Heirloom Poultry: Cash and Genetic Conservation

Final Report for FNC99-258

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $4,996.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We live on a ten acre farmstead that is part of a 380 acres organic operation. This parcel consists of two acres of woodlot, one acre of house and out buildings, and eight acres of pasture. My father owns the farm, and grazes his cattle and some tenant cows in the pasture during the summer. In cooperation with my parents, we raise 300-800 chickens/year and 50-200 turkeys/year, utilizing the free range poultry method popularized by Herman Beck-Chenoweth.

The land has been organic for approximately eight years. The cattle graze within a modified paddock system, and we had raised chickens and turkeys for one year before receiving the grant.

The objective of this project was to: assess the competitiveness of rare (heirloom) varieties of chickens and turkeys as compared with hybrid, commercial varieties of the same in three areas:
- Growth (weight gain) and thrivability on pasture
- Customer preference at time of order placement
- Customer taste preference (at time of pickup and later date)

Process: our process included preparing facilities, choosing poultry stock, raising birds, marketing birds, and slaughtering birds.

Preparing Facilities: we needed to prepare to shelter our pastured poultry and to process them.

Shelter: We studied shelter plans in Herman Beck-Chenoweth’s Free-Range Poultry Manual and Video. Rather than starting from scratch, Martin, Jim, and Justin Kleinschmit and Stephen Rembert adapted two old silage wagons and a brooder house dating from the 1940’s. The wagons were removed form their wheels and stripped down to their platforms. Much of the wall boards were also removed, and hardware cloth and cattle panel applied to the sides to encourage airflow in the shelters. We used blue poly tarps for the roof, to shield the birds from rain and wind, but limit the conducting of heat. At this point, the wagon shelters had about a six inch gap between the floor and the pasture, between which was the skid rafters that allowed the wagons to be movable. Later, after experimenting with several materials (old fiberglass panels from a garage door, carpet, etc.) we wrapped more wire mesh around the bottom of the skid to prevent chickens from hiding under the skid and getting eaten by our many hungry predators. The brooder house mostly needed to be fixed up, and skid rafters attached to the bottom so it could be moved (we moved shelters with a tractor). It was a smaller unit and helpful for housing sick or injured birds, or sorting birds out before slaughter.

Slaughter: We adapted an old dairy barn as a processing facility. We removed the milking stalls, the cooler, pipeline, and all the other equipment. Key elements that made the barn a great place to process were concrete flooring, a water supply, and an overhead roof. After researching several designs, Bill and Martin Kleinschmit designed the processing equipment. They utilized salvaged and new materials, including old barrels, used steel, new motors, a gearbox from a garage door opener, new plucking “fingers” from a poultry processing supply house, among other items. Local electrician Steve Heine consulted on the wiring design for the scalder, to ensure correct temperature and maximum safety. Late in the season, Martin acquired an old 100 gallon milk cooler (which are getting rather hard to find). He modified the cooler so that it was a perfect chill tank for the processed chickens and turkeys.

Stephen Rembert and I attended Herman Beck-Chenoweth’s Free-Range Poultry Workshop, brining back many good ideas for organizing, managing, and performing better and more efficient poultry processing. These ideas were incorporated into the design of the processing facility.

Choosing Poultry Stock. We chose our stock on the basis of three considerations: heirloom quality, meat production, and availability. For our chicken flock, we selected Buff Orpington, an old English breed known for its dual qualities of laying eggs and putting on weight efficiently. The comparison flock was Cornish Cross. For our turkeys, after unsuccessfully trying to get Broad-Breasted Bronze, Kentucky Reds, and a few other breeds, we settled on Bourbon Reds. Our difficulty in acquiring heirloom turkeys in any quantity illustrated the problem with diminishing availability of stock other than white commercial turkeys. The comparison flock was Large White. We purchased our chicks and poults from a local broker in Yankton, South Dakota, twenty miles from the farm.

Raising Birds. We started our first batch of chickens on April 8: 250 Cornish Cross and 250 Buff Orpingtons. We broodered them in an old calf barn inside of rings made of old bin panels, on ground corn cobs. We started them on game bird starter. The Cornish Cross went through twice as much feed and water as the Buffs and soiled their bedding quickly, needing completely new cobs in less then ten days. They also grew faster, doubling their weight in one week almost feathered in only two. The Buffs took twice as long to feather out completely. After about two weeks, we transitioned them onto a mix of starter, wheat, cracked soybeans, and oats.

