Leafhopper Farm is an egg producer! We’re churning out a case a week now, and it’s going to stay at this level to maintain quality (and sanity of the farmer). Hands down, more than 40 active layers on a small farmstead becomes too much on all the other systems. If the hens are at peak of health, and your accounting for mishaps, they will regularly produce about 15 dozen eggs a week. That is a case worth of golden nutrition. Between cost of grain, pen size, and wear on the land, the flock should not grow past 40 active layers, which means about 50 birds (including chicks) being maintained on site. This number is supported by the incubator success rate, health of the individual birds, and time on the part of the farmer to process the work.
Now, a lot of farmers would immediately reflect that for about the same amount of work a day, I could have 1,000 birds and make a heck of a lot more money for my time. But in experiencing this profit driven model of production, I’ve encountered a heck of a lot of hurdles, which, though surmountable, cannot outweigh the benefits of small flock for my farmstead model.
Let me take a moment to break this down:
- health of birds and people-
In raising birds for 6 years at Leadhopper Farm, and having worked with much larger flocks (100s of birds) in organic settings, I can say with confidence that going over 50-60 birds in one flock is pushing the limit of keeping healthy hens, and an awareness on each individual bird. The concept of herd limitations is a crucial part of animal husbandry that does not get enough study, and I would argue that contamination outbreaks in animal industries would drop to almost 0 if the number of animals in systems was reduced, in most cases, significantly.
All the USDA inspection laws revolve around human health, and if the animals aren’t healthy, it will transfer to people. This is one of the biggest threats facing the human race today. We’re more likely to be infected by viruses, than murdered by anyone else, and yet we continue to ignore pathogens, which thrive in overpopulation.
E coli and H1N1 are real, and happen in overcrowded animal systems. I believe more sickness happens when people cannot keep track of their animals. How could you know each bird in a flock of 1,000s? How can you keep bio-security of so many? Our laws try to crack down on the risks, but we’re already pushing the envelope and failing to contain infection. The diversity of genetics is also a point to bring in here, and large mono-culture industrial agriculture cannot produce diversity. This puts our animal systems at great risk, and smaller, and more numerous systems are the answer.
Another reason to limit flock size is the psychological well being of the birds. I don’t know any animals, including people, who enjoy being crowded in together en-mass. In community, even humans have their limits, and our brains cannot handle too many names and faces. The chickens have similar limitations, and at Leafhopper, they start pecking each other when in groups of more than 40. A fellow farmer in the valley puts blinders on his birds to prevent pecking, and I wonder how the bird’s brain is effected by this sense deprivation. It’s also comical to me that you would have to put little plastic goggles on all your birds, but hey, if it works, why not?
- economic incentive-
Scale is always used in economic arguments, and the scale of animals seems to be bigger is better. However, we know through many studies, that growing a natural system beyond it’s limitations does not end well. Until we as a species can get it through our thick skulls that natural resources are finite, and cannot exponentially grow like imaginary profit margins for investors, we’ll always end up shorting ourselves and causing catastrophe. Please look at history and all the other “great” civilizations who topple when they overtaxed the ecology around them.
Scaling down can mean scaling up in other ways. Shrinking herd/flock sizes down would mean less profit for the individual, but a greater opportunity for others to raise manageable herd/flock sizes and better balance ecological impact and overall economic participation. This is a win win for everyone, as long as the theory of more money=better life could be abandoned for evolved theory brought on by real world events such as global economic collapse and the “drying up” of natural resources available to feed the exponential growth of human population. As we evolve our awareness, we can enhance our solutions as gain balance, even abundance.
- impact on landscape-
Again, nature is not exponential, and our fantasy of “mining” other planets and asteroids from the heavens is not realistic- the pollution we would create using extraterrestrial inputs would quickly destroy our world. If we take into account visionary movements towards “green power” we still fall short of the mark because of inputs- how the solar panels and wind turbines are constructed, for instance. But at Leafhopper Farm, we’re talking chickens. The birds themselves are hatched on site, from eggs our birds lay. The chickens lay those eggs because of good diet, including, for now, grain sourced from off farm. I know VERY few farmers who grow all their own grain for their animals. I think that’s more to do with land prices, and a lack of cooperation between farmers due to lobby intrests.
