Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Happy chickens

I read that more and more of us are starting backyard chicken pens.  If you've ever had a fresh egg you can understand why.  We read a lot about raising chickens, specifically layers, before we actually took the leap.  As I've lamented before mortality bothers us and was one of the main reasons it took us so long to incorporate hens into our farm model.

But I have to tell you it has been an experience that I wouldn't change.  We've had some sad times but the hens have brought us more joy than sorrow.  We've picked up veterinary tips and tricks and have become quite adept at handling situations as they arise.  One on the most important things to know when raising hens in your backyard is what to look for in terms of health and how to detect unhealthy situations as quickly as you can before the problem spreads to the entire flock..

We had never thought of chickens as being happy but I guess like most things you are either stressed or not stressed.  If not stressed then I guess you could consider the bird to be what we would call happy.  You can tell signs of stress and negative stress affects taste if a bird has been stressed for extended periods.  Anything subjected to long periods of stress is going to have problems.  That's why cows, pigs, chickens or any animal raised on these confinment farms are pumped up with anti-biotics, hormones and other synthetic substances.  They were not meant to live that way.  Evolution has prepared them to be grazers, hence the term ruminant.  Not in confinment yards where they stand and sleep in their own excrement laden pens with no hope of getting on grass.

First and foremost you must know what signs to look for in chickens and you must be able to compare it to what a healthy chicken looks like.  The first signs of any problem with a layer is that they will not be themselves.  We have learned that if we see any anomally whatsoever we need to act upon it.  Meaning if there is the slightest change in the bird, isolate her from the rest of the flock and give it a health check.  You should always have a hospital pen available.  This is usually an enclosed area that has food, water, a nest and a roost.  I've seen a little 2 chicken box setup for this purpose.  The last thing you need to worry about if you have a sick chicken is where are you going to put it when isolated from the flock.  Even if you do not have a special place at least know what you will do if isolation is needed.

We've lost a chicken or two because when we saw a problem it didn't look like a problem to us.  Like counting 11 chickens when there should be 12.  Then the next day counting ten hens when there should be 12.  Then coming outside on day three in the morning and seeing the neighbors dog in the pen.  Or you see a hen in the nesting box that doesn't sound right.  They normally are vocal when laying but this is an agitated kind of squawking.  I guess the rule of thumb should be if in your mind you question ANYTHING then do something about it.  Isolate the bird and examine it.  This action also protects the rest of the flock.

A healthy chicken will be active, pecking and scratching and chasing anything that flies within its eyesight.  However, they are not constantly active and you will sometimes find them taking a dirt bath.  They will scratch up the soil making a nice indentation in the earth which has all of this fluffy dirt they just created.  They'll sit in it and roll and flap there wings and just have a grand old time.  When they get up watch out, much like a wet dog they will shake and a mini dust shower come's extruding from their body.

Healthy birds have clear eyes, beak and nostrils.  There should be no discharges dried or otherwise.  Their combs and wattles should be red.  There should be no limp or what's known as bumblefoot in their gate.  Their vent should be pink and the feathers around the vent clean.  If the feathers around the vent are dirty then she could have diarreha.  Food intake varies by stage of development, weather and species.  I've found the following site to be very helpful; http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/tech_manuals/small_flock_resources.html  

During the winter chickens eat more because eating helps them to stay warm.  It seems water intake is constant but in warmer times it does go up.  It is important to note that they should always have plenty of water and food.  The last thing you want to do is promote competition in the flock. 

There should be plenty of roosting, nesting and roaming space.   If any of these things are lacking you will promote competiion within the flock and only the strongest will survive.  If there is plenty of room( a good rule of thumb is at least four square feet per bird inside (at night) and eight outside), water and food, your entire flock will be happy and even the runts will get enough to eat and drink.  Productivity, in turn, will be higher if the bird is happy.  You'll get more eggs and tastier meat.

