Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Minus Four Degrees

“We only have chickens,” that is what I keep repeating to myself as we work each day in the snow covered landscape that has become the chickens grazing grounds.   In Maryland we are use to more green than white.  Chickens eat twice as much food, if not more, when the temperatures drop, which led to a shortage of feed.  There has been little melt so I am now debating on whether to remove snow from around their houses so they can get to some green.  The ground immediately around their houses is frozen, brown and dotted with chicken droppings.

Chickens do get frostbite just like humans, their waddles, combs and bottom of their feet are mainly susceptible to frigid temperatures.  We selected Rhode Island Reds for two reason’s they are a recovering species on the Nature Conservancy List and they are hearty winter birds, hearty enough for Rhode Island’s weather.  We have taken necessary precautions and done the best we can.  There is only so much you can do before nature takes over, which is the angst producing part.  Eggs laid closest to the doors often freeze and break, tempting the birds to peck at them.

Being a humane farm is better for the animal, its workers and the product produced.  The eggs are selling well and we need to step up supply.  We have twenty-five new layers getting ready to start to lay.  We got a call not to long ago from a customer that was very appreciative of our eggs stating they are the best he has ever tasted.  I have kept that voice mail for it is cherished, humbling and fortifying for our mission.  However, being a humane farm at times like these is physically and mentally exhausting, expensive and dangerous.  Yet gratifing and uplifting when we make it through another day. 

There is Fer Coadee, added to this sub-freezing weather.  With the chickens closed for the night, she gets to come in.  During the day, we have had temperatures and wind chills in the single and minus range.  Coadee is a longhair English Sheppard; she has a doghouse loaded with straw and pine shavings.  I know she uses it, because I see her emerge when I come home.  That still does not ease my mind; I already know that I tend to anthropomorphize so I work extra hard convincing myself that she is okay and will be okay until we get home.

Once home she is the first to be inspected for sign of frostbite or ice stuck between her toes, then I go out to the birds.  We have three horse trailers that hold all the birds; each house has a heated water bucket, light and heat lamp.  We use an intelligent plug that turns on when the temperature drops to 34 and goes off when it hits 42.  That saves on electricity but if you never get to 42 the heat lamp stays on which drives costs up.  

Last Tuesday the real temperature was minus four degrees without winds.  I was able to stay home and waited until around noon.  It was still freezing out, but the trailers are not large enough (given humane standards) for all the birds to walk around inside.  I went out and opened the door’s wide enough for a chicken to exit and secured them in place.  It was a very bright day so I was not concerned as much about hawks as I was dogs.  Every so often Coadee would go out and watch the birds.  For their part, the birds would come out look around and go back inside.  As more ground shows the foray outdoors gets, extended.  They are no dummies, they know it is cold and the house gives them reprieve.  The upside is once I feed them they all come in and I can close them up for the night and I can end my day earlier.  We do not have it as bad as the ranchers that lost so many of their animals in the blizzards.  As I said we only have chickens, however, when I read something like that it hits home and my heart and prayers go out to them.

Remember the next time you are at a farmers market, it might be bright, sunny and warm but right now as I write this, it is minus four degrees(outside). 

Buy Local: It might be the only choice our future generations have.

Pearl of Wisdom: When you are holding a basket with 50 eggs in it, do not throw the Frisbee for the dog.


Delighting both child and adult!

Rhode Island Red

We have been raising RIR layers since 2005, we picked them because we learned they are a recovering species, and known as a dual bird, used for their meat or eggs the bird is great for homesteading.  They just take longer to get to their revenue generating stage.  They take longer to start laying eggs and for the males to get up to weight as apposed to their crossbred cousins.  Hence, their demise as production birds for the masses and their near extinction on farms.

We found all of their traits to be true.  We also found that the meat bird might be small but it is flavorful.  Moreover, once they start to lay they are prolific layers.  They lay an egg every twenty-five hours or so and they do this for about three years.  They then start to decline from one a day to one every two, then one for every three and so on.

By the fifth year they pretty much stop laying and this is were the worst part of farming comes into play.  I have chronicled coming to terms with processing meat birds, and the layers.  Meat bird are around a lot less time then layers.  Meat birds are only around for ten to twelve weeks and although I work with them, everyday I do not get as attached.  That is because the meat bird never gets over the skittishness.

