When I first started farming about five or six years ago I could get organic whole grains in 50 pound sacks locally. This was great because it created the opportunity for me to mix my own ration for our chickens, as I’m sure a number of backyard flock owners love to do as well. With a small flock it was easy to mix and use 3-4 hundred pounds at a time and feed it out over a month or two. But after a short while the 50 pound sacks dropped, unannounced, to 40 pounds. The price remained the same. Then access to the whole grains came to an abrupt end altogether without any clear cause. Frustrating to say the least. We were forced to start feeding processed feeds in 40 pound sacks because that was the only available organic feed. It worked for a short time, but the quality was questionable and the price was too high to make a profit.
Certified organic feed can be a challenge to get at the best of times, especially for us at our small scale. So our next step was to push our production up to the next price break. We increased our production by adding more Turkeys and egg laying hens so we can order 1000 pound of feed at a time. That way we could use up the feed in a reasonable amount of time, because unless the feed is in a whole grain form it loses its nutritional quality over time. This worked well and we were able to build a productive small farm business.
But once again after a short while our access to the 1/2 ton sacks came to an abrupt end without clear cause or warning. We found out the day we tried to order our next batch of feed. The only option’s now for organic grains are to go back to getting grain in 40 pound sacks (not an option) or jump up to the now 3 ton minimum, meaning we have to order no less then 6000 pounds at a time. Wow, thats a lot of feed! We can and do feed this much in the course of a season but the hard lump to swallow is where and how to store this amount of grain. When you are at the scale we are, you just have to take it as it comes and is just the nature of running a small business. But it would seem that the mantra of “get big or get out” is still strongly with us today in agriculture.
Once upon a time the cookery and consumption of poultry was dictated by the turn of the season and fostered by tradition. Chickens were harvested at the various mile markers in a bird’s growth. At 8-12 weeks of age you would have broilers, 12-18 weeks fryers, and anything over 18 weeks stewing hens/roosters. Each mile marker represents a niche. Traditional American farmers have had different strategies of poultry production to access the local market niches. Egg producers would meet the fryer and stewing hen niche because they use smaller-framed birds that grow muscle slowly and were a way to phase out spent egg-laying hens. But some farms focus on raising meat-type chickens, birds that grow flesh faster and more evenly, are able to reach the class size of broiler the fastest, and retain a tender texture.
This is the first in a three part blog series and we will begin by focusing on the broiler. Broilers are commonly 8-12 weeks of age and will range between 3/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each. As this is the tenderest class, it is where industrial agriculture has focused its attention and is the only type of chicken most of us have eaten. With the advent of climate-controlled housing, large scale industrial farms are able to produce broilers in the 4 to 5 pound range in as little as 8 weeks. Take my word for it, that is fast! However fast isn’t always best. Sure it is good economically speaking, but if that is the only goal one misses out on the other benefits provided by slower growth, namely greater flavor and nutrition.
We have found raising chickens outdoors on pasture pushes the maturation of our birds into the 12 week range and adds flavor. The best way to cook these birds is to grill them. We won’t be providing a recipe with this post because almost everyone knows how to grill and enjoys grilled chicken their own special way.
The ideal cover for our chicken house needs to be water-proof, create shade, be light-weight, and not disintegrate in direct sunlight or pollute. Challenging in its own right but add to that a shoe-string budget. This makes it nearly impossible to meet all the criteria. However.
Four to five times per season, we order our feed in bulk and it comes in giant 2000 pound sacks that are made of woven plastic mesh. Needless to say 4 to 5 sacks a season really start to build up, taking up room in the barn.
In the quest for an alternative, I hit on the idea of using these sacks for chicken housing. It could be a win-win. They are roughly 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide and our houses need a 8 x 12 foot roof. The real ah-ha moment came when I realized that if I cut the sack in half on one side and remove the bottom, the sack laid out flat becomes 4 x 12 foot tarp. Two sacks and you’ve got a roof!
Now I realize that this is pretty close to what we were previously using. But they meet many of the criteria (including lasting a lot longer then the tarps we used previously) and most importantly we are taking potential garbage and giving it a second life (I would rather use it on a chicken house then send it to the landfill). But best of all it’s free.
It’s not all roses however. It has one glaring fault. It’s not water-proof. Which seems silly if it’s intended use is to store grain, even if temporarily. To remedy this problem, we used 5 mil clear plastic that does degrade in sunlight and placed it underneath the sack. This means that water doesn’t get into the chicken house, but the feed-sack tarps keep the plastic from degrading in the sunlight.
Viola! New chicken house cover!
I would like to think that we get a little smarter season to season, and in this case it’s actually true. Check out ”Learning to Roost”, one of our earlier posts, to see how we used to do it. We often have to introduce chickens of different ages together and this can be a little challenging. The adult birds could and would hurt or kill small, young chickens. So the goal here is prevention. The chicks are also on a more expensive, higher-protein feed that the larger foul don’t need to be consuming. But of course they think they have to have some.
With all that in mind, the best way we have come up with (well, we didn’t technically come up with it, but you know) is called a creep. This is an idea that is often used with larger livestock. We simply adapted this method to smaller livestock.
As you can see, we’re not getting any points on our quality of workmanship, but it allows the chicks to mix with the larger birds as they feel more comfortable with their place in the flock. Keeping the bigger chickens out, we can feed the little ones a different feed freely. Its a win-win.
When the chicks are too big to get into the creep, they have no choice but to mingle with the adults. Once the two flocks are integrated, we remove the creep.
A couple of seasons ago we lost a large portion of our turkeys and chickens to skunks (check out the post “It Ain’t Easy” for a better idea of what went down). It took some time and a lot of research to figure out what we needed to do to remedy this problem.
Chickens need and like to roost, and as it turns out it’s also their first defense. This was an easy fix–we just changed the way we house them.
Then we got a couple of geese because our research lead us to believe that their aggressive temperament would deter predators.
At first I wasn’t convinced that geese could perform this job and thought of them as just another mouth to feed. But we haven’t lost a turkey or a chicken since we added them.
I have often seen them cock their head to the side and stare up in to the sky. When I follow their line of sight, inevitably there is a hawk floating in the blue, and once in a while an airplane. Needless to say they will always have a place at Pradaria.
Allowing turkeys to run and frolic in the grassland setting that encompasses our farm just really feels right. It’s often hard to imagine that turkeys could be raised in any other way; they are so well adapted to this lifestyle.
Spending up to four months on pasture their conditions range from ninety-degree summer days to the cold rain of a Rogue Valley fall. Even though we provide them with shelter they will often be found in the direct sun on a hot day looking for a tasty morsel or scouting out worms in the rain.
Blackberries and blackberry leaves, legumes, grasses and grass seeds, and the wayward cricket are just a few of the things I have seen turkeys eat. This does also include corn and grains because they need carbs like the rest of us. But when given a choice these birds love to forage.
Summer just wouldn’t be summer without barbeque sauce-smothered chicken smoking on the grill. The smell of grilling chicken is very pleasant and I often feel as if I’m missing out when I catch the smell occasionally filling my neighborhood.
Food is often extremely enjoyable prepared in the proper manner with the right tools and knowledge. From the time the ingredients reach your kitchen until it’s plated and on the table, thought and care have gone into every detail because a meal is a shared experience.
A quality meal’s story doesn’t always start at the grocery store or the farmer's market, but increasingly in a backyard garden or a small farm, and in our case in our grassland pasture.
This is how we grow chicken, truly free-ranged. Grass, sun, wind, rain, and a little perspiration help ensure that our birds are healthy and happy.