Egg Sale? Are You Crazy?

Our eggs are on sale again. No. I’m not crazy. I can do math.

I have X birds. They eat every day whether they lay eggs or not. They use roost space eggs or not. They need to be protected eggs or not. The costs of the bird, the feed, the housing and the fencing are fixed. What varies is the number of eggs.

egg sale 1

Let’s make the math simple. Let’s say I have 100 birds. I can normally count on 100 birds laying 65-70 eggs. But egg production varies seasonally. We get few eggs when the days are short. We get few eggs when the weather gets hot. We get many eggs when the birds are young, fewer when they get older. They take time off each fall to molt. This is a biological, not mechanical, system and, consequently, it varies.

But, again, what doesn’t vary is the cost. I own the fence and the birds…now I have to pay for it.

So let’s say the flock costs me $15/day to maintain. When the birds lay 66 eggs, 6 are going to be cracked, checked or misshapen and can’t be sold. That leaves 5 dozen for me to sell. I’m not going to work for free so we charge $4/dozen for our eggs and we bring in $20 gross, $5 net.

You down?

Right now the flock is laying more like 90 eggs/day. That’s more eggs for no additional cost, even if I can’t sell 10% of them. I add in two additional cartons ($0.30 each), and have more eggs in my egg case than my regular customers can buy. As nice as it would be to bring in $28/day, I need to sell those eggs, not feed them to the pigs. This is my chance to attract new customers. I run a 25% off sale. Folks who think $4 is too high for eggs are happy to pay $3. If I get $3 for 7 dozen eggs I’m grossing $21/day. The extra cartons knock me down to $5.40 net. That extra $0.40 is probably absorbed by the extra tray space and wash/sort time.

egg sale 3

Now, some suggest that I should use the surplus cash coming in right now to make up for the expected shortfall this winter. I think that is sound theory except for two things. First, we have a new layer flock coming online soon and should not see much of a winter production drop. Second, I don’t know what to do with all the eggs I am collecting these days. Let’s go drum up new business! Eggs are a little more than a labor of love anyway.

I’m collecting more eggs for the same cost. I’m gaining exposure to new customers. I’m making more money at the end of the day…even with cheaper eggs. But the real question is, “Why are we getting more eggs?” Good question. I think it comes down to management. Not only are we collecting more eggs overall, we are collecting more salable eggs. I’ll start with the salable eggs. With our old hoop-style chicken house we had to bend down to go in and collect the eggs…so we didn’t want to do it very often. So most days we would just collect eggs once each day. When there are more than 4 or 5 eggs in a nest box the birds tend to crush an egg or two, smearing the remaining eggs and nesting material with broken egg mess and bits of shell. Now that we can collect the eggs outside of the structure while standing we don’t seem to mind collecting eggs late in the morning and again in the evening. We are also doing a better job of keeping fresh, clean nesting material in the boxes. As a result we are able to sell a higher percentage of the eggs we collect.

egg sale 2

But we are also just getting more eggs. To the point that I plan to add another nest box array. Some of this is seasonal. Longer days and unusually cool weather make it better for the birdies. But I think most of it is due to recent changes to our housing situation. We built a new layer house on wheels. I insulated the roof of the building and provided for excellent ventilation. The high yesterday was in the 90′s but inside of the building was cool and breezy. I was removing soiled bedding from the interior of the house and dust was not a problem. I wasn’t even warm until I stepped out of the building. Beyond the house, we have just turned our birds free. Grandpa’s rock collection spans most of the farm making it difficult to step in fence posts for netting so we are just letting the older birds run. That creates a few real problems like predation, hidden eggs and birds roosting in strange places. However, the birds are able to scratch and gather from a much larger area, lowering their feed consumption. They especially seem to like the horse stalls where they find undigested oats. This would work much better if we had a larger farm. If we had 300 acres (and 150 cows) we could move the chickens further each time, keeping them busy in new places. I’ll have more to say about fully free range birdies another time.

Back to the point, more food, less heat, better housing, more convenient nest boxes…these things all combine to break all records for egg production on our farm. It’s not uncommon for us to collect 100 eggs from 110 birds.

So eggs are on sale right now with the hope that we can establish ties with new customers…customers who were reluctant to give us a chance at $4. With luck, they will try our eggs, notice the difference and offer us additional chances in their kitchens.

 

Our Chicken Wagon

Julie and I needed to find a way to make the chickens more portable. We were already moving toward building an eggmobile on a wagon running gear when we heard Ethan Book discuss the same idea on his podcast. We just needed to simplify moving the chickens so Julie or the kids could handle it alone. Too much of our farm depends on my back.

chicken wagon

Ours is an 8×12 box. It is 6′ tall on one side, 5′ tall on the other. The roof overhangs by 2′ in all directions (12×16). The interior is all bedding and roost bars with a little room for supplies. The nest boxes are all outside of the enclosure. I think we can tweak our design efficiency but overall it’s a pretty efficient little unit because of dad’s input. It also stayed cool in full sun on a 90 degree day with a breeze largely because we put a layer of insulation board in the roof. Plus it casts a big shadow in the pasture. Chickens are cool in and under the box in the heat of the day.

inside the coop

 

I plan to hang a barrel on the front to feed watering nipples that will hang down under the edges. There is a second array of nest boxes next to the first you see pictured. We had to cannibalize it from the prior chicken tractor-type layer solution. Other changes will come along but I desperately needed to just get the birds moved so here we are.

