So, How Hard Could it Be?

Welcome to 2013.  It’s time to order your chicks or make preparations for the feeder pigs you’ll buy in March and generally get ready for the growing season.  Soon the farm stores will offer chicks for sale and you’ll be tempted to finally take the leap.  This is the year.  We’re really going to do it!

Good for you!  But let’s approach this with a measure of sobriety.

Joel Salatin signs copies of his book You Can Farm with “Oh, Yes you can!”

YouCanFarm

You can.

But you can also underestimate how hard it is going to be.  How hard it will always be.  You may become more efficient at keeping your little flock of birds and you may get faster at processing chickens…but that will just encourage you to raise more next time.  Your profit margin will always be low but you can increase your cash flow by moving more inventory.  So, you raise a few more.  You are better at the work and more efficient per unit of chicken but you are still DOING THE WORK!  It is never easy to roll out of bed at 2:00 in the morning, find your shoes, load your gun and run outside to kill whatever you can hear attacking your chickens this time…only to realize you forgot your pants…and it’s 20 degrees.  The next morning you will be tired.  This cycle can continue forever.  More production, more skill, more raccoons, more chickens, more customers, more packaging, more ice, more, more, more forever.  Forever.  Forever!

So, yes, you can.  You really can.  But it’s harder than you think.

When people ask me how to get started we try to sit them down for a serious conversation.  These same discussion is written in numerous farming books but I think it’s worth hitting the main points before moving on.  All of these are #1 but I have 5 number 1 rules.

1. Start small.  No, smaller than that.  If you want to raise chickens, raise as many as 50 for yourself.  Just see what all the fuss is about.  Ideally you’ll brood broilers late in summer about 7 weeks before your first frost.  Then you can butcher on a cool day when the flies aren’t flying and you’ll have all winter to consider your experience.  Or just skip the broilers and brood 6 layer chicks.  6 birds will give you far more eggs than you can eat.

2. Go slow.  Don’t start out with layers, broilers, pigs and a goat.  The learning curve is too steep.  If you feel you have a good handle on raising and selling broilers, maybe try your hand at a couple of pigs.  Once that is mastered, add the next thing.  Take your time.  Pay your dues.

3. Buy the least amount of equipment you can.  Try to get by with the knives you already have so long as they are sharp and not serrated.  Boil water on the stove to scald the birds.  If you want to be fancy, borrow a turkey fryer to heat your scald water.  Hand pluck the birds.  Don’t make a big investment in equipment until you absolutely, positively have to do it.  Even then, look for alternatives.  Any money you spend is money you can’t spend again.  Dad said to me this morning, “They don’t sell capital at Walmart.”

4. Don’t go it alone.  This should be listed first but I’m too lazy to re-sort them.  If you’re married you need your spouse on board.  If your spouse doesn’t want to use a bucket potty just give it up.  It’s not worth your marriage to go potty in a bucket.  It’s also not worth your marriage to bask in the glory of a compost pile full of blood and feathers.  If you’re not married, consider finding someone to help you.  Animals eat every day.  Even when you have the flu.

5. Read books.  Shoot your television, get on a first-name basis with the librarian (you’ll sell her chicken later), park your tookus in a comfy chair and start going through your book pile.  Goat Song gave a great example of this recently.

So what’s this all about?  A couple of things.  First, I was sad to read that our friends at Porter Pond Farm are hanging up their hats.  They worked hard, ate awesome food and fed their community.  But they worked hard.  They may have worked too hard.  Take a moment, follow the link and read their story.

There is a lot of temptation to mash the accelerator pedal of farm production.  “By golly, if 100 chickens and a cow are good then 2000 chickens and 10 cows will be great!  Heck, with 20,000 chickens and a 40-cow raw milk dairy we could ditch our day jobs…and we could do it in 3 years!”  Well, yes, you could…but I really don’t think you can.

