Surviving The 2012 Drought

Another couple of weeks have passed since my last update, and for this, I do apologize. Frankly, we’ve been overwhelmed this year due to the drought, and all of the stresses it has brought. Additionally, over the past few months I’ve been having a flare with my carpal tunnel that has resulted in a smaller daily quota on my keystrokes, too. There are some other health challenges that I won’t detail here, but I’ll just say, there are lots of reasons why my posts have not been as frequent.

As I outlined in my last entry, we are struggling financially with the farm (as is the case with most family farms right now.) This is making us come to some hard decisions about what we can and cannot continue to do. More on that later.

First, I want to explain something we’ve been dealing with the past couple of weeks: someone brought an infection to our chickens. As to whether they had infectious material on their footwear/clothes and it was transmitted while they were on our property, or there was something dormant in our Springtime-acquired birds (the worst affected) that was activated by the stress of those visitors presence on our farm, we have not yet determined. However, we did not have issues prior to their visit to our farm, and about six days after their visit, our egg production plummeted significantly in the laying flock, and then about ten days later, we started hearing some sneezes. We have the Michigan Department of Agriculture involved, and their field veterinarian has been extremely friendly and helpful to us, which we greatly appreciate. Our birds are currently being treated with antibiotics while they clear this from their systems. However, we are keeping alert and will cull any that do not recover. We don’t like using antibiotics as a routine matter, but when our animal’s health and perhaps their lives are at risk, we will treat them if it is the only real option. It is no different than the way we handle matters with our own bodies.

Something we’ve realized after two years of selling chicken eggs that it simply does not scale down well. Large producers employ volume discounts, government subsidies or will even cut corners to be able to offer eggs at the prices that they do. Our costs to feed and care for the flock are extraordinary. We don’t receive discounts or government subsidies, and we won’t cut corners and feed our birds substandard rations (or no ration at all). We have heard of some people that don’t feed their chickens anything, they just expect them forage to survive. Chickens will typically get about 20% of their nutrition from forage with us providing the remaining 80%. Not feeding our chickens is not an option. The weekly price rises in feed are taking their toll on our farm to the point that they have cut right into our family budget.  The amount of time we spend feeding, cleaning, watering, driving to procure feed twice a week at the elevator – none of that time is never compensated, even after raising the price on eggs. Mostly, we are selling at a loss. On a good day we might break even.

My long standing health issues have presented us with challenges, and George’s new job has him working full-time “plus” – a minimum of 50 hours a week (not including the two hours a day he is on the road driving to and from it), and he’s worked a few overnight shifts without sleep, too. As they say, something’s gotta give – and in our case, it’s going to be our layer chicken operation. Once we are through this treatment plan, we will be selectively downsizing our flock.  Many birds will be going to freezer camp, as they will always be carriers of the infection (even if it is dormant in them) and we cannot risk having them move to other farms as a result. As a result our egg production will go down drastically, and we will no longer be able to meet the demand with our supply, so we will no longer be offering chicken eggs for sale for the foreseeable future. We are sorry that it has come to this, but this flock infection was the straw that broke the camel’s already strained back. We want to thank everyone who has purchased and enjoyed chicken eggs from our farm over the past couple of years and encourage you to continue buying local – please check out the farm directories listed on our links page to search for one.

We are still analyzing and evaluating how to proceed. You may be reading about the drought’s effects on food supplies, and this of course starts at the top of the supply chain – the feed for our animals. Our feed elevator is raising prices weekly, in accordance with the higher prices they are paying the farmers for their grains, and that means higher feed ration costs for us. Then there’s hay – I spoke with another farmer today who normally gets 1,100 bales of second cutting hay out of a particular field. This year, he just got 28 out of the same field. This is just one typical example of what’s happening with hay this year. As a result, hay prices have skyrocketed. Couple this with dried up pastures for fresh forage, and it all paints the picture of anxiety we are enduring right now clearly – we refuse to sacrifice quality of life for our animals – otherwise, why are we doing this? But if we can’t afford to feed them and ourselves, where does that leave us? I’ll tell you: it leaves us wondering if we need to downsize even further. Not really our first choice, but it may be our only choice under these circumstances. Larger operations have the government to fall back on, however we are not privy to such luxuries.

We are hoping that the rain we’ve experienced (nearly non-stop) for the past two days helps get our pasture back in shape so the goats can forage on it effectively again, and that the hopeful predictions about a long fall season such that the hay deficit can be addressed by a third cutting will be realized. However, this still doesn’t make up for the losses and shortfalls that have already driven up prices. Even if more hay becomes available, the price will likely remain as high as it is simply due to the demand. Prices may even rise higher than $10/bale. So again, we have some tough choices to make.

Last week, we were humbled and grateful when many of our friends stepped up and helped us out financially through a mini-crisis. Family has already been helping us whenever they can. Any savings we had was long ago exhausted. We are still amazed and thankful for everyone’s generosity. However, with the exponentially rising prices on animal feed, we have to realistically evaluate our ability to sustain our operation and we cannot expect “bailouts” to see us through in the long-term (we aren’t building cars or lending money here). We are still actively evaluating and making hard decisions on a day-to-day basis.  We may have to reduce our goat herd in order to be able to maintain quality of life for the remaining members and ourselves.

For now, the ducks are safe, and we will be continuing to offer their eggs for sale at $10 a dozen. They are also available at the Melo Farms booth at Eastern Market in Detroit and the Franklin Farmer’s Market. We appreciate your support of our farm and theirs – be sure to try their delicious pastured Berkshire (heritage breed) pork. It is the best we have ever had!

Are you a farmer? What kinds of coping mechanisms do you have in place? Or are you just as panicked as we are?


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