Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Free Range might not be

When you hear the term “Free Range” the natural thought is grass.  However, given the definition brought about by lobbyist, free range means “access to” the outdoors.  Access to what is the question?  In some cases, access leads to cement pads.  Cement pads that are not big enough to hold all the chickens in the house. 

On the other hand, they actually get to step on dirt surrounded by a fence.  No grass, because chickens are hard on soil and if you confine them to the same space the grass cannot recover.  As long as the building has a door and the door can open the producer can call their product free-range.  USDA for their part is trying to redefine the term and add the amount of time the animal has to be outside in order to combat the unscrupulous. 

Done correctly chickens are tremendously beneficial to the soil.  They cut down on bug populations and they leave fertilizer behind.  The industrial food complex has seized on the USDA definition, raised their prices, calling the chicken “free range” when the chicken most likely has never set foot outside, or even came close enough to the door to get fresh air.  You go into these large poultry houses and the smells can be overwhelming with ammonia being most prevalent.  It is the environment that they live in that causes the need for anti-biotic and other medicines

How we free range as well as other small farmers is to let the bird out of the house at sunrise and then close the door at sunset.  Once the chickens know where their roost is located, they will come home.  Provided there has been no predation.  Predation is one of the major problems with free range.  There are the natural night predators that people know about, fox, owls, opossum, raccoons, coyotes, bears and others depending on the location.  If your structure is sound you will not loose chickens at night, or at least we have never lost any at night.

Our losses have all come during the daytime and there are two reasons, dogs and hawks.  Since we got Coadee, the dog attacks have stopped.  The hawks on the other hand she is hit or miss with.  I have seen her chase hawks barking as she runs after them.  Then we have lost one or two while we have had her.  As with every problem research and knowledge gathering came into play.  I found that hanging CD’s up deters hawks.  I called around and verified that yes indeed, hawks have acute eyesight and the reflections glinting off the CD’s bother them, so they tend to stay away from those areas.

Besides making the place look sparkling, we have not lost birds to any hawks.  We have moved fifty more out on grass but kept them in the barn too long.  How do I know this, the birds are not coming outside of their new home.  The other day we did a forced evacuation but as soon as all were out of the trailer, they started to head right back inside.  It was cold but the sun was out still one by one they all went back into the shelter.  It has been three days and we might have ten outside. 

Chickens are like that, they get use to an environment and they tend to stay with what makes them comfortable.  That is why “having access to,” is so ridiculous.  Chickens last maybe eight weeks before processing.  If they have not gotten out by the fourth week, they are not going to be true free range.  Unless of course we are talking about layers, given enough time and we will be chasing them back into the pen just like every other flock we have ever had.  It is a familiar pattern but one that stills brings delight while watching them explore and get use to the great outdoors.  That and Fer Coadee.  They have known Fer Coadee since they got on the farm as day-olds.  The peeps have seen her everyday twice a day since October.  They do not know what she is there for but once they get outside the fence, of their pen, they will quickly learn. 

Coadee enforces the boarders and keeps the layers close.  As an added bonus, Coadee gives them a complete checkup before letting them go back to pen.  Okay, she may be licking all over them and feeling their skin and feet but I prefer to see it as a health check.  The layers see it as a reason to stay inside the pen.

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Anger Management

We are a humane farm, which means we treat our animals with kindness, care and respect.  This philosophy extends to the chickens own community.  We think there should be peace and harmony in our chicken flocks.  They all grew up together; they are in the same pasture together and roost in the same houses together.  We have them living in plenty of space, more than four square feet per bird when housed and much greater than that when out doors.  We do keep them in moveable fencing to keep predators out and them safe.  Sometimes it works; unfortunately, we have learned that sometimes it does not.  Our chickens have plenty of access to food and water and we provide shade and fans during the hottest parts of the season.

