We (sisters Jane Amerine and Jene Petersen) live on approximately 78 acres north and west of Springfield, Nebraska located in close proximity to the Omaha metropolitan area. This farm originally belonged to our father and is home to both our families as well as our brother’s family. Part of the property is in row crops and alfalfa. In 2002 we started raising pastured poultry to sell directly to consumers. We purchased the chicks, a standard Cornish Cross from a local hatchery. However, our model was a little different than the traditional Joel Salatin type method of having customers pick up the birds on the day they are butchered. We stored our processed birds in freezers and delivered the birds to our customers, including several restaurants in Omaha.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Prior to the 2004 growing season we raised a standard Cornish Cross from a local hatchery. While these birds are wonderful meat birds they were developed to be raised in confinement. With an aggressive feeding program this kind of bird can be ready for slaughter in six weeks. In late 2002 we noticed a new trend in the pastured poultry industry. That trend was the development of a new breed of broiler more suited to being raised on pasture. These birds were hardier, better foragers, aggressive in grazing and poultry net friendly. At the same time many consumers were discovering the benefits of a pastured broiler. These birds are typically healthier and the meat is leaner as a result of the exercise they get running around the pasture foraging and chasing bugs. In addition, there are added nutritional benefits from the birds being partially fed on greens and from being exposed to the sun. Many customers are concerned that the birds be raised humanely and confinement operations provide less than optimal condition. Our goals included: raising our own chicks, raising a bird more suited to pasture, and raising a hardier bird. We wanted to make better use of our farm resources and gain more control over our business by producing and raising our own broilers. We theorized that we could raise profitability by using a more suitable bird for a pastured environment. We felt we should have fewer losses, and in addition we would see savings resulting from not having the cost of purchasing the broiler chicks from the hatchery. We did not intend to study or compare the differences between Pastured Peepers/Corndel Cross birds and the traditional Cornish Cross. We felt that enough studies had shown that Pastured Peepers are comparable to Cornish Cross broilers in carcass confirmation, meat production, flavor and quality.
Our first priority was to determine which strain of Pastured Peeper we wanted to try to raise. Prior to submitting our grant proposal we had determined that Tim Shell, a breeder in Mt. Solon, Virginia had the best bird for our purposes. We contacted Tim and purchased 150 Corndel Cross chicks in September of 2003. At that time Tim was producing thousands of birds per season. His production for 2003 ended up to be in excess of 49,000 birds.
Over the course of the first week or so we lost about 8 chicks. That is a higher percentage of losses as compared to the chicks we purchase from the hatchery, but these chicks traveled a much greater distance so we surmised that that was probably the reason for the higher mortality rate. We did not intend to carry that whole flock through the winter months, our plan was to keep 35-40 birds for our breeding flock. We butchered about 100 of the Corndel’s at 9 weeks of age.
This left us with a flock of about 40 birds. Over the course of the winter we lost 4 or 5 due to accident or illness. Our breeding flock ended up numbering 35, 10 of which were roosters. Tim Shell provided a feeding chart to use for a breeding flock. The idea is to restrict feed in comparison which the way you would feed a broiler that was going to be butchered. The chart gives feed amounts and body weights for hens and roosters from hatch through 68 weeks of age. If the birds are overfed (or underfed as we discovered) they will not be fertile.
We found our first egg on April 1st. For the first few weeks we only got a few eggs a week. From the information that Tim Shell provided, our hens were late in laying, and our egg production was low. We reviewed the feeding chart and discovered that we had miscalculated and were not feeding the birds enough. After the adjustment was made we noticed a marked increase in egg production. It was about this time that we removed all but 3 roosters from the flock. By mid May, with 25 hens, we were getting 12 eggs each day.
The next step was to research incubation methods. We do not have a hatchery within an easy driving distance, so it became clear that custom hatching would not be a long term option. We also realized that if we had a hatchery incubated and hatch our eggs that it would not help determine if the average poultry producer could successfully raise these birds.
Since we had no experience incubating eggs we felt that we needed a fool proof incubator. Determining settings for heat, humidity and air circulation were not in our area of expertise. After looking at the different models and types of incubators, we decided to go with a model that came with an egg turner, a fan for air circulation and a preset temperature setting. This model, a Hava-Bator, held 42 eggs and also doubled as a hatcher (with the egg turner removed) so we did not need a separate unit for hatching. By late June we were getting about 20 eggs a day, so we knew that it would take us 2-3 days to collect enough eggs to fill the incubator. We also decided to purchase multiple incubators. This way if one hatch failed, we would have two others in process.
Next, we needed to figure out how to store egg prior to incubation. We referenced a Mississippi State University website with information provided by Dr. Tom Smith a Professor of Poultry Science at the university. We learned that eggs needed to be kept at approximately 55 degrees, and that the storage area needed to be somewhat humid. Eggs could be kept for up to 5 days under these conditions. After 5 days of storage the viability of the eggs was greatly reduced. The website also discussed which eggs to keep for incubation. We learned that if the eggs were too dirty, we shouldn’t wash them and then try to incubation. If there were only slightly soiled we could gently rub them with sand paper, but getting them wet was not recommended. Eggs that were too large or too small should not be incubated. On a Pastured Poultry internet discussion group we learned of an egg storage method utilizing an insulated cooler. We used this information to fashion our storage container. We put a 5 lb bag of ice on the bottom of the cooler. We put some Styrofoam packing strips on top of the ice and we put egg cartons on top of the Styrofoam. The Styrofoam kept the eggs from direct contact with the ice. We also put plastic cups full of ice cubes in the corners of the coolers. As the ice in the bag and in the cups melted, it provided humidity. We kept a thermometer in the cooler and if the temperature got above 60 degrees, we would add ice.
