Sunday, December 15, 2013

Our ducks are still laying... what's going on here?

One of our Khaki Campbell laying ducks

Okay, so it's now December 15, and we are still collecting between 6 and 10 eggs per day from our laying ducks. What's the big deal about that, you ask? Well, normally at this time of year we expect anywhere from very few to zero eggs.

Laying hens and ducks do, in fact, have an off-season; typically by mid-November, our duck egg production has slowed way down or even stopped, and starts up again round about mid-January. Why the drop in production? Well, hens and ducks go through their annual moult in the fall, and this is always accompanied by a drop in egg production. I suspect it is related to nutrition; the birds' feathers are approximately 85% protein, and they need a boost in their protein intake when they are growing new feathers during the moult. Egg production also requires adequate protein, so it's not surprising that egg-laying is affected.

Also, we're fast approaching the shortest day of the year. Egg production at our farm is highest in the spring, when days are getting longer heading into May and June. Again, nutrition is a factor; in the spring the pasture is growing fast, and the birds are naturally out on the pasture for more hours every day than they are at this time of year. Spring is when mating happens, too, so it works out well that the egg production is so strong. We don't see much mating action this time of year, so it seems to me to be a natural time for the hens and ducks to have a break from laying eggs.

A lot has been said and written about prolonging the laying season for chickens by putting artificial lighting in their coops. The theory is that somehow the birds are tricked into thinking the days are longer than they actually are, so they will keep laying. In this country we're so used to being able to buy eggs year-round that people most often don't get it when I tell them that eggs are a seasonal product. (Granted, the season lasts for 9 or 10 months, but still.) I think the birds not only deserve this annual break, I also believe that it's better for them in the long run to allow this natural rhythm to play out.

So... what's the explanation for the continued egg production this late in the year? I don't think it's the weather; we've already had more days down in the teens than we had last winter. None of our laying birds are in their first year (they don't moult their first year) so I assume they've all been moulting as usual. Since the pasture growth slows down in cold weather, and the birds aren't out there for all that long each day, I can only guess that a higher percentage of their nutrition is coming from the organic grain mash we feed every day, so possibly their protein intake is actually a bit higher than usual, which might account for the eggs.

If it sounds like I'm obsessing on minor details, I promise I'm not actually staying up nights wondering about it. It's just one of many interesting things that occur when you have animals, and I'm the kind of person who likes to understand why and how things happen.

If you have laying ducks, are you still getting eggs? I'd like to hear about your experiences, and if you have any ideas about why the egg "season" has been expended this year, please share them.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Start your Christmas shopping early this year: Pure Poultry is here!

 Check out the Pure Poultry video trailer!

I bet you had forgotten you pre-ordered my new book Pure Poultry, didn't you? For quite some time now, the page for Pure Poultry showed a release date of November 5, 2013. I was totally taken by surprise last Sunday when someone e-mailed me to say congratulate me on my book that was coming out on October 23!

So, on our blazingly slow dial-up connection, I raced to get on the page to see for myself. Sure enough, October 23 was the new release date. Aack! I had been right in the thick of a big project for Kitsap Children's Musical Theatre, and wasn't expecting to have to kick into high book-promotion gear for another two weeks or so. Plus I was just coming down with a cold (swell timing, not that there's a good time to have a cold); I suspect the sniffling, sneezing baby held on his papa's lap next to me on the flight home from Kansas City the week before. This baby was attired from head to toe in Oakland Raiders gear. How I wished I was wearing a shirt and cap that said, roughly, "Oakland Sucks!" But I digress.

I'm not quite over that cold, so I expect I'm even less subtle than usual today (and, you will be glad to note, more brief than usual too). May I just suggest that you all now have an extra 10 days or so to decide how many people on your Christmas list are going to get Pure Poultry this year. If that isn't serendipity I don't know what is.

Those of you who have already received Pure Poultry, thank you so much for your support and for posting photos and such lovely comments on Facebook. This is a very exciting time for me, and I look forward to getting more feedback from you all.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pure Poultry is going to press!

"Part memoir and part roadmap to success, Pure Poultry tells a compelling story full of grit, passion and discovery as the author and her husband embrace a sustainable, off grid life in the woods – with chickens, turkeys and ducks. Whether you are a seasoned fowl keeper or a passionate dreamer, you will find yourself nodding, laughing, commiserating,  learning and simply enjoying the author’s knack for weaving her experiences, observations and lessons into a page-turner of a narrative. Once I started reading, it was next to impossible to put Pure Poultry down, even when I heard my own geese honking for their supper. And when I finally closed the book, for the last time, I knew exactly why I keep the fowl that I do, I learned some tricks I’d not discovered in the past 35 years and I felt happy!"

