Archive | July, 2013

FDA Outlaws our Eggs

27 Jul

Well, I’ve heard rumors of some silly new FDA regulations coming down the pipeline, and a few days ago, the new rules arrived.

Draft Guidance for Industry: Questions and Answers Regarding the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation (Layers with Outdoor Access)

Sounds innocuous enough.  Wordy, yes, but this is the Federal government we’re talking about…

Anyway, this is part of an ongoing process by which the FDA “clarifies” the rules that it’s already made for us farmers to follow.  These particular rules were put in place almost 5 years ago, but they’re still deciding exactly what the rules mean.

Sounds like fun already.


These rules are supposed to prevent Salmonella Enteritis from infecting eggs that we farmers sell.  Nevermind that a SE-infected hen only “sheds” SE into 1 of every 20,000 eggs she lays.  Nevermind that you’re far more likely to contract a Salmonella infection from a head of lettuce than from an egg.

Of the Salmonella outbreaks investigated last year by the CDC, there were exactly zero caused by eggs.  In 2012 outbreaks were traced to: peanut butter, hedgehogs, mangoes, cantaloupe, ground beef, live baby chicks, dog food, “raw scraped tuna product”, turtles and lettuce.


So, logically, it’s time to lower the boom on egg producers.


So what do these new proposed rules do?

They require us farmers to keep our “clean” chickens away from any “dirty” wild animals that may carry Salmonella.

You must prevent stray poultry, wild birds, cats, and other animals from entering poultry houses (21 CFR 118.4(b)(4)).  This requirement applies to the entire poultry house, including any outdoor access areas that are part of the poultry house.

So if you’re a big industrial egg producer this is no big deal.  You already have your chickens locked up in a windowless building, you’re chickens will go to their graves without ever having seen the sky, breathed fresh air, or come into contact with a stray sparrow that might sneeze on them.

It’s only those weird organic producers, or those crazy “free-range” pastured-egg producers that have anything to worry about.  Our chickens get to roam around outdoors, pecking in the grass, scratching in the dirt.  According to the FDA our chickens live dangerously because they roam around in the “unsanitary” outdoors instead of a “clean” battery cage inside of a giant prison poultry barn.

These rules, if they become law, will mean the end of free-range eggs.  Our chickens will have to be locked up in a completely fenced (and roofed) enclosure to comply, and we’re not interested in raising confined chickens.

Confined chickens are unhappy chickens.

Confined chickens are bad for the environment, they lay less-healthy and less-tasty eggs.

These rules are bad for farmers, bad for chickens and bad for consumers.

If you like our free-range eggs, and want to be able to continue buying them, please let the FDA know as much by September 23rd so that these proposed rules don’t become the law of the land.

Chicken Coop Rehab: Part 2

19 Jul

So we got a bit of work done on the old chicken coop, but it needed some more help before it could get back to it’s old job of housing chickens.


The back wall of the coop was in particularly bad shape. You could see daylight though the wall, and it was even worse from the outside.


There wasn’t a single intact stud in the back wall, they were all completely rotted off.
Not good.
That means that there was nothing on the back wall to bear any of the weight of the structure.


The back wall was jacked up with a hydraulic jack on the main beam, and the sill plate was replaced.


The lower 2-3′ of rotted stud was cut off, and new studs were scabbed on.


With a bit of flashing and some engineered-wood siding, the wall was sealed back up.


And then the painting began.
The painting is still a work in progress, as we had a few other things that were higher priorities.


Like moving over a few feeders, roosts, mega-waterers, nestboxes and chickens.

They sure seem to enjoy the extra elbow-room, but we still had a small problem.
There just weren’t enough nestboxes for the number of chickens we have. There are supposed to be one box per 4 hens, and we had an 8-hole nestbox for just over 40 hens. Figure in the 30 pullets who should start laying in a few months, and we were facing a serious nestbox shortage.


The new 16-hole rear-rollout nestbox should do the trick. Now we’ve got enough boxes for 100 hens.


More eggs are on the way!


17 Jul

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I found these little guys in one of our Tree Swallow Boxes.  I guess they didn’t realize it wasn’t a bluebird box.


Oh well, we’re happy to have them, irregardless of which box they chose to nest in.

So far this year we’ve had 3 clutches of barn swallows, 2 clutches of tree swallows, and this clutch of bluebirds.

