Iowa and Back Again. A Chick Tale.

Iowa. Miles, Iowa.

11 hours. 520 miles. 5 degrees with strong winds. Nail in my tire.

It is cold. So cold we asked the hatchery not to ship our chicks to us. There is no way any of them would survive sitting outside on a post office dock in these temperatures. Not only did the hatchery agree, they ended up cancelling all of this week’s shipments.

So we drove. Miles, Iowa.

We left the house at 8:30 and dropped off three of the kids with Julie’s mom. Then we headed North. We had 6 inches of snow over the weekend and another inch overnight. The wind kicked up and made a mess of everything.

DrivingTo

On we drove. Semis were weaving in the road as gusts of wind pushed them to the side. I brought a stack of books to read but Julie asked me to drive the whole way.

Mile after endless mile of wind, snow, weaving trucks, limited visibility and a tire pressure warning light…losing 5 pounds of pressure each hour.

StillDrivingTo

Things got better as we continued North.

Four lanes turned to two. Two gravely lanes in rolling hills, unexpected stop signs. But the Iowa roads were well maintained and clear of snow. We meandered through. It felt like we drove to Kansas then to Nebraska then back across Iowa when, suddenly, we saw it. Schlecht Hatchery! The localest hatchery I can find.

Arrival

What a sight! Wow! A real building dedicated to hatching chicks, not just some crazy lady hatching birds in her living room! WHEW!

Our chicks were started on feed and water in a battery brooder. They were clean and warm and happy. In fact, that sentence describes the whole place. Schlecht hatchery was a clean and warm and happy place. She has capacity to hatch nearly 10,000 birds each week! And she nearly does!

I would have loved to spend more time visiting with Etta. We have spoken to her on the phone for years and never met. She is every bit as nice as she seems on the phone. But we have to get home and that tire isn’t going to air itself back up.

Speaking of air, the car was soon filled with that wonderful new chick smell. If you don’t know what that is, get some little chicks and you soon will.

Slightly different route on the way back, rather than take the interstate we just stuck with 67 the whole way…which turned out to be a 4-lane road most of the way, meandering through small towns. Some gas stations have free air available. Some charge $0.75. That’s better than walking home and $1.25 later we were in our driveway.

WesternIllinois

We were surprised to find one of the brooder tanks was still a little cold. I’m not entirely sure what was going on. Julie and I decided to put four lamps in one brooder and put half of the chicks in there. We took the other half of the chicks home with us in their shipping crates. This way we didn’t have all of our eggs in one basket. The chicks we delivered were doing well when we left them at 7:30. They were doing well when I checked them again at 9. We give them sugar water when they first arrive to get them off to a flying start and make sure feed is at floor level in several places.

Chicks

We will have to spread these chicks out in a week or two, adding a third and maybe a fourth tank to our brooder capacity. I really should just cover the floor with plywood and brood there but…well, this is where we are.

We will surely lose a few chicks. That’s just part of the deal. The long drive was awful but receiving a box of dead birds would be worse. We take a risk getting chicks this early in the year. But in normal years, they are well feathered out and ready to thrive on pasture just as things are greening up. Then they are in the freezer well before buffalo gnats emerge.

There is a little more I want to add in though. I could have stopped at an auto parts store and plugged my own tire. I had my coveralls and boots and tools with me just in case. But the wind chill was something like -30. So we tried option #2: Find a repair shop. Even armed with Google this proved impossible. On a Wednesday even. So we drove our slow leak home. I have concerns for a world that can’t maintain small, privately-owned garages in every town…or in any town.

At some point in our trip someone mistakenly said “Ohio” instead of “Iowa”. Well, I can’t let that go. We celebrated the error by listening to this song which was then stuck in my head all day. Kind of the theme song for the trip if you will. (Really just the chorus.)

One last addition. 6:52 the next morning, all chicks in the brooder are fine. By fine I mean alive, scattered about pecking and scratching, not barely hanging on, huddled under heat lamps. Now off to unpack the rest!

OK. Once Again. Why?

Q: Why we doin’ this again?

A: Sigh.

OK. Well. OK. Let’s do it this way. Take chickens for example.

Most of the chickens of the world have been mutilated (beaks trimmed) and mistreated. They are crammed into cages or, if cage-free, crammed into houses. They don’t see the sun. They can’t run, hide or scratch for worms. They are not utilized…their design is not appreciated. They are simply fed and mined for 18 months. Mined for eggs. They are given just the right amount of feed to maintain high production, not high quality. Often this is an all-natural, vegetarian diet. What is natural about feeding a vegetarian diet to an omnivore?

Click image for source

I don’t think any of that is right. Any of it. Birds are a tremendous blessing to our farm. They eat bugs and worms and larvae, they put down manure, they spread cow patties to help limit repugnancy zones (livestock don’t want to graze up against their own poop…imagine that. The chickens spread a cow patty out so it decomposes more quickly (think surface to volume ratio)). We work hard to keep them on pasture when it is appropriate, to keep them near to and behind the cattle, to keep them safe from predators, to meet their varied dietary needs and honor their design. Boy golly, let them see the sun!

alarm clock chickens 2

 

But you know what? That’s expensive. If I built a confinement facility and crammed birds in by the thousands I would have to amortize the facility over time but chores would be easy. I wouldn’t have to walk sometimes miles each day to give my birds food and water and to collect eggs. I wouldn’t have to sit up at night hoping to catch whatever has been eating my birds. If the birds were indoors I could control light and temperature for optimum egg production. As it stands, my birds go to bed early and get up late because the sun goes down early and gets up late. So egg production has fallen off.

