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.

More Egg Math

Someone brought this to my attention. It’s from a Facebook posting for a farm in Oregon. No names are required. I’m not “telling them off”, just utilizing their example.

Every two months we order a one ton tote of verified GMO free, organic and locally produced chicken feed. It is the most expensive and high quality feed in our area. We believe this feed as a supplement to fresh pasture and organic veggies produces the best eggs possible for our members. Every year we spend about $6,000 on chicken feed. We sell all of our eggs which totals to 850 dozens and we sell them for $6.50 per dozen. That means this year we will lose about $800 on our eggs. So the question becomes, do we raise our prices? or do we buy poorer quality feed resulting in poorer quality eggs? This is a question that the farmer faces everyday but the consumer is the one to answers it.

The detail that they buy “the most expensive and high quality feed in our area” amuses me. You have to pay the most to get the best? Really? Are you sure you are getting the best or are you just paying the most and making an assumption? And I really have a lot to say about “verified” GMO-free feed and the quality of protein available in substitutes. Anyway.

Let’s start with his egg production numbers. He says he gets 850 dozen eggs/year and loses about $800 on eggs (If you do the math he loses $475 on feed but let’s just run with his numbers).  That’s 2.3 dozen/day. Let’s say they raise their prices to $12/dozen ($1 per egg!). That brings egg revenue up from $5,525 to $10,200…which is a good thing because his calculation above doesn’t count land usage, fencing, housing, labor, etc.

But let’s look at his numbers again.

He’s buying in bulk, getting a one ton tote – 2000 pounds, same as 40 bags – for, apparently $1,000. That’s $25 per bag of feed. High but not entirely out of the question. We pay significantly less but we live where the corn and beans are grown and our customers aren’t demanding non-GMO organic. They’re delighted with fresh, orange-yolked eggs that taste good and come from healthy birds out on healthy pasture. But I digress.

The farmer in question gets 10,200 (850 * 12) eggs each year…or around 27 eggs/day. Let’s say they get 30 eggs and throw away 3 that are checked, cracked, stained or misshapen. A chicken lays 2 eggs every three days. Really good ones lay an egg every 28 hours. Let’s pretend there is no winter. To get 30 eggs you would need (30/.66) 45 birds…as two thirds of the birds are laying each day…right? He’s feeding 2,000 pounds of feed every two months, or 33 pounds of feed every day or 22 pounds of food per chicken per month. My birds don’t eat that much but maybe my chickens are freaks so I did a quick search of the internets and I found that a laying hen (probably in confinement) should eat 10 pounds of feed every month and they tend not to overeat. He’s going through more than twice that amount of feed. So I guess they have at least twice that number of birds and they aren’t laying well…which could either be an indication of bad genetics, age or maybe his high-quality feed isn’t high-quality enough.

Now, I’m skeptical of the 10 pound figure. First because it comes from Nutrena. They don’t use whole grains…it’s like giving your chickens snickers bars. But the article suggests correctly that free-range birds can harvest some portion of feed for themselves…at least, for a portion of the year. We feel that we need to feed our chickens whole grains (even if shattered) rather than processed remainders. We also take our mineralization and pro-biotics seriously. If the chicken itself has unhealthy gut flora she can’t digest and absorb her food efficiently (and we feel this applies to ourselves as well). I don’t want those minerals to just slip right through the bird. With that in mind, with very little searching, I found this quote from a Backyard Chickens member:

I have 61 in my free ranging flock and I go through 200 lbs of feed a month.

UPDATE:
As Craig pointed out in the comments below, that figure is pretty extreme. In fact, it is almost as extreme as 20 pounds of feed per chicken. I apologize. Craig’s numbers, my numbers and several others I have spoken to are more in the 7 pounds/bird range when on pasture. If you are unhappy with my calculations for the number of chickens involved, calculate the pounds of feed per egg. I think that may better illustrate the lack of efficiency the farmer in this example is ignoring.

I don’t know what the revenue picture is for the farm (though Facebook indicates they are building a big new barn) but it looks to me like they could save a little money and, probably, a lot of time if they would stop raising chickens for eggs…or, at least, abandon the chickens they are currently raising. Rather than transport 3 pounds of feed to Oregon maybe he should transport 1 pound of eggs and spend additional time planting, weeding and marketing produce. Do 2 dozen eggs/day really bring in enough customers to justify paying them to take the eggs? As you know, I’m dealing with similar issues here.