So. Thanks to dad and thanks to Ethan. We already had the idea and the momentum, Ethan just applied the spurs and dad made it happen. It turned out well. There will be more and those will be even better. If you are reading George Henderson with me you know that he used something similar…but bigger.

The Awesome and the Not Awesome

We’re up! We’re down! This is great! I can’t go on.

Ready for the awesome?

Sunday morning I was washing dishes at the sink. I could see the cows out the kitchen window including Flora, our expecting-any-day-now milk cow. Every day the kids ask me, “How’s Flora?” and I reply, “Still pregnant.” Sunday morning I could see her clearly from the window. “How’s Flora?”

“Still pregnant.”

I finish up the dishes, dry my hands and head outside to open the nest boxes and check the animals. Within 10 minutes of washing the dishes I am walking through the cows and almost fall down in surprise. A fresh, wet brown bull calf is already standing next to flora and trying to nurse. Within 10 minutes!

Here he is at 24 hours old.

DryCalf

Good little guy. The kids are calling him “Steak” but I think we’ll choose something less…pointed. He is nursing well on all four quarters and running with the herd. Vigorous calf on an early May morning. What more could I want?

Had he been born 12 hours earlier the story would have been different. Saturday night we got an inch and a half of rain and quite a bit of wind with cooler temperatures. All that rain…all that wind would have been hard weather for this little guy. Thank God he was born in the morning after the storm.

But that brings us to the not awesome. We have month old pullets in our chicken tractors currently. 3 tractors, 50 pullets each. They are growing well and feathering out…doing everything a pullet is supposed to do on pasture. 46 of them piled and died in the rain Saturday night. There is no sense in it at all. Just a bucket full of dead birds…birds that didn’t have sense enough to get out of the rain.

I don’t have words for the level of frustration we are feeling. Cackle Hatchery sent us 156 pullets, 155 made it out of the brooder and lasted until last night. Weather is always a factor and there is only so much I can do to plan for it. But I would never have imagined I could lose a full third of my birds to rain.

We are up one calf. We are milking Flora again. But our future flock was just cut back dramatically. That’s the news…good and bad. This farming stuff is hard.

Where Did the Week Go? or Broiler Blues. Two Posts in One.

The last week in short:

  • Taxes? Done. (grumble)
  • Chickens? Sold or in the freezer.
  • Cows? Fat.
  • Marriage? Intact…barely.
  • Feeling? Tired. Sore.
  • Pullet chicks? Safe in the brooder.
  • Blog? Unattended.

So. Yeah. All the work got done but the night before we butchered birds Julie turns to me and says, “I feel like we are a little distant” or some such statement…apparently I wasn’t listening to her. Point taken.

But the taxes got done on time. We lost so much money on the farm everything turned out OK. How about that? I really don’t remember much else of my week. I know Julie spent the early part of the week on the phone with the tax office and working on spreadsheets for hours on end.

Kids

I took Thursday off of work to butcher the first 200 broilers. We wanted to have birds to customers in time for Easter weekend which proved to be a good choice. I have a lot to say about this spring’s batch of broilers but let’s start with butcher day. Then we’ll go back in time a little bit.

Thursday started Wednesday night. The layers needed to go to fresh pasture before they began protesting. We also needed to pull the feeders out of the chicken tractors so the broilers digestive tracts would be clean for butcher day. Just like every night, we all come in the house hungry and tired around 8:15. Supper…brush teeth…bedtime. Julie wonders if we are losing our closeness. I don’t know. I haven’t noticed anything wrong.

The plan was to start butchering at 8:00 sharp. My biological alarm clock wakes me up at 4:00. Time to make the donuts. I filled the scalder, washed up some equipment, sharpened knives and washed dishes. Julie stayed in bed. She later told me I left the bathroom light on as my way, in her words, of “giving a not-so-subtle hint that she needed to get up too”. Julie and I wanted to give the kids a treat for breakfast and, since we had a surplus of brown bananas, we decided on banana bread muffins. With the scalder warming, the dishes washed, the paper trash burned, the buckets ready, the knives sharp and breakfast and coffee delivered to my belly and muffins cooling on the counter it was time to go check the animals.

Julie opened the nest boxes, I loaded up the crates on the trailer. The kids attended to other chores. Everybody met up again at the brooder. There was about a 30% chance the new layer pullets would arrive Thursday morning and I wasn’t ready. I spread out the remaining bedding, added fresh and got everything warm and ready. It is always better to give chicks warm water when they arrive so we like to have the water in place well in advance.

Then the kids and I went out to move the cows and catch the broilers. The youngest son rolled up the fencing to allow the cows access to fresh grazing. Pretty cool that a 9 year old can manage a herd of cattle. The rest of us crated up the first 50 birds and took them home. Julie had returned home to wash and sanitize the surfaces.

It’s funny how time flies. We missed out 8:00 start time…by 90 minutes.