If you are raising meat birds there is a strong belief that a bird rasied in a stressful environement will not taste as good as a bird in a stress-free environment.  If you don't believe me do a taste test yourself. buy a store bought chicken and a free range chicken.  Prepare them identically and give your family and friends a blind test taste.  You will pay more for a free range chicken but know that it cost us more to raise them.  But a free range chicken will be free of hormones, steriods, anti-biotics and other synthetic substances that do come with chickens from the industrial food complex.

See what your family and friends say.  Let them vote and then send us the results.  We'll compile and post what we get.

Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain hard selling the fact.



The Dangers of Farming

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The House

The farm house we live in was built in 1837 by David and Richard Specht.  David was the original owner.  He bought the land from Charles Caroll a signer of the Declartion of Independance.  They built the house with clay bricks they made by hand from materials dug on the property.

The floor joists are solid trees with the bark still attached.  On the second floor one room has the ceiling exposed to the roof.  When you look up you see they used wooden dowls to secure the wood in place for the attic floor joists.  The wood itself has hand honed marks on it where you can see they smoothed it out. 

Each room has its own fireplace which are very shallow.  We were told that's how coal fireplaces were designed. The rooms themselves have ten foot ceilings.  The walls are covered in horse hair plaster, no lattice work just plaster slapped up against the brick interieror of the house.   The house exterior itself is made three bricks deep and has widows sills that are almost a foot and a half deep. 

My wife started researching the history behind the house and found that among other things that the brothers Specht had a run in with Union soldiers.  It seems when the Union was getting ready to attack the Confederate Army at Point of Rocks, Maryland they tour down fences in case they needed to retreat.  Well the Specht brothers didn't like having their fences down and their cows running free so they built them up.

As it turned out the Union did have to beat a retreat from Point of Rocks and when they came upon the Specht property they  did not like that the fences were restored.  In his book The History of Carrollton Manor, 1928, William Jarboe Grove surmizes that had the Union had any ammunition left the brothers would not have lived to tell about it.

Another little bit of written history was the demise of David Specht himself.  It was written that he went out during a bad storm to check on the house when a brick fell and hit him in the head.  Since Mr. Specht there have only been six owners of the farm house.

So when it came time to renovate the house we were advised that the cheapest and quickest way to accomplish what we wanted to do was to tear the house down and build it from scratch.  Knowing what we knew about the house we just could not bring ourselves to make that decision.  It did cost more and it did take longer to fix.  But, you can't replace history, you can't replace the kind of hand craftsmanship that was put into this house and you'll never replace the hopes and dreams that first built this house.

We are mere stewards, keeping the place up so that hopefully generations from now, someone else will read the history and decide that the house is to precious to tear down and build from scratch and will want to preserve it for as yet unknown generations.

Buy local - from a farmer not from a chain advertising "Local"


The whole goat thing

We were talking about getting goats, milk goats specifically.  At least my wife was.  I can only see the negative with goats so it was pretty much a one sided conversation.  I'm sure she's right; she was right about the farm, the chickens, the fruits, the eggs, the marriage....

I don't want to offend anyone, I know goat people and I respect people that have goats.  But I've heard goat people talk about goats and it usually ends with a story about one of the goats getting out and eating everything in sight.  Or goats getting out, roaming and eating the neighbor's expensive plants out of their yard.  Or goats getting out and you can't find them and when you do, you can't get them in the truck.  Or goats getting out and eating the neighbor's Harley Davidson.   Let's just say my issue is goats getting out. 

I know a lot of people with goats, they are great people but they tell me stories and inevetably one will be about their goat getting out.  I've been to seminars and presentations where other farmers are talking about how great goats are, but someone will have a story about the time their goat got out    So I asked the question, how do you keep goats in?  Strong fences I’m told.  Strong fences! 

Problem is I've asked the person that has told me the story of their goat getting out.  So, the answer is a strong fence, that’s the recommendation I’ve gotten from the extension office, from farmers and from goat herding friends.  Does anyone see a problem here?  The same people that have told me about goats getting out are the ones recommending strong fences.  Hummmm.  Was the escape before or after they installed strong fences?