The first thing you have to do is start.  You will never begin if you don’t begin.  You begin at the beginning.  But start slowly.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Holy cow.  Let me give you a personal, non-farming analogy.  I tried my first Crossfit workout on 11-30-2005.  One heck of a workout.  I looked at the list of exercises (jump rope, jump to a platform, do a modified push-up and climb a rope) as many times as I can in 20 minutes.  No problem.  I’m young, strong and in shape.  I’ll probably knock out 8 or 10 rounds.  No problem.  I gave 100% for 20 minutes.  I was so wrong I even posted a comment on the site:

I honestly thought I was going to die.  Double unders are hard, but the burpees did me in.

First crossfit workout.  2 complete rounds, much tired.

I bit off more than I could chew.  Now, I was young, stupid and a total glutton for punishment so I came back for more.  And more.  But I backed way off on my intensity and my expectations and that paid off.  I was a bit of a fanatic for a few years there.  The intensity and discipline required to maintain that performance level ultimately proved more than I could maintain.  Because I realized my error early on and backed off for a while, sought coaching and took my time building skill I was able to achieve some real successes in CrossFit and make positive contributions to the community.

Back to farming, you have to start.  Read a book, raise a couple of pullets, whatever you do start doing and start having fun.  Playing Around was published in October.  It wasn’t my most popular post but, to me, it was one of the most important.  One of my key ideas in that post was the notion that I don’t want to do this alone.  I want my family on board with me.  Among other things, it triggered a response from a beginning farmer we met earlier in the year.  We spoke to him and his lovely bride over Skype one afternoon, making the suggestions listed above (including the reference to the humanure toilet).  In his eagerness to get rolling, he didn’t listen to me.  He raised something like 300 broilers right out of the gate, bought all new Featherman equipment and included pigs in his operation…and, by my reckoning, was amazingly successful.  But, after reading my post about making time to play he responded to me:

“I don’t want to farm alone.”  Chris, that is something I am starting to understand at the end of my first production season.  All my past farming experiences and internships had been a team effort.  This season it was primarily me, and something was lost.  There are other concerns, but recently I stopped having fun and I am ready to call this a learning experience and move on.  I have so much passion for natural, responsible, sustainable farming–I had to experience it.  The season was successful, all the animals turned out great without incident.  I am proud of that, but I have lost my vision to continue.  Maybe I went too fast and burnt out.  Maybe I am unwilling to make the family and financial sacrifices necessary to get through the rough curve of starting a small farm business.  Maybe I finally found a challenge too big for me to handle.  Maybe my joy is producing food for my family and friends, not producing food for the masses as a career.  My relationship with my wife has become closer than ever over this past season as we’ve struggled with this issue.  My wife’s strength and commitment to me is amazing.  I felt the need to share my recent thoughts with you after reading your blog this morning.  I have a deep respect for everything you are working towards.

I responded, as I often do, with too many words.  Just as I told him to slow down getting in, I now wanted him to slow down getting out.  Here are several replies edited into one:

…go back and read Salatin.  I can’t figure out which book but somewhere he says his first year they raised 450 broilers and gave half of them away.  The second year they raised 300 and didn’t have enough.  In PPP he says he raised 1,000 birds his fourth year.

This is hard stuff.  I completely understand what you wrote but don’t let a season of discouragement prevent you from pushing forward.  Sometimes it’s hard.  I have probably 60 dozen eggs I can’t sell right now.  Soon I’ll solve that problem [ed: I sold them].  Who knows what is next.  If it wasn’t farming something else would ruffle my feathers.  I’m grateful to be in a position where too much food is my worst problem.

If it isn’t for your wife, it isn’t for you.  But if you and she are willing but discouraged, stay the course.

He replied a few more times giving additional detail (again with a little editing):

 I have at least 100 beautiful chickens down in the freezer.  Thankfully they all fit, but I really overestimated my market.  I’m really disappointed actually.  People know about my birds, over 100 people alone on facebook, and I’ve given away over 20 just as samples.  Even most of our family won’t drive out to get some great chicken.  I just didn’t get enough positive feedback this season to feed my vision.  And after studying my numbers closer, and after 3 weekends of serious processing,  I can’t ever see reaching 10,000 birds or anywhere even close, not the processing of or the selling of.  I am disappointed that I may not be able to make it work, especially when I have neighbor kids who come over just to marvel at the pigs and chickens–and these are rural kids.  Sad that they’ve never seen a pig up close before.  But i can’t ask my wife to sacrifice what it would take for me to commit to this in a way where it could work.  It’s not her dream.  Well, you can see I’m really tore up about this, just need to get it out.  Thanks again for listening.