My chickens like to scratch and peck at the ground, and in concentrated mass, they can do a number on the soil. Now, most coops have “sacrifice areas”, and my coop is no exception, but it’s a very limited size, and would be non-existent in a fully mobile system. This is my future goal, and I can build a portable coop of manageable size for 50 birds. I also think that I could raise a flock of broilers in the summer months, to utilize my pastures even more, but that will be complicated by grain.
Grain is the game, and getting enough nutrient dense food to the birds is my next goal. If I’m going to claim the farm is holistic, I’ve got to have as little inputs as possible. That’s going green in my book. You only extend within your means. What a concept for life. Now, extending your reach through stretching and testing is totally ok, as long as you are aware of the consequences. Yay scientific methods! Today, there seems to be a lack of assessed risk taking. Instead, we are jumping into the wide blue yonder like a theatrical video game. It’s not necessary. We can deduce our soil’s potential using very calculated algorithms and chemistry. Technology can propel our awareness about nature and its capacity, help shape the use of our landscape without abusing it.
At Leafhopper Farm, we’re watching the entire system work together in all its parts. Beyond our little 9.8 acre parcel. This is the deeper thinking I wish all land stewards would participate in. Buying tons of grain and having it shipped to you is completely disconnected form place. Your animals only live because of a huge input from outside your capacity. It’s costly, environmentally unstable, and assumes the crops will come to you. I buy a locally (in state) grown and packaged grain, which is painfully expensive. I pass that on directly to my consumers by asking $7.00/dozen, and many people can’t or won’t pay that. It’s all the grain costs for me, and I know my farm can grow enough food for 50 birds, but no more without external inputs. If my neighbors were to pitch in land, we could grow something larger, but still no where near the industrial levels which give us $0.99/dozen eggs.
- buying time
I once shared a story with anther farmer about walking out with the hens in the morning, spreading their grain around the field to encourage scratching and tilling of the soil in that pasture. He laughed and asked how much time I was spending out there in the field, just standing with the birds when I could be working more efficiently to better maximize my time by feeding in a central feeder and moving on with my day. Well, again, if you want your life to be about deadlines and maximum output at the cost of your health and happiness, that’s one way to live a life.
Animal systems can be stream lined to buy time for a farmer, often the guy who has to run everything, and never has enough time. As a farmer, I know the feeling, but I also learned from nature recently that she’ll take her time about most things, and I can’t rush her without consequences. We live in a world of short term gain, and it’s not something I appreciate in modern society. If anything, we should be looking at more long term goals, for sustaining a shared vision of health and happiness. Yeah, and there’s the need for vigilance against strange outside forces which might be lurking and definitely will predate the weak- or something like that. But really, wildlife predates my stock often enough, but not all of it, and I certainly still have more than enough, but I also don’t just stand around when predation happens. I act, and responsibly too.
This is another myth we’re perpetuating today; if someone or something else takes from me, revenge! It’s almost comical, but really, we can’t avoid these natural systems; we can continue to learn from them and adapt, without sacrificing our health and happiness. On the farm, I build better fencing, stronger stalls and coops, and I’m around a lot to keep a human scent strong. That’s most of the deterrent- presence. So, still wondering about my stance in the field? Well, I also take time to watch my birds, see how they are, make sure they are physically fit, eating well, drinking, social interaction, and which birds are foraging the best.
Buying time for myself by finding the fastest way to complete a task is not always optimal. In rushing, we forget all the details that go into our rich and complex lives. These complexities are strengths in survival, and we’ll need a layered system of stewardship to remain successful in cultivating with the natural world. You really can’t beat nature, only abuse her for a short term, while causing long term destruction that cannot be easily reversed. If we continue our exponential growth model, and keep feeding an overpopulated planet in the short term, our long term path to extinction will continue on its way.