Challenges of a Small Farm

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When I first started farming about five or six years ago I could get organic whole grains in 50 pound sacks locally. This was great because it created the opportunity for me to mix my own ration for our chickens, as I’m sure a number of backyard flock owners love to do as well.  With a small flock it was easy to mix and use 3-4 hundred pounds at a time and feed it out over a month or two. But after a short while the 50 pound sacks dropped, unannounced, to 40 pounds. The price remained the same. Then access to the whole grains came to an abrupt end altogether without any clear cause. Frustrating to say the least. We were forced to start feeding processed feeds in 40 pound sacks because that was the only available organic feed. It worked for a short time, but the quality was questionable and the price was too high to make a profit.
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Certified organic feed can be a challenge to get at the best of times, especially for us at our small scale. So our next step was to push our production up to the next price break. We increased our production by adding more Turkeys and egg laying hens so we can order 1000 pound of feed at a time. That way we could use up the feed in a reasonable amount of time, because unless the feed is in a whole grain form it loses its nutritional quality over time. This worked well and we were able to build a productive small farm business.
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But once again after a short while our access to the 1/2 ton sacks came to an abrupt end without clear cause or warning. We found out the day we tried to order our next batch of feed. The only option’s now for organic grains are to go back to getting grain in 40 pound sacks (not an option) or jump up to the now 3 ton minimum, meaning we have to order no less then 6000 pounds at a time. Wow, thats a lot of feed! We can and do feed this much in the course of a season but the hard lump to swallow is where and how to store this amount of grain. When you are at the scale we are, you just have to take it as it comes and is just the nature of running a small business. But it would seem that the mantra of “get big or get out” is still strongly with us today in agriculture.

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Locally-Adapted Chickens Part 1

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Here it is! Our first article regarding locally-adapted chickens. It’s been a long time coming, considering that it was a year ago last month that we brought up the subject. The idea and research took considerable effort because producing one’s own chicks is very convoluted.
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Turns out that breeding chickens is a lot harder than it seems. Who would have thought?
It has taken just about a year to wade through all the different systems and styles. Look for this, watch for that- -it can be a lot to take in. Settling on a breed alone can be a daunting undertaking (we will cover this in more detail in the next post) and many of the great old production breeds no longer have people willing or able to hold them to the standards they where created with, making it difficult to find some breeds of chicken.
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It can be easy to get caught-up in getting the very best birds money can buy and searching for the right bird with the right qualities takes time. I’m not suggesting that this isn’t a proper route to take, but sometimes time just isn’t an option. We selected our parent stock out of our existing egg-laying flock. It took time and some false starts to pick out our breeders, but we settled on birds that had been with us for at least 2 years. We had a feeling that the highest preforming chickens of that age in our production system would help to jump-start our local adaption. We have yet to prove this.IMG_6337

This is the first set of Rhode Island Red chicks that we have hatched on-farm.
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Chicken Creep

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I would like to think that we get a little smarter season to season, and in this case it’s actually true. Check out ”Learning to Roost”, one of our earlier posts, to see how we used to do it. We often have to introduce chickens of different ages together and this can be a little challenging. The adult birds could and would hurt or kill small, young chickens. So the goal here is prevention. The chicks are also on a more expensive, higher-protein feed that the larger foul don’t need to be consuming. But of course they think they have to have some.
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With all that in mind, the best way we have come up with (well, we didn’t technically come up with it, but you know) is called a creep. This is an idea that is often used with larger livestock. We simply adapted this method to smaller livestock.
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As you can see, we’re not getting any points on our quality of workmanship, but it allows the chicks to mix with the larger birds as they feel more comfortable with their place in the flock. Keeping the bigger chickens out, we can feed the little ones a different feed freely. Its a win-win.
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When the chicks are too big to get into the creep, they have no choice but to mingle with the adults. Once the two flocks are integrated, we remove the creep.
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Overdue Update

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The past couple of months seem to have just slipped by like the snap of the fingers. Wasn’t it just the holiday season? Well we had better share with you what we have been up to.
This is a quick overview of some projects we are working on right now. We will post more in detail about these projects as they move forward.
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Our sheep have been enjoying this dry, mild weather and have decided to have some lambs! A little unexpected but no complaints here.
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We are also working on creating a locally adapted flock of chickens. This way we can help in a small way to protect of some of our national birds.
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And most importantly we are moving our farm from Ashland to Talent! We are extremely excited about this move.

