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On a recent Friday night, I found myself barreling down Earlysville Road to grab a few pizzas for my family. They had all spent the past week getting the farm ready for our inaugural open house. This night, everyone was tired, hungry, and far too exhausted to cook, so off I went into the night for something quick and cheap.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the NPR interview playing on the radio; I was much more interested in the deer lining the sides of the road, waiting to leap out in front of the truck and prolong my errand. But at the point where the road turns from a serpentine tunnel cut through oak and poplar forest to a series of roundabouts near the airport, I heard something that snatched my attention decidedly away from the ubiquitous Whitetails:

40 percent of food in the United States is wasted.

The rest of the interview went on to explain the many reasons why this is the case: from consumers throwing out food that passes the sell-by date, to distributors being encouraged to cram more product into packages than people will actually be able to eat before it spoils, to supermarkets keeping their produce shelves fully stocked right up until closing time – then throwing out most of what doesn’t sell. I bought my pizzas and drove back into the darkness of Earlysville, paying much more attention to the radio than I probably should have at the height of deer season.

Think about that earlier quote for a moment: 40% of the food in the U.S. is simply thrown out. This is an interesting statistic to reconcile with the steady refrain from conventional agriculture: “We need heavy metal, GMO, and factory production if we’re going to feed the world.”  It hardly stands to reason that we need higher agricultural yields if Americans are only eating 60% of the food grown for us.

Over the next couple of days, however, I came to realize that the problem of waste is not limited to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The interview I listened to included a couple of small organic outfits finding themselves, at the end of each growing season, scrambling to figure out what to do with vast amounts of unsold produce. The perishable nature of fruits and veggies makes them difficult to funnel to places like food banks that serve the food-insecure, and it’s economically dangerous for a small producer to give away or even fire-sale their late season inventory. As a result, a lot of the excess produce simply winds up in compost. And while this is certainly better than the food winding up in a landfill, growing annual plants for fertilizer represents a glaring systemic inefficiency in ecological farming rooted in our culture of “more is better.”

The focus of agriculture, even sustainable agriculture, is on increasing yields. Conventional agriculture wants to push yields to record-breaking highs while sustainable agriculture, for all its talk of bucking the system, obsessively sets its sights on achieving yield parity with its industrial counterpart. I have yet to see an article in Acres USA – the flagship publication of sustainable farming – that features innovations in the control of production; every article focuses instead on maximizing production in spite of overwhelming evidence that we’re producing more than enough food.

Perhaps there is a belief that overproduction is benign. After all, to say that it’s better to overproduce than underproduce seems like a logical argument. And that would be the case if we weren’t overproducing by such an extreme margin. It’s one thing to waste 5%, but 40% is another matter entirely. Our desire to maximize production is rife with consequences: food is the primary component of landfills. It’s the raison d’etre of both factory farming (which destroys the environment) and GMO (which destroys seedstock diversity and natural protections against mass starvation). It causes farming to be seen as an enterprise requiring large amounts of land and the equipment to manage it – and the money to procure both – thereby discouraging new and innovative farmers from entering the field.

Finally, the massive overproduction of food ultimately threatens the sustainability movement itself. The ecologically-detached science that fuels conventional agriculture produces yields that, ultimately, ecological methods simply can’t match. Add to that the fact that only 60% of our existing yields are necessary anyway, and we soon find sustainable agriculture being outclassed by an opponent in a game that no one is watching.

Focusing on Production Control

Back in July, I found myself mesmerized by Joel Salatin’s talk about buyers clubs. His idea of shunning farmers markets and CSAs was, to me, both revolutionary and liberating; before that talk, setting up a farmers market stand and offering CSA shares seemed as de rigueur for small farmers as sporting a woolly beard and straw hat. I’ll admit to chafing at the idea of “joining the club” of pastoral agrarians funneling natural foods to upper income folks in exclusive rustic-chic downtown markets. Among Sylvanaqua’s three core values is this: “Inclusion: Absolutely everyone deserves to be healthy and happy.”

I came to Earlysville to help democratize the natural food movement, so to see that alternative marketing methods were viable was very encouraging. Buyers clubs looked like a magic bullet that lowers consumer costs while keeping a greater share of the food dollar in the farmer’s pocket through control of all three of the food business’ major facets: production, marketing, and distribution. In simpler terms, it seemed key to making a decent living as a farmer. At the time, however, I didn’t realize that saying “no” to the traditional market concept would provide a vital precedent to fixing the biggest problem with the sustainability movement: production control.

