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Pastured Poultry

Thinking about raising hens to provide your home with fresh eggs? Or maybe you’re a farmer and want to get a larger-scale egg operation going. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to keep your girls happy, healthy, and laying.

1. Skip the vaccinations only if you’re breeding

Some people might come after my head for saying this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaccinating your chicks if you’re raising a small flock just for home egg production and don’t intend to breed them.

Skipping the vaccinations to rely on deep bedding and natural immunity is appropriate if you’re a farmer looking to improve the breed over time by allowing birds without good natural resistance to be culled. Farmers have the space for deep bedding and free ranging/pasturing that makes such a thing possible. But if you’re raising these girls in small space available in your home and yard, you’re simply not likely to have the room you need to do things all-natural.

Having all of your tiny flock of birds die of Mareks after carefully raising them to the 20 -25 weeks required to get them to laying age is devastating, and it would be horrible to have to start over. Farmers, on the other hand, with a flock of 200+ birds withstand the loss of a half-dozen animals – in fact it’s a good sign that the culling and breed improvement process is working. So ahead and get your girls treated for Mareks and Cocci if you’re raising birds from chicks for home use – it won’t kill you, and if you’re not breeding them, then you don’t risk weakening the breed.

2. Give them light all day and night when they’re young

Birds are highly prone to suffocating if they a.) get cold, and b.) have corners to pile up into. On a cold night in a dark hen house, your girls will more than likely find a corner, pile up into it and, if the circumstances are just right, promptly suffocate whoever’s unfortunate enough to be on the bottom. This seems to become less of a problem as they mature, but in our hoophouse in winter we still leave a single brood lamp on to provide light so they can see exactly what they’re doing.

Some folks will install boards to reduce the sharpness of corners, but I’ve found it’s less troublesome to avoid pileups by just providing a little light.

3. Don’t bother with starter feeds

When the arrival of our Rhode Island Red chicks was imminent, we were at a loss for what to feed them. Layer mash isn’t appropriate until 16 weeks of age and, as usual, the henmasters of the Internet offered no shortage of advice, all of which contained the addendum that if you didn’t do it their way, all your chicks would die and you’d be audited by the IRS.

We started the girls on broiler feed because it’s fairly high protein, and because we had plenty of it left over from the broiler season. They did just fine on it, and I’m grateful to this day we didn’t go through the trouble and expense of purchasing some Cadillac starter feed.

4. Avoid crowding and roosts

Because of a series of mishaps with our hoophouse (the cover blew off in a windstorm, among other things), all 140 of our hens wound up boarding in our 480 sqft brooder until they were about 14 weeks old. Some might say that 3.4 square feet per bird is more than adequate, but I’ll tell you right now that for us, it wasn’t.

Pale combs, large variations in bird size, pulled tail feathers, and restlessness are among the more obvious signs of crowding stress, and these girls had it in spades. Once 2/3 of the girls were finally moved to the 960 sqft hoophouse, their performance went through the roof: tails grew back, sleep was easier, and combs turned ruby red.

One more thing that I’ve heard: when the birds are too young to lay eggs, don’t introduce roosts. Apparently that’ll accelerate the formation of pecking orders and your girls will be fighting a lot more than if they’re all sharing the same level ground. Once they’re of laying age and you introduce nests, you’ll need to put in roosts to keep them from sleeping in the nests.

5. Don’t let them get comfortable with you

If you’re planning to introduce your mature birds to a pasture or free-range situation, then don’t let them get comfortable with you when they’re chicks. You want your girls skittish and terrified of anything that might even be close to a predator, so if they wind up getting comfortable with something as large as a human, then they won’t learn that shaking hands with a fox or raccoon is a bad idea until it’s way too late.

This may sound… mean… but when you enter the brooder to feed, keep the girls away from you. If they approach, lunge at them. Don’t hit or abuse them, but give them the impression that big things are after them and aren’t to be trusted.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for a free-range/pasture situation, stay away from docile, friendly breeds. If they’re going to survive out in the elements with predators all around, you want birds with aggressive roosters, flighty/skittish single hens, and broody mothers. This will, of course, make the harvesting of henfruit more difficult, but it’s a worthy sacrifice in the name of undoing the damage done to breeds adapted to unnatural confinement environments.