You want to know why our eggs are more expensive than the “cage-free organic” brown eggs at the store? Because it’s a lot of work to maintain a flock of safe chickens living outdoors with access to a wide variety of feed.

egg sale 3

But there is more to price than just cost. Customers don’t care what my costs are. Customers don’t care what it cost to raise the chick to point of lay. They don’t care how much I spend per egg box. They don’t care about the hours Julie and the kids and dad and I spend slaving away to make our chickens happy. They care that my eggs are fresh and tasty and that my birds are whole. They want to see pictures of fully-beaked birds running and flapping in the sunshine on green pastures. They know that costs a little more than eggs at the store and they are, apparently, glad to be a part of that story. In fact, I think that’s what initially attracts customers to us. They want to be a part of something. They want to know they are supporting respect. When a customer buys that first dozen eggs they usually ask me a million questions. They want to see pictures of the chickens on my phone and they want to know the story of the farm. There is no story at the grocery store. Well, there is a story at the grocery store but it’s not pretty so nobody talks about it.

But after they try that first dozen they come back again and again. At some point a customer has company for a weekend and runs out of eggs. So they go to the store and buy the most expensive, cage-free organic eggs and put them in the skillet next to mine. Then they make a strange noise…the sound of disappointment. This is usually followed by getting their phone out to take a picture of the eggs, side by side, in the skillet. They then text that picture to me saying, “I can’t believe the difference between your eggs and those from the store!” or they post the picture on instagram or Facebook.

I don't know who took this picture. No idea. I just know the orange eggs are mine.

I don’t know the people who posted this picture. A customer shared my eggs with them. I just know the orange eggs are mine and the picture was taken in July to be shared on FB. Hope they don’t mind me using it…

That difference you see? That orange yolk that makes your blueberry pancakes turn out green? That rich flavor that you comment on? Do you know what your are tasting? You are tasting what should be. You are tasting respect.

So to this point I have successfully avoided your question. You asked me why. I told you what.

Now the why.

First because Julie and I couldn’t buy the product we were looking for. We were going bananas doing handstand push-ups and pull-ups and climbing ropes and jumping on boxes but we couldn’t find the quality of food we wanted to fuel our health. So we got a handful of old hens and built a chicken tractor in our back yard. I think only one of those old hens was still laying but that sparked a fire. It was no longer enough to have a big garden. We needed eggs!

LayerHen

But it only takes a few birds to get all the eggs you can eat. Turns out, other people were looking for the same kind of food we were producing. In fact, we vastly underestimated demand. And price. So, economies of scale apply. We increased our production numbers without sacrificing quality. Really, with more birds to absorb our labor and infrastructure costs our quality went up…quality continues to go up each year. In fact, since eggs are only a small portion of our our overall farm revenue we can focus on quality rather than work to maximize egg production per acre. The cows, broilers and pigs help carry the financial load so the birds don’t have to shoulder the burden alone…all while making things better for all parties involved.

Julie and I wanted food of the highest quality to feed our family and yours. We wanted to see animals respected and honored for what they are. Terms like “Organic” and “Cage-Free” just didn’t seem to get the job done. We wanted more. So we just up and made it happen.

That’s why our beef cows don’t get corn. That’s why we try REALLY hard to keep pig noses in fresh greens…not just bare dirt. That’s why our eggs cost a little more than those in the store.

But that’s also why you are a part of our story.

Let’s see if I can give a more concise answer. Why do I farm the way I do? Because I like my animals.

 

Changing of the Guard

It’s that time of year. The older birds are slowing down. The young pullets are ramping up. The switch happened last week. In terms of numbers, the young flock laid more eggs than the older birds. By weight, the older birds are still winning.

Recently we brought in 98 eggs. That’s pretty good for 200 birds in mid-October. But let’s break it down further. The 90 or so pullets (I lost count) gave us 58 small eggs. 110 or so older birds delivered the balance.

So it’s time to transition the flocks. Those 100+ older birds are nearly 30 months old and will soon achieve their ultimate purpose and our feed costs will be cut in half. Yes, 30 months old. We got more than two eggs/3 days per bird this year out of a flock that is well beyond the recommended time you should keep them. Granted, we were short on eggs last winter but for whatever reason Julie and I decided not to brood pullets in 2013, a decision we regretted in fall of 2013. But we learned our lesson and now it’s time for those old birds to go.

OldFlock

There is quite a lot to consider here. First, I need to plan to market those soup birds. This is rarely a problem…and is one Julie and I prefer to solve with our own soup pot. But many customers enjoy the rich broth you can only get from an older bird.

