Tough crop prices, limited land expansion opportunities and a promising young generation encouraged Tim and Angie Brumme to seek out new options to diversify their Big Little Farms, LLC tucked in the beautiful rolling hills near Killbuck in Holmes County.
“We farm 800 acres of row crops and hay. We have cattle and sheep and we rely on a lot of rental ground. We decided we wanted to do something on our own ground for more stability,” Tim said. “We have two daughters and are looking for the next generation. There are a lot of broilers around and some hogs and neither was a good fit for us. We were looking at options in February of 2015 when we saw an ad from Kalmbach looking for growers for cage-free, free-range eggs. The costs are not much higher per building, but they are higher per bird. We could see some opportunity with this, though, as McDonald’s
and Panera and one restaurant chain after another announced they were going cage-free. We toured some farms and decided to get started.”
Tim and Angie, their daughters Kylee, 12, and Kassidy, 10, and Tim’s parents, Bruce and Lynn — with plenty of prayers — made the commitment to get into the free-range egg business on a contractual basis with Kalmbach Feeds. They put built two layer buildings on the farm.
“I think this is a great opportunity for family farms to move forward and for us I think this is good for the next generation,” Angie said. “Our prayer was for God to shut the door on this if we weren’t supposed to do it, but things kept working out. I never thought I’d borrow this much money in my life. We got a 15-year loan and if we put every dime back in it the payoff is eight or nine years. Kalmbach arranges for the birds. They have been a great family to work with. Kalmbach is very family oriented. They have their own contract pullet growers. We have the birds for 14 months and then they go to an auction. We own the building and do the labor. They own the birds and supply the feed and market the eggs.”
While they were in the process of handling the financing for the project, news about the avian influenza outbreak in Iowa rippled through the poultry production community and gave the Brummes a good scare, but they proceeded, undaunted. The construction process was also more time consuming than planned.
“Kalmbach gave us a suggested list of approved builders and we picked from that. The barn is basically a horseshoe with two 52-foot by 536-foot laying barns connected by a 50-foot by 50-foot building with an office, cooler and packing area,” Tim said. “The bins for feed storage are on the inside.”
To be free-range, there are very specific requirements for the pasture area.
“We had to put an organic pasture mix in with clover, meadow fescue, festulolium and orchardgrass and we needed two square feet of pasture per bird,” Tim said. “For the pastures, the fence is like Ft. Knox. It is not so much to keep the chickens in but to keep the rodents out. The two-inch by four-inch wire fence is 48 inches high and we have steel buried four inches in the ground and at least 24 inches above ground. Then we need a foot-wide stone barrier on each side of the fence with no vegetation. There are also around 300 mousetraps around this facility. Mice carry E. coli and that can lead to E. coli and salmonella in the eggs. All of the access is away from the pasture area to keep traffic away from the birds. We let them out after morning laying and they come in about dark. They don’t go out in rain or extreme heat if the pastures are really muddy.”
The chicken accouterments are even more elaborate inside the facility.
“The nesting boxes are down the center the whole length of the barn with access from both sides. They are double-sided and each box is four feet wide and a couple feet deep. The bottom is sloped and there is a hole just big enough for the egg to get through. The sloped bottom has this plastic grass, so it is very plush. There is a roof over the box so they have a darker, private area to lay eggs and from there the eggs go down to a belt,” Tim said. “The nest boxes are in the middle then there are 16 feet on either side with raised slats with feed and water. The floor slopes down and the manure falls through. The outside 10 feet is a scratch area. We have more than the required 1.2 square feet per bird. There are perches on the top of the nesting boxes and on the edges of the raised slats. There are hanging perches so the chickens can even jump up and swing.”
The finishing touches on the first barn on the farm were completed just before the chickens arrived.
“Barn 1 was done Jan. 27 and we got the birds for that barn on Jan. 29,” Tim said. Barn 2 was done March 8 and we got those birds March 11.”
While the building process itself was a huge change for the farm, the learning curve with the arrival of the birds was an even bigger change. The Brummes had to initially train the birds.
“You are training the birds where the nest box is and where they need to eat and drink,” Angie said. “The birds seek out the shadow places and when you are walking they want to move to the shaded places in the nesting boxes. If you are walking through their space every half hour they learn to go into their nest boxes to lay. They also get used to you being in there and that helps with production. At night, we have to help train them where their food and water is — you have to go through and pick up every bird on the floor when the lights go out. The first couple of nights we were picking up several thousand birds. It was a lot of squats.”
Between the two barns, there are 46,000 chickens with each barn producing more than 21,000 eggs a day. The morning is the most crucial time to be in the barn and turn the belt that runs below the nesting boxes.
