Ruling the Roost

It seems that large numbers of people decided this year that raising chickens in their backyards was a way to lessen the blow of an economic recession (highly debatable).  The result of this unexpected demand was that our new flock of fowl was delayed by nearly two months.

We had ordered chicks, and it’s hard to argue that there will ever been a more exciting package waiting for you at the post office than one that is “chirping”.

But raising chicks is a much more time-consuming endeavor than just ordering pullets (what young hens are called prior to laying their first egg).  The chicks will have to mature for at least 18 weeks before they are at laying stage.

In order to mature, chickens need the appropriate amount of light, and ushering chickens to puberty can take longer as the days get shorter and let’s face it, what bird in her right mind would want to lay an egg and bring a new chick into the world when the temperature outside is 4 degrees. (Chickens are not as dumb as people make them out to be.  They have evolution on their side!)

Had all gone according to plan, the new chicks would have arrived at the end of Spring and started laying by Autumn, but alas, here we are in the dead of winter getting only one egg per day.  With 20 chickens, no way is everyone pulling their own weight.

To make matters worse, the chickens have not yet learned that we built the roosts specifically for comfortable laying, so we are finding eggs in all corners of the chicken yard (the flip side of this is that you get to start every day with an Easter  Egg Hunt)

A week's haul

We’ve placed plastic eggs in the roosts hoping that the chickens’ natural instincts will take over and they’ll learn to make these attractive little cubbies their own.

Incrediblie inedible eggs

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    • By: Mary Palumbo-Lightenfield

      we have 47 hens they used to lay 30 some eggs a day now 11 or 12 if that why? we keep a light on in the coop comes on 4 am for more day time.

  • By: Amy

    How do you guys clean your eggs? I've read several books, including Gail Damerow's book, that say to just dry clean them with some light sandpaper or the rough side of a sponge. Then I made the mistake of googling it and read that some people wash them and then dip them in a bleach solution. These people swear that dry cleaning leads to certain and untimely death by parasite. Any thoughts?

    • By: Dr. Brent

      we just wipe ours off with a little of soap and water on a dishtowel

  • By: john

    Hooray – our first eggs! Five khaki beauties. How do you go from no eggs one day to five eggs the next day? Did they all line up and lay one each – in exactly the same colour? Can one chicken lay five eggs in a day? My money is on Elizabeth Taylor – the Lavender Auracana. What fun. John from Australia signing off…

  • By: john

    Pete and I moved onto a small farm outside Melbourne Australia just in time for Christmas 2009. In March 2011 we bought our first flock of pullets.

    The plan was to buy three Aruacanas (for their blue eggs!) but of course the breeder had other pretty breeds on site and we came home with 4 Aruacanas, 1 Silver Spangled Hamburg, 1 Light Sussex Bantam, 1 Light Barred Plymouth Rock, and 1 Speckled Sussex (try saying all of that after a few glasses of punch). And so far – not an egg in sight. Haha. We really dont care 'cause they are so much fun. And of course they all have names-

    Joan and Jacqui Collins – The bitchy pecky sisters. Jacqui now renamed Jack – turns out he's a rooster)

    Lena Horne – the black Auracana and the looker of the flock. She is the pioneer – first to try everything.

    Lady GaGa – she is bow legged and runs like a bird posessed.

    QE2 – has ruled the roost since day one. And she is the smallest.

    Savannah – the Plymouth Rock. The lady with the dirty face. Like your gorgeous southern city

    Elizabeth Taylor – had some health struggles but now a lavender beauty

    Sister Wendy – the dainty little bantam. Smart too.

    I'll let you know if we EVER see an egg

    Cheers, John

  • By: Steve

    I have been raising chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats for 18 years. Chickens need 14 hours of light to keep laying. I have a 14 watt CFL in my coop and my Rhode Island hens have been laying thoughout the winter. I do replace my hens each years with new day old chicks. Once they start to lay I give away the older hens. The turkeys I have raised for Thanksgiving are Giant Whites. I get them day old from the local Agway store in late June. Several years I have had toms that have weighed in at 46 lbs. live weight and 38 lbs dressed. Each year my wife and friends of ours travel to Cooperstown for a long weekend in November to just get away. We missed you guys last year but did get to shop at your store. I hope maybe we can bump into to you this year.

