We are a family farm, 20 acres, 4 miles from the city limits of Springfield MO, a metropolitan area of 400,000. We have about 2 acres of vegetables, and raise poultry on pasture seasonally. We are organic in practice, although not certified. We sell primarily through our CSA, although we do also attend a large farmers market once a week, and sell some to grocery stores and restaurants.
We have always made an effort to protect and build our soil, and over the years this has meant reducing our tillage, increasing our mulching, even establishing about ½ acre of no-till beds. We’ve increased our usage of cover crops, striving to minimize our bare soil. We’ve always raised our animals on pasture, feeling that this is the best way to ensure healthy animals and fertile soil.
GOALS: Our intent was to explore the feasibility of raising pastured poultry in deep bedding in a portable hoophouse with portable electrified poultry netting on a winter pasture mix of rye, vetch, wheat, and rape. If successful, this will provide a fresh, high quality pastured broiler for local markets at a time of the year when most growers are selling frozen birds from November harvests, plus a timely source of fertility for our market garden.
We purchased and constructed two different types of portable hoophouses, the first made of 3/4 inch EMT conduit, which was 12 feet wide, 32 feet long, and about 7 feet tall. This was readily available to us. We bought it from a nursery grower who was going out of business, and it is very portable, even by hand, using dollies to move it short distances. It’s plenty big to use for poultry housing, up to about 500 starter chicks, or 200 plus adults. The second hoophouse we built is a 20×50 foot steel tubing tunnel, on wooden skids, with chicken wire sides under sidewall curtains which roll up. This was also readily available, as it is a standard sized kit used on lots of small farms.
Both structures were covered with 4-year greenhouse plastic, to get plenty of solar gain and sunlight into the structure in the cool, short days of winter. Both houses were filled with 6-8 inches of oak sawdust from local sawmills, which we have come to appreciate as a great bedding material as it is so easy to turn, is very absorbent, is very cheap, and makes great compost after it’s loaded up with chicken manure. We tried two different brands of poultry netting, one type from Premier, and one type from Kencove — both electrified with stainless steel strands woven into the poly twine. We started chicks under hover brooders, which we purchased used at an auction. Previously we had used heat lamps suspended from above, but we are much happier with the hover brooders, as they cause much less piling up of baby chicks. For waterers we used Plasson Broiler Waterers, from Gillis Ag Supply, which have been tried and true waterers for us, as they are very easy to field maintain, they operate very well on just a siphon, and they seldom malfunction. We tried to establish cover crops/winter broiler pastures of rye and tillage radishes and rapeseed, sometimes with more success than other times. We usually try to get our broilers to harvest weight (about 5 lbs dressed) by 10 weeks, and we process about half our chickens on farm, while the rest are taken to a local small USDA inspected facility. We turn bedding as needed with a longhandled hoe, or between batches with a rototiller. We spread the composted bedding with our front loader, after moving the hoophouse off the bedding.
This project was carried out entirely with on-farm staff, including Curtis Millsap, the primary farmer, and several interns, including Riley McCormick, Jack Walter, and Wes Hunter.
The overall results of raising broilers through the winter months were not particularly successful; Hoophouses are good for extending the season for a month or two on either end, getting an earlier start than pasture pens would allow for, and allowing us to reliably raise broilers into early December, grazing them on vacated garden space and cool season cover crops.
However, once winter really sets in, with night time temperatures constantly below freezing, and daytime temps in the 40’s and 50’s, there is not enough warmth to reliably ventilate the hoophouses without chilling the broilers, which have minimal feather covering, especially compared to layers. This encourages the build up of moisture on the plastic of the hoophouse, which led to a constant rain shower all night until the moisture froze, and then beginning again in the morning, until it got warm enough to ventilate. This led to high fatality rates, with quite a bit of pneumonia, something we never see in our warm season birds, and difficulty keeping the bedding from compacting and staying wet, which created perfect conditions for Cocciditis, which we never saw, but kept expecting.
The birds were extremely variable in weights at 10 weeks, from 2-4 lbs, and consumed considerably more feed than they do during warm months, which is probably in part because of the brevity of their grazing period with shorter, cooler days. The variable weights were most likely due to cool, wet, stressful conditions leading to illness and poor feed conversion.
The winter pastures of rye, radishes, and rapeseed worked well as a feed source, however we got almost zero regrowth. This means we would need a lot more pasture than we usually allot for a batch of chickens because they can’t return to the same pasture, and that it is not particularly effective as a cover crop, because it is destroyed by the chickens in one grazing. The additional fertility was good, but the bare soil in the winter was something we were trying to avoid. I think that if we do any more late fall, early winter broilers, we’ll pasture them primarily on land in more permanent pasture grasses.
We will continue to use chickens in winter garden rotations, however now we focus on using laying hens, which are much better suited to the cold conditions, as well as being more adaptable to a range of pasture conditions.
We continue to use the electrified poultry netting, although we don’t always electrify it; we find it contains the chickens pretty well without electricity, while the dog is more effective against predators than the electric fence was. Over time we have developed a preference for the Premier electro-net, which has better resistance to rabbits, due to having woven uprights. At first we liked the way the Kencove fencing stood straighter, with molded vertical stays, but over time the rabbits repeatedly chewed the verticals, leaving extended gaps in the bottom of the fence.
Overall, we will not raise broilers again in the winter, however we do feel this is a reasonable and even very advantageous way to raise laying hens. It allows us to capture the fertility, and provides pest control benefits and the field cleanup benefits of chickens, while still using the fields for production of veggies in the main season.
Hoophouses have stayed our chicken housing of choice, partly because they are so portable and flexible, and partly because they are quite cozy on chilly morning and evenings in early and late season.
I feel like this particular project was not helpful in a financial or ecological way; the added cost of feed, with the lower feed conversion rates, made winter broilers marginally profitable, while the bare soil left in their wake was a potential erosion problem. On the other hand, this did lead us to look closer at layers, which has been only marginally profitable in cash terms, but which pays big dividends in fertility and pest control.
We host hundreds of visitors at the farm each year, plus up to 10 interns, and several structured farm tours, put on by the Extension or other farming organizations. We always talk about hoophouse structures, what they are good and not so good at, both when people visit us on the farm, and when I travel and present about our farm, such as at the Small Farm Trade Show, the Nebraska sustainable agriculture conference, the Great Plains Growers Conference, or a multitude of local presentations in the Ozarks Region.