Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chickens !

So we have known for awhile that the missing element for our operation to be completely sustainable is animals, but, we have avoided them for various reasons.  The main reasons for this avoidance are our unfamiliarity with raising them and our desire to take time in the off season to visit family down south.  Well, we have grown our operation to a size that makes it quite expensive (time/labor as well as financial) to build fertility and the addition of the winter CSA has increased our need for off season help.  With this in mind we have made the decision to try our hands with hens.  In the future we may expand to pigs and or perhaps partner with someone to raise beef.

We have always grown cover crops, and with the additional land over the past few years we were able to grow cover crops on land to allow it to rest between cash crop plantings.  However, we still needed to fertilize the soil and mow the fields periodically.  The premise to a sustainable operation is that animals can fertilize and mow the fields in addition to providing a nutrient rich, healthy product.  Thus freeing our time (or better yet re-allocating it) to manage and care for the animals.

The land at our home farm in Pepperell has be grown on intensively for over 8 years.  Some years we would get three to four crops from a single bed leaving little time in the season to get a good stand with a cover crop.  In managing this intensively we relied heavily on organic fertilizer amendments and compost applications.  With the addition of the chickens this year we are viewing it as a small trial.  We will be taking a significant portion of the home farm out of production of a cash crop and allowing the chickens to range on the field eating the cover crop we grow for them along with weed seeds and bugs.

We have built a small portable hoop house coop for them that we will move around  the field as needed.  The coop will be surrounded by electric netting fence to protect them from predators that we will also move around as needed.  They will also be supplemented with organic feed from either Green Mountain Feeds or Morrison Feeds both out of Vermont.  We are hoping this will not only increase the fertility of our fields at home but also provide us with delicious healthy pastured eggs to offer up for sale at CSA pickups.  If the trial is successful we will build a more road worthy coop for next year to move a flock of chickens around the remote fields as well.

Based upon our financial analysis chicken eggs are not a money maker.  Costs are very high for organic feed as well as the start up equipment needs.  However, the survey results indicated that most CSA members would like eggs and we also want to know that the eggs we eat come from chickens that were fed quality feed and were allowed to live as chickens should...outside on pasture.  So our goal is to simply cover the costs and have some eggs for ourselves.  Most likely we will only have enough eggs to sell at CSA pickups to subscribers, but if we have extra we will bring them to the markets we attend.  We will strive to keep costs down but they will most likely be more expensive than the competition as they will be fed organic feed which is almost twice as expensive as conventional grains.  Given that the majority of the protein in chicken feed is soy based the only way we feel confident that the soy in our feed is GMO free is to use organic feed.

Our ladies should be here on March 8th.  We have purchased 100 Red Sex-Link pullets from a company in Pennsylvania in partnership with a farm in Rhode Island.  They will be 18-20 weeks old and should start laying shortly after we receive them.  We have been reading everything we can about raising them and have spent the last few weeks building the coop and ordering supplies for them.  Here are a few pictures of the portable coop construction.

2- 10 hole Nest Boxes

The eggs roll out of the nests in the back to help keep eggs clean.
Nest boxes mounted in hoop coop.  Doors will be installed.
Inside view.  Hoop supports double as roosts. (need another on each side)

Finished view of front
After first move with wheels on. Not bad.  Wheels will be removed when not needed.

Sowing onion transplants

 February 14th we fired up the heat in the greenhouse and started to sow the onion seeds.  We grow onions for early spring harvest, late summer full size bulbs, and new this year a storage variety for the winter CSA.  We just finished them on Friday...all 21,500 of them plus 10,000 leeks !!

Sadie has to watch.

Some early germination

new trial red variety - Red Zeppelin

First round of trays on heat mats