If a chicken pulls up lame, everything we have read points to management as the problem.  Like excessive pecking is caused by competition for resources such as food, water or space.  Soft egg shells indicates there is a calcium deficiency in the food source, which correlates to us not getting the feed mix right; and too cold or too hot and egg production drops and so on.  Fortunately, the problems we do create we find quickly and fix, but what we read was right.  Most problems we have had with chickens could be traced back to our management or lack of attention.  You look for consistency in all facets of their existence.  If anything is inconsistent, it usually is an indication of the start of a problem.

Every so often, a fight breaks out or one chicken will start pecking another, which is their nature.  There is a pecking order but we discourage this behavior from the time they are chicks.  We only have about two hundred birds at any one time.  We do not de-beak because that is cruel and it works against the chicken and the goals of raising chicks.  A de-beaked bird will spend more energy eating and wasting food than a bird with a full beak, and that energy could be going toward laying eggs or gaining weight.  We do not clip their wings either; we let them fly as much as they can.  Once they get to a certain weight, their wings cannot sustain them in flight but they try to fly just the same and it is a fun thing to watch when they all get going.

How we deal with pecking and rough housing is to yell.  This startles all of them but it is directed at the antagonist, which usually gets her attention, and given the attention span of a chicken is long enough for the tormented one to get away.  Seldom is there a prolonged problem.  I yell" HEY," usually followed by "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" with a loud voice, deep timber and baratone measure.  They hear the volume, timber, tone and that gets their attention.  The combatants, stop briefly enough, look towards the sound and forget what they were doing.  They do have chicken brains so, once distracted they go on to something else. 

My neighbors on the other hand just hear me yelling.  Not knowing what I am yelling at or why but, they too hear the volume and tone.  It does not help that we are on the top of knoll and there is an echo.  I have never been asked by a neighbor but, I cannot help but speculate that my neighbors must be thinking, "man, they need anger management classes.”

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Animal husbandry

My admiration and adulation goes out to all of those farmers that have big animals and do it humanely.  To me, anything bigger than a chicken is a big animal.  Well, maybe except for pigmy goats.  The knowledge big animal farmers have to possess and dedication is daunting and to do it all humanely amazes me about them.  The dedication alone makes me think what I do is just playing.  I know I am not but by comparison, I am a babe in the woods. 

When you choose to be a humane farm, in my opinion, that choice is made from one of two motivations; one is reason the other is emotion.  Reason looks at the facts of animal production and takes into account, taste, productivity, health, environmental impact, total cost, rate of return on your investment and workload.  Then there is the emotional decision.  You take into account the health of all the animals, you anthropomorphize to a certain extent and you want to make their brief existence on this earth as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.  Unstressed animals taste better and they need no or minimal drugs because of the healthy environment.  No matter what motivation drives the choice, both ultimately benefit, people, animals and the environment.      

I think when reason comes into play there is less angst when dealing with mortality.  Having talked to colleagues and reading posts here, I know there is grief no matter how slight.  I can see it in the words we all use when describing the loss, be it to slaughter, age and illness or shear economics.  Even with reason your heart is in it, because with reason comes compassion and with compassion comes some amount of strings attached to the heart that will be tugged.  

I am not a mental giant but, I can clearly claim I fall into the emotional category.  Mortality was and still is my biggest hurtle.  I did not want any animals, at all, because I knew that the mortality, for whatever reason was going to fall on my shoulders.  Whether it was just to bury an expired animal or having to put one down to relieve its misery or worse yet taking the life because of economic reasons, I was against the notion.  We did eventually get into animal husbandry as has been chronicled in our blog.  As I age and mature, in my new role, I can say that my heart is not hardening but that I am getting less unsettled when dealing with mortality.  It still takes a toll and I am reminded of Dr. Temple Grandin’s statement that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.”  We fall way short of anything close to that but the thought is there.

