Winter on the farm
As spring approaches, Dreamfarm matriarch focuses on raising this year’s chicken flock into healthy egg-producers.
At Dreamfarm in Cross Plains, Diana Kalscheur Murphy, anticipates a busy farmers market season. As spring approaches, her chickens will be moved into the farm’s new pastures where they will remain until fall.
(page 1 of 2)
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Plodding down a snow and ice-covered pathway, Diana Kalscheur Murphy heads to a small barn just steps from the family home. Inside, about 250 chickens of various shapes and sizes excitedly cluck and squawk in their hay-carpeted abode. They represent four different species and range in color from brown to speckled, black, white, red, and multihued.
This is the slow season at Dreamfarm LLC just west of Cross Plains. Eggs are about the only thing going on right now, other than bookwork, planning, and the daily care and feeding all of the animals — not at all a small chore.
In a separate, larger barn, a jersey cow lays next to her young heifer, while 28 pregnant and very curious dairy goats are just weeks away from kidding, and a magnificent and primitive Jacob ram and his harem of Jacob sheep huddle near a doorway. When milking and cheesemaking begins, six pigs and several steer will join the menagerie.
Dreamfarm is a 25-acre certified organic family farm located on an idyllic hillside and bordered on one side by the Ice Age Trail. During the busy farmers market season, goat cheese and eggs are the farm’s primary revenue generators.
The 250 chickens living in the smaller barn are just 15 weeks old and won’t reach laying maturity until mid-April. A young rooster is spotted among the hens. “Yes, we can start distinguishing the roosters at about three months and usually end up with about 10 roosters every year,” Kalscheur Murphy sighs. The males are unwelcome but there’s always someone looking to take the young roosters off her hands.
At Dreamfarm, Diana Kalscheur Murphy greets her youngest chickens and later cleans, dries, and packages eggs from the older flock.
The birds peck at a non-soy organic grain distributed in a narrow trough that runs the length of the floor. The trough is replenished twice a day, requiring Kalscheur Murphy to purchase the food in 8,000-pound batches.
Dreamfarm’s chickens are free of growth hormones, additives, chemicals, or GMO feed. “They’re off to a good start here,” she notes. “They’re not in cages.” Once the pastures green up, usually in early April, they will be placed in separate houses where they can peck at the greens and eat bugs to their hearts delight from the certified organic pasture.
These birds were delivered by mail last fall as day-old chicks. “I hand pick each from the box and dip their beaks into some water to make sure they can get themselves hydrated. Then we sprinkle food on a piece of paper to get them started. We have heat lamps set up for them, and we’ve gotten pretty good at knowing how many heat lamps we need, how to keep drafts down, and keeping them healthy. In the first couple of days you usually lose a few, but if you stay on top of things, your loss should be minimal.”
In April, when the flock is fully producing, they will lay about six eggs per week per chicken. The multicolored “Americana” hens are slightly less productive, producing about five eggs per week, but Kalscheur Murphy says their blue eggs are a hit with customers.
Making her way down the hill, she opens a makeshift doorway leading into a smaller, Quonset hut enclosure. “It isn’t beautiful, but it’s warm and clean,” she says. Inside, 40 hens prattle about. These are the 16-month-old laying hens retained over the winter from last year’s flock. Chickens aren’t usually kept around for much longer than a year because their production slows and their appetites increase. Most are sold.
Ten nesting boxes filled with hay line the far wall. On the side a small opening allows the chickens to venture into the fenced-in yard if they feel so inclined on this chilly day, but these birds aren’t dumb — most remain inside.
“We also have three goofy ducks,” she smiles, glancing toward the tall trio trying but failing to remain inconspicuous in a corner of the hut. “They are so funny!” About once a week she’ll discover a duck egg that she describes as larger and richer than a chicken egg. “I like them poached.”
Kalscheur Murphy checks the nest boxes and discovers one new egg in a box just vacated by a white hen. She smiles. “I don’t think she laid that egg because it’s a blue one!” She glances around for a multicolored hen. It’s a dead giveaway. White hens lay white eggs, brown and black chickens lay brown eggs, and the multicolor hens lay the blue eggs, which can actually vary from very blue to olive green.
Eggs are collected twice a day by hand, placed into a wire basket, and cleaned in a separate kitchen adjacent to the house where the right sink is dedicated only to washing and the left sink is used only for drying — a requirement of her license.
She’ll hand scrub the eggs under some hot water and dry them before each is placed in a carton and refrigerated. When possible, she uses clean but pre-used cartons often provided by customers.
Kalscheur Murphy says Dreamfarm sells out of its eggs every Saturday at the Westside Community Market at the Hill Farms State Office Building. At $5.25 a dozen, she has contemplated raising the price. “Chickens are not moneymakers,” she notes, “and there’s very little markup.” Last year, she sold 3,195 dozen eggs between March 20 and Dec. 31.