The harsh climate of northern New Mexico presents a unique opportunity for the farmer interested in working with nature, rather than against it. Beneficial Farm, located 20 miles southeast of Santa Fe at 7,000 feet above sea level, is an example of how patience, intuition, a willingness to experiment and a determination to farm for the future can yield positive results.
When farm managers Steve Warshawer and Barbara Booth decided to produce eggs on the farm, they had little idea what lay ahead. They had recently founded Beneficial Farm CSA, growing vegetables biodynamically for distribution to area markets and farm members. They already knew how hard it was to farm with integrity while still managing to make mortgage payments and put gas in the truck. They also knew that the area’s aridity, high altitude, high winds and daily temperature extremes presented constant challenges to a small farm endeavor.
Now, after several years of educated guessing and trial and error, the farm is two years and four bird-generations into a project that is “indigenizing” the Barred Rock chicken, adapting what was once a commercial hatchery “egg machine” to a bird that can survive–and thrive–in a high desert barnyard setting.
Localizing the feed
Beneficial Farm’s egg venture began in 1994 with one hundred mail-ordered Rhode Island Reds. At first, Warshawer and Booth fed the birds scratch and lay pellets from the local feed store. “For what we knew, which wasn’t much, we were doing pretty well,” Warshawer said, adding that customers appreciated the quality of the eggs.
But when they learned that the main ingredient in those high-protein lay pellets was meat and bone meal from slaughterhouse waste, they stopped using them. “When we dropped the pellets, production went in the tank,” Warshawer said. “But at least we weren’t feeding them gross stuff anymore. Besides, we wanted to develop a feed system that was completely local.”
Warshawer and Booth continued experimenting with feed as they added other breeds to their flock, including Black Australorps, White Leghorns and Barred Rocks. They fed the birds a combination of vegetable scraps, outdated dairy products and corn. “We fed our chickens the way most people feed their pigs,” Warshawer explained. He said they felt their egg production was good enough, but they were not yet keeping thorough records.
When the price of corn rose in 1997, wheat became a more economical choice. Rather than buy wheat from the feed store, however, Warshawer called farmers in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. He eventually secured a supply of locally grown wheat screenings, which were full of weed seeds. The birds thrived on this diverse ration, and Warshawer and Booth, who were passionate about eating and promoting locally grown food and building community around local food systems, were pleased to extend that philosophy to their chicken operation.
The following year the screenings were unavailable, and they began feeding the birds plain whole wheat instead. “They were not happy,” Warshawer said. “They’d stand around and look at the feed and not eat it.
“I remembered that in my old hippie days we used to germinate wheat and drink Rejuvelac,” Warshawer continued. “I set up a system of germinating the wheat for the chickens and they loved it. Production recovered somewhat, and they behaved better.” Warshawer said they also added other germinated grains to the mix, including triticale, oats and barley.
“There was absolutely no science to this,” Warshawer said. “It was just, ‘Let’s try this and see what happens.’ There is no research that I’ve been able to find on the nutritional effects of germinating grains for chickens, but humans have historically sprouted grains,” Warshawer explained.
A year later, Warshawer met poultry scientist David Sullenberger, who began advising him on the farm’s egg operation. Sullenberger encouraged Warshawer to keep records, to formulate feed to meet the farm’s objectives, and to immediately increase the protein content of the feed.
While Sullenberger recommended adding soybeans to the birds’ ration, Warshawer resisted the idea and held out for a locally grown protein source. “I have an attitude about soybeans,” Warshawer explained. “I don’t like the corn and soy monocropping, and they’re not from around here. They’re not in our ecosystem.”
Warshawer eventually found a source for locally grown field peas. He experimented with germinating them, but found that it caused them to spoil; instead he soaked the whole peas overnight. He continued to include outdated dairy and a small amount of soaked corn in the feed ration. He also experimented with adding a vitamin supplement, but after seeing no clear benefit discontinued its use.
