Mundane Monday

The title is borrowed from my friends at Union Homestead, and suits the day perfectly.  Mondays are often my catch up day, as my official work shifts at the library are Thu/Fri/Sat.  I usually have at least one other work day as well, so even my “weekend” is not always 2 days together,  It can make it hard to stay focussed on larger projects, hence my marathon 5 day challenge with the chicken house a while back.

So, how did my mundane Monday shape up?

The morning was not too bad for outside work – the sky was looming a bit, and there was the odd spatter of rain, but by and large it was not unpleasant working outside.

My current project is taking out the fence that is between run 1 and 2 of the hen house.  If you were around for my 5 day challenge, I repaired the fence between run 4 and run 3.  After the challenge, I just kept going on fences, and managed to get the fence between 3 and 2 repaired fairly easily.  The one I’m working on now is a different matter – the wire was down in one or two places and grass, thistles and brambles were growing through, making it difficult to remove.  All the posts but one have to come out as they’re leaning so badly, and part of that fence is actually part of an old “temporary” cattle chute put in about 20 years ago by the guy who used to do our hay before Hay Guy took it over – the other guy used to put his dry cows on our field after the hay season was over.  The posts for the cattle chute have rotted underground and the whole thing wobbles when chickens land on the top bar before flying over – clearly a piece of fence that is not doing it’s job.  I’ve done about 2 mornings on this fence so far, and this proved to not be the final day.  The wire is off as far as the cattle chute, and the T posts are all out.  I’ve started hacking the blackberries away from the wooden part of the fence, and there I’ve had to stop. I still have to remove the cattle chute and quite a bit of blackberry before I can start putting fence up again.

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Fence 1/2 before I started work this morning.


Mid-morning, a customer came to get the last three of the point of lays hens I’d advertised last month.  She had come a few weeks ago, and asked me to reserve some for her, as she wasn’t ready to receive them at her end – she has an existing flock, and was worried that one or two of them might have an infection, and didn’t want to bring home new birds till she knew her birds were clear.  Last week, she made contact to come and fetch the three I’d held back for her.  Gillian and her husband have a small acreage in a community just north of me, and have a cottage bakery business called Willowtree Bread, from which they make and sell artisanal breads, veggies and plant starts, and honey…and probably, if my hens are up to scratch, eggs as well!  We had a good chat while catching the birds and stowing them in their dog crate in the car, and later, when I’d had glanced at her website, I realized my chickens don’t know how lucky they are to have landed up there – they will be free ranging, and living out their days to a ripe old age with a great deal of TLC.

Lunch with a book was blissful – melted cheese on bread with the scrag ends of some pancetta left over from some fancy hors d’oeuvres the high school teen had made a couple of days ago as her contribution to the finger food at the fundraiser for her Global Perspectives class.  I don’t mind leftovers like that one bit.  I could see it was doing a bit more than spattering out, so I had a second cup of tea while I turned a few more pages in my book (Restorative Agriculture – Mark Shepard), and when I looked up again, it had settled down to a steady rain, so I got out my duster and started on house work.  An hour of that was more than enough, and I was rescued around 430 by the arrival home from school of the 16 yr old.  A cup of tea and a chat later, she disappeared to do homework, while I nipped out to get the last of the eggs and shut the hens in.  Have I mentioned we’re finally back in eggs?  About 13/day, all tiny pullet eggs – it’s a bit like russian roulette cracking them open – some are mini double yolkers, some are yolkless altogether.  We did our first egg sales on Saturday in fact, and hubby took a couple of dozen to work today.

Thanks to hubby’s cooking effort yesterday (a magnificent crockpot meal of smoked pork hocks in cabbage and ale, with roast veg and mashed potatoes on the side), there were tons of leftovers, so  today’s supper was a no-brainer – hash. While I was slaving over that, I remembered belatedly that I was supposed to be contributing baked goods to a staff bake sale tomorrow, a fundraiser for United Way.  So I got going on some cranberry muffins and swotted up a recipe that would make a lot of cookies with the ingredients I actually had on hand, so I could dig into that after supper.  Only two of us home, so it  was a casual meal and some convivial washing up. She stuck around till the first batch came out of the oven and then settled into more homework, warm cookie in hand.

The cookie factory wound down around 9 pm, and the kitchen looks normal again.  Hubby and the university girl (he was with clients, she was studying late) are finally on their way home, so we’ve packaged up the ones for the bake sale, stashed the remainder in a cookie jar and kept one or two out for the latecomers.