Watch out bugs, there are a lot of new hungry birds in the skies above Green Machine Farm!

The Problem with Cornish Cross

17 Jul

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We’re raising our second, and probably last, batch of Cornish-Cross meat chickens this year.
They look beautiful when they’re plucked and processed, showing off that double-breasted chicken physique that the American public has come to know and love.


Purdy isn’t it?

But I’ve never been a big fan of the Cornish-Cross chicken. They’re bred for growing fast, getting big and not much else.
They don’t forage as much as a normal chicken. They’re pretty gross to pick up, because they’re hot and squishy, much unlike an egg-laying chicken. And they have an amazing propensity for dying young.


Like these two did this morning.

It was 82°F this morning at 9:30 when I went out to move the chickens. They were all huddled up against the back of their pens, trying to stay in the shade.
When moving the pens, a slow one will occasionally get it’s foot caught under the back edge of the pen. This is pretty normal, and only requires a quick lift to free the chicken. The chicken quits freaking out once it’s leg is freed, and goes about it’s chicken business.

No big deal.

Except for today. The mere act of getting a foot caught was too much for these two.

They freaked out, overheated and died.

What kind of bird can’t take 82° and sunny?

I always refer back to Joel Salatin’s NASCAR-chicken analogy.  Essentially, the Cornish-Cross is a finely tuned racecar of a bird.  They do one thing (grow fast) and they do it very, very well.  But for being so powerful, they’re awfully fragile; NASCAR’s can’t handle bumps in the road.  The same powerful motors that they use to zoom across the finish line can just as easily hurtle them into a wall at 200mph.

So too with these chickens.  Due to their amped-up metabolisim they can’t take much heat.  Because of their sparse feathers they can’t take much cold either.  Cornish Cross also have problems with congestive heart failure [PDF].  They are bred to grow so quickly that their muscles often outgrow their internal organs, leading them to die prematurely.

We raise these birds because they’re what our customers want to buy. But I keep thinking there has to be a better way. In years past, I’ve tried to hatch our own hybrid meat birds, with limited success. Our farm-hatched hybrids were indeed better foragers, and much more resilient, but they were very slow growers and lacked the carcass characteristics that most folks have come to expect.

Farm-hatched meat birds seemed like a great idea, but in reality, we don’t have the time and energy (or the spare eggs) to devote to hatching out chickens in the numbers that it would take to be successful. Not to mention, the resulting chickens would be very expensive due to their slower grow-out.

Fortunately, within the last few years, and 2013 especially, the best alternative meat bird (the Freedom Ranger, Red Broiler, Poulet Rouge, etc.) has become ever more widely available.

I’m thinking that we’ll try some Red Broilers next year alongside our first batches of Cornish-Cross.

Chicken Coop Rehab

12 Jul

So if you’ve seen us at any of our farmers markets lately, then you probably noticed that we’re selling out of eggs pretty quickly.  Our 50 chickens just can’t keep up.  We decided to call in some reinforcements.


These 30 young ladies came from a local organic farmer. They’re probably about 4-5 months old, which means that they’ll start laying in a few months.  That’s still a while to wait, but it’s better than starting from just-hatched chicks.

Anyway, we put the new pullets (that’s farm-speak for a young female chicken) in with the older hens, and let them get acquainted.  They didn’t play nicely together. We upset the pecking order by bringing all the young ones in, so they all decided to get crabby for a few days.

That, and it is getting quite cramped in their current quarters.

It was time to start working on the chicken coop up on the hill.  It looks pretty rough right now, but it’s plenty big and unlike a lot of the farm buildings, it has a decent metal roof on it.


First order of business: shovel it out.
After talking to the farm’s previous owner, we learned that this building was used as a lambing barn during the winter beginning in 1966, when he first bought the farm.


Well, at least there’s nice concrete underneath.

And Cathy got plenty of use out of her new (used) mower, or more specifically, it’s little dump-bed wagon.


Securing the windows was next on the list. The six large South-facing windows will be nice, but they needed a bit of chicken wire to keep those wily predators out. We’re planning on making some swing-out “storm windows” out of some clear polycarbonate roofing before the winter.


But that’ll do for now. We’ve got other big holes to patch up first, like the entire back wall…

A Tale of Two Feed Mills

9 Jul

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So I went to both of the local feed mills today to shop around for chicken feed.