But everybody had eaten a banana bread muffin, tied on their aprons and decided what job they were going to do today. I always kill/scald/pluck and remove the heads. Always. That is the worst and most demanding job. To cover all three jobs I have to move around a lot, lift and control flapping birds and spend the whole day covered in a delicious mixture of blood and chicken manure. The best is when the back end of a bird ejects liquid in your face like a squirt gun. So I do that job.

The girls check the birds for feathers that were missed by the plucker (usually the tail feathers or under the wings) and the oldest girl removes the feet and slides the bird to the oldest boy. His job is to slice through the skin just above the breast then loosen the crop, esophagus and trachea. Then he delivers the birds to the shackles where Julie finishes the evisceration. The youngest boy then does final inspection, removes lungs, bits of liver and sprays the birds out before putting them in the first rinse water tank.

That’s the first half of the process. I believe each bird gets about a minute of work from crate to chill tank. When packaging we see each bird for about another minute. Really, we just do a quick inspection, final feather check then pop each into a bag, clamp the bag shut and weigh, price and label the bird before escorting them to the freezer.

It has to go fast and the whole process can be thrown out of whack by a bad scald. So that’s where we’re going to start.

So now let’s go back in time. Things that could have gone better with the Broilers:

The scalder:
Longtime readers know I have a love/hate thing with my scalder. I have moved it inside, out of the wind. I have blocked a portion of the chimney to help it retain heat. I have removed the (broken) thermocouple and piped the burner directly to the propane tank giving me complete control over the flame. I have done everything I can think of to make it more efficient short of coating the outside of it with spray foam and it still can’t keep up with me. It just can’t. Either it needs two burners or I need two scalders. I’m going to suggest that the scalder is limited to about 50 birds/hour on a 60 degree day with no wind. I can work twice as fast as that so I end up frustrated when the volume of chickens passing through the scalder exceeds the scalder’s ability to generate and retain heat. It reaches a point where we just have to call a stop for 15 minutes or so. The solution may be to box up 50 birds at a time, run those birds through then cover the top of the scalder while going back to the field for more birds.

Chicken Tractors:
This is totally on me. We lost a lot of birds. Normally we see a less than 5% death loss on birds from the time they exit the shipping box to the time they crate up on butcher day. One exception to this was an unexpected and cold rainstorm that came through 2 days after we moved chicks to chicken tractors a few years back. We lost a bunch of birds that night but this year we seemed to lose one or two every night totaling 15% of the crop. We put 300 chicks in the brooder and brought 296 out three and a half weeks later. The first few weeks on pasture were fine…then the loses started mounting up. So here was the problem: I concentrated small birds into fewer chicken tractors. My tractors allow us to keep 50 grown broilers comfortably. When they are small, though, I prefer to keep them in larger groups. More manure, less work. That is a mistake. I need to split the birds up early. As soon as we got them back down to appropriate numbers we stopped finding dead birds. You really have to respect that 2 sq. ft. per bird ratio. A bird just needs room to get away.

Seasons:
Our chicks arrive on or shortly after Valentines day. We do this so we can hit the market with birds early. Usually, in Illinois, the weather breaks just as the birds are ready for pasture. This year the pasture was a little behind the birds. That was hard on the birds and it was hard on the farmers. But if we delay by two weeks we will have to save birds from clouds of buffalo gnats at the end of April. Or we, ourselves, will be suffering from mouthfuls of gnats and itchy stings while butchering the birds. So we could delay even longer so the chicks are in the brooder when the gnats emerge. That means we aren’t on pasture until the middle of May and don’t butcher until July. July seems to be the beginning of the real, searing heat. July 4 is a popular time to BBQ chicken but after that, nobody wants to cook. We have carried full freezers through 107 degree days in July and August. No fun. So, when is the best time to raise birds? I think we’re doing the right thing getting chicks on Valentines day and hitting the early market. This year worked out very well making fresh birds available for Easter weekend. But we may push off a week or so next year to give the grass a little more time. It’s hard to get this stuff right.

Marketing:
60% of the birds should be sold before we even buy the chicks. It’s not hard to sell chicken. Not at all. But it is hard to sell 300 chickens one at a time. Not only do we need to continue following up with existing customers, we need to work to penetrate new markets and encourage buyers to stock up for the year. We do broilers spring and fall. How many birds do you need to make them stretch between batches? What can I do to convince you to use the whole bird so I don’t have to cut them up?

Julie:
Julie always tears a fingernail off when eviscerating. Always. She doesn’t enjoy the work. It makes her sore and tired and leads to days worth of discussions of the value of driving our chickens 4 hours each way to a processor and changing our license type. I can certainly see the merit of this idea but I think the better solution would be to make sure we have rubber gloves for her to wear or, better yet, rearrange things so I am doing the evisceration. Maybe our oldest can kill/scald/pluck and I can just take it from there. He may be slow enough for the scalder for a while.

