There are a lot of contentious issues in the food/agriculture world: GMO vs. Non-GMO, Organic vs. Conventional, Grass-fed/finished vs. Grain Finished, and on and on and on. Perhaps the most misunderstood of these issues, however, is the Cornish Cross chicken. If you’ve ever watched any food or agricultural documentary or read any books on the subject, you have most certainly seen a Cornish Cross meat chicken. Many documentaries and bloggers in the sustainable food movement paint a pretty nasty picture of these so-called “Frankenchickens”. You’ll hear that they’re genetically modified or that they are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics and they aren’t a good, natural meat source for chicken. A lot of people see these poor birds crammed into factory confinement and assume that that bird is bad and anybody raising the bird is bad. And unfortunately we live in a world with quick access to all kinds of misinformation that can cause us to make rash judgments without drilling any deeper than surface-level. I’m not going to try to convince you that the Cornish Cross is the best meat chicken, but I’d like to provide you with a little bit of information about them and talk a little bit about why we are trialing them on our farm.
Cornish Cross chickens are not genetically modified, laboratory-created birds. There are multiple strains of Cornish Cross chicken from various hatcheries, but they are all the result of rigorous cross-breeding to create a desired set of genetics that produces a fast-growing, double-breasted chicken. My understanding is that these birds are simply an F2 hybrid. I’m sure you all feverishly study Mendel’s peas and play with Punnett squares in your free time, but if not, I’ll try to give the simplest explanation I can of how the F2 hybrid comes about. If you take two different breeds of purebred chicken and mate them together, the resultant offspring is an F1 hybrid. Now, if you take an F1 hybrid and cross it with a different F1 hybrid, you will end up with an F2 hybrid offspring. Now, geneticists have been working to perfect their strains of chickens for a long time, so let’s not pretend it’s that simple, but for our purposes it should do. So, as you can see, the only genetic modification comes in the form of cross-breeding.
I’ve seen people comment online that Cornish Cross chickens are injected with growth hormones. I guess here we just have to trust that the USDA is doing its job because the use of growth hormones in the poultry industry is illegal and has been for decades. Now, the use of prophylactic antibiotic use in commercially raised chickens (and other livestock) is an issue. If you have seen a commercial chicken house, it’s easy to see why they would need to employ antibiotics to keep the chickens alive for the 5 weeks or so it takes them to get a chicken to market weight. Disclaimer: I’m not fully against antibiotic use; if an animal becomes sick and needs treatment, it has a place. I do not agree with prophylactic antibiotic use because it stems from issues that could be remedied with better management practices. I personally use antibiotics when I have bacterial infections that warrant antibiotics as appropriate treatment. There are a lot of complexities in this issue, but simply put, I think there are appropriate uses for antibiotics in agriculture. Unfortunately, I think there has been a lot of misuse that has led to a lot of problems and has allowed farmers to prop up their animals instead of really creating an environment for them to thrive. Sorry for the tangent. We have never needed to use antibiotics and probably won’t need them in our poultry operation, so perhaps this is a moot point. There is a laundry list of other issues with commercial poultry production, but in my opinion, the bird of choice is not one.
Okay, let’s cover some of the reasons that we think the Cornish Cross is going to be a good fit for our farm. When we first started raising chickens I was 100% against using Cornish Cross birds for meat and didn’t even really want hybrid egg-laying strains. I wanted heritage breed dual-purpose chickens in the pasture and heirloom vegetables in the garden. I still like the heritage breed chickens and we still use them (along with crossbred mutts from our heritage birds) in our laying flock and will continue to do so into the future. They don’t perform as well as production hybrid layers, but they have a much meatier carcass and tend to produce eggs over a longer span. Essentially we won’t have to turn over our laying flock as frequently and when we do we will have bigger stew hens that will make out-of-this-world stock and meat for soups and pot pies and such. Since the first batch of chickens we started we have culled most of the roosters for our freezer. We have found that our heritage birds reach a processed weight of 3-4 pounds by about 16 weeks of age. We will be sending our Cornish Cross birds to the processor on May 7th and hope to have birds averaging in the 4-4.5 pound range at 8 weeks of age. There is not another chicken that can convert feed as efficiently as that. So, being able to cut our labor time in half to get marketable birds was a big influencer.
Speaking of being marketable, that perhaps should be viewed as the key to all of this. I came into chicken production with personal ideals that said we should only be raising heritage breed chickens. Well, ideals are great in theory, but we also have to live in the real world. I had never even eaten a heritage chicken before we started raising them and while it’s true, they have a richer flavor because they age longer, I actually prefer the meat of pasture-raised Cornish Cross. The heritage birds have a toothier meat that has a lot more dark meat and a very small razor breast. We’ll show you a picture of the difference between a Cornish and heritage bird when we get ours back from the processor. The Cornish on the other hand has a very large, double-breast with lighter meat and a softer texture. Now, confinement chicken tends to be overly soft and not very flavorful, but pastured birds are able to add some texture and flavor since they grow out a bit longer than commercial birds. The difference in the two may not be as significant as the difference between commercial pork and pastured or forest-raised pork, but it’s noticeable nonetheless. All that is to say that even though I didn’t want to raise a bird that I could not breed on my own farm (for sustainability purposes), I had to admit to myself that I prefer the meat of the Cornish Cross and it’s going to have a familiarity for customers. People already don’t place a premium on chicken compared to other meats, so it’s just not reasonable to expect that we could find a market for a product that would have to be at a higher price point (higher chick cost, processing cost, feed cost, and labor cost) and not really have the taste and texture people associate with chicken in modern days. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t do us any good to raise idealistic food that consumers won’t or can’t buy. Pastured poultry is already at a price premium over factory-raised chicken and ours will likely be even a little more expensive than others in our area just because we are using organic feed instead of just non-gmo feed like most pastured poultry producers use. Again, our ideals and values come into play with our feed choice. We realize the cost of organic feed over conventional and non-gmo feed is significant, but we also think that it’s worthwhile. We think there is a market for organic-fed, pastured poultry, but if the market won’t bear it, we will have to reconsider our feed choice.
Beyond the market for pastured chicken, we had to consider the labor required for raising the chickens. If you are familiar with typical pastured-poultry set ups, you’ll know that they usually consist of moveable coops called “chicken tractors”. These “tractors” are bottomless coops that get moved forward to new pasture every day to allow the chickens to be protected from predators while still allowing them to forage on grass, clover, bugs, mice, snakes, and anything else that ends up in front of the chickens on a given day. Our birds will spend about 5 weeks out on pasture after a 3 week brooder stay, so that means that we will have to move their tractors every day for 35 days straight (for one batch). It may not seem like a big deal, but that also means hauling water and feed farther down the field every day and the tractors are just heavy anyway. If we wanted to raise heritage birds the same way we would have to do this daily move for about 12 weeks. That’s a significant increase in labor. Some of you may be wondering why we don’t consider one of the other hybrid meat chickens that grows a little slower than a Cornish, but faster than a heritage bird, like a Red Ranger or something similar. I personally don’t really see the value in those birds for our purposes. They’re still a hybrid designed for pretty rapid growth. The carcasses don’t get as big nor do they look like a typical carcass that consumers are used to dealing with. Maybe someday we will try them, but I don’t see enough benefits from them to make me want to pursue them at this point. The added labor, additional processing fee, longer time on farm, and the fact that I still can’t breed them on-farm really is a non-starter in even considering them for our farming context. As we plan for future expansion of our pastured poultry operation we really have to try to figure out efficiencies and if we can condense our labor time significantly just by choosing the appropriate chicken breed it will allow us to focus that time we don’t have to spend dealing with chickens on other aspects of the farm.
Another attractive reason for using Cornish Cross birds is that the initial cost of the chicks and the processing fees at our processor are less. If we were to use another chicken in our program, we would either have to eat roughly $2 per bird in lost revenue or raise the price of what would already be a higher priced bird (due to additional labor cost) to cover the additional cost. If we had no intention of selling chicken, this conversation would likely be different, but we have to take these things into consideration as we try to make a sustainable business out of the farm. You can’t have sustainable farms if the farms can’t sustain themselves.
While we would love to be able to hatch and raise meat birds on our farm at a scale that would be economically viable, we don’t see a market that would support it at this point. It has taken me several years to get to the point that I’m actually willing to try Cornish Cross birds for our meat production, but I can honestly say that I’m really excited with the results we’re seeing in the brooder phase of production. If we can successfully get this first batch to the processor I think we are going to have the best chicken available in our area given the environment and quality feed we are providing for them. If you’ve never had pastured poultry, I would urge you to find a farmer in your area that is doing it and see the difference for yourself. Most pastured poultry producers are using Cornish Cross birds, so you will be able to see and taste how something as simple as animal treatment and management practices can create a vastly superior product. As a bonus you will also be directly benefitting your local economy and not buying a product rooted in the corporate exploitation currently bolstering the factory poultry industry.
