Progress report for FNE22-012
This project seeks to:
- Design and build a prototype for a streamlined, automated mobile poultry coop
- Document the step-by-step building of the prototype
- Create an open-source community conversation to share plans, experience, raise questions, and provide a platform for other farmers to take the prototype and improve on it
- Compare the prototype performance against our old houses – document and demonstrate chore time, labor efficiencies, production changes (bird health, grow out rates, feed efficiency)
We hope to develop and share tactics that make automating your pastured poultry operation possible and affordable, while also illustrating that automation can create impactful labor efficiencies and healthier birds. We hope it starts a conversation about innovation in pastured poultry approaches that is accessible.
Raising poultry on pasture presents a range of opportunities for the animal, land, and farmer. Birds have more freedom to roam, access to fresh air, and can supplement their diets with bugs. The farmer can control the distribution of manure and work pastured poultry into existing operations to increase fertility and manage pests. For farmers, pastured poultry offers an increased market value for their products.
While pastured poultry is gaining recognition and demand in the marketplace, it is still a niche industry dominated by small-scale producers. As such, there is opportunity for improving systems and efficiencies for farmers seeking to reach their local and regional markets with strong return on investment. The current problem is two-fold. First, the main approaches for housing birds on pasture available on the market now are either extremely labor intensive or offer minimal increased efficiencies relative to the capital cost. Secondly, the high-level innovation that is happening currently is being driven by large agribusiness, putting it largely out of reach for a majority of pastured poultry farmers.
Most pastured poultry farmers use one of two basic approaches for housing their birds on pasture. The chicken tractor first popularized by Joel Salatin or some version of a greenhouse made mobile. The chicken tractors must be picked up and moved by hand daily, fed and watered manually, and can typically house about 80-100 birds per tractor. They are better suited to homesteading than any sort of scaled production model. With increased demand for pastured poultry in recent years, several companies began supplying mobile hoop house kits targeted at pastured poultry growers. While these structures can be pulled with a truck or tractor and house more birds, thus offering labor savings, the kits are expensive and still require additional materials and time to build.
Over the course of the last year, Perdue Farms acquired and began expanding PastureBird, a large, pasture-based chicken operation in California. They have begun to significantly expand their pasture-raised product line (see press release) and have put funds toward pasture structure innovation. PastureBird recently launched its first fully robotic, solar powered mobile pasture coops. A company named Ukko Robotics is working to bring their version of a robotic coop to market called the ROVA Barn, but its current base model price for a coop that can house up to 500 birds is $27,000. As indicated in a recent article in the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association’s bi-monthly journal, Grit, “there’s a technological push in the pastured poultry space,” but the biggest concern in his discussions with farmers is the price (Badger, 22).
The opportunity is the middle ground between labor intensive and expensive approaches currently available to small farmers and a fully robotic pasture coop that is entirely out of reach. There is room for improvement that is affordable, reduces labor stress, grows out better birds, fits more land applications, and is more accessible to farmers.
We plan to design a prototype for a fully mobile coop that can include grain storage, automatic feeding, and on-demand water. We want to bring the plans and the prototype to other farmers to begin a conversation to test and improve on our ideas. We plan to document the development of the prototype and share on social media channels, including building plans, materials lists, and lessons learned. We hope to create an open-source discussion with other farmers to build and improve on our efforts, ultimately leading to a lower cost, automated mobile coop that incorporates multiple strategies and addresses differences in skills, resources, and farm terrain.
A successful prototype and a network that can build and improve on it could help alleviate labor stress, improve productivity by enabling farmers to grow more birds with greater efficiency, increase income and return on farm infrastructure investment and improve the quality of life for farmers and their employees by streamlining labor burdens.
I began my farming career in my home state of Virginia, on a multi-species livestock farm that raised and slaughtered about 10,000 pastured broilers and meat ducks, 50 head of grass-fed cattle, 1,000 laying hens, and finished 30 forest-raised pigs a year. During my apprenticeship year, I learned the tenets of grass-based livestock management, rotational grazing, and a multi-species intensive management approach. In my second year, I took on the role of a farm manager, overseeing grazing planning and managing apprentices. It was during this time that I made my first foray into dairy farming, running a one-cow herdshare as my own side business. During this time, I learned two things – that I loved dairy farming and I wanted to pursue formal training in the sector. I joined Wolfe’s Neck Center as part of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship in 2017, with the ultimate goal of having my own multi-species livestock farm with dairy cows at the core. The DGA is a two-year, Department of Labor recognized apprenticeship program centered around grass-based dairying. I successfully completed the apprenticeship, graduating in 2019, and immediately began a one-year journeyperson position as small livestock manager in order to continue to develop my management skills.