And that’s the kind of day it’s been here at gloomy, wet, Sailors Small Farm. Definitely a good day to be in a farm house kitchen baking cookies instead of out at sea, with frozen fingers, water dripping off my nose, and damp coming through the seams of the wet weather gear. I don’t miss some of the good old days at all.

Nest Box Construction

In my dim and distant impoverished youth I bought and assembled my fair share of Ikea furniture, and today that skill set came into it’s own.  A couple of years ago, I bought a 10 hole conventional nest box set, and it came flat packed, just like the bookcases used to.

My hen house had perfectly functional wooden nest boxes we’d made years ago, but I’d bought these metal ones with a view to switching when we switched flocks.  The wooden ones are fine, but can be difficult to clean out.  My brother has the metal nest boxes, and he’d shown me how you can pop the bottom out of a single nest to clean it if need be.  I was pretty impressed with the idea of being able to raise the perching bar to close the boxes off at night, too – my brother doesn’t bother, but Salatin and many others do.  Broodies and other birds often want to nest or roost in the boxes at night, requiring more clean outs, and I’m getting tired of that.  With this new flock getting used to the patched up hen house, it was time to get the nest boxes put together.

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See the instruction sheet?  The writing on that top half of the sheet is all the writing there was.  The part that’s folded over is a very hard to decipher diagramme of where the two different types of screws are supposed to go.  The top half of the text you see in the picture is just the contents list.  The little paragraph after that is the sum total of actual instruction.

This wasn’t exactly like putting together a bookcase, however, because the contents included 73 pop rivets.  I had to go and check these out on Google.  Every single hit said you needed a riveting gun to use them.  So then I had to go to YouTube to see how the tool was used.  And then, because riveting guns are bigger and more expensive than Allen keys, and therefore not included with every flat pack of nest boxes, I had to find one that I could use.

Ten minutes later I was walking briskly down to Hay Guy’s workshop, where he was glooming over a hydraulic something or other from his excavator that has stripped threads, which even I could tell was a Bad Thing.  However, he demonstrated how to use the riveting gun and chatted for a minute before I headed back up the road to my project.

Two hours later, I was able to return the riveting gun, my nest boxes fully assembled and looking like the real deal. Of course, the birds don’t need them yet, but now I’ve got them ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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In addition to swanky new nest boxes, I’ve acquired a new skill, should the need to use pop rivets every arise again.  And yes, HFS, this project wasn’t difficult to do after all.  You were right.

Crescendo e decrescendo

I knew it was coming, the busy part of my farming season. I remembered the rhythm of it from last year, and knew what to expect, but it still hit hard, I think because of the heat we had this summer.

We started quietly enough, just the layers we have had for more than a year. In May, the two piglets arrived, and chores increased slightly. Things were still pretty easy though – the piglets were small and easily contained for a month, eating enthusiastically, but nothing like what they would consume in just a few months. In early July, the 75  new layer chicks arrived and we were tending the brooder as well as the pigs and layers. We butchered a few layers over the course of a couple of weeks, in preparation for giving the hen house and runs a rest before the new flock was to occupy it in the fall (that would be now) fully intending to get the rest of them a couple of weeks later, which never happened. By now, the pigs had been out on pasture for a bit, and daily fence checks were required. They were eating a lot more, growing fast.

At the end of July, just as the really hot part of the summer hit us, 150 broiler chicks arrived and we were hopping. We had 225 chicks in the brooder, in different pens, and it was a nightmare trying to keep the temperature right in there, keep on top of bedding, etc. Chores were now four or five times a day. We left for our anniversary jaunt to Pt Townsend for a couple of days, and the girls were exhausted managing everything on their own in the heat. Once we were back, the broilers went out on pasture and I thought things would settle down, but the heat meant the birds were drinking far more than they usually do out there, necessitating 3 visits daily to keep the 5 gallon water jugs topped up.

The fortissimo moment…One of the pigs had an allergic reaction in early September, causing a lot of anxiety and a vet visit, though by the time the vet saw her, the pig was her normal happy, assertive self. “Something she ate”, the vet suggested. Probably. The broilers went to the processor in late September, and the pullets immediately left the brooder (yes, they were still in there – and not happy about it) and took over the field pens. Things got calmer, even though I was still moving pens daily. The pullets handle the heat better, and in addition, the nights were cooler. The pigs got loaded up last Saturday night, and left Sunday morning for the abattoir – I was too sick to go, and felt very forlorn as hubby and Bryce departed up the driveway, one of the pigs gazing at me in puzzlement through the lattice on the back of the trailer. To suit my mood, the rain began that day and continued for about 4 days.