We responded saying 100 extra chickens was not a problem.  He could host some friends for Sunday afternoon football and go through 100 chickens in no time.  Also they start really selling closer to Christmas.  He replied:

You are right about 100 chickens not being a big deal.  We just processed our final 100 broilers last weekend, and I really didn’t think they would all fit.  Plus I need space for at least half a pig in a few weeks.  The stress of the whole situation is causing me to blow these little issues into big ones.  I’ve read and re-read Salatin.  I wish I would have taken his advice and your advice and started much smaller.  But I was way too excited.  That’s why I am disappointed.  I thought I would enjoy every second of this and spring out of bed every morning excited to be producing amazing food.  Over the season I lost something.

This is not uncommon.  Salatin talks about lending out his old plucker to farmers just getting started.  They quickly decide it’s too much work, return the plucker to Salatin and give him their customers…lol.  If you are about to take the leap please, please start small.  Ease your way into it.  Test the waters.  If possible, find customers first.  But whatever you do, dream big, don’t get discouraged and move slowly.  If there is someone else with you at the beginning, make sure they are with you at the end.

I spoke to and emailed him earlier today.  He responded with this:

Chris, it was good to hear from you today.  I did have an amazing summer, learned a ton, got in great shape, and ate some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.  I’m not exactly sure what’s next, but I hope to be processing a few chickens where ever we go.

Take your time.  Move slowly.  Seek frugality.  Relationships are more important than chickens.  Keep learning.  If you apply these ideas you’ll have fun and stick with it…for a while anyway.

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The Last Broilers of 2012

Well, it’s time.  We recieved our last batch of broilers for the year.  We were on the fence about ordering more birds but the weather cooled off a bit, it finally rained and we are nearly sold out of boneless breast meat.  At the last minute we decided to order 125 chicks.

I called our normal hatchery, Schlecht Hatchery, to see if she could fit me in the 8/15 shipment.  Etta said she had gone to hatching every other week and wouldn’t be able to fill my order until September 5th.  Well, a Sep. 5th ship date means a Nov. 1. butcher date.  I don’t want to butcher chickens in November again…too cold.  I called another supplier, Sun Ray Hatchery (also in Iowa).  They acted like they were waiting for me to call.  No problem at all with my order.

I had very good luck with turkeys from Sun Ray last summer and I have high hopes for their chicks.  At any rate, these are all destined to be cut-up birds, available either Oct. 13th or 20th depending on weather.  Between now and then we have a good supply of whole frozen birds and backs but very few boneless breasts, leg quarters or wings available.  If you are in the market for a whole bird or one hundred whole birds, give us a call.  That means it’s a good time to learn how to cook and use the whole bird.  Look for a new series on cooking the whole bird soon and check back for updates as these little birdies grow.  They will be on pasture in early September.

Before the chicks arrived we went through the normal routine.  We put a layer of well-composted (and quite warm) wood chips down in an even layer.  Then we turned on the heat lamps.  We thought we only needed two lamps but it turned out later we needed three.  No big deal.  We filled the water bucket with 5 gallons of water and 1/4th cup of sugar.  The sugar tip came from Andy Lee in Chicken Tractor.  He actually says 3 Tlbs sugar or honey per quart of water for the first 2 days.  I also filled two feed trays and two bucket lids with feed and nestled them into the bedding so they were level with the ground.  That gives the chicks a place to eat at ground level.  It’s important that they don’t have to reach up to eat and, I think, important they don’t have to jump hurdles as they run around and play.  Tomorrow they will get creek sand on top of their feed but today I just want them to drink, warm up and rest.

The post office called early in the morning but we finished our chores before driving to town.  Everybody looked great.  Julie counted 80 chicks from her crate, I lost count of mine.  There were supposed to be 125.  We’ll count them again as we unload the brooder.

Two by two we loaded them into the brooder.  I don’t know how they know but chicks know how to be chicks.  They went right to work.  Scratching, pecking, running, chasing, even drinking from the watering nipples.  Amazing.