One of the great things about buyers clubs, especially for the production of meat, is their effectiveness in establishing production targets. Once you’ve established a good corps of clubs, you can reasonably estimate how much you’ll need to produce. A little overproduction is necessary to ensure that orders can be filled, but if you can keep it to 10% or less, that amount is easily absorbed by on-farm sales, impulse purchases from club members, and personal consumption.

This model is a little tricky for fruit and veggie production because unit control isn’t so easy. In full disclosure, our farm isn’t heavy in the produce business because our mantra is that end consumers should grow as much of their own veggies as possible. However, we can’t ignore the realities of the modern world. Namely, many people simply don’t have the time to tend a garden, and lots of people aren’t blessed with a green thumb. We’re left, then, with a challenge: how do we get people the produce they need, in the amounts they need, without wasting it, and in a way that’s economical for both farmer and consumer?

Sylvanaqua Farms is piloting a concept we call MyFarm, which boils down to a commercialized community garden. Customers “buy” a set of garden beds by putting down a deposit and selecting from a list of plant sets they want grown. We grow the selections and allow the customer to come in whenever they want and harvest from their own set of beds. What they pick is debited from the deposit until the deposit is exhausted, at which point customers pay as they pick.

With this system, we don’t have to worry about transport spoilage or the risk of throwing out large quantities of unsold produce. The customer has all the abundance and selection of the supermarket, plus the freshness and local ethos of the farmers market. Finally, we can offer extremely competitive prices since we don’t have to factor in costs of picking, washing, storing, transporting, covering spoilage loss, and selling. The only downside is the relatively small number of families we can support, though this number increases when homes grow more of their own produce and require fewer of our beds.

Consumer Driven Agriculture

Agricultural waste ultimately stems from production being driven by suppliers. In conventional and large-scale organic agriculture, farmers produce for commodity markets that erect a firewall between them and the end consumer. The farmers produce high to gross high, with the demand level of end consumers only vaguely reflected in commodity prices before being rendered irrelevant by Federal commodity subsidies. Farmers in smaller scale agriculture are more in touch with end consumer markets and are more efficient, but the primary distribution vehicles – smaller scale wholesaling and farmers markets – still foster an inelastic production chain because it is the producer, rather than the consumer, that initiates production. In both systems, there is no verification that the products being developed are mapped to an actual consumer need.

The term “Consumer Driven Agriculture” (CDA) popped into my head owing to my days as a software engineer, in which we often practiced a concept called Test Driven Development (TDD). In TDD, the programmer writes a test to verify code before the functional code is actually written. If I were writing an “add” function for a calculator program, the first thing I’d write would be a test that plugged 1 and 1 into the add function and checked for a result of 2. The test would initially fail since I haven’t written any code yet. Then I’d write the code to pass the test (or tests), then write another test, code to pass it, and so on until the program is complete.

Applying the concept to agricultural production means verifying that your production units have a buyer (or a very reasonable chance of a buyer) before you actually produce them. This is why buyers clubs and MyFarm are such powerful tools for production control compared to open markets: demand in open markets is nearly impossible to predict.

Buyers club members will usually settle into a pattern of purchases –  3 broilers, 5 dozen eggs, 4 pounds of bacon per month, as an example. From these data we can closely estimate a customer’s seasonal purchases, and since they have such a close relationship with our farm, we can contact them ahead of time to see if they anticipate changes in their purchasing. Perform the same steps for all buyers club members, and now we have our “test” which we will try to pass by matching livestock production to those numbers. In the realm of produce, the MyFarm system puts crops in the ground only when a customer pays us to do so. In both cases, the key to reducing waste and improving efficiency is to insist on a direct consumer demand to initiate production. Hence, Consumer Driven Agriculture.

(Note: If you Google “Consumer Driven Agriculture,” you will find that the term is already being used to describe broad, macro-agricultural shifts in food production being driven by rising, aging, and ethnically diversifying populations. CDA at Sylvanaqua refers, instead, to the specific technique of using concrete customer demand to drive what and how much to produce on an individual farm.)

