Newman Pastures
A Whidbey Island Pasture-Based Farm
2100 Newman Rd
Langley, WA 98260
(360)234-3276

Newman Pastures Blog

Goats and birds prepping a garden

Behind our barn we have a lovely field with no trees on it, but since it hasn’t been grazed or hayed in years, it has become overgrown with thistles, stinging nettles, and blackberries. So, I took our mega-sized chicken pyramid and some PoultryNet electric chicken fence (from Premier 1 Supplies) and filled the area with a dozen turkeys, a hundred chickens and two goats (soon to be five goats). So far, they’re doing a great job knocking down the vegetation. The goats are nibbling away at the brush, and the chickens are scratching at the ground tearing up roots, and the turkeys hunt for whatever bugs and vegetation they can find. Once they bring their total destruction to one part of the field, the fence will be moved to another part.

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Inside the mega-pyramid, I’m building up a deep bedding pack. There are two primary ways to deal with livestock droppings in a clean manner: 1) run away from it via rotation, 2) bury it in deep bedding. So, on the perimeter of this project, we’ll be doing fence moves. In the middle, I have the mega-pyramid, which I’ll leave in place probably for a couple months. During that time, I’ll be adding fresh wood chips and leaf mulch from my newly-acquired wood chipper to the ground. This will keep things warm and clean. Once spring rolls around, it will hopefully start composting rapidly, and should make excellent fertilizer for our garden.

 

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According to the conversations with the Newmans, that particular field was used for growing sweet corn that was sold at the roadside. I might follow their lead on that and use a large portion of the field for sweet corn next year. Corn is a great “drive-by-and-buy-some” farm item. Anything else you want to see coming from the backyard garden?

The fresh pasture difference for eggs

Is an egg an egg? Well, our first laying hens finally started maturing and laying some eggs. They’re still teenagers, so they’re laying mini eggs at the moment. I decided to go to the local grocery store and buy a dozen bargain-basement eggs ($2.09 per dozen), high-end organic ($5.99 per dozen), and compare it with an egg from our chickens.

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Here are the eggs lined up. The white egg is the bargain-basement egg, the brown egg is the organic egg, and the green egg is ours. The shell color is determined by the breed of chicken, and there are fantastic breeds that lay white, brown, green and blue shelled eggs, and you can get fantastic and awful eggs from all those breeds depending on how they are raised. The white egg was presumably laid by a White Leghorn, which is the queen of the commercial egg laying industry. The brown egg could have come from many breeds, and there’s not a complete standard breed for commercial brown egg production. The green egg is from an Ameraucana. As far as anyone knows, there is no significant difference between the egg qualities of different breeds of chicken. (However, different breeds in a pastured environment may spend different amounts of time foraging for food. The more time spend foraging for bugs and greens, the yummier the egg. However, if the different breeds are kept in an environment of controlled feed, there is no measurable difference between the eggs, at least nutritionally.)

So, don’t judge an egg by its cover. Here they are cracked open.

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Those are the eggs cracked open. Left is the bargain-basement egg, middle is organic, and right is the pastured egg. Note that the yolk color deepens from left to right. The continual access to fresh greens means that the chickens are getting plenty of colorful nutrients that are showing in the yolk. Of course, in a commercial environment, one could supplement the diet with colorful nutrients to get a bolder looking yolk. However, the fresh greens from the pasture surely contain many other beneficial nutrients that cannot be visually seen in the yolk.

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Finally, I tossed them in the frying pan. Left is bargain-basement, top is organic, and right is our egg. The yolk of the organic egg broke apart upon rolling into the pan. Note that our egg is firm an upright, and a large portion of the white is sticking together. This probably has a lot to do with freshness. Due to the extremely short supply chain of local eggs, it is feasible to get an egg that was laid that same day. Such a thing is near to impossible with the long supply chain of commercial eggs, whether organic or non-organic. Now, there are times when you want an egg that’s not quite as new. For example, hard boiled eggs are significantly easier to peel if they’re a bit older. But if you want the freshest egg, your best bet is to get it directly from the farmer.

The Chicken Pyramid – a new chicken tractor concept

Today I’m going to talk about the chicken pyramid, which is my new concept for a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor, for those who haven’t heard the term, generally refers to a portable chicken coup. This is in contrast to more typical coup-and-run situations for a lot of backyard chicken owners, or intensive barn situations from the industry.

First, I’d like to address the question of why one would use a chicken tractor in the first place.

Chicken tractors versus free ranging. A common question about chicken tractors is “why use them at all?“. Why not just let them free range? Well, do you like to eat chicken?  Chicken is the most popular meat in the US, beating both beef and pork by a nearly 2 to 1 ratio. There’s a good chance that you like to eat chicken. You’re not the only one. Here are some other chicken fans: foxes, wolves, coyotes, weasels, racoons, hawks, opossums, and eagles. Young chickens especially are prone to predation, and therefore need protection from the ground and above if you don’t want to lose everything to other animals. Older chickens are bigger and tougher and can run for shelter during attempted daytime predation and they are smart enough to seek out secure sleeping spots if they are available. However, free ranging older chickens often isn’t as free range as you might expect. If food, water and shelter are stationary, then they serve as anchors and the range patterns will often be based around those anchor points. Moving in tractors ensures fresh greens for eating and ground that is free of excrement from the previous day.

As a side note, most chickens you see in grocery stores that are labeled as Free Range, are not free range in the manner that you might expect from the term. The USDA definition of Free Range or Free Roaming is “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside”. This is often just a door on the side of a barn with access to a small mud lot outside where there is no food. So, many chickens will not even bother to venture outside their whole life.