    Steve

  • By: Jill

    When my girls are molting I give them a little cat food each day. The protein boost helps them regrow feathers and you may still get a few eggs.

    When I check their nests each day, I always ask them if they paid their taxes (laid an egg). Keeps it from being a chore! Everyone is right, chickens are fun.

  • By: Laura Good

    I have raised chickens all my life and still do.As far as being afraid of roosters you should not be just as dogs sence fear from humans so do roosters if you are scared they will seek you out.If you take a pair of small rose pruning tool and cut their spurs (think of them as a long pointy fingernails)if they do try to spurr you there will be nothing there to penatrate, and this does not hurt the rooster only his pride.Some times laying hens can get a form of mites that go up inside the shoot that eggs come out of to prevent this because it will make them stop laying almost immidiatly powder birds hens and roosters with mite and lice powder and also powder any laying boxes.If the problem continues you may need to go to your local farm supply store and get some poultry antibiotics witch I have had great succes with clearing it up in the past with.Last if there is any birds that seem very aggresive they can peek the blood out of their own feet and legs as well as seek out others to peek at these birds have a protien difficancy and can be fixed immediatly by giving the aggresive bird cat food the birds like the tast and it stops the cannabolisum fast.

  • By: Restoration Farm

    Have you ever had trouble getting your chickens laying again after they molt? Our remedy is a little cayenne pepper mixed in some cornmeal.

    Also, has anyone ever heard of this: When the one, very domineering rooster of a flock finally died, a few of the other birds previously assumed to be hens, suddenly developed rooster features and became roosters….as if the tyranny of the old rooster had kept their gender in hiding until it became "safe" for them to at last be who they really were. This happened on a friend of mine's farm, and thought it was very strange and interesting, wondered if anything like it has been witnessed by anyone else??

    My family is very much enjoying your show and seeing others learn many of the same things we have the past few years since making a very similar transition. Thank you for sharing with us!

    • By: Thomas Judy

      It is not uncommon for chickens to be both male and female. A hen will take over as rooster. Can not fertilize eggs though. but a hen can impregnate herself and hatch her eggs. I had one who had 7 chicks of every size and color.

  • By: Constance Plank

    I live in the country and have free range hens. Out here, our surprise roosters get put in cat carriers and taken to the local feed and grain, where they are sold for a rousing $2 to someone who wants a rooster.

    When my hens became broody, I turned around and bought them one.

    I agree about needing to supplement light in the winter, and to supplement greens. Our hens are given a lot of table scraps in addition to their lay pellets. You can also crunch up their eggs shells and add it back in for extra calcium. A sign of too much calcium in the diet is if the eggshell becomes thickened and wavy.

    I love Welsumers. They are friendly hens, with lovely terracotta eggs. I also have Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Auricaunas, and a Sunshine. A really fun looking chicken is the Silver Lace Polish. The roosters have long dreads of feathers dangling from their heads, the hens have ruffs of black and silver feathers on their hens. I also like the Giant Blue Cochins, just because they are so puffy. Their legs have bloomers of feathers.

    We sell the fresh eggs for $3 a box, and it pretty much covers the cost of the chicken chow. You can also take extra fresh eggs, beat them together and freeze in zip lock bags for later use.

    Cheers,

    Constance

  • By: Teresa McCorkle

    I have 25 hens no roosters 10 of them are Welsummer

    they were born July 19 2010 just started laying good, my ? is a few of the Welsummer's back feathers are coming out they don't fight you can tell that their not pecked by other hen. Any reason what the problem is?

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Hi, Teresa

      It sounds as if they are molting. This is normal and new feathers will grow. It can make the chickens look a bit sickly, we know

  • By: baaaaaadgurl

    hi dr. brent,

    i've been trying to decide which heritage breed (love all the heritage stuff, btw) of your turkeys. are they kentucky bourbons? kiss polkie & josh for me (you decide in which order).

    ellen in nc

  • By: baaaaaadgurl

    i have a wonderful memory of something my mother told me when i was a kid (we lost her last year). she said you could always tell which chickens had laid eggs by their singing. she said they were pleased with themselves, & have a special cluck. it's true. i love to hear their little announcements full of pride.