And suddenly, Autumn has arrived. A new season. I feel hope and optimism again, after months of feeling like I was just barely holding things together, rushing from water jug to bucket to hose, keeping gardens and animals hydrated. I’ve cooked two good meals in the past week after a season where I barely cooked a single meal – using the kitchen mainly to preserve fruit or throw my stuff down as I grabbed a cup of coffee. The pace is so different. My focus is on cleaning up and putting away, trying to think how I will want things in the spring. There’s paperwork sitting waiting for another rainy spell.  As I putter away at my quiet, mundane cleaning up tasks, I’m pondering next year – should I scale up?  Should I scale down?  What went well this year, what needs to change?  I’ve been reflecting all summer that my body had a tougher time physically than in years past – it’s only been the last month where I haven’t been falling into bed aching from head to toe.  Now that I finally feel physically adjusted, the need for all those adapted muscles has ceased, and it has occurred to me that maybe I should get into a strength training class or something so that I maintain some minimum level of strength for next season.

It’s not over precisely – those darn old layers are still hale and hearty, escaping all over the place and grudgingly producing 5 or so eggs a day (18 birds). I don’t have much longer before the serious wet weather begins, and I must have the pullets off the field by then. Garlic needs to go in the ground, and I’m still dithering about exactly where that spot is going to be this year. I picked my last bucket of tomatoes today so that I can dehydrate them, which will be an evenings work tomorrow night.  I have a few rows of potatoes left to dig up.   The pigs bedding needs to go out on the field, and I want Hay Guy to come and harrow the pig pasture a couple of times to level it a bit, so that I can throw some seed on it, and he can harrow it again. There’s some fence mending as well. And if the weather holds, I need to try and finish the eaves on the west side of the house. So it’s not over. But it has slowed down, and feels more peaceful. I’m ready for a bit of pianissimo.

Future Egg Layers

We got the call from Canada Post around 0715, in the middle of feeding pigs and letting out hens, so headed out right away. We got the chicks home by about 0745.  By 0815, they were all in the brooder, checking out their new surroundings and figuring out food and water.  We always dip their beaks in water when we’re transferring them from the shipping box to the brooder, and it’s also the last time I count them for quite a while.  You’re not supposed to count your chickens before they hatch, but let me tell you, they’re pretty hard to count once they’re running around.

We received a total of 78 chicks;  our eldest daughter wanted to start her own laying flock, so she ordered 25 random assortment (the hatchery chooses pullets from five different breeds – it’s probably a way to make use of odd numbers left over after large orders), and I ordered 50 Rhode Island Reds.  This hatchery usually includes a few extra in case of mortalities, and so that makes our 78.  Guessing from the colour of the chicks, my daughter thinks she got about 12 Red Rock Cross (the black chicks) and about 15 Columbian Rock (the big white chicks).  There are at least 2 we’re not sure about – one is a milk chocolate colour and one is kind of multi coloured.  I guess the chance of at least one rooster should be considered as well.

Looking at these little balls of fluff scooting around, it’s hard to believe they’ll be egg laying pullets in 5 months.  Christmas.  That’ll be interesting, seeing how they come into lay during the short daylight hours of winter, when hens usually lay very few eggs.  That’s something I didn’t really consider when I was ordering them, so we’ll just be back on the learning curve again.  Like we’re every really NOT on it.

Catching up

We’re in that place in the seasons where we’re feeling like it’s a bit of a race to keep up with everything. Since I posted about the farm just over a month ago, we’ve covered a lot of ground, and can’t really say the end ribbon is in sight yet.

First off, my computer succumbed to a virus, so no pictures for a while till I get it back from the fix it guys. In the meantime, I’m limited to the computers at work.

We got 150 broiler chicks at the end of July, and now have portable, modular wooden sides for the brooder set up in that house – a huge improvement over the cardboard I’d been using for the last 3 years. 150 chicks is double what we raised last year and involved a learning curve in brooding yet again. We specifically chose to raise two batches at once (I consider 70 to be a batch, as that is what fits in the field pens), thinking that with the warm steady weather we typically get in August, brooding would be easy, and their first week on the field would occur before the rain usually starts around the end of the month.