Behaviorally, the layers go the opposite direction, once they start to lay.  I was giving a tour when one of them jumped up on my shoulder, it was the first and only time that happened but it was proof that they get over their shyness.  When the layers see you coming one will start running towards you with this funny little waddle of a gate.  Another will see the first one and start to run, then the rest will come, some will flap their wings and take flight (if you call being six inches off the ground and cover a distance of three feet flying) but it is the cutest sight and no matter the situation just brings a smile to your face.

By the second year, they not only come up to you, but they squat down to be picked up, they jump on the tractor and ATV and ride with you.  Here is a picture of one on the ATV

I took a couple of pictures and then decided to see if it would ride with me to go feed her family.  I did not think fast enough because I could have taken a video.  I will be prepared next time, but I did take a couple of shots while we were moving.  She stayed on until I got around the barn then she decided the ride was over.  Yes, they are skittish at first, however when giving tours the older ones are at their best while delighting both child and adult. 

Buy Local: Buy non-gmo, chemically free food for your health and that of the land.


Things to Consider for Urban Chicken Farmers

The Backyard Chicken Farmer

There has been news articles recently about how municipal and private animal rescue offices are being inundated with chickens that backyard enthusiast have abandoned. 

One story was about roosters and how when people order from hatcheries they think they are getting laying hens.  However, like us, they find there is no one hundred percent sexing of baby chicks.  By the time, they know it is a rooster it is too late.  Roosters for all their country charm are loud, sometimes aggressive and during certain periods can really harm the hens if there are not enough in the flock to keep him occupied, which in the case of the backyard chicken farmers is always the case.  Most municipalities are changing their laws to allow for small flocks.  There is nothing like eating something that you had a hand in producing.  I can see the growing popularity of backyard flocks as I first started to notice the trend in 2009.

With chickens, things can go wrong quickly if you are not prepared.  It appears to be an easy setup at first glance, a secure house, green grass, access to water and food and you are good to go.  Then winter sets in, it gets cold, you need to heat the house, or you get a rooster or the hen lives past its laying capability, or the neighbor’s dog injures it.  Most people fail to anticipate these possibilities that come with a farm animal.  If that happens reactive behavior takes place which can and sometimes does lead to unexpected consequences.  When things go wrong people scramble to find answers to their problems one of which is to drop the bird off at the local shelter. 

In this situation, we have the good with the bad; I can understand the people that drop the chickens off, processing and euthanasia are the hardest, heartbreaking decisions you have to make on the farm.  Most people do not get that far in their thought process.  We on the other hand knew going into the growing business that we were not going to do animals.  Funny how things change. 

I was against it from the start, because I knew it was going to be me that dealt with injuries from attacks, health issues and most importantly making a decision to end the life of the animal and carry it out.  Whether that decision was based on health or end of useful life and or processing I was the person that would need to step up and do what needed to be done.  I can tell you if you are a caring person, you will feel remorse. 

So if you are thinking about getting a backyard flock, find a local farm near you, at least you will be prepared to take it somewhere where it can be useful, of course ask the farmer first, don’t just drop it off and leave.  That happens and is extremely cruel to the bird.  The best thing to do is find a processor in the area and then take the birds to the local soup kitchen.  That way you help someone in need and the bird does not go to waste.

Buy Local:  By doing so, you really are saving the planet.  I would not lie to you



Things happen

I guess I jinxed myself.  I do tempt fate, as it were, but I think that is standard operating procedure for anyone who tries to make a living growing food.  We got into a new market that is willing to take our eggs. 

Just in time, coincidentally, for the layers to slow down production in keeping with the loss of day light hours.  We thought we could deliver about ten dozen a week.  They originally asked for one hundred and twenty, so I had to temper expectations on one hand, while at the same time, plan for expansion in the other. 

Then the layers dropped down to about five eggs a day, about the same time we started losing birds to a hawk.  Coadee was outside but we still lost them.  We started putting her on a lead by her house.  But that was not happening all the time and I got lazy about making her stay around the chickens.  The other problem was we lost Floppy.  She was the oldest layer and was the one that would warn the others when danger was in the air.