Challenges for CDA

CDA is hampered by several factors. Chief among them is the fact that the method relies heavily on two things most farmers don’t enjoy: analyzing metrics and high-touch relationship marketing. This isn’t something that would just turn off lifelong farmers either; the growing number of young people trading in their cubicles for pastures may balk at the tedium of data analytics and eliciting/managing the expectations of customers… tasks many were specifically hoping to avoid by starting a farm. The fact is that most farmers just want to grow food and brag about how much they grew.

There is also the fact that creating the data to support effective CDA would take at least two or three seasons to compile into an accurate predictor of production demands. Not only must the producer account for her existing clients, but she must also factor in a growth rate that can only be accurately measured from multiple seasons of data. This may not be much of an issue for seasoned farmers already accustomed to the notion of a program taking several years to bear fruit, often literally.

A market opportunity certainly exists in CDA analytics since practitioners could (in theory) offer farmers increased margins and reduced costs. For the farmer, however, there is a risk in sacrificing that part of the marketing/distribution food dollar. Whether or not this system could be made cost effective outside the farmer’s locus of control would need to be verified.

Challenges aside, CDA promises to improve efficiency in agricultural production by more strongly linking it to consumer demand. Successful implementation would result in manifold benefits very much in line with the true goals of sustainable agriculture:

  • Increase in margins for farmers and reduced costs for consumers
  • Reduction in the size of individual farms, leading to increases conservation areas and reductions in both cropland/pasture conversion and barriers to entry for new farmers
  • Reduction of the environmental impact of food waste
  • A market- and data-driven solution to the destructive “more is better” ethos of industrial agriculture, and a reorientation of the sustainability movement away from industrial goals

Applied correctly, CDA could do for agriculture what Just In Time production did for automobile manufacturing.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

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Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing

———————

How much does it cost to start a farm?

Every now and again I like to fact-check and put numbers behind some of the statements I’ve made in previous blog articles. In one such article, I decided to try and back up the claim that conventional agriculture results in hidden costs by figuring out exactly what those costs were, and I found myself shocked by the results (about $25/week in hidden costs).

This time I’ve decided to fact check another statement I made awhile back about the cost involved with starting a farm. In the article “Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Wait to Start Farming,” I asserted that you could get yourself up and running with a 1,000-bird pastured poultry operation and a small 2,000 sqft market garden for under $20K. Here’s what I’d listed:

Poultry processing equipment and portable shed: $5,500
Poultry feed: $4,000
20′ x 100′ hoophouse/greenhouse: $2,500
Basic tool budget (table saws, leatherman, chainsaw, drill, etc.): $2,000
Misc. expenses (brooder, compost carbon, broiler pens, feeders/waterers, seed, rain capture equipment): $2,000
Poultry Stock: $1,000
20 acres rented pasture: $40/acre/year, $800

This comes out to $15,800. So how does that compare to how much I’ve actually spent (keeping in mind that we’ve included an egg and pork operation)? Well, here’s a table of our expenditures starting from April of this year:

Date Type Description/Source Amount
4/3/2013 Capital Acres USA Seminar $700.00
5/28/2013 Capital Lowes $54.56
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $337.14
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $48.85
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $62.96
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $365.08
6/26/2013 Capital Trailer Hitch $68.68
6/27/2013 Capital Website $37.99
6/29/2013 Capital Books (Amazon) $59.08
6/30/2013 Capital Lowes $80.02
6/30/2013 Capital Website $194.00
7/2/2013 Capital Adv. Auto Parts $7.34
7/8/2013 Capital Utility Trailer $1,500.00
7/29/2013 Capital Farm Equipment (FarmTek) $113.38
7/29/2013 Capital Lowes $27.36
7/29/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $130.49
7/29/2013 Capital Southern States $385.33
7/31/2013 Capital Lowes $185.90
8/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
8/6/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $334.94
8/12/2013 Capital Greenhouse Hoop Bender $129.53
8/12/2013 Capital Lowes $90.85
8/12/2013 Operations Seeds $74.74
8/13/2013 Capital Featherman Equipment $4,675.00
8/13/2013 Capital Southern States $50.46
8/15/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $360.00
8/18/2013 Operations Target $8.94
8/20/2013 Operations Vistaprint $46.97
8/21/2013 Capital FarmTek (Greenhouse, etc.) $639.24
8/23/2013 Capital Home Depot (Greenhouse) $841.59
8/27/2013 Operations Compost Worms $42.90
8/28/2013 Capital Lowes $92.07
8/31/2013 Capital Lowes $73.29
9/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
9/3/2013 Capital Southern States $27.37
9/5/2013 Operations Check Payment (Straw) $54.50
9/6/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Straw) $200.00
9/10/2013 Operations Acres USA Subscription $29.00
9/11/2013 Operations Southern States $9.45
9/12/2013 Operations Southern States $30.00
9/13/2013 Capital Lowes $535.06
9/18/2013 Capital Lowes $55.12
9/18/2013 Operations Southern States $24.63
9/18/2013 Operations Lowes $18.91
9/19/2013 Operations Blankshirts.com (t-shirts) $152.84
9/23/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (llc reinstatement) $225.00
9/24/2013 Operations Constant Contact $255.00
9/27/2013 Operations Fedex (screenprint supplies) $18.94
9/30/2013 Capital Lowes $128.86
10/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
10/1/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $90.00
10/2/2013 Operations Southern States $355.67
10/3/2013 Capital Lowes $207.53
10/4/2013 Operations Southern States $217.59
10/7/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Unkn) $100.00
10/7/2013 Capital Lowes $139.50
10/7/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (name change) $25.00
10/9/2013 Operations Featherman Equipment $366.45
10/10/2013 Capital Cavalier Restaurant Equipment $305.47
10/11/2013 Capital Lowes $285.46
10/12/2013 Capital Staples (Label Maker) $109.28
No Date Capital Misc Lumber & Supplies $1,100.00
Total $17,485.31

So thus far, I’m off by a little less than $2,000, but there are a few caveats that both nudge the numbers up and down.

Factors that nudge the numbers up:

  • This does not include feed for 1,000 broilers, though it does include feed for 150+ laying hens that are about 6 weeks old. This additional feed outlay will run about $3,800.
  • The cost of only 80 broilers (plus 150+ laying hens) is accounted for. We’d need to purchase just over 900 more, which will run about $950. Subtract from that the $300 we paid for our laying flock and we’re looking at an additional $600.

And there are several items in my list that bring the numbers down:

  • Our list includes a $700 charge for attending the Polyface IDS seminar.
  • Food and equipment we purchased for a special event we did later in the month is included, to the tune of about $300.
  • We’ve listed expenses for Kickstarter rewards, which runs to about $250.

So, if we start with $17,485, add to that the increasing factors of $4,400, then subtract the decreasing factors of $1,250, we arrive at:

Chris’ Original Estimate: $15,800
Amount Chris Actually Spent: $20,635

This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was off by a whopping 30%. The good news is that I wasn’t off by orders of magnitude – I originally said that the farm operation could be had for under $20K, but it turns out it can be had for ABOUT $20K. This is much better than me having to eat crow because, whoops, it actually set me back $50K or $100K.

So the next logical question is: what happened that caused my estimate to be off? I think this can be nailed down to a few distinct categories:

1. Support Equipment

The biggest single item I didn’t account for in the original estimate was a $1,500 utility trailer I picked up on Craigslist. I didn’t include it because it was initially planned to just be used for hauling pigs, but since I wound up using it to haul lumber, feed, and other supplies, I decided to include it as something I’d missed. I’d be willing to argue that having at least one utility trailer is an absolute necessity. I also underestimated the cost of the four chicken transport crates I bought, which ran $85 apiece.

2. Composting

Composting is one of those things that seems like it’ll be next to free, but it really isn’t when you’re setting yourself up to fertilize your entire farm. I wound up spending a couple hundred dollars on straw bales (our bins are made of straw to provide more “middle” to our piles), about $40+ on red hybrid compost worms, and then the big ticket item of $750 for the wood chipper to make our own carbon.

3. Marketing

This was the most egregious one I missed in my first estimate. Producing without marketing is, of course, like winking at a beautiful woman in the dark, so you’ll need to set aside a decent budget for this. We paid about $250 for our website, about the same for an email marketing package, plus business cards, brochures, flyers, samples and giveaways, etc. All together these probably ran close to $1,000.

4. Supplies

There was a hodgepodge of supplies I hadn’t included in my original estimate. Among them were replacement chainsaw blades, gasoline, pine shavings for the brooders, ice/hoses/manifolds for processing, freezers, coolers, a label maker, a scale, replacement feeders, etc. These costs added up to over $1,000 I’m sure.