Well, we guessed pretty well with the weather, and certainly keeping them warm wasn’t an issue. However, double the number of chicks in the same amount of brooder space required a LOT more carbon material (wood chips in my case), and it was a constant battle to keep this in sufficient ratio to keep them dry and things smelling OK. Also, we barely had enough chick feeders, and by the second week found ourselves having to replenish these every couple of hours. The whole family was trained to go check chicks every time they came or went anywhere. In that first two weeks, we had planned to build the second field shelter that we had bought all the wood and sheet metal for, but off farm work and family stuff got in the way, and by the middle of the third week, we still just had a pile of lumber and a stack of sheet metal. So to relieve the pressure in the brooder, we put half the flock out in the one shelter we already had, leaving about 75 in the brooder, which definitely helped on the number of visits we needed to make through the day, but meant that we were now tending chicks in two places on the farm, as well as doing other chores, as well as trying to tackle the new field shelter.

We got the second field shelter finished last week, and the rest of the birds have been out on the field for about 5 days. There are still 4 in the brooder – a runt that is about 1/4 the size of the rest of the flock, one that I injured moving a pen, and 2 other small birds that I originally kept back to keep the runt company. They’re all growing quite well without the pressure from the rest of the flock, and will probably join the field birds when the rain stops this weekend.

Building the field shelter was something else – you’d think that living in the Pacific Northwest, where we are forests as far as the eye can see, that getting quality lumber relatively inexpensively would be a no brainer. Not so. My options were to get good quality, very expensive wood that was meant for indoor, finishing work, or to go out in the yard and get what the trade apparently calls SPF – for Spruce/Pine/Fir – except that it’s not pine, and not fir. Don’t ask me why they don’t just call it spruce. Whatever it is, it’s crap wood. Warped, twisted, full of knots, and splits when you gouge it with a fingernail (well, almost). We asked for exterior grade fir. Can’t be had – it’s all exported. Two days of working after work got the shelter built, but the truth is, it’s unlikely to last as long as the one we built three years ago – the wood is just so bad. We paint our shelters, by the way – we get so much wet weather here, that paint is a way of holding them together a bit longer.

One of the reasons for doing 150 at once was to economize on the processing day. Running up-island with a rented vehicle costs about $150 round trip (includes the rental and the gas). Last year we made the trip twice, different months, with 75 birds or so each time. It made sense to put them all in one load if we could, and this had the added bonus of giving us the volume price break at the processor as well – instead of $4.10/bird, we will only be paying $3.85/bird. We have also had to invest in more poultry crates for this to work, which were not cheap (about $60/each), but they should last us decades, and we considered them an investment. The birds go to the processor September 17th, and then the chore roster will seem pretty empty.

Lessons learned in the brooder were many. If I’m going to brood that many again, I need to have a much deeper layer of carbon down before the chicks arrived (my initial layer was only about 2 inches)…they were producing so much moisture the existing layer couldn’t absorb it and it was probably pooling at the impermeable (lino flooring) layer. I also need a source of much smaller shavings than what my feed store can provide – the big shavings just don’t do the job. I now have enough chick feeders, unlike when we started. The plywood walls worked well. Brooding in early August worked well. Double the number of chicks means double the quantity of feed (I was frequently caught short, and rushing into the feed store 2 minutes before they closed to grab another 4 bags…). I would say that 150 is my maximum brooding capacity for the configuration we have right now.

It might seem from this that broilers are the only thing happening here, but in fact the pigs are growing steadily, and providing challenges themselves. While we were cutting the metal roofing for the field shelter, the high pitched noise of the saw drove the pigs berserk, and they rampaged around their paddock, taking out a whole chunk of electric fence in the process. Fortunately, this was not their first fence fiasco, and there is enough permanent fence up to keep them contained, so we didn’t have to chase them down. Unlike the first time they got out a few weeks ago, when we got back from dinner out, to see the pigs greeting us on the driveway (about 30 feet from their paddock). This was my own fault, as it turned out they’d performed a trick I’d watched them do more than once – simply pulled out a few of the portable fence posts that hold the electric wire (they grab the foot thing at the bottom of the post with their mouth and wiggle it back and forth till the post is loose enough to pull out), and stepped out. Four hours later, at midnight, we stood back and admired the new permanent fence (well semi-permanent – 7 ft metal T posts hammered in 2 ft with hog wire) that cost us nothing much worse than a lot of time and a mashed finger (not mine). In daylight the next morning, it was clear the line we’d chosen wasn’t exactly straight, but it does keep pigs in, and it survived the rampage last week.