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A couple of seasons ago we lost a large portion of our turkeys and chickens to skunks (check out the post “It Ain’t Easy” for a better idea of what went down). It took some time and a lot of research to figure out what we needed to do to remedy this problem.
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Chickens need and like to roost, and as it turns out it’s also their first defense. This was an easy fix–we just changed the way we house them.
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Then we got a couple of geese because our research lead us to believe that their aggressive temperament would deter predators.
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At first I wasn’t convinced that geese could perform this job and thought of them as just another mouth to feed. But we haven’t lost a turkey or a chicken since we added them.
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I have often seen them cock their head to the side and stare up in to the sky. When I follow their line of sight, inevitably there is a hawk floating in the blue, and once in a while an airplane. Needless to say they will always have a place at Pradaria.

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Just Add Water

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With the quick spike of the mercury to the low nineties in early June, I realized that I needed a way to keep our eggs cool at one of our drop sites. There were already a couple of fridges and a freezer humming along at their own pace in the heat. So why not follow suit and add another fridge? That would be the obvious choice. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it; in this case more is not better. Besides, if I’m going to spend time focusing on creating clean food, shouldn’t it be presented in a clean manner?

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At the same time, a friend of mine was telling me about this documentary he had watched about living a little lighter in regards to carbon emissions. And in this animated, detailed retelling of a movie I may never watch, he mentions this crazy pot refrigerator thing that the protagonist in the movie uses. Now this got me thinking. After a little research it turns out that the pot fridge thingy was invented in Africa for small farmers, is water cooled, and called a Zeer. I was sold and our very own Zeer was born.

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Shape of the Egg

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Uniformity is an industrial ideal, not something that is regularly found on a farm, and perfection is often the way in which food is presented in grocery stores. But nature has other ideas. If they’re grown organically, there are sometimes spots on apples, eggs that are crinkled, and holes chewed in lettuce.

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These are some of the eggs that didn’t make it into the egg cartons that we sell, for no other reason than that they aren’t the size and shape that we, as consumers, associate with eggs. But they are in keeping with nature’s infinite diversity and (trust me) they are still just as tasty. I had no idea that eggs came in different shapes and sizes until I started raising chickens on a larger-than-backyard scale, and a lot of the eggs that grace my table look like this.

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Farm Store

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We are constantly working on creating better access to our products and have recently added a new location. We have joined our fellow farms in opening a small farm store, hidden away on a quiet, unassuming street on the south side of Ashland. We have a sweet little spot in a friend’s garage where we will be selling eggs. We have individual dozens along with standing orders that people pick up from this location. If you find that you’re in need of another dozen, please come by and pick up eggs during the day. Out of respect for the owner’s privacy, if you are interested in picking up eggs at this location contact us to get the address. If you find that you would like to change the location that you currently get your eggs from just let us know.

Testimonial

Nice testimonial from one of our favorite customers.

 


Ever since I have been purchasing eggs from Able Farm I do not buy eggs anywhere else.

It’s not just because it’s a reliable source of happy chickens running free and producing healthy eggs.

What is very important is that the color and flavor bring me back to my childhood and simpler times spent at my grandma’s farm.

I enjoy baking with them, too. All the cookies, cakes and pies I baked with the Able Farm came out smelling and testing divine (and earned me a title of a “family baker”)

 

Karolina Wyszynska
Director of Sales & Marketing
Ashland Springs Hotel

 

Winter Chickens

The winter solstice has come and gone, marking the slow return of the growing season, and we are starting to get a few more eggs each day. A chicken lays about one egg each day depending on a number of factors like food consumption, temperature, and health. But the most important influence on this process is the number of hours of sunlight each day.  We most definitely have warmer and longer days, but it’s not yet time to put the chickens out to pasture.

During winter we have housed our chickens in a large, warm, hoop house allowing the pasture the time it needs to recover for the next growing season. Keeping them in a hoop house during the coldest months also has some convenient advantages; it’s dry, warm, and safe– everything a chicken could need to feel secure on a snowy day.  I find I get a deep feeling of satisfaction each time I see the chickens enjoying themselves, running, jumping, and scratching around in the hoop house. As it happens, this is a chicken’s favorite activity in summer, scratching around in the soil and crowns of plants looking for bugs or whatever else they can find (they are very curious).But in the late fall every year it becomes necessary to take the chickens off pasture.

The grasses and bugs are no longer flourishing and will start to hibernate as winter sets in.  When we house them during the winter months we manage the chickens with a deep litter system. A deep litter system is an old farming practice that focuses on creating over the length of winter a deep bed of composting grass hay, straw, peanut hulls, wood chips or any carbonic material the farmer has on hand. This bedding mix absorbs all moisture and wastes produced by the chickens. Then we use their natural instincts to our advantage by having them when scratch around in the bedding, injecting oxygen into the composting mixture (think self-turning compost). Once oxygen has been added to the bedding it starts to compost, which creates heat and keeps the chickens warm through the winter.