Progress report for FNC21-1275
We are on 100 acres. We pasture-raise Shetland sheep, custom-grazed dairy heifers, and roughly 3000 laying hens. All of these animals are moved every day, at least once. Yes, before this grant we were rotationally grazing, planting prairie, developing pollinator habitat, and planting trees for nine years.
This project focuses on solving the problem of excessive labor needed within the pastured poultry industry. The majority of pastured poultry producers use portable electric netting for terrestrial predator control. This requires regularly moving several sections of heavy fencing by hand. This process is time consuming and physically demanding. My plan is to design and build a fencing system that is attached to the poultry coop and mounted on lightweight plastic pipe. The fence will slide along with the coop as the coop moves forward on pasture. This system will eliminate the time currently spent picking up and resetting lengths of fencing. It will also completely eliminate the physical demands associated with moving poultry netting.
1- Design and build a pastured poultry fence system that eliminates all strenuous fence-moving labor for farmers.
2- Identify necessary modifications for the three major types of pastured poultry (Laying hens, broilers, turkeys).
3- Document data associated with labor in terms of time and physical strain.
4- Distribute findings and construction details to pastured poultry industry through articles, a written manual, forum discussion, and social media.
- - Producer
- - Producer
With the fence system built, each farm will begin moving their respective flocks every morning to fresh pasture. Each farm will start and end at different times of the year, based on the needs of their species. Because the farms and the poultry species all have different characteristics, there will be various obstacles to manage on each farm and for each species. Every obstacle will be documented and discussed with Michael as the principal investigator and then the system will be tweaked and modified. All of the farmers will, by at least the end of the season, be able to move flocks daily to completely fresh pasture with one person in a matter of minutes. We will continue this process until we confidently feel that the entire system is well-refined. Michael will document all of the modifications and take the final list into consideration when developing the manual that will be available to the general public.
The participating farmers will document on a daily basis how much time it takes to move their flock. They will also fill out a self-reporting survey about their stress levels once per week. This documentation is designed to give us measurable results from the project.
An anticipated challenge that we will pay close attention to includes making wide and sharp turns. Michael will be sure to be at each farm during at least one turning move to observe the response of the fence and the flock. Because farms across the country are all different, we hope to tackle the primary issues that could arise when using the fence system.
Educational & Outreach Activities
There is one other farmers I've been mentoring independently who will likely build this system in the coming season.
I have offered 4 on-farm tours/demonstrations. One was directed specifically to beginning farmers through Glacierland RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development). Approximately 45 farmers, 10 agriculture professionals, and 10 members of local conservation groups were present. I gave a full demonstration of the fencing system by moving the entire system, explaining how it works, and offering detailed answers to any questions about the construction. This was very well received and I have had many of the farmers ask for a manual, of which I'm nearing completion.
The second tour was more general, offered to anyone interested in the farm. Renewing the Countryside helped host this. Several farmers came to this one, too. There was less interest in the details of the fencing system, but it was interesting to see consumers broaden their perspective on what it takes to manage a 3,000-hen flock.
The last two tours were by request. A total of about 12 people came out for these. They were interested in specifics about the dimensions and construction of the system. These were short and informal, but informative.
There are two articles highlighting our farm and its innovations coming out within the next couple months. While these will not contain specific information about the fencing system, we hope they will highlight our innovative nature and draw attention to our social media and website.
The mentorships have been very informal. I've been working with two farmers over the phone to help them refine their systems for greater production and flock health. I've encouraged them both to work toward using my system of fencing.
I've learned quite a bit from this grant so far. It is not complete, and I anticipate learning quite a bit more. However, so far, I've learned about some very specific components of the fencing system I've designed. The prototypes I had built prior to the grant included many elements that this grant has proven to be unnecessary as long as higher quality materials are used. For example, the entire frame of the sliding fence is able to swerve as it is dragged because the new corners are built with simplified, high quality materials. This has encouraged me to strip the design down to be even simpler. I've been able to reduce the quantity of the bracing and the wooden mounts. This has led to easier construction, slightly lower costs, and a higher quality system. I will continue to root out anything that does not add value to this system.