The 4-H lady we bought the piglets from had told us to just borrow the scales from the fairgrounds (across the road from us) when we wanted to weigh them, but this requires a truck, which we don’t have, so I did the string measurement method a month ago, and learned that the pigs at that point (Aug 3) were about 155 lbs each, give or take. They are getting processed in early October, so they’re about on track. The string method of weighing sounds like something out of Lilliput, but according to Walter Jefferies of Sugar Mountain Farm,  my “go to” guy for all things pig, it’s pretty accurate.

The pigs enjoyed the dropped plums a month ago, and though I fretted about the pits (which aren’t good for them), they seemed to mostly spit them out, so I relaxed.  Now we’re into dropped pears and apples, and there is a lot of hopeful pacing by the fence when I go by with a 5 gallon bucket (in case it has good things in it).  We’re having a really bad year for wasps, so this ability between the pigs and the chickens to keep getting rid of all the drops is really helpful.

We had family from Ontario visit the second week of August, which was fun and made a nice change of pace, since with so many critters on the farm, getting away for camping or the beach really hasn’t been possible. We got to do a couple of touristy things, eat out, and chat up a storm, about things not related to pigs or chickens. Just before they came, younger daughter and I did a volunteer stint up the fairgrounds weeding and sprucing up the beds in front of the main buildings, along with a cadre of other volunteers – a mix of farmers, gardeners and retirees, we enjoyed a bunwich supper afterwards which was full of interesting local gossip.

The laying birds (about 55 or so) have been a ruddy pain in the neck.  Before the broilers came, I was working on mending some of their fences, but I had to drop that task when the chicks in the brooder took over my life.   The reason I was mending fence is because the layers live in a permanent house with four large runs through which I rotate them, with access to a fifth from three of them (consider it my stockpile paddock).  This is not an ideal set up, but I’m a bit stuck with it in the short term, not least because it has power and water hooked up, making me reluctant to give it up (no other barn or outbuilding has this).  Our long term plan is to transition this flock to two eggmobile type structures, only small, so that I can move them myself – with electronet around them, so that I can pasture these birds out on the hayfields.  This would be better for the birds, easier on my fencing abilities, and improve the fields – BUT – when we are going to get the construction on those shelters done, I have no idea, and we will also continue to need somewhere for them to live in the winter (the fields are far too wet Dec-early Apr).  Hence the permanent chicken house continuing.  Anyway, to get back to the topic, the fences between the runs are full of holes, and the chickens have learned that if they push hard enough they can create a hole almost at will.   So instead of resting three runs and using a fourth, the hens are basically free ranging over all 4, as well as the lawn, the garden and occasionally my neighbour’s garden.  A lot of time is wasted chasing them back from places they shouldn’t be, and a lot of eggs are lost to nests deep in blackberry thickets.   Moreover, when things got busy with broilers, I got behind on chicken house maintenance and the nest boxes ran low on hay.  Eggs broke, which led to egg eating, which is bad.  Because now the birds have developed a taste for the eggs, and despite getting back to better nest box maintenance, the damage is done, and broken eggs are a constant find.  This has led to collecting eggs 3 or 4 times daily, using up more time no one really has. I would do this flock in in 2 seconds if I could realistically get a new flock up and laying before Christmas, but I refuse to buy point of lays around here as they come from the commercial side of things, always debeaked, always ISA Browns, often in poor condition, and I’ve missed the hatchery deadline for layer chicks. So, we’re just going to have to make the best of things, and make do with this flock for now.

One of the escapee hens turned out to be broody, as we discovered this week, when she appeared out of a blackberry bush with 2 wee chicks.  The odds of this happening were incredibly low – first off, the rooster is my lame “Rusty” – who, let’s face it, is no longer quite as assertive as he used to be, and is also the lone rooster with 55 hens.  Also, these hens are hybrids, bred for laying (Red Sussex), so though we’ve had a few go broody, I wouldn’t have expected a lot of dedication to seeing the job through.  It’s rained every day since those two chicks hatched, and she was down to 1 within 24 hours.  Since then, I’ve managed to pen her and her chick, mainly to keep them safe from the many predators around just now (the cat, eagles, ravens), and also dry.  I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with one lone chick, which given the sort of odds with egg hatching, is most likely a rooster – in the long term, he’ll either replace Rusty or get eaten, but meantime housing him once the hen is done being a mama is a question mark. One of the kids suggested we get serious about letting all the broodies set and see what we can get in replacement birds that way, but assuming this worked, we’d be dealing with chicks till Christmas – and I think I’d lose my sanity.