But there is another issue. Our customers have come to expect giant eggs which, again, you can only get from an older bird. I have been offering steep discounts on tiny pullet eggs for the last month or so. A pullet egg, if you have never tried one, is the essence of egg distilled into a concentrated package. Less egg, more WOW! Normally all eggs are the same price but for now we are selling the small eggs at a 25% discount. It won’t be long and the new flock will begin to lay medium and large eggs but as the days continue to shorten the number of eggs will continue to shrink.

Eggs

But there is also the issue of flock management. We plan to have the new birds in the greenhouse on Nov. 1 to simplify our chores for winter and to minimize pasture disturbance and stress. That will surely help. But the greenhouse is not ready. It is not surrounded by electric fence, it’s surrounded by weeds. The roosts and nest boxes are not there, they are in use elsewhere. So what’s a farmer to do?

Work. These really aren’t problems to solve, just chores to do. The real problem to solve is how am I going to get by without hens on pasture? They do a lot of work for me adding fertility and spreading out cow pies, not to mention entertainment value. It’s a lot of fun to open the chicken house before sunrise and close it again after sunset, checking under the house for anybody trying to camp out.

ManureSpreaders

The retiring flock is a big mix of birds. We ordered a few hundred Sil Go Link pullets from Central Hatchery as well as some heritage Rhode Island Reds. The RIR birds they shipped grew up to be monster chickens and excellent in every way. Good layers, plenty of heft, thrifty on pasture. The Sil Go Link were surprisingly variable in color as can be seen on their site. We had black, white, white with black spots and red. These have done a great job of laying for us no matter the season. We also bought 50 or 100 Cinnamon Queen and Red Sex-Link birds from Cackle Hatchery at the same time. Finally there were 50 or so Americauna ordered from Cackle. These have proven time and again to be fragile birds who give up laying early in the fall. I don’t think we have gotten any blue eggs the whole month of October. The majority of the pullets we ordered were sold at 3 months and are still in use. All of these hatched in March of 2013 so it’s just time for them to go. We think it works well to order the replacement flock each spring then make soup with the old birds all winter (we don’t eat much soup in the summer).

There are a few others in the flock including the offspring of our original flock of New Hampshire birds which we plan to continue breeding.

The flock transition is a tough time for us. We plan for it each year, spending the spring brooding and the summer raising the replacement flock. When fall arrives we are usually flooded with tiny eggs that can be hard to sell but the reward for all that work arrives. We have fresh eggs and delicious soup all winter long.

Frosty Morning Chicken Work

Our first frost is not quite two weeks late. This morning the thermometer showed 38 degrees but the windshields were covered in ice. Everything I touched was slightly icy. I am out of the habit of wearing gloves so I just had to deal with it today. Otherwise, beautiful morning with just a pinch of moon.

FrostyMorningThis morning I had to move the main layer flock. Apparently it takes me 2 minutes to collect each length of fence, three minutes to stand each back up and another 8 minutes to move the house, feeder and drinker. I don’t know how to speed that process up but that’s what I have to do. Even on flat land where I can build a simple square I’m slower than I would like. I’ll be sure to tell you what I come up with if you promise to offer any tips you have.

 

Trying my Patience

I love the Marx brothers. From Duck Soup:

Sir, you try my patience!

I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.

Today the chickens were out. The milk cows were out too. Did I mention the pigs? Oh, you can bet the pigs were out. Yes-sirree!

You know what doesn’t work when you are trying to contain animals? Let’s make a list of things that don’t work.

  • Throwing whatever is handy
  • Yelling at the animals
  • Beating the animals
  • Yelling at your wife
  • Slamming the truck door
  • Yelling at the kids
  • Running and yelling
  • Standing and yelling
  • Crying and yelling

I think you get the idea. So, deep breath. Flora is in season. She didn’t settle last cycle. Sigh. So she found her way to the bull and took her friend and their calves with her. The bull.

DaBull

We grabbed a reel and calmly surrounded the cows then Julie led the way back to the barn building fence as she went. I followed behind. Before we could go we had to sort out which calves belonged with which group but that wasn’t a big deal. Everybody loves mom.

Just when we thought we had our problems all squared away we noticed three pigs in with the horses. Huh. Pigs. In with the horses. Three of them. Huh. “What do you think, Boo? Did the fourth stay in his pen?” Nope.

The pigs came running to see us. And why not? We bring them treats. They love to see us. But one pig couldn’t negotiate the gate to the horse pasture so I had to help him out. Then they just followed me to their pen. I thought it was kinda funny so I caught it on video. Sorry for the poor quality.

Again, no yelling. No running. No bad words or thrown objects. Listen to the noises they are making. Can you hear the happy in the noises they are making? The optimism? If they only knew…

Chickens were a little more difficult. I moved them to a new location this morning and about 20 of them moved themselves back. It took several sessions and some creative use of extra fence but we eventually walked the chickens back into their enclosure. They were glad to find food again.

I had hoped to catch a couple of roosters for dinner tonight but…well, no such luck. No lost tempers. No bad words. Just Julie and I…me…I…erm…Just the two of us and a flock of Silver Laced Wyandottes. Hmmm. (That could be a geriatric Flock of Seagulls country cover band.)