I will tell you we currently have four pet chickens out of the forty we have.  These four are the oldest and no longer produce eggs.  I cannot bring myself to take them to be processed.  What got us through the first culling was we knew that the last thing the chickens would do was feed the less fortunate and homeless (see Spent Layers and Humane Farming).  These four I just cannot do it, they trust us to keep them safe.  I know what I just said, but when you walk up to most chickens they are going to run from you.  With some if you can get a hand on them they will squat.  I have been told this is an instinctual act dealing with reproduction.  Having observed the rooster in action, I can see their point, but the rooster has to catch them first and get a good grip before the submissive behavior takes place.   

With these four, when I walk up to them they squat and wait to be picked up.  Even if all I am doing is bringing them food or water.  If I come into the pen and one is around me she raises her shoulders out from her body and lowers her body closer to the ground.  To me that is an indication of trust.  If a chicken runs from you, we would associate that behavior with fear.  If they stay and let you pick them up would we associate that behavior with trust?

When we take a tour of kids around the farm they are my go-to girls.  I can walk up to one pick her up and let them see a chicken up close and personal.  The hen stays calm without throwing a fuss and lets the children pet or touch her.  I will talk about the hen and point out the waddle, comb, beak, nostrils and ears.  I skip the vent unless asked “where do the eggs come out?”.  I will then point to the hen’s ear and tell them that is how you can tell what color egg they will lay.  I usually get responses from the parents at that point in time because it is a fascinating tidbit.  Education is a big part of our mission.

No matter why a person decides to be a humane farm the practice is good for the animal, good for the environment and healthy for the consumer.  As for the farmer, I think that the practices make us all feel good.  Once again that giving back aspect makes a person feel good.  By providing open spaces, natural grazing and comfortable living conditions we benefit from production, the animals thrive and the environment recovers naturally.


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Herding Chickens

We've lost more chickens in these past two months then we have in any other contiguous 60 day period.  I guess we are lucky though, we almost got to three years before having to deal with our first large casualty loss. Fortunately, we know why, we know how and we are trying our best to reverse the course.

We've lost eight productive layers, two to a combination of age and sub-freezing temperatures (I know your asking, how they can be old and be productive egg layers? But, they were and that’s the cool thing about RIR.  They lay prolifically the first two years, as do most chickens, but then they start to decline as do most chickens, but not as fast.  So, instead of getting an egg a day, you get an egg every other day or every three days.  They just keep laying.)  

We were told that the kind of hawks we have need a nice glide path to get to their prey.  So with that in mind we try to place the pen with as many obstacles around the radius as possible. Within a week we lost six of the youngest because they got to be too free range.  We have landscaping such that we can provide between one-hundred and eighty and two-hundred and seventy degrees of tree cover for the hen houses and fencing. 

For three years that has worked.  This past winter though we got over six feet of snow, although it melted within three weeks the third flock got use to having no fence.  Now they just fly over the net and really roam free and it is a problem on two levels, safety and nutrient management.   Safety hit home Saturday morning.  We were heading out to plant and I saw a large clump of feathers.  By the time we got to the production garden we saw three more piles of feathers.  Before closing them up that night we took count and came up two short.   The next three days four more were picked off by a family of hawks.  They weren't getting the chickens in the pen, they were picking off hens that were roaming free.

We put up seven foot deer netting around the pen in an effort to keep them in.  We knew they could fly but clearing a seven foot fence, we thought was out of the question.  That worked for less than twenty-four hours.  Much to our amazement they flew up to the top of the netting balanced themselves, then flew away from the pen.  If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I just stood there slack jawed.  We were left with cutting their wings.  They are not debeaked and they looked like they enjoyed the little flights they took so the decision was not made lightly.  Then again when it comes to death the feathers can be sacrificed.  For the most part the hens tend to stick inside the pen.  There were at least nine so now we are down to three.  If we could keep the three in thew pen that would be great.

The other problem, but slight when compared, is keeping them concentrated in one area to maximize their soil nutrient potential.  We rely on them to provide the right amount of nutrients per square foot of space they occupy.  If they are roaming all over the place they are fertilizing all over the place.  When contained, they are on grass for a couple of days then moved to fresh grass.  Because the root system is not deep when the chickens get moved onto new grasses they eat the rye and hairy vetch and tear the ground apart scratching and digging.  We are left with fine loamy soil that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.