Too Many Birds:
200 is a lot of birds to do in a day. No matter how many birds we process we have to clean and sterilize all of our equipment before and after. That work takes about an hour total. 50 birds realistically take us about an hour (because of the scalder). Packaging 50 birds takes us about an hour. How many hours do we want to work in a day? It might be better for Julie to get everything ready to process 50 birds each night after I get home from work. She could clean and prep the work area, the kids can help catch the birds. With supper in a crock pot, we could start as soon as I get home and wrap up before bedtime.

Not Saturday or Sunday:
After work or on a vacation day…anything is better than butchering on a weekend. We need to respect our family time. The kids need daylight hours where dad isn’t hustling to get some chore done. Beyond butchering birds I am scrambling to finish collecting wood I have been cutting since March for next year’s wood pile. I need to get this done before the grass hides the wood from me and before it gets so hot out I won’t want to do the work. I get focused on my work. I need to make it a real point to chill out. Just play with the kids. If I get a free moment I put my nose in a book or take a short nap. My free moments need to be spared for my children…and for my wife…

We Feel Distant:
…because my wife is my favorite person. There is no other person I want to be with. For the rest of my life, better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health until death. She is with me when we do morning chores. We wash dishes, we wash and pack eggs, we move chicken tractors, check the brooder, move the cows, check the pigs then race home where she packs a breakfast and lunch for me. Soon we will include milking in our morning routine. We stick together…and do so very purposefully. But being together is, apparently, not the same is being close…emotionally. We talk. We hold hands. We kiss. But she feels that we are lacking some level of closeness that goes beyond just the chore list. I have to tell you, I have a hard time even understanding what she is talking about. Apparently, the thing to do is to just sit with her, maybe read the Bible together and …um…not…work. Talk. Just talk and listen. No agenda beyond letting it happen. Girls are so weird. But if that’s what she needs, well, she puts up with a lot from me. It seems like I have to relearn this lesson every so many months. It takes a lot of work for me to not work. I’ll have to work on that.

I’m sure there are more lessons we can glean from this year’s spring broiler crop but that’s enough for today. If you have experiences managing family, marriage and business please share something in comments. Marriage and family are much more difficult than the brochure indicates.

Cats, Chickens, Cows and Rain. Welcome to April.

I didn’t think it would ever thaw. Winter started early in November and lasted well into March. Now the permafrost has thawed and the grass is just starting to grow again. In spite of the snowfall, we have been pretty dry for a long time so the rain is welcome…but forces us to intensify our management. The chickens have been on pasture for a few weeks and their eggs yolks show it. Just the other day a customer asked me what I had done. From one week to the next her egg yolks had changed from yellow to orange and she was pleased. It takes planning and management to bring that kind of happiness into the world.

The chickens make a big impact on the pasture in a short time. We are moving the flock every 2-3 days. Our current infrastructure makes that difficult on the hills surrounding our home but it has to be done. We are seeking to enhance the landscape with chickens, not create a moonscape. “Enhance” means they spread the cow pies, fluff the ground litter, eat bugs and add manure. A lot of manure. The picture below shows previous chicken pasture on the left and ground the chickens haven’t had access to on the right.

BeforeAfter

You can see that the chickens have eaten a fair portion of the green forage (hence the orange yolks) and they have fluffed up the litter and scratched out the cow manure. I need to be attentive to the pasture health and time their moves based on condition. I can’t simply park the chickens in one place and make an appointment for my phone to remind me to move them in a couple of days. I have to pay attention. They did this in two days here. In other places it takes three days.

The pasture move was timely as we also needed to get the chickens uphill. We are expecting several inches of rain over the next two days. The bottom here can become a temporary creek bed. Apparently a number of piglets were washed away from this very spot in a storm 50 or more years ago. Beyond saving the chickens I needed to get my fencing above the potential water line to prevent it from being tangled or damaged. Also the cows needed to be up high somewhere. They are near the highest point on the farm by the pond munching (and mostly trampling) the remaining forage stand from last summer and a little bit of the edge of the alfalfa field. The cows can eat, tromp and manure the places we can’t reach with the hay mower and exposing junk left laying (I found an ancient roll of barbed wire fencing) and weed trees I need to cut out. They also give me an excuse to manage the trees we plan to keep by cutting the lower limbs to open up grazing beneath the trees.

PondEdgeI can’t do anything without feline companionship. If I get anywhere near the white barn Zippy shows up. She can multi-task both seeking attention and looking for a tasty mouse morsel. The cows won’t really eat this grass but they will knock it down and feed it to the soil. We are still feeding a little hay out here because the forage quality is so low.

Zippy

The cows and chickens are safe on high ground and this time of year I am glad to have my pigs under a roof. The weather wouldn’t affect their health negatively but the impact of pigs on the pasture would limit forage growth this year. I have to be sensitive to pasture health right now. Pigs, cows, chickens…all can set back forage growth for the year.

The pastures around my house have been rotationally grazed by goats, chickens, pigs and cattle for the last two years. The rest of my farm has been continually grazed by cattle for…well, for decades outside of the short time dad kept a few cattle here. It appears to me that the forages we have been managing are at least two weeks ahead of the rest of the farm. Is it the presence of litter on the ground? The mix of manures? The energy stored in the root systems? The higher organic material in the soil? Is it just warmer on the 20 acres near the house? Yes…in short, is it the result of a different paradigm. Manage for forage. Looking back 11 months I should have some serious grass soon. Then we will hit the grazing accelerator. I’ll be sure to give you the play-by-play as we watch the grass grow. I just realized how lame I am. Sigh.