Eggs: Cheaper By the Dozen (Updated)

So, how do we make money on the farm? Well, we really don’t make much but opportunities abound. Today I’m going to talk about eggs and my answer is decidedly nonlinear. Further, the numbers I use may not apply to you at all but the process involved will at least provide you with the base questions to ask to determine profitability. Remember, price is determined by customers. It’s harder to find customers for $10 eggs than for $1 eggs. It’s hard to find chickens that lay eggs you can sell for $1/dozen. We currently sell $4 eggs. The money we make helps us move the farm forward, even if slowly. I’m happy to offer this transparency to our customers and readers. You should know what you are buying…what you are supporting…and what you are getting into. I have to make money to continue farming. If you think I’m making too much money (lol!) you can pursue other options.

I always enjoy talking to new customers after they have tried their first dozen eggs. Quite often they go on and on about taste, texture and color. Based on customer feedback and my own experience, we make the best egg in the world. However, no matter how good our eggs are, I won’t stay in business if I don’t count the cost. We have to figure out what it costs to sell eggs. Again, I won’t work for free. I need to make good use of my time. If eggs aren’t worth doing, we’ll make soup. This was originally posted on The Survival Podcast Forum but I have revised the numbers slightly.

Here’s what my numbers look like with additional detail below. Keep in mind we’re small potatoes so economy of scale works against us. Also realize I have been known to make errors in my math.
Costs (per day):
Chicks – $0.005
Feed – $6.72
Fencing: $0.27
Housing – $0.34
Egg handling – $1.89
Those costs total $9.265/day or $0.154/sellable egg (60 eggs/day annual average)…$1.85 per dozen before labor. I usually just say $2.

We retail eggs for $4/dozen and seasonally wholesale a portion of our eggs so we’re really looking at a gross of $19.50 and a net of $10.25/day, again, before labor. Labor includes moving chicken houses, feeding, watering, collecting the eggs then cleaning and sorting the eggs. This is unskilled labor and is valued on the market at less than $8/hour. (Probably much less than $8/hour.) That means I have to make darned I wrap up my work quickly or the farm is losing money.
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Now the boring details. My feed is not organic. It is not non-GMO (Sorry for the double negative). I use the Fertrell poultry rations and grind my own.

Last year’s pullets cost me an average of $1.80 each. I bought 350 then sold 225 of them for $5 each at 8 weeks…basically covering the costs of all birds up to 8 weeks. This covers electricity, water, brooders, shipping and feed. So I’m starting at 2 months from zero. 3 months to go before the first egg.

I raised my pullets on the alfalfa field. The cost per day of using the alfalfa field is a wash against the benefit of the manure they put down and the minerals from their feed. I feed them broiler mash until 2 weeks before onset of lay. Last year broiler mash cost me $26.92/hundred to grind myself. 125 birds ate an average of 15# of feed per day for that period of time so we’re looking at $4/day to feed 125 birds until their first egg. Again, the bird was free for the first two months. I have 75 days of feeding at $4/day spread across 125 birds in the flock. Let’s say 120 birds in the flock because at some point last spring a raccoon ate 5 of them. (Dad and I took turns sitting out all night every night for a week and never saw him.) So, at point of lay, each bird cost me $2.46. That has to be recuperated over the remaining 18 months of productive chicken life…or an additional half cent per day.

As adults, the birds get a slightly different ration that costs $27.14/hundred for me to grind. During the winter they tend to eat more than summer but the flock averages 20 pounds of mash and 5-7 pounds of oats each day. Oats cost me $20/hundred so let’s say $1.20 worth of oats each day and $5.42 of layer mash totaling $6.62/day for chicken feed plus $0.10 per day for the range feeder (assuming it lasts 10 years). We get 80-90 eggs/day from those same now 110 birds (predation is an issue) and to make the math easier, I’ll suggest to you we get a yearly average 60 eggs/day that are grade AA Large. The balance are cracked, stained, misshapen or small. 5 dozen eggs are salable. With me so far?

The birds spend their lives (2 years) surrounded by four lengths of PermaNet. That’s a $660 investment plus a solar energizer that cost $350. The fencing and charger, spread over 10 years, divided out to a per-day cost takes us to $0.27 cents/day.