By mid June we were getting close to 20 eggs a day. We contacted a Corndel breeder in New Mexico and discussed his methods and results. He was using a commercial incubator, with good results. We filled our first incubator on July 1, 2004. The eggs started to hatch 21 days later. From 42 eggs, we got 24 chicks, not the greatest percentage, but at least we had something to show for our efforts. However the second incubator only hatched 16 chicks. After our first hatch, we realized that we had not been keeping the water reservoir in the incubators full. Since many of the chicks that did not hatch seemed to be fully developed, we went back to the Mississippi State University website and found the cause was most likely low humidity. Over the course of the summer we incubated several batches with differing results. The best hatch we had was 32 chicks from 42 eggs; the worst was 16 chicks from 42 eggs. The average was about 26. We have since learned that a 60 percent hatching rate is pretty normal for a small incubator.
We would typically leave the chicks in a small confined area in a garage with a heat lamp for a few days after hatching. We would then transfer them to the brooder. Our brooder mortality was very low. For many hatches, our mortality rate was 0%. This could be because the chicks did not have the trauma of being shipped. Perhaps it was the transition from the incubator, to the small brooder and then the large brooder. I’m sure that we gave them more care and attention than a hatchery produced chick would have gotten. If the weather allowed we put them in a hoop house brooder outside. As the season progressed into the fall we used our indoor brooder, a converted horse stall. Once the chicks got old enough to go outside, usually at 3 weeks we had virtually no losses.
We did not see the cripples that are so common with the standard Cornish Cross. For comparison purposes, we ordered 100 chicks from the hatchery in early August. Of those hundred, there were at least 10 that ended up filp-overs, or cripples.
We felt that the result of our research was first and foremost, it is possible to breed, hatch and raise Corndel Cross broilers in the upper Midwest. If two people, totally inexperienced in breeding chickens and hatching eggs could produce in excess of 200 chicks from July through October, than certainly someone with more experience and better equipment could produce thousands over a April through November growing season. We found that these birds are hardy, and that the finished product is not different than the standard Cornish Cross broiler. We found that these birds are prolific egg layers, and at one point during the season we got almost an egg a day per hen. We sold many of these eggs to our customers and they were delighted with the quality and the size. For the producer who is raising large numbers of broilers there is the potential to produce your own chicks. That decision would be dependent on the individual’s operation and how much additional time and effort they were willing to expend. Commercial incubators can hatch hundreds of chicks. The disadvantage is that you would have to maintain a breeding flock large enough to produce the number of eggs that you needed for broiler production. For the small producer, the costs are less (smaller breeder flock, smaller, less expensive incubators) so it seems an easier decision and an easier transition from purchasing hatchery chicks. For our operation, it is an easy decision to continue with the Corndel Cross broiler and discontinue from the hatchery. Another benefit we did not anticipate was that after the season was over, we butchered our breeding flock. People often refer to old laying hens as “stewing hens”, only good if cooked slowly and used for soup and initially that was how we intended to use our old hens and roosters. We discovered that these broilers were every bit as good as the young broilers butchered at 8 or 9 weeks. It occurred to us that there is no waste with this system of broiler production. Some of the roosters dressed out to be 10 lbs. We are carrying 50 young Corndels over the winter, to be used as our breeding flock next season.
This has been a very difficult part of our project for one reason. After we first contacted Tim Shell, the originator of the Corndel Cross, he told us that he was leaving the country to go to Europe to manage a poultry operation. He had compiled a list of people in the United States who had Corndels and were going to try to maintain breeding flocks. At the end of the 2003 season, Tim was no longer producing these birds. We aren’t sure who had/has access to the list of breeders that Tim compiled, but from time to time over the course of the spring and summer (and even into the fall, the last call we got was in November) we have been contacted by people all over the country who are trying to find these birds. Many of these people wanted us to ship chicks to them. Since we were trying to produce chicks to carry out the grant research, we did not have the numbers of chicks needed to send 50 or 100 to several different individuals who wanted them. We did ship fertile eggs to some with good results. The hatch rate was not as high with shipped eggs, but those who received them and actually got chicks to hatch were excited that they had at least a few chicks from which to build a breeding flock. Our problem with outreach is that although we are happy to share what we have learned with other producers, we do not have the capacity to supply those people with Corndels. Right now we have a waiting list of people who want eggs in the spring of 2005.
The pastured poultry internet discussion group that we monitor has mentioned Corndels several times. Generally someone will bring up the topic and ask if anyone out there (the participants are from all over the world) know where there are any Corndel Cross birds available. The response comes back from all over the United States that no one knows where to find them.
As a result, our outreach has been selective and one on one. If people contacted us, during the previous growing season, as a result of finding our name on the breeder list, or because of a SARE publication, we offered to provide eggs to them. We also enclosed a copy of the feeding chart that Tim gave us, and gave them tips on storage, incubation and brooding and in many cases included pictures of how we set up our incubator and brooders. Several people asked if they could get eggs next spring and we have told them that we will try to provide them.
When we made our project proposal we did not know that we would be one of the last breeders in the United States to get breeding stock from the originator of the breed. Had Tim Shell not left the country it would have been easy to refer people to him to purchase breeding stock as he was producing thousands of birds per season. By the time we got our chicks form Tim Shell the breed had become quite well known in the pastured poultry industry. Once the source of breeding stock was gone, and given the interest that had been generated by positive results with the breed, we found ourselves in a difficult situation. We found our project ended up to be bigger than we anticipated in that we now feel some responsibility to perpetuate the breed. However, given the size of our operation, we feel we can only do that one request at a time.