Scratching the Pasture Again

I was thinking of Gene Autry as I titled this post. The problem is, chickens don’t get in the saddle…usually.

We work pretty hard to keep the greenhouse pleasant smelling and warm and to provide the chickens with the things they need to thrive in the winter. This comes in the form of scraps of meat from butchered hogs, fresh greens and anything else we can come up with to help our chickens thrive in semi-confinement (“semi” because they have complete access to the outdoors during the day).

Today was the first day out on pasture and the chickens were clearly glad to be there. Obviously I don’t meet the chickens’ needs as well as the pasture does.

ChickensOnPasture1The photo above was taken within 5 minutes of the chickens being allowed out. Late in the afternoon I took the rest of the pictures in this post. The exposure on the photos leaves something to be desired but they illustrate what was happening well.

ChickensOnPasture2

There is a Ralph Moody book The Fields of Home Ralph writes about an uncle who comes to visit his grandfather’s farm where Ralph is staying. He has a trick to show Ralph which chickens are laying eggs and which ones aren’t. He grabs a broomstick, throws down a handful of chicken scratch, waits a few seconds and swings the stick. Chickens with their head up get whacked. If their head isn’t in the game, they aren’t worth keeping. There is only one chicken with her head up in the picture above. She was disturbed by my presence. Everybody was working hard all day long. (If you are not familiar with Ralph Moody pick up the book Little Britches and find some children to read it to. Then discuss what you all learned.)

ChickensOnPasture3Hard at work. The pasture was torn up. Some of the cow pies were too dry to scratch through but most of the cow pies were destroyed.

ChickensOnPasture4Everywhere I looked I saw chickens happy to be out working in the sunshine.

ChickensOnPasture5The ducks too, though they tend to be cynical. They always laugh when they hear my voice.

ChickensOnPasture6In about a week the egg yolks will become a vibrant orange color. We had a few pale yolks in January but have worked to keep enough nutritional variety in front of the chickens to give them some color. Now it will really start to happen. I’m excited!

Chickens will be laying better eggs, they are adding fertility to my pastures and cutting down on the bug population already. I love March. I hope it’s going as well for you as it is for my birds.

Chicken vs. Beef II: Grudge Match

In a recent post I discussed seeking increased efficiency of production. This led to a long talk with my dad (a good thing). Among the points he wanted to discuss was efficiency of feed conversion of chickens compared to cattle. There are some interesting components to this discussion and some confusing data out there on the Google. If you want to discuss which animal can convert corn most efficiently chickens win compared to cattle. Hands down. If you want to discuss which converts grass most efficiently…well, chickens don’t stand a chance. And that’s important because most of the information you will find includes data on corn poured through feedlot cattle.

If we just narrow the scope to say, “Which animal grows the most pounds of meat per acre?” Well, the answer is chickens. Well, the answer is sort of chickens. Maybe. But it may depend on how you define “per acre” and how much work you want to do to enable that production.

According to Joel Salatin, and from what we have observed, we can sustainably raise 500 broilers per acre per year during the growing season where we live. That’s about the limit of the soil’s ability to metabolize the manure. But that’s not how much ground I need to raise those 500 broilers. I also need half an acre of corn ground, an acre of bean ground and about a third of an acre of oats, along with fish meal, kelp and soft rock phosphate. Let’s just go with 3 acres per 500 chickens resulting in 2,000 pounds of dressed meat or 650-ish pounds per acre. I did similar math for pigs a few years ago. In fact, that post addresses a number of issues I’m going to tackle again today and again tomorrow. ’cause it’s my blog. And I want to. Let me point out, though, that the chickens are not harvesting their own feed in this model.

SO I can sustainably raise 650-ish pounds of chicken on an acre in around 6-8 weeks. Compare that to grass-fed cattle. I need 22-30 months to raise a calf from birth to finished weight. Let’s just say 2 years. In my part of the world (where we grow a state average of 155  bu corn) I can raise one cow per acre. (I think we can push for 1.5 cows per acre but that will take some time.) Also note that the cow is harvesting its own feed. A two year old calf has accounted for one acre for each of two years before bringing me any money and we are really only going to harvest 800 pounds of beef from that carcass. So, really, I’m only raising 400 pounds of beef per acre per year. (Even if you run a stocker operation, that calf has exactly one mother out there in the world somewhere eating grass on an acre of ground (well, unless it’s a twin. Just let that one go.). I’m counting the cow/calf as one animal unit, same as a stocker is one animal unit. Same as 1,200 pounds worth of sheep would be one animal unit.)

Clearly, our winner and still champion…chickens. (Now, I know I’m skipping a lot of analysis and detail here. This is a blog post – a free blog post! – not a book. But play with these ideas for a minute with me and we might both learn something…or at least have a little fun.) To add insult to injury I can sell a pound of whole chicken (dressed right here on the farm) for $3. The neighbors (I use the term “neighbor” loosely here) are selling for $3.40 so I should probably re-evaluate my costs and prices. But compare any chicken price to beef. I have to find customers who are interested in at least 200 pounds of beef all at once, haul the cow to the slaughter plant…garnering somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50-$2.00 per pound on the hoof. So that’s a gross of $1,800 per acre for chicken vs. a generous gross of $1,400 per acre for beef. But the chicken work was finished in under two months.

