March 20, 2003: In late February at the Upper
Midwest Organic gathering, Dean Dickel, owner of New Century
Farm in Shullsburg, Wis., showed nearly 60 participants how
to produce and market certified organic eggs. Throughout his
presentation, “In Search of the Golden Oval: Producing
Organic Eggs on a Medium Scale,” audience members asked
questions and shared their own egg production experiences.
a golden egg: Dean Dickel shares his secrets
to a successful organic egg production.
Dickel emphasized that sales and marketing should be any
producer’s starting point from which all other egg production
“It doesn’t matter if you can produce 25 dozen
eggs per hen or your feed costs are well below average, unless
you have a solid base of customers to provide a consistent
outlet for those eggs. We started with just a handful of customers
and have slowly built up to more than 20 stores and restaurants.”
Dickel manages the operation with his wife, Mary, and two
children, Megan and Ben. “One reason we chose organic
production was that we wanted to make the farm a safe, health
place for our kids. We all play a role in the operation and
consider it an integrated system,” he said.
Setting up the system
The Dickels’ New Century Farm is a seven-acre operation.
The family converted old hog and dairy barns into poultry
buildings. “In five years, we went from 750 hens to
a minimum of 3,000 hens a year.”
Older hog buildings with slatted without slatted floors and
many pole buildings can be used for poultry production, Dickel
said. “We figure one and a half to two square feet of
building space for each laying hen.”
The Dickels’ poultry barns are insulated and equipped
with LP gas heaters to maintain a minimum 50-degree temperature
in the coldest weather. For every 750 hens, they use one 12-inch
fan that runs on a percentage timer to provide minimum winter
ventilation. In the summer, ventilation comes from open windows
and doors. Hens also get five to 10 square feet of fenced
The Dickels use conventional 10-hole nests bedded with wood
shavings. They hand gather the eggs once a day, usually in
late afternoon. “The nests cost under $100. You can
use rollaway nests, but they are two to three times the cost.
We use the conventional nests, because they are cheap and
are easy to install in houses with unusual dimensions,”
||"Feed is probably the number
one factor affecting egg quality and the cost of production."
—Dean Dickel, organic egg producer
Should you buy pullets or grow your own? You can grow your
own pullets from day-old chicks for about $3.10 a piece, Dickel
“Current ready-to-lay prices run a little over $5 each.
We believe our home-raised pullets develop better immunity
to diseases specific to our farm. Purchased pullets have generally
been vaccinated for a broad range of diseases and work well
in an all-in, all-out production system,” he said.
Dickel doesn’t recommend keeping vaccinated and unvaccinated
birds on the farm at the same time. He said his family vaccinates
pullets for coccidiosis only.
There is somewhat of a learning curve to growing pullets,
Dickel added. “If you fail to follow feeding and lighting
regimes closely, you can quickly offset any cost advantage
due to lower production in the laying cycle. In fact, feed
is probably the number one factor affecting egg quality and
the cost of production.”
The Dickels follow the breeder’s recommendations for
their specific strain of layers. Rations are balanced for
protein, energy, vitamins, minerals and methionine content.
(The Dickels are raising Bovans Brown layers but are not happy
with the results and are trying a black sex link.)
“We’ve been mixing our own rations on the farm
from the start, mostly because we’re a long way from
sources of complete organic poultry feed. We’ve generally
had good luck making our own feed and feel we can save $50
to $100 a ton over the cost of complete rations.”
The disadvantages of this system include investments in grain
storage and a mill, along with the time spent sourcing grain
and mixing feed. The Dickels have enough storage capacity
for nearly a year’s supply of grain.
“Whole roasted soybeans, corn and small grains are
mostly purchased direct from local growers. We add a custom-made
vitamin premix from Vita-Plus of Madison and Organic PYK (probiotic,
yeast kelp) from Midwestern Bio-Ag of Blue Mounds. We purchase
calcium in the form of limestone chips from a local feed mill,”
Understanding the costs
The Dickels have an on-farm egg processing facility. Using
a home computer, they make their own barcodes and product
labels for their egg cartons.
||"It doesn’t matter if you
can produce 25 dozen eggs per hen or your feed costs are
well below average, unless you have a solid base of customers
to provide a consistent outlet for those eggs."
“Setting up a processing facility like this requires
substantial investments in both time and money. Even small
egg-washing machines will run $5,000 to $20,000. A cooler
will run from $2,000 to $10,000. There’s also the cost
of retrofitting an existing building or building new to meet
food processing codes,” Dickel said.
The egg room needs to be easily washable and must have a
source of hot water and a drain. If you plan to hire help,
some states also require a bathroom and septic.
“One alternative would be to contract with an egg-processing
plant to pack your eggs. Cost and distance could be prohibitive,
though,” Dickel said.
You’ll also need a refrigerated truck or van to make
deliveries, and this can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000.
“All this means that for even a very moderate sized
egg operation, this adds up to an investment of $12,000 to
$80,000,” Dickel said. “And you’ll have
to add the cost of cartons, boxes, UPC codes, labels, licenses
and extra certification fees to come up with a breakeven wholesale
price. We figure our out-of-pocket cost to pack and deliver
eggs at 60 cents to 75 cents per dozen.”
More insight from UMOC
Darcy Maulsby attended a variety of workshops
at the Upper Midwest Organic Conference, and will
be reporting back to New Farm™ readers what
she learned during the next several weeks.
basics of biological weed control
To come in the near future:
• Week of
March 24: Profitability through
• Week of
March 31: Building soils and maintaining
• Week of
April 6: Organic grain marketing
options, plus a little on producing top quality
food grade beans and grain.
Analyzing the bottom line
To stay profitable and competitive, Dickel said he and his
family want to achieve the highest possible egg production
and the lowest possible price. This isn’t always as
easy as it sounds.
“Being in charge of your own marketing won’t
offset substandard efficiency on the production side. We figure
our production costs at about $18.15 per hen per year. Our
egg production per hen per year is about 22 dozen for a per-dozen
cost of about 82.5 cents.”
Dickel calculated that he could lower costs by about 50 cents
per bird by becoming more energy efficient. “We could
also boost the eggs sold per hen by one to two dozen per year
by installing rollaway nests and reducing the number of cracked
and broken eggs. If we can cut the number of cracked eggs
from 10 percent to 5 percent, this could save us $6,000 a