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by Gerald Poechman
My family started producing eggs from 5,000 hens in 1960. Today, Poechmans Family Farm produces on average 1800 dozen organic eggs each week. Our product, distributed in health food stores in the Toronto and Montreal areas, is known as Poechmans Golden Eggs because of the golden color of the shells. We own 75 acres and crop about 500 acres organically to produce all our own feed. Our crops consist of 50 acres each of spelt, rye, wheat, oats, barley, corn and sometimes soybeans, with the remainder in mixed hay.;
We began conversion of our farm to organic methods in 1984. First, we completed our crop certification by 1990. OntarBio, a farmers cooperative of which I am now a volunteer board member, was the vehicle which helped move the whole farm project from conventional corn to diverse organic crops. Our eggs were certified in 1994 and our hens in 1995. Our first flock to be certified, 3600 pullets, arrived on September 1, 1995. We had supplied certified feed for these to the hatchery and the contract grower. Brown eggs are perceived to be more natural and wholesome, and so we use brown-egg layers.
The existing housing we had for our hens, a free-run building with two square feet of space per bird, required only minimal changes to meet O.C.I.A. standards. Our birds rise to artificial lighting before 5 a.m. and lay most of their eggs before 10 a.m. They spend the afternoon relaxing inside (strong, direct sunlight brings out aggressive tendencies) and go outside to graze in the evening. Since our hens are quite heavy and docile, they need to be protected from most predators; after they come inside to roost at dusk, we close the doors.
Five to six times each day, the hens are fed automatically. The main ingredients in our certified organic feed are corn, barley, rye, roasted soys, wheat and oats. Hulless oats are excellent because of their near-ideal protein/energy balance. We grow and mill our own feed grains. The vitamin/mineral premix is specially formulated for our circumstances using limestone, calphos, synthetic vitamins and amino acids. By custom mixing our layer feed fresh each day, we are able to control the daily ration. We add alfalfa pellets in winter when fresh pasture is not available and flaxseed for Omega-3-Fatty Acid enhancement. Omega-3 is currently believed to help decrease cholesterol buildup and heart disease. Found mainly in cold-water fish and flaxseed and sadly lacking in North American diets, Omega-3 passes readily from the flax through the hen into the eggs. Recently the three major grading corporations in Ontario have introduced eggs rich in Omega-3 at a retail premium of $1.00. Our average ration cost is approximately 40 cents per kg; each dozen eggs requires 2 kg of feed to produce it.
Gathering the eggs is a relaxing chore and an easy one for children over the age of four. Here, the daily gathering takes about one hour each afternoon. The eggs are packed on plastic trays and immediately refrigerated at 10° C. Once a week they are shipped to a grading station for washing, grading and packaging in Poechmans cartons, at a cost of 15 cents per dozen.
Other chores take about an hour a day. These include picking up to two dozen eggs off the floor and a dozen off the roost, checking the feed and water systems and watching general bird health and attitude. We have been very fortunate with good health and have not used any antibiotics for over 20 years. The modern bird is bred to lay eggs and generally drops dead within a day or two of the onset of a health problem. Our death loss is two to three birds per week, an exceptionally good track record in commercial flocks. The barn is cleaned, washed, and disinfected with peroxide and citrus-oil soap once a year at flock changeover time.
Each September, all our layers are replaced with young pullets 17 to 18 weeks old. These replacement birds cost about $7 each, depending on feed costs. Pullets begin to lay peewee eggs at about 18 weeks and should reach full lay of medium and large eggs by 24 weeks of age. At the moment, spent birds are commercially worthless; however, we are planning to develop a market for certified soup chickens. These older hens have a very strong flavor which makes them ideal for the slow cooker where they can be converted into a concentrate for a weeks worth of lunch and snack soups.
The majority of our eggs are delivered to distributors in Toronto and Montreal. We are presently oversold by 25% and refuse new distributors regularly. The demand for our eggs is very strong; to our surprise, they actually do taste different from conventionally produced eggs. However, our limiting expansion factor is capital for quota at $50 a bird. We are looking for a cooperative producer to share our market with or an adventuresome investor to buy quota.
In Canada, quota is the licence to own over 100 head of poultry. This licence allows you to sell as many eggs as you like in whatever manner you please. There is quota for breeders, layers, meat growers and pullets. Domestic management of supply allows import quotas which protect our farmers from cheap, low-quality imports by large transnational corporations with in excess of one million birds. Having seen a producer in Georgia with the ability to supply the entire Canadian market with eggs from an intense battery system, I came home in strong support of our family-based quota system. Smaller farms can be much more responsive to consumer trends toward health, wholesomeness and organics.
Our venture has been both fulfilling and profitable, but we still have no Canadian competition. Perhaps we carved our niche too small, but we have complete control of the project, something that is hard to achieve in most other enterprises.
Eggs can be a real drawing card for smaller growers. As a staple offered at the farm gate, they will attract buyers who can also be offered fruit, veggies, grains, meat and other produce. But be prepared for year-round weekly visits from loyal customers hooked on your fresh eggs.
We are happy to have a family-friendly business and we see many
areas for growth for others who are interested. A globalized egg economy actually looks promising from this vantage point!;
Gerald Poechman, his wife Marlene and their five children, aged 5 to 13, operate the Poechman Family Farm near Walkerton, Ontario with help from Geralds parents
Copyright © 1996.Gerald Poechman.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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