I got to the point, with Coadee, were I would put bailing twine under her collar and attach the other end to a pole outside of her house.  All she has to do is walk away and the rope would come out from under her collar.  The thought was she would stay until an intrusion.  Which she actually does, except, this practice was not a daily ritual.  So when a hawk landed on a barren tree outside of the chicken pen, Coadee was not around to distract and run it off and Floppy was not there to screach.

Today, I just happen to go outside, Coadee comes around the house and we head to the pen.  I wanted to close the door of the chicken house to keep heat in the house.  I climbed over the electric fence and saw a grey hawk on top of what I presumed to be a dead layer.  I immediately started throwing things at the bird.  None of which seem to phase it.  I throw a rod, chicken wire, wood blocks (2) and an orange peg.  The only thing that scared it off was a large block of wood used as a chock for the wheel on the chicken trailer. 

It flew into the trees near its catch.  I went to the house to retrieve my gun.  The dog for some reason was aware but was not barking or trying to distract the bird.  I do not think she knew really what was going on, or I was too distracted with the task at hand but she was not the dog I had seen before.

I returned with the rifle saw the bird in the tree and aimed at the bottom of the tree.  I fired, it flew to another tree, I fired it flew further away; I just kept that up until it was gone.  Hawks are a federally protected species as well as it being illegal in the state of Maryland to kill a hawk so I did the next best thing. 

I then turned my attention to the layer.  I picked her up, took her over to the compost pile and correctly composted her.  With each and every one we thank them and return them to the earth that nourished them so that they can in turn nourish the earth.  It makes me feel humane, in light of my failure to provide a safe humane existence for my charge. You learn when growing food that things happen.           

 Buy Local:  Make sure your farmer is real, there are imposters.


Okay, so I am a hypocrite

We closed last year’s books and, as was documented here, it was brutal.  Just like investment portfolio’s we have to diversify further.  I do not think the average American understands how difficult being a small farm can be.  However, I cannot help but think agriculture is in everyone’s blood.  We were an agrarian society not too long ago.  How else can you explain a billion dollar home gardening industry?  Whether you are planting annuals and perennials around your house or plant a vegetable garden you are working the soil.  For the longest time I introduced myself as a large gardener.  I still have reservations about the moniker of farmer because I have too much deference for those that do it full-time.

When you have invasive species, (BMSB) that destroy crops being small makes losses greater,.  You need to diversify in order to protect overall income if you are a small farm.  However, being small can magnify your losses when you suffer damage in those diversified crops too.  We thought by adding fruits, jams, honey and cooking classes that we were diversified enough to avoid the devastation of this past year.  We have learned we were not.

There is a tremendous unmet demand for humanely raised, free range, organic chicken in our area.  Given that demand, we have decided to get into the meat bird market.  We will start with about fifty total.  We tried to diversify with fruits, vegetables and eggs but last year taught us that true diversification is not just different fruits and vegetables.  It is animals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, honey, cooking classes and agra-tainment.  Using the financial portfolio analogy it is mixing risky and non-risky activities to offset down turns in one or the other sectors.

Humanely raised free range, organic chickens seem to be one of the ways to augment the fruit and vegetable side.  It has taken us nine years to get to this point.  It has been an arduous journey and emotional roller coaster.  I am not proud of this decision; I make it knowing that we need to survive economically.  I know what I have written before and I do feel like a hypocrite.  However, I did put my money, energy and time where my mouth was but we have no options left if we are going to be economically sustainable.

We grow the best we can, and price so that we get a small profit after expenses.  If we had 100 acres of corn and the BSMB attacked the outside perimeter closest to the tree line (according to current research), we would have harvested more than sixty percent.  However, because we had less land, the bugs overwhelmed what we did plant and left us with nothing.  Sales in spring crops and late fall crops helped us lessen the loss but we ended up with a net loss for the season.

Polling took place of our customer base asking if humanely raised free range organic chickens would be something they would consider purchasing from us.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive.  The cost/revenue analysis looks promising once we reach the break-even point on startup costs.  We are not going to process them we are taking them to a humane processing facility.  I do not know what to say or what to expect.  I told my wife I would try this one and see how it goes.  I look upon this next step as part of my own maturation process as a small farmer.  Nevertheless, there is this small voice still inside me screaming to fight to remain a viable vegetable operation and leave animals out.  Given what we have learned of the BMSB they are here to stay and either, we fold or role with what we are given. 