The World Youth Climbing Championships took place the 15th-19th August, and both eldest daughter and I were volunteers, she as a judge for the lead/difficulty climbing, myself in registration and as a backup timer for speed.  It was an amazing experience to be part of something international like this – 35 countries participating – almost 500 athletes.  It was the first time this event has been held in North America, so there were large Canadian and American teams (47 from the US!), as well as the usual strong representation from Japan, Russia and France, where sport climbing is better established.  For me, registration really brought home what it entails for a family to support an international caliber athlete – I registered 2 youth who were each the sole representatives of their countries (Slovakia and Serbia).  Each had a parent as their coach, and were familiar with the European competition circuit but had not travelled off their continent before.  With none of the sponsorship or government subsidy that youth from larger countries got, these families paid for the competition, spent months getting visas from Canadian embassies beset with rotating strikes and work to rule situations, and paid for flights and hotels.  Just so their child could have a 4 day opportunity to compete at this event.  Neither of the two athletes I’m referring to here had podium finishes, but the youth from Slovakia managed to get into the semi-finals for lead climbing, and I felt almost as proud as his own parents must have felt.   There’s a lot of footage and photographs on the web for the event, but here’s a highlight clip:

And that’s the kind of month August was. With school for the younger daughter beginning in less than a week, and the midway being set up across the road at the Fairgrounds as we speak, summer is starting to feel over. I have buckets of pears to can, buckets of blackberries to make into jelly, and in the background, as one of the committee fondly dubbed “The Feasties”, I am starting to gear up for the community harvest feast taking place in less than a month. When we sit down to enjoy all that turkey and fixings, I will know we’re heading into fall.

Potluck dinner

“Bring your own chair and something yummy to share”.

If, like me, you have chickens and sell eggs, what do you take to parties like this?   Why, Devilled Eggs of course!

Now, I am not the best devilled egg maker in the family.  My big effort at making them special was to sprinkle chives on top.  My husband and older daughter each have “secret” ingredients – one uses anchovy paste, one uses tabasco, and I must say their devilled eggs do have that extra zip.  My simple recipe didn’t seem to matter, though.  I brought home an empty dish.

How about you?  What’s your standby for potlucks?  Secret ingredient?

Joel Salatin workshop part 4 – Cattle, poultry and more

Polyface Farm has many enterprises going on all year round.  In spring and summer, most animals are out on pasture, in the winter, most are brought in or processed.  This post looks primarily at stocking density for cattle, the various poultry enterprises on the farm – eggs, pasture sanitization, broilers and turkeys, and a few words about Daniel Salatin’s rabbit enterprise.

Cattle: stocking density – this is rough, depends on grass quality, animals, climate, season, etc…
-300 head: 1 1/2 acres/day
-100 head: 1/2 acre/day
-2 head: 200 sq ft/day

-brix levels are highest in the evening, one reason Joel moves his cattle around 4pm. Also why people cut their hay in the late afternoon.

– farmers always talk about Average Daily Gain (ADG) as the the indicator of success, but it’s not actually what they get paid for – what they get paid for is Gain per Acre (GPA). If ADG is high, GPA will be low, and vice versa, so the trick is to find the balance.

-stockpiled forage – looks terrible, late summer grass. 100 head on 1/4 acre, they eat it and tromp it in, still builds soil.

-water systems:  Polyface uses full flow valves, 18″ cutout contains the hookup (frost free).  Polyface has a lot of ponds, building more.  the water system for all the grazing areas is from the ponds.

-ponds:  build them.  Joel is a big fan of ponds – when he’s ready to build a new one, he hires a guy with a digger to come and dig it out for him.  He doesn’t use these to catch groundwater, but rather rainwater.  He also doesn’t tap into the small river on the farm, feels river water is for everyone, he can’t justify putting a pipe in it.  By harvesting rainwater, he is able to beat droughts, and the local ecology benefits.  Since the water is used for animals, it goes back in the land anyway and makes its way to the groundwater.

-If you’re making a pond and it won’t seal, put pigs in and let them wallow.  They could probably seal a pond built in gravel (Joel Joke).