So there you have it; my estimate certainly wasn’t sharpshooter accurate, but it was at least inside the ballpark. I’ll happily amend my earlier statement to read, “you can have a 1,000 bird operation with a 2,000 sqft market garden operation for just over $20K.”

Happy farming!

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms
http://www.sylvanaqua.com

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons From the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons From the Farm, Pt. III – How Much Does it Cost to Start a Farm?

———————

Poultry Processing

From October 11 – 13, we processed poultry for the very first time. I’m willing to say that things by and large went very well, but there were plenty of lessons learned along the way. This article is my attempt to get as many of those lessons down on paper for your benefit, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Lesson Learned #1: Get Help

This one seems like a no-brainer, especially if you’re raising a large number of birds. Our test set, however, consisted of just a single pen of 73 birds. Because of this small number, I figured I’d be able to handle that number with just the help of my wife. As it turned out, Annie wasn’t able to help me much because her in-town job schedule was a bit haywire. So for the most part, I was left to process all the birds alone.

You’ll hear that it’s impossible to process poultry alone, and I’ll confirm that statement is true. It is technically possible to process alone if you have nothing else to do. Otherwise it’s going to be an all-day activity for several days and the rest of your farm is going to be completely neglected. It’s easy to think of processing time solely in terms of the amount of time it takes to kill, scald, pick, clean and chill your birds, but it’s much more than that.

First there’s the setup phase. The hooking up and testing of the water supply. The heating of scald and shrink-bag water and the cooling of tank water. The catching and transporting of birds out in the field. The testing of the equipment. The sharpening of knives. None of these tasks can be done in parallel if you’re working alone, so they’ll easily eat up three or four hours.

Next comes the actual processing phase. I wound up working in batches of four birds at a time, then moving up to six at a time by the third day. You have to be careful about killing too many birds at once; they’ll go into rigor and be difficult to deal with. The kill step, which includes loading the birds into the cones, took about 5 or 6 minutes. The scald takes another 2 minutes or so, including loading time. The pick takes another minute. At my skill level, the clean of four birds takes about 10 – 12 minutes, or longer if the pick wasn’t so good. Then the birds chill in the tank for 45 minutes or longer, followed by 10 minutes on the drying rack. Then a couple of minutes to bag and tag. By the third day I was able to get a batch of six birds from the cones to the tank in just over 30 minutes.

Once you’re done with all the birds, you have to clean up. The offal and blood have to be walked or trucked to compost. Water must be drained from the chill, scald, and shrink tanks. Then you have to wipe, disinfect, and store your equipment. Finally, you have to move whatever birds aren’t sold to the freezers. And in between all three phases of prep, process, and cleanup, there are other farm chores to do: pasture and forest animals need to be moved, fed, and watered, and any emergencies that pop up have to be dealt with.

I figure you’ll need about a five-person operation to move through processing without any bottlenecks. One person loading cones and killing, another operating the scalder and picker, two more cleaning, and one person bagging and tagging. How many birds you can get done without the bottlenecks will depend on the skill of your crew, especially the folks doing the cleaning. You’ll really appreciate the help during the setup and cleanup phases, the latter of which will go particularly faster when you have more hands on deck.

Lessons Learned #2: Particulars of Processing

Here’s a bullet list of tips and tricks for killing, scalding, picking, cleaning, etc., most of which I learned the hard way:

  • In the kill cone, pull the head of the bird down through the cone while your other hand holds the feet out. If you let go of the feet, it’ll be harder to expose the neck.
  • Put on your big boy/girl pants during the kill. Look at what you’re doing and do not close your eyes. Cut deep along the side of the neck just behind the ear, and prepare to get bled on.
  • After the cut, do not look down into the cones. Some chickens will poop, and in their senseless death throes will kick that poop right into your eye.
  • Don’t kill more birds than you can get cleaned in the next ten minutes. Otherwise they will go into rigor.
  • Fill your scald tank to the top. Otherwise your dunker may not submerge the birds enough and you’ll wind up with a poor scald, usually around the wings.
  • Don’t put fewer than three birds in the picker at once. If you do, they can get stuck and have their skin torn.
  • Pulling the heads off can be tricky. Lay the bird on it’s back, with beak facing you and head hanging off the edge of the table. Grab the head by making a loop with your thumb and index finger (like you’re making an OK sign), and stabilize the rest of the bird with your other hand. Break the neck by pulling the bird toward you by the head, and bending the head sharply down and away from you (pointing the beak towards the bird’s body); you’ll feel the neck separate. From there you can just pull the head straight back toward you, but first…
  • Don’t rip the head off just yet! You’ll see the esophagus and windpipe exposed at the neck; this is the best time to loosen them without having to make a cut into the skin above the breast. If you loosen those pipes before you pull the heads off, you’ll have a prettier carcass in the end.
  • To pull the guts out, envision your hand as the claw on an excavator; the claw reaches into the ground as far as it can go, curls back at the hinge while still in the ground, then pulls out. Likewise, reach your hand into the body cavity along the spine as far as it will go, make a claw and curl up with your hand still all the way in the cavity, and then pull out taking everything you touch with you.
  • That green thing attached to the liver is the gall bladder. Do not rupture it. If you do, don’t let the green bile touch any birds. After I got smart, I started waiting until I’d cleaned the entire bird and put it in the tank before salvaging livers.
  • Lungs are also tricky. Get them by reaching forward into the front of the bird, then sweeping down (and hard) on one side then the other. The lungs are bright pink.
  • If you’re having trouble pulling out a crop/windpipe/esophagus from the inside, give the body cavity a quick rinse. That’ll make things a little less slippery in there.

I’m sure there’ll be a Part II to the processing lesson, but this will do for now. Next season we’ll take videos of our processing and post the details, being sure to go nice and slow and give lots of closeups. In the meantime, feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Chris

Last season, all of our articles were “by the numbers” entires about a broad array of topics. For Autumn, our blog articles will be all about farming and the lessons we’re learning during our practice season. Hopefully this will smooth the learning curve for new farmers and encourage you to enter the field with us!

Big Brooders

Almost all the literature we read, including books by Joel Salatin, emphasized how little space you need for a brooder. The seminal Pastured Poultry Profits states “The floor space needs to be roughly 25 square feet for 100 birds up to 4 weeks of age. They can certainly be confined tighter for the first week.”

To be safe, we constructed a 50 sqft brooder to hold up to 150 birds – effectively doubling the recommended size to hold 50% more birds. It didn’t work out so well even with just 80 birds. While they did fine in the end, we were racing to keep up with their manure levels and there was definite evidence of crowding stress. Once we put the birds to pasture and turned the bedding, the ammonia smell was brutal. The other problem was that the small brooder was hell to work with, involving constant stooping, bending, kneeling, etc. Finally, if you’re brooding more athletic birds like Rhode Island Reds, they’ll be able to leap out of a small brooder after just the first week. When you work the birds in a small brooder, they will panic and escape… and then you’ve got a chase on your hands. RIR hens can easily clear 2 feet after 3 weeks. Some would even jump out, run around to the closed side of the brooder, scuttle up the side and roost on top of the thing.

We completed construction of a much larger, 500+ sqft A-frame brooder yesterday, and it’s been great for both birds and farmer. It’s tall enough for me to walk around in, and that makes everything easier: turning bedding, adding bedding, feeding, and watering. Brooder chores that took 20 minutes with the small brooder are now done in 5 minutes, and I don’t have a sore back afterwards.

The new brooder at Sylvanaqua.

The new brooder at Sylvanaqua.

Bottom line is this: if you’re going to raise a significant number of birds, go ahead and splurge for a large brooder because you’ll more than make up for the cost in saved time. Figure that you’ll need as many square feet as the largest number of birds that will ever be in your brooder at once. For us this is 240 broilers, 200 layers, and 60 turkeys = 500 sqft, though hens will only be reared every three years and we only do one round of turkeys in a year. That means the 500 bird max will be a rare occurrence, with the brooder typically housing just 240 broilers.

Managing Birds on Pasture

For all the reading we’ve done on managing birds on pasture, there was nothing that gave a good idea about feeding amounts or feeding schedules. Here’s our schedule, and then I’ll explain how we arrived at it.

75 – 80 birds are in a pen. The pens are serviced twice a day, which includes moving, feeding, and watering. How and when you service will depend on two things: 1.) if we’re moving the pens once or twice a day, and 2.) the quality of the pasture.