Can you believe I used to hate hamburgers? Everyone thought I was crazy (probably not just for that) and called me un-American. So, sometime before I was 30 I finally gave them a try at a fancy hamburger restaurant in Las Vegas of all places. Turns out, I never had a good hamburger – with all the fixings and meat with actual flavor. It turns out, hamburgers are delicious!
I don’t know how it started. Aaron does all of the cooking (and usually I do the baking) but somehow I got put on hamburger duty. I played around a few times with different ingredients and came up with a pretty tasty burger!
The burgers are not a low-calorie food by any means so, if you are watching your figure you may want to use a different recipe. But, it makes up for it in flavor because… of course it does.
Its hard to decide what ingredient gets most of the credit. It could be the eggs in the burger itself. Or the freshness of the herbs or the sprinkle of cheese. Or maybe the stack of microgreens and slices of avocado you put on top. Maybe not just one thing deserves the award. You try it and let us know if you can decide!
1 pound of hamburger (not too lean or it’ll dry out)
2 farm fresh egg yolks (you can use the whites too if you are willing to sprinkle a little flour in)
2 cloves of garlic – minced
1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh herbs (I like to go heavy on the basil, then a little thyme, dill, sage and oregano)
1 tsp of soy sauce
1 tsp of Worcestershire sauce
A sprinkle of cheese (maybe a couple pinches of whatever you have handy!)
Kosher or sea salt and pepper to taste (I like to use a course salt)
A dash of Turmeric (this is a staple when I’m cooking!)
4-6 Cheese slices for cheeseburgers
1 onion (red or yellow are my favorites)
1 large tomato (ALWAYS best when in season!)
2 Avocados (because one is always bad, right?? And my kids will eat the rest if they are both in good shape)
Microgreens or lettuce of choice
Olive oil or butter for cooking indoors
4-6 Hamburger buns – I love using pretzel rolls!
Mix the hamburger, eggs, herbs, soy and Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, turmeric and sprinkle of cheese in a bowl, really well. Using your hands, you can make 4-6 patties depending on how big you’d like the burger or how big the hamburger buns are. I think making them somewhat flat allows them to cook more evenly and oddly enough, keep them from drying out. I like to place wax paper on a plate to place them on while I get the griddle warmed up.
The cold temperatures have been lingering on forever here in Kansas so, when I cook them, they are cooked indoors on the cooktop. (and well honestly, I’m not a griller. I know I should learn but it has always intimidated me!) I use a Le Creuset Griddle we have that I can sink up between two burners on our GE induction top, but you could also use a frying pan or if you are braver than me, go outside and use the grill!
On medium low heat, depending on my mood I’ll either add a splash of olive oil or a small bit of butter to cook the patties in. It takes probably 5+- minutes or so each side but I often check to see how well they are browning fairly often.
While those are cooking, if I have onions handy, I’ll caramelize an onion to put on top. It adds that slight sweetness to the savory. Rinsing the microgreens (or lettuce), slicing the tomato and avocado can be finished during this time too.
Once you have flipped the burgers and they have cooked on the second side for a couple minutes, you’ll add your slice of cheese if you and your guests want cheeseburgers. This way, the cheese gets nice and melty when placed on the bun. If you are grilling the burgers, place those buns on the grill for just a minute to slightly toast them!
We love putting mayonnaise (this Mayonnaise is amazing) and some stone ground mustard on our burgers and will get this out of the way before we load them up. Then top the burger with the tomato, avocado and carmelelized onions and voila! Serve with some oven baked fries or chips (if you are feeling lazy) and some fruit. YUM. Enjoy!
P.S. For those of you waiting for a more FARMY blog post, one is coming this week!
We posted a blog post last week that details how we’ve managed our chick brooders in the past and what we’re doing this year, but we just wanted to give you a quick run-down of what we think are brooder essentials. These are all things that you need to have in place BEFORE you bring home any chicks.
1. Brooder – I mean, seriously, this is important. You’re going to need a draft-free space with some side-walls and possibly a top if you don’t have a dedicated building for brooding. We do our brooding in the garage, so we screw together some 2’ tall plywood walls set over a tarp and put some kind of mesh over the top. Shoot for ½ sq. ft. per bird to allow them plenty of space to grow. We use pine shaving flakes on the floor and freshen them as they are soiled.
5. Feed – Make sure you have the appropriate feed for whatever type of poultry you’re bringing home. We are currently brooding a batch of Cornish X meat birds and a batch of heritage pullets, so we had to make sure that we had appropriate feed for both, given the Cornish have a higher protein requirement. With chickens, it’s pretty easy to find feed at your local farm store, but if you’re doing turkeys or something else, make sure you have a feed source before you order those birds. We’ve been using feed from our local farm store, but we’re excitedly placing our first order of organic, custom-milled grain from a regional mill right here in Kansas this week! If you can find a local mill you will likely get a much higher quality and less processed feed product at a lower price point (depending on the feed).
6. Plastic lids/plates – We like to give the baby chicks a little bit of plain yogurt to help establish good gut health for them. We just spoon a pile of it onto an old cottage cheese or yogurt lid (or plate, or shallow bowl, or…you get the picture) and mix it together with some of their feed to encourage them to eat it. You can also give free choice grit on these, but we tend to just sprinkle some on to their feed trough when we think about it after they’re about 2 weeks of age.
7. Coop – As you know, we’ve broken this one before, but it’s a REALLY good idea to have your coop built before you bring your chicks home. Sure you’ll have several weeks to finish it while they’re in the brooder, but wouldn’t you rather not have the stress of getting it done in time? There are so many coop designs to choose from, but I would highly encourage you to go ahead and build it much bigger than you think you need. Chicken math is real.
Well, there you have it. As you can see, you don’t need much to get started with chickens. If you keep them fed, watered, clean, warm, and dry, you should be set up for success with your new flock!
There’s not much cuter than a bunch of tiny, baby chicks skittering about, peeping in unison. There’s also not much that grows faster, poops more, or kicks up more dust. The first time we brooded baby chicks we had the perfect set up. We set up one of the cardboard rings that poultry suppliers sell as starter brooders and set it on top of a tarp covered with pine shavings. Inside that space we had two plastic trough feeders, a water fount, and a heat lamp suspended to a makeshift wooden structure. We secured the heat lamp with screws, zip-ties, and wire so that if one method failed, we still had two backups. We’re very careful people and did not want to risk burning our house down. Oh, didn’t I mention that we set this all up INSIDE our house? In fairness, we set it up in the concrete tornado room in our basement, so at least the mess was contained to an easily cleaned area. Well, the setup worked great for maybe two weeks. The 25 chicks had way more room than they could possibly need, but it was really a pain to work in. Any time we needed to handle a chick (which was often because, you know, they were our first baby chicks), or adjust the heat lamp, we would have to step into the brooder area full of little chick droppings. Not ideal. We also realized that it doesn’t take long for chicks to grow big enough to hop over an 18” tall cardboard wall. Huh. Luckily we kept the door closed to that room to keep our dogs out while we were gone, so we didn’t have chicks pooping all over our basement. To remedy that problem, we built some frames of chicken wire to put over the top. We suffered the occasional escapee, but it did the job for the most part. So now, along with entering the brooder to do work, we also had to maneuver these hastily thrown together chicken wire panels. Not great. The one nice thing about keeping the chicks inside was that it forced us to be diligent about freshening the pine shavings in the brooder, lest our house smell like a poorly managed barn. Oh, and it taught us that we would never brood poultry inside our house again. We kept the chicks in this set up until they were probably about 4 weeks old and then we moved them outside into the first chicken coop we ever built (you can read about that here). We had that coop parked in our driveway and ran an extension cord from our garage to the heat lamp as we weaned them off supplemental heat and prepared to move them to our pasture. Much better. Well, much better after we cleaned the copious amounts of dust off everything in our tornado room.
As with most parts of farming, there are several ways to brood chicks. Some better than others and most better than our first attempt. The last few times we’ve brooded chicks (and ducklings) we decided that the garage would be a better place. Other than the dust, it is far superior. For small batches we have a rubber trough from Tractor Supply that we have fitted with a hardware cloth-covered frame to eliminate escapees. The frame also has a post to attach the heat lamp, so it’s easy to just slide the frame over to access the feeder, waterer, and to replenish pine shavings. It’s really important to allow chicks access to food and fresh water at all times. It is also important to keep the litter fresh to limit risk of illness and ammonia buildup. This set up has worked pretty well for about a dozen birds, but is not a good solution for larger batches.
