More Layer Pullets

Early in the Spring (or late in the Winter) I ordered 250 layer pullets.  Then I got cold feet and sold 175 of them at 8 weeks.  That worked out well in some ways.  It covered my expenses so the 75 or so I kept were basically free but in other ways it didn’t work out so well.  I still don’t have enough birds to meet the demand for my eggs.

So we ordered more pullets.  It took a couple of tries to find a break in the weather and a hatchery that could fill my order on short notice.  I was looking for 100 sex-link pullets, no Whammies.  At the last minute I called Cackle Hatchery to find out what they had left.  They could ship 35 Cinnamon Queen and 5 Red Sex-Link.  Sold.  Then I called Schlecht.  Schlecht closes at 4:30 on Friday.  Etta didn’t answer the phone.  I did get her by email.  She promised 25 Golden Comet pullets.  65 birds.  I can make do with 65 birds.

The Cackle order arrived Wednesday morning but was short by 10 birds.  We are expecting another shipment on Friday.  The Schlecht order arrived early Thursday morning.  They were a little sluggish but looked good and there were 5 extra birds!  A few minutes under the heat lamp and they were ready to go.

I have talked about this before but here’s the setup again.  They are in our 8×8 outdoor brooder.  It is easy to warm, easy to get into and comfortable for the birdies.  We use nipple waterers because they stay clean.  The chicks figure them out almost immediately.

We give them broiler mash in trays for the first few weeks.  I want to get them off to a good start.  After day two they get creek sand to get their gizzards off to a good start.  We try to give them constant access to fresh greens.  Today I dropped in two big handfuls of alfalfa chaff from the hay wagon.  Just like you, chicks need to eat their greens.

These birds will remain in the brooder for 2-3 weeks depending on the weather.  Then we’ll move them out to pasture where the older pullets are and pop them into chicken tractors.  That will give them a chance to grow out without being picked on by the bigger birds but will also give them a chance to socialize with the bigger birds a little bit.  By being on pasture they will get the best possible nutrition and will always leave their manure behind.  Raising them on pasture really makes a bird that can’t be beat in terms of health.  Our future flock, your future eggs.  Healthy birds.

The Turkeys Have Arrived

Last year we ran only Broad-breasted white turkeys.  They were very entertaining, easy to sell but hard for us to manage.  This year we are only raising a few…so if you want one you should speak up soon.

Turkeys are very fragile animals.  Give them any excuse…any excuse at all and they’ll die.  In spite of this we harvested 19 of the 20 birds Sunray hatchery shipped us (#20 broke a leg at about 3 weeks and I put him down).  This year we ordered 5 white and 5 bronze turkeys from our friends at Schlecht.  These ten arrived with our latest batch of 300 broilers.  Unfortunately, one chick and one bronze turkey didn’t survive the post office…further reinforcing our decision to drive to Iowa to pick up or next order in August.

We have moved out of the greenhouse into the outdoor brooders.  It can still be a bit chilly in the evenings so for the first few days we cover the ends with plastic (plastic we found out in the pasture that was used for round bales years ago).  All 300 are in one 8×8 for now.  Soon we’ll split them between the two brooders but early on they like to be close.

Can you spot the turkey?  Look for the one that has the start of a snood.

This one is easier:

Here are a few close-ups.

Broad Breasted Bronze

Broad Breasted White.  What is it saying?

Keep your fingers crossed.  We are still pretty nervous about raising turkeys.  They are so fragile.

If you have heard or read that turkeys should not be raised with chickens…well, we heard that too.  But it works and works well.  The chickens seem to show the turkeys what to do.  Joel Salatin talks about it at 5:00 in this video:

Don’t be afraid to get yourself a few turkeys to raise with your broilers.  Once they are out of the brooder they are pretty durable.  One turkey faught off a raccoon last year, removing the raccoon’s eye.  Be careful because they seem to go from 15 pounds to 25 pounds overnight.  We found it’s a little harder to market a 25 pound bird than it is a 18 pound bird.

Getting Started with Broilers

If I were just starting, if I knew absolutely nothing, and if I lived in town and wanted to raise broilers, how would I get started?

Let’s make sure you know what you’re getting into.  You’re going to raise a broiler.  These are typically a hybrid chicken selected and bred to gain muscle mass in the minimum amount of time.  The cornish cross hybrid will eat nearly 18 pounds of feed over the course of it’s life.  That’s nearly $6 worth of feed per bird if you buy at the major farm supply stores.  Each chick will cost you at least a dollar, purchased mail-order from a reputable hatchery.  Because these are high-octane birds and you are inexperienced, there’s a fair chance several chicks will die.  In spite of my experience, there’s still a chance my chicks will die.  The animal and the feed will cost you more than a similar-looking finished product costs in the store.  No, your chicken will not compare to that $7 factory bird but there really is no comparison on quality.  With me so far?