Warshawer, Booth and farm interns also began keeping records on the number of eggs harvested (both saleable and not), pounds of eggs harvested, amount of feed used and the number of birds in each flock. “We wanted to be able to calculate feed costs versus number of eggs produced,” Warshawer said. The eggs were retailing for about $3 per dozen and customers were highly pleased with them, citing their strong shells and firm, deep orange yolks. The farm consistently sold all the eggs it could produce.
Eventually, Warshawer arrived at a basic feed ration that is still in use today: During the warmer months adult birds receive 40 percent maple peas and 60 percent wheat; during the colder months the ration is 40 percent maple peas, 40 percent wheat and 20 percent corn. (A baby chick’s feed is composed of, in equal amounts, indigenous weed seeds, aged on-farm compost, wheat and corn; the mixture is ground nearly to a flour.)
According to Warshawer, this ration has its problems. He believes that other grains, especially triticale, might be preferable to wheat, and noted that the peas are not especially palatable to the chickens. “From the standpoint of balancing the ration with locally produced feeds, there is still room for improvement,” he said. Warshawer said he would like to supplement the chickens’ protein intake with earthworms as well, and hopes to raise them on the farm someday.
In 1999, however, Sullenberger advised Warshawer and Booth that the farm’s average egg production of 50 percent–meaning 50 out of 100 birds was laying one egg a day–was still low. He informed them that feeding this ration to the birds was not going to work in the long run. Warshawer recalls, “He said, ‘You’re fighting a losing battle because you don’t have the genetics.’ He said we couldn’t take birds bred by a commercial hatchery and adapt them to a barnyard setting with non-standardized feed. He said if we were going to spend this much time fooling around with chickens, we might as well get it right.”
Adapting the breed
So Warshawer, Booth and farm interns began the monumental task of breeding chickens, in the hopes that the Barred Rock would eventually adapt to the local feed and their barnyard conditions. They located some used equipment, including incubators to hatch the eggs and a brooder where tiny chicks could stay warm, and improvised another brooder in the greenhouse for the older chicks. With this move, Warshawer and Booth had embarked on what would soon be known as the “Breed and Feed” project at Beneficial Farm, which is today partially supported by local and state government grants.
Barred Rock roosters strut their stuff in composted yards at Beneficial Farm. With sufficient space, roosters can live together peacefully.
“We’re trying to ‘indigenize’ these birds,” Warshawer said, explaining that the farm now has several generations of birds that are adapting to extremes in heat and cold, low humidity and what in the chicken industry is considered a low-grade feed.
“One of the main things northern New Mexico has to offer is hardiness,” says Warshawer. “If this area is ever going to export anything it will be high-quality genetics in the form of seed and stock. If a domesticated plant or animal can do well under these conditions, they will do well anywhere. We could ship these birds anywhere and they will outperform any other bird under a wider range of management conditions.”
To accomplish this, the birds must be aggressively culled. If a hen does not continue laying well under normal farm conditions, she is removed from the flock and sold. “We’re selecting for adaptability,” Warshawer said.
To that end, the farm must forego short-term goals in favor of the long view. For example, the farm successfully hatches approximately 60 percent of the eggs that go into the incubator, compared to an industry average of 80 percent. Warshawer believes that if temperature and humidity were better controlled in the incubator–a constant challenge in this climate–the farm would have a 75 percent hatching rate. (He does not expect 80 percent.) “We accept some loss because vitality is what we’re breeding for,” he said. “To restore adaptability and vitality we have to go through this phase.”
Thus, after 23 days in the incubator, any egg that has not hatched on its own goes into the compost pile. Although some of these embryos might be viable, and might hatch with a little bit of help, anyone who cares for the eggs and hatchlings must resist the temptation to enlarge the opening around a pecking beak, or peel the shell off a struggling chick. The long view is constantly affirmed–the farm is breeding for vitality, not for a high volume of chicks.