For our larger batches last year we laid down a tarp in the garage and then screwed together pallets to make a walled structure roughly 40” x 7’. Then we wrapped that in chicken wire to keep the chicks from slipping out through the pallet openings. This system worked pretty well, but it required us to leave one pallet loose on the end so we could swivel it open like a door. We attached hooks to it so that we could just hook it to an eyelet on the adjacent panels and unhook it when we opened it. While the height of the pallets were great for keeping the chicks from jumping out, it also kept us from being able to easily grab the waterers to refill or add feed to the feeders. When we were finished with this set up we were able to just take apart the pallets and drag the tarp full of shavings and manure over to our compost pile. Overall, not a bad design.
This year, we modified our set up once again. We still put a tarp down in the garage, but this time we needed shorter walls. After looking through our scrap wood we didn’t really have enough extra plywood to make a brooder the size we needed. Just as we were about to go buy some new plywood we remembered that we had an old ping pong table that we haven’t had room to put in either of our last two houses. That poor ping pong table had been stored in our leaky shop at our old house and in our garage at our current house. The table was beat up and warped a bit and would probably never be reassembled in our lifetime. It probably sounds crazy, but we grabbed the circular saw and ripped each side of that table in two. We set three of the pieces perpendicular to the garage wall and placed one across the front of those. We had to add a couple extra pieces of scrap boards and metal to completely close everything in, but it made a nice big brooder structure with a partition in it to make a side for our broilers and a side for our layers. We separated our Cornish Cross broiler chicks from the rest of the chicks so that we can monitor their feed intake precisely, both for their health and so we can get a handle on what it is going to cost us per bird to raise them for market. We will go into detail on all of that when the time comes. This setup has proven to be our best one yet and probably something we will continue doing until we decide we need a dedicated brooder structure. For the batch size we’re currently doing, this works, but hopefully we will outgrow it once we get our broiler production ramped up. The broilers will be processed somewhere around the 8-8.5 week time frame, so we’re hoping to get them outside after 3-3.5 weeks. Since we’re starting so early in the Spring, that will all depend on the weather.
Okay, we’ve covered what our brooder setup looks like, now let’s talk about how we care for the chicks as soon as they hatch or arrive in the mail. First, always have your brooder set up with the heat lamp going several hours before your chicks arrive. We always set it up the day our chicks are due to hatch since it doesn’t take long for the hatchery to get them from Iowa to Kansas. If you order chicks through a hatchery you will, in our experience, get a call VERY early in the morning from your local post office that your chicks are there (you can read about our experience this year here). When you go pick them up you will most certainly make a joke about hearing your package in the back room. They’ve apparently heard that joke before. Anyway, while you’re still at the post office it’s a good idea to take a peek inside the box to assess the health of the chicks and to see if any are dead. Some chicks are born weak and have no chance at survival and some chicks can perish in transit from the stress or handling of the postal service. We have always had timely shipment and healthy chicks, but there are plenty of stories of the postal service losing shipments or not handling them properly. Most hatcheries will refund your money or ship you more chicks if you suffer losses in shipment, but it needs to be documented at the post office. This is the first year we ever had any losses in our shipment, but it was only two birds and we didn’t feel the need to file a claim. Hatcheries are pretty good about throwing an extra bird or two into the order to cover the potential losses and this order McMurray actually included 3 extra birds, so we ended up with 54 live birds out of our order of 53.
Once you have your healthy chicks in hand, take them straight home and get them in the brooder. This isn’t the time to go to the feed store for feed or any other brooding supplies. You’re brooder should already be set up with the heat on and feeders and waterers filled. The first thing you should do when you put the chicks in the brooder is to individually dip each of their beaks into their water. Hens show their babies how to drink, but hatchery incubators make lousy mothers, so it’s your job to teach them. If you’ve never done this before you may wonder how to know if you’ve done it right, but once you do the first one and see it swallow some water you will have mastered the art. Some people recommend putting down some paper on top of the pine shavings to sprinkle feed on so the chicks can see it better. We did this the first time, but in subsequent broodings we just set the chicks by the feeders after we dip their beaks. While you are teaching the chicks to drink you can also be looking at the health of each bird and counting them to make sure your order was filled correctly. It should be noted that now that the chicks have had water, they will need continuous access to feed and water (with the exception of feed for Cornish X, but we’ll cover that in another post). When chicks hatch, their metabolism doesn’t really kick on until they start eating and drinking. The yolk provides all the sustenance they need for a few days, but the minute they have food and water they will need it continuously. Hatcheries offer some vaccinations, but we have always ordered ours without any. To help minimize health issues we like to add a splash of apple cider vinegar to their waterers each time we replenish them. We also like to offer a little bit of plain yogurt mixed with some feed a couple times during their first week of life. We plan on adding garlic powder to this mix of natural preventative this year as well. A clean brooder and a little bit of prevention go a long way. Sure, it may be anecdotal, but we haven’t had any health issues in our flocks and we think these small steps are worth doing. We also sprinkle a little bit of chick grit into their feeders to make sure their gizzard is able to do its job of breaking down their feed. This initial management is why we like to have someone home with them for the first day or two to be able to keep an eye on things and make sure they’re getting what they need to start their lives off as healthy as they can.
As you can see, getting chicks started really isn’t hard and it’s pretty darn adorable. However, you will likely have to deal with death at some point if you do this more than once. We didn’t lose any birds our first go around, but over a few more broodings we have lost a few. We lost two additional birds in the brooder this year; one of them looked weak the night before and the other was really small, so we’re chalking it up to them just not being hardy enough to thrive. As cruel as it sounds, it’s probably better for your flock if the weaker birds are eliminated. Those are not the genetics you want to perpetuate if you intend to do any breeding. Sometimes animals just don’t make it, even with your best efforts. The birds we’ve lost have been the smaller, weaker ones that you can look at and tell something just isn’t right with them. If the thought of seeing a dead chick is something you can’t handle, this probably isn’t the right endeavor for you.
One issue that can arise in the brooder that can’t be attributed to poor genetics is an affliction called pasty butt. While this sounds like an insult a 4 year-old would hurl at his brother, I assure you, it’s a real thing. Basically a bunch of poop can accumulate and harden over the vent of the chick and block subsequent excrement from exiting the chick’s body. If this occurs, the resultant blockage can lead to death. We’ve had a handful of pasty butt instances over the course of our broodings (pretty much all from hatchery-ordered chicks), but have never had any deaths as a result. The easiest way to deal with the issue is to get a bucket of hot water and a rag and just wipe the ball of poop with the wet rag. Get the water as hot as you can and then pinch the poop with the rag and rub your fingers together to break the hardened poop apart. It sounds gross, but it will become second-nature. Try not to pull the poop off as you run the risk of hurting the chick. Some of the feathers might come off the chick’s bottom, but just keep and eye on them to make sure the other chicks don’t start pecking at it. Some people recommend putting olive oil on the chick’s backside after the poop is removed, but we’ve never done that and haven’t had any further problems once the blockage is eliminated. Our understanding is that pasty butt is most likely caused by shipping stress or poor brooder management (improper temperature levels, over-crowding, etc.)
This is probably a good time to mention that you are going to need a plan in place to deal with roosters. If you order 25 straight run chicks, you are probably going to end up with half roosters. You are only realistically going to be able to keep 1 of those. Have a plan in place. If you order 25 pullets (females), you are probably going to end up with a rooster or two….or three. Some breeds are harder to sex than others and there is a margin of error for the hatchery. Have a plan in place. We have sold one rooster on Craigslist, but it would probably not be wise to assume you will be able to do that. If you look at Craigslist on any given day, you will likely see someone offering a free rooster. They probably didn’t have a plan. Part of the reason we like to order our chicks straight run is that it allows us to have a decent number of roosters to take to the processor, so we can make the trip worth while. You might consider this option so you can get your quota of hens, but also fill your freezer at the same time. Also, when you order just pullets, many hatcheries just cull the roosters. We would rather them get a really good life for 16-20 weeks and in turn contribute nourishment to our family, than a wasted hatchery life for a day. We have ordered straight run and just pullets, so we certainly aren’t judging your decision, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re purchasing from a hatchery.
So, that got dark. Let’s lighten things up a bit. Earlier we talked about using a heat lamp. The general rule of thumb is to have the brooder at 95 degrees for the first week and drop the temperature 5 degrees per week until it’s at 70 degrees. This sound difficult, but it’s really pretty easy. Make sure you have enough brooder space and then mount your light about 18” above the pine shavings at one end of the brooder. Place your feeder and waterer away from the heat lamp, so the chicks can move back and forth as they need to. The brooder should be plenty warm right under the heat lamp and cooler as you move away from it. To make sure your brooder is warm enough, just monitor the chicks’ behavior. If they’re all piled up together under the lamp, it’s probably too cold. If they are all as far as they can get from the lamp, it’s probably too warm. If they are buzzing around the brooder like little wild toddlers and passing out scattered around, things are probably just fine. Chicks can move in and out of the heat as needed if given enough room to do it, so your management of the heat lamp should be minimal. We tend to raise our lamp up gradually over a few weeks, but continue using the chicks as our guide for their comfort-level. Okay, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and just go do it yourself. Experience is really the best teacher. And after you have some successes and failures, let us know what tricks you’ve found that work really well for you!