Good.  Let’s start at the end.  These are birds for eating…as in they will die..and you will eat them.  These aren’t pets, they are radishes.  You harvest and eat them.  Don’t think you can do the work personally?  No problem.  You can drive (possibly for hours) to a processing plant.  Go into this with the right attitude.  These are food.  You are growing them for food.  If you’re still with me you need to see the work being done right so you can make sure you handle your birds in a humane and safe manner or you can make sure your processor does the same.  Several of these videos that were filmed by David Schafer of Featherman Equipment feature Joel Salatin.  Those two men have done more than anyone else to pioneer efficient, humane small-scale poultry production.  I’ll post links because they aren’t for the squeamish.  We got the most out of the Polyface Processing Overview video.  The Other Featherman Videos are the very best we have found online for every stage of poultry processing at various levels of scale.  If you want to see true, large-scale processing there are videos you can watch but I don’t have any I can recommend.  I can’t imagine standing in one place all day making the same cut over and over and over.  I can’t imagine wanting to watch a video of a worker standing in one place all day making the same cut over and over.  That’s tipping toward a rant so I’ll just stop there.

You also might try to find a local pastured poultry producer who processes his own birds for a more personal demonstration.  You’re welcome to stop by our farm anytime.

Now, assuming you’re still in for the long haul, how many are you going to raise?  Let’s say you’re just going to put your toe in the water and raise 25 birds in your suburban backyard for your own consumption.  Yes, it’s probably illegal but that’s the hypothetical situation.  You can deal with issues of morality vs. legality vs. nobody will care, they are only on pasture for 5 weeks and the healthy meat is worth the fine besides your lawn will look great.  Begin by reading this book.  You can read while you are waiting for the post office to deliver your chicks.

Image from Polyface Farm website. Click image for detail.

So, 25 birds.  Those 25 baby chicks will need a brooder.  Almost any brooder will do.  Use plenty of wood chips or course sawdust from a sawmill to build up deep bedding underneath.  Make sure there are no right angle corners where the birds could pile up and crush each other.  Watch the birds under the lamp to see if they are huddling, panting or whatever.  There are a million resources online for brooding chicks so I’m wasting your time here.  Don’t forget to add creek sand.

While your brooder is keeping the birds warm you need to build a chicken tractor.  I’m going to suggest you build an inexpensive hoop structure as in this link.  It’s going to cost you $200 and a couple of hours to put together but you can cover it with plastic and use it as a greenhouse to extend your garden season spring and fall.  That will help you recoup some portion of your infrastructure costs.

At 3 weeks (at the latest) you’ll move the birds to their new home on pasture.  Get ready for growth.  The chickens will flourish on grass and clover.  Every day that structure needs to move to fresh grass.  If the structure is 8×12 (as mine are) and you have it stocked with a mere 25 birds you can get away with moving it every other day, though every day is better for the birds.  That means you need at most 35 8×12 spaces for that tractor…about 1/8th of an acre…half of a suburban yard.

Still on board?  Good.

99% of Christopher Columbus’ trip was just going there. Once the chickens are in the tractor it’s just a daily grind of move, feed, water, feed, water, feed, water and move again.  They don’t need much from you, just fresh pasture, feed, clean water and security.  Security.  Everything likes to eat chicken.  There are a lot of raccoons in suburban areas.  Good luck.

Early one morning in the 8th week after the chickens hatched you’re either going to sharpen your knives and get to work in some way displayed in the videos above or a variation thereof or you’re going to truck the birds off to slaughter elsewhere.  The end result is the same: nearly $350 worth of meat.

Let’s review.  You paid $25 for chicks.  You paid $150 for chicken feed.  You may have paid $2 per bird to have them processed or you bought some good knives, heated water on your stove, hand plucked, eviscerated, chilled and bagged the chickens yourself…maybe totalling $50 anyway.    That money is spent and gone.  You paid $200 to build a chicken tractor and another $20 for the brooder and supplies for it.  Thest two could be sold to recoup costs.  At this scale, you’re paying an absolute premium for your chicken.

Obviously, I think it’s worth it.  Beyond the meat you have also gotten a broad education that covers how to raise poultry from start to finish, ecological and environmental stewardship and a new depth of understanding of what real food costs.  You also either learned that this is something you could do or you learned that it’s better for you, personally, to outsource your chicken raising to a gifted farmer nearby (like me).

I hope you find out it’s for you.  I can’t raise anywhere near enough chicken to meet customer demand.  Not only do I need help and assistance with bulk purchasing, I need competitors.  I need someone to push my efforts toward ethical efficiency.  You, as a consumer, need pastured producers with open door policies to become more numerous and more efficient so prices can fall.  We can only achieve this goal with more consumers.  I can’t handle more consumers alone.  I need additional growers…who will become competitors.  With luck I’ll be pushed out of the poultry business and can focus more on dairy, hogs, forestry, gardening or whatever is next.  I’m ready.  I need you to get started.  Now.