Beneficial Farm also breeds its hens for longevity, which is in sharp contrast to the industrial model. “In the industry, the whole point of it is that the hen is disposable,” Warshawer said.
In a commercial laying facility, a pullet (a hen under one year of age) begins laying at 16 to 18 weeks, before she is fully grown. She is then stressed by a high-protein, antibiotic-laced feed; overcrowding (pullets are usually caged with several other birds in a space so tight that they often lose the ability to walk); living indoors her entire life; and even, in some cases, living with continuous light. Her productive life is usually over by the time she is 60 weeks old, and, as Warshawer puts it, she’s on her way to “the Campbell’s soup can.”
The scenario is quite different at Beneficial Farm. “We slow them way down,” Warshawer said, explaining that the farm’s pullets do not begin laying until they are 22 to 24 weeks old, the feed is relatively low in protein and the birds receive only minimal day-length extension through artificial lighting. The birds also have access to the outdoors at all times and live in small flocks. “Our goal is a long productive life for the hens,” Warshawer said. “We’re not so concerned with how much we can get out of each bird, or how quickly we get our start-up costs back.” He also reported that some of the hens at the farm have been laying consistently for nearly four years.
In spring and fall, when the birds naturally lay the most eggs, Beneficial Farm achieves 60 to 75 percent production. During summer and winter, the farm achieves 50 to 60 percent production. The industry average, with all pullets, is 80 percent. “Considering we’re purposely keeping older hens, and that our feed and climate conditions are less than optimal, those numbers are fine,” Warshawer said.
The flocks at Beneficial Farm are now mostly Barred Rocks, as the breed has consistently done well through the cold winters and is suitable for both eggs and meat. The farm stopped buying chicks from the hatchery in 2001, once their hatching operation grew reliable enough. The flocks, which are separated with dividing fences and are housed separately, now span four or five generations. “We’re able to keep track of generations, so we minimize breeding between brothers and sisters,” Warshawer added.
The farm climate is too arid to provide a pasture system for the birds. Instead they are kept in enclosed areas that provide a minimum of 10 square feet per bird (compared to less than two in the industry). The yards are spread with straw that is periodically removed, composted and then used on vegetable crops. This system prevents destruction of the soil in the pens and puts the chicken manure to good use. Alfalfa is provided to the hens and Warshawer is looking into the possibility of producing hay on a dryland setting that could be “cut and carried” as green matter to the yard-housed birds.
Quality and scale
Beneficial Farm also supplies chicks to other farmers, who raise eggs according to the farm’s guidelines. Producers’ eggs are pooled and sold under the Beneficial Farm label. Warshawer launched the Egg Producers Improvement Project because the farm could not keep up with the demand for high-quality, locally produced eggs. To keep quality high, Warshawer and Booth learned, numbers must be kept low.
“We’re creating this producer network because small flocks are healthier,” Warshawer said. “When you have too many birds you have social problems and avoidable mortality.” In Warshawer’s opinion, an individual flock should be no greater than 150 birds, and the smaller the better. When the birds can establish a pecking order and feel they fit into a proper chicken society, they are calmer and healthier.
In 2001, when Beneficial Farm’s combined flocks had grown to approximately 800, Warshawer and Booth began to receive complaints from consumers that the eggs were not as good as they used to be. In response to this they began reducing their numbers and feel that now, with a total of approximately 450 birds, they have returned to a high level of quality.
“Ideally, you want to eat eggs from a chicken that led the life of a bird,” Warshawer said.
Research versus production
“The caveat is that all of this is anecdotal,” Warshawer said, attempting to put the farm’s findings in perspective. “To do real research would require funds, and a setting that is not a production farm. We have to balance research objectives with production objectives. We still have to pay the bills. In all honesty, both suffer. What we’re doing should be done at a university with a million-dollar budget and a bunch of graduate students, but so far there’s not much interest in this sort of project.”
