September has been a busy month.
On August 30, following my last post here, we drove the two hours to Macclenny, Florida to pick up 300 of our laying hens from Twinn Bridges Farm. Nick had outfitted a trailer from KYV to transport the chickens, I had written the check, and we were finally ready to take the birds off of Scott and Denise’s hands. The plan was to load them into the trailer after they had gone to roost for the night, so we arrived at 8:00pm…to a torrential downpour. We didn’t want to risk the birds getting sick, so we left the trailer behind and drove home with plans to return on Sunday.
We left earlier Sunday, and arrived around noon to find half of the birds already loaded in the trailer. Come to find out, Scott and Denise had stayed up til the wee hours the night before loading all of the birds. Unfortunately, they woke up to the bottom half of the trailer emptying through a small hole in the wire! We spend an hour or so getting them loaded back up, then got on the road.
Well, that was one of the scariest drives of my life. Not realizing that the birds would stay towards the back of the trailer, Nick hadn’t put any divider walls in the trailer to help distribute the weight. At least 5-8 lbs. each, the 300 chickens added over 1500 lbs. to the back of the trailer. While the truck did alright pulling the weight, the trailer fishtailed the whole way back to the farm. Hills (even tiny Florida hills) were scary. The thought of having to cross the high-and-narrow-3-mile-long-Shands-Bridge-which-people-fly-over was terrifying. We drove the extra hour to Palatka to cross the river there, where the bridge wasn’t so daunting. We made it back to farm safely, made sure the birds were secure, and came home to get some rest. We introduced them into their half of the coop the next morning. They settled right in, eating and drinking, laying eggs in the nests, and testing out the roosts.
That evening, it was time to pick up the birds from KYV. A small storm threatened to thwart us again, but it stayed away, and Nick and Francisco made quick work of loading up the chickens. I took inventory as they went – 297 birds, 9 different breeds, 1 duck. We got them all safely back to the farm, again leaving them to sleep in the trailer. We were there first thing the following morning to let them out into the coop, where they settled in just as the first flock had. We quickly found out that the divider wall was useless – as it was only 8 feet tall, they could easily jump from one side to the other from the top of the roosts. Taking the wall down made it much easier to work in the coop, and we were happy to see the flocks integrate without any trouble. It also allowed Nick to set up the automatic waterers right away, saving us from having to haul five gallon buckets of water out to the coop.
After a few days of getting acclimated, we let the flock out onto pasture – that was when they really started getting comfortable! Nick’s been working since to get them into a routine – he arrives each morning, opens up the door, and spreads a portion of the feed out on the pasture. Most of the birds follow right behind, while some await the feed they seem to know he’ll be bringing into the coop. After everyone’s had a little to eat, some get right down to laying an egg, some forage, some dust bathe. The roosters prance around, find tasty bits to share with their favorite girls, and look out for shadows from above. Nick rotates them to a new pasture every Saturday – they’ve been out for almost three weeks, which means he’s moved them twice now. We’ve been really glad to see the pasture already improving from the manure they’ve spread. We’re going to start spreading seed to diversify the forage available, starting with purslane. Chickens love it, and it will make their eggs rich in Omega 3s! At the end of each day, Nick returns with more feed, and they all follow him back inside, where he collects the day’s eggs and locks everyone up to roost for the night.
We’ve begun to make the switch to Hiland Naturals Non-GMO feed. Nick picked up the first shipment of two tons two weeks ago, and has been mixing it with the conventional feed the birds were used to. We have always read that mixing is smart when you’re switching birds over, as not to shock them into a molt (which would prevent any egg laying!), and our previous feed supplier had a stock of conventional feed that we needed to run down. Nick’s slowly increasing the ratio of Non-GMO to conventional, and expects to have them on straight Non-GMO by mid-October. Just as with the turkey feed, we’ve been very pleased with the freshness and quality of this feed, and can see the birds preference for it. I’m excited to see the quality of our eggs improve as we make the switch and improve the pasture – these are going to be some really tasty eggs! We’ve been happy to sell a few bags of feed to backyard chicken owners too! It’s impossible to find this feed in feed stores, and we’re glad to have these folks as customers even though they don’t need our eggs.
All these chickens at the farm means we have, at this point, over 1200 eggs to each week…and that number is going up. We’ve been getting settled into our new routine of handling them all and getting them to market. Once Nick gets the eggs home, we candle and wash them before packing. Candling involves setting the eggs, one at a time, a top a high-power flashlight. The light shines through the shell, so we can see if it’s cracked or if it was fertilized by one of the roosters. We pull these aside to eat, or feed to Pocket or the pigs. Nick usually does the candling, then loads them into flats for washing. I wash the eggs using a solution of 110 degree water, a drop of Seventh Generation dish soap, and chlorine bleach at 100ppm (a solution of 100-200ppm is recommended). While I never even washed the eggs from my backyard chickens, washing the many dozens coming from the farm is a necessity; while we’re making adjustments to make sure most of the eggs come out of the nest clean, there will always be some dirty ones, and we want to make sure we get rid of any chicken poop, feathers, pine shavings or dirt before packing them for market. They go into the cartons clean and pretty, and then into the fridge, then out to markets within the week!
So far, we’ve attended the St. Augustine Beach Pier Market and the Beaches Green Market in Neptune; Vivian and Francisco have continued to sell our eggs at the farm stand each weekend as well. We’re excited to have been offered a spot at the Old City Farmers Market at the St. Augustine Amphitheater, held Saturday mornings, 8-Noon. We’re working out the optimal market schedule in preparation for the upcoming CSA season. We’re planning to alternate weekends at the Beaches Green Market and the Amphitheater Market – 1st and 3rd Saturdays at Neptune, 2nd and 4th Saturdays at the Amphitheater. We’re hopeful that with the CSA, one market and sales at KYV, we’ll sell out every week!
Now that the chickens are settled, Nick’s spent the last week giving the turkeys his full attention. After getting their coops into position and setting up their electric netting, we clipped their flight feathers (because turkeys can fly high, and it doesn’t hurt them) and let them out onto pasture. They’re foraging well, but there have been some unexpected developments. We thought we had a good mixture of toms (males) and jennies (females), but since letting them out of the coops, it looks like that the majority are toms. It seems that the limited space in their coops kept them at peace – to the point of the lower-on-the-totem-pole-toms not even showing their wattle or snood. Now that they’ve got open pasture, they’re all trying to prove themselves! Nick’s keeping a close eye on them and separating any that get too rough. It will be interesting as they continue to grow – we’re hoping not to have to harvest any early! Raising turkeys for the first time has been quite the adventure. They are interesting and beautiful birds.
It has indeed been a busy month. In addition to everything going on at the farm, I took over as one of the managers at the Back 40, had a birthday, traveled to Charlotte to be at my sister’s wedding, welcomed a few friends’ newborns, and somehow managed to feed us, keep the house from filling up with laundry and dishes and the garden (I mean, lovely plot of bahia grass) from embarrassing our neighbors. Nick has been at the farm every single day for at least the last two months. We’re tired, but we feel good. As momentum builds and opportunities come our way (more details soon!), we’re encouraged to keep going and confident that we can be successful. Thank you for your continued support!