In order to sell to markets and restaurants, we need certification for on farm processing.  We have to submit, plans, process flows, contamination points, process controls and measurement frequency rates and other actions.  Then during the day of processing do everything you said you would do in the documentation.  There is great demand for free-range chicken and rabbit meat.  Each will meet certified organic status.  Our processing certification covers both animals.  It is a fundamental change but one that will keep us sustainable.  In the mean time:

Buy Local: Support your community farmer or start a garden, even if it is two vegetables, it will be worth the satisfaction.



Humane Farming and the Neighbor's Dog

Are you still considered a humane farm if you shoot your neighbors’ dog for eating your layers?  We lost two of our newest layers on Christmas Day and two from the second youngest group, two days later.  It seems that the attacks are from a dog and because we live in a relatively populated area, our thought is that it is a neighbor's dog.

Once again, the hens that stayed inside the pens were not hurt.  We had one layer from the newest group that would fly out of the pen but would not fly back in at sundown.  When we got home from our real job, I would walk out in her direction and this hen would start walking towards me.  When we met up, she would just hunker down I would scoop her up and put her in the crook of my arm.  She would just be cooing away as I walked back to the pen and house.  She was content to have the ride and body warmth.  Once in the pen she would then go into the house and I would close the door.  I no longer have to look out for her; she is one of the missing.

We have already gone through a dog attack and nursed four injured birds back to health and laying eggs.  We had to take them out of "organic" status but it still made us feel good that we could nurse them back to health.  That time when I saw the dog, I got my gun and had the dog in the cross hairs of my scope.  I just could not pull the trigger and when I did, I aimed in front to scare the dog.

I shot so that dirt would kick up and startle the dog off.  We knew who the owner was but we had not really met these people.  I went and stopped by their house to talk to them.  I introduced our farm and myself and told them how I had seen their dog with one of our chickens.  They were very apologetic and offered to pay for the chickens.  Problem was I did not really know how much we spent on the bird and what revenue loss it represented. I had the statistics just not the costs.  If I focus on cost  much, it gets discouraging.  Therefore, I did not know how much we were out, so I told them that it would not be necessary but that I only ask that they keep their dog on their property.

I explained that County law allowed me to protect my livestock and that I had had a chance to shoot the dog but chose not to, “this time”.  We as humans exhibit micro-expressions.  These are our true feelings coming out as expressions on our face before our brain takes over and governs how we are to react in any given situation.  Nevertheless, there is that split second where you can see the persons’ true feelings, if you are looking.  My statement had the effect I wanted it to have, mainly fear.  Then anger took over and the husband started to get aggressive.   

Remaining calm was my secondary objective; my primary objective was to make them aware and understand the possible consequences.  I wanted them to know that there was a possibility that if they let their dog out, to roam free, it might not come back.  I explained that we are a humane farm and shooting an animal was the last thing we wanted to do, especially knowing it could be a family pet.  As an aside, I said “Each hen lays about eight-hundred eggs in a life time and that we sell a dozen for five-fifty each.  That does not count the cost of feed and care associated with the hen," I added.

This situation was one of those that we had not planned for or thought of way back when we talked about farming.  Like so many other aspects, you just do not know until the situation presents itself.  I flashed back, to a time when I was living in the city.  I remember one Thanksgiving Day, I was sixteen and someone knocked at our front door.  The person turned out to be the owner of a car that had hit my dog.  He had stopped his car, after he hit the dog, to render aid.  He saw the address on his collar realized he was close, came to the house, and told us.  My dog, which was still a puppy, was lying on the lawn five or six houses down.  I went to retrieve him, picked up his soft lifeless body and brought him to the back yard.  I got my dad’s shovel and started digging.  Tears streaming down my face, I lost track of what I was doing because after some time my father came out.  He asked if I was okay.  He knew I was not but seeing what I was doing, he asked if the hole I was digging was deep enough.  At the time I guess my thought was, as long as I kept digging then Chevy would still be with me.  He was under my care and his death was squarely on my shoulders.  He had gotten out underneath the fence where the rainwater culvert was.  I wrapped him in a blanket he used to sleep on and gently put him in the ground.  I carefully put one handful of dirt at a time over top of his small body.  He ended up being the last dog I ever owned.  I did not tell my neighbors this. I just wanted them to think there was the possibility that their dog would be shot if he was caught poaching our chickens.  We have not seen the dog since. 