“We get the birds at 16 weeks. They start laying at 18 or 19 weeks. They peak out at 28 weeks or so and
then you are hoping that it holds on for as long as possible. You hope for 52 weeks. At 40 weeks in Barn 1 and 34 weeks in Barn 2 they were at 94% and 95% laying. Barn 1 is cage-free, organic and free-range. They have organic feed, pasture access and cage-free housing in Barn 1. Barn 2 is cage -free, free-range and conventional feed. We have to be able to certify the pasture organically and we were able to do that for Barn 1. We may do that for Barn 2 in the future. The organic feed costs more and we have extra paperwork and expense with the organic facility. We also have to have a water filtration system and we have to use organic approved treatment, so we have more expense for the organic but so far it seems more lucrative,” Tim said. “It takes 35 minutes to run the belt one full loop at full speed. We max out at 9,000 eggs on the belt. If you get more than that you start to break stuff. We walk the barns three times a day for three reasons: picking up floor eggs, which if you did a good job training those are not common; to check that the equipment functioning properly — feeders, waterers, lights and ventilation; and looking for sick or injured birds.”
The eggs go from the belt to a conveyor to the packing machine that puts them in flats of 30 eggs. They are paid a set price per dozen eggs.
“We stack the flats on pallets by hand. We look for any cracked eggs or feathers or anything. The whole process takes about four hours every morning and you have to be there. The afternoon is more flexible. We then run each barn once in the afternoon,” Tim said. “We get it all in the cooler and fill out the paperwork. There is a lot of cleaning every day for broken eggs and feathers. A lot of bleach gets used.”
“And cleaning egg off the floor is not fun,” Angie added.
The level of biosecurity required for the facilities was also a change on the farm.
“For biosecurity you enter the first room to get out of the weather and there is a foot bath to bleach your shoes before the second room. In the second room you strip down to underwear and there is a shower if we need to shower in. The third room has barn clothes to change into and there you can enter the packing room,” Tim said. “The only access to the birds is through the packing room. Then to enter a specific barn you change into boots specific to each barn and you bleach your shoes. We wear hairnets, gloves and dust masks specific to each barn. If you have been around other poultry, hogs or house birds, you can’t go into the barn for 72 hours.”
The only experience with chickens the Brummes had prior to this very significant addition to their farm was a small flock of backyard layers. They have really learned quite a bit in a very short time about chicken behaviors.
“We have all of this space but chickens are funny and they are always huddled up,” Angie said. “Some birds never want to go outside. Some just stand by the door and eat bugs. Some go out in the morning, some go out in the afternoon. They each do their own thing how they want to do it. Some stand by the door with their backsides facing out in the breeze.”
The biggest challenge to date has been the chickens’ extreme aversion to bright lights.
“The biggest surprise is flashes of light and the affect it has on the birds. They go crazy when they see a flash of light,” Tim said. “I was seeding the pastures and there was a reflection off of the tractor into the barn. They piled up in one corner and we lost 105 birds in 10 minutes. Now we only take equipment in our pastures on a cloudy day or at dusk. Light will even flash off your watch and bother them.”
Another challenge is the birds’ proclivity for establishing a pecking order that is to the detriment of smaller birds in the open, cage-free system.
“You start with birds of a very uniform size. That helps a whole bunch. We use lighting intensity to help control things too. We keep the lights at 60% or so — fully intensified 100% LED lights intensifies the pecking. If you do see a bird getting picked on you need to remove it. If there is a smaller bird, that is when it will happen,” Tim said. “We are working on a rehab pen. We are separating off part of the water and food lines to let any smaller birds have access to feed and water without getting picked on. Then when they get bigger we can reintroduce them with the rest.”
Manure management is another important consideration for the farm.
“We plan to use most of the manure on the crop ground. The manure is pretty dry,” Tim said. “We had to get a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan for the manure. We have enough acreage to spread it ourselves and we have a waiting list of people who want to buy it if we need to sell it. We need 750 or so acres with our crop mix and we are right at 800 acres. We soil tested everything and are working with the Soil and Water Conservation District. The birds leave in 14 months and then we have two weeks to clean barns between flocks — 350 tons of manure to remove from the barn and bleach everything down. That will be a busy two weeks.”
The new venture for the Brummes has been quite a bit of work, but ultimately has been a good fit for the farm, and its future.
“The chickens are happy to see you. They interact with you,” Tim said. “It fits into our schedule time wise, but getting to church on Sundays is sometimes a challenge. It has rearranged everything. It is like having a newborn, but I like the way the birds are housed and the interaction with the birds. It all kind of fit for us. My daughters are 10 and 12 and I don’t necessarily want them in a hog barn, but this is something they can help with at their ages. They do the nightly walk every day. The girls like to find colorful chickens in the barn and find their favorites. We spend about four hours in the morning out here and then two hours in the afternoon. It is seven days a week and every day there are three generations of our family working here on the farm.”