We raised 500 Cornish Rock meat chickens in 8’x8’ portable pens in a rotational system with our diversified vegetable operation. Beginning in mid April we ordered the birds in batches of 100 from Mt. Healthy Hatcheries. The only diversion from our original plan, and not a major one was that, in our initial plan we were to order the birds in batches of 50 but we had quoted our proposed budget at the 100 bird rate, which reflects a substantial savings in both chicks and shipping throughout the 500 bird run. The only logistical change this had was that we spread out the processing days to 2 bunches of 50 for two consecutive weeks- the larger male birds at week 7 and the female birds at week 8. This method kept costs down and maximized pen space at 3 pens per batch and 33 birds per pen. The carcass weights still averaged the target weight of 4-5lbs.
On arrival the chicks were placed in a 12’x12’ brooder for 2-3 weeks before they were taken to the field pens and stocked at 2 square feet per bird, 33 to a pen. The ½ acre field was chosen because it had been cropped with fall vegetables in 2007 and therefore did not receive the usual nitrogen fixing legume through the winter. Unlike true pastured poultry production, where birds are grazed on perennial pastures, we hoped to demonstrate and experiment the use of rotational grazing on cover crops in a vegetable rotation. By early spring we sowed a mixture of rye, Austrian Winter Peas, vetch and clover in this field to help provide forage for the birds. Due to drought conditions, the cover crops did not establish well until early summer so the forage conditions for the first batch of birds was less than ideal. As the crops and weeds established the birds kept the vegetation down and I clipped maturing plants with a bushhog. The birds were moved daily and, as the weather warmed, pearl millet and sudex was sown behind them to capture nitrogen. Water was supplied through the vegetable irrigation system and feed was brought to the field in a 50 gallon drum a few days a week.
By the end of the production run, approximately 480 broilers or 2,160 pounds of meat was raised on less than ¾ of an acre. The sale of each batch of 100 birds resulted in a net income of $544 for the farm after labor expenses were paid, further demonstrating that the enterprise is profitable to the small grower. With the combination of three poultry projects this year; this SARE project, a new Mobile Processing Unit, and the development of an inspected processing facility in our community, there has been quite a bit of excitement in our farming community about local poultry production. Our farm is located directly across from the social epicenter of the rural community, a small country store. Because of this our farming practices, namely our poultry related activities have been of much interest by locals and visitors alike. This location, and the flurry of interest about small scale pastured poultry has given us a great opportunity to meet and talk to older and more traditional farmers and discuss sustainable agriculture practices, both with poultry and vegetable production
Two logistical matters we would have handled differently involved the brooder construction (not included on our budget) and the procurement of feed. We built our 12’x12’ brooder out of scrap material and, in order to save material, constructed it with a low roof. This proved uncomfortable to work in, which was necessary more often than we thought, during feeding, crating birds, etc. Our design can be relatively easily retro-fitted to extend the roof to allow a worker to stand up, which will e a project for this winter. Faced with many options for feed and skyrocketing costs, a small producer has many factors to consider when choosing feeds. There was some confusion with our original supplier as to the addition of animal proteins in the feed we had been buying. When we purchased or first few bags for the first delivery of chicks we noticed that the feed label now included animal proteins, a substance that, we thought, had been discontinued by the miller. We immediately suspended purchase of this feed and went with an alternate. It took 3 weeks and dozens of phone calls to find out that the ingredient in question had not been included but was a matter of an old tag having been attached to a batch of feed. Handling of 50# bags of feed has it’s challenges when a producer will use 5 tons of the course of a growing season. Cornish Rock birds have a very high metabolism and if feed inventory is not consistent the producer will become frustrated sourcing it weekly in small amounts from different vendors, as was our case. Next year we will purchase feed by the pallet and have it delivered to the farm, ensuring we never run out at a critical time.
This SARE project has given us a great opportunity to experiment with integrating pastured poultry into our vegetable operation as a means to manage nutrients and diversify products and income. As a result of our projects success, we will be able to acquire additional acreage next season to expand our cropping and poultry production. Now that we have a greater hands on understanding of the production system, processing schedule and how it weaves into our crop rotation we are poised to more confidently increase poultry production next year. Through our outreach components and informal conversations with area farmers, we have had the chance to network with other producers and potential producers, which has strengthen our skills and helped build a greater sense of community amongst poultry producers. For 2009, we are planning to diversify species and increase our poultry production to 800 chickens, 150 meat ducks and 50 turkeys, all on pastured systems reflecting the one we used for this SARE project. All birds will be processed on farm. For 2010, we plan to increase our numbers to 2,000 birds of a combination of the above species. The birds will be processed at the newly constructed inspected facility in Marion, NC. Assuming all factors are favorable, we are interested in increasing production and eliminating on farm processing, save for our family’s chicken needs. We believe that the time and labor involved in on-farm processing is unsustainable for our current lifestyle, seasonal work load, and off farm jobs. We like raising poultry and believe the benefits to our crop system and marketing efforts are worthwhile, but that on-farm processing is holding us back from raising enough birds to meet demand and realize a desirable return.
Two on-farm workshops were held in conjunction with this SARE project. The first was held on May 21st and focused on production aspects of the project including pen construction, integration with vegetable crops, breeds, feeds, brooding and field logistics. Twenty six attendees participated in the first workshop and each received a notebook of resources and were provided light refreshments. The event was co-sponsored by the McDowell Cooperative Extension and the Independent Small Animal Meat Producers Association of WNC (ISAMPA). For the 3 months following the workshop we received numerous calls and emails from attendees with follow-up questions. The second on farm workshop was held Sunday, October 19th in conjunction with a rabbit production workshop the day before. ISAMPA co-sponsored the event and, as a result, we were able to host two national experts for the weekend of workshops. Anne Fanatico of ATTRA was in attendance at our fall workshop which focused on on-farm processing and the finalized enterprise budget for the season. There were over 40 people in attendance in the October workshop. Many attendees had their first experience processing chickens on our farm that day. At both workshops ad throughout the production run we took many digital photