“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.
A rooster hit me the other morning.For some that would sound like the start of a joke. However, for me that was just the start of my morning. It was a morning that included an exercise replete with spring fever, the drive for procreation, layers and of course roosters. I will explain later.
When we began raising free-range organic eggs, we started slowly. The first flock was seventeen weeks old when we got them (which knocked them out of the organic category) and there were six of them, all layers. One of the first things we learned was that you did not need a rooster in order to get eggs from a hen. After reading and then hearing stories about insane, violent behaviors of attacking roosters, having hens was just fine by us. We had gotten comfortable with cover cropping, field rotation and mixing grasses and legumes for the chickens to forage. Family and friends truly liked the taste of the eggs so we felt we were ready to expand.
In order to sell eggs as “Certified Organic” you need to get hens when they are less then two days old. Because we did not know any better we expected that we would get layers when we ordered fifteen one-day-old peeps. I had seen how they sex chicks (i.e., determine male or female) and some chicks are known to be hens based on their color (they are called sexlinks). We have Rhode Island Reds, because they are a Heritage Breed and a recovering species, and apparently, they are not as easy to sex as one thinks.
When you get day old layers, it is inevitable that you will get a male. It has happened every time we have gotten day olds. The number of chicks does not matter, we have gotten 15, got a rooster, got 100, ended up with four roosters that time. We purchased 50 this last time two are roosters. The very last purchase was for 100 and we ordered a “straight run”. There are three categories of peeps, cockerels, straight run and layers. Cockerels are all males and least expensive, straight run is a mix with no sexing (if you order 50 you may get 10 layers and 40 roosters), that is the chance you take with a straight run. Then there are layers, which are the most expensive but at least 90+ percentages of all of them are layers.
I am a shining example of why city people are made fun of in rural areas. After our first purchase of day olds, I called the farm store and asked about our recent chicken order. "Did we get a rooster with the hens"? I asked. "No, probably not" was the answer then followed by "but we can't guarantee all hens at sale but probably not". So I described the chicken that was more developed then the rest and said that it sounds like it is trying to crow. "Yep," she said, “you got a rooster.” Without even thinking when I heard the word rooster I blurted out a question that, as the words were forming in my mind and my lips were audiblizing the errant thought, I knew it was the dumbest question a supposed farmer could ask.
You can do two things with a rooster on a farm. One is to eat him. The other is to let him fertilize the eggs. That is it; they also protect the hens but those are the only things roosters can do on a farm. Anybody having heard the birds and bees speech knows this.
Of course, I knew this, once the words were ringing in my ears, but as I was forming the question, and the sales clerk on the other end was hearing it, I couldn't stop myself. When she told me it was a rooster I was dumb founded "What am I going to do with a rooster," I blurted out mindlessly. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line or maybe muffled laughter I do not remember. What I do remember is questioning why I had just asked such a simple question. She composed herself enough to say that indeed we could eat it or we could you use it for its reproductive capability. Neither of which were planned nor wanted, so I ended the conversation quickly. So the damage was done, at least I hadn't given her my name
We never wanted a rooster, we were not at the processing stage and we did not want to hatch chicks or deal with crazy violent birds. With our luck if we hatched chicks we would get more males then females. Roosters were not a thought until we started seeing and hearing the signs. By that time it is too late, it is yours. We tried to sell it, then offered to give it away but had no takers. Over time, we have found a fourth function a rooster can serve on a farm and that is ambience. We love to hear them crow as do our customers. Our customers see a beautiful Rhode Island Red in all his plumage and in full throat. We still keep roosters around to have a run of the yard, hens to keep them company, and protect.
I have learned when it is spring and you open the chicken house door the last thing you want to do is be between an amorous rooster and a flock of hens. The rooster leaped from his high perch and flew out the door way. My head was down as I was looking at the hens and my body was in the door way. The rest they say is history, the rooster is okay, I got scracthed a little bit. So far their have been no signs of insanity, violent behavior, or unprovoked attacks. Oh, and the roosters have been fine too.
Buy Local - From a farmer not from a chain hard selling the words
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.
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.
Of the plethora of problems we face with our chickens, one is that the biggest group of layers tends to be too "free-range". I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but any situation that invariably leads to, or creates problems is not good. The layers are supposed to be in a concentrated area so we can maximize their fertilizer potential. Flock three thinks that free-range means they can go wherever they want. We have seen some chickens at least a tenth of a mile from their house. I have read (from multiple sources) that when layers roam they tend to hang around their shelter or within the immediate area.
Flock three, apparently remembered last year when they were by the barn and must think that the grass tastes better or something. We moved them to newly certified land behind the barn. They were on fresh winter rye and hairy-vetch.The trailer is at least seven hundred feet away from the barn and down a hill. They cannot see the barn but, they fly over the electric fence and walk up the hill to the barn. The barn is but one of many stops they will make in the day, they walk around the barn, then past the barn to the house, they walk around the house, then head down the hill in front of the house and into the old abandoned railway. I found this little fact out quite by accident. I was driving up to the house from the street and I see this lump in the middle of what we call the “causeway,” My first thought is terror in that it looks like a small dog. We have already had one dog attack and it was not pretty or easy to deal with.
The causeway is an old railway bed that separated one side of the property from the other. As I got close and had a better look, it was three chickens, probably the three stooges, but I did not check, come to think of it, we never did go after them. Sometimes you get into a routine and the unusual goes forgotten. Nothing happened to them and they did find their way back. When we close the layers up for the night, a head count takes place and the numbers were correct. Predation is a major issue for free-range farmers as is when hens start laying outside the nest. When that takes place, you have an old-fashioned egg hunt on your hands. We learned it was vital to get them into the routine of laying eggs inside a nest before letting them really roam. With flock three, the first year of their life, they stayed inside the electric fence without a hint of flying the coop. Today, they epitomize the term free range like none other we have raised. They roam everywhere, as long as they are near the woods, they are relatively safe from hawks, other hazards not so much.