We moved the chicks to the portable shelters three weeks after they arrived. By this point, 25 chicks had died, 18 of which were Buffs. We parked them in 6” tall grass, leaving them in their shelters for two days so they could adjust to their new surroundings. We put up snow fencing held up by step in posts all around the shelter, two to three feet away, to allow the birds room to graze. This was also helpful while we were training them to go into their shelter at night. The Cornish Cross continued to eat twice as much feed as the Buffs, but grew at a faster rate. The Buffs were much more interested in grazing, but did not fill out very quickly. The Cornish were more susceptible to smothering and predators. One month after we turned them out to graze, we had lost approximately 150 Cornish to predators and smothering. By the time of our first slaughter, on June 24, the Cornish weighed, on average, 3.50 pounds. The Buffs weighed less than two pounds.

Based on how slowly the Buffs were maturing, we decided to get a second batch of Cornish only, arriving on June 10. Similar to the first group, they were rather high maintenance chicks, going through bedding and feed at a rapid rate, but gaining weight quickly too.

Our turkeys arrived on June 24: 89 Large Whites, and 16 Bourbons (because of problems at regional hatcheries, we were unable to get more than that). The Bourbons were significantly smaller than the Whites and had to be separated for their protection. We had a major cannibalization problem with the young poults, losing nine, over ten days. We tried many things, but the most effective intervention was to cut grass and weeds and give the greens to the poults a few times a day. That seemed to make them happy. The Bourbons were more fragile than the Whites. By the time we moved them out of the barn, we had lost seven Bourbons, and eight Whites.

After four weeks, we moved the poults onto a portable turkey roost. However, we did not know that turkeys need to be trained to roost, and had actually been knocking them back into the pens when we had seen them sitting on the pen walls, discouraging them from roosting. As a result, a third of our turkeys were slow or reluctant to roost, making them attractive to predators. We lost approximately 25 birds to predators that way. Our turkeys were also prone to wandering, making them a source of conversation for the neighborhood and consternation for us. In the end, we had 54 turkeys left to butcher, five of which were Bourbons.

Marketing Birds. In April we mailed out 125 brochures to friends and neighbors mostly within a twenty mile radius, publicizing the availability of our birds. After some research we set the price at $1.60/pound for chickens under four pounds, and $1.50 for those over four pounds. There were additional charges for other services such as cutting up or skinning the chickens. Originally, we were also going to charge for bagging and freezing the chickens, but found it was easier for us and more popular with our customers if we just included those services in the base price. Turkeys were priced at $2.00/pound or $2.75/pound if the bird was brine-smoked. We also created a specific and distinctive label for our product, and developed our own product name: Heritage Poultry.

We built on the 17 customers we had cultivated last year. Our easiest sales were to friends, family, and neighbors. We also added a few larger scale customers, including a natural foods cooperative in Omaha (for turkeys at Thanksgiving), and a convent in Yankton, South Dakota. These connections were built on the customer’s desires to promote local agriculture while buying a premium food product. Taste was the overriding issue with most of our individual customers. We had quite a few old women buy chickens from us, preferring birds under three pounds. These ladies commented that our chickens tasted like the ones they had raised. They were very interested in the Buffs, for their meatier taste. There were also a few urban customers who did not eat meat often who wanted smaller chickens. Others with families at home yet wanted chickens above four pounds and didn’t care whether or not they were Buffs or Whites. Upon follow up with ten customers, we found that the breed choice made no difference to them: these chickens tasted so much better than grocery store chicken just because they were raised on pasture, that the added flavor provided by the Buff’s breeding was inconsequential.

We worried early in the season that we would not be able to sell all our turkeys and be stuck with several large birds. However, as October drew to a close, we got more orders than we could fill. We could have sold another twenty with ease.

Slaughtering Birds. We began butchering in late June. At first, three of us working together could only process 30 birds in seven hours. We picked up speed quickly, and soon realized that a few extra hands could make the project much more enjoyable. By late October, our last chicken slaughtering dates, four people could process 75 birds in less than five hours, with another two workers spending three to four hours bagging, weighing, and labeling birds, followed by some order sorting and freezer stacking.