I have found that there is a special electric fence for goats, sheep and chickens.  I read the website It is designed specifically for goats and sheep. The advertisement reads "Keeps your goats and sheep in and predators out."  Yeah, but I don't believe it. 

Once you buy the fence and then get the goat you’re done.  The gig is up, there is no turning back.  The goat will get out, they always do.  I'll end up having to give my neighbor free vegetables for a season.  Or worse while trying to corral the goat it kicks me in an area not meant to be kicked.  To me, goats are Mother Nature’s way of teaching us that ruminants are suppose to roam. 

Then I start to think of the benefits: they can clear brush and eat grass.  I learned of a type of pygmy goat that I found to be quite comical.  There is a goat called a Fainting Goat, and as its name implies when this thing gets scared it faints.  I saw a video of it, and all most spit my milk out from laughing.  So I waited for the right time and told my wife if she gets a milk goat then I wanted to get a fainting goat. "What's a fainting goat?" she asks.  "A pygmy goat," I respond. 

I get a quizzical look but I avoid her eyes and quickly change the subject.  I ask what kind of food would we need to feed the goat.  She starts to rattle off the list of things she has learned that a goat will eat and by the end of the list I'm  thinking she missed our next door neighbor's roses and the Harley. I know she is holding back.

I can tell she is pleased that I've started to ask questions about the goats.  "Ya know," I say "we'll have to think about this whole goat thing".

BUY LOCAL- from a farmer, not a chain advertising "LOCAL"


Beware of "Free Range"

Okay, maybe this is another rant against the industrial food complex, but I was brought up to stand up for what is right and not to sit back when someone was in trouble. My parents raised all of their kids to treat everyone equally regardless of skin color or religion.  Besides, I like to think of it as educational more than just a rant.

We all know that our food supply has many flaws, often we get to read about the major events when they happen.  What we don't get to read about unless you dig deep is the smaller stuff.  Like how the IFC is able to sell chickens labeled as "free-range" even though the chicken has never been outside on grass, ever!  I got to give them credit, it takes a certain kind of sleaze to take a regulation that is meant to be beneficial to the consumer and use it against them.

On their website the USDA defines free range or free roaming thusly:  Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

Now to you and I that means the chicken should be outside on grass.  The USDA has found that there are broiler houses that hold tens of thousands of chickens that are being labeled and sold as free range even though they have never been outside.  Why?  Because the houses have a door at one end and they can open them to the outside.  It doesn't matter that the door opens up to a cement pad or to dirt or the best case, grass.  Never mind the area outside wasn't large enough to hold all 10,000 birds; the producers will tell you they meet the USDA definition. 

I've only been raising layers for the last three years.  I am not a knowledge expert by any means.  What I do know is that we get chicks at a day old, raise them indoors until they can handle the weather outside, usually 8-10 weeks.  We move them to a moveable house that has no bottom and is surrounded by an electrified fence.  The fence is to keep predators out not the chickens in.  They can fly the coop, if you will, pretty easy.  As they get older they hardly ever do.  They get in a routine and it doesn't seem to change.

Most broilers are processed between 12 and 15 weeks of age.  The sooner a broiler is processed the more tender the meat.  10,000 birds raised in a closed environment will remain in a closed environment when a single door is open.  It's not like the door is a garage door either, the USDA found that some of these houses had one door leading to, you guessed it, a cement pad.    

The USDA is changing the rule because the IFC took advantage of the current regulation by calling housed chickens free range.  What we've read and commented on from the USDA helps to clearly define FREE RANGE.  Until the new regulations are put into affect the monoliths that feed the IFC will continue to label and sell housed chickens as free range.  

You're asking "now what? How do I know which company really has free range chickens or chickens just labeled as free range?  It is easier than you think. Just buy local.  Find a farmer that raises free range chickens in your area.  Go to the farm, talk to them and see for yourself what their free range practices are.  LocalHarvest has a great search tool to find them.