  • By: Kris from northwest

    Oooooo, not 'cedar'…….but 'pine' shavings.

    I believe cedar is toxic to chickens…(?)

    (I think)

    Just sayin'……..

    Cheers!

  • By: Kris from northwest

    Josh & Brent….Ive kept a small flock of chickens for a few years now; whatever took me so long to actually get chickens? I haven't a clue! So much fun, and so rewarding! I love my girls!! One of the best pieces of advice I got about coop 'maintenance' was to put a 'droppings board' under the roosts (where the girls sleep at night, and do about 50% or more of their, um, "pooping"!) Then putting dust-free

    pine shavings on the droppings board, and mixing in some FOOD-GRADE diatamatious earth. The DE drys the dropping out, and totally prevents any odors! Each morning I use a kitty litter scoop to remove the dried poo, and my coop has absolutely NO ODOR what-so-ever! Fill the feeders, fill the waterers, scoop the poo…..5 minutes….TOPS, and done! Brilliant! (Lots of info on using DE on BackYardChickens.com)

    p.s. Love the show & you guys sooooooooooooo much! Best show on TV!

    But an hour-long show would be even better!

    Happy Autumn….hope you both stay snuggly warm by the fire, and safe and sound til we see you again next year on PLG!

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Thanks for the great tips, Kris, You know I love cedar shavings

  • By: Connie Wedding

    Your comment about getting to start every day with an Easter egg hunt cracked me up! (No pun intended.) Not only will you soon be having tons of eggs, but think of all that great fertilizer! And if you let them roam in the gardens, they will take care of all the bad bugs on your veggies and flowers, plus they improve the soil with their feet as they walk, and with their beaks as they peck around on the ground, and they will poop on the ground, giving you free fertilizer! What more could a fabulous farmer ask for??? They will even give you meat, and their feathers can stuff a variety of things, but I hope you keep them all around. It is relaxing just to sit and watch them walk around doing their thing in the garden, knowing they are hard at work for you. (Heck, it's relaxing just to SIT!….not that you two would know what that is like.) So stop and smell the chickens once in awhile! Or is that roses??…..

  • By: Lisa

    My husband and I bought an 1880s farmhouse 9 years ago just outside of Binghamton, NY. (Not too far from you!) I had never farmed in my life, but it has been one of the most rewarding, joyous, humbling experiences of my life. We had a goat named "Elvis", a duck that was hatched by a hen and thought he was a chicken, an escaped calf who snuck up behind some road workers and runaway pigs. We also have dogs and cats and horses.

    I am always in awe of the beauty of the horses in the pasture on a foggy morning. I get excited with every chick that hatches. I am so proud of the mamma hen that watches over her chicks. With all the hard work comes rewards beyond description. You guys are great! Best wished on your farm and enjoy all the adventures you will have!

  • By: Aimee

    You guys should visit backyardchickens.com There is a great education forum there and they also have a sister site called backyardherds.com Lots to learn on both. When our family decided to acquire a flock of chickens we stumbled across it. There are folks there who can show you how to feed organic as well – great people! And backyardherds has goat infor for both meat goats and dairy goats too! 🙂

    http://www.backyardchickens.com/

  • By: RainLily

    Have any Welsummers? Gorgeous birds, especially the roos, and they lay beautiful dark brown/terracotta colored eggs. I have (hatchery) Marans too, but my Wellies lay darker.

    I didn't write this article but I allowed them to use a photo of eggs from my girls. http://www.examiner.com/x-9873-Kansas-City-Urban-

    …I think I need goats now. 😉

  • By: Kate

    Love you guys – love the chickens! I love your blue egg layers! My Ameraucanas are the friendliest of my flock and they're great mommies. I've decided that you need to incorporate a couple Olive Eggers (Marans crossed with Ameraucanas) so you get an even more diverse egg basket. Wow, way to boss you guys around, eh? 🙂

    A great website for EVERYTHING chicken is http://www.backyardchickens.com…I think they've seen it all. Gosh, you'd think I was working sales for them or something.

    Seriously, you guys are awesome and I am really impressed.

  • By: K Reese

    For winter we used to supplement our chicken feed with oats. It gave them extra calories for warmth, kept their weight up, and we had good luck with the egg production staying up fairly well. You may want to try it to see how it works for you. Love your show. I will never eat a dollar hamburger again after your great comment. We don't need to cheapen their lives like that for sure.