I see things from the layers sometimes that make me think they have memories, decision-making capacities however slight and some have their own personalities. No, I am not anthropomorphizing, as much as pointing out that some of them act different from the others and they remember where they have been. Then sometimes their behavior just has me shaking my head and mumbling to myself. There are now twenty-one hens in the trailer with the rooster and ten nesting boxes. The rule of thumb is two to four hens to a nest. You would think that there would be no waiting when it comes to nesting boxes but for some strange reason one layer will always pick a nest already occupied.
There would be nine other empty nests, but the best nest was the one with the hen inside. When that happens, they start to cluck at each other. I am standing there watching the one hen outside the nest clucking, while the one inside waits until the first one is quiet, then responds with her own. This goes on for a bit until the one on the outside goes to another nest or the one on the inside lays her egg and leaves. Sometimes, one will just go into the nest box even though another hen is there. This is especially true when you have a broody hen; the other hens sense it and lay eggs in her nest. I do not know this to be a rule but when a hen gets broody, we often find most of the day’s eggs are under her.
Memory is another thing. Periodically, we have had to place birds in quarunteen or the hospital pen. It is a stall inside the barn with a window, food, water, nest and roost. I've written about the three stooges and their penchant for staying inside the hospital pen. We have had to have the doors closed at all times this summer because these things just refuse to stay out. Henrietta, as she is called, has some magical gift of hearing. She will be no ware in sight, as soon as I open the front barn door, she appears. That would be fine, but she insists on getting up on my work bench, kicking most of the light stuff off and lays her egg on the wood shaving by the mitter saw. She has also become territorial, she believes her place is in the hospital pen and she is determined to lay claim.
She did spend time in there when we were trying to get her to stop flying out of the fenced area. But that was over ten months ago and she still thinks that is her home.
We do have a very social and inquisitive group of hens, which is great when kids visit, not so great when a worker is here and the bird gets in the van to check things out. We have gotten into the routine of asking people to check their vehicles before they leave the farm. It saves them an unwarranted re-visit just in case.
Buy Local: find a local farm and support your health and your community
We’ve only been raising Rhode Island Red hens for the past four years. In that time we’ve harvested close to ten thousand eggs. Some eggs are perfect in shape, size and look. Smooth brown shells, no blemishes, no extra calcium, no spots. Just beautiful looking eggs if I say so myself. We’ve learned that as a hen gets older the eggs she lays gets bigger.
Flock three has been laying almost five months now. Out of the twenty-five hens in flock three we get anywhere between eighteen and twenty-four a day. The eggs weigh out between twenty-seven and thirty-one ounces a dozen, which is extra large and jumbo respectively. It seems that they are laying bigger eggs sooner then the other two flocks but that is more observation then quantitative analysis.
We’ve had a hard winter this year with upwards of sixty some inches of snow and did suffer the loss of one of our oldest hens, Gladys. We called her Gladys Kravits for Bewitch’s neighbor. She was always in every body's business and starting trouble. When a new hen was introduced it was Gladys that tried to enforce the pecking order. But, she had her special side.
We have a customer that has a child with autism, one day when they were here I asked if David wanted to walk over to the pen to see the chickens. Once there I asked his dad if he wanted me to pick one up so David could see it closer. I got to the pen and Gladys was near by. I picked her up and walked over to David and his dad. I asked if he would like to touch her. His father said he wouldn’t but it was a nice gesture on my part.
He then asked David if he would like to touch Gladys. I was holding her a safe distance from them. Much to his dad’s surprise, David stuck out his little hand and I brought Gladys in closer. He touched her head with his finger. She put her head down some and he touched her again. She would let you pick her up and pet her without squawking or making a fuss. Much to his parents surprise Gladys was the first animal that their son touched and actually petted. Each week when they came back I made a point to take father and son to wherever Gladys was. Once in the pen I’d pick her up and David would pet her. I was just amazed at her, each time she would do this and never did David get scared. She will be missed.
With all this snow, we had to shovel around the houses so the hens could get out. They can get cabin fever too. We laid down pine shavings so they’d have traction and some protection for their feet. We put heat lamps inside the houses so they get some warmth at night and that seems to have helped tremendously. They get let out of the houses everyday and closed back up at night. A lot of times they will not come out unless the sun is out, their no dummies. Flock three, on the other hand, is in a converted horse trailer and no matter the weather they come out, it must be youth.
So out of ten thousand eggs we’ve seen some anomalies; like extra swirls on the shell, knots, spots, soft white in color, no shell at all, odd shapes like ovals and points on both ends, different shades of brown you name it, we’ve seen it. Sticking your hand into the nest is always an adventure when collecting eggs. Sometimes you get a soft surprise others are just to gross to describe. Just recently I was collecting eggs when I felt a large egg. It was dark out so I couldn't really see the size of the egg but by its heft and girth it had to be the mother of all eggs. That egg was huge. I mean off the charts huge. The amount of space it took up in the palm of my hand was incredible. I ended up cutting a hole in the box to close the lid of the egg carton. We took it on the road showing anybody interested and eventually sold it to a long time customer. We took a picture of the egg with eleven other jumbo eggs (below).
We can't take any credit other than providing them with a stress free, healthy environment. They do the rest and I'll let the picture speak for itself.
Buy Local - From a farmer you know and trust, not a chain profiting off the concept.
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.