Upper Midwest Organic Conference, Feb. 27-Mar. 1

Organic egg production seminar proves popular at upper Midwest Organic Conference
Medium scale organic egg producer Dean Dickel describes his operation and analyzes his costs

By Darcy Maulsby

UMOC Draws Big Crowd
Over 1,400 participants

For some farmers, it’s typical to lament about how hard—but how essential—it is to keep getting bigger and expand to thousands of acres.

But at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference (, more than one person said they want to get smaller.

Many of the producers who attended the conference in LaCrosse, WI, raise row crops, forage, fruits, vegetables and livestock on farms with 700 acres or less. Many had operations ranging from five to 50 acres.

The conference, which ran from Feb. 27 to March 1, featured nearly 50 workshops that attracted almost 1,400 participants. Part of the event included Organic University, where nearly 200 people participated in six-hour intensive seminars on composting, grain and livestock marketing, transitioning to organic production, soil health, organic livestock health and organic market gardening.

Conference leaders say the event was a huge success. “This year’s conference theme, ‘Keeping the Circle Unbroken,’ reflected on the connections between all things in life and in agriculture,” said Faye Jones, executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). “Our workshop presenters have extensive and practical experience, and their generous sharing of hard-earned knowledge lies at the heart of the conference.”

Popular sessions included biological weed control, soil improvement, grain marketing and fruit and vegetable production. Many seminars attracted more than 100 people. Rooms were filled to capacity; people sat on the floor or stood along the walls to hear the presentations.

The conference attracted people of all ages, from families with babies and toddlers to college students to long-time farmers. They came from across the Midwest and beyond, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. While some producers have farmed for years, many others work at an off-farm job and were interested in transitioning into small-scale farming.

At each session, presenters answered a multitude of questions both during and after their presentations. The wealth of practical experience from both the presenters and the participants allowed participants to learn from both the lecturer and each other.

Laying a golden egg: Dean Dickel shares his secrets to a successful organic egg production.
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.

Dickel emphasized that sales and marketing should be any producer’s starting point from which all other egg production activities revolve.

“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 outdoor area.

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,” Dickel said.

"Feed is probably the number one factor affecting egg quality and the cost of production."
—Dean Dickel, organic egg producer

Raising pullets

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 said.

“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,” Dickel said.

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.”

Coming soon:
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.

Available Now:
The basics of biological weed control

To come in the near future:
Week of March 24: Profitability through season extension
Week of March 31: Building soils and maintaining fertility
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 year.”