The birds live in two simple hoop structures that also should last 10 years. Each hoop costs $200 to build plus two nest boxes for $180 each, again spread over 10 years adds another $0.21 per day. If we winter in a high tunnel the cost of the tunnel is spread between the livestock we keep there and the produce we grow the rest of the year. Since we bought the tunnel used the cost per day is pretty low. If we apply the entire cost directly to the chickens we need to add $0.13 to the cost every day.

I pay $0.31 for unprinted paper egg cartons. I sell 5 dozen eggs/day so that’s $1.86/day. We collect our eggs in baskets or plastic egg trays daily. For sake of completion I’ll add those in at $0.03 per day.

Now, labor. For months we moved our pullets every day, never getting a dime (beyond manure value which we washed against alfalfa field usage). Now, every day we move the layer houses (1 minute each), feed, water and gather eggs (15 minute round trip from the house). Then we wash, grade, sort and pack eggs (1 minute/dozen). 23 minutes of time against $10.25. Really the margin isn’t very good but that’s why it is not a primary enterprise. Salatin says a layer should make you $12 over the course of her life. I’d say that’s about right. But having eggs to sell puts our label in a family’s kitchen every day of the week. Once we get our eggs in the kitchen we go ahead and sell a chicken. Then half a hog. Each of these operations is increasingly profitable.

You can see from that, once you calculate the value of your time, eggs are a hard way to make a living. Without paying a dime for labor we are in the neighborhood of $3,000 from egg sales this year and we only worked for 23 minutes each day…not counting time spent sourcing and grinding feed, checking water extra times on hot days, sleeping in the pasture to deal with whatever has been hunting my birds or just marketing product. My true labor average may be more like an hour per day. Also, the layers don’t lay steadily year round. At some point production will drop below 3 doz/day but costs will remain relatively the same. Finally, as my friend Matron of Husbandry would point out, those chickens are eating bugs and dropping manure…that’s worth something. I also left off a charge for land use which varies between $50 and $200 per acre (though that is likely an expense shared by additional enterprises). All of that is the nonlinear part of this equation. Too many things vary. I didn’t even account for the possibility of a tornado blowing the birds away or a mink killing them all in one night. Adjusting vaguely for those missed values, we can begin to see Salatin’s argument more clearly. Once we pay our labor, each layer may only be making us $12 over the course of her life (and I suspect that includes selling her as a stewing hen).

Obviously economies of scale apply but I really don’t believe moving to 3,000 hens would boost annual farm income (before labor costs) to $72,000. I would have a heck of a time retailing 144 dozen eggs each day. Wholesale numbers would have to go up so margins would drop but, sticking with the $12/bird notion, spread over two years, after labor your 3,000 laying hen operation could bring in $14,000-$18,000 each year to the farm keeping someone very, very busy for 4-6 hours each day.

We prefer to keep the laying flock between 100 and 150 birds as a sideline business. Though marginally profitable, we don’t see it as a mainline enterprise. Just a part of the whole.  Remember what a cow costs? Individually, these enterprises won’t sustain us. Taken together, we have a chance.

UPDATE:
I had some offline correspondence with Matron of Husbandry who sent me a couple of links. I particularly appreciated the breakdown listed in this post. I came to $1.85 before labor because I didn’t count brooder costs, having supported that phase by selling pullets. That author comes to something on the order of $2.61 before labor, though the post lists something on the order of $5/dozen including labor and includes chick and brooder costs each year of production. Do the math any way you like as my math may be wrong and your numbers will be different. Selling eggs is a hard way to make a living.

Should I raise my prices? Probably. Should I just stop keeping layers? Maybe. But how boring would that be?

Broilers and Layers

In recent years I have been running my layer flock in the same fencing with our broiler chicken tractors.  This presents certain problems but solves some others.  In short, the layers always seem to find a way to get where they don’t belong but the layers clean up the feed the broilers leave behind. They also knock down the forage ahead of the tractors as they hunt for insects.  That kind of helps when moving the tractors but it slightly soils the clean sheets we give the broilers each day.

Layers

Anyway, we have run this way for several years and I always swear I won’t do it anymore.  But it’s kind of nice to only have one set of fence to move.