Even more amazing was the packaging label.  Caution!  Step Back!  Dangerous Chickens!  OMG!!!  BIRD FLU!!!!!

School’s Out For Summer

It’s time for our planned summer break.  The broilers are all in freezers or customer bellies.  Just pullets and a few turkeys on pasture.  Our daily workload has dropped significantly.  Now all we have to do is feed and water in the morning, milk the goats and just check everybody a couple of times and we’re set.  Well, we have to soak the hog wallow a couple of times too.  This accomplishes two things; drains the hot water out of the 100 yard long hose so they will have cool water to drink again and gives them a cool place to pig it up.

Now, when I get up before the sun I don’t have to spend 15-20 minutes moving chicken tractors, feeding and watering.  I just open the chicken house door, feed there, water the rabbits, shower and head to the office.

We have waited all spring for this day.  We partied like it was 1999…well we watched the new True Grit and ate pizza after the kids went to bed.  Now we’ll tick off the days till we get our last batch of broilers mid-August.  We’re thinking about scrapping our big order for fall Cornish Cross chicks and ordering a variety of alternative broilers just to try them side by side.  We thought Kosher King, S&G Heritage White, Freedom Rangers and Moyer’s K-22.  Let me know what you think in the comments section.  Also, give me suggestions for alt. broilers just in case I am missing a good option.

Just a side note, I took a hog panel off of one of the hoop chicken tractors to give the pullets a bit of extra shade.  They seemed to appreciate the shade, I appreciate how many different ways I can use those chicken tractors.

The Day After

I must process chickens.
Chicken processing is the mind killer.
Chicken processing is the little chore that lasts all day.
I will face chicken processing.
I will stand here and do this all night if I have to.
And when it is gone I will close my eyes and go to sleep.
When the chicken is gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.  (Sorry Mr. Herbert)

The chickens will be gone and I will remain.  My faith will remain.  My marriage will remain.  My children will remain.  The dirty dishes in the sink will remain.  I have to do something about the dishes.

We spent Saturday morning processing chickens.  We spent Saturday afternoon processing chickens.  We spent Saturday evening processing chickens.  We spent Sunday afternoon processing chickens.  We spent Sunday evening/night packaging up chickens.  That took entirely too long.  Along the way the goats got out of their fence and the cows escaped and ran up and down the road in spite of our pleadings…you know…the normal things that happen when you’re too busy to watch your livestock closely.  Cows and goats have needs.  They don’t have words.  You have to watch them…especially when your heifer is in season.  We were so busy working we forgot to watch.

So.

That takes us to Monday.  Monday.  Glorious Monday.  The laundry room is filled to the gills with some pretty gross laundry.  No dishes were washed over the entire weekend.  In fact, the whole house looks like we have four children under 12 running amok.  Well, we do have four children under 12…and they did run amok.  At least a little.

We do everything we can with our kids.  I want my kids with me.  They are an asset, not a liability.  We don’t force them to do much (even to learn) but we encourage them to at least be outside while we are working.  When I put up hay, they pick raspberries and mulberries nearby.  When we walk 1/4 mile out to the chickens to feed, they walk 1/4 of a mile to feed (or they bicycle).  When we process chicken, they are right there with us…even if around the corner in the sand box.  If nothing else my kids know more about vertebrate anatomy than you do.

We were tired Monday.  The kids were tired Monday.  The house was a mess.  Every muscle in my body was (still is) sore but the work has to be done anyway.  “Honey, wake up.  It’s time to make the chickens happy.”

It takes just minutes to make the laying hens happy.  Dump some corn and oats out in trays, refill their feeder, check the water and open the door.  Then we make the goats happy with a few flakes of hay and a bit of water.  When the cows got out we corraled them in pens next to the horses at the other place (my grandpa called it the home place because he was born there.  I was born there.  Why don’t I call it the home place?  (How many parenthetical phrases can you put in a paragraph?  (You don’t have to answer that.))).  Anyway, the cows had to come home.  It took 45 minutes to walk the cows home along the road.  It makes the cows happy if you let them grab a few bites to eat along the way.  Then we made the compost pile happy by tossing in a few hundred pounds of chicken offal and loads and loads of sawdust, wood chips, mulch and straw.