2013-05-09 13.16.14

Gerkens Feed is the mill in Zumbrota, only about 2 miles from the farm, and Farm Country Co-op is in the neighboring town of Pine Island, about 6 miles from the farm.  I would love to use the Gerkens, but I’ve haven’t been happy with their feed in the past.

I thought I’d give them another shot this time, since I’m finally able to order feed in bulk.  Bulk feeds are usually easier to customize, so maybe we could avoid all the stuff I don’t want like antibiotics and animal by-products.

I talked to the lady who works the counter and she tallied up the ingredients to their chicken feed to give me the price, a reasonable $460/ton.  It didn’t take long before I spotted a problem.  One ingredient on the computer screen read “BROILER CONCENTRATE AMP.”

A quick question confirmed my suspicion that “AMP” stood for Amprolium, an antibiotic.  Normally, you could just leave out the antibiotic and the feed would be just fine for our purposes.  But, this antibiotic is part of the very important “concentrate” part of the chicken feed.  The “concentrate” is a high-protein part of the feed that usually contains the important vitamins, minerals and amino-acids.  This concentrate is added to a cheaper base grain, like corn, barley, wheat, etc. to make a “complete” feed.

You can’t really leave out the concentrate part of a feed, that would deprive the chickens of the protein and important amino-acids (Methionine in chickens) that they need to survive and grow.

The best option would be to swap out the antibiotic-laced concentrate with a non-medicated concentrate.  I was quickly informed that this was not an option.  They don’t carry a non-medicated concentrate for meat chickens.

The lady politely informed me that they did have non-medicated chicken feed, but only in bags which would be $540/ton.  They would be happy to make me up a custom feed mix, I’d just have to come up with one on my own.  Coming up with feed mixes isn’t something I have a lot of time for.  Sure, I’ve been poking around on the internet, and coming up with a few really helpful chicken feed mixing resources[PDF], but feed mixes are pretty complex and too important to get wrong.  It’s something that I’d love to devote some time to figuring out, but not this year, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Maybe next year Gerkens.


I headed on over to Farm Country Co-op next.  I talked to them a few weeks ago about bulk feed, they quoted me almost the exact same price, around $460/ton.

The guy working the counter printed me off a list of the ingredients and we went over the list.  I told him to drop the antibiotics and the meat & bone meal.  He suggested replacing the meat & bone meal with soybean meal to keep the protein level up.  I agreed. We arranged a time tomorrow morning for the feed to be picked up.



Why can’t they all be that easy to work with?

Meat Processors: Federal, State and Custom

8 Jul

A customer gives us some money, we give the customer some bacon.
Sounds good, no?


Mmmmmm. Bacon.

If only it were that easy.

To sell meat in the state of Minnesota (and most other states for that matter) the meat has to be processed at an inspected processor. In Minnesota, there are 3 different “levels” of processors, each with attendant restrictions on the resulting meat.


The top tier processors are the federally-inspected USDA processors. These plants are inspected by the USDA, and that inspector is there watching every animal that moves through the facility.

If the label bears the little circular USDA stamp, it can be sold to anyone anywhere.  USDA inspection is required for any meat that’s moving across state lines or out of the country.

The second tier consists of state-inspected “equal-to” processors.  These facilities are inspected in much the same manner, but instead of a USDA inspector, they have an inspector from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.


The label from a “equal-to” facility will have the Minnesota inspection stamp. State inspected meat can be sold to consumers, restaurants or schools, but can’t be sold outside the state of Minnesota.

The third tier of meat processors are the “Custom exempt” processors.  Custom processors are inspected by the state, but don’t have an inspector there every day watching every animal like a state or USDA inspected processor would have.


Custom processed meat is typically packaged in white butcher paper, and will bear a “Not for Sale” stamp. According to MDA rules this meat can not be sold, and can only be consumed by the owner, the owners family and non-paying guests. If you buy meat in bulk, like a whole, half or quarter of a cow, or a whole or half hog, then this is how your meat will be packaged unless you specify otherwise.

You see, when you buy half of a cow, we are technically selling you half of a living cow, then transporting that cow to the processor for you. You then pay the processor to cut & wrap the meat from your cow. This keeps everything nice and legal.
This doesn’t mean that you should worry about the safety meat that is bought in bulk. On the contrary, the processors we use are all USDA inspected, even though they may package in butcher paper with the “Not for Sale” stamp. We pay extra for the cryovac packaging and retail labels, an expense you may not want for your bulk order.