Clearly I should raise 60 acres of chicken and ditch the cows altogether. But I did say “gross”. As in before costs. A chicken eats 3 pounds of feed for every pound it gains in weight. Plus there is a big difference in labor needs of chickens and cattle. Now the math gets more difficult. In fact, it may tip the scales decidedly in favor of spending a little time each day moving temporary fencing.

But I don’t have to choose! The two can occupy the same ground (stacking), at different times, and are mutually beneficial. Heck, throw in some trees, ponds and berries and we can really create some diversity! But that’s not the point of today’s story. Not at all. Heck, I can grow cows and corn and chickens on the same ground…over time. Gabe Brown is doing it (well, he doesn’t have broilers…) and his row-crop methods look pretty attractive.

But if you want to live in a world where the sun shines, the rain falls and your animals feed themselves…cows. Maybe you and a horse and a dog keep the herd together and moving from day to day. Maybe you use electric fence for the same purpose. But diesel fuel is not required. What if we measured non-renewable energy units consumed per pound of meat produced?

So I still suggest that cattle are more sustainable than chickens but I admit, I can probably raise more chicken on an acre than I can beef…and in less time. Solar-powered cattle are independent of fuel and grain prices and harvest their own feed. Stacking broilers and cattle together helps lower my all production costs by spreading land costs across additional profit centers while increasing soil fertility and at the same time, helping break parasite cycles among other benefits. Especially since we live right where chicken feed is grown.

So, yes dad, I can probably grow more pounds of chicken per acre than I can pounds of beef but one does not exclude the other. I’ll talk a little bit about specialization and exclusion next time.

Minks, Foxes and Murdered Chickens

Well, 6 ducks and a pullet. No pictures today.

It started this way. The fence was unplugged late last week.

Skip to the end, I come home from church Saturday night and find 5 dead ducks, one almost dead duck that couldn’t be pulled through the snow, a dead pullet (why do they never kill roosters!) and footprints in the snow. All bitten on the neck, nothing eaten. You know all those things they tell church people not to say? I’m ready to say them all. I hate minks. In all of creation I hate minks the most. They are smart hunters and viscous killers. A few years ago we lost 28 birds in one night to a mink.

If I hold the flashlight just right I can follow the track around the perimeter of the fence toward the big walnut tree and toward the iron pile. The iron pile.

I’m gonna git you sucka!

Gun in hand, I follow the track to the edge of the walnut tree’s canopy. At that point the snow is disturbed in a 100′ circle by snow that clumped on branches and fell off throughout the day. No more tracking. No shooting. No gittin’ suckas.

Just a long sleepless night.

Morning rolls around. Time to make the donuts. I take the flashlight out and hear the familiar duck greeting we are used to hearing. No additional casualties.  One duck is bloodied up but healing.

The fence is good and hot now. The ducks and hen will be rendered into cat food. Another day passes.

After checking that everything is cool outside I tuck into bed. At 4:30 I wake up. Time to make the donuts. I have a sickening feeling in my stomach. Maybe the mink found his way through the electric fence. Do I have any more ducks?

Once again, the familiar noise of ducks greets me. It’s kind of like the sound of laughter. Maybe cynnical laughter. I don’t particularly care for the ducks but I don’t want them to be killed by a mink.

The mink. He’s still out there. Somewhere. Hunting. Waiting. Searching. Biding his time. One sleepy night I won’t be paying attention and he’ll sneak in. Taking what is not his. And there will be little I can do about it.

Minks are skilled hunters and hard targets. I do have my trappers permit. It is season. But am I skilled enough? Will I kill the offending mink or just another mink?

Should I kill a mink?

Yesterday a fox ran past the cows in the pasture. We watched him stop, dig and hunt for mice then he jogged (do foxes jog?) to the pond to drink from the hole I cut in the ice. Finally he ran through the bottom East of the house. A few hours later I walked to the barn and a second fox was napping in the straw.

These predators can easily jump the electric fence and will help themselves to a chicken or two in the spring when they are feeding kits.

Should I kill a fox?

Maybe. My neighbors seem to think so. But fur is a fashion faux pas…for some reason. Like we are no longer a part of nature, just observers. Seems wasteful to just shoot it and let it rot. It’s kind of fun to see a fox run on the snow in the afternoon sun. They don’t kill all that many chickens (never roosters, only hens). How many mice do they kill?

Mr. Mink eats mice too. Do I value that service? I certainly don’t value serial killing of my ducks.

How do I balance this out? Shoot ‘em all?

I don’t know.

I think I have to decide what a problem is and only deal with the problem. A dead chicken here or there isn’t much of a problem, really. 30 in one night is a problem. We dealt with that problem. But maybe we only lost the 6 because I didn’t turn on the fence. My bad. Is killing a chicken a capital crime? I guess not. But killing 30…that’s something else.