In total, it normally takes about an hour to make the animals happy.  How do I make my wife happy?  How long does that take?  15 years and still working on that.  It takes hours to hand wash seemingly every stinking dish in the house.  I have to be at work at 8.  Nothing to do but roll up the sleeves.  Oh, and I better get some laundry started while the wife works on breakfast.

How do I make the children happy?  At breakfast, while the kids are dirtying some more dishes, I pay the kids for the help they gave over the weekend.  I pay them generously.  I want them to know there is reward for hard work…and they all worked hard.  Again, I didn’t force them to do it.  They didn’t do it for the money.  They don’t even know we live in a world of scarcity and working is the means to fight scarcity.  They did it because they wanted to.  Sound strange?  Why do you think I do it?  (Hint: I’m a grown-up.  I don’t do many things I don’t want to do.)

Also at breakfast I gave them their choice of one item out of the prize box.  The kids earn points (monopoly money) throughout the week for doing their assigned tasks.  Tasks rotate.  Training them to function as a part a working household is a big part of home-schooling…and is a skill public schools seem to overlook.  It takes time to teach a 6-year old to fold towels.  Many towels have to be secretly folded again but it lays a foundation of necessary life skill early on so we can do more focused learning later.

Everybody was tired.  There was still work to do.  Throughout the day we tried to encourage the kids to sit and read, to play, to nap or just to relax.  Though we can’t be lazy this time of year we have to have downtime.

After work Monday we tried to relax with the kids some more.  We played some video games and let the kids pick a movie.  They wanted a Star Wars marathon.  Sounds good to me.  We grilled chicken leg quarters and wings, baked potatoes, made some green beans and added hot sauce…all washed down with lemonaide.  The only complaint came from the youngest who didn’t want to eat her potatoes.  I was so tired I fell asleep watching the imperial troops enter the base on Hoth.  But I was sleeping while snuggling my little girl…and our dog.  Important stuff.

After the kids went to bed we closed up the chicken coop, fed the goats again, gathered eggs, moved the cows one last time, closed up the greenhouse, fed the rabbits…another 30 minutes worth of work.

We were tired.  We are tired.  There is work that just has to be done.  Dishes have to be washed.  The fridge has to be cleaned out.  Laundry has to be washed, hung on the line, folded and put away.  Pets and livestock have to be cared for.  We just have to do that stuff.  But the work is not the goal.  The work is not an end.  I need to make time to be real with God.  I need to invest in friendship with my wife.  I have to make time to relax and play with the kids.  Our work is not burdensome, it’s part of life.  Our kids are not a problem they are a solution.  They are not the target, they are the arrow.  We have to teach them to enjoy work, but not to be workaholics.  To respect and revere creation but not worship creation.  To honor God, to make family come first and to make the chickens happy.  That is the stewardship that counts.  This requires balance.  Yes, work has to be done but life has to be lived.

If my children run away from the land when they are grown, my operation is not sustainable.  We seek to inspire, not require, them to continue our work.  We have to demonstrate to them the value of work, the necessity of work and the importance of just relaxing with the family.  I have to show them that I still love mommy even when we are tired and make mistakes.  I have to show them that people have value outside of their capacity for work…that we value live and individuality in addition to honesty and liberty.  I am working to develop my children’t core values.  I am working to build a foundation of business that my children can expand.  I have to make sure they have a clear understanding of what is most important before I hand them the reins.  Their mommy is the most important person in my life.  Everything else can go, but mommy and I are a team.  The chicken processing is gone and our marriage remains.

That was hard.  It will get better.

By the way, my dad is awesome.  He wasn’t there the whole time but he was there when I needed him.  He’s always there when I need him.  Dad has a way of stopping by at just the right time, seeing what needs to be done and bringing new life to the work and entertaining the kids along the way or just to help catch the cows.  Thanks dad.

Time to make the chickens happy

Like the guy who gets up early to make the doughnuts, I get up early to make the chickens happy.  Every morning they get clean sheets, fresh water and a nice breakfast of fresh greens and feed.  For reference, here is tomorrow’s alfalfa:

This is the alfalfa minutes after I moved the tractor.  See how much is stepped on and eaten?

