It all started innocently enough: A little over a year ago I brought six baby chicks home from the local farm store in a cardboard box and settled them into a wire rabbit cage in the corner of my dining room. This wasn't quite as impulsive as it may sound, as I’d been thinking seriously about getting a little backyard flock for a number of years, and was all set to put together a “chicken tractor” (a bottomless, portable cage – so named by Andy Lee) for the girls to live in.
The five black, sexlink hens and the one straight-run Buff Orpington chick (you have to buy a minimum of 6 chicks in Pennsylvania and there were only 5 BSLs left in the bin) settled in and began to poop, drink, eat, and grow – in roughly that order. I’d had chickens as a kid, so the whole deal was reasonably familiar to me – but my partner Tom (a life-long city boy before he met me) was entranced! The chicks grew, moved outside into a hastily-constructed chicken-wire-and-lumber chicken tractor and within a few months we had 5 large black hens and an even larger golden-brown rooster (plus 12 guineas in a second tractor and 15 ducks in a third…but that’s another story).
We intended to keep the hens inside their chicken tractor, moving it every day to new grass, but they took to flying out every time we opened the lid so I relented and framed in a little door at one end so they could come and go during the day and get shut up snug and safe at night. When they started to lay we put an old melon crate full of straw in one end and the hens started to churn out four or five a day of the tastiest eggs ever. Tom was in love.
Then the plot thickened: One beautiful late summer day Tom was holding and stroking one of his hen-girls, who was clucking gently back at him. Looking out over our 11 acres of fields and woods, he asked me, “So, couldn't we raise some more chickens, sell their eggs, and make some money?”
“Sure,” I said, “Why not?”
“Can you get me some information?” said Tom.
Now, I’ve been reading about chickens and small-scale farming all my life, dreaming big dreams; I earn my living finding information for people, and work at a company with great Internet access and a library full of material related to farming. “Could I get information…?” He knew not what he asked. By that evening I’d downloaded a huge stack of papers from ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), APPPA (the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association), and some other sites; had dug out a pile of backyard-scale chicken books and ordered copies of Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$ and Andy Lee’s Day Range Poultry. We were on our way.
Testing the waters
As we read through this mound of material we learned we were not alone in our quest for good-tasting, locally raised eggs and meat chickens and other farm products. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in food with good old-fashioned flavor, produced on farms that respect the environment and handle animals humanely. Good market, good money. Sounded good.
We also learned that we didn't have to reinvent the wheel to raise a few hens on pasture: Over the last 20 or so years farmers have been developing pastured poultry systems that combine the best of the old-fashioned methods with modern technology and knowledge to raise healthy birds and nutritious, great-tasting food. That sounded good too.
Even better, we learned that raising chickens on pasture requires relatively little in the way of start-up capital (practically nothing if you compare it to the cash required for large buildings and machinery) and the daily chores are reasonably modest. Chickens are small and easy to handle (so they are a great way for newbies like ourselves to get into livestock management) and the return on investment is pretty fast: You can start eating and/or generating revenue with eggs in as little as two months (from started pullets) or about five to six months (from day-old chicks).
Our first foray into commercial pastured chickens was pretty seat-of-the-pants: We decided to start with laying hens since eggs are easy to harvest and easy to sell (in most, if not all, states you can sell eggs with few or no legal hassles, here in Pennsylvania we just need to have our name and address on the cartons and cross out any grading or sizing information on reused cartons). We liked the idea of not having to face any slaughtering challenges (finding a processor, meeting potentially more restrictive legal requirements, coming to terms with doing in our little friends) for at least 18 months. We thought 100 hens seemed like a nice round number, and between the two us we figured we knew more than enough people who said they'd be interested in buying good local eggs to sell the 30 or so dozen a week we expected to collect. We decided to order Buff Orpingtons because we loved our docile Buff Orpington rooster, “Buttercup,” and the catalog said they were good year-round layers and their large bodies and heavy feathering made them winter-hardy.
So we called up Murray McMurray Hatchery and ordered 100 day-old hen chicks to arrive the first week of September. (That was the first week they were available, and we figured that would give the birds enough time to get pretty big before the cold weather set in.) We set up a circle of cardboard on the floor of the garage, put in a big electric brooder hood a friend had found in his barn (which blessedly still worked, once we figured out how to work the temperature control), and we were in the chicken business.