Feed Bins

7 Jul

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It’s been a month and a half since we bought a pair of them.

I now consider them to be among the items on the farm with the best ROI (return on investment) of anything a small farmer can own.

We picked up this pair of 3 ton bulk feed bins on Craigslist for $250 each.


We’ve had a gravity box for a few months, and wile it will hold 3 tons of feed, it isn’t real weatherproof. Even parked under the polebarn with a tarp on it will keep all the water out. Then you get $50 of ruined feed in the bottom of the gravity box. Not good.


The first feed bin was in great shape, and We’ve been using it to store the pig feed in for the past 5 weeks. All the feed stays dry, and filling a bucket is a snap. Just put the bucket under the hopper, and open the slide, the feed will dumps out into the bucket.
Unlike a gravity box, a feed bin isn’t mobile, so unless you have the equipment you have to pay the feed company $50 to deliver in their truck. Even with the delivery fee, bulk feed is wayyy cheaper than the bagged stuff.  These feed bins can pay for themselves with the first ton of feed that you order.

Now that we have 150 broiler chickens and 50 turkeys, the second feed bin is about to be pressed into service holding chicken & turkey feed. We have to pay a lot of money for our unmedicated chicken feed, about $700 per ton, versus about $450 per ton for bulk chicken feed.  Ironically, adding antibiotics makes the price of bagged feed go down, because so many other people use antibiotic-laced feed.  Our local co-ops make and bag their own medicated feeds, but they sell so little antibiotic-free feed that they don’t bother.  Instead they order it in from a bigger feed supplier (Purina in this case) which means that it costs more.

If you buy bulk feed, they can easily omit the antibiotics, which means that you actually save the $2-3 for the load if you, like us, choose not to feed antibiotics.

Antibiotics in animal feed are cheap.

I don’t know if it reflects worse on our healthcare system or our industrial agriculture system.

Probably both.


Anyway, we set up the second bin on top of the hill behind the chicken coop.


Just a short distance from the chickens and turkeys out on pasture on the other side of the hill.

The only problem was that the hopper on the bottom of the bin was rusted through in a few places, which would seriously hinder it’s ability to store grain.


Rust was scraped off, Rustoleum rusted metal primer was painted on, old license plates were affixed over the damaged areas and fastened with pop-rivets and a generous bead of caulk went over the whole works.

Now I just have to make some calls to the local co-ops to do a little feed price comparison.  Saving money on feed is a big deal for any livestock farmer, as feed costs are a huge part of the expense associated with raising an animal.  Controlling feed costs can be the difference between making a profit or a loss.

Pasture Chicken Waterer

5 Jul

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Since I’ve been making a few of them this week, I thought I’d share my method of making a pasture chicken waterer.  It’s very clean (very important with meat chickens), cheap, easy to use and pretty excellent in any above-freezing situation.


First up, we start with a 5′ length of 1″ PVC pipe.  I mark 3″ from the end, then another mark every 6″.  That ought to add up to 10 marks, on which to drill ten 11/32″ holes.


After threading in ten nipple-style poultry drinkers, glue on two 3/4″ Male thread adapters (one on each end).


Next up, drill a 15/16″ hole in the bottom of a plastic bucket, and screw in a 5/8″ barbed fitting. The barbed fitting in the photo is pretty grungy because I literally found it lying on the ground. Lucky me, I saved $0.87 but the found fitting leaks, so lets just call it a wash.


Then attach a short length of hose to the barb. Add on a 3/4″ female hose bib so you can attach it to the PVC pipe with all the nipples.


At the very end, add a 3/4″ hose cap to stop all the water from flowing right out through the end. That should make it easy to flush out if you should feel the need. Also, it should make it possible to daisy-chain several waterers together with another length of hose, sorta like Terrell Spencer is doing at Across the Creek Farm.  There’s a pretty good explanation of Terrell’s setup somewhere buried in this webinar (now on youtube).

Anyway, how much does one of these bad boys cost?  Right at $14.60 and a half hour of your time.  Not bad for a 5 gallon waterer that stays clean and can handle 100+ birds.