September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Unlike the ancient chicken-or-egg question, there's no doubt as to which came first on the Ihms' Grant County Farm. It was the Holsteins, back in 1970. By contrast, the first layers arrived half a dozen years ago.
Several years ago, Raymond Ihm and other farmers set up a National Farmers Organization (NFO) livestock collection point on the farm, said John Ihm, one of Raymond's sons. The building stood empty a few years, but in 2002, when the Ihms began the process of organic certification for the dairy farm, they looked at the barn with renewed interest.
After a bit of remodeling and adding an office, the 125-by-60-foot building received its first flock of laying hens and the Ihms began selling eggs to Organic Valley in 2007.
The laying hen enterprise has gone well. In fact, the Ihms were given the Midwest region award of "eggcelence" at Organic Valley's annual meeting on April 11. The honor acknowledges such factors as shell quality, yolk color (dark yellow or orange is preferred), and egg cleanliness.
To keep the 85-cow Holstein herd and the hens separate, the Ihms set up two limited-liability corporations - Ihm Organic View Farms and Scenic View Organic Eggs. Several family members are involved in both companies. There's Raymond and his wife, Sheri; their son, John, and his wife, Deb, and Joe, another son, and his wife, Kelly.
Holsteins and hens are working well for the family.
"This was one way we could diversify and bring in our two boys, with the extra income," Sheri said.
Joe is a lineman for Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative and John works full-time on the farm. John said the cows provide the bulk of the income, with the laying hens bringing in about the same money as 50 cows would.
The cows are averaging about 17,500 pounds of milk each, at 4 percent butterfat and 3.5 percent protein. Last year, the Ihms received an average price of approximately $32 per hundredweight for their milk, according to John.
As for the hens, John said each one does not lay daily, but he figured 90 percent of them send an egg onto the conveyor belt beneath the nest boxes any given day. That works out to some 3,200 eggs per day, or 266.6 dozen. Over the course of the hens' stay at the Ihm farm, they produce 1.04 million eggs, or about 86,666 dozen.
John said the family is paid an average of $2 a dozen, and they can make money at that price. But, said John, "It takes growing most of your own feed to make a good living from it."
The Ihms grow alfalfa, corn, wheat, barley and oats. The dairy LLC owns 360 acres and rents 240. The second LLC buys feed from the dairy to supply the chickens.
As with milk, there are incentives. Organic Valley prefers eggs weighing 1.5 to 3 ounces and deducts for those any smaller or bigger.
The hens offer a flexible work schedule that the cows don't. Feeding and watering of the chickens is pretty much all automated. And eggs can be sorted each day whenever time allows.
"It doesn't have to be at the same time every day and it doesn't have to be done twice a day," John said. "You can do it once a day if you want."
After sorting awhile, the task becomes second nature, with eggs evaluated by sight and feel. "After you get your chickens, you start to know," said Sheri.
The Ihms choose to sort eggs twice a day. Raymond and Sheri work the sorting room mornings, while Kelly and Joe take the evening shift.
Sorted eggs are placed in flats. Full flats go onto wheeled carts that are rolled into a walk-in cooler. A cart holds 5,400 eggs, and the hens usually fill three to four carts per day.
Once a week, the Organic Valley truck backs up to the cooler and hauls the eggs away so they can be washed and cartoned for retail sale. John said Scenic View Organic Eggs end up in stores throughout southwest Wisconsin. Part of the appeal of these eggs is that they are produced in the region and therefore fit into the "local" eating philosophy.
Come early April, the Ihms' chicken work changes. That's when the hens leave and the building is cleaned, pressure washed, disinfected and allowed to stand empty two weeks.
"Salmonella is the big scare right now," John said. "But there's also coccidiosis. The list could go on and on."
The Ihms said they have not had any disease problems with their hens. They're conscientious about biosecurity, limiting visitors to the office area and egg sorting room. The hens can be observed through windows.
After the obligatory cleaning, a new batch of 18-week-old Hyline Brown hens arrives on May 15 and the yearly cycle starts all over again. As their name suggests, these reddish-brown hens lay brown eggs that are thought by some folks to be more nutritious than white eggs.
Old chicken litter is spread on the family's alfalfa and cornfields. Lower-yielding fields are targeted.
Cleaning the henhouse sometimes conflicts a bit with spring fieldwork. But, said John, "It works out pretty good. We're maybe going to try to tighten the schedule. We've done some number crunching and we're losing out on about two weeks of (egg) income."
Besides not keeping their hens in cages, the Ihms provide access to a fenced area outside that's more than twice the size of the chicken barn. They sow the area to wheat, so a month after new hens arrive, they have lush, green wheat - headed out - to explore and eat. As a bonus, the chickens can catch all the stray bugs they want.
A year-and-a-half ago, the Ihms began tapping the power of the sun for the egg enterprise's electrical needs. Organic Valley helped them get three grants and eight solar panels were installed in December 2011.
The 20-kilowatt system produces about $5,000 worth of electricity a year, according to John. That's enough for the henhouse, with extra sold back to Alliant Energy.
Solar power might one day be a part of the milking parlor the Ihms are building this year. They hope to stop milking in the 40-cow barn this fall and be in a swing-10 parlor instead.
"I'm young and my knees are getting bad. We're trying to look forward to the future and make it easier for me," John said.
The parlor is expected to slash the time spent milking from four-plus hours to well under two. Those two hours are about all the time the hens require each day.
Said John, laughing, "If I put in two hours at the dairy, I'd just be getting started."
Comparing the Holsteins to the hens, John said, "Looking back on it, if I was going to expand the dairy here or add chickens, I'd go with the chickens."
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