Bluebird Gardens operates a 2200 member CSA to the Fergus Falls and Fargo/Moorhead areas. We have 150 acres of vegetables and do cover crops in tight rotations before, during and after the vegetable crops. We follow the Albrecht philosophy and take great care to build the house for the biology in the soil. We have eleven high tunnels.
We have used cover crops for years but are finding creative ways to work them in before, during, and after the vegetable planting. We are in the fifth year of following the Albrecht Philosophy.
The core of this project is twofold. We wanted to offer our CSA members a diverse array of food, such as chickens along with the vegetables. We also wanted to see if rotationally grazing the chickens would not only help the chickens but also improve the soil.
Beginning a new venture requires lots of thought. We knew we wanted the chickens to rotationally graze. So they needed some structure that could keep them safe, offer shade and allow them to move throughout the field. We first thought of school buses. They were difficult to find and expensive. We thought of discarded house trailers. They were easy to find and cost about 500.00 each. So as our project grew, we acquired five of them.
When the chickens arrived, the challenge was to keep them warm. We used the standard heat lamps and blocked off a section in the house trailer to keep the temperature at 90 degrees F for the young chicks. Trailers aren’t made with great insulation so there were some cold periods where it was difficult to keep the chicks warm. There were a few instances where the chicks piled.
Bringing water to the field became a challenge. Chickens drink a lot of water. We had a 200 gallon tank of water that we pulled to the field on a trailer. Even then, it seemed we were always filling the tank. The following year, we installed a half inch water line out to the chickens and used automatic water fountains. This cut down on much work.
We also faced the challenge of processing the chickens. Our plan had been to drive them 25 miles to Ashby where they commercially processed chickens. But it cost 3.50 to do each bird and how would we haul 1000 chickens? (We raised one to two thousand chicks with each batch. We did about three batches each season.) In 2010 when we started this project, we were also building our packing shed. We realized it would be more efficient to butcher our own chickens. We had also read it is more humane to butcher them at the home setting so they are more relaxed. So we added a section to the end of the shed for processing chickens. We bought a new 10 by 10 foot flash freezer.
It was a wonderful project. Our CSA members embraced the idea of humanely raised, pasture-fed chickens. They loved the taste. They loved visiting the chickens with their family when they came to the farm. It was a great PR boost to our growing CSA.
But there were also hurdles. After working with vegetables all day long, we had to put the chickens in as the sun was going down. Even though we brainstormed clever ways to put them in, it was a challenge. Feeding and watering took a lot of time each day. As the chickens got ready for processing, butchering took a lot of time. Each Thursday, we butchered chickens when we really needed to be in the field tending to our vegetable crops. Another challenge was food safety. How do we manage the chickens and keep any manure contamination from the vegetable fields, when shoes and four wheeler tires went to both?
I attended chicken workshops. Levi, from Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), was a major help. As we went along in this project, our staff was wonderful to problem solve.
We did make our members happy with the free chickens. However, there were months where the feed bill was $7,000….no such thing as a free chicken. If we did it again, we would have to charge for all the chickens. They were a major drain on finances. There is major demand for pasture-fed meat. I would suggest not mixing chickens with vegetables. Both are too labor-intensive so just doing one is more than enough. We found that the vegetables that go in the box each week are the important focus of our CSA, not chickens. With food safety a growing factor, we felt we could no longer stand that risk. Our chicken butchering facility became a beautiful new walkin cooler for our vegetables so not all was lost.
As far as the soil health goes, there were many positive changes that occurred from the grazing of chickens. Organic matter did not increase but that is understandable since we used mostly legumes which don’t build organic matter. The minerals that showed very significant gain from the chickens grazing on White Dutch Clover were potassium, phosphorus, manganese, copper and zinc.
We found White Dutch Clover is by far the winner of all the cover crops we tried in the chicken taste test. It was the best because it stayed short and tender so chickens could graze on it throughout the season. We had tried Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover but it became tall and inedible very quickly. Berseem Clover was the same.
I expected oats to be a favorite but they seemed too coarse for chickens to eat. They did harvest the oats as they ripened, however. Millet seemed to be the best grass. They ate it when it was young and also ate the millet seeds when they were ripe.
Nature knows what it is doing. For the history of the earth, animals have grazed and kept the systems going without adding outside fertilizer. It appears the grazing helped our soil. We also learned that there is huge demand for pasture-fed meat. I encourage farmers to go into raising meat as we have the connection for them to market their meat to our CSA members.
For our farm, we need the focus of doing vegetables since that is a major feat in itself. Perhaps a smaller CSA could do both but they would need a good plan to keep it food safe.
We had many local newspaper stories about our project as well as AP stories that went across the country. We had a tour of fifty people through MN Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. Our many CSA members witnessed the project on trips to the farm. Our website, which has 1000 to 3000 visits per day, had a section on the chickens when we were doing them.
I also let any people wanting to get into farming know that they could consider pasture fed animals since the demand for them is so high.