I began my own operation in the spring of 2020, raising 7,500 pastured broiler chickens on rented land while maintaining a herdsman role at the Milkhouse Farm and Creamery. Building off a relationship that I built while at Wolfe’s Neck, I raised my birds on contract with Walden Local Meat Company, which contracts farmers to raise pastured meats that they sell across New England. With my partner, I officially launched Mayday Farm in the fall of 2020, when we began renting our current farm in Leeds, Maine. With financing from the Farm Service Agency, I purchased the farm in in May 2021. Mayday Farm is a pasture-based livestock farm. During our first full growing season at the farm, and we raised 15,000 pastured broiler chickens from May-October. In 2022, we raised 22,000 birds from April-November, primarily to meet our contract with Walden Local Meat. We raised a very small amount of birds to test the waters on our own direct market. Based on what we learned last year, we hope to expand this part of our business in the future.
In addition to the poultry, we started the dairy side of the farm in January 2022, milking about 40 cows for Stonyfield Organic. Our cows are grazed seasonally using a rotational grazing, intensive management approach.
When we purchased the farm in 2021, we had to rebuild a farm and dairy that had been out of production since the late 1990s. Our goal is to create a mutually beneficial ecosystem. We farm full-time, with mostly seasonal labor assistance. Efficiency is key to the success of our operation. The farm is about 350 acres, with about 90 acres in open pasture. We strive to keep the chickens and cows in complementary grazing rotations. Our project, generously funded by SARE, was aimed at supporting these goals and our core values: implementing practices that prioritize the health of the animals, land, and people who work with us.
In terms of farm resources dedicated to the project, the key piece of specialized equipment that has helped in the building of the prototype has been my welder. We have also depended on our loader tractor quite a bit to assist with construction.
- - Technical Advisor
In line with our objectives, we have mapped out our methods and measurements as follows:
- With the help of our technical adviser, draw up design plans for constructing and fabricating a pasture coop that can remain mobile while supporting grain storage, and streamlining feeding automation. This includes troubleshooting how to address feeder height for different age chickens, terrain, type of feeders and feed delivery, strength of house bracing and feed support, and how to power automatic feeders. These are all problems we have encountered while trialing some feed automation systems last season.
- Build the prototype based on these plans. Document each step of the building process, share materials lists and sources, discuss what we did ourselves versus what we hired out for help, document our man hour estimates and a guide to the tools and skills needed to implement the plans. Hire an architectural designer to turn our plans into 3D CAD plans that we can make downloadable. We plan to host these plans on our website so any farmer can access the full plans and details.
- Implement an outreach plan to share our detailed plans, process, lessons learned, and trouble-shooting with other pastured poultry farmers in the American Pasture Poultry Producers Association community, through our own website, and on social media.
- In order to compare our newly developed prototype against our old houses, we plan to implement daily record keeping practices that track chore time (time chores start to finish each day), feed usage (record pounds of feed fed per day in each house), and bird mortality (number of deaths indicating natural death or cull due to lameness). Birds are on pasture for a minimum of four weeks. Each week that birds are on pasture, we will weigh four birds from each house (two males, two females) to get an average weight per week for each house. We will use this data to compare feed efficiency, bird health (in quantitative terms, number of deaths per house), and yield opportunities between the houses (which houses grew the biggest birds with the least mortality and converted feed to weight most efficiently). We will also record qualitative observations of the birds in each house, particularly in regard to bird health ( i.e. leg and respiratory), manure distribution, feed access.
Our approach to analysis does not follow a proper statistical method. Our project method is based on how we can change the approach to raising poultry on pasture by innovating and improving the current landscape. The measurements will not be perfect and the conclusions may be somewhat anecdotal. Our objectives are to create a new method, share it and start a conversation.
As this is a progress report, I will comment on what we have uncovered so far in the project. We successfully constructed our prototype for a mobile pasture coop that can support grain storage and feed automation. In the course of our project, we continued to experience supply chain delays on some key materials, pushing back the completion of some aspects of the prototype. We had originally planned to build the entire frame of the prototype using steel. Given supply delays and increasing costs, we decided to build the end walls of the mobile coop out of wood instead of steel. To ensure the frame remained strong, we used thicker steel for the bottom runner of the end wall supporting the wood framing. In the end, we were happy with this change, as we do not think it sacrificed any strength or integrity in the prototype. One of our stated goals was to make the coop construction more affordable and approachable to other farmers. We felt that using wood for the end walls was a good compromise to meet that goal. We plan to include in our architectural designs as well as materials list the option of either wood or steel construction for the end walls. We also successfully designed a new bracing system for the hoop house. In prior attempts at building our own mobile hoop houses, we had struggled with bracing the hoops across the width of the house – it was necessary to reduce the bottom runners from splaying out when under pressure, but caused headaches with moving and collecting birds. With the time and resources made possible by our SARE funding, we were able to try a new bracing system that removed the need for old method of bracing the runners across the width.