Others have been able to see the system in operation. While there's no replacement for actually building, using, and tinkering with this system, it has certainly encouraged fellow farmers to think outside the box about labor inputs on their farms. Some of the farmers will definitely use my exact system while others have made suggestions about how it might need modification for their farms. Either way, it has served as a starting point for other farmers to accept that they can improve their poultry operation.
We have certainly overcome the obstacle of excessive labor demands on our farm with laying hens. On our partner farms where we are trialing the system with broilers and turkeys, we have not quite gotten it dialed in. The turkey farm was unable to get their coop built in time to construct the fencing system. We have not begun that trial. It will begin this spring. We did construct the fencing system for the broiler farm. We've had a few issues with the birds getting out of the fence while they're very young. The pipe that we use to mount the fence onto sits up off the ground in spots, just enough for a three- to four-week-old broiler to be able to sneak under. Levi, the farmer, made a clever management modification to ameliorate that issue. He kept the broilers in the coop (as he did before the fence was installed) until they were too big to sneak under the pipe. I have not been able to see his fence in action yet because we had our second daughter this year and I've been consumed by parenting. I have plans to spend a couple days at Levi's farm in the spring to modify and observe his system.
The advantages of implementing a project like this are reduced labor within a pastured poultry operation. We have cut our labor by 8-10 hours per week. This is different depending on the type of poultry a farm raises. Levi has not experienced significant overall labor decreases because his prior system did not require moving fence. However, he has experienced fewer infrastructure costs associated with growth. He can nearly double his broiler flock due to the increased amount of access from a single coop. So, on a per bird basis, his labor has actually reduced by 50%, when considering the growth he's experienced due to the system.
The disadvantages include the previously mentioned issue of managing smaller birds that can more easily escape under the pipes. another potential disadvantage is that it offers less flexibility as far as where the fence can be placed. For example, the coop with the front portion of the fence totals 40 feet in width. That limits the gates and other physical bottlenecks the coop can pass through. A farm's larger permanent fencing system must be designed with this system as a consideration. A disadvantage we've experienced with the laying hens is a slight increase in mortality and a heavier impact on the pasture. I believe this is a product of my own enthusiasm. I thought we'd be able to increase the stocking rate per coop on our farm because of the ease of the daily move to fresh pasture. We had two coops with 900 hens each and two coops with 500 hens each. The mortality and negative pasture impact was primarily associated with the 900-bird coops. This coming season, we plan to place about 675 birds in each coop and monitor both factors. This is a disadvantage that each farm will have to negotiate on their own, based on breed of hen and forage quality.
Frankly, if asked for more information, I'd currently tell them to wait until our trials are over. There are plenty of kinks to be worked out. But, to get someone started on the path toward this type of system, I'd recommend seeing it in person and considering the layout of their pastures. Few farmers have gateways big enough to let a 40-feet wide piece of equipment through. But, fence posts can be moved (we moved ours) and it would absolutely be worthwhile to adjust bottlenecks to suit the demands of the fence system. I would also make sure a farmer has a heavy enough tractor to pull the coop and the fencing. We "upgraded" our pulling tractor to be able to pull without strain. Lastly, I would make sure that anyone using this system can commit to a "daily move" model. Otherwise, problems will arise with flock health and pasture health.
"We have personally gained an extra 10 hours per week by reducing labor while increasing our production. I will never go back to moving fence by hand" - Egg farmer, Southeast Wisconsin
"We nearly doubled our broiler business without building anymore coops, which is amazing, considering the cost of materials." - Broiler Farmer, Southern Wisconsin.
We would love to streamline the rest of the chores associated with pastured poultry - especially egg collection and feed distribution. Both of these tasks have been economized in conventional agriculture, so we know it's possible. We need financial backing to modify conventional systems to be used in daily-move pasture farming, making it readily available to any growing farm.