Why Does the Salatin Model take 20 Acres? That’s an excellent question someone asked the blog. Though I have only met Salatin once and can’t begin to read his mind, I’m willing to take a stab at it. This is my opinion, not his. It doesn’t take 20 acres. He suggests what is possible with a mere 20 acres. But since I have 20 acres I’ll explain why I think it’s a good number when you are starting out.
First, 20 acres isn’t a lot of ground. It’s an amount of ground that could be purchased for a reasonable price when the book “Pastured Poultry Profits” was published in the 90′s. If the idea is to get in cheap and get rolling quickly, buying 20 acres generally fits the bill. If you get started and decide raising chickens isn’t for you then you could still keep the land as recreational ground or take a stab at growing something else.
An acre will raise 300-500 broilers depending on how fast they grow out, how good your feed ration is, temperature, rainfall, bug population and numerous other factors. Let’s just say 400 birds per acre per year. As pointed out in the book, once your broilers spend a day on an area of ground you’ll need to wait until next year to bring them back. Otherwise you’ll saturate the soil with nitrogen and (probably) kill or at least damage your grass. If you are buying in all of your feed (as Salatin indicates in the book) and using all of your land for poultry production (assumption in the book) and the land is relatively flat, level and well drained you can raise 8,000 Cornish Cross birds in a year. But wait, there’s more. His goal is to net you $25,000. That means each acre of birds has to put $1250 in your pocket over expenses. So you have to buy the chicks ($1 each), feed each bird 15 pounds (or $4.50) worth of of feed. 300 birds at a time are brooded together then split up into groups of 60 in chicken tractors. Along the way you’re paying for the brooders, lamps, water, electricity and time handling. Then, once in chicken tractors, you take time each day to feed, water and move them. At my efficiency level, by the time the birds are grown I have spent about 2 minutes with each bird. It takes me a further 2.5-3 minutes per bird to kill, dress and pack them. That time is worth something. You aren’t going to process many birds alone so you’ll have to pay some help. Finally, the purchase price of chicken tractors, processing equipment, fence and freezers have to be spread across multiple batches of birds across a number of years…adding to your costs. If you don’t buy processing equipment, add in the cost of transportation and processing off-site.
SO, to net $25,000 on your 20 acres you have to make $3.13 above costs for all 8,000 birds. OK. That’s not too bad. Let’s say the birds average 4 pounds and you are charging $4/pound for the whole bird. You have just made your margin. But you still have to sell 8,000 birds. That takes time. Our first three years were 500, 900 then 1200 birds and I suspect we’ll stay at or below 1200 next year. Salatin outlines a similar schedule. It takes time for you to learn marketing. It takes time for word of mouth to spread. It takes time to build skill with the livestock, learn about seasonality, learn how to process and package. It takes time to train customers to buy in bulk rather than just a chicken or two every other week. But you only have to manage 20 acres while you’re learning and growing your small business.
If you are looking to get started, have room to grow and ultimately earn a fair portion of your annual farm income from seasonal broiler production, read the book and get to work. If $25k doesn’t quite go far enough you could augment your income with any number of additional enterprises on the same land. Anything from large market gardens, pecan trees, cows, sheep, apples, nursery stock…who knows. Let your imagination run wild or check out Salatin’s other books (especially You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming) and works by other authors like Making your Small Farm Profitable for lists of suggestions. The chickens are just one option to boost your small farm income. But that, I think, is why Salatin suggests a small parcel: manageable costs, manageable workload, steep but manageable learning curve. Again, the book lays out what is possible with 20 acres but in no way requires 20 acres. One acre will keep you busy with chickens the first year.
Now, if you really want your noodle baked, he suggests elsewhere that you should rent until you build wealth then buy to preserve your wealth. Stay light, portable, flexible and out of debt. Pastured chicken is the new black. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.