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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. III – How Much Does it Cost to Start a Farm?

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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

A few weeks ago, we talked about the reasons we don’t have Organic certification. The number one reason was that we sell directly to customers that we look in the eye and encourage them to come to the farm, inspect us, and “certify” us themselves. We believe that all farms should operate this way, being certified by dozens, hundreds, or maybe even a couple thousand customers every single year.

But then we got to thinking: how would a customer know what to inspect? How would a customer know whether or not we’re applying practices that heal the land, allow animals to express their nature, and restore the connection between food producers and consumers? We’re here to help! Here are 7 inspections you can conduct to make sure the farm you buy from is on the up and up.

1. Does the farm allow drop-in inspections?

If a farm has a no-visits policy, or one that makes it extremely difficult to visit, then that’s a huge red flag. You must, MUST(!), have easy access to visit your farm.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

While it isn’t possible for most small-holder farms to have a 24/7 visitation policy, there should be regular visiting hours where the public can come in and check things out. You should be free to roam about the farm, even alone, and check out the animals, the planting fields, greenhouses, beehives, and anything else that’s around. It’s a good sign if the farm encourages you not just to visit, but to participate: we always need help moving animals, turning compost, weeding, planting, butchering, etc. A farm that lets you spend time with your hands in their production has nothing to hide.

Be very wary of farms that make excuses as to why visits are impossible. Some might cite theft. Theft of live animals is just silly; no one’s sneaking back to their car with a live pig or hen, and no one drives all the way to a farm just to steal a tomato. If a farm cites “bio-security” as the reason you can’t see the animals, then find yourself another farm. This is a near-sure giveaway that the farm is practicing confinement husbandry and is just one missed round of medication away from losing a few thousand animals. If the farm’s attitude is “we don’t have time for visitors,” then the farm needs to find another attitude or find some other customers, like U.S. Foods or ConAgra.

Inspecton Item #1: Does the farm have regular visiting hours with unrestricted access to the operations? Bonus points: Can I help out on the farm? Does the farm sincerely make time for me?

2. Does the farm practice bio-mimicry?

Ecological farming is rooted in managing animals and plants in a way that replicates the roles of their wild counterparts in nature. This practice is known colloquially as bio-mimicry. So how do you know if your farm practices it?

First, don’t necessarily dock the farm if they don’t know what “bio-mimicry” is; lots of farmers are doing it without realizing there’s a term for it. What you’ll want to look for is evidence of things like  rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover cropping:

Rotational Grazing:

Rotational grazing is the practice of confining animals to a small space in the pasture for a short amount of time, then moving them on to new pasture, usually every day. This system mimics the behavior of wild herbivores who pack tightly to defend against predators, and move to new pastures after their dung, urine, and trampling have rendered the grass unusable. Pastures are then left to rest for long periods of time, their health ultimately enhanced by the animal impact. Unlike the term bio-mimicry, your farmer should know what rotational grazing is (though they may refer to it as “mob grazing”). Evidence of rotational grazing in cattle, dairy, sheep, and pig herds would be relatively large numbers of animals in a small paddock, sectioned off from the rest of the pasture by just one or two strands of electric wire. The grass on one side of the paddock should be clearly trampled and bitten, while grass on the other side should be lush and fairly tall. For poultry, you’ll want to look for pens that are easily moved, or a more fixed pen with movable runs made out of electric poultry netting.