-Endorsement from Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief, Grit magazine 

Big news, Pure Poultry fans! I just this morning sent the last few minor manuscript corrections to the publisher, who is poised to send it to press. I've been thinking a lot about all that's happened throughout this process. It's still hard to believe that it's been less than a year since I first met Ingrid Witvoet (managing editor of New Society Publishers) at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania last September. You don't mind of I indulge in a bit of a nostalgia trip, do you?

I had first come up with the idea of a book about our experiences with heritage poultry back in 2009. I pulled a book off my shelf that was on a roughly similar topic, found the name of the publisher, and thought, what the heck, I'll call. (This was before, I may say LONG before, I heard the rule that you're not supposed to cold-call publishers. Ooops.) The publisher, I learned, published about 300 new titles a year, so it made sense to me to call and ask for the name and contact information for the editor who handled livestock-related projects.

So I called and left a voicemail. About 15 minutes later (I'm not kidding) I got a call back, spoke to the editor for 20 minutes, and she invited me to send her my proposal. (Another harsh lesson: Don't pitch a book project without a proposal package ready to send.) I agreed, not that I knew anything at the time about what was even in a proposal package.

It took me several months to get it done. Partly this was because I had periodic spells of completely losing confidence in myself. Eventually I did send it in, though, complete with sample photos.

Then I waited. And waited. Every so often I sent a note to the editor, asking for a status update. No response. Seven months later, I finally heard back from her. Unfortunately, by that time, she was working in a different department and no longer dealt with books like mine. So that was that, at least for the moment.

Right around the same time, I got a call from James Duft at Mother Earth News, asking if I'd be interested in doing a presentation on raising turkeys at the Mother Earth News Fair. My first reaction was to decline, having pretty much zero experience in public speaking. My husband David, though, said I ought to do it because it might help with my book project somehow. So I did, repeating to myself right up until I went on stage my favorite mantra: "I only have to do this for the first time ONCE."

Shortly after my first presentation I met Pamela Art, the president of Storey Publishing. She let me pitch my idea to her and then asked me to send her my proposal. I did, and got a note back from another Storey editor saying that it would be a "long shot" for them as they rarely published memoirs.

I was totally taken aback. I know this sounds silly, but at the time I had no idea that what I was writing was a memoir. Sure, I was writing it in first person, and it is entirely based on our own experiences, but I honestly thought it was more of a how-to book.

At that point I felt discouraged, and didn't really know what I was doing with the book. So I put it aside and did nothing with it for about a year. In the meantime, I continued to do presentations at Mother Earth News Fairs.

The third time I went to the Fair, last September in Seven Springs, PA, I did two presentations. After the second one, late in the day on Sunday, I was approached by a woman who introduced herself as an editor from New Society Publishers. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book about poultry.

After I got home, I updated my proposal and sent it to her. This was in October 2012. On December 19, after not hearing back from her for about two months, I got an e-mail with a draft contract attached. New Society Publishers wanted to publish my book!

The contract set a date of February 1, 2013, as the deadline to submit the manuscript. I asked for it to be extended to February 15, which they agreed to. I still didn't know if I could do it, mostly because I had no clear idea of how much of the book was already written. I went at it, though, ultimately sending in the manuscript a day ahead of the deadline.

Since then it's been an amazing learning experience. I read somewhere that writers need to know that writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Of course I still have a lot to learn, but the people at New Society Publishers have been so helpful, and patient with my constant questions. I've been included in just about every part of the process, from cover design to proofreading. When all is said and done, it will have been barely a year from when I first met Ingrid to when Pure Poultry comes off the press.

Looking back, I am so grateful that the first publisher I contacted didn't accept my project. I honestly believe it is a much better book now, thanks to another couple of years of experience, a supportive husband and friends, and a publisher who somehow picked me out of a crowd.

I'm 52 now, and although I've had ideas in the past about writing, I never tried seriously to get anything published. Now my first real publishing credit is a book! And the publisher and I have been talking about additional book projects, too.

How much has happened in just a year? For one thing, I now know I'm a writer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Free eggs? Not exactly...

Dual purpose New Hampshire pullets

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it's time to address a misconception regarding poultry: If you raise laying hens or ducks, there is simply no such thing as "free" eggs. This is a common assumption. We regularly hear things like, "Oh, it must be so nice to have free eggs." Or, "I'm thinking of raising chickens so I can have free eggs."

I can understand why one might expect this to be true, given some of the fairly misleading information out there about raising and feeding laying birds. It is true that many breeds of chickens and ducks, particularly heritage breeds, can forage a certain percentage of their own food. However, the fact is that for optimum egg production, laying birds must have a consistently high quality of nutrition. This means that no matter how much they might graze or forage, they still need a daily ration of 16% protein layer feed.