The indications from the four we lost recently are that of dog attacks.  The rooster had tail feathers missing (which we found on the ground) and what looked like a bite mark.  We found one dead in the pen, which we think was injured outside, but was able to get back inside before she expired.  With hawks, you usually find bunches of feathers and little else.  With a dog you usually find an injured hen or four with more missing.

When presented with the decision before, I could not kill a dog.  If I see it, I will try to catch it to find its owner.  This time I will know and accept compensation.  If I cannot catch the dog and I do not recognize it as being from around here, I will have to face that bridge when I get to it.

 Buy Local: Help build a sustainable, environmentally sound small farm



How to survive 6 feet of snow when you are use to 2 inches

I feel like Burl Ives as the snowman when he opens up Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  The storms that blew in the past couple of weeks were of mythic proportions.  Snow plows were called back in and drifts got as high as six feet.   I’ve read some stories on here that made me cringe with what people have had to do in order to keep livestock alive and somewhat comfortable up north and mid-west. 

You have to understand in Maryland snow is somewhat of a novelty.  It happens occasionally and sometimes we might get a whopping six inches, which will take us days to get out from.  But, for the most part we have mild winters.  This year however, has proven the exception is sometimes the rule.

It started in September, when my wife read a long range ACCU-Weather forecast.  According to the document, Maryland was in for one of its worst winters in recent history.  “Should we stock up on dry goods,” I asked skeptically.   Only to be subjected to an evil stare.  “Okay, smarty, but we’ll have to see what comes of it”.  Famous last words and just two mere weeks ago (in August) we were looking forward to winter.

Those were the good old days, not only have we gotten snow falls but the number of snow falls have increased this year along with the total amount.  It started in November and has not let up.  So the big two and a half foot snow fall that came in February hit us pretty hard.  We had a hard time walking out to the barn.  What usually takes a minute took forty-five minutes to dig our way to the building.  Once we made it to the barn we had to dig the front and back barn doors open.  When I got the tractor started (I had already put the snowplow on) I let it warm up and assessed the situation.

We had already setup the electric and run cables to all the chicken houses.  We had purchased outside junction boxes to plug extension cords in and then run lines to the houses.   We have a forty-six horse power John Deere tractor, which has served us well for the past nine years.  Never in that time did I experience what I was about to face.  The tractor has four-wheel drive and slip differential.  It is equipped for this type of work.  Just not the height of snow we got.  By the time the second blizzard hit the tractor was used more as a battering ram then a snow plow.  I would have taken the blow off and put the bucket on but we couldn’t find the bucket buried under the snow.

I spent a total of fifteen hours on that tractor in the combined snow falls in those seven days.  I was bounced and jostled and at times looked like I was riding a bucking bronco.  My saving grace was the seat belt and roll bar.  By the end of each day the aches and pains made it seem like I was boxing.  Every joint and muscle tissue was screaming at me.

The morning after the first blizzard I pulled the tractor out of the barn and went were the snow would let me.  I couldn’t put the plow down because the tractor would quickly come to a stop from the snow.  I drove where the snow was lowest and tried to get to the driveway and the house.  Try to picture this; we have roughly forty tillable acres of land.  Now on that forty acres of land and under three feet of snow is a little four inch by four inch square that has three electrical outlets.   These outlets serve the hen houses, keeping the water from freezing and providing heat in the sub-freezing temperatures.  

Most of you already know where this is heading and yes out of forty acres covered in three feet of snow I was able to find the electrical junction box with the back tire of the tractor.  It gets better, as I was putting the tractor away for the day I decided to plow around the back of the barn. Hoping I could eliminate the slope that almost tipped the tractor over I started moving snow.  I don’t think of these things until it is too late, but we had power running from the barn to the electrical junction box.  What damage I did to the box paled in comparison to how I plowed the electric cord in half.  After seeing the orange cord lying in a field of white I realized what I did.  Sitting on the tractor after about nine hours of playing bucking bronco, I now had to string new electric to a new junction box, under three feet of snow.  Good thing I ran over the junction box with the tractor and compact the snow into a brick.  Anyone could have followed the cord through soft fluffy snow.  I just can’t win, worse yet I’m standing in sub-freezing temperatures steam pouring out the top of my hat.