Due to the supply chain delays we faced early in the project, several key elements of our methods and measurements were also pushed back. While we recorded the full construction of the prototype, we are still working to edit the footage into a succinct and useable instructional video. We began working with a local engineer to draft architectural renderings of the prototype, but this has not been fully completed yet. As such, we have not finalized our materials meant to be the core of our educational and information-sharing objective. We did perform data collection in line with our objective, but have not fully analyzed our findings yet. Based on initial reviews and anecdotal observation, we can tentatively conclude that many of our original hypotheses were correct – that labor time was significantly reduced and performed more efficiently, birds grew out better and healthier in the prototype house than our older houses. We are looking forward to putting all the numbers and media together to highlight our findings. We know we won’t be able to prove causation, but feel confident that we will be able to share this new method and start a conversation that can improve pastured poultry production. We are looking forward to being able to share more results in our final report.
In terms of our progress so far, we have completed construction of the prototype, recorded the process, and tested the prototype in the field. We have collected data and made anecdotal observations about the success of the prototype and are looking forward to compiling and sharing this information with fellow farmers. The latter is a core objective of the project and will be discussed further in the final report. Based on our initial observations, we are very happy with the prototype and think it can be a replicable option for other farmers to use and improve on. We plan to continue to analyze our results and tweak the existing prototype, and hope to build more coops in the future.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
In the course of designing and constructing the prototype, we consulted with our technical advisor as well as a handful of other experts regarding the design. We worked with a structural engineer, two metal fabricators, several service providers in the conventional and pastured poultry industry, and peer farmers. We are working on shareable architectural designs, a website, and a YouTube video of the construction of the prototype. We had two peer farmers come to tour the prototype as it was being built. We held one pasture walk to demonstrate the mobile coops and prototype in action. We anticipate our outreach impact to be exponentially greater once our educational tools are fully developed.
I would say that the key area in which users of the prototype reported changes was in understanding the importance of labor efficiency and easing repetitive motions on the farmer. Users also saw the positive results of the prototype on overall bird health and happiness. For the limited number of farmers exposed to the prototype thus far, they reported being excited at the prospect of being able to reference the architectural designs to build their own mobile coop instead of relying on the build kits already on the market. We anticipate gathering considerably more data on learning outcomes once we launch the educational tools that are still under development.
Thus far, the most evident change in practice is the reduction in the amount of manual labor and repetitive heavy lifting (feed buckets) that the prototype enabled. We feel that the labor efficiency driven by the automated feed system was by far the biggest highlight of the project so far. In addition, through anecdotal observation and initial review of our data sets, we feel that the prototype grew out bigger and healthier birds in the same amount of time and feed inputs as our old methods. We observed a decrease in feed waste and less competition between birds for feed access. These are our initial outcomes. We anticipate being able to share success stories and quotes from other farmers once we share our educational tools. But for employees involved with the initial use of the prototype at Mayday Farm, the project outcomes have been incredibly positive, as they have shifted our view of the economy and efficiency of raising pastured poultry.
In the course of the project so far, our greatest challenge was dealing with the continued delays and increased prices caused by supply chain disruptions in a lot of the raw materials needed for the construction of the prototype. While we consider the prototype as a success, we were frustrated that we could not meet our original timeline, although we understand now that it may have been unrealistic. We met one main objective, which was to create an automated feed system on a mobile pasture coop that could support grain storage while maintaining mobility. In future revisions to the prototype, we would like to explore more streamlined grain storage (we ended up using a lot of extra steel to support the grain bin), as well as storage that could support the coop for a longer period of time. We still have a lot of work to do to complete the other objectives we set out in our proposal, but work is underway. We plan to further systematize our data collection in future seasons and begin to build year-on-year historical data of poultry mortality, feed conversion, and grow out averages. We are looking forward to finalizing our education tools and really starting the conversation with other pastured poultry farmers on a broader scale. We really feel like the conversation around the design plans and prototype will be the most valuable result of the project, as the technology currently available to increase labor and production efficiency is so limited and expensive in the current pastured poultry landscape. There is a lot of room for further innovation, and we hope our project can be a jumping off point for the community.