Egg production and chicken breeding are not the only long-term projects that occupy the folks at Beneficial Farm. The farm is part of the Community Supported Agriculture movement, meaning that members buy a share of the season’s harvest and receive a bag of produce each week during the growing season. CSA members are invited to attend farm tours, social gatherings and seasonal festivals at the farm. The farm also offers a summer day camp for kids, as well as other educational events.
For Warshawer and Booth, “the community” served by the farm also includes wildlife and its habitat. The farm is home to owls, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, raptors and the occasional bear. Warshawer asks, “If this isn’t a good place for wild birds, can it be good for chickens?”
Garden space at Beneficial Farm measures between 12,000 and 15,000 square feet, and produces approximately 18,000 pounds of vegetables each season. The whole farm, however, encompasses 488 acres. The farm has received grants to restore riparian areas that were damaged by years of overgrazing, which occurred before Warshawer bought the property in 1977.
Warshawer hopes to also build a small herd of dairy cows with the right genetics for the climate. They recently acquired their first heifer, choosing the Tarentaise breed, which Warsawer describes as “a remarkable medium-sized dairy cow from the French side of the Italian Alps.”
“The farm is a web of relationships,” said Warshawer. “We’re working toward the biodynamic principal of the ‘farm organism.’ Landscape health is about how the whole web of organisms interrelate.”
“We’re building soil,” said Booth. “If we build healthy soil, we will have healthy food.”
“Modern small-scale agriculture is restorative, more than productive,” continued Warshawer. “This is not an input-output production facility.”
“We call it farming for the community,” said Booth. “We’re trying to create something that outlives us.”
For more information, contact Beneficial Farm at 505-422-2238, or e-mail Warshawer at stevew (at) plateautel.net.
HEIRLOOM CHICKEN BREEDS
Ancient chicken breeds tend to be better foragers than the modern chicken– genetically selected to grow very quickly and produce lots of breast meat– and less dependent on modern feed rations. Big, robust breeds include Buff Orpingtons (very gentle and easy to handle), Black Australorps (gentle and human-oriented to the point of being pet quality), Dominiques (a little less easy) and New Hampshire Reds (definitely not as easy). All of these will forage for insects and will lay through the winter with no supplementary lighting.
The Egyptian Fayoumis are great foragers but described as “obnoxious.” The Black Java chicken is described as having ” a peaceful temperament and will forage, lay and grow with little human involvement.”
Small breeds include Araucanas (very friendly, the kind Martha Stuart has), Brown Leghorns (friendly), Anconas (not friendly but very cute with black and white polka dots and jaunty combs that flop to one side), and English Game Hens (beautiful and incredibly shy).
A good resource for heirloom breeds is the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog (800) 456-3280.
–by Aubin Parish and Lierre Keith
Chickens are definitely as smart as most dogs, at least the heirloom breeds are. I’ve found them to be friendly, mischievous, loyal and courageous in defense of their friends. Here’s some little known chicken facts. Chickens have over 200 distinct noises that they use for communicating. They have not just a special cluck for predators, but clucks that specify which predator. If a chicken sees a predator and she’s alone, she won’t make any noise– she’ll hide instead. But if she’s with her flock, she will sound the alarm. In other words, she’ll put herself in danger to warn the others.
Chickens have a cluck that means “yummy food over here.” If a rooster sees a particularly nice looking hen, he will make the “yummy food” cluck in an attempt to lure her closer.
One time when my chickens had run out of grain (they have plenty of pasture and bugs, but they still like their grain), the head hen (a Black Australorp named Good Night) hopped over the fence and came down to the house and right up to the back door to tell me. On no other occasion did she ever hop the fence and come to the house. When I came out, she turned around and went back to the chicken house.