We learned to load sleeping chickens into the back of an old pickup with a topper the night before a slaughter day. That way they got less anxious and did not fill their crops with feed before processing. However, they would get more excitable and sometimes injure themselves, trying to escape capture. Next season, we will make wire cages to put the birds in so that they are more confined and are less able to hurt themselves.

Buffs were more difficult to process than the Cornish. Their beautiful apricot-gold feathers were denser and more abundant, making them difficult to scald and pluck. Pinfeathers were surprisingly not a big issue. Their legs were longer and their bones were sharper. Overall, they took longer than the Cornish.

We had planned to be completely finished with chicken processing by mid September and with turkey processing by early November. However, Stephen Rembert secured a position teaching elementary school in a nearby town. That limited his involvement in butchering. As a result of limited time, other commitments, and occasional weather problems, we ended up butchering chickens into late October, and finishing turkey slaughter ten days before Thanksgiving. Our chickens grew very large. At the end of the season, the Cornish averaged 6.5 pounds, and the Buffs topped out at five pounds. Luckily, we had some customers (including the convent mentioned above) who appreciated large, meaty birds, so we were still able to sell them.

- Stephen Rembert – area farmer, broodered chicks and poults, designed and built shelter and processing facilities, tended, processed, loaded and delivered chickens and turkeys.
- Martin Kleinschmit – area farmer, designed and built equipment, shelter, and processing facility, mowed pastures, helped process, load, and deliver chickens and turkeys
- Linda Kleinschmit – area farmer, broodered chicks and poults, helped build processing facility, helped market, process, and deliver chickens and turkeys, hosted field day.
- Bill Kleinschmit – area farmer, consulted on design of processing equipment
- Steve Heine – area electrician, consulted on wiring design for processing equipment
- Jim and Justin Kleinschmit – farmhands, assisted with construction of shelters and processing, Jim also assisted with feeding and watering the birds
- Jim Peterson – Extension Agent from Blair, Nebraska, spent a day helping with chicken processing and learning about the free-range system
- Sally Ebmeier – Home Economist, Cedar County, assisted with publicity and securing display opportunity at the Cedar County Fair
- Chelsey Kathol – area youth, assisted with processing
- Carol Thoene – area farm woman, assisted with processing

As mentioned above, we were researching whether or not heirloom varieties of chickens and turkeys would be well suited for small scale free range systems. We were gauging their success by these three standards:
- Growth (weight grain) and thrivability on pasture
- Customer preference at time of order placement
- Customer taste preference (at time of pickup and later date)

Growth. We found that the Cornish consumed more fed but grew faster than the Buff Orpingtons. The same was true of the Large White turkeys versus the Bourbons. The Buffs and the Bourbons seemed to be less bothered by heat, and less inclined to smother each other, characteristics that might be helpful in some climates and given our changing weather patterns.

If quick return on investment is not an issue, and you are comfortable with butchering all your chickens/turkeys at the end of the season, the Buffs may actually be a bit more efficient, given that they graze more and eat less grain in the same time period as the Cornish. However, you are then risking a greater death loss due to predators and other poultry hazards, and do not have any poultry to deliver to your customers earlier in the season. We kept track of weight gain (at time of slaughter). Here are some comparison figures:

Average Weight (in pounds): Chickens
Date, Cornish Cross, Buff Orpingtons
6/24, 3.50, 1.75
7/15, 4.25, 2.50
8/5, 5.125, 2.50
**new batch of Cornish, same batch of Buffs
8/17, 3.75, 3.125
9/8, 4.00, 3.20
9/18, 4.375, 3.50
9/19, 5.25, NA*
10/13, 6.125, 5.00
10/28, 6.50, NA*
*NA = none butchered that day

Average Weight (in pounds): Turkeys
Date, Large Whites, Bourbons
10/21, 16.50, 10.25
11/4, 19.00, NA*
11/10, 20.25, 12.00
11/11, 22.125, NA*

Customer Preference at Time of Order. Even after we educated customers about the different qualities of the breeds of chickens and turkeys we were raising, few had any preference; they were just so glad to be able to buy farm raised poultry they didn’t care what its name was. They certainly were not interested in paying more per pound just because the Buffs and Bourbons were on older variety – many felt we were reaching the ceiling on our prices as things were. As previously mentioned, there were a few older women who were interested in the Buffs because they were smaller birds and they were a breed that the women had raised themselves, decades before. Perhaps one could charge more per pound for heirloom birds in an urban area where customers might be more interested in serving and talking about “exotic” poultry.