There are those three that just refuse to stay and we’ve marked them as the “Three Stooges”.  Each time they get out we would clip there wings and put them back.  After about three days of this we decided on behavioral conditioning.  If they flew out they got put in the barn stall with food and water.  We kept them there for a couple days and then put them back with the flock.  Our hope was to get them to dislike the barn and want to stay outside.

First day back outside they lasted maybe an hour in the pen.  Even though we have a lot of RIR we’ve only clipped the wings of three birds, so they are kind of easy to tell apart from the others.  The first one came out, she got her wing clipped a little more and placed in the barn.  Then we found another out of the pen by the strawberries.  We did the same thing, clipped a little bit more of the feathers and placed her in the barn stall.  A bit later as I was working in the barn the third stooge showed up.  I kid you not; I heard the clucking, turned around to see the last one inside walking to the stall.  I opened the stall door and she just walked in and joined Mo and Larry.  So much for behavioral conditioning and trying to change them. 

So by losing eight birds our egg production has dropped an average of six eggs a day.  Every two days we lose a dozen eggs, which hurts.  However, to date it seems our effort in protecting the birds is paying off.  We have not lost any more hens but you never really know until you count them at night and close the door.  Of course we still have three that are potential hawk food but we are trying our darnedest to stop that from happening.

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Why I should stick to growing Or

Go with your Strengths

We had started year three of our growing in a good position.  We were using crop rotation and still figuring out the irrigation system but we felt good about our knowledge.  The deer were still beating us on the blue berries but the strawberries were coming on strong and sweet.  The barn was holding up but was showing its age.  It was built in the 1950's as a dairy barn.  We didn't have the money or the experience to do anything major with it so we kept an eye on it, making it water tight and let it go until the future.

I am not a handyman or a “mister fix it” by any standard.  If fixing means tearing down or destroying then I’m great at it.  One of the first successes I had as a handyman came when we were able to open the barn doors in the back of the building, that the previous owner had boarded up.  The second success came when I built new doors and was able to hang and close the barn back up, mostly.  My first mistake in the project came when we closed the doors for the first time.  We had measured the opening and made the doors from plywood and wood trimming.  Once hung and closed we realized the doors weren't wide enough to cover the entire opening of the barn.  You know, I measured twice but I was not the only one doing the construction.  However, pointing fingers never moves you in the right direction so why dwell about fault.

I added wings to the doors and sure enough there was no opening to allow small critters inside.  So that success started me thinking about other small projects.  Like a moveable, self contained, floorless chicken house and pen, one large enough to hold twenty-five birds.

It has since been referred to as both the Spruce Goose and the Titanic, neither names invoking any thing other then abject failure. But I digress.  I've never been good with building things as a matter of fact I excel at the complete opposite.  I learned earlier on that destruction was my forte.  I've put holes in cinderblock walls with a sledge hammer in order to place in a doorway. I’ve torn down shacks with crow bars and sledge hammers.  I can tear things apart with the ease of an expert.  Putting things back together though I'm the kind of person that has spare parts when everything is completed.  I'm much more comfortable bringing down a dead thirty foot oak tree than I am cutting a forty-five degree angle for chair molding.  Even though I knew I was not a handyman I tried to build the moveable pen.

We started out with six birds and bought our first hen house.  It is a great little moveable house and pen.  It is completely self sufficient.  It has water, food, nesting boxes, roosts, bare floor and a small enclosed yard.  It is called a Henspa.  It was more than we wanted to spend but we bit the dust and placed the order. 

The house was small and would hold up to twelve hens though nine is more hospitable.  With green manures and winter cover cropping we had plenty of fresh grass for the hens to eat.  We could put the house in our gardens and move it every other day.  The hens got fresh grass and the garden got nutrients for the coming growing season.  For the first year this worked well but we had more orders for eggs then we had capacity.  It was nice having a waiting list but we needed to add to the hen population.