Since we already had fence in place, and since the cow was obviously open, we then walked the milk cows back to the pasture to hang with the bull tonight. Hopfully that’s all we need because the bull leaves in 13 days.

I find that patience is gained slowly. But I’m getting there. Days like today help.

Brooder Health Matters

There are things we apply to our livestock that we just don’t care to apply to ourselves because we are biologically different. For example, our cows can metabolize grass. We can not. But there are lots of biological similarities. Women won’t menstruate if they don’t have enough fat. Cows are the same. And I would love to share my observations about herd behavior in the airport vs. in the feedlot but I’m afraid it would not be well received.

Instead I’m going to talk about the chick brooder. Learning to brood chicks is BY FAR the most important thing to learn as you raise birds. If your chicks don’t get a good start in life, if they are wet and cold and catch pneumonia early on, they will never amount to much and you won’t have a quality product to sell. We don’t raise chickens for the companionship, we raise chickens because we treasure meat, eggs and manure. Any old bird will give you manure but to get the meat and eggs, the bird has to be healthy. To have a healthy bird, you need health in the brooder.

This post was inspired by an article I read about the recent increase in average human height. The article indicates that a lack of infection allows the body to focus more energy on growth. That seems pretty obvious. And that is the reason mainstream livestock production uses medicated feed in high-stress, high-density housing. So what’s a farmer to do if he wants to use the same animals used by the industry but deviates away from medication of any sort?

To raise a healthy Cornish Cross chick to the finish line in 6-8 weeks requires a healthy brooder environment. In February we took delivery of 303 birds, 3 were dead in the shipping boxes. 300 birds went into our brooder, 296 came out 3 and a half weeks later. In years past we have done better and we have done worse. The worse is always our fault…either because we neglected security and a cat got into the brooder or because we were not attentive enough during a cold snap and a group of chicks somehow got wet and died of hypothermia or piled on each other. A dead CX chick costs me around $1.20 and a couple of days of feeling bad and kicking myself. I can’t spare the cash or the emotions so we work pretty hard to keep them alive.

This year we brooded our chicks in the pig nursery in 300 gallon tanks. In a water tank there are no sharp corners for chicks to pile up in. Nobody gets crushed. There are no drafts. The pig nursery is a big, insulated box so cold weather and rain were not an issue and if the power had gone out we could have placed a kerosene heater or two in there and kept the space warm enough. The real trick was keeping enough fresh bedding under the birds to keep them clean, dry and healthy.

brooder health 1

I can’t overstate the importance of fresh bedding in the brooder. CX chicks poop a lot. Like, a lot lot. We used enough sawdust to completely fill each 300 gallon tank over the course of three weeks…obviously we scooped out a large portion of the bedding along the way.

To get started we put 5 or 6 buckets of sawdust and one 5-gal bucket of horse manure in each brooder space. The horse manure gives something for the chicks to scratch and pick at while inoculating the rest of the bedding pack. We are shooting for at least three things. We need clean, dry chicks, we need to feed and entertain the chicks (lots of tiny bugs live in the litter) and we need supplemental heat from the warm, composting bedding. To get this done we would add a bucket or two of fresh sawdust every day. Toward the end we were adding bedding twice each day. Every day the chicks would put down and scratch in a new layer of manure. Rinse and repeat.

By doing this we were keeping the chicks warm with heat lamps in an insulated building in brooders that were completely draft free. Beyond that, the chicks were warmed by the growing, living mass of compost beneath them. All we had to do was make feed available, keep the water clean and add in fresh bedding. Then, as a final benefit, we got three large loads of broiler litter to spread on our garden.

Obviously, animal health is a primary concern ranging far beyond chickens. Calf stress at weaning causes all kinds of performance problems. There are techniques we employ to minimize stress…everything from castrating pigs before they are 5 days old to weaning pigs by removing their mothers, not by removing the pigs. Lead, don’t chase or beat your cattle. Don’t yell in the corral. Keep your mouth shut, learn to read and leverage animal behavior.

So, OK. That stuff is not hard to understand. Is there a human application? Heck yes! Ever seen a politician work a herd of humans?

This is where I get myself into trouble. I’ll side step slightly by saying there are things we should monitor about our own environment and behavior to limit stress and disease. We don’t do this because we are concerned with maximizing human growth potential but, instead, simply because we are concerned with our own health. I want to raise animals without antibiotics and I don’t want to use them either. Not that I am some sort of science-doubting luddite (far from it), but because I would rather prevent a disease than cure it.

Is your brooder (home) a cold, sloppy mess or a warm, healthy environment that encourages development? Do you put yourself (or your children) in situations where you receive verbal or physical abuse (unhealthy workplace or bad public school)? Do you get regular sleep? Do you eat a variety of healthy food or do you eat wheat and sugar at every meal? Do you skip a breakfast now and then to throw your body a curve ball?

Look, I’m a computer guy who pretends to be a farmer. I am not pretending to be a health professional, a nutritional therapist or even a lifestyle coach. But are you aware of the average level of health in your community? Are you above or below the average? Does your shopping cart look like the average shopping cart?

If you need a little help making changes in your home brooder I encourage you to follow my wife’s blog. She regularly (well, maybe not regularly) writes about her continuing efforts to limit household clutter, encourage emotional development and enhance our health. If you have a problem with your chick brooder, feel free to ask.