Obviously I have no problem with shooting animals. That’s just part of the deal. In the Zombie Post-Apocalyptic world I’ll shoot zombies. Skunks have a lot in common with zombies. But another part of the deal is being judicious about taking life. Part of stewardship is managing for biodiversity. That includes diversity among natural predators. Right?

Fence is off? Shame on me. Keep coming back for more? Shame on you.

Short Days, Short on Eggs, Long on Math (Updated)

108 layers in our flock. 29 eggs yesterday. Some of that is my fault. Those birds were hatched in March and July of 2012. I chose not to raise pullets in 2013 (beyond a few we hatched for fun). If I had raised replacements in the spring, those younger birds would be laying well right now. The older birds are taking a little time off because the days are so short…and because they are tired.

Snapped from wunderground.com

Snapped from wunderground.com

And I’m OK with that. They worked hard all spring, summer and fall. Now it’s time for them to rest up and restart in February when the days get longer. I could put a light bulb out there but, well…come on. I know our customers are disappointed that we are so short on eggs right now but…can’t they have a little time off?

Julie met a couple nearby who raised pullets in the spring who have not slowed down at all. They are selling eggs for $2/dozen at a farmer’s market and say they are giving away a fair portion of their eggs. They just can’t sell them and they certainly can’t imagine charging $4 for eggs. The conversation went back and forth a little bit, “Walmart charges $4 for low-quality brown eggs.” but the main theme was Julie saying, “You can’t possibly be making any money at $2″ and them saying, “We do make money at $2.” So I thought it was a good time to review what it costs to produce a dozen eggs…cause there is just no way they are making money at $2.

I’ll assume their birds are outdoors which means they are not as feed efficient as other birds. According to Nutrena, a layer needs 0.21 pounds of feed per day. Let’s just call that 0.25 to adjust for outdoors and to make the math easier. This family is keeping 150 birds and says they pay $9 per bag of feed. I don’t know if that’s a 40 pound Nutrena bag or a 50 pound Purina bag so we’ll just say 50 pounds and give them the benefit of the doubt. 150 birds would need to eat 37.5 pounds of feed each day costing $6.75. A chicken lays an egg 2 days out of three. That means they should be getting 99 eggs/day. Let’s say none are cracked or stained so he gets 8 dozen eggs each day. $6.75/8 = $0.84. Maybe they feed garden waste or table waste to their birds to cut feed costs. I don’t have that information. I think you’ll see that even free feed wouldn’t help the situation.

He has $0.84 worth of feed in each dozen eggs he sells (assuming quite a bit in his favor). Because he is a licensed egg seller in Illinois he follows the rules. The rules say we have to use new egg cartons. He does. Egg cartons cost $0.30 at our scale weather you buy foam or pulp. Now we are up to $1.14 per dozen.

Each day the farmer has to feed and water the birds and gather the eggs. Then the eggs have to be washed, sorted, packed, weighed and labeled. Let’s call that an hour and let’s just suggest that an hour of that labor is worth $10. Now we’re at $2.39 per dozen eggs (assuming we’re selling 8 dozen each day).

We haven’t accounted for the 6 months of raising the young pullets when they weren’t laying any eggs and ate 10 pounds of feed each. We haven’t paid for the brooder they used. We haven’t paid for nest boxes, housing, roost space. We haven’t paid the Illinois egg inspection tax. We haven’t accounted for birds that will be killed by predators. We haven’t covered transportation as we haul them to a farmer’s market or paid for the booth at the farmer’s market…or paid for our time at the farmer’s market. Many of those costs are detailed in an older post. But forget all that. This producer is paying his customer $0.40 per dozen ($1,168 per year) and STILL has to give the eggs away. Heck, let’s break that down to one day. He’s getting up, trudging through the ice and snow, thawing drinkers, feeding chickens, cleaning nest boxes, gathering eggs, thawing waterers again, washing, packing, sorting, weighing and labeling eggs just so he can give his customers at least $3.20 every day. Wouldn’t it be better to just sit on the couch under a blanket? There are easier and funner ways to burn money!

If you are a customer of ours, I apologize that we are currently short on eggs. I apologize that our egg prices went up this year (and are likely to go up again in the spring). I know what it costs us to produce a dozen eggs. I know what it costs our business if I am unable to meet your demands for eggs. I realize I made a mistake in not raising pullets last spring. But, where I am today, working with what I have to work with and at our current scale, I feel it is best not to put a light on our birds to make them lay more eggs. Stick with us for just a little while longer. I know this is inconvenient but by March we’ll be swimming in eggs again.

Late update:
I found a couple of articles at OnPasture.com that addressed the egg issue well. There are also some articles linked on my original egg math posting.

Egg-onomics
Egg-onomics II

Broilers in the Late Fall?

I got an email from a friend asking about getting started with broilers. In summary, the local pastured chicken producers are planning to retire leaving a hole in the market and she is anxious to begin. I edited the email below slightly.

The “chicken people” at the local farmer’s market are throwing in the towel. They’re in their 70′s and are ready for retirement. As a result, there is no one selling chicken or eggs. When we asked them if they had eggs last weekend, they wanted to know if we were on the waiting list. And at the closest FM, the vendor sells out in 3 days after processing.