I started drawing the new, bigger portable pen a year before we started building.  It would have everything that the other house had but this would hold twenty-five birds, comfortably.  So I took the dimensions of the real house and scaled it up to handle the increase in hens. Most of you are already getting the picture.  I think the only thing I can say is that I didn't rush into things.  I drew up the plans with measurements from all sides, heights, widths, lengths, floor plans, nesting boxes and roosting poles, egg door and outside pen.  I had all my drawings (14 different views with measurements of various sections) and a materials list before purchasing a single screw.  I was on top of the project.

We cut all the pieces of wood and started assembling them.  Adding sides to other sides it started taking shape. We got the nesting box and egg door in, the second floor and roosts, wheels and pulley system and feed box.  We pulled it out of the barn to put the roof on.  I can't begin to document all the failures and in what order they took place.  All I remember is that I would fix one thing and another thing would break.  But, being one that doesn't give up easily,  I would fix the next problem only to encounter another.  So on its maiden voyage it hit ground and a support pole broke on the wheel mechanism and it sank into the ground (think Titanic).  I then heaved up the wheels and support beams that would carry the whole box.  I fortified pullys,  cables and support hooks.

On its second maiden voyage we pushed the lever down to lift the box up off the ground, and on its wheels, but we couldn't get enough clearance to move the box off the ground (think Spruce Goose).  After two years and five hundred dollars in materials (at least that is what my accountant says, and if I wasn't married to her I would've questioned her book keeping skills) I've somewhat given up on it.   When asked about it I joke that it was designed by the "Three Stooges" and built by "Fred Flinstone".

It sits out by the barn mostly built, no roof, no pen, no handles on the egg door; it just sits there and mocks me.  I may have stopped tinkering with it and often think about accidentally setting it on fire when weeding but I'm not just ready yet to give up on it.  Besides, it’s been holding up pretty well these past few years.

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Broody Picks a New Home

Our second flock of layers has a broody chicken.  She's actually gone broody two times this year.  Although breaking them of broodiness is not that hard it is still a change to all concerned.  You need to isolate them and make sure they have plenty of food and water.  The most important thing after that is to make sure they don't have an egg to sit on.  A broody hen will not lay eggs while brooding so you don't have to worry about her.  Isolating her makes sure other hens don't take advantage of her broodiness by dropping eggs in her nest. 

We took Broody out of the nesting box in flock two and placed her in the hospital pen setup in a stall in the barn.  The isolation process can take anywhere from five to ten days.  When a broody hen starts laying eggs you'll know that you have broken them of the broodiness and it is time to introduce them back to the flock.

In the past we've let the hens acclimate themselves.  We'd open the barn door and let her come out when she choose.  Sometimes it would take a couple days but eventually they come out preferring the outdoors to the pen.  The last two times we've done this the hen actually went back to her flock on her own.  This time however, Broody would come out of the barn but at night she would return to the hospital pen.  We thought, ok, she's confused and doesn't know to go back to her flock.  We seem to always rationalize their behavior but we never ask them to confirm our suspicion.

We then decided that she was going to have to be re-introduced to her old flock.  From the start we encountered stiff opposition from her mates.  When we put Broody in the pen they just started squaring off and no amount of yelling or screaming seemed to break it up.  I found that I needed to get physically in between them in order to settle them down.  Our first day of re-introducing Broody to flock two (her original flock) went something like the chicken version of a gang fight. Only Broody was a one hen gang.  I was in the pen for about an hour staying between Broody and the combatants.  I was getting tired of standing there and frustrated by all the fights so I gave up and took Broody out of the pen and let her roam the grounds.

At dusk she went back to the barn and settled into the hospital pen.  This went on for another two days.  I decided to try again but this time put her in with flock one.  It is the smallest and oldest of all the flocks so I figured there were less hens and being more mature would not cause trouble.  I took Broody in my arms and went into the pen.  I walked her around so the other hens could see her.  The whole time I'm saying shish to calm them.  I set her down and before I could get out of the pen the pecking order was being strictly enforced.