Raising Meat Birds for the First Time (Updated)

My standard advice to someone interested in raising broilers is to read Pastured Poultry profits then raise 25 birds in the fall and see what it’s all about. You should be able to get in and out of 25 birds for under $500 counting equipment and still have enough birds to make processing day worth the effort. It is also the usual minimum for shipping chicks. 25 gives you enough birds to eat through the winter with a few extra to share with loved ones or neighbors. It also leaves you a margin for error. And you will make mistakes. This first batch will take you to school. That, in summary, is what this post is all about.

The Complete Formula
Spend the month of July preparing for chicks to arrive on August 15th (or 8 weeks before your first frost). Find a hatchery within about 4 hours of you to minimize stress on the animals and so you can drive there if the weather is hot on shipping day. We have had some bad experiences with the postal service in hot weather so it might be better to just go pick them up.

Birds
We are big fans of the Cornish Cross. Our friend Darby likes the S&G Heritage White. Others like Rangers. That’s all well and good but I want you to get in and get out of birds in a hurry. CX are a suitable, inexpensive bird and will provide your general education while finishing on pasture in 56 days. Also, white feathers are easier to pluck than red or black feathers. 25 birds shipped from Schlecht Hatchery would have cost me $43.25 in Fall of 2013.

Feed
I’m going to suggest that you go ahead and use (gasp!) Purina Sunfresh or something similar but add a dollop of yogurt and some kelp…better yet, buy a bag of Fertrell Poultry Nutri-Balancer (PNB). I realize this won’t satisfy a desire for whole grain, non-GMO feed but it will get you overcoming inertia. In 8 weeks the birds should be around 5 pounds. You need 3+ pounds of feed to make 1 pound of bird so you will ultimately need 375 pounds of feed to raise 25 birds. Make that 400. 8 bags of feed at $17 each will run you $136. We add fish meal for the first two weeks to bring the protein level in the feed up from 19% to 21%. Obviously this adds to the feed cost. If you can’t find fish meal use game bird feed for the first 2 weeks. Right now 26% game bird feed is cheaper than 19% grower. Add in the kelp and/or the PNB and you are more in the $175-200 range. Just totaling chicks, shipping and feed brings costs to something like $1.94/pound of packaged meat. Economies of scale are working against you…don’t be discouraged. You aren’t producing the kind of bird you can buy in the store so don’t compare your prices to theirs.

Chick Arrival and First Few Days
I want to start this section with a warning. Chicks die. No matter what breed, you are going to lose a bird or two. It is going to happen. You may find a dead bird in the shipping box. You may find a weak bird in the box…that you nurse along until it finally dies. Birds die. Birds that die after about 4 or 5 days are your fault. Before then, it’s just sad. Move on.

However, birds also live. Birds you think will never make it are running around the next day. Those are the birds to watch out for. It seems that birds that get off to a bad start never recover…meat birds are the worst at this. Friends have raised whole batches of birds after a brooder disaster (got cold) and they are always small, inefficient birds. Do things right in the brooder and everything goes better.

You will need some sort of brooder. For 25 birds you can get by with a 100 gallon poly water trough or an old bathtub and a red heat lamp that you can adjust if the birds get too hot. I like the poly troughs because there are no corners for birds to get smashed in, the sides are too tall for escape and there is no chance of a draft. Also the trough has other uses. Bed the birds on non-cedar wood shavings or chips and keep adding fresh shavings day by day. You will find that the bedding warms as it decomposes and things begin to make their home among the chicks adding protein to their diet and boosting the chick’s immune system. You won’t want to do this in your living room. For the first few days, feed the chicks in an upside-down frisbee. Dig down a little so the frisbee sits level with the bedding. The birds will make a mess with wasted feed but they’ll eat well. In a few days you should switch to a covered feeder. You should have at least one quart drinker in the brooder for your 25 chicks and you need to keep it full. Put a tablespoon of sugar per quart of water for the first two or three days and never give new chicks cold water. We have also found our birds try to stand in the drinker then risk hypothermia. We control that by putting marbles in the drinker bowl to just below the water level. The lip of the drinker should always be just below beak height so it stays clean. We find the most success placing the drinker on a brick buried in the bedding for stability. Add bricks as the chickens grow and as you add bedding.

You’ll need to watch brooder temps during the heat of the day and keep them warm at night. Gradually decrease the brooder temperature after 10-14 days by raising the heat lamp a little each day. The birds will soon feather out and will be strong enough to survive overnight without a lamp but there will also be heat coming from the bedding itself. When the weather is dry and warm for a few days in a row and the birds are well feathered out plan to move them out to pasture.

Chicken Tractor
We are big fans of chicken tractors. Go ahead and build a chicken tractor sized for 60 birds. If this turns out not to be your cup of tea you can either sell it or recycle the parts into other projects or uses. We have several designs and my favorite is the hoop made of cow panels. I have used these for chickens, pigs and as a greenhouse and it would make a suitable calf shelter. I feel that most of the plans online are overbuilt and very heavy. We just try to keep it as simple as possible…and not hurricane-proof. There are numerous advantages to hoop chicken tractors beyond their versatility. You’ll see what I mean when you help someone with a flat chicken tractor gather birds on butcher day…hands and knees in chicken poop. A tractor like this should take 2 hours or less to build.