When the hens got too big for the brooder we moved them outside into a spare chicken tractor for a few weeks, and then, for the winter, into a homemade, plastic-covered hoop house in my vegetable garden (I’d used a similar hoophouse to grow greens through the winter, so I knew I could put one up by myself for cheap). We fed them locally ground rations (we are lucky enough to have a family-owned feedmill nearby) made from locally grown grain and no antibiotics or other medications. And we figured we’d figure things out as they went along – which we pretty much did, with only a few learning curve fatalities.
Getting in deeper
In hindsight, though, a bit more planning and preparation would have been better. So as we started to look at expanding our egg operation (demand has turned out to be far greater than the 20 dozen we are collecting from the 65 Buff Orpington hens that survived our early learning curve mistakes), and maybe get into the meat business as well, we decided we needed to get the most up-to-date information in the rapidly evolving pastured poultry field.
First we attended a one-day seminar put on by Joel Salatin (the East Coast's guru for direct marketing of grassfed eggs and meat) and PASA (the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture), which was a terrific and inspiring overview (and Joel is a hoot to listen to) but a bit short on details (just too little time and too many ideas).
Then we heard about a conference put on by the Northeastern Pastured Poultry Association, the Central New York Resource Conservation & Development Project, Cornell, APPPA, and a number of other sponsors in Syracuse, N.Y., on April 9-10, 2005. It turned out to be the perfect way to learn about the latest innovations from people who are already successful in the pastured poultry business!
Over two jam-packed days we learned a huge amount from other pastured poultry folks and some wonderful industry professionals. Here are just a few of the sessions Tom and/or I attended:
Dr. Benjamin Lucio, a poultry disease specialist at Cornell University, gave us a sobering overview of all the nasty things chickens can get. The good news is that if you move your birds regularly to fresh pasture the soil microorganisms and sunshine (the best disinfectant around) will keep most diseases from building up to outbreak levels. Most problems that pastured producers see are due to stress or trauma. Keep your chickens dry, content, and safe from predators and you’ll avoid most problems.
Jeff Mattock, a livestock nutrition expert with the Fertrell Company in Bainbridge, Pa., talked about feeding laying hens, broilers (meat chickens), and turkeys. (I'll cover his advice on feeding laying hens and hen chicks in Part III.)
Jim McLaughlin of Cornerstone Farm Ventures, in Norwich, N.Y., and past APPPA president offered a “Pastured Poultry 101” seminar full of basic know-how and tips for success. Jim raises chickens on pasture himself and has helped many farmers in New York and beyond start successful pastured poultry operations.
Leon Moyer of Moyer’s Chicks, in Quakertown, Pa., discussed how poultry breeds are developed, some specific breeds, and how to select chickens for pastured production.
Keith Morgan of Windhaven Farm in Sauquoit, N.Y., talked about raising layers on pasture and how their egg operation dovetails nicely with their sheep dairy.
Peter McDonald, of Pasture Pride in Romulus, N.Y., described how broilers and turkeys fit into his multi-species grazing operation.
Brian Moyer of Green Haven Farm in Fleetwood, Pa., described how he markets his fresh chickens and other farm products and discussed relationship marketing techniques.
Dave Mattocks of Fertrell discussed soil health and showed a fascinating Japanese video of soil microorganisims cavorting under the microscope. Dave stressed that soil is not an inert substrate that just holds plants upright (as synthetic fertilizer manufacturers would like you to believe) but a living, breathing ecosystem that needs to be cared for and fed. Feed your soil lots of organic matter, keep poisons off it, and your plants (and the critters that eat them) will thrive.
Karma Glos of Kingbird Farm in Berkshire, N.Y., and author of Humane and Healthy Poultry Production: A Manual for Organic Growers (available through www.NOFA.org) and Remedies for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock (free from www.kingbirdfarm.com), gave a presentation about keeping your birds healthy. Give birds sunshine and natural light, fresh air (cold is ok, but drafts aren't , plenty of room, interesting activities like things to scratch at (especially in winter when they are off the pasture), contact with soil, clean water, whole-grain food, grit, oyster shell, and a dusting box of wood ashes with a little diatomaceous earth and chances are your chickens will be healthy and able to fight off anything that comes along. A few minutes of your undivided attention each day will usually alert you to changes in behavior and help you head off problems before they get severe. Glos also recommends culling any bird that is acting ill immediately (she treats her whole flock for problems, but not individual birds) and never bringing an adult bird onto the farm.
Jean Nick and her partner Tom Colbaugh raise pastured chickens for eggs and meat, and a variety of other animals and edible plants on their farm in eastern Pennsylvania, overlooking the Delaware River Valley.
This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147.