-12 feet is plenty deep for a pond.  Have the system set up so it takes water from 16″ below the surface (best water) – have the pipe come through the wall of the pond through a pond collar, and then up in the middle of the pond – hold the pipe vertical with a float of some sort.  Use flex tubing for the vertical pipe.  You will need a filter even though pulling water from below the suface.

Eggmobiles:  his first prototype was built on bicycle tires, 6 x 8 house, nest boxes over the wheels.  It held 20 hens originally, then went up to 50.  He had a hinged fence with 6 panels and 4 popholes on the house, so he set the fence up from each pophole till the area had been done, and then moved the eggmobile.  He originally did the eggmobile as a way to house a laying flock cheaply, but when he accidentally had them near the cattle and saw how they tore into cow patties, he had a eureka moment and the eggmobile idea took off.  Today he is taking advantage of economy of scale – has 2 eggmobiles hooked together (like a train).  800 birds in each.  He gets 200 dozen eggs/day from these two eggmobiles.

-with the early, little eggmobile, he didn’t feed the birds, just relied on them ranging.  With the higher density system he does feed them.

-eggmobiles are land extensive – need at least 50 acres to free range the birds, or else they’ll go to the neighbours or back to the barnyard.  They are perfect for pasture sanitization – the main advantage, the eggs are a side benefit.

-Polyface also has commercial scale pastured eggs, called the Feathernet – shelter is an A frame with scissor braces, 16 ft wide, on 3″ pipe skids, roof is 32 ft long, 20 ft wide.  1000 hens, 1/4 acre enclosed with electric net, moved every three days.  They keep guard geese with the flock to minimize predation by hawks or vultures.  Also livestock guard dog.

-In the winter, hens all come inside – hoop houses – bedding is 18″ of wood chip to start, gets added to over the winter season.  Inside some of them are 4 x 8 slatted tables with nest boxes, chicken feeders and waters.  Small pigs are on the ground, chickens are free but need the ability to get up onto the tables if need be (once they get bigger, pigs eat chickens).  Some houses have rabbits in cages up on racks in the hoop house, with chickens scratching around underneath.  The bedding is composted by the pigs and taken out to the fields when the hens are put back out on pasture in the spring.  The hoop houses are then used for veggies.

Rabbits – Daniel Salatin, Joel’s son, began with a pair when when he was 8 and has been line breeding from that pair ever since – he is now 30.  The rabbit enterprise brings in about $8000, sold mostly to restaurants.

-line breeding was a controversial topic of discussion during the workshop, but Joel pointed out that it accentuates both weakness and strength, and that Daniel culls accordingly.  In nature, animals are not picky about next of kin.  Daniel had 50% mortality rates for the first 5 years of his breeding programme – which worked out ok for him because he had a friendly banker (Joel), and was also very young.  That mortality rate might have been harder to take as an adult.

Turkeys:  brood 1 turkey poult with 5 chicks, so if you have 25 poults, put them in with 125 chicks.  Poults do everything they can to die until they’re a few weeks old, but the chicks will show them food and water which significantly improves their chance of survival.  Joel, like most of us, thought turkeys and chickens couldn’t be mixed because of blackhead, but his daughter in law’s family had always done it that way, so he gave it a try and it works. (as an aside, my hatchery catalogue recommends the same practice). At 7 weeks, put the turkey poults out on pasture.  If they go out before that, they can get through the squares on the netting and just ignore the shock.

-the Gobbledy Go house for turkeys is a portable shelter 32 x 12 ft, and holds 500 turkeys.

About half the audience had some experience with cattle, most had chickens, and a few had raised a couple of pigs, so the type of questions led to some interesting discussions.  The slide show that went with the whole livestock presentation was wonderful.  To get some glimpses yourself go to Youtube and search for Joel Salatin or Polyface farm – many videos are by people who went to field days and you can see many of the enterprises mentioned above.  As usual, the challenge for me is to be creative enough to scale some of this down – 800 hens in an eggmobile is not going to work on 14 acres for example.  But I met a lady who has 50 birds in 3 small eggmobiles – she can push them by herself around her property. She went to this model because of predator issues, and I can totally see that working here.  So one of the big benefits of the workshop was hearing how other people do things.  Which is one reason I like reading farm blogs – there are some great ideas out there!

Future egg layers

The new laying flock arrived Wednesday morning, 58 of them.  These are Red Sussex Cross, a hybrid from Rochester Hatchery in Alberta.  I haven’t tried this breed before, but they are supposed to be good dual purpose birds; they are a cross between Rhode Islands and Columbian Rocks.  I can’t remember whether the rooster is RI or CR, but whatever….they are very pretty chicks.