At the time of writing this, a heavy coat of ice has our woods hunched over and groaning like they would rather do anything but stay upright. I can relate with every passing year. Looking out the window it’s hard to fathom that we will be tending to baby chicks in 3 weeks (I should note that by the time you read this, we will have baby chicks. What good is a blog post about incubation without pics of hatching chicks?!). Alas, here we are. Spring is coming (as long as George R.R. Martin isn’t writing the novel for it).
As we planned our poultry expansion this year, we decided to order more layers from Murray McMurray hatchery and do a trial run of Cornish Cross meat chickens. We chose McMurray again this year for a couple of reasons; One, we are giving Silver Grey Dorkings a go again and they had them available along with the other breeds we wanted. And two, they ran a promotion on Cyber Monday where you could buy a gift card for 15% off. Well, we knew we were going to be ordering more chicks this year, so we decided to snatch that offer up and save ourselves $15. Definitely keep an eye out for that offer this year if you or someone you know would benefit. Not sure they intended it to be used the way we did, but as the cool kids say, “treat yo’ self”. Anyway, since we lost a significant portion of our laying flock (and probably most of our readers after that last sentence) we took the opportunity to add some high volume layers and some more colorful layers to our flock. In the past we have done a few rounds of incubation with reasonable success, but since we’re working scale up our production we didn’t want to rely solely on that route. Plus, with our losses, we just wouldn’t get enough eggs during the optimal collection time for incubation to cover all our needs. So, this year, we decided to hedge our bets with hatchery stock and then have a little fun incubating to round out our needs. Oh, we should mention that another drawback to replenishing our hens through incubation is that about half of the birds that hatch will be roosters, so we would need to hatch twice as many eggs and well, I guess we would at least have a full freezer.
With our hatchery order scheduled to, well, hatch on March 12th we decided that we would coordinate our incubation so that we could brood all of the chicks at the same time. We like to get our chicks pretty early in the season because Aaron’s schedule is more flexible at that time and it allows someone to pick up the chicks and keep an eye on them for the first day or two in the brooder. The nice thing about a lot of livestock is that they have predictable cycles and gestation periods. Chickens might just be the easiest. From the time the eggs are set in the incubator to the time chicks hatch is 21 days. There can be some +/- to that based on the management of heat and humidity in the incubator, but if everything is dialed in correctly, it’ll be 21 days. So, with that easy math out of the way, we just counted back 3 weeks on the farm calendar and plugged in a new entry for starting incubation. (If you haven’t read it you can read a bonus blog about our little mail order chick hiccup!)
Now that our incubation date was set, we had to start planning for egg collection. Well, based on our handy dandy Kansas State University incubation guide from 1979, we know that eggs begin to lose their hatching viability after 7 days from when they were laid. Back to the farm calendar. Count back 7 days from starting incubation and look at that, that’s the earliest date we should start collecting eggs. In the past we have done a couple batches of 10-12 eggs and a bigger batch of around 20 or so, but this year we thought we might up that a hair to an even two dozen. But, once we started talking, and took into account that half would be roos, we decided that maybe we should up that number a bit. Well, based on the number of eggs we were getting a day, we figured that we could likely get 48 eggs in the seven-day period prior to incubating, so 48 it was. And since nothing ever follows a planned schedule, we ended up getting 54 eggs and settled on incubating an even 50.
So, with all of our eggs gathered we just pulled out the incubator, popped the eggs in, and fired it up. No, that’s not what we did. As any semi-responsible adult knows, it’s always best to test your equipment before you actually need to start using it. Back to the calendar. “Set up incubator”. If you are going to incubate eggs, it’s best to get your incubator dialed in 24-48 hours before you set your eggs. We set ours up the day before we began incubation and then proceeded to nail the temperate at 99.75 degrees while being totally incompetent trying to square away the humidity. The hatching manual for our incubator recommends 99.75 degrees for the incubation temperature for the first 18 days and 99 degrees for the final 3 days. The K-State manual recommends 102-103 degrees. We’ve had good success right around 100 degrees, so we are sticking with 100-101 to play in a safe zone. The K-State guide calls for a 50-65% humidity reading, which is 85-90 degrees on our wet bulb thermometer. The incubator guide tightens that up to 85-87 degrees wet bulb and 90-94 degrees for the final 3 days, so we try to stay closer to the 86 degree range. It’s pretty obvious that eggs need to stay warm to be able to hatch, but the reason humidity is so important is that if it’s too high the air bubble in the egg will be too small and when the chick goes to pip out of the shell it won’t be able to reach the air bubble and will likely drown in the fluid inside the shell. It can also create a chick that is really big from the excess fluid, which could cause the chick to not have enough room to get its head in position to pip out of the egg. If the humidity is too low, there will be a lack of fluid in the egg and the chick may not be strong enough to pip out of the shell or if it gets the shell pipped, it can get stuck to the shell as the infiltrating air dries the mucous membrane in the shell. The other critical factor in incubation is turning the eggs for the first 18 days. It is recommended to turn the eggs several times a day. Luckily we have an incubator with an automatic turner, so our eggs get “rolled” once per hour. The turning relieves pressure that can restrict nerves and cause improper circulation. Broody hens will use her head and beak to roll the eggs around when she’s sitting on them. We’ve had one that kept trying to roll the eggs back under her as we were trying to collect them one day! One way to test the fertility is to “candle” the eggs after 4 or 5 days in the incubator. If you can see a dark spot in the middle with blood vessels branching off of it, you have a fertile egg. You can also check the progression of development in the egg by candling them on days 7, 14, and 18 and checking the size of the air cell inside. We’ve never done that because we prefer to limit our disruption of the incubator to maintain temperature and humidity, but if you like to tinker, give it a whirl.
We mentioned in the past that our youngest son’s teacher excitedly invited us to bring the incubator into their classroom in the past so the kiddos could watch the chicks hatch. She has developed a lesson plan using 21 eggs that show the development inside the egg for each day during the process. It’s a really wonderful way to teach about the birth and growth that tends to happen every spring in nature and we’re really happy we get to share it. Our son is very shy, but you can sense his pride when we talk about taking the incubator in to share with his friends. Since the incubator requires specific management we keep it at our house until the last three days, when we increase the temperature and humidity and remove the auto turner and rolling tray. In the past we have wrapped the eggs in towels inside the incubator and wrapped the incubator in towels as we transport it to the school. Luckily we don’t live too far out of town and the travel doesn’t seem to impact the hatch.
If you have chickens (and a rooster), you should definitely try out incubation if you want to expand your flock. There are a ton of different incubator styles at a multitude of price points, so pick one that suits your context and give it a whirl. If you possess the ingenuity, there are plans online for building your own. Don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune to get started incubating. It would be better to outgrow a cheaper incubator and upgrade than to spend a lot of money and discover that it doesn’t really fit into your farm. We were fortunate to run across our incubator at a farm auction about a year before we even got our first chickens. It’s a Marsh Roll-X model that was postmarked to our local farm and feed store in 1980 and was purchased by a professor at the University of Kansas. It had been stored in a barn and was clogged up with mud dauber nests, so it didn’t attract much bidding. We weren’t sure if it worked, but we took a chance because it was neatly packed in its original packaging and came with the auto turner, thermometers, extra wicks, all the literature, and grids for Average Chickens, Large Chickens, Ducks, and Pheasant eggs. With a little elbow grease it looked almost brand new and you could tell that it had only been used a handful of times. These incubators have been around a long time and can still be purchased new. When we priced it out with all of the extra egg grids it would have cost us close to $900. We ended up getting it for something like $125-150, so we couldn’t pass it up. Well, we actually ended up getting it for free because Grandma was at the auction and decided sneak up to the auction cashier to buy her grandsons their very own incubator. She knew that it would provide a valuable learning experience for the whole family. Thank you grandma. Hopefully the boys won’t take it with them when they leave for college.
Today we just wanted to share a quick story that illustrates how unpredictable farming can be. As you know, we need to replenish our laying flock and are starting our trial Cornish Cross meat bird batch. Well, instead of relying solely on incubation to replenish our flock, we chose to order some day-old chicks from Murray McMurray hatchery. We were ordering our Cornish X chicks anyway, so we figured it would be worth it to add to that order and save on shipping. Anyway, this is the week we have been waiting months for; hatch week! We got a text message and email from the hatchery that our birds were in the hands of the United States Postal Service in Iowa. We anticipated receiving the chicks the following morning (since it’s such a short distance from the hatchery), so we left our ringers on when we went to bed Monday night to field the pick-up call bright and early.
