Lessons from the Farm, Pt. 1

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

  1. Jamie@Swamped said:

    I just wanted to leave a little note here. I found you on Kickstarter, and while I can’t contribute to your campaign right now, you have overly inspired me. I’m devouring your blog, and trying to come up with a plan of my own. Thank you for putting this out there, and if you’ve ever wondered if you’ve changed the world, you have- Mine. 🙂

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