Chicken tractors versus barns. Most of the chicken meat and egg products sold in grocery stores are raised indoors for their entire lives. Egg chickens may live in tight cages with a few other chickens or they may roam on the barn floor. Meat chickens typically roam on the barn floor. Meat chickens are usually all the same age in a single barn, and when they get to processing age, the chickens are sent off to the processing facility and the barn is cleaned and a fresh batch of chicks are introduced. Barn production has many advantages for labor efficiency and predator safety, but comes at great costs otherwise. One major issue is pathogens. Because the barns are in continual use and have thousands of birds in cramped conditions, disease spreads easily. To combat this, antibiotics are included in the feed of non-sick chickens to prevent the spread of diseases. (That’s one reason why antibiotic-free chicken costs more – there are greater losses from disease.) Furthermore, the air becomes filled with ammonia from urine and manure dust, which the chickens breathe. Also, there aren’t any fresh greens or bugs to eat. A chicken tractor solves a lot of these problems. The ground is fresh every day, and in our case, we only run one batch of meat chickens over a single piece of ground once in an entire year. So, by the time the chickens come back, the ground has digested everything from the previous year. The flocks are small, so disease outbreaks are avoided. The fresh ground also plenty of fresh greens and bugs, which the chickens love and which makes them healthier.

So now that I’ve talked about chicken tractors in general, let me reveal the chicken pyramid. The chicken pyramid is my latest design of a chicken tractor that should accommodate both meat and egg production models, with slightly different versions for each.

Chicken pyramid with door closed

The chicken pyramid has 3 walls, each being an isosceles right triangle. (For those of you who weren’t paying attention in geometry class, an isosceles right triangle is a square that was cut in half down the diagonal. So, there’s a long side along the bottom, and two equally long sides going up.) The bottom is open to the ground. The base, viewed from the air, is therefore an equilateral triangle. (Again, for those who forgot geometry, equilateral means that all sides – and thus all angles – are the same. 60 degree angles for the case of triangles.)

The nice thing about a triangular base is that you can move it by pivoting on a corner rather than dragging the entire thing. So, you lift one side and leave the opposite corner on the ground and pivot 60 degrees on the opposite corner. You can pivot another 60 degrees on the same corner the next day, and then after those two pivots, you take the next corner for 2 days, and by doing 2 pivots on each corner, the triangle can move down the pasture in a straight line – touching all the ground exactly once.

Chicken pyramid with the door open

The pyramid has a large door on one side. The highest point is about 5 feet high, so an adult can crouch inside with the door closed. If the kids want to play with the chicks, the door can be closed and the kids can stand. (But the chicks can run off to the side where the ceiling is low if they want a break from the kids.) The open walls are covered with 1″ poultry mesh. Other kinds of fencing would probably work, but poultry mesh is inexpensive and durable. The sharp edges of the mesh are between the boards for each triangle.

Chicken pyramid feeder

The feeder is a 4 in PVC pipe with a 4″ to 2″ reducer fitting at the bottom and a small round feeder tray below that, and it’s all capped with a simple cap to keep the rain from coming in the top of the feeder. The feeder can be filled from the outside. Its height is easily adjustable. Feed spillage is least when the feeder is about at the chicken’s head-level. So, as the chickens grow, the feeder can be raised to accommodate their increasing height.

Chicken pyramid nipple waterer

The waterer in this pyramid is supplied by a 5-gallon buck outside the pyramid with a hose feeding an array of 6 poultry nipple waterers. The array is hung using copper wire, so I can easily change the height as the grow. The nipple waterers, you never have to worry about spilling when you tip the tractor or are on uneven ground, and you never have to worry about poop or dirt in your water. (If you’ve had backyard chickens with a non-nipple waterer, you’ve probably cleared poop and dirt out of your water many times.)

Chicken pyramid shelter

The back of the pyramid has a sheltered area. This lets the chickens hide when they are scared or when the weather isn’t right, and it provides juvenile chickens a place to sleep. As the chickens get older, eventually they will have the desire to sleep in an elevated area. But when they are young, they like to sleep on the ground. However, they generally prefer sheltered areas, so the back provides them a nice cozy place to sleep. (Chickens like to sleep close together for warmth.)

The chicken pyramid provides the chickens with a good experience and makes it a breeze to give them all they need for a happy, healthy lifestyle.

New chicks again

Our main product during the first year of operation will likely be pasture-raised broiler chickens. Later we plan on diversifying into a number of other products, but many of those take a long time to mature – cattle take a couple years, and fruit trees may take a decade. So, a lot of the early-ramp-up stage will be focused on getting the broiler operation going. Part of the medium-term plan for the broiler operation will be to experiment with new in-house cross-breed broilers that are particularly well-suited for a pasture-centered life, and yet still yield tender, delicious meat. So, to that end, I ordered a handful of chicks from some promising heritage breeds that will become of my first attempt at a breeding program. They’ll still have many months before they’d be of breeding age, but in the mean time, you can enjoy their pictures.

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Webcam high speed video of baby chicks

What’s cuter than baby chicks? Well, not too much. To get our laying flock going, we got 50 Rhode Island Reds, which are a fantastic breed for pasture-based egg laying. Right now they are still just a few days old, so they need to be in a warm environment. I set up a special brooder for the chicks that combines safety with warmth and hygiene. I took an old laptop that I had kicking around with a broken monitor and hooked up a webcam and have a live stream from the brooder house. I compiled the first day of pictures into a video, which you can see here.

 

 

Welcome to Newman Pastures

I am super excited to announce that Newman Pastures has started its quest! We are a family farm on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound region of Washington. The main purpose of this particular post is just to have a test post since I just installed WordPress. There will be more updates to come!