This time I decided to place the trouble makers out side of the pen and let them roam.  Much to my surprise after two hens were ejected the flock was at peace.  The two banished layers stayed outside the fence and foraged far and wide.  For the rest of the day there was harmony among the flocks.

As dusk took hold the hens started heading to bed.  I knew I was going to have to go looking for the trouble makers so I went out to search before day light vanished.  I went to the barn first to see if Broody was on her perch.  No Broody.  Okay, she's probably out back.  I left the door open and went to close up the closest flock.  We usually count the hens before locking up for the night and the second flock was all accounted for.  I try to get them to count off but they just refuse. 

Flock three was all accounted for and I headed to the last house.  At this time I'm starting to worry, Broody is no where in sight and I can't hear a sound from the banished.

I look in the last house and shine my light on the roosting polls.  The two banished hens came back from exploring and were quietly perched ready for sleep.  On the other end in the corner to my surprise perched Broody.  Everyone was settled in and ready for the night so I closed the door.

That was three days ago.  At night she sleeps with flock one.  During the day she flies the coop, roams and lays her egg in the barn. At night she goes back into the coop to sleep.   We're trying to figure out how to break the egg laying habit but we figure one change at a time.

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Broody is broody again

We are learning, we have learned and we will continue to learn.  Our knowledge comes from reading, talking to others, working and observing.  Like on Saturday we observed that Broody was back sitting in her nesting box.  Then we observed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the same thing.

This is a natural occurance for chickens sometimes they go broody.  We've only been raising hens for three years so we don't have a lot of experience.  However, we have faced broodiness before so we sorta know what we are doing.  In all the books that we've read I don't remember if they talked about a broody hen going broody twice in the same year.

I did observe something I hadn't noticed before.  When a chicken is broody the last thing you want to do is let her sit on an egg.  Everything that we've read says to take eggs from her.  You don't want to encourage the behavior so taking the eggs gives her nothing to hatch.

Chickens will lay one egg every 25 hours, give or take, on Sunday we took the egg from under her.  Monday when we checked she was in the same nesting box but there were two eggs.  I took them, my glimer of hope was the two eggs in the box.  She had laid one (broody chickens do not) and she was out of the box long enough for another chicken to lay her egg.

Getting a broody chicken out of our nesting box is pretty hard due to the design of the nest and access to it.  So, we put off getting her out until we were sure she really was broody.  Tuesday when we checked she had three eggs under her and we took them.  She was still in the same box though.  Wednesday morning I looked in the box for eggs and saw two under Broody and one in the middle box.  Broody was still nesting in the third box farthest from the opening.  I thought once again she had laid, gotten out of the box and another hen laid her own egg.  I went about the day's chores and kept the chicken pen within site.  The day progressed with no sight of Broody.  By late afternoon I had decided to check the nesting boxes again.

I looked in and Broody was still in the third nest facing the back.  Yet, she had another two eggs under her and it dawned on me.  She wasn't laying and she wasn't getting out of the nest.  The other chickens must know she is broody.  They are nesting in her box and laying their eggs for her to hatch.  Four eggs on Wednesday and three the day before that.  She hadn't left the nest at all and she wasn't laying.   There is no way a chicken can move an egg in our nesting boxes.  The floor is on a decline from front to back, with a back wall high enough to let the egg roll underneath and in a holding area.  These were all under her front wings.

We decided that it was time to get her out of the nesting box and into the barn.  This is not a stress free process for the bird or us.  I eventualy got her out and headed for the barn.  While we were walking I took the liberty to feel her abdomen and lower fluff by the vent.  No hard object or abnormal feeling of the large intenstines.  She was just broody again.  Broody is in he barn digging holes for nests and sitting on non-existant eggs.  She's got plenty of fresh water and mash to eat.  So far she's still in the barn, day seven and counting.  We'll let you know how it goes.

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