of the day.  We don’t use pens or cages except in special circumstances (in order to quarantine new or young birds for a short time to ensure biosecurity, or to separate an injured bird to keep it from getting pecked, for instance). 

Chickens hanging out on a woodpile at the Flying T

 

Mocha foraging with her flock at the Flying T

 This does pose some risks (like predators) and costs.  We can only select breeds that are suitable for free-ranging.  Many “production” strains have many of their natural free-ranging, brooding, self-preservation, and other habits bred out of them so that they spend as much energy as possible either into growing meat on their bones or eggs to lay.  We believe the benefits, however, are worth it.

 Benefits:

  1. Free-range eggs have up to 4-6 times the Vitamin D, 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene than factory-raised eggs.  (article)
  2. Free-range ducks and chickens are miracle-workers when it comes to controlling ticks, barnyard flies, grasshoppers, and other pests.  This reduces the need for pesticides, which is not only better for all the animals on the farm… it’s healthier and better for us as well!  (citation and another). 
  3. Free-range birds are healthier than factory birds, and their meat has a firmer and more flavorful nature, and encourages us to return to more traditional harvesting, preparation, and cooking methods (read this article for good information and ideas).
  4. While factory birds are selectively bred to discourage broodiness (a female bird’s instinct to nest, incubate, and raise her own young) because a broody hen doesn’t lay eggs, our breeding plan actually encourages broodiness, allowing us to sustain the flock.
  5. A broody free-range hen will raise her own chicks/ducklings.  If you’ve ever raised either (we have… and actually, we are doing it again), you know it’s a lot of work and attention that could get spent elsewhere.  Our hope is that with our breeding plan, this is the last batch we have to hand-raise!
  6. Though we offer free-choice supplemental feed (especially in winter), free-range birds require a lot less of this, reducing our costs.  And since they don’t spend as much time in their roosts, clean-up is a lot less time-consuming also (instead, they spend a lot of time fertilizing our pastures and lawn).
  7. Free-range birds don’t tend to fight like confined birds, which is why even “cage free” and some “free range” factory birds have the tips of their beaks cut or burnt off. (citation)
  8. Finally, it’s just peaceful and enjoyable to watch birds range over the farm, stopping from time to time to peck at food, or chasing a dragonfly across the pasture.