[My farmer] reminds me that there is a huge hole in the FM since there’s no one selling chicken. I remind him that we’re six months or so from being able to get some land. He goes on to say that we could do it at his farm. I come back with “but it’s 7 days/week and we work” and he responds with “if you buy the feed I’d be happy to move them and feed them when you can’t get out here”. The lady in front of me responds with “I’d be your first customer and if you raised turkeys I’d LOVE you”.

[Husband reminds her that they] don’t have a lot of time as it is and we would have to drive about 25 minutes each way to tend to the birds. We both work…

My thoughts are that we could raise the broilers here for 3 weeks and then move them out to the farm for the next 5 until they’re ready for processing. They could follow his cows on pasture. A win-win for them and us.

Potential problems:

1. We live in suburbia with crazy predator pressure…the raccoons visit the trash can every night and are not afraid of us. Perhaps electronet would be enough?

2. He does not have a LGD so again, there’s the predator issue. Electronet again?

3. The drive. That’s 2 gallons of gas every time we go out to move/feed the birds. About $7/visit

4. Profit. Based on your numbers and Joel’s book, it looks like we could make about $5/bird.

5. Processing equipment. I’ve checked Craigslist and other local sites to see if anyone is renting out their equipment and no luck so far. I wouldn’t consider purchasing it for this potential venture.

6. The split. I have no idea what [the farmer] would want out of this. Who knows…he may not want anything at all but even if he didn’t, that just doesn’t seem fair. What would be a fair compensation? Part of his real estate taxes? “Free” chicken? A monthly rent?

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Well, my first thought is that you sent this on October 5th. That means IF you can get chickens today you’re looking at a slaughter date on or after December 1st. Because day length gets so short and chickens go to bed early, your slaughter date will necessarily be after…like December 15th. I don’t know where you are but I don’t like butchering chickens in the cold. Where we are November and December can be cold, dark and rainy months…not the weather we want to tend to chickens in. Plus, you will be depositing a large quantity of manure on pasture that is going dormant in the cold…potentially leaving the ground without a blanket over the winter.

From there, let’s go through your questions one at a time.

1. Predator pressure in town.
You are right to be concerned. I’m always amazed at how many raccoons I see when I visit Sarasota, FL. Based on what I have seen, most major cities have similar problems. Add in little yippie neighbor dogs and stray cats and your little chicks are in for a rough time. That doesn’t make it impossible though. Electronet will add significant peace of mind if you keep it working daily but they don’t exactly give the stuff away. I have seen cats learn to jump right through the netting which leads me to believe skunks can do the same. You will have to be creative about dealing with predators as you are unlikely to impact the population level by trapping a few animals…just open up some territory.

2. Livestock Guard Dog
Yup…Electronet. To be specific I would go with single-spike PermaNet and plan to support the corners in wet weather. Again, this only goes so far. If your farmer will be moving the chicken tractor you’ll need to buy enough fence that he won’t have to move it too. Otherwise, your labor costs will eat you alive.

3. The Drive
Oh, golly! 25 minutes? No way. Deal breaker. Ain’t happenin’. If for no other reason just because of short days. You want to go visit your birdies after work? It will be dark.

4. Profit
Well, I don’t know what you are selling the birds for but if you spend $7 to drive out there a couple of times each week and pay a worker to move, feed and water the birds…not sure there is anything left over. Charge what you have to.

5. Processing Equipment
Really, this depends on how many birds you’re talking about. For 25 birds you just need a stock pot and a couple of sharp knifes. You could manage 250 birds with the same equipment but a Whizbang plucker starts looking pretty good as you move up from there.

6. The Split
This one is tough. I always calculate 3 minutes per chicken tractor per day not counting time spent walking to the field. That’s just filling water, feed and moving the birds. 3 minutes per day for 35 days spread across 60 birds in each tractor. You can calculate what you are willing to pay him based on the difference between your feed, chick, housing and fencing costs and your sale price. It might be better to contract with him…offer him $X for delivering Y birds at Z average slaughter weight on December 7th with a bonus for numbers or weights above those margins. Then you are hands-free, essentially buying a live bird, butchering it and doing the marketing. No 25 minute drive.

What I would strongly consider:
I wouldn’t want to put broilers out in the field this late in the year. It’s just too hard on the turf. If I were you I would consider raising 25 birds in a chicken tractor over a garden bed this year. Just leave the chicken tractor in one spot and add straw or wood chips regularly to “uppen the soil” as Andy Lee detailed in the book Chicken Tractor. You will want to protect the birds in your yard from predation but this would allow you to manage your birds on a daily basis, gaining your degree in Advanced Broiler Management along the way. You’ll have a freezer full of meat for your family, a few to sell or give to loved-ones and the foundation you need to start strong when you really launch your business in the spring.

Those are my thoughts. Hopefully other readers will chime in. Again, since you haven’t raised broilers previously, I would rather see you invest in portable infrastructure and keep a few birds at home then really launch when you move in the spring. Since it’s already fall you really shouldn’t be out on pasture.