Hoop

You are going to need a dolly to move the chicken tractor. I’m not much at welding or fabrication so I traded a guy 8 chickens and he made this for me.

DollyWe based it on the pictures and description in Pastured Poultry Profits. Move the chicken tractors every day. When the tractors have more and larger birds you will need to move them more frequently. We find it is easier to move the tractors when the birds are hungry in the morning.

You will also need a way to water the birds. It is not uncommon to have 100 degree days in September and 90 degree days in October in Illinois so you should plan sufficient water capacity. We hang a 5-gallon bucket from the hoop and feed a Plasson bell waterer. The tractor and drinker should cost you around $160 to put together. You could skip the bell waterer in favor of a metal drinker but the bell stays so much cleaner it’s really worth it. Clean water is important.

Feeders
We use 4″ PVC cut in half for feeders. Remember, we’re going cheap here. Some feed falls off of the ends but the birds clean almost all of it up. Just buy a 10′ pipe, cut it into 5′ sections and rip the halves on a tablesaw…or have somebody else do it if you don’t have a saw. PVC tends to pinch the blade on the first cut so I think it’s better to make an incomplete first cut then finish later with a box cutter. I hope that’s clear.

Then take two 8″ lengths of scrap 2×2 and screw the PVC to a flat side to act as legs. This solution is cheap and should last as long as you want to raise birds. Each half of pipe should hold two quarts of feed. Put enough feeders in that all of the birds can eat at the same time. As birds grow you will need more feeders.

We usually let the feeders go empty by 6pm after the birds are 4 weeks old. We feel that letting the birds go hungry overnight boosts their overall health and increases our success rate with the birds. Less gain per bird but more total weight of live animals. Fewer flippers…birds that die of heart failure and you find them laying on their backs.

Processing
You can do this. You don’t need to buy a few thousand dollars worth of specialized equipment. You don’t need to rent equipment. You can do this.

You can do this. Say it with me. “I can do this.” I believe in you. You. Can. Do. This.

Go.

At a minimum you need a couple of sharp knives, a work surface outside (plastic table, tailgate), a bucket for offal and a pot of hot water.

Killing the bird is always an issue. I have a co-worker who joked that she was afraid of me because I am a remorseless killer of animals. Please understand, I am not without remorse. I’m a city kid. I cried when I killed my first rooster. The whole experience was emotionally draining and difficult and we ended up with this skinny little thing that was hardly worth cooking. It can be really discouraging to kill a rooster. Anyway, make a cone with a bleach bottle, screw it to a post and you are ready to go. Place the bird in the cone upside down. I hang on to both legs with my right hand and the wings with my left. When the bird is fully inserted into the cone I release my left hand and reach down to find the bird’s head. I put my left forefinger on the bird’s comb and my left thumb under the beak and pull down gently but firmly. Then I let go of the legs with my right hand grab the knife. Place the curve of the knife on the bird’s ear and push the knife through toward the back. If your knife is sharp you won’t have to saw. The knife will just go through. Don’t cut the windpipe or sever the spine. We just want to cut deep enough that your right hand gets covered in blood immediately. Then repeat the same cut on the other side of the bird’s head.

The bird will die in just a few seconds then the nervous system will begin to twitch. The cone acts to restrain the bird as it begins to twitch and thrash preventing it from breaking wings or bruising meat. In just a few seconds we are ready to scald the bird.

Plucking a bird is a breeze if you scald it correctly. All that expensive equipment just makes the scald and pluck fast when handling hundreds of birds. You are probably going to process 5-10 birds at a time. All you need to do is heat water on your stove, carry the hot water (carefully) outside, add a dollop of dish soap to the water and get to work. You might prefer to heat the water on a turkey fryer. Whatever, just don’t spend money here. Your water should be 145 degrees and you should swish the bird gently up and down in the water for 60 seconds. At that point the feathers should pull out easily. If you soak longer or hotter you risk cooking the skin and it will rip off when you pluck. Shorter or cooler, you’ll have a hard time getting feathers to release. You may need a pliers for pin feathers. I find it helps to hang the bird by its feet and pluck from the tail to the head but we have plucked our share of birds just laying them on a table.

From here on out there are any number of informative videos that will get you through it. My favorite is the Featherman video showing Salatin but Grady Phelan put up a video of the whole process with a helmet cam that’s pretty cool.

With practice you’ll need around 30 minutes to process 25 birds but the first time you will need several hours to process 5. I suggest you start with 5 birds one morning and 10 more the next. That leaves 10 more birds for a third processing date. Those final 10 could be the smaller birds of the batch and holding off a week will give you a chance to change your setup, resharpen your knives and figure out how to do it faster. In just a few sessions your first 25 birds will be in the freezer and you’ll be eating like a king.

Reflection
You have the rest of the fall and all of winter to reflect on your chicken experience. What did you think? Was it everything you had hoped it would be? Will you go back for more? What will you do differently next time? Do you think this is something you could do as a business?