Unlike past orders, the call didn’t come before dawn. At least we would be rested when the chicks arrived. Now, we’ve heard horror stories about shipments of chicks being lost in the mail for days and arriving dead when they finally turn up, but we’ve never had any issues with our past orders. When the phone rang at about a quarter ‘til 10 we were informed that our chicks were ready and waiting for us at the post office. After putting away groceries and grabbing a second cup of coffee, I headed into town to pick them up. When I arrived I was in line behind a person from our local Orscheln farm store who was there to pick up chicks for their store’s “chick days”. When it was my turn at the counter I stated that I was there to pick up baby chicks, too. The same USPS person I had spoken to on the phone just 30 minutes earlier said, “are you sure? We don’t have any more chicks back there. Let me look again.” Uh oh. I overhear her ask another employee and hear mention of Tractor Supply, so I text Shannon that I think our chicks went to our local Tractor Supply store when they came to pick up their order. She quickly got on the phone and called over there to confirm that, yes, they in fact had our chicks. One of their employees was calling me about the same time, but I didn’t answer because it wasn’t a local call and I was in the middle of trying to figure out where our chicks could have possibly gone in the last 30 minutes. One of the USPS employees came back out and said they think they accidentally sent them with the Tractor Supply order and that they were trying to get ahold of them. I let him know that my wife had tracked them down and thanked him for his time. He was apologetic and I was frustrated, but getting upset with him wasn’t going to do either of us any good. Hopefully next time he will just take the extra time to read the labels to make sure the package is heading to the right place.
I ran over to Tractor Supply and picked up the chicks, so ultimately there was no harm done. I’m not sure what I would have done if they hadn’t noticed and went ahead and put our chicks out with the rest of theirs. I certainly would have been a lot more frustrated with the postal service and someone would have gotten a pretty good deal on some blue-laced red wyandottes and silver-grey dorkings! While this was ultimately a non-issue, I think it illustrates that even with the best laid plans, some things are just beyond your control. There will be days that nature doesn’t accommodate your plans. There will be days that the post office manages to lose your chicks in the 30 minutes it takes for you to get to the post office after they call. There will be days stray dogs decimate half of your laying flock. But, all of those days will strengthen your problem-solving skills and make you assess just what is actually important in life. Is my time better spent yelling at a post office employee that already feels bad? Or is my time better spent letting him know that mistakes happen and not ruining both of our days over something as trivial as 54 day-old chicks. Maybe that’s easier said than done and perhaps it would have been a bigger problem if it had been a batch of 500 meat birds that my livelihood depended on. I don’t know. I’m just glad it all worked out and now we get to watch these little peepers grow.
Spring is a busy time of year in nature; grass is coming out of dormancy, buds are swelling on trees, and bugs materialize from seemingly every fissure of earth. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that Winter isn’t that bad, our hearts can’t help but burst with excitement from the promise of Spring. As nature accelerates at break-neck pace, we too must find a higher gear to get ahead of this season’s farm chores. Spring has always been a joyously busy season at our house, but this year feels a little different. We are actually going into the season with a plan, so we thought we’d share what’s going to be happening on the farm this Spring!
First things first, we are two days away from having somewhere in the ballpark of 100 baby chicks in the brooder. We’ll have a dedicated post on the brooding process, but we want to emphasize the importance of having your brooder set up BEFORE you bring home any chicks. We got our brooder all set up on Saturday and will be firing up the heat lamps today to make sure everything is working and warm before the chicks show up. We have it set up in two sections, one side for the meat birds, and the other side for the layers and heritage roosters. We dropped the incubator off at Arlo’s classroom this morning, so we’ll report back on how many of the 50 eggs in it were successful.
Going back over the past month (technically not Spring, but it’s all part of gearing up for Spring) we have pruned back the suckers on our fruit trees, cut back our rose bushes, and ripped out any old growth in the garden. We’ve also started onions, microgreens, all of our brassicas, a variety of flowers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes in our makeshift greenhouse….errr Shannon’s art studio. Later today we will be cutting up our seed potatoes in order to have them cure before planting them out next weekend. One thing that we haven’t gotten to yet is tilling up the garden, so hopefully it won’t rain before we can get to that! In the future we plan on tilling the garden under in the fall and covering it with silage tarps over winter. This will prevent wind erosion and then will encourage weed seeds to germinate in the spring under the heat of the tarp, but then die from lack of sunlight. We didn’t get around to acquiring the tarps this winter, but we may give that method a try this summer in unused parts of the garden.
Getting back to the chickens, we need to do some minor maintenance on the A-frame coop that will house first batch of meat birds. One of the wheel hubs broke, so we need to replace that along with a new tow-rope since the puppies used the old one as a chew toy. We will also be bolstering the hoop coop and getting a new tarp to cover it. The biggest chicken-related task we will undertake early in the season is building a new, larger coop for our laying hens. As we mentioned in our Coop Design blog post, we’ve been pondering how we want to manage our laying coop. We were really leaning toward making another mobile coop that could be rotated with our future ruminants, but we ultimately decided it would be too cumbersome to navigate on the two roughly 4-acre pastures we’ll be using. We recently decided that we would build the new coop next to the dog house and just allow them to range in the pasture from there. Our plan is to use a deep-litter method of management and only provide feed and water inside the coop so they won’t be congregating around the feeders and waters out on the pasture, thus minimizing their impact on the land. There will be some level of degradation outside the coop, but our past experience suggests it will be a relatively small area and we should be able to manage that through mulching. That coop needs to get built sometime in the next 3-4 weeks, so wish us luck ☺ Once we have sheep on the farm we will be pursuing NRCS grant funding to aid in the construction of additional fencing projects to convert the old crop ground into additional grazing pasture.
Once we get the new coop built we will probably shift our focus to building fence in one of our pastures. Before we built our house we had our land surveyed and staked out so we could build fence, but our tenant farmer ran over all of our stakes with his hay mower and plow, so we need to have the surveyors back out before we start setting posts. Since we plan on eventually fencing two separate pastures along with most of our woods, we are going to set corner posts at each corner of our property and multiple line posts along all of our property lines, so that if we don’t get to the rest of the fence for a while, we’ll at least know where the fence line needs to go. With the property surveyed we will fence in our North pasture using a combination of woven wire and high tensile electric fence to make the area secure for sheep and our Livestock Guardian Dogs. We will be rotating the sheep through this pasture with portable internal fencing and our chickens, turkeys, and ducks will have free range over this area during the day.
Over in the garden we will start planting some of our early season veggies (carrots, radishes, lettuce, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and potatoes) out next weekend. We’ll be adding peas the following weekend along with additional weekly succession plantings of carrots, radishes, and lettuce. We’re going to play it a little safe this year and not plant out our tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, edamame, squash, melons, and corn until the first weekend of May. Since we aren’t trying to be first to market with anything and are still in the trial phase of a market garden, we want to make sure we’re past any frost danger. Our long-term plans include playing with some season extension tools like caterpillar tunnels, tarping, etc., but this is where we’re at now. Perhaps more important, though, is we need to build a small raised bed area for each of our boys to plant their own gardens in. We planned out 4×4 plots with them this winter and they chose a few things they each wanted to grow.
As we get the garden going, we also need to focus a little attention on where our turkeys are going to live. We currently have one end of the winter chicken run that is framed as part of the run, but doesn’t have any fencing or net over the top. We plan to wrap this area in welded wire fencing up 8’ high and cover the top and top half of the walls with some material (likely tarp) to keep the turkeys out of the elements while they roost. Once the turkeys are about 2 months old, they need very little in the way of protection, so this should suffice. We will add a door to that area and plenty of roosts, so they can go in there to roost at night and be let out to forage the pasture during the day. The turkeys don’t arrive until May and will stay in the brooder for 6-8 weeks, so we have some time on this project.
Well, there you have it. If experience has taught us anything, it’s that this list will likely grow exponentially as the days tick by. What’s on your Spring to-do list?
