New Layer House Prototype

I like the cow panel hoop chicken tractors so much I thought I would try my hand at making a layer house out of them.  This will solve several problems for me.  Primarily, I don’t want to clean out bedding in a layer house on pasture.  Also, I don’t want to use a tractor to move my layers.  This design has several drawbacks though.  First, it’s open on both sides.  An owl could fly right in and ruin my day.  Second, I have some concerns about the weather.  We’ll certainly keep them in a greenhouse over the winter.  Anyway, here it is.

The crossed 2x4s support the hoop and prevent it from swaying.  Then there are roost bars across the span.  I may need to put in two more 2x4s to prevent the roost bars from drooping.  I also may need to lower the roost bars a bit as the pullets grow.

Overall though, I really like it.  I plan to hang nest boxes off of one side or both.  For now these birds follow immediately after the chicken tractors and I move their house daily.

We had a bit of a circus rounding up the pullets in the greenhouse to move them out to pasture.  Everybody helped and after a little while, all birds were caught, their wing feathers were clipped and they were packed into crates for the big move to the alfalfa field.  Once there, we had a good time convincing these birds they needed to roost in the structure.  Oh well.  Keeps things interesting.

Now, it just so happens that I have a few Americauna pullets to spare.  If you know anyone interested in them, please let us know.

I’ll keep you posted on how the house works out.  We’re two days in.  So far…so good.

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.

The Whole Fleet

We built our recent chicken tractors after those of Joel Salatin.  The term Chicken Tractor, as near as I can tell, is something Andy Lee gave us.  In Pastured Poultry Profits Mr. Salatin describes a 10x12x2 structure that is lightweight and fairly easy to move.  We built ours as 12x8x2 but otherwise the original tractor is quite similar.  We built it out of scrap material we had laying around.  What could be better?  …or heavier?

That thing is a tank.  It has all kinds of bracing and is made with heavy steel siding rather than the prescribed aluminum.  But, it works.  When we were designing the second tractor we went with fewer braces and lighter steel.  The result was better but not great.

It may not look a lot different but it is a lot lighter.  I was bitten by the bug.  I built a third chicken tractor to see how light I could make it.  Further, I built the third to address a serious issue, heat.  I left the sides off entirely so the wind could blow through and keep things cool inside.

It worked remarkably well.  It is light but won’t blow away in 50 mph March winds.  It stays much cooler than the other two tractors.  But there is a problem.   This spring I have lost zero chickens in the other tractors but I have lost four in this one.  Four.  For those of you playing the home game, that’s a big number.  There appears to be something about that open side that stresses the birds.  I now have a tarp covering the South side of the tractor as it is light, portable, inexpensive and temporary.

That takes us to the fourth tractor design, a radical departure from what we have seen so far.

This tractor is the cheapest to build, the fastest to build and the most versatile.  I took one side off for the winter and raised 6 hogs in it.  I could imagine putting weaner pigs in one and moving it daily like they were chickens until they were big enough to escape, though I suppose one could wrap the interior with electric fencing to keep the pigs from rooting out.  I could also imagine using it for a calf shed or a hoop house.  The point is, it’s multi-purpose infrastructure.  We see these as the future of our fleet.

All four tractors use Plasson bell drinkers that are gravity-fed from a bucket.  We use 4″ PVC pipe cut in half lengthwise as a feeder.

Take a moment to imagine your perfect chicken tractor before you build it.  After you build it, take notes on what you would like to do differently.  Don’t be afraid to break from the norm.  By your third or fourth tractor you may have something that fits your organization’s goals.  Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm says before long you’ll end up with a whole fence row of what you thought was the perfect chicken tractor design.

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