This is the alfalfa they just left behind.  Can you see where the waterer was?  How about the edge of the tractor?

You can see where the tractor has been over the last few days.  You can also see where the chickens sleep.

Intense disturbance followed by rest should make a similarly visible positive difference when the plants fully recover.

I should also point out that the waterers need nearly constant attention.  I keep a toilet brush with the tractors so I can scrub out the bell waterers several times/day.

The Broilers take the field…

Tuesday’s morning forecast called for 45 degrees but from then on it isn’t supposed to get below 50…for a while.  It snowed on April 20th four years ago and it frosted last May on the 10th so we’re crossing our fingers here.  We felt it was safe to move half of the broilers out to pasture Monday, the rest on Tuesday since they will have a week of warm, mostly dry weather to acclimate to their new home.

We bought these chicks from Schlecht Hatchery in Iowa.  Schlecht is nice as could be to work with, not too far away, their chicks are reasonably priced and, most importantly, we have a very high survival rate with their birds.  I believe they shipped us 309 chicks and 305 made it to the pasture.  That’s a pretty high percentage for anyone raising CX chicks but I would like to do better.  Some of the success was due to our management but Schlecht chicks are pretty reliable.  One batch we got from Schlecht two years ago saw 100% survival rate from post office to slaughter.

The method is simple:
1. Corner 10 or so chicks in the brooder with a sorting board.
2. Load them, 50 at a time, into the transport boxes.
3. Haul to the alfalfa field (200 yards away).
4. Unload.
5. Add feed and water as needed and fresh pasture daily until grown.
6. Kill, scald, pluck, eviscerate and chill then stuff with onion, coat lightly with butter, salt and pepper, roast at 350 for a couple of hours and serve with your favorite sides.

Bonus: We are putting down something on the order of 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre while debugging our alfalfa crop.  The second and third cuttings will be amazing!

Here are some pictures:

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Here are some excellent books on this subject if you are interested in more information:
Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin
Raising Poultry on Pasture from APPPA
Chicken Tractor by Andy Lee

Time to sprint!

Our primary sponsor, my employer, needs my attention during the best 8 hours of the day.  That means we get up early and stay up late.  Let’s run down Monday evening and Tuesday this week.  I got off work around 4 Monday, knowing I had more work to do in the evening.  I began building a compost pile.  To build that pile I had to haul the goat manure from the winter goat pasture to the new pile; wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, manure fork after manure fork.  While I was busy with that, the oldest two children were cleaning out my daughter’s chicken house.  That required one wheelbarrow plus four 5-gallon buckets then they refilled it with fresh material.  The bedding from the primary layer house and a nice, rich haul from the brooder completed the pile.

When the compost pile was finished, my oldest son and I loaded up the tractor with portable fencing and some wiring to complete the circuit to the newly repaired fence.  With the broilers safely surrounded we walked to the barn to get hay for the cows who are currently rotating around the pond, then reconfirmed that the fence was working and the chickens looked comfortable.

Once home again I fed the goats, ate a quick dinner (baked rabbit wrapped in bacon with green beans, salad with guacamole, and honeydew),  tucked in the kids and went out to grind feed for the broilers.  We finished up around 10:00 and came in to watch a bit of Dr. Who (Third Doctor) before falling asleep.

We were up again at 6:00, before it was foggy, and I went out to the pasture to check the broilers.  Everybody came through the night (I was a little nervous).  I walked back to the house and began loading up the remaining 150 broilers.  As the sun came up fog started rolling off of the pond South of the house.  The wind drove the fog North so as I drove the tractor full of chicks out to pasture I passed through a dense fog.  Chicks were all happy to settle in and started eating immediately.  I showered, packed up eggs, hopped in the car and headed off to my real job while the kids had an adventure.

Home again and the chores were waiting for me.

It’s a busy time of year and we’re often sore and short on sleep.  The work is enjoyable, the weather is unseasonably fantastic and we are making a positive impact in our family, our community and the local ecology without shorting my employer.  It’s time to sprint!