Also, when the ground is covered in snow, there is not much for the birds to forage on. If you have snow in the winter, plan ahead and make sure you have adequate feed on hand.

One of our feed shelters

If you already have poultry (or any other livestock), you're no doubt aware of how feed prices have gone up since the summer of 2012. The Midwest drought affected the corn harvest to the point where even now, months later, feed corn (especially organic corn) is in short supply and quite expensive. Last fall our feed costs jumped by 25% all at once; the 1100-pound tote of organic layer mash we buy went from about $400 to $500 just like that. The formula changed as well, due to the shortage of organic corn and peas.

I know a few people who say they feed their hens nothing but kitchen scraps. Presumably these scraps are from something they either bought or grew in a garden; those are not "free" eggs.

We estimate that our laying birds, which are all excellent foragers, each consume an average of 1/4 pound of organic feed per day. We also provide them with crushed oyster shell, an important calcium supplement that keeps egg shells strong. When we have baby birds, we buy baby grit to add to their feed to aid digestion; older birds get plenty of grit in the course of their daily foraging.

Bedding is another expense. Keeping coops and nest boxes clean and dry is critical for the good health of the birds, so we use absorbent wood shavings and clean coops regularly.

So let's add things up: Feed, oyster shell, grit (especially if your birds aren't on pasture), bedding. Even if you don't take your time into consideration, those eggs are not only not free, they might be getting a bit expensive. And we haven't even mentioned coops, or the up-front cost of the birds themselves. If you buy day-old chicks, you will be feeding them for 5 or 6 months before they even start laying eggs.

Of course, the tradeoff is that they are super-fresh eggs that simply don't compare to mass-produced commercial eggs. Obviously, I'm in favor of raising hens and ducks for eggs. Just don't kid yourself that keeping laying chickens or ducks means a lifetime of free eggs for you and your family.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Equal time for ducks: More on washing farm-fresh eggs

Thanks for all your comments and feedback on my recent post about whether homegrown eggs should be washed. It occurred to me (after the fact, as usual) that when I wrote it, I was really just thinking about chicken eggs. Probably this is because we wash more chicken eggs every day than anything else, and probably also because every single thing I've ever read on the subject of washing eggs referred only to chicken eggs.

As you know, we raise laying ducks as well as chickens. Right now we're collecting an average of 28 duck eggs every day. The ducks have let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they want their moment of Internet fame; their eggs are not the same as chicken eggs, and washing them is also somewhat different from washing chicken eggs.

In my last post, I referred to the "bloom" on fresh eggs. Well, with duck eggs, this bloom is apparently not the same as the bloom on chicken eggs. First, I've found it takes more effort to clean the bloom from duck eggs. The WSDA recommends using a medium sandpaper (100 or 120 grit) to gently clean eggs when warm water alone is not enough.

Also, the bloom on duck eggs has a very distinct, uh, aroma. Even when the eggs look fairly clean, they still have a bit of a barnyard smell to them (I'm trying really hard to be diplomatic; our ducks are very sensitive). This alone is good reason to clean off that bloom.

Duck egg shells are quite a bit stronger than chicken egg shells, which may account for the fact that duck eggs have a longer shelf life. So again, the argument that removing the bloom shortens shelf life doesn't seem to apply.

With laying ducks, keeping the area where they lay eggs clean is just as important as with chickens. It's a little trickier, though, with ducks, as they don't seem all that inclined to lay in nest boxes. They also are quite messy little things, and it takes some effort to keep the bedding in their coops clean and dry. I mentioned that I sometimes find a chicken egg that doesn't require cleaning; this is pretty much never true of duck eggs, at least in our experience.

Our organic duck eggs are sold in the Sequim area at Sunny Farms, Nash's Organic Produce, The Red Rooster Grocery, and at Dungeness Valley Creamery. And of course they are also featured at the wonderful Alder Wood Bistro. If you've never eaten a duck egg, do try ours, if you're in the neighborhood. They are super-fresh, and I swear they're clean.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Farm-fresh eggs: To wash or not to wash

Nice clean eggs, ready to be weighed and packed.

I would not have believed how much strong feeling this particular subject stirs up. Some people assert that eggs should always be washed, preferably sanitized too. Others insist that any washing or cleaning is somehow detrimental to the quality of the egg.

If I tell you what I think, will you promise not to send me nasty e-mails or (horror of horrors) un-friend me on Facebook? Okay, here goes. First let me say that since we got our egg dealer's license in 2008, we have been obliged to follow the guidelines of the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Program. I have also done a lot of research on this subject, and I must say I think the WSDA's guidelines are quite sensible.