So far in this blog we’ve talked about a few of the things that we have been doing leading up to this farming endeavor. We’ve spent some time playing around with our chicken infrastructure, gardened without great intention, and thrown in some bees and ducks for good measure. Our journey started much like many other small-scale producers, as more of a homestead-focused operation. When we decided to produce food, the intention was to feed our family the best food we could. We wanted to know that if we were going to eat eggs and chicken they were going to come from animals that had a chance to bathe in sun and dust, scratch and peck, and eat grass and bugs. By now, most of you have probably seen pictures or videos of commercial poultry facilities where the term “factory” certainly applies more than “farm”. Chickens crammed in cages for egg production or packed like sardines in buildings with no room to really move while they plump to market weight. The same types of scenarios play out across the agricultural landscape and do a fine job of pumping out high quantity, low quality food. When most people imagine where their food comes from, it’s not this that they’re picturing. When you buy that “Certified Organic” chicken breast, you’re picturing “free range” chickens, which in your mind means they are free to graze the fields as the please. You may want to investigate those organic standards a bit unless you just don’t want to know that most of those birds won’t ever see a blue sky in their lives. They may have slightly better living conditions and be fed a healthier ration, but that range of theirs may just be in the form of a small pop-door that leads to a small concrete patio. This may seem a bit cynical, but hopefully it starts to paint the picture of why raising our food is so important to us. We like to know that our chickens, whether for meat or eggs, get to eat grass, bugs, and organic grains. We like that they have space to stretch out and don’t have to have their beaks trimmed to keep them from pecking each other bloody. We like that we don’t have to prophylactically feed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick when better management could prevent the most common illnesses. We’ve been privy to conditions of commercial livestock production for probably 15 years or so now and it’s one of those things that once you are aware, you can’t just forget about it. Unfortunately, many consumers don’t care, don’t want to know, or don’t want to/can’t spend the extra money for humanely raised meat. We are certainly not perfect in this regard, but it is one of the motivations for us to raise our own meat.
Having said all that, what is the plan? Well, we quickly realized that we enjoyed supplying our own chicken meat and eggs, but we were still reliant on outside sources for our other animal proteins and much of the rest of our diet. This is where things have started to ramp up pretty quickly as of late. As we started to think about all of the products we wanted to raise for our freezer and pantry, we realized that given the infrastructure costs necessary, it would make more sense to raise a surplus and sell what we don’t need to cover the cost of our food. As that thought process evolved we began to realize we both were getting really excited about the prospect of farming rather than just homesteading. Now, many people will probably scoff at us calling ourselves farmers, but that’s ok. There are examples all over the world of people producing an abundance of food and fantastic incomes on small amounts of land through proper management. It really is an exciting time to see all of the innovation in small-scale agriculture. Land is prohibitively expensive, but people are learning how to effectively manage small amounts of land through intensive grazing, stacking enterprises, and developing new techniques while improving the soil. We may not have thousands of acres of row crops or 600 hogs, but we have a desire to raise food that can nourish our family and our community, so that sounds like farming to us. As you know, we currently have chickens, ducks, and bees, but let’s walk through the enterprises we plan to add to our farm and how we plan on expanding what we’re doing now.
Chickens: This seems like a natural place to start since we actually have them on-farm! We’ve talked about our recent losses and frankly we’re lucky to still have enough chickens to provide us with eggs. As you know, we have a batch of chickens coming from a hatchery as well as a batch of eggs in our incubator. With those additions to our flock, we’ll probably end up with around 60 hens this Spring, but most of those won’t start laying until around August. To someone who keeps a flock of backyard chickens, 60 hens may seem like a lot, but when we’re talking about egg production, it’s really not. The margin on eggs is razor thin, so it takes a lot of birds to make an egg venture financially viable. We don’t really see eggs as being the main focus of our farm, but we really enjoy being able to provide them to our customers and there aren’t too many local options for organically-fed, pasture-raised eggs in our local market. We will probably add another batch of 40 hens or so in the late summer so they’ll start laying in early 2019. Late this summer we should be getting around 20 dozen or so eggs a week and that will increase to over 30 dozen a week with the extra hens for 2019. We feel like this is a manageable number of eggs for us to be able to sell. We will evaluate our market and determine where we want to be in terms of our laying flock, but we think this is a good starting point. We think we produce really high-quality eggs and they should prove to be a nice accompaniment to our other products.
On the flip side of chickens, we have our meat birds. In the past we have just processed excess heritage breed roosters for our own freezer. These birds take around 16 weeks to grow out and have a much smaller breast than your typical supermarket chicken. We really enjoy the depth of flavor these birds provide, but don’t think it’s something that the typical consumer would prefer. So, our plan for meat chickens is to raise Cornish X hybrids. We will be profiling these birds in a separate blog post, but we’ll give you a quick comparison to the heritage birds for now. The Cornish X is the commercial standard for chicken. They grow to market weight in about 8 weeks on the same amount of supplemental feed as the heritage birds, but produce more meat and a much larger breast than the heritage birds. The taste and texture of these birds is what most people think of when they think of chicken. We will raise these on pasture and supplement with organic feed, so while they are the same birds produced in commercial models, they will be more nutrient dense the way we raise them. Our initial run will just be 20 birds so we get a feel for how to best manage the Cornish X. Assuming things go well, we plan on producing another batch of the Cornish X later in the year. We will let you know when we are going to do that and give you the opportunity to pre-order some whole chickens for your family’s freezer. Our second batch will likely be limited to around 50 birds, but we will be looking to expand that number significantly.
Turkeys: Our first batch of turkeys is set to hatch in May. We ordered 15 assorted heritage turkeys and plan to keep a breeding trio of one Tom and two hens to hatch out more birds each year. Turkeys are said to be a little harder to keep alive in the brooder phase, but once they reach a couple months of age, they’re very hardy. We ordered heritage birds because we liked the idea of being able to breed them instead of having to spend around $11 for EACH baby. Commercial turkeys that most people are used to seeing cannot naturally mate. Because they’ve been bred to have such large breasts, the Toms cannot mount the hens. Somebody’s job is to artificially inseminate a bajillion turkey hens so we can have dirt-cheap, flavorless, dry Thanksgiving turkey. As with the rest of our poultry, we will be pasturing our turkeys. The heritage birds will take 5-6 months to grow to a respectable table size and will cost a significant amount to raise. We are giving them a trial run this year, but will likely add some commercial strains next year to offer consumer choice. The commercial Broad-breasted White turkey is basically the turkey version of the Cornish X and produces a larger table bird over a shorter period of time. Even so, pastured birds end up being expensive to raise, and expensive to purchase. It’s not uncommon to see a $100 pastured turkey, but we think the consumers in our market are engaged enough in the local food movement to understand the importance of high quality turkey as the centerpiece for their Thanksgiving table. We are going to gauge interest this year before determining an expansion plan for the turkey enterprise, but it will probably not expand beyond 50-100 birds, just because of infrastructure, transportation, and processing costs.
Ducks: We currently have 9 Muscovy ducks. Well, technically they’re not actually a duck, but everyone calls them ducks. We traded some pullets for them, a couple grape vines, and a hardy fig last year. We didn’t get the drakes scheduled with the processor in time last fall, so we plan to have them processed with our first batch of Cornish X this spring. The drakes are just now reaching maturity and have become a terrible nuisance as of late. Our original plan was to cull the drakes and bring in an unrelated drake with our 5 females to allow them to hatch out fertilized eggs. Our new plan is to cull the drakes and see how we like their meat before we decide to bring in a new drake. We’ve read that they don’t line breed very well, so bringing in unrelated genetics is a must. Muscovies are well-known for their ability to brood multiple batches of ducklings a year on their own. We’ve read that their meat is a little different than typical duck meat and some say it’s similar to roast beef. If that’s truly the case, we may look into keeping them on the farm, but if we’re underwhelmed by the meat, we will likely process the females when we take our heritage birds to the processor a couple months after the Cornish. Frankly, we find the ducks to be a bit of a pain. Muscovies are often referred to as “land ducks” and they don’t require a pond or anything to be happy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love to instantly hop in any waterers they can as soon as they are filled with fresh water. We constantly have to clean out the baby pools we have for them and have to freshen the chicken waterers that we use in the winter because they get them filthy. Really they make everything remotely near a water source filthy. We’ve had them in a confined run since we got them since they’re pretty decent fliers, but perhaps we need to give them a chance out on pasture before we eliminate them from the farm completely. Most of our complaints would probably be mitigated if they were managed a little better. The other concern, however, is we really have no idea what kind of market there is for their meat. Duck eggs are highly valued for baking, but Muscovies are not known as good or even consistent layers, so if we want to get into duck eggs we would likely move to something like a Khaki Campbell. Basically, the future of Muscovies on our farm is not set, but you could say they’re on the chopping block.
