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.

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!

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.


The Random Photographer helped with chicken chores the other day.  She found these two eggs together in one of the nest boxes.  It happens sometimes.  Also wrinkly eggs, long and narrow eggs, and sometimes painfully huge eggs.

About 10 years ago, we entered some eggs in the local fair, and to our surprise, won Best in Show for large brown eggs.  It was the only year we entered (we decided to retire at the top of our game).  We might not have placed at all, had an experienced friend not explained to me that one should save the best eggs over a couple of weeks to get the best looking dozen possible, since I had been planning to just put together a dozen from whatever was on hand the day before the registration deadline.   I found it ironic that the eggs were judged solely on uniformity in size, colour, shape and the correct weight for the classification of “large”.  No one cared how fresh they were or about the diet of the chickens that laid them – things that actually do affect the quality of the egg (not to mention how it tastes).

In the 12 years we have been selling eggs, I have only been asked maybe half a dozen times about how the chickens live, what they eat, how fresh the eggs are.  Some of my customers are good friends and see the chickens regularly, so they know, but most have never been to my farm.  I find it really weird actually, because my eggs cost about $1 more than free range eggs from the store.  Aren’t people curious about why they cost so much more?  Apparently not. I asked a co-worker if she ever wondered, and she said she knew I lived on a farm so they had to be better eggs.  It’s a real indication of the level of trust people have about where their food comes from.  I wish they wouldn’t trust so blindly though.  Because I can think of three neighbours right now, all nice people, all selling eggs, all with their chickens in different set ups, and only one of us keeping our chickens on grass (guess who).

We have a customer who sees the variation in her dozen eggs as an adventure – even though I do strive not to put the oddball eggs in the cartons destined for sale.  The other day, I gave her the little egg from the picture above as a joke in her dozen.  She was thrilled, but disappointed when I explained it probably had no yoke – I could have gone for the pun, there, but restrained myself.  We’re thinking of using some blue food dye on a few in her next dozen….simpler than getting Amerecaunas.