Because eggs are perishable, and under certain circumstances, subject to bacterial infection, the idea is to collect, clean, dry and refrigerate them as quickly as possible. We use warm water and an old soft toothbrush to clean them. The water should be warmer than the eggs. Why? Because the shell of an egg is porous. The theory is, if there is mud or chicken poop or whatever on the egg shell, and you wash the egg in cold water, the contents of the egg will shrink away from the shell, bringing with it anything lingering on the outside of the shell. Since some eggs have just been laid when they are picked up, and a hen's body temperature is 103°F, we try for a wash-water temperature of around 110°F.

But, you never-wash-an-egg advocates are shouting, washing the egg removes the "bloom!" I know, I know. And I am going to take my social-networking life in my hands and ask you, "So what?"

The "bloom," as I understand it, is some kind of coating that is applied to the outside of the egg's shell right before it exits the hen's body. I have occasionally picked up an egg that has been so freshly laid that it is still wet; presumably this is the "bloom." The argument I always hear about the "bloom" is that removing it results in a shorter shelf life for the egg. First of all, unless that coating is somehow completely sealing the entire eggshell, I don't see how this can be true. Remember that the shell is porous; probably if it was coated thickly with wax or something, the contents of the egg wouldn't evaporate. I don't know what the makeup of the "bloom" is, but I doubt it is actually sealing the egg to that extent. 

And frankly, if simple washing in warm water is enough to remove it, how well do you really think it's sealing the egg shell?

In addition, we deliver our eggs several times a week to our customers. We know they are being consumed when they are quite fresh. So honestly, shelf life is of no real concern to us.

Even if we weren't subject to the WSDA requirements, we would still be cleaning our eggs. Occasionally I see an egg that is so clean that I don't bother washing it. This is perfectly acceptable under WSDA rules. However, I rarely find an egg to be so pristine that it can't be improved by at least a light cleaning. I can see no advantage in leaving mud, chicken poop or bedding stuck to an egg, for fear of compromising the "bloom." And since we are talking food safety here, honestly now, why take chances?

Monday, March 4, 2013

I was going to call it "The Sustainably-Raised Egg and I," but...

What can I say. I've never been very good at coming up with names for things.

However, it is now official: my first book, "Pure Poultry: Living well with heritage chickens, turkeys and ducks," is on its way to being published! The manuscript is now in the capable hands of New Society Publishers, a British Columbia-based company which specializes in "Tools for a world of change, books to build a new society." They have an impressive book list. Take a few minutes to check it out on their web site.

Have you read Betty MacDonald's 1945 classic "The Egg and I"? It's the hilarious tale of how Betty, at age 18, marries Bob, a man 13 years older, whose dream is to run a chicken ranch. He buys an off-grid piece of property in the Chimacum valley, not far from Port Townsend, WA. It's quite an adjustment for Betty, who isn't nearly as thrilled as Bob at having no electricity or running water in the house. She perseveres, though, having been raised to believe that if her husband can do what he really wants to in life, he will be happy and therefore she will be happy too.

I recently re-read The Egg and I, while I was in the middle of revising the first draft of Pure Poultry. This time, somehow I noticed things about Betty and Bob's experiences that closely paralleled those of David and I. Our farm is off the grid. It's located only about a 45-minute drive from the Chimacum valley. We're surrounded by the beautiful Olympic Mountains. Bob was certainly more knowledgeable about poultry than we were when we got started, but still, like us, he evidently had plenty to learn.

Betty, who died in 1958 at the age of 49, was a very witty writer. Her humor reminds me a lot of Erma Bombeck, whose books I have loved for years. Although she has many moments of feeling lonely on their isolated ranch, Betty has a way of describing the mountains, trees and even the clouds as if they were living things. I love her use of language.

We don't have colorful neighbors like Ma and Pa Kettle here, and our egg operation is tiny compared with Betty and Bob's. Still, there is plenty of humor and real-life experience in Pure Poultry. We certainly share some of the challenges of living off the grid, although I'm thankful to say that our wood stoves don't misbehave like "Stove" in The Egg and I. And in case you're wondering, we do have indoor plumbing and running water.

Pure Poultry is a memoir of our first five years of raising heritage chickens, turkeys and ducks. There is plenty of advice and tips based on our experiences, but I believe that you will enjoy reading it even if you don't raise poultry. It might inspire you to start a little food garden in pots on your apartment's deck. Maybe you'll connect with a friend in the suburbs who has chickens and is willing to barter for fresh eggs. And if you do decide to start raising poultry, I hope that Pure Poultry will convince you to think about choosing beautiful, sustainable heritage breeds.