Bees: We are not good beekeepers. Our first hive of bees starved last winter because we didn’t realize we should have been feeding them in late winter/early spring. We got a new package last spring, but we didn’t get enough honey to take any for ourselves. So far, this hive is still alive (at least it was a week ago). We’ve put some sugar water in a feeder for them and hope to keep them alive so we can harvest some honey this year. Bees are fascinating and we really love observing them. We also love having a hive on the farm to help with pollination in our garden. Tending the beehive is a bit of a chore for us, however. If we were focused on honey production it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since we have so many other things going on, it’s often a challenge to find the time during the right part of the day, with the right weather, to light the smoker and check the hive. We use a lot of honey in our cooking and really want to harvest our own, but if things don’t go well with the hive this year, we’re not sure how willing we’ll be to reboot the bees again. Our motivation for bees is purely for personal consumption, so it may not be wise to keep it as an enterprise on our farm if it can’t pay its own way. We have some great local honey producers that we will patronize if our hive ends up failing. If we are able to harvest honey this year, it will be the most expensive honey we’ve ever had.
Sheep: Sheep were kind of the catalyst for Shannon to get on board with the whole farming thing, mostly because we got to get two fuzzy puppies. We are only interested in meat production, so we will be focusing on meat breeds rather than wool breads. Our ideal sheep would be a hair sheep like a Katahdin or perhaps a Katahdin cross. Hair sheep don’t require sheering like their wool counterparts and tend to be hardier. Our plan is to have sheep serve as not only a source of meat production, but also as a key player in pasture regeneration. The main area we will be grazing them in is an established pasture that was hayed for years prior to us purchasing the property. The other side of our driveway was in conventional monoculture cropping when we bought the property. We seeded a pasture mix into it a couple years ago and it’s now filled with some rye, fescue, and clovers, but it’s pretty thin. Our grazing plan centers around moving the sheep into a new paddock of grass every day and only allowing them the amount of forage they can utilize in the time they are in the paddock. This forces them to eat all of the types of forage available to them in the pasture rather than picking and choosing the best bits. With too much space, animals will overgraze their favorite forages and undergraze the less desirable areas. You can imagine how this serves as a detriment to pasture quality. While the sheep are in their paddocks they will also be adding manure and urine to the ground, which will also aid in the improvement of the soil. In a pasture-based system, nothing is more important than the soil structure. We hope to manage our livestock in a way that will increase our soil’s organic matter and microbial activity which will in turn provide better forage for our livestock, all while improving water retention, erosion, etc.
We will be adding sheep to our farm this year, but first, we need some infrastructure in place. Our plan is to install perimeter fence around our main pasture and create paddocks with temporary fencing inside that permanent perimeter fence. We will also need to figure out a system for moving their water with them. As with most things we do, that will likely take many iterations before we get it right. Like many aspects of farming, this will require a decent capital outlay and significant labor, but we hope to get started on it this spring. Our long(er)-term goal is to do something similar on the other side of our driveway where our pasture needs significant improvement.
Pigs: When we first started thinking about the farm, we were planning on having some pigs over by the garden to do our plowing for us and then letting them graze in the clover field, but the more we thought about our farm layout, the less we liked that idea. Our property has about 10 acres of woods that we currently don’t really do anything with other than source firewood. The area closest to our pasture has a gentle slope that becomes much steeper after a few acres. We think this area of 2-3 acres is going to make for an ideal spot for pigs. It has mature oaks, black walnuts, and cedars, which will provide ample shade as well as forage in the form of acorns and walnuts. The underbrush is pretty thick in all of our woods, so we’re looking forward to having the pigs clear that out for us. Our plan with pigs is somewhat similar to the sheep, except we won’t be moving them daily. We plan to install a perimeter of high tensile electric fence and then subdivide that area with paddocks that we will rotate the pigs through as needed. We have a water lined stubbed off near the area that is in place for a future shop, so we will install a frost-free hydrant near their paddocks. Our biggest challenge is going to be hauling feed to them and loading them in the trailer, but we have some ideas on that. We have a lot of room to expand in the woods if we decide we want to add more pigs later, but we’re probably going to start with around 6 wiener pigs and build that up to doing two batches of 12 a year. Our plan is to start out buying in pigs to feed out, but if it makes economic sense to keep a breeding sow or two, we will consider that after we get some time with pigs under our belts. Our neighbor keeps pigs, so it will be nice to have his experience available to us even though his methods are more aligned with commercial production. It will likely be 2019 before we add pigs to the mix, but when we do we will probably start by selling half and whole butchered hogs and then adding a retail cut component as we add more production. As with our chickens, we will be providing organic feed to the pigs in addition to their forage.
Cattle: This is the component of our farm that most people with farming experience will probably laugh about. We don’t have a ton of acreage, but we have determined that with intensive grazing practices using daily paddock moves, we can accommodate 4 head of cattle at a time, processing two a year. These would likely be 500# stockers that we bring in and finish on grass to around 1000#. They will be grazing in a rotational system with the sheep and poultry and will provide the biggest impact as far as pasture improvement for us. Fortunately, we have the advantage of being able to build our fencing infrastructure for the sheep in a manner that will allow us to contain cattle as well. We obviously will be sourcing smaller-framed cattle like Lowline Angus or similar crosses. We think there are environmental advantages in the production models of grass fed and finished beef as well as nutritional advantages. We will have to carry these cattle on farm much longer than grain-finished cattle, but we plan to house them off pasture in the winter to minimize negative pasture impact and feed them hay during that time.
Market Garden: We currently have an area that’s roughly ¼ acre for our garden area. We are planting a plethora of veggies this year and are planning on really trying to get this aspect of our farm dialed in a little better. We will likely need to scale back the varieties in production as we move forward and just focus on products that will be marketable and profitable in our context. We have enough space to expand our garden to an acre or more, but we want to get really good at that ¼ acre scale before we expand beyond that. If you take a look at what people like JM Fortier and Curtis Stone are doing on small food plots you can see the direction we’re hoping to head.
Well, there you have it. We’ll probably look back at this and wonder what the hell we were thinking and laugh about our naivety, but this is where we think we’re starting and where we think we might be headed. Life happens and we reserve the right to change our minds, but we think we can create a farm that will nourish our bodies and minds and hopefully we can share that with like-minded people in our community. Thanks for joining us on this adventure!
There’s no “right” way to build a chicken coop, but there are plenty of wrong ways. Trust us. When we first seriously considered getting chickens we had read a ton of reference material from the likes of Joel Salatin, Harvey Ussery, and Glenn Drowns. We definitely knew what we were doing. Well, to date we have built four chicken coops and are going to be starting number five in short order. Clearly we are slow learners and you should certainly be cautious in taking any advice from us on this matter, but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and get it right the first (or second) time. As with most things, nothing can replace experience. What is right for our context could be a disaster in yours. Today we’re going to discuss the coops we have and what our future coop plans are.
The coop that started it all:
We actually got a lot of things right when we built our first coop, but there are several things we would change if we could do it again. As we mentioned in previous posts, we had every intention of getting chickens when we lived at our last house, but life got in the way, and we had to alter those plans. We knew we wanted a coop that could be moved around the pasture to minimize impact on the soil and forage. With this in mind we decided to build our first coop on a trailer. This is actually a really good idea for people that don’t want a typical, stationary coop with a scorched-earth run off of it. Chickens will eventually denude any vegetation around their coop and you will be left with an area that won’t regrow and will turn muddy with the rain. With this mobile coop idea in mind we drove to the nearest Harbor Freight and bought a 4’x8’ single-axle trailer to use as the foundation. It was cheap and there would be no waiting for the right trailer to pop up on Craigslist. Okay, that was mistake number one. With a little patience we could have almost certainly found a better, bigger, and cheaper trailer for sale locally. Mistake number two was buying a single-axle trailer with no tongue jack. After adding a fairly unstable tongue jack to the trailer we framed up walls with windows on two sides and a man door on the back wall of the trailer. With the walls up a sheathed with thin OSB we realized we wouldn’t be getting chickens any time soon because we were selling our house and moving into town while we built our new house. We hooked the trailer up and towed it to our new land and parked it behind a row of cedar trees where it would become home to packrats while the OSB rotted and warped in two years of extreme Kansas weather. We probably should have finished the coop before parking it, but it ended up working out ok because we decided to tear off the sheathing and add 18” on each side to make it 7’ x 8’ allowing us to house more birds.
