The chickens went down the road a couple of days ago. Literally. Once the fall CSA was over, we shut them up one night in their Portable Affordable Chicken Coop and drove them down the road where they took up permanent winter residency with the flock at Macs Happy Acres Farm. Once the ground froze up inour fields here the clover and grass was harder to come by in the field for the chickens and the insects that scurry around were gone. Gone also was the vegetable refuse that we make seasonably available to them from the farmstand. I tried to encourage them by throwing them some frozen heads of cabbage and cauliflower. They just ran up to me and looked forlorn and hungry. Now they live where there is an unfrozen water supply and bottomless grain feeders.
We got into the chicken business 3 years ago when we did our farmstand upgrade and added a commercial kitchen. I grew up on a dairy farm, so I had some experience around cows, but chickens? I surmised that they wouldn’t make as much manure as cows, and a chicken stepping on your foot wouldn’t hurt half as much as a cow would. How hard could it be? Besides, Ray was raising meatbirds for sale and everyone can use eggs, right? How hard to take care of a flock of laying hens be? The kitchen sure would use eggs ….and we would be able to sell the rest.
So armed with this bullet proof business plan, we took an old four wheeled hay wagon running gear and built a little 10x 12 house on it with roosts and nesting boxes. I bought a book by Joel Salatin, the Guru of American Pastured Poultry Farming and read it. We had a couple acres of clover and fescue on which we could pasture them on. I drove down to Wellscroft Fencing and spent a small ransom on portable electric poultry fencing. Then after some discussions Ray had with a gentleman known only to me as “Bucky the Chicken Guy from Connecticut”, a pickup truck piled high with chicken crates drove into the yard. The chickens came home to roost.
Of course they were pullets, and we knew they were going to lay little eggs for awhile. What we didn’t know is that it would be some time before they started to lay little eggs at all. About three weeks to be exact. But they were full sized birds with full sized appetites. Despite the fact they had lots of grass to supplement their grain habit, a pallet of 25 lb grain bags was vanquished in short order . In no time we understood that putting up a grain silo and buying grain in 3 ton deliveries would pay off the capital investment in about 26 minutes. But we didn’t see it coming….the hidden costs.
By week five the girls were laying a quantity of what were now large eggs. The kitchen was loving them, and the sales through the farmstand were indeed cleaning up what our 175 chickens are producing. Pasture poultry eggs are a very different product than anything that you find in the store. The yolks are a deep colored orange and the total egg and plops onto the frying pan and it doesn’t run at all. They taste really good. Probably the result of a varied diet and exercise…(where have we heard that said before?) But I realized that my role as Old Geezer Who Cares for the Laying Hens is taking a lot of time. Fresh water twice a day. All the kitchen and farmstand refuse is being diverted from the compost pile to the chickens, and dedicated garbage cans must be removed twice a day. The eggs have to be picked up and cleaned. And boxed. And taken up to the farmstand. Even the damn chicken nesting boxes became repositorys for chicken shit and had to be cleaned out and fresh straw added weekly. So I tracked my time. And I tracked the number of dozens of eggs that went to the stand.
There was predation and attrition. Chicken hawks would help themselves. Although we feared the eagles, they seemed to prefer fishing to picking off our bony little chickens. But the weasels, coons and foxes would move in occasionally and help themselves. A couple of our family dogs, despite their affable and good nature with humans, discovered latent hunting urges occasionally when presented with a strutting chicken. And that 4 foot poultry fencing? Even with clipped wings the more resourceful and energetic chickens could get a running start and clear the top of the fence to freedom. (Fortuneatley most are still not smart enough….) So this year our original flock of 175 birds dwindled to about 100-115 birds by the time they went south on River Road to their winter home.
At the end of year two I had some figures to work with. I calculated the gross dollar sales from the eggs that I boxed up for sale. I totaled up my hours and charged myself out at$13 an hour. I deducted the grain costs, the cost of the egg cartons and the cost of 3 bags of oyster shells. Looks like I made made $1100 profit. Cool! That’s not a lot, but at least we aren’t loosing money. That is, if you didn’t amortize the capital investments in the fencing ,the grain silo or the RTV I used to haul grain garbage, water,straw to them. Whoops.
So there are some lessons we learned here along with the standard lesson of “all that glitters is not gold”. We have to raise our price on eggs, and get it at least in line with the pastured poultry egg prices in the stores (when you can find them). We have to figure out the reduction of bird loss. What do can we do to streamline some part of the chore process that I perform to save time? This is a process that we should use to figure out many aspects of our farm. We just don’t raise eggs for a living. We grow strawberries. Potatoes. Basil. And about a thousand other things. It would be easy to figure out profit and loss for Edgewater farm if we just grew eggs, but we do not. Turns out best idea for us may not be the idea to grow pastured poultry, but the utilizing an exercise that determines whether raising eggs and meatbirds makes any real sense at all.