The story is told of a nest of ducklings whose mother died. A farmer took pity on them and put them in with his chickens. One of the older hens adopted the ducklings. Now, ducklings with a duck mom will get protective oil from their mother’s feathers–this is what protects them from water, so they can swim. Without a mother duck sitting on them, babies can’t be let into the water until they’re a few weeks old and have started to produce their own oils. The day came when the ducklings were old enough to swim on their own–and the hen marched them down the lane to a small stream and one by one pushed them all into the water!
In ancient Rome, one of the highest compliments you could pay someone was to say: “You were raised by a hen,” because everyone knows what great mothers hens are. The compliment meant that you had impeccable manners.
–by Lierre Keith
GOOD EGG, BAD EGG — HOW TO KNOW?
They all look about the same, standing at attention in their platoons of twelve, and the cartons don’t tell you much. How can you know whether the eggs you are about to buy are fresh and have come from healthy chickens, or are old and have come from poorly fed, stressed birds? The only way to know is to look closely and ask questions.
First, how do the eggs look? The shells should be dull, not shiny. Look at the air sacs on the shell’s surface: the bigger the air sac the older the egg. The eggs should feel strong, not so delicate that regular handling threatens to crack them.
Once you get them home you can perform two more freshness tests: Place the eggs in a large bowl of cold water; if they float, they are quite old. Unshelled onto a plate, the yolk of a truly fresh egg will dome up and stay up, and the white will clearly be thicker in the middle part, thinner on the edges. The yolks should also be a deep yellow orange, not pallid. Another test is to break the egg into boiling water–the so-called water poach. If the egg stays together, it’s a good one. Most supermarket eggs break up into tiny pieces on contact with the water.
But how the chickens are treated is the big question. It’s best to bypass the cheap, supermarket brand egg. These are usually produced in vast factory “farms” with upwards of 500,000 birds in one facility. The birds are caged in buildings that are artificially lighted and ventilated. The feed is most likely a mixture of conventionally grown corn and soy, undoubtedly contaminated by GMOs and laced with antibiotics. There is not much goodness in eggs like these.
Then there are the smaller, commercial operations that produce free-range, antibiotic-free eggs. These are certainly a step up, but living conditions vary considerably–some producers have their birds on pasture, some give the birds access to the outdoors, some don’t; some keep a few roosters, some have none; some keep the groups small, most don’t.
If you seek out eggs from a small local grower, consider asking the following questions to learn more about the eggs you buy:
What do you feed your chickens? The ideal feed is a combination of organically grown grains, legumes, grasses, greens, worms and insects. Less than ideal but still acceptable to many is organic lay pellets and organically grown corn and soy. At the bottom of the heap are commercial lay pellets, conventionally grown corn and soy and cottonseed meal.
Do you use antibiotics? If the health of a whole flock is threatened, then the judicial use of antibiotics can usually be tolerated by the consumer, as long as eggs from that period are not sold. Antibiotics routinely added to the feed ration, however, must be strictly avoided.
How many birds do you have? How many chickens in the whole operation, and how many in each flock? Smaller is better. Even with a big operation, if small flocks are maintained–maximum 100 to 150–then the chickens can maintain a chicken society (a pecking order) and will be less stressed.
What are living conditions like for the birds? Do the birds have regular access to the outdoors? What is the square footage of their house and yard? If chickens are given enough space, they are less likely to become stressed and/or diseased.
How fresh are these eggs? Small producers sometimes store eggs for a period of days or weeks until they have enough to make a delivery. Eggs should not be older than 10 days when they are brought to market, and should be labeled with date of harvest.
Are the eggs fertile? What is the ratio of roosters to hens? Anywhere between 1 to 10 and 1 to 20 is a good balance. If the producer keeps roosters, the flocks will better resemble a natural chicken society and the hens will be less stressed.
What breed are your chickens? While this likely doesn’t matter much to individual egg quality, it gives the consumer an idea of how much the producer knows about his birds.
May I visit your farm? While you might never do this, the producer’s response will give you an idea of whether he or she is proud of the operation or ashamed of it.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2002.