Customer Taste Preference (At Time of Pickup and Later Date). We did not have an established poultry pick up time as such. Rather, people stopped in while doing other errands, we dropped them off while accomplishing other tasks, etc. Therefore, there was no set time for customers to do a side by side taste comparison of the types of meat on our farm. however, we did sample chicken and turkey at our County Fair (more about this in the “Outreach” section). Out of 37 visitors to our booth, only three expressed a preference for the Buff meat over the Cornish meat. Again, the comments were more about how great it was to simply have farm raised chicken.

Discussion: Therefore, given the slower rate of gain, the higher mortality rate, and the lack of customer preference for one breed over another, we conclude that at least in this Northeast Nebraska rural area, raising heirloom varieties of poultry does not translate into higher profits. We still think raising heirloom poultry is important, considering the limited genetic stock available. Plus, under current conditions, farmers must buy their Cornish Cross chicks and Large While poults (because these hybrids cannot/will not breed) each season. If a farmer were to raise their own chicks or poults from heirloom breeding stock rather than pay $3.75 or more per turkey poult, for example there might be more profit in them.

During our project we did learn many other things including: how reasonably one can turn existing structures into poultry raising processing facilities; how one can create homemade processing equipment relatively cheaply; myriad small lessons about how to better raise and manage poultry; and our own capacity for poultry production, both in terms of volume and time.

We utilized a demonstration and a field day to tell people about our project. We also attended meetings of a new farmers market, the beginning Nebraska Food Network and others to talk about our poultry enterprise and local food systems in general. We still have plans to publicize our work in print media, although that has yet to come to fruition.

On August 26, Linda Kleinschmit hosted a poultry production field day that included a workshop conducted by Herman Beck-Chenoweth. The workshop featured a visit to our farm where Beck-Chenoweth critiqued our system for the group. The workshop, partially funded through the NCR SARE Speakers Bureau, drew 30 participants. After that workshop, more than five other farmers expressed interest in raising free-range poultry.

On July 28, I hosted a booth at the Cedar County Fair where I sampled cooked portions of Buff Orpington and Cornish Cross chickens. I also provided samples of smoked turkey. Thirty seven people visited my booth. For this event and other, I created a portable display featuring photos of the project, written descriptions of the breeds, some preliminary results from the project, background on NCR SARE, and purchasing information. This display can be used at other meetings, including the upcoming Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society gathering. I also created business cards, additional brochures, and other materials.

In late July, the Cedar County News, a local newspaper, expressed interest in writing a story about our project. However, it was just at this time that Stephen was offered a teaching job and we were uncertain whether or not we could continue to raise poultry, with both of us working off the farm and raising small children. We asked the reporter to delay the story until we made a decision and now find it difficult to resurrect. We hope to gain some media coverage this spring, as we have decided to continue raising chickens and turkeys, albeit on a smaller scale.

In June, Stephen Rembert became part of a group that helped organize a new farmer’s market in Laurel, 30 miles away. He found that we needed to have a state licensed processing facility to sell our chickens at a farmer’s market. We took some steps toward getting a license, but decided not to follow through completely because his teaching job would limit his time with the operation. However, we were helpful in opening the door to selling opportunities at the market for a different local group, Main Bow Meats, who now successfully sell a promising amount of pork and beef in Laurel.

Linda Kleinschmit, as part of the new Nebraska Food Network, met with consumers and store owners in Omaha. As part of their meetings, she discussed our poultry operation, including the reasons we believe locally raised food is important to our personal and community health. As a result, we were able to sell almost 40 turkeys to the Omaha Natural Foods Coop, developing a relationship with them that should also be fruitful in the future.

Martin and Linda Kleinschmit met with a committee of sisters from the Benedictine Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. The committee was interested in how religious organizations could help farmers thrive. As part of their presentation, Martin and Linda suggested that they buy their food locally. They now purchase chicken from us and are also buying pork from Main Bow Meats.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.