Your buying habits will need to change somewhat in that you won't be able to just go there and buy a chicken, you might, and it depends on the farm.  In some cases you'll need to order the bird before hand and you might need to buy in quantity in order to have chicken whenever you want.  The trade off is you get fresh, tasty, real free range chickens and eggs.   If you don't believe me, buy a store bought chicken and a local free range chicken.  Cook them the same and give your family and friends a blind taste test.  Not only is it a fun activity you'll get to see for yourself through others taste buds.

BUY LOCAL - from a farmer, not from a chain hard selling the fact.


Green Manure and other nitrogen fixers

We use field rotation and cover crops as a way of resting and building our soils' nutrients and tilth.  It is also a way to cut down on our weeds.  Some plants like "Morning Glory" are invasive species and seeds can be viable for up to fifty years.  It has become one of my goals to eradicate them.  The Federal Government categorizes Morning Glory as a noxious weed.  It has a beautiful flower and we suspect was used around outhouses in the days before modern plumbing because it is so prevalent here.  In order to get that flower, the vines of the morning glory wrap around anything that is vertical.  The vine climbs and squeezes its host; usually corn, tomatoes, peppers; you get the picture.  As the host plant grows so too does the vine until the vine chokes out its host.

Sort of a parasitic relationship when you look at the whole process.  Then to have the seeds viable for so long it has become the scourge of our farm.  I can be doing something totally unrelated to weeding and see one and it will draw my attention.  I'm sure there is something clinical about this behavior but I figure due diligence is a must with this weed. 

We use a farm practice that is frowned upon but we do it because it works and we can eliminate run off.  The growing ecological trend is to disturb the soil the least amount possible.  In order to plant, farmers use what is called a drill press planter.  It is referred to as No-Till planting. With No-till practices managing weeds takes on two varied methods.  If you are conventional then weeds are sprayed.  On the organic side cover crops are used for their ability to be rolled over and flattened and stay flat enough for the planted seed to germinate.  This works well along with cover cropping in general.

What we do is till, but we till on flat land so run off doesn't exist.   If done incorrectly, tilling soil leads to erosion, run-off, and depletion of nutrients and loss of topsoil.  It is one of the factors that created the Great Dust Bowl in the 1930's. The areas that we own that are sloped are put in pasture and cover cropping.  Cover cropping is a way to keep weeds down while adding natural nitrogen back to the soil.  We have a multi-tiered approach to weed control and yes heat is one aspect (see Are We Done Planting...)

Depending on the use of the land, we will do the following; starting in early spring as soon as the ground temperature reaches forty degrees we will do a deep till then let the land sit.  We'll wait for the weeds to come up and fill the tilled area.  I'll then do a shallow till between two-three inches deep.  It is important to note that you do not want to wait for the weeds to get seed heads.  The reason you want the weeds to grow is to expend the seeds in the ground.  Letting the weeds mature to seed heads defeats the purpose. 

After the shallow till we will plant with grasses and nitrogen-fixing legumes.  If the chickens are going on the land we will plant rye and hairy vetch (a legume).  Once the seeds have germinated and grass is established we move the chickens on to feast.  They eat the bugs, the grasses and leave behind fertilizer.  They get moved periodically so that manure is evenly distributed in the field but more importantly for the chickens' health.  

The next season’s production gardens are treated differently.  First they've been rested for a year with just green manure on them.  In the spring of the second year they are tilled and planted as described above.  For the spring, summer, fall and winter the chickens stay on them.  The difference is after the first six months of the second year the chickens are moved to another production garden and we till the area and plant grasses.  The rotation on the next year's production garden is such that we have seeded fields, fields ready to mature and mature fields.  That way the chickens always have fresh grass to be moved onto when the current plot has been used up.  The chickens are moved every three days onto a new patch of grass and this dance takes place all year long.   In the spring of the production year the area is deep tilled and left for weed seeds to grow.  It is tilled one last time and planted with production vegetables and cover crops.

