Tag Archives: grass fed poultry

Challenges of a Small Farm

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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.
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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.
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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.

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Broilers

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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 Evils of Plastics Part 2

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.
IMG_0642Four 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.

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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!

IMG_1491Now 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.

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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.

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Viola! New chicken house cover!

Locally-Adapted Chickens Part 1

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Here it is! Our first article regarding locally-adapted chickens. It’s been a long time coming, considering that it was a year ago last month that we brought up the subject. The idea and research took considerable effort because producing one’s own chicks is very convoluted.
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Turns out that breeding chickens is a lot harder than it seems. Who would have thought?
It has taken just about a year to wade through all the different systems and styles. Look for this, watch for that- -it can be a lot to take in. Settling on a breed alone can be a daunting undertaking (we will cover this in more detail in the next post) and many of the great old production breeds no longer have people willing or able to hold them to the standards they where created with, making it difficult to find some breeds of chicken.
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It can be easy to get caught-up in getting the very best birds money can buy and searching for the right bird with the right qualities takes time. I’m not suggesting that this isn’t a proper route to take, but sometimes time just isn’t an option. We selected our parent stock out of our existing egg-laying flock. It took time and some false starts to pick out our breeders, but we settled on birds that had been with us for at least 2 years. We had a feeling that the highest preforming chickens of that age in our production system would help to jump-start our local adaption. We have yet to prove this.IMG_6337

This is the first set of Rhode Island Red chicks that we have hatched on-farm.
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The Evil of Plastic On-Farm

Just animals and grass. That is our focus. We keep that principal in mind when designing housing for our livestock. And through this ideal of simplicity we are pushed to focus on man-powered equipment.
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Our chicken houses are designed to meet those demands; they are open-floored, light enough to move by hand but just heavy enough to keep from blowing away in a rain storm. But to achieve these requirements the roofing material has to be light-weight and waterproof. So in the beginning we started with green, moderately inexpensive tarps from our local hardware store. These tarps met all of our criteria and at the time I thought this was a great idea. But in retrospect it turned out to be a terrible gift that just keeps on giving.
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Light, flexible, and waterproof, one could reasonably assume that a tarp is to be used outside in all sorts of weather. There are even pictures on the packaging of outdoor use. We got the sizes we needed. We put them on and everything was hunky dory. But sunlight (a.k.a ultraviolet rays) is the one element that we seem to have over-looked. IMG_0628
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We didn’t even get a single season’s use out of these tarps. When newly opened out of package they off-gassed. If that isn’t bad enough, as they degraded in the sun they shredded into tiny, chicken-bite-sized-pieces. The pieces spread all over the farm from the wind and into any paddock that the hens spent time in. Farm pics 042
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We essentially polluted our own small farm’s beautiful fields with these plastic strands of poison and lost a number of chickens because they would eat it if given the opportunity. The adage “you get what you pay for” couldn’t fit better and to be honest this was a hard lesson to learn.

Chicken Creep

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Overdue Update

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The past couple of months seem to have just slipped by like the snap of the fingers. Wasn’t it just the holiday season? Well we had better share with you what we have been up to.
This is a quick overview of some projects we are working on right now. We will post more in detail about these projects as they move forward.
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Our sheep have been enjoying this dry, mild weather and have decided to have some lambs! A little unexpected but no complaints here.
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We are also working on creating a locally adapted flock of chickens. This way we can help in a small way to protect of some of our national birds.
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And most importantly we are moving our farm from Ashland to Talent! We are extremely excited about this move.