This is what you're looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

This is what you’re looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

Polyculture:

Conventional farms typically produce just one thing: commodity crops (e.g. corn, soybeans, wheat), beef, dairy, pork, or poultry. An ecological farm, on the other hand, will out of necessity run multiple lines of production. At Sylvanaqua Farms our production is centered on pastured poultry, but we have a number of operations that support it. Pigs mow the grass ahead of the poultry pens, hens clean up behind the pigs, both hens and pigs spend time in hoophouses (during winter and nursing, respectively) to help fertilize greenhouse beds, and honeybees pollinate our crops and pastures. Each enterprise is necessary: Without the pastured poultry, we’d have to apply synthetic nitrogen to pastures. Without the pigs, we’d have to mow the grass ourselves with fossil fuels and our forests would be unproductive. Without the hens, the pastures would take too long to recover. Without the crops, the honeybees would have to range far from our farm. And without the honeybees, our crop pollination rates would be too low to offer surplus produce to the public.

You’ll also want to take a close look at the farm’s planting fields and greenhouses. You should notice lots of different things growing; if the farm is just a tomato plantation for example, that’s a red flag. Multiple crops are necessary to keep soil nutrients in balance, control pests and diseases, and maximize production per acre without resorting to GMO.

Yes.

Yes.

Composting:

Compost is the lifeblood of an ecological farm. It’s the primary amendment applied to keep crop and pasture soil healthy, allowing us to say “no” to synthetic NPK fertilizers. Ask your farmer about their composting operation, and ask to see it. They should be happy to oblige; eco-farmers are nuts about their compost and love to show it off. When inspecting compost, look for it to be deep, warm in the interior, and emitting only the faintest smell (and that only if animal products are added to it). Also, there should be lots of it (or, if it’s been used recently for top dressing, there should be ROOM for lots of it). A farm can never, ever have too much compost.

Cover Cropping:

Bare soil should be hard to find on a farm. If a field doesn’t have grass or a crop on it, then it should almost certainly be planted in an annual cover crop of some sort to maintain the soil structure, prevent capping and erosion, and draw nutrients to the surface. Popular cover crops include ryegrass, alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, and clover, among many others. Some farmers will even use edible covers like kale and mustard, which are more effective than annuals as green manures tilled back into the soil to amend it ahead of a production crop. Ask your farmer which fields are fallow, what they use to cover them during rest periods, and then go check those fields out for yourself.

Inspection Item #2: Look for evidence of rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover crops!

3. What is the policy on shipping?

If your farm ships food to the furthest reaches of the country, it’s not an ecological farm. The whole point of ecological farming is to reduce (or invert) the environmental footprint of agriculture. Packing products onto an airplane or train to send it across the country – usually so they can be eaten in a place where they’re out of season – is anathema to our way of doing things. A farm that sells to national food hubs or distributors is on thin ice as well. Once products are sold to these entities, they enter a river of indistinguishable commodities that could wash up anywhere in the world.

Farms dedicated to the local model generally do not ship at all (unless they deliver themselves), instead executing their sales on-farm, via farmers’ market or CSA, through buyers’ clubs, in restaurants, or from local food hubs (e.g. Relay Foods).

Inspection Item #3: Beware the farm that ships via USPS, FedEx, or anything that isn’t the farm’s own delivery truck.

4. Does the farm practice seasonality?

Eating food out of season is one of the big ways that we, as food consumers, have distanced ourselves from the land. And the effects are harmful: the market for eating all kinds of food all year long are causing foods to be shipped longer distances, incentivizing farmers to consume disproportionate natural resources to grow out of season, and encouraging genetic modification, among other ills.

Your farm’s production should be in line with the seasons, which of course vary from region to region. In Virginia this means the following:

  • Nearly all animals should bear their offspring in the Spring
  • Leafy and green veggies are available in Spring (e.g. kale, spinach, asparagus, mustard, lettuce, cabbage, etc). Sweet, small immature and semi-mature soft fruits and “veggie fruits” (e.g. tomatoes, eggplant, beans, sweet corn, summer squash, peaches, etc.) are available in summer. Large, mature, hard fruits and veggies (e.g. pumpkins & winter squash, flint corn, apples, etc.) are available in Fall. And for winter, many of the early season Spring crops become available again.
  • Poultry production should run from about mid-March to mid-October.
  • Egg production should taper off, and even nearly cease, in Winter.
  • Large animal slaughter (beef, bison, pork, etc.) should occur in the fall, usually October – November

This, of course, is only a sampling. A simpler general guideline is to be wary of any farm (again, thinking about the mid-Atlantic) doing hardcore production in the winter. A yuletide visit to a farm should reveal a fairly dormant operation; animals being held in sheds and hoophouses for overwintering, egg-laying poultry being overwintered without artificial lighting to stimulate egg production, and the planting fields should more than likely be blanketed by frost-resistant cover crops.

Inspection Item #4: Production should come to a near-halt in Winter. Learn the seasonality of popular fruits and veggies, and watch carefully for farms that produce items well out of season.

5. What is the farm’s relationship with grain?

The use of grain is a touchy subject within environmental and agricultural circles. Most grain doesn’t go to human consumption; rather, it is turned into bio-fuels and animal feed. A very valid criticism of livestock management is the dependence on grain and the effects it has on everything from human health to the “corn system” underwritten by taxpayers and a deteriorating environment. Let’s address the facts of the issue.

First, feeding grain to animals is not a recent development, nor is it inherently unhealthy. The recent development is the AMOUNT of grain being fed to animals. There was a time in America when the average farmer produced a multitude of crops in line with market demands, and among those crops were grains like corn. In the event of a bumper crop that exceeded market demand, excess grain could be fed to livestock. This was a perfect arrangement: the timing of the grain harvest dovetails nicely with the timing of livestock finishing, and surplus grain that couldn’t be sold for human consumption could be diverted to a luxury item – corn fed beef – that sold for a premium.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua's "Aztec Label" beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua’s “Aztec Label” beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Then came the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Farm Bill. With these well-intentioned programs came commodity subsidies, and the side effect that farmers were encouraged to ignore consumer markets. From this well springs our now-perennial grain surplus, which is so enormous that only 20% of the corn harvest goes directly to human consumption, with fuels and feed evenly splitting the remaining 80%. Whereas grain was once far too expensive to be economical as a primary animal feed, it has now become so cheap that grass-fed animals are now the luxury item.

So what’s a consumer to do? First, don’t hold it against your farm if they use grain. Instead focus on how they use grain and whether or not they’re making efforts to return it to its natural role as a supplement:

  • Determine if their feed grain comes from a sustainable source; if it’s not organic, it should at least be local and non-GMO. Give the farm extra points if they raise their own small plots of corn and soybeans to direct to animal feed. The idea here is to make sure that the corn being used to feed the animals isn’t harming the environment.
  • Ask about the farm’s foraging program. The farm should a.) be doing everything it can to promote the development of perennial/self-perpetuating forages, and b.) ensuring animals maximize utilization of forages to reduce dependence on grain.
  • Ask the farmer if they have hard targets for reducing grain consumption. Sylvanaqua’s poultry operation, for example, has an 80/20 ratio of feed to forage. We’re aiming to reduce this ratio to 50/50 or better within the next five years by a.) introducing and improving heritage breeds that are more aggressive foragers and more protein dependent, b.) raising sources of protein ourselves – particularly compost worms, mealworms, and black soldier flies – that compliment our other enterprises, and c.) growing our own grain from local-hardy heirloom sources that are more nutrient-dense.

Inspection Item #4: Determine what efforts the farm is making to return grain to its role as a supplement rather than a primary feed, and determine how serious the farm is about those efforts.

A little over a week ago, our first set of 80 Red Labels (our term for our Cornish Cross meat birds) went to pasture after three weeks in the brooder. This set of birds is a test set, designed to help us smooth out the learning curve as we move to full production next year. We did well in the brooder, losing only 3 of 83 completely unmedicated chicks of a breed notorious for keeling over and dying by the bucket-full. I figure it’ll be good karma to share some of the lessons we learned along the way for successfully getting chicks through the brooder phase.

1. They show up, unceremoniously, in the mail

If you’re considering buying birds from a hatchery, you’re probably aware that they come through the mail. But I’d calibrated my expectations quite differently than the reality. For whatever reason, I’d expected the birds to be transported by a special livestock carrier that would drive gently, have a heated truck, maybe put them in boxes that isolate them from one another, give them access to a little feed in case their yolk sacs ran out, and deliver them right to our brooder.

Basically this. I was expecting this.

Basically this. I was expecting this.

Obviously that’s not what happened. They day before the chicks were to arrive, I found out from a family friend that they’re shipped via USPS, and you have to pick them up right from the post office. It’s a good thing I learned this, as I otherwise would have been sitting around the house waiting in vain for a mail truck while by birds slowly starved to death in a box.

And speaking of boxes, that’s exactly what they arrive in. Our chicks were shipped, from Iowa, in perforated cardboard boxes divided into cells that held four chicks each. Our Rhode Island Red chicks were shipped 12 to a cell, and I’m convinced that’s the reason nearly 10% of them died in the first 24 hours. In any case, they aren’t shipped with “just in case” feed, and they’re certainly not treated to heated trucks or a particularly gentle driver.

Ordering birds via hatchery is a certifiable crap shoot that could be made much more humane with the presence of more local hatcheries serving commercial outfits… but they don’t exist here in Virginia anymore. The hatcheries that remain here specialize almost exclusively in small batches of rare or heritage egg-laying birds designed for homesteaders and hobbyists.

2. They need more room than you’ll think, and so do you

If you look around for advice on brooder space, most people claim that you don’t need very much. Even Joel Salatin’s books on pastured poultry suggested that you need less than 1/4 sqft per chick, and it was precisely this measurement I used to design our first brooder house, which measured in at 50 sqft in order to brood 200 birds.

Absolutely not.

We put in just 83 birds, and by the end of the first week we were scrambling to keep up with their manure levels. Our chicks were saved only by the 12 inches of bedding we put in the brooder, which we resorted to turning each and every day until that became impossible (the litter was too soiled). The carbon-nitrogen ratio went haywire – we couldn’t smell ammonia, but we could smell the birds just outside the brooder – so we started adding new bedding every day. Doing this let us keep pace with the manure for most of the next two weeks, but by the time we were putting the guys to pasture we were losing the battle.

Chicks aren't exactly wrong about having this attitude toward their brooder.

Chicks aren’t exactly wrong about having this attitude toward their brooder.

The last of the broilers went to pasture the same day our hen chicks arrived. By this point the bedding was close to 18 inches deep, so we had to remove some of it. Near the bottom, the smell of ammonia was clear; there simply wasn’t enough carbon to absorb all the waste. Thankfully the bedding had been deep enough to keep it from affecting the chicks.

The final problem with this mid-sized brooder was the toll it took on my back. The brooder wasn’t small enough to just sit over and work with, nor was it big enough for me to walk into. This means servicing the brooder (watering, turning bedding, adding bedding, moving chicks out, filling feeders, adjusting lamps) required constant bending. In three short weeks it took a noticeable toll on my back, especially toward the end of the meat birds’ time in the brooder when I had to go out there twice a day for 15 – 30 minutes.

Needless to say, our new brooder (now under construction) is a.) much larger, with a 2sqft per bird average footprint, and b.) is tall enough for me to walk around in. The original brooder will go to my mother in law to raise a handful of rare breed laying hens. If you’re a commercial outfit, go ahead and create a larger brooder. It’ll save your back, and it’ll probably save your birds.

3. You don’t need vaccinations, hormones, or weird growth formulas

If you’ve never bought chickens before, prepare to be bombarded with offers of extra purchases at the end of the process. Most hatcheries will “STRONGLY RECOMMEND” vaccinations for Marek’s disease and Coccidiosis, as well as growth packs, gels, and other weird supplements. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting this at all, and the vaccinations part especially scared the socks off me. Marek’s disease and Cocci can absolutely ravage flocks, and chicken-rearing forums are full of horror stories about sick birds turning into zombies and infecting everyone else.

Don't look at its eyes!

Don’t look at its eyes!

Even scarier, birds vaccinated for Marek’s and Cocci can still be labeled organic, giving the impression that your birds are all but guaranteed to die without being treated.

I had to swallow hard, remember that I’d committed to 100% drug-free birds, and skip the vaccinations. And so far, I’m very glad I did. No diseases have yet ravaged our meat or egg flocks, and it really does seem that proper nutrition plus ample sunshine, ventilation, and decomposition are doing their part to keep pathogens under control.

With that said, I will recommend purchasing a vitamin pack. They cost next to nothing and will ensure your birds don’t wind up with nutritional deficiencies that could facilitate a disease outbreak.

4. They don’t need chick starter

“Chicken people” love going on and on about specialized feed for each stage of a chicken’s life. The argument boils down to just how much protein a bird needs when it’s starting out in life. I’ve heard people argue for percentages as high as 28% and as low as 18%. Hobbyists and homesteaders are particularly prone to overmanaging their flocks. With just a few birds to take care of, it’s easy for them to succumb to tweaking the fat and protein content every single week and otherwise obsessing over minor details of the feed ration.

Both of these animals would happily eat their own or each others poop.

Both of these animals would happily eat their own or each others poop.

 

For us, it turned out that the physical demands of a commercial flock prohibit overmanagement. With just 80+ broilers, we had our hands full staying ahead of manure, keeping the birds fed and watered, and staving off stress and death during a punishing September heat wave. Next year at our full production capacity (400 – 500 birds of varying ages and breeds), obsessing over 1 or 2% of protein in the ration would drive us insane. This is why our broilers are on an 18% protein ration from hatch to slaughter. The layers, too, spend their first 16 weeks on the broiler ration before they’re switched to a mix of laying mash and oyster shell, which they eat until the day they become stewers.

Believe it or not, it works. Our Cornish X’s are gaining beautifully and the Rhode Island Reds are growing like weeds on the broiler ration. So when you get your own flock, remember not to overcomplicate things. If you’re raising a hobby flock and looking for a way to enhance their performance, then start a worm and bug farm in a compost pile, and try seeing how much of your bagged feed you can replace with non-grain forage. This will net you much greater results and enjoyment than selecting a new feed bag.

5. They die

Invariably, no matter what you do, some of your chicks just aren’t going to make it. This is especially true if you’re dealing with larger numbers of birds. Some will sprout from the hatchery that would have never hatched in nature, so they’re doomed to begin with. Others will succumb to transport stress, or mishandling at the hatchery or post office, or some other neglect that causes peeps to die on the first day. You can reduce these risks by buying from the closest hatchery possible and camping out at the Post Office to make sure the birds don’t wind up sitting out on a loading dock.

Delivered by Ace Ventura.

Delivered by Ace Ventura.

During the first few days, some peeps will just up and die. They weren’t diseased, they weren’t mismanaged… they just didn’t make it. This is nature’s way of culling the flock. Your temptation will be to freak out and send the dead peep to a lab for a bunch of expensive testing; don’t. Your desire will be to pump your next birds full of drugs and vaccines; don’t. Accept the fact that when you don’t turn your birds into drug addicts, a few just don’t make it. That’s why we call ourselves natural farmers; sad as it may be, culling is a very necessary component of nature.

The birds’ first few days are volatile and unpredictable. Our meat birds arrived in great shape and we only lost two in the first week, losing just one more in week three. None were lost to transport stress. Our hens, on the other hand, arrived in terrible shape. Out of the 145+ total, four were DOA and another four were gone by the end of the day. When it was all said and done, we lost 14 birds to transport stress within the first 72 hours, and another 2 to unexplained sudden death the next day.

Our birds’ strength and durability took a quantum leap after the first week. This was true of both our meat and egg birds. They became much more hardy to temperature fluctuations and minor errors in husbandry. Were it not for the manure/carbon issue stemming from the brooder being too small, the birds would have been able to take care of themselves with hardly any input from us besides feed and water.

*          *          *

Despite a few deaths, a sore back, and some near misses, it’s been a lot of fun learning to rear chickens. Our advice: get them from somewhere close, skip the medications, err on the side of a bigger brooder, and be prepared for a few not to make it.