  • By: Denise

    After raising chickens for over 10 years now in a conventional henhouse, using a light and small heater in our cold, PA winters, my husband made the executive decision to research a different design. We lost several hens over this last winter and our 3 foot snowstorm caused lots of major damage. We are now in the process of building a new coop in accordance with the Woods Open Air Design, developed in the late 1800's. I know I will be worried sick, come December, that my hens will freeze to death, but it is purported to be much healthier overall for the hens. We will have to make sure the water doesn't freeze. This should be interesting…….:)

  • By: hondashadowgrl

    I had 4 hen RI Red pullets for my yard. They kept it pest free and gave me eggs every day except for one. She laid a double yolk egg every other day. Since they were raised on my dining room table in an aquarium they thought they were people. They would lay eggs on my pillows. They were house trained and never had accidents inside. They would go on walks with me and sit on my lap while I was watching TV. I miss them but my neighbor called animal control so I gave them to an educational farm. I hope to someday have 1-2 hens again!

  • By: Meredith Lawler

    Please excuse the beginner’s question here….but I’m going to ask anyway as the only answer I’ve ever received is, “You’ll know” which isn’t very helpful. Totally new to chickens. Bought 20 peeps from Southern States in June and am only interested in fresh eggs, not baby chickens. I don’t want a rooster! Soooo…..how do I know if I have a rooster? When will I know? Please feel free to laugh or roll your eyes if necessary–I’ll never know. 🙂 But I’m a little freaked out about having a rooster.

  • By: Countervail

    Meredith good luck with your new brood!

    To answer your question though, there are a few early signs to look for. If you have a type of chicken with a regular comb, the boys' tend to grow faster. In general cockerels (young male chickens) tend to put on weight quicker than hens but it's not always evident. You will definitely see a difference between the hens and roosters, even in varieties where the differences are less pronounced. But you can't mistake them…eventually. Even when you do get a rooster, it takes about a month for the eggs to be developed to hatch. Gather them regularly and no worries. Some people even thing having a rooster keeps the hens feeling frisky enough to lay better.

  • By: Countervail

    Ah, Dr. Brent what you missed from not being in 4-H or FFA. Maybe that could be an arc of season two. You could be club leaders for a local 4-H group. There are all sorts of projects there from raising animals, crafts, clothing, food, creative arts…

    P.S. not to sound cruel but a few well placed defensive kicks will make your rooster think twice before being aggressive with you again. Who I'd really watch out for though are the pigs.

  • By: Rose

    Georgina,

    Sorry to hear about your rooster attack, but you say not to turn your back on them, yet you were hit in the face in the event. I'm thinking turning your back may be safer since you won't lose an eye that way!

    I am extremely lucky as my roosters have all been wonderful! Never nasty and can be held…well, my last boy was able to be held.

    Hector was wonderful and we just lost him this past spring after about 9 years, but our other rooster – Buddy BonJovi is what we often call a 'girly rooster' and pretty much stayed out of the way of Hector…and would run screaming from him and NEVER, EVER fought with him.

    However, I grew up with a gigantic Rhode Island Red roo that used to attack me when I was a kid. I had to carry a broom into the henhouse with me when gathering eggs or lock him outside just to be safe!

  • By: Georgina

    For those who keep a rooster in with the hens, never turn your back on him. Last year I went down to the coop to collect the eggs, we had two roosters Bob and Tom. Bob was the aggressive one, Tom did not come out as the rooster until later in his life. Anyway we had a couple of hens who like to lay their egg in a corner. I bent down to pick up and egg when out of nowhere it felt like someone hit me with a two by four. I had been flogged by Tom, I went running up to the house where my son was, he said don't look at it mom it's bad, well I had to see if I needed stitches, indeed I did, 9 stitches just over my left eye through my eyebrow, one of his toes went into the corner of my eye. I was so lucky that I didn't loose my eye or have anydamage to my cornea. What a story to tell my grandkids and everyone else. I had to call in sick to work that day, you can imagine the jokes that were made. People could not believe that 1st of all I kept chickens and second that a rooster did that to me. My kitchen is decorated in roosters-Ha, kinda creepy after it was all over. So word is never let your guard down around the rooster.

