After our failed experiment last year with raising laying hens without wheat, soy, or corn in their diets, after waiting a long ten months for these birds to begin laying eggs when a standard diet would have brought us the bounty of eggs in just six, after finally being able to offer Growing Wild Farm eggs, not a lot, but just enough to keep our family in 5-6 dozen a week with a plethora of cull eggs for the growing pigs without cost, after all of this, a mere two weeks of terror here on the farm has ended it all. Well, not “it all”, but it feels that way. I find that I can hardly accept the reality as I go to collect eggs now….really just five eggs, only so many that I don’t even need a basket, just my two hands to carry them inside.
The change to our flock has been dramatic, we have less than half as many layers now. The cause, hungry animals of all kinds. We have yet to catch a varmint in action, but right about the time this all began, we came home late one evening to a farm that smelled of skunk. Because of some evidence, Andre thinks raccoon. And I know that the barn, sans barn cat, has brought in some smaller rodents who are enjoying eggs when they can. Now, our whole simple free and natural chicken farm has proved to have another flaw,–not only do laying hens from hatcheries seem incapable of meeting their protein needs from free ranging our fields, they are not safe with all this open access living either.
The biggest blow, I think, is that we can not just resume the level of egg production in any easy manner. You can buy full pullet hens that have reached maturity and are ready to lay eggs, but at a hefty cost. Otherwise, we get the day old chicks again, and you feed them and wait,. Not 10 months again I am sure, but 6 months if we go by the books. This is the whole summer gone, and again, coming into eggs when the day length is on the short side. A chicken’s reproductive system is ruled by the length of the day, and since we do not use artificial lighting to keep the hens a-laying when their bodies are not meant to, that means really, we probably will be waiting until next year, when the days begin to lengthen, for eggs as we knew them…in great abundance.Now we can see how other’s who we know have done eggs before and are done now. If you find yourself with predator problems, it is hard to find a way out. It seems once they have found your farm, they are not easily deterred or encouraged to go away. Our home is not close enough to where the chickens sleep to hear any nighttime commotion, and our dear dog has aged beyond being an effective chicken protector. It takes time to build new systems, and so every night in the interim we are at risk. We are going to borrow some traps, but the reality of the catch and what we will have to do with the varmint is less than appealing. And because of the time it takes for a hen to reach egg laying maturity, the time that you are just spending money (lots of money now as grain prices skyrocket), means that the profit on eggs is slim to begin with, and not realized until that early input is paid back. If you lose your birds before that time, you have just lost a lot of money. Most farms can’t make it with losses of capital like this, especially if it is a repeated problem, so out of the chicken business they go.
We are torn. Andre, who is often bothered by the troupe of chickens who find their way to our front door, has wanted to downsize to just enough hens to lay eggs for our family for a while anyways. I think that the number we had before created a perfect system for our farm, supplying us with eggs, extra protein for the pigs, field clean-up of other animals, and fertilizer for the veggies, all at no cost to the farm (aside from making up for the cost we put in before we began selling eggs, which would not have been made up for with these numbers). For right now, we have our first batch of meat chickens brooding in the greenhouse, so we will at least have to wait for them to be big enough to go to the chicken tractor before we get new babies. Of all the batches of broody hens we had, we only had two babies hatch out. This is unfortunate, since these naturally hatched chickens do not come over for grain when we feed the rest of the chickens, and actually start laying eggs at 6 months without any supplemental feed. Ahh, the beauty of nature, impossible to mimic. Do we take the risk again, invest more into chickens for eggs? We are still in the black as far as the finances of Growing Wild Farm eggs go, but only if we do not assign a value to the extra benefits of having the chickens here. Still, it is hard to start over, to put more money into a system that can be wiped out so easily. On the other hand, all farming ventures are intrinsically risky. Although we have a fair amount of control in the vegetable field–with soil fertility the all time best insurance against pests and disease, as well as the key to an abundant harvest– we have no control over the weather and limited protection against it. Our whole first planting of spinach bolted (went to seed) because of fluctuating spring temperatures, so we were only able to get one small harvest off of that row. Our first bed of broccoli, one of the most temperamental veggies to grow, contains many plants which have buttoned, or produced very small little heads on immature plants, an occurrence caused by the erratic and cool temperatures they experienced after transplanting. Staring down a long row of time and money that won’t see a return is frustrating, and because the weather will always be beyond human control ( as bothersome as this may be to our desire for control and order), is often unavoidable.
Thankfully, in the midst of all this risk, we have chosen a way of farming that buffers our losses. We don’t, as they say, put all of our eggs in one basket! A diversified farm is not likely to suffer losses in all of its operations in any given year, so a predator invasion doesn’t ruin us, a batch of bolted spinach and buttoning broccoli just a minor loss. If our whole spring crop were one of those two things, yikes! Still, I don’t know how often we recognize the risks farmers of all kinds take, and that this business, in all of its forms, from big corporate agri-business to direct market small farms like ours, provide the community’s, nation’s, and in some cases, the world’s food. We tend to take this supply for granted, but farms are all always at the whim of nature. It is always humbling for us, as we imagine ourselves trying to create natural systems here on our farm, to be reminded that we are trying to rid ourselves of one half of the natural picture…the dangers to the outcome we are working for. For us, the benefits outweigh the risks tenfold, and the losses minor in nature’s grand design.