You have everything you need to grow out 60 birds at a time. Maybe add another stock tank or upgrade to a 300 gallon tank. Other than than, based on our experience, I would encourage you to keep working with what you have. With just what you have you could easily finish 60 birds every month from May through September if you wanted…300 birds! We splurged and bought a used whizbang chicken plucker for $400 and we did thousands of birds with that and a stock pot on a turkey fryer frame. We were several years into our business before we contacted Featherman and we bought our equipment with profits from the previous season’s sales. Don’t buy anything you don’t absolutely need. Repeat that to yourself. This applies outside of farming too.

Can you sell the birds?
We could write a book on how much we don’t know about marketing. There are three main things to consider here:
1. Is it legal where you live?
2. Is anybody you aren’t related to interested in your product?
3. What are your costs? How much do you have to charge to make a profit?

Be sure to pay close attention to #3. Your costs are not fixed. They are not. Really. You don’t have to own land to raise chickens. You don’t have to spend $500 to build a chicken tractor. You don’t have to buy (now I know this will ruffle some feathers) non-GMO organic coconut-based chicken feed for the first batch. You can get 80% of the way toward the bird you want to raise without breaking the bank. The best way to save money is to keep it in your pocket. But you have to spend some money along the way no matter what you do. Keep track of those costs. Keep track of your time. By just raising 25 birds you are missing any number of efficiency gains you will realize with larger batches later. For example, if you can’t process them yourself, you have to divide the trip to the processor by 25 birds instead of, maybe, 1,000 birds. You with me? But you have to pay for that education and this is part of it. 25 expensive birds from now and you’ll be well on your way to your diploma.

Beyond that, we find that customers want a bird that looks like a grocery store bird. Shrink bags cost a little more but we think they are worth it for the better storage and presentation quality.

So that’s it. You just have to get your feet wet. I’m sure I have left out important details but you won’t know what you don’t know until you go find out. When you do, feel free to email us or leave a comment. We’ll do what we can to help you out.

UPDATE:
After a little offline discussion I want to further emphasize the importance of actually reading those books you bought. I have nearly worn out our copy of Pastured Poultry Profits. Beyond that, we got some good brooder tips from Andy Lee in his books Chicken Tractor and Day Range Poultry. Also we found some helpful information in the book Raising Poultry on Pasture. But just buying the books won’t do any good. You have to read them. You have to grok them. If you only have the budget for one book, Pastured Poultry Profits is the one.

I also want to say that we run 60 birds in a 8×12 chicken tractor. That’s smaller than Salatin uses so we run proportionally fewer birds. And at times I wonder if they wouldn’t be better off with 50 birds per tractor…especially if the weather prevents us from butchering them on schedule. Watch your birds. They will tell you what they need.

Egg Sale? Are You Crazy?

Our eggs are on sale again. No. I’m not crazy. I can do math.

I have X birds. They eat every day whether they lay eggs or not. They use roost space eggs or not. They need to be protected eggs or not. The costs of the bird, the feed, the housing and the fencing are fixed. What varies is the number of eggs.

egg sale 1

Let’s make the math simple. Let’s say I have 100 birds. I can normally count on 100 birds laying 65-70 eggs. But egg production varies seasonally. We get few eggs when the days are short. We get few eggs when the weather gets hot. We get many eggs when the birds are young, fewer when they get older. They take time off each fall to molt. This is a biological, not mechanical, system and, consequently, it varies.

But, again, what doesn’t vary is the cost. I own the fence and the birds…now I have to pay for it.

So let’s say the flock costs me $15/day to maintain. When the birds lay 66 eggs, 6 are going to be cracked, checked or misshapen and can’t be sold. That leaves 5 dozen for me to sell. I’m not going to work for free so we charge $4/dozen for our eggs and we bring in $20 gross, $5 net.

You down?

Right now the flock is laying more like 90 eggs/day. That’s more eggs for no additional cost, even if I can’t sell 10% of them. I add in two additional cartons ($0.30 each), and have more eggs in my egg case than my regular customers can buy. As nice as it would be to bring in $28/day, I need to sell those eggs, not feed them to the pigs. This is my chance to attract new customers. I run a 25% off sale. Folks who think $4 is too high for eggs are happy to pay $3. If I get $3 for 7 dozen eggs I’m grossing $21/day. The extra cartons knock me down to $5.40 net. That extra $0.40 is probably absorbed by the extra tray space and wash/sort time.

egg sale 3

Now, some suggest that I should use the surplus cash coming in right now to make up for the expected shortfall this winter. I think that is sound theory except for two things. First, we have a new layer flock coming online soon and should not see much of a winter production drop. Second, I don’t know what to do with all the eggs I am collecting these days. Let’s go drum up new business! Eggs are a little more than a labor of love anyway.

