Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fieldnotes 1

Just a few notes from the farm. As you may have noticed, the availability of Ecotone eggs continues to be very low. The hens continue to lay less than a dozen eggs per day, total. As I've suggested several times, this is primarily due to the heat, both the early and sustained abnormally high temperatures, and the late and continuing days with average highs in the 90's. For each flock, its consequences have been different.

For the year old hens, I think the stress of the heat triggered an early and prolonged molt. While the Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons seem to have molted almost entirely, the Barred Rocks just appear to be entering the last half. Egg laying naturally tapers off and ceases during molt, and usually lasts about 4-6 weeks. Many industrial egg farms discard hens as soon as they enter their first molt because it's simply more economic to do so. Not only do they not have to feed them for all those days they're not laying eggs, the industrial hybrid hens they use lay upwards of 350 eggs a year, and have at that point just about laid their productive lives away.

For the pullets, I think the heat has caused a different, more complicated effect. To develop normally, growing pullets need a specific protein to fat ratio in the first six months of life. If pullets are either too fat or too skinny when they begin to lay, their metabolism is disrupted such that they'll never really lay to their potential. As I indicated in Egg Count 9, one consequence of the heat is a diminished appetite. In the summer, therefore, the crude protein of the ration should be increased so that they are eating the same amount of protein even though they are eating less feed overall.

While I learned this interesting bit of ration reasoning a bit late, for most of the hottest part of the summer I did hand-mix cracked, roasted soybeans into their feed to achieve the effect. To determine whether it worked or not, however, we must wait until it cools off. If it did, their delay is a rather superficial problem and should correct itself when average ambient temperatures fall below 85 degrees. If it didn't work, the delay might indicate a more significant problem, which could amount to something akin to a "crop loss" for this season's laying flock. Who knew there could be such a thing in chicken farming?!
In any case, just know that for any day above 90 degrees, it's pretty certain there will be very few eggs. During those few days recently when highs were in the 80s, for example, the hens responded in kind with only a day or two lag in laying. And so as long as such temperatures are in the forecast, I forecast a continuing dearth of eggs. For those who find the craving for eggs insatiable regardless of the season, or for those who receive eggs through the Bells Bend CSA and are approaching the end of the season, there are, then, a couple of options.

First, and above all, if you have an Endless Egg Basket account with us (i.e., if you've paid for a certain number of dozen ahead of time), and would like to begin to get eggs from another source, please know that at any point I am more than happy to refund the balance on your account in full. If you'd like a refund, or just to know the status of your account, please just drop me an email. Second, of course, is the grocery store. Might I recommend a new local food shop on 12th Ave South I recently discovered, Greenlight Market and Deli, which has local pastured eggs of roughly the same quality for sale. Finally, if you're a member of the Bells Bend CSA and would like to continue receiving eggs beyond the end of the vegetable season, know that there will be several similar drop-offs or delivery routes for the winter months.

To all those loyal Ecotone egg eaters out there, thanks for your patience and concern for the hens' well-being! To all those folks who are on the waiting list for regular eggs, thanks for your continuing interest in Ecotone eggs! While I apologize for misjudging the number of eggs that were going to be available this summer, I don't think I could have anticipated such temperatures into the third week of September! But there is one thing on which I'll venture a forecast: when the leaves begin to fall in earnest, the eggs will again begin to roll.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animal Welfare Approved

On Monday September 13th, Rob Stokes of Animal Welfare Approved came to Ecotone to conduct a first annual audit of our farm and facilities. And while it's not yet official, I'm very pleased to report that we did quite well. With the exception of castration - their standards require 7 days or before, and we did it around 14 days - there were no significant problems. And this, he told me, was especially impressive with our laying flocks. Most folks apparently have some work to do with their chickens before being approved, and all he advised us to do was lower a waterer a bit and not to stuff the nests too full with straw. Below is some information from their website, the link of which is above, that I edited a bit for the blog.

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) was founded in 2006 as a market-based solution to growing consumer interest in how farm animals are raised and desire to know where their food is coming from and how it is produced. AWA grants the use of its logo to farms that are annually audited and found to comply with their rigorous animal welfare standards. Seeing the AWA seal on meat, dairy and egg products gives consumers a way to identify products originating from farming systems that take animal welfare seriously, and it gives farmers a way to show their customers how they farm. Crucially, this certification comes at no charge to farmers. Because AWA is not financially dependent on farmer fees, they are better able to remain unbiased and transparent in auditing and certification.

The AWA standards are the most rigorous and progressive animal care requirements in the nation, and the only requiring animals to be raised outdoors, on pasture or range. Continuously ranked as the “most stringent” of all third-party certifiers by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, AWA standards have been developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe to maximize practicable, high-welfare farm management. AWA’s standards incorporate best practices and recent research and have been adopted only after rigorous review. The basic premise of all the standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being.

To accomplish the goals of the Animal Welfare Approved program, all standards address every aspect of each species’ lifecycle needs from birth to death. Animal Welfare Approved works diligently to maintain a farm’s ability to be economically viable and the standards have been proven to be achievable by the vast majority of farm situations. Animal Welfare Approved reviews its standards annually, updating them as needed to incorporate new research and on-farm findings.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Egg Count 9

The egg count for August stands at 43.65 dozen, or 1.41 dozen a day. Not only is this the lowest number of eggs since I began such an accounting, it also includes this year's flock of pullets, which are now 30 or so weeks old and should be well into laying. That 1.41 dozen per day average, in other words, is from roughly 300 laying-age chickens.
Of course, if you eat Ecotone eggs on any kind of regular basis, you already knew this. For the entire month of August, egg availability was at an all-time low. As I've suggested before, the ultimate source of the problem is the heat. But it's also just part of the deal when you remove chickens from climate controlled buildings and put them outside on pasture. By controlling the temperature and regulating the light, industrial egg farms maximize the number of eggs a hen can lay, which leads to physiological burnout and culling within the first year, and is the ultimate source of cheap, plentiful eggs year-round. Powered by petroleum and seasoned with salmonella, naturally.

But just to give you a sense of the economics of such a month on a small farm, I ran the numbers on feed costs. For chickens as for people, one by-product of the heat is a diminished appetite. Daily grain consumption was down to .15 pounds of grain per hen, or a total of 1,326 pounds for the month. Of course, grain is the same price whether they are laying are not, and given the month's totals, that puts the cost of each dozen eggs from Ecotone at $9.06, or .75 cents an egg. Given how many dozen eggs were laid in August, the feed to egg ratio this month was roughly 30 pounds of grain per dozen, or 2.5 pounds per egg.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The last piglet finally found a home! After several folks saying they wanted her but backing out, the final gilt from the first litter moved to Pink Guitar Farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee. These lovely folks are transplants from California, moving to the glorious southeast for more space, one can only assume cheaper land, and, above all else, plentiful water. Last year, they also bought a pair Narragansett turkeys from us, which they still have and are hoping to raise poults from next year. Here's the gilt talking through the fence to her new boar-friend.