If you’re moving twice a day, the watering capacity should be 8 – 10 gallons. This can be in the form of multiple waterers, or a single smaller waterer filled and backed up by a larger reservoir. If you’re moving once a day, 5 gallons should be enough to last between services. In both move schedules, we keep two 36″ galvanized feed trays in the pen.

For the first service, regardless of number of moves or pasture quality, the pens are moved in the morning just as soon as it’s light enough outside to see fairly well: today on October 4, 2013 in Earlysville VA, I moved our pen at 6:45am.

What happens next depends on the quality of pasture the birds are on. If the pasture is nice tall grass (6″+ blades) with lots of bugs running around in it, I’ll leave them to forage in the pasture while I do other morning chores for about an hour. When I’m done with chores I’ll go back and feed the birds, filling both feeders to the very top and filling the waterer. If it’s poor pasture with short grass, I’ll feed and water immediately after moving.

The second service will come either eight hours later (for once-a-day pen moves) or twelve hours later (for twice-a-day pen moves.) The 12 hour wait on the double-moves is to ensure that the pastures are manured evenly, the 8 hour wait on the single-moves keeps the birds from getting so hungry that they injure each other at the feeders. The new pasture in the 12 hour move allows birds to graze and fill up a bit without wanting to kill each other when the feeders are refilled. As with the first move, fill the feeders and the waterer(s). Reintroduce immediately on poor pasture, or after 30 – 60 minutes on good pasture.

Tip #1: The birds will mob you when you try to set the feed trays down. Toss four or five handfuls of feed into the farthest corner from where the feed trays with be set. This will distract (most of) the birds while you set down the feed trays in relative peace.

Tip #2: On a hot day, 75 birds will breeze through 5 gallons of water in just a few hours. Consider adding a block of ice to the waterer or its reservoir. You may want to add a second waterer or reservoir to even single-move setups in high summer. Heat affects performance significantly.

Tip #3: Move the pens twice a day if you can, especially if you’re planning to use any piece of pasture more than once a season. Moving twice a day cuts the impact in half and gives the grass less to recover from. At Sylvanaqua, grass is rested for at least a month before reintroducing birds, and following that it’s rested for an entire year.

Tip #4: The weakest point on your pens is the bottom, where predators (especially racoons) will exploit even the smallest gap created by uneven ground. Remember, predators don’t have to get all the way in the pen to be dangerous. If they can get a paw in, you’ll wake up to dead birds with missing legs. If you can’t keep predators away with a guard dog, or poultry netting, or both, then consider putting 4×4 blocks around the base of your pen and pegging them into the ground with rebar. This is extremely time-consuming, so only do it if there’s a very good reason not to have a dog or netting.

Our test pen, base surrounded by 4x4s pegged into the ground with rebar.

Our test pen, base surrounded by 4x4s pegged into the ground with rebar.

Visit Polyface Farms if You Read the Books

I’ve read most of the books from Polyface Farms, and they have been indispensable learning tools as we ramp up our farm. But there are a couple of things you need to be aware of when reading the books if you’re planning to apply them to your operation.

First, they’re getting old. Many of the books were published in the 90s and there are a lot of things about Polyface that have changed since they were published. Reprintings of the books do include addenda, but that’s where the second thing about the Polyface books comes into play: they aren’t professionally edited. You will find yourself coming across several contradictions within and between books, mostly owing to books being published at different times and Joel Salatin being a master farmer and therefore occasionally forgetting to supply context to his statements.

The most glaring editorial problem in the Polyface library surfaces in Pastured Poultry Profits’ grotesquely awkward placement of a valuable 2010 addendum that comes after the book’s glossary… which itself comes after a 1999 addendum. Thinking that the glossary was the end of the book (since it came after the 1999 addendum), I owned PPP for nearly a year before stumbling across the second addendum completely by accident.

I say all that to say this: the Polyface books are great, but visit the farm if you can and talk to Joel or Daniel (Joel’s a very nice guy, but I personally found Daniel easier to talk to… probably because we’re the same age). That way you’ll actually get to see all the things Joel is talking about in the books, and you’ll see with your own eyes updates and improvements in the operation that aren’t in the books. Polyface’s Intensive Discovery Seminar (IDS) is well worth the $700 investment if you’re serious about starting your own farm, but only if you’ve read the books.

 

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Syvlanaqua Farms
http://www.sylvanaqua.com