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Heritage Birds

A Lone Shadow

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Standing at the chicken fence, I was thinking about how our Eatwell Farm-bred chickens, the Australorps, were coming close to their end. It was a project the farm took on with the greatest of intentions, but it just didn’t work out as we had hoped. By next year, most of these beautiful black Australorps will be gone. It saddens me to think about that.  

When I got back to the house and looked at my photos it struck me that I am now a single shadow out there taking pictures. As sad as our failed chicken project makes me feel, that lone shadow feels so much worse.

 

Happy Hens

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Last year, our friend and neighbor George came in with his special seeder and planted 15 acres of pasture for us. I have been waiting for some time to get our chickens on to this lush pasture and finally it has happened. It is a lot of work for the guys to pull up the stakes and fencing,setting it up in a new spot, hooking the tractor to the houses, and moving the girls. Clearly, it is worth it! This extra effort is what keeps our land fertile, helps break pest cycles and makes the hens happy. 

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In the one photo you can see how much the girls have eaten in less than two weeks. It is extraordinary how fast they go through lush green pasture. You will see a difference in the color of the yolks as well. Every week, the guys go in and pull the houses forward a bit because the girls don’t roam too far, and we want to make sure they always have enough fresh greens to eat.

 

Chicken Update

A few years back we embarked on the journey of breeding and raising our own hens, and of course with hens come roosters.  One of our members was at BarnRaiser and she suggested we get the ball rolling by raising the initial $23,000.00 with the help of their crowd funding program.  It was a great success, which got us started in the world of breeding the heritage"Black Australorp" chicken.  Full of good intentions, we bought all of the breeder flock, hatching equipment, the breeder houses, and jumped in.  Not too long into the project Nigel went through another round of cancer, which left Agustin, our top chicken guy, essentially on his own to run it all.  

We are now at the end of our second winter with the Australorps and find ourselves facing some really hard facts.  Hybrid layers have been bred to produce eggs year round.  Yes production goes down in the winter, but they still lay.  In past years, Nigel always managed winters by bringing in flocks at precisely the right time to have enough eggs to cover the farm's needs (the CSA and Farmers Market).  We knew the production would be even lower with the Australorps, but we didn't expect them to essentially stop laying from mid September to the beginning of March!  With Nigel unavailable to help out and organize a hybrid flock in time we have really suffered this winter with a severe shortage of eggs.  Fortunately, our friends at Riverdog Farm helped out when we didn't have enough eggs for all of the CSA subscriptions.  You can not imagine what a disaster it is when members don't get eggs!  

The second half of hatching your own birds comes in the form of roosters.  The roosters - aka meat birds have brought their own set of challenges.  Unfortunately, as much as Nigel and I love the taste of our heritage meat birds, they don't put on weight very fast, which means they cost a fortune to feed and bring to maturity.  We are a small producer so the cost of processing is $4.00 per bird.  That is strictly what we pay the processor, it doesn't include the time for the guys to load the roosters, someone to drive down and back twice (once for delivery and then again to pick up), and it certainly doesn't include the cost of feed.  As crazy as it may sound, at $9.00 a lb we are maybe breaking even.  

Facing the reality of $4000.00 feed bills every three weeks, we can't afford birds that don't lay eggs in the winter.  But when you have committed so much energy and heart, not to mention time and money (the initial $23,000 only covered the hatching end of things) we realize we must make the hard decision and step back from breeding, at least for the time being.  We have a flock of hybrid layer chicks coming in the next few days.  They should be in high gear for next winter.  Nigel is determined to not let the shortage we have experienced these last two years happen again next winter.  So onward we go, learning all the way and always, that is just life as a farmer.  

 

Strawberries and Chickens

The strawberry plants are dormant right now, taking a break for the winter and getting ready for the spring. This is last years crop, which we will harvest again this spring and then plant a new crop to replace it on another part of the farm. Last year, we put the chickens on some old strawberry beds to scratch away the leaf debris, so that we could remove the woven plastic mulch. As we moved them down the field, where they had been the week previously, the strawberry crowns regrew. So I am thinking that I will try that for a very short period of time on this years crop. It will make the berries easier to pick and increase airflow around the plants reducing the risk of disease. My concern is that if it rains heavily, we will not be able to move the chicken houses and the chickens could cause damage to the plants and the future crop. Farming is a gamble, I have no need to go to Vegas, I gamble every day on the farm... Nigel

Daisy the Alpha Chicken

Last week the crew came into work while it was dry enough to move the chicken houses and fencing. Already you can see that they have mown down all the grass around them. This is partly what makes the yolks orange. Keeping the houses moving onto fresh pasture spreads out their manure and makes sure that every part of the field has the bug clearing benefit of the girls, too. They will be moved to the end of the field, then come back, right in front of where we took this photo.

This pasture was sown in May last year in not ideal conditions. It was too hot. We planted twenty acres of pasture in November, which are all germinating nicely. 

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Daisy is from a line of dogs bred specifically as livestock guardian dogs. She was trained by us specifically to protect the chickens. We get coyotes on the farm almost every night and the occasional stray dog. We firmly believe that as we use these farm animals to produce eggs and meat for us we have to protect them as best we can with the fence and Daisy.

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