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
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
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
||"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 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
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.”