Once we were all moved into the new house our focus shifted back to adding chickens to our lives. We took the leap and ordered 25 (the hatchery minimum) at the end of 2015. So, while we’re pointing out things we did wrong with our coops we should probably add that it’s not really wise to order chickens when you don’t have a coop and maybe you should just go to the farm store and get a handful of chicks when you’re starting out. When you start designing your coop you should figure out how many chickens you ultimately want to have to determine how big your coop needs to be. Coops that are just being used to house the birds at night and during inclement weather don’t need to allow as much floor space as coops that will house birds full time. It’s advisable to at least allow your birds a run to go out in during the day where they can scratch around and do chicken things, but if you can’t or won’t do that you should probably have 10 square feet of coop space per bird or more (or don’t get chickens). If you are going to let your birds out to range you can get by with as little as a couple square feet of interior coop space per bird. Just something to keep in mind when you see those tiny coops at your local farm store that they claim can house 10 birds. We had 56 square feet to work with in our first coop and decided that we would be fine ordering 25 chicks because half of those chicks would be roosters and would only be in the coop for a few months before being processed and they would be allowed to day range inside paddocks of electrified poultry fence. What we didn’t realize when we built the coop was that our real limiting factor was roost space. With the bump outs at the bottom we were able to create real, useable floor space for the birds, but higher up we could only squeeze in two roost bars that totaled around 14 feet of roost space. It’s recommended to have around 8” of roost space per bird. We are comfortable housing 12-16 adult birds in that coop, but we’ve stretched that at times. We staggered our roosts on either side of the coop to allow the birds to fly up to the shorter roost and then hop up and over to the other, higher roost. Having never owned chickens before, we didn’t realize the space they need to fly up to roosts. We would not build a coop as narrow as this one again. We made a pop door out one side in a manner that the door could swing down like a draw bridge and create a ramp for the chickens to walk out. Well, that worked great, but it didn’t reach to the ground. Easy fix, we just put something under it to keep it at a reasonable angle for the chickens to walk down. The bigger issue is that in short order, the space between the door and coop gets filled with pine shavings and other junk which prevents the door from closing. It can be brushed out, but still an unpleasant step. Finally, we added a nest box that can be accessed from the outside of the coop. In a coop this small, this element is a life-saver. Initially, the nest box was one, oversized box, but the hens kept kicking all the straw out and didn’t always lay in it. We added 2×4 partitions on the floor of the box and added another 2×4 across the bottom of the opening to keep the straw from getting kicked out as easily and now they lay in it consistently and we don’t have to freshen the straw as often. That nest box has three spots, but the hens typically all lay in the same one. Go figure.
With the coop built and chicks brooded it was time to move them to the big coop. Well, after moving the coop into the field we realized that we had made a big, heavy coop that was poorly supported. We maybe moved it two or three times, but it took way too long and it was terribly difficult to re-level each time. It has since been parked in a permanent spot and the pop door now stays open full time leading into a huge run. We built the run something like 24×40 feet with 8’ tall walls covered in welded wire and added aviary netting over the top. This has been a really valuable area to have in the late fall and winter as our red-tail hawk pressure ramps up tremendously. Where we may have a couple hawk-related casualties the rest of the year, we tend to lose a couple birds a week when the weather turns cold. So, this coop has served us well, but it would have been much better had we done something similar, but used an old hay wagon as the foundation so that it would have been bigger and we could just hook up and pull it forward without having to worry about leveling it.
Our second coop came straight out of Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. Once we realized the limitations of our original coop we wanted to add something that would be affordable, quick to build, and mobile. We also wanted a place that would allow us to separate out the roosters as they began to mature and started relentlessly tormenting the hens. Since we had a lot of scrap lumber laying around and a small pile of free steel siding from a family member we figured the Ussery plan would fit the bill and cost us less than $100 in materials we didn’t already have. This coop is a basic A-frame that allows the roof to serve as the walls and the cross bracing to serve as roost space while also providing the structural integrity. We have used this coop to separate roosters from the rest of the flock and we have also used it to house our chickens while we started raising our ducks in the first coop. This design is really great and super easy to move. The wheels are removable to allow the coop to sit directly on the ground when it’s not being moved. In just a couple minutes you can pop the wheels on, drag it forward, and remove the wheels. We plan on using this coop to do a small batch of Cornish cross meat birds this year.
The downside of the A-frame is that the nest box Ussery recommends has a wire mesh bottom and we’ve found that our straw tends to not stay in as well. Since the roosts are basically the same height as the nest box, chickens tend to roost on the edge of the nest box and make a real mess of it. We likely won’t use this coop for laying hens again. They had a tendency to lay eggs on the ground, which resulted in us having to crawl into the coop on hands and knees to retrieve them. Not ideal. This is one aspect that could pose a challenge when we gather up our meat birds for processing. It would be nice to be able to walk in the coop or remove the top to be able to grab the birds. We’ll see how it goes, but if we decide to do meat birds on a larger scale we will probably shift to Salatin-style pens (which we will talk about if we end up building some).
The third coop we built was not really a well thought out one, but it would provide more floor space and the ability for us to walk in the coop easily. We have several stacks of pallets that inspired us to put on our Pinterest hats and create a chicken coop out of them. We framed up floor joists and a floor and then built walls and a roof out of the pallets. Then we took some cedar fence pickets that a builder was going to throw away and used those for the bottom half of the exterior walls and finished the walls and roof with purchased metal. We used 6’ tall shutters that the builder was also throwing away as saloon-style doors and cut a couple squares in the walls for windows. We skimped a lot on this coop and didn’t put a proper overhang on the roof, so we had some water getting in that would not dry quickly. Luckily it was so ventilated that the moisture didn’t create any respiratory issues for the birds, but if we had kept them in there long-term we would have needed to correct that for sure. The idea for this coop was that some of the chickens would live in it for a while, but it would ultimately become our turkey coop. It butts up to the end of our run that has some framing that we plan to enclose and build turkey roosts in. Well, that plan got scrapped when we decided to get our livestock guardian pups. The chicken/turkey coop is now an 8×8 doghouse and we’ve extended the roofline so they are protected from the elements. We will probably put in some window awnings and fix one leaky spot, but it’s proving to be a great, cozy shelter for them.
Our most recent chicken coop was motivated by a rash of hawk attacks this past fall. We lost a handful of hens in about a week and a half. The final straw was when a hawk flew into the chicken/turkey coop and killed a hen right in the middle of the coop. It flew out when we showed up to collect eggs that day. Well, we like our hens to have access to fresh pasture every day, so we decided that another mobile coop would be best. We wanted something that would be easy to move, easy to collect eggs in, and would protect the birds from aerial predators. After seeing several “hoop coop” ideas online we decided to create our version of one. Basically we just used some 2x4s on edge as the base frame with some corner bracing and arched a couple 16’ cattle panels from one side to the other. With some added bracing across the ends and inside we had a surprisingly stable coop that we could walk into. We covered the ends with hardware cloth and put chicken wire at the bottom of the sides. Then, we fastened a tarp across the top and made some nest boxes out of 5 gallon buckets and we were in business. We put this coop in our garden area and let the chickens till for us as we moved them forward every day. Well, everything was going fine until two stray dogs managed to shred the tarp and a little terrier was able to rip back some of the chicken wire and squeeze through a grapefruit-sized hole in the side. Needless to say, we lost more hens that day than we would have lost to hawks all winter. In hindsight we were lazy. We should have secured the coop better and still used our electric net fence around the coop even though the chickens wouldn’t actually be leaving it. The remaining chickens have since been moved back to our original coop with the protected run and we have been adding organic matter to the run to allow them something to dig around in. If you are going to use a run for your chickens rather than let them range, it would be a good idea to look into using a deep litter method. You can add hay, wood shavings, leaf litter, food scraps, etc. and the chickens will basically make compost for you. We really liked everything about the hoop coop design, but it would require some beefing up to return to use in our system. Perhaps once our LGDs are older they would be able to deter any would-be predators from it.
As you can see, we haven’t mastered the art of the coop yet. Not counting the Cornish cross, we have 33 chicks coming from the hatchery and we are planning to incubate around 4 dozen eggs to coincide with our hatchery order. So, we clearly need to make arrangements for additional housing. Fortunately, we are a little less than a month out from having chicks and we can factor in an additional 3-4 weeks of brooder time after they arrive, giving us almost two months to get that infrastructure in place. Again, not advisable, but we can’t help ourselves sometimes. We haven’t quite settled on exactly what the next coop will be, but we’re leaning toward something that will be able to house >100 birds. It will likely be a structure that we put in the middle of our pasture so that we can run paddocks of electric fencing off it rather than moving the structure itself. Ideally we’ll be able to rotate their paddocks with the sheep, so it may end up being a structure that can house both species. The alternative to that would be to make another, albeit much larger, mobile coop. The idea behind that would be that we could move it along behind any ruminants we decide to graze (sheep or cattle) and they can scratch through the manure for worms and bugs while spreading it around as fertilizer. The downside to the mobile coop would be increased labor in moving it, but it would fall more in line with the regenerative grazing practices we would like to incorporate in our pastures. We will devote an entire post to the planning, building, and implementation phases of that process once we get it figured out. The clock is ticking.
So, if you’re thinking about building a chicken coop, try not to make the same mistakes we did. Really take your time and think through what your goals are for your flock. We’d love to hear about your coops and what things you like and dislike about them!