I had to trace from the break to the smashed junction box.  All in all it took me another hour to get electricity back to the houses.  By the end of the first day I was exhausted, my poor wife didn’t fair any better.  She shoveled around the houses trying to give the birds some room to roam.  I know technically they are free range, but are they really if all they have is snow to walk on? 

By the time the second storm hit and dropped another two feet of snow we hadn’t really recovered from the first.  We had drifts as high as five feet in some places and other areas looked like they were never touched.  As I was walking out to the barn that evening I fell and when I fell I was completely covered in snow and I couldn’t get up.  No problem, last I looked my wife was coming behind, I thought, so I can use her to get up.  I turned back and didn’t see anything because of the snow.  I stuck my hand up and waved, lifted up on my knees I could see just over the snow edge.  No one was coming and I couldn’t see her anywhere.  Trying my best was not making it.  I would start to get up only to have my low center of gravity work against me.   I was closer to the barn and decided to crawl there.  I had a thought, “I am not calling 911 to have someone come and pick me up.” 

I started crawling towards the barn door, as I got close I felt a large block of compacted snow from the first blizzard.  I lifted myself up and triumphantly rose to my feet and raised my arms in the typical Rocky pose.  I turned around to see my wife staring at me with a look I’ve seen many times.  I was completely covered in snow and what facial features were showing was covered too.  I explained my glee at not having to call the fire department and in her inimitable fashion she patted me on the back and asked if I was ready to continue.  “I had a near death experience,” I explained to her, shouldn’t I be allowed to go back inside and collect myself first?  After a brief chuckle we both headed back to barn to redo everything we had done the day before. 

 We had some damage but not much and did lose one chicken so we got away pretty lucky compared to others.  Snows have melted and I have seen the first peak of strawberry plant coming out of the burlap covering.  I’m starting to get a stronger feeling of anticipation and I’m getting ready to hook the tiller up.  The plans have been set and communicated to our customers.

We’ll hold interviews this coming weekend and decide who will make up this years team.  The days are getting longer and the chickens a little harder to get in at night.  But it seems that things are once again starting to fall into place.


Support Local Agriculture – Find a local farm around you and go take a visit.  Someone will be grateful to see you!!


Winter Setup.

Going into the winter of our first year with the chickens, we were worried that they would freeze. Okay, my wife was, I figured they already had a down coat on, how cold could they get. Besides being on the "Recovering Species" list, Rhode Island Reds were bred in a cold northern climate.  Our research pointed us to birds raised in the northern portion of the nation. The rational was that they are use to the climate and can withstand normal to hard Maryland winters. RIR are good down to below freezing if it drops lower than that, you need to provide some kind of heat source in their house.

One of the most important keys to winter survival for the hen is housing. They need to be in a draft free house in order to maintain body heat. Of course the more birds you have the better able they all are to keep each other warm.  But you can quickly reach a space issue which causes competition, which causes pecking.

The six we had that first winter would crowd very close in order to stay warm. We had what we refer to as the winter setup for the two moveable houses. There is a second floor to the house with the floor being a wire mesh. This allows air circulation and an easy way to clean the leavings from that top part. For colder days there is a tarp that is fit to cover the wire mesh. The tarp is then covered with pine shavings.

Every other day a little more shavings are put in. As the layers of pine shavings build the bottom starts to compost and provides a small amount of heat to the second floor of the pen. We keep a nose out because once you get a slight whiff of ammonia then their environment has become toxic. For the past three years we have been lucky on that account. Their egg production slows a little but it is more a lack of light then it is being too cold for them. 

When it snows like it did this past week (we had close to twenty inches) we move into the second phase of the winter setup.  This entails covering the bottom floor of the inside and the attached outside pen with pine shavings.  We also cover the outside pen with a tarp to break the wind.  These areas too will get the sniff test.  One of the problems with confined housing is the build up of fecal matter and then the corresponding ammonia. 