You may remember I was forced to get creative in making a brooder for them.  Here’s what I came up with:


These pictures were taken Wednesday morning when they arrived – even after two days, they are still pretty flighty – crowding away from whoever comes into the room, as you can see above.  Because I left for the Joel Salatin workshop Wednesday afternoon, and my husband was still pretty sick, the girls looked after both batches of chicks for me, and did a wonderful job.  And I’m glad to say my husband’s infection is under control finally – he doesn’t have to go in for the IV treatments anymore, just has to swallow three huge capsules a day for the next week.  He’s smiling again, always a good sign.

The Price of Eggs

I thought I’d do a little math exercise today and explore how well I’m doing with egg sales.  We have been selling eggs for about 10 years now.  Currently we have about 50 hens in their second laying year, before their second (and last) moult.  Without getting into my exact husbandry model, I would say my hens are free range on pasture, veggie fed.

  • Current price of my eggs:  $4.00/dozen
  • These are my costs for 2011 in Canadian dollars:
  • Feed  $1270.85
  • Shavings (for deep bedding in the house) $51.90
  • chicken wire (some fence repairs)29.10
  • Total costs:  1373.95
  • Income from egg sales: 648 dozen sold X $4/doz = $2592 total gross income
  • 2011 total income less total costs = $1218.05 net income for 2011

Which works out to about $25/week, and I estimate that my labour (letting out/shutting in, egg collecting, adding to deep bedding, cleaning out house, refilling nest boxes, topping up feed, setting up fence to switch runs)  for the year for this flock has worked out to 1.6 hrs/week.

That makes my hourly wage $15.62.  I’m OK with that, in fact, it sounds pretty good. Or not.

That’s because I investigated the price of eggs at the local grocery store.  I haven’t done this in a couple of years, don’t even go down that aisle at the grocery store in fact.  But I did last night. Wow!  My farm fresh, veggie fed, free range on pasture, large brown eggs are WAY underpriced in comparison.

Check this out:  large brown $3.49/doz; free range brown omega 3 $5.49/doz; free run large brown $4.99/doz, free range organic large brown $5.69 and organic large brown $6.99/doz.

Now, I know I’ve not included some things in the above calculations that I should – feed went up $.40/bag over the course of last year, and that was not reflected in the egg price to the customer, as it should have been.  Our husbandry model has us replacing the flock every two years, and 2011 was an easy year, ie the hens were in their prime and we didn’t have to raise new chicks (expense of buying and shipping chicks, brooding), nor did we have to process the spent hens for the freezer (labour).  You could say it was a “cheep” year (sorry).  In reality the egg price should include a buffer to absorb those costs when they occur, since it would be a shock to the customer to have the price yo-yo every 2nd year.

Obviously, I’m in a more expensive year for 2012.  I have 55 new layer chicks coming shortly to be brooded, the current flock to be processed, and an eggless month while the younger flock are not yet laying (yes this is a terrible marketing strategy, it’s called poor planning).  The hen house will be undergoing it’s big renovation during the eggless spell, while it’s empty (ok maybe there was a plan of sorts), another expense.  My $15.62/hr is going to have to stretch pretty thin to cover all that.

So clearly, the price has to go up, if for no other reason than upcoming expenses.  By how much is the next question.  In a long standing and friendly agreement, my next step is to call two of my neighbours to discuss raising the price to $4.50, with a view to going to $5 in six months.  What started years ago as a courtesy call from one of them to me and the other guy, has turned into a regular event.  We now traditionally raise the price to the same level at the same time, and because there are three of us, we tend to lead the local pricing.

The last price hike was about a year and a half ago from $3.50. My husband is a bit worried that we’ll price ourselves out of the market, but clearly we’re just going to bring ourselves in line with the two major grocery chains locally.  It could be argued that selling the eggs at a fair price is not about keeping up with the competition.  But when the competition has an inferior product, and gets paid more for it, that’s not fair to me or my family.  Our hens have a happy, healthy, scratching pasture out in the sun kind of life, which produces fabulous eggs.  They are worth the price we will be asking.  It’s true that our customer list might change a little.  We might lose a few people who were onto how cheap our eggs were, and were price driven rather than quality seeking.  But we are constantly turning people away, so I’m sure that it won’t be long before our customer list is full again.