Saturday 18 June, 2011
Since it was raining today and Dan's tweaked his back, it seemed a good use of time to sit down and look again at the plans for the orchard. We do try to spend time on planning, so that we make best use of the resources that we have available. We also like to do our research and take expert advice. All this does not, of course, guarantee that everything goes without a hitch but we do try to make our mistakes on paper.
We're intending to use an acre of land for an apple (mainly) orchard and run laying hens underneath. The trees provide a natural habitat for the hens and the hens, in return, keep the grass down, eat insect pests and fertilise the soil. And we get two crops from one area of land. That's the basic plan. Since it's a fairly significant capital investment, with a long lead time to income generation, we're doing a fair bit of planning.
We reckon we've got room for 100 trees and 120 laying hens, running in three flocks of forty birds. Each flock will have its on 1/3 acre, divided into four. The flock will rotate round its own area every 13 weeks, so each 1/4 will be bird free for 39 weeks. This is broadly in line with Soil Association standards for stocking rates. If the grass gets away, we'll stick a few sheep in to mow it down.
We're also keen to encourage biodiversity and support heritage varieties of apples, as well as generating an income. Today we've been looking at the layout and costing the fencing, both perimeter, to protect trees and hens, and internal, to seperate the three flocks.
One issue that we've found (and that we haven't yet found a solution to) is that of contamination of fruit through contact with poultry faeces. I think there will be a way of managing this through health management of the flock, low stocking densities, pasture rotation. It may mean that any windfalls won't be able to be used for eating, but they should be fine for apple juice or cider, as the pasteurisation of the juice and alcohol in the cider should take care of any skin contamination. We will write a formal risk assessment in time. Meantime, I'm just chasing it around in my head. Seems kind of ironic that you can spray with an incredible chemical cocktail, but chicken shit is a major issue :-(
We plan to sell at the farmgate and via the local Farmers' Market network, once yields are established. A local country winery has indicated that it will take surplus for juice and cider making, although Dan has hinted that he'd like to get a fruit press and have a go at making our own juice and cider. Another enterprise for the list!
We have engaged a recognised authority on all things apple to give us some consultancy time in early July. We'll run the plans past him, make any amendments arising from that then try and find the money to push on.
As well as the fencing materials (Dan and John will do the work themselves), the trees, the stakes and so on, we will need a third hen house next spring plus another 40 day olds to form the third flock, unless we cull the existing flock of layers - they are a mixed bunch in terms of age and breed. We've never culled layers before - they just died of old age or got killed by the fox, so it depends on how hard hearted I become and how poor their egg yield is. We already have a batch of 35 Black Rocks hatched this spring that should start laying mid - late August and two hen houses, so there's no decision to make until next spring.