I’m collecting more eggs for the same cost. I’m gaining exposure to new customers. I’m making more money at the end of the day…even with cheaper eggs. But the real question is, “Why are we getting more eggs?” Good question. I think it comes down to management. Not only are we collecting more eggs overall, we are collecting more salable eggs. I’ll start with the salable eggs. With our old hoop-style chicken house we had to bend down to go in and collect the eggs…so we didn’t want to do it very often. So most days we would just collect eggs once each day. When there are more than 4 or 5 eggs in a nest box the birds tend to crush an egg or two, smearing the remaining eggs and nesting material with broken egg mess and bits of shell. Now that we can collect the eggs outside of the structure while standing we don’t seem to mind collecting eggs late in the morning and again in the evening. We are also doing a better job of keeping fresh, clean nesting material in the boxes. As a result we are able to sell a higher percentage of the eggs we collect.

egg sale 2

But we are also just getting more eggs. To the point that I plan to add another nest box array. Some of this is seasonal. Longer days and unusually cool weather make it better for the birdies. But I think most of it is due to recent changes to our housing situation. We built a new layer house on wheels. I insulated the roof of the building and provided for excellent ventilation. The high yesterday was in the 90’s but inside of the building was cool and breezy. I was removing soiled bedding from the interior of the house and dust was not a problem. I wasn’t even warm until I stepped out of the building. Beyond the house, we have just turned our birds free. Grandpa’s rock collection spans most of the farm making it difficult to step in fence posts for netting so we are just letting the older birds run. That creates a few real problems like predation, hidden eggs and birds roosting in strange places. However, the birds are able to scratch and gather from a much larger area, lowering their feed consumption. They especially seem to like the horse stalls where they find undigested oats. This would work much better if we had a larger farm. If we had 300 acres (and 150 cows) we could move the chickens further each time, keeping them busy in new places. I’ll have more to say about fully free range birdies another time.

Back to the point, more food, less heat, better housing, more convenient nest boxes…these things all combine to break all records for egg production on our farm. It’s not uncommon for us to collect 100 eggs from 110 birds.

So eggs are on sale right now with the hope that we can establish ties with new customers…customers who were reluctant to give us a chance at $4. With luck, they will try our eggs, notice the difference and offer us additional chances in their kitchens.

 

Our Chicken Wagon

Julie and I needed to find a way to make the chickens more portable. We were already moving toward building an eggmobile on a wagon running gear when we heard Ethan Book discuss the same idea on his podcast. We just needed to simplify moving the chickens so Julie or the kids could handle it alone. Too much of our farm depends on my back.

chicken wagon

Ours is an 8×12 box. It is 6′ tall on one side, 5′ tall on the other. The roof overhangs by 2′ in all directions (12×16). The interior is all bedding and roost bars with a little room for supplies. The nest boxes are all outside of the enclosure. I think we can tweak our design efficiency but overall it’s a pretty efficient little unit because of dad’s input. It also stayed cool in full sun on a 90 degree day with a breeze largely because we put a layer of insulation board in the roof. Plus it casts a big shadow in the pasture. Chickens are cool in and under the box in the heat of the day.

inside the coop

 

I plan to hang a barrel on the front to feed watering nipples that will hang down under the edges. There is a second array of nest boxes next to the first you see pictured. We had to cannibalize it from the prior chicken tractor-type layer solution. Other changes will come along but I desperately needed to just get the birds moved so here we are.

So. Thanks to dad and thanks to Ethan. We already had the idea and the momentum, Ethan just applied the spurs and dad made it happen. It turned out well. There will be more and those will be even better. If you are reading George Henderson with me you know that he used something similar…but bigger.

The Awesome and the Not Awesome

We’re up! We’re down! This is great! I can’t go on.

Ready for the awesome?

Sunday morning I was washing dishes at the sink. I could see the cows out the kitchen window including Flora, our expecting-any-day-now milk cow. Every day the kids ask me, “How’s Flora?” and I reply, “Still pregnant.” Sunday morning I could see her clearly from the window. “How’s Flora?”

“Still pregnant.”

I finish up the dishes, dry my hands and head outside to open the nest boxes and check the animals. Within 10 minutes of washing the dishes I am walking through the cows and almost fall down in surprise. A fresh, wet brown bull calf is already standing next to flora and trying to nurse. Within 10 minutes!

Here he is at 24 hours old.

DryCalf

Good little guy. The kids are calling him “Steak” but I think we’ll choose something less…pointed. He is nursing well on all four quarters and running with the herd. Vigorous calf on an early May morning. What more could I want?

Had he been born 12 hours earlier the story would have been different. Saturday night we got an inch and a half of rain and quite a bit of wind with cooler temperatures. All that rain…all that wind would have been hard weather for this little guy. Thank God he was born in the morning after the storm.

But that brings us to the not awesome. We have month old pullets in our chicken tractors currently. 3 tractors, 50 pullets each. They are growing well and feathering out…doing everything a pullet is supposed to do on pasture. 46 of them piled and died in the rain Saturday night. There is no sense in it at all. Just a bucket full of dead birds…birds that didn’t have sense enough to get out of the rain.

I don’t have words for the level of frustration we are feeling. Cackle Hatchery sent us 156 pullets, 155 made it out of the brooder and lasted until last night. Weather is always a factor and there is only so much I can do to plan for it. But I would never have imagined I could lose a full third of my birds to rain.

We are up one calf. We are milking Flora again. But our future flock was just cut back dramatically. That’s the news…good and bad. This farming stuff is hard.