This type of environment promotes respiratory ailments and other problems that can be fixed with anti-biotic.  In an organic setting, having to give a bird any drugs, hormones or synthetic substances takes it out of certified status.  So we are very careful about smells and the amount of fecal matter in and around the house in general during the winter.  They get fresh litter on the floors at least once a week or more if the house starts to smell anything other than fresh.

Another learning experience for us was the feel of the bottom of a hen’s foot.  On a RIR it is a soft, smooth, leathery feel not a hard pad like a dog or cat would have.  Because of this soft tissue they are susceptible to injury.  If the bottom of the foot gets cut, for any reason, it will usually get infected because they frequently step in fecal matter   If not caught in time this infection will eventually kill the bird and could possibly contaminate the rest of the flock.   

Keeping an eye on the birds for any type of limp helps catch the problem early.   If there is a limp (sometimes referred to as bumble-foot) take a look at the bottom of the foot.  Make sure it is clean enough to inspect the skin.  The bottom of the foot should be soft and pliable with no cuts, sores or abrasions.  If you see an open wound you will need to clean and dress it.  The bird should be confined to a hospital pen with fresh, clean pine shavings. Clean the foot and change the dressing every two days.

 Frost bite is another problem a hen can face during colder months.  I’ve read that bad frost bite is serious and needs a veterinarian to fix.  A small amount is not fatal but if nothing is done to change the environment a hen can die from the exposure.  The first part of a chicken to get frost bite is going to be their comb and waddle.  Depending on the bird if the temperature is below freezing then you want to provide heat twenty-four hours a day.  We use heat lamps and an electric outlet that senses temperature.  If ambient temperature in the hen house drops below thirty-four degrees the light and water bucket warmer come on.  When the inside temperature reaches forty-five degrees the electricity is turned off.  This seems to keep them comfortable because they are starting to have a consistent lay rate.  

We’ve had the biggest snow fall since getting chickens and this has proven to be quite overwhelming.  We knew the storm was coming so we moved all the houses into covered spaces for protection but still be able to get the tractor in and be able to clear some ground for them.  When we finally let them out, the first thing they started doing was pecking and eating snow.  This is not good for them because like you or I, eating ice has a tendency to cool our body temperature.  With a chicken it is a little more drastic but what can you do.  I told them at least don’t eat the yellow, brown or greenish brown snow!  They looked up for a second and went directly for the colored snow anyway, go figure.  



 Buy Local - From a farmer not a chain using the word to generate sales.





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.



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.


Good times are not always around the corner

It’s the third week of August and flock three of our Rhode Island Reds have just started to lay eggs.  They are so small you can hold half a dozen in your hand.  This is a big day for us, a day we've been looking forward to ever since March 19th, 2009.  They have made it this far healthy, happy and vigorous.  The one rooster we got (by accident) has grown to be quite the leader.  His problem is he is too big and the hens are smaller, thinner and faster. 

Here they are at a day old.


You spend a lot of time with them making sure they are ok, that they don't get Coccidiosis, that their pen is clean and water free of foreign objects.  If you look closely at this picture you will notice that the feed trough does not have bird droppings in it.  That was an anomaly; as soon as they got enough strength the crap hit the fan.

They are energetic, inquisitive and love tomatoes.  We have them outside and they can't resist flying the coop and raiding the garden.  We know this not because we caught them but we started noticing peck marks on the reddest tomatoes.  We have these huge German Queen heirlooms.  They weigh in about 1.5 to 1.75 pounds each. These are bigger than the Mortgage Buster we had a couple of years ago and they are tasty.  So the new chickens have found out too.

We finally figured it out when we saw an egg sitting in one of the rows between tomatoes plants.  We packed up the electric fence and moved the house out behind the barn so they wouldn't be tempted, for all the hard work seeing a picture of them at a day old and seeing them now full grown you can't help but feel a sort of elation at the accomplishment.  .

 I am by nature a pessimist with a type A personality, I'm ok with that.  But it is times like these that make me a laid back optimist.  To have nurtured them to this point is time to celebrate the good fortune. But being a farm you don't want to crow too much because good times are not always around the corner. 

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


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