This practice is great for the birds, the land and the vegetables that inevitably benefit.  The birds are out in the open and get fresh air and grass and clean space.  This practice eliminates respiratory ailments, the need for anti-biotic because they are not standing ankle deep in their own waste and cuts down on the spread of a disease.  Think about it, the first thing we want to do when cooped up for long periods of time is to get outside and take a deep breath.  We all crave it at some point in time.  That is one of the underlining factors for us as an ecologically sensitive operation that uses sustainable practices.

Buy Local - from a farmer not from a chain that advertises "Local"



To wash or not to wash?

When a chicken lays an egg the shell is covered with a protein outer covering known as the "bloom".  The bloom quickly dries and seals the egg from pathogens from the outside world.  This is a good thing especially if the egg is going to be incubated or remain fresh.  Because the egg is sealed nothing penetrates the shell and gets into the inner part.  However, before you sell them you must wash the bloom off.

The logical question that comes to mind is why do we have to wash the egg's protection off creating a permeable shell?  If the bloom keeps pathogens out of the albumen (white) and yolk why would we remove that protected coating?  Not only does it keep things out it also does not allow the inside to dry out, keeping the egg fresher longer.  A commercial egg left in the refrigerator will slowly dry from the inside.  It will also absorb the odors that are in the ice box too.

An egg that has not been washed can remain unrefrigerated for up to three months.  Wash the bloom off and the egg cannot last a day with temperatures above 45 degrees before it starts to develop salmonella and other bacteria harmful to the digestive tract.

There has been a fight to get egg producers to date stamp individual eggs, this is required in the UK but not herein the US.  I saw a news show awhile back that did an expose on egg producers recycling old unsold eggs back into the food chain.  If you've ever bought a carton of eggs and get them home and crack one open and the white is very cloudy you've probably gotten one.

When you buy a fresh egg the albumen should be clear with the exception of the chalaza.  The chalaza is the strand that anchors the egg to the shell.  This strand will be solid white.  The yolk should be standing tall and proud.  The yolk color from a free range or organic egg will be dark orange, hence the high beta carotene content.   Its commercial counter part will look yellow to pale yellow if it has been recycled.  Because the shell is permeable the egg white can be smaller do to shrinkage and the egg can take on the properties of what it has absorbed.

If eggs were individually date stamped then they couldn't get recycled the way they are doing now, creating a safer egg supply.  Let’s get this straight; people get sick because of bad food in the industrial food supply.  Other people point this out, document the abuses and lobby their leaders for change.  What happens is people with more money hire insiders or just give money directly to campaigns and our leaders end up doing nothing.  Sure there are counter arguments that they will point to and the will of the people is of utmost consideration, they'll say.  Yet this is the same group that says we must wash eggs before we sell them.

Why?  Because we as consumers can't be trusted to safely handle the eggs and we'll contaminate ourselves. In the interest of objectivity an egg does come from the chicken's vent.  The vent is used to expel everything from the chicken.  So the outer shell of the egg is contaminated when it comes out.  This is important to note, the outer shell is contaminated not the inner shell or the albumen or the yolk.

Sometimes our eggs do have particulate matter on them but because of the bloom it does not come in contact with the inside of the egg.  Can an unwashed egg make some one sick if not handled correctly? YES, it can.  Will it make us sick if it is handled properly, NO. Is it hard to safely handle an unwashed egg, no. Wash the egg and your hands before use and your fine.  Chicken itself can cause more cross contamination and illness than a dirty egg but I digress.

I'm sure I'll wrap my head around this someday but until then I'll keep raising chickens for their eggs.  For the record we are a registered egg producer and all the eggs we sell are washed per regulations.  The eggs we keep for ourselves are not. 

Eat safe fresh vegetables purchased from a local farmer, not a chain hard selling that fact.


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