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Yes. We've had a few rooster run-ins of our own. Farming is dangerous

  • By: Crissy

    My family and I have had chickens for over a year now. Raised the first batch of five up from chicks in a homemade brooder. One of my girls went broody this spring so we put some fertilized eggs under her and low and behold we had baby chicks 21 days later. She's been a great mom and it's been much easier letting her raise them!

    A quick note on winter light…we used christmas lights..the ones that are encased in the plastic tub and it worked wonders and didn't raise our electric bill through the roof.

    I have yet to find a downfall in raising and keeping chickens. They are wonderful,easy to care for and quite entertaining!

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Love the christmas light idea! Nothing is more fun than going out and collecting eggs in the morning for breakfast

  • By: Eloise Twining

    I grew up with a farm flock of chickens. When I was 11 we moved and my folks built a beautiful hen house with "roll away" nests. The nest box featured a mesh floor, so any droppings fell through to a sliding tray below. Easy to clean. The mesh was slanted at a 15+ degree slope back, extending almost a foot past the nest box to a collection area outside. At the rear of the nest box a horizontal board allowed eggs to roll under it, but didn't allow chickens to pursue them. Outside the hen house a flip up lid allowed eggs to be collected by humans without disturbing nesting hens.

    The roll-away design worked really well for us in reasonably warm California. I think in your cold climate you might want to use something like easily replaced cardboard in the bottom of the nest boxes in the winter! Most of our hens loved the nests.

  • By: Timm Zitz

    You are so correct ! I raised Poultry for decades but moved back to the Big City- Dallas- alas! This spring we had a "Peep at the coops" that promoted Back Yard chicken tours in East Dallas- they were overwhelmed at the response from the community! The Coops were fantastic to boot !

  • By: Ali

    Oh, but how I wish I understood what can possibly be "debatable" about people caring for hens and "growing" their own eggs!

    Perhaps the poor economy sparked the big egg boom recently, but I can't see how it's anything but wonderful. It makes a healthy food option more readily available to people who might have no longer had eggs in their weekly budget. And, most importantly (in my mind), it cuts down on the demand for commercial egg factories who treat their laying hens like prisoners of war.

    Sheesh… I can't see any controversy in that.

  • By: peg nocciolino

    Hello!

    Thanks for your post! My daughter sent me Darina Allen's new cookbook, "The Forgotten Skills of Cooking: Time Honored Ways are the Best." The NYT has called her the Julia Child of Ireland! There is a great chapter about "Keeping Hens". Really informative..things I would never have thought of…like how to protect the hens while they are free-ranging….food storage and housing.

    Thanks for your inspiring blog!

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Thanks for the new reading suggestion! The "Julia Child of Ireland" is quite a title to live up to!!

  • By: Deb Romano

    My husband and I also live in Beekman, and have decided to raise some chickens this year, and Im glad to have found this site , hopefully the advice will be helpful…

  • By: Patia

    I can't wait for Martha's chicken show tomorrow!

    (BTW, she said eggs are selling for $15 a dozen at the NYC farmer's market. Crazy!)

  • By: Countervail

    That is hilarious about the "surprise roosters!" It's pretty common though, the hatcheries are horrible at sexing usually. Accounts for some of the poor early laying. Ugh, wait until they start fighting though. Watch out for the spurs!

    And neighbors love fresh eggs. As do relatives, your minister, your doctor, your dentist, ad nauseum. You'll get very good with recipes that require a lot of meringue.

    Good luck!

    • By: Dr. Brent

      That is gorgeous. You always come up with the most amazing ideas. We have more eggs than we know what to do with. (We also have 3 surprise roosters)

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Hi, Countervail

      You know we believe that there's always room for a little decorative flourish. This design is beautiful. I'm getting all sorts of ideas now (Farmer John: beware!)

  • By: Countervail

    Eggscellent news! (I couldn't resist) 🙂

    7 eggs from 12 young hens isn't bad at all. You can probably count on 70-80% production regularly from hens that aren't specifically layers.

    Keep the news and pictures coming! Have you thought about a feature showing different breeds for small farm/suburban living?

  • By: Farmer John

    The eggs are coming! The girls have started laying finally. A couple have started to use the nests after I added just a little bit of hay(thanks countervail) a few still use the floor. We got 7 from the 12 hens on Sunday. They must have needed a little more time.

    Farmer John

  • By: Patia

    Oh, is that what they look like? I always hear Martha talking about them. The eggs are lovely.

  • By: Patia

    What kind of chickens are those? I recently bought a CSA from a farm that has cold-hardy heritage breeds like Dominiques and Wyandottes. They are laying like crazy in the cold of a Montana winter!

  • By: Rose Strong

    Hi Josh and Dr. Brent…

    I've had chickens for a few years and this year my order was also backed up a bit, but our pullets arrived in late May.

    I have a new flock that consists of Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Brahmas and Ameracaunas. And my older silkies and bantams that have stopped laying, but are pets and I can't cull them. They'll live out a nice life here.

    We have a large waterer and have a heat lamp over top of it to keep it from freezing here in PA. The light works wonders!

    I was getting a nice amount of eggs before the light went on and then in the New Year, decided to start recording the numbers each day. As of today, we have received 95 eggs from about 7-9 of the hens.

    The Americaunas have not yet laid eggs…they are supposed to be green, but so far only brown have come each day. I think the light makes a world of difference.

    We also supplement with some greens such as old lettuce that has turned rust colored or limp before we can eat it or a head of cabbage for them to peck on. I think it is a great treat, but also gives them nutrients they don't get with bugs and grasses in the other seasons.

    Good luck…Oh, and I've used old kitty litter boxes with lids for my laying boxes. Picked up for a couple bucks at yard sales, the girls love them and saves on building much. We have wooden boxes, but they just don't want to use them…they like being on the floor for some reason, so the litter boxes are on the floor and they are happy girls.

    • By: Dr. Brent

      More brilliant ideas, Rose! Thank you! We've been keeping the light on, but perhaps we need to invest in a sun lamp

  • By: countervail

    Oops, I see one correction to what I posted earlier. It's 1 box per every four hens, not per hen. That would be a lot of boxes. 🙂

  • By: countervail

    Guys, I'm looking forward to your show in the summer. Good luck with that. I grew up in the country and ever since moving to NYC 10 years ago wish for a little place in the country to escape to.

    But why I write is to offer some advice on your little chickies since I raised poultry as a youngster in 4-H winning several county awards.

    First, daylight is an issue in the winter for laying. If you can outfit your coop with some artificial light to extend the day might help. CFL bulbs would be economical and you could get a solar powered rig as well so no need for wiring. Too cold may be a problem as well. Try some infrared bulbs for that but try not to restrict ventilation.

    Increase their regular feed with more grains or even wet mash. And have lots a fresh water nearby as they won't travel far for water or food.

    I hope you have provided some oyster shell in addition to their regular food. Helps the eggshell's strength.

    Also, they won't lay if they're stressed or disturbed too much. You need to give them some space and make sure the nest site is fairly undisturbed. My girls always laid in mid-morning so I would say feed them early and then leave them alone until the afternoon.

    Also, do you have enough boxes per hen? It's usually about 1 box per hen and they should be about one foot square minimum, enclosed except for the opening which should have a lip to hold in the nesting material, usually elevated above the floor. They always seem to choose a favorite in any case and you may end up with several eggs all in one box and none in the other.

    Also, consider trying a different nesting material in the boxes like straw instead of the wood shavings. Maybe even throw a little grain or corn in the boxes to encourage their interest until they start to use them regularly. Make it more inviting than the floor

    It looks like you have Ameraucanas and I see noted on another site someone mentioning the black and blue varieties are consider to be the better layers. You may be out of luck there. My flocks never really seemed to produce to full capacity until at least a full year though, but you may have to cull the non-laying hens if production is a priority.

    For others out there, my favorite breed were my pretty bantam Cochins, showy with their little puffball rumps and feathered legs but so sweet. They were always good layers and are considered excellent parents. Regular cochins are one of the largest breeds and the bantams end up being almost normal size. The eggs a little smaller than normal but I always had luck with them and the blues are particularly pretty.

    Good luck with the egg laying! I hope you'll post regular articles about the chickens.

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Wow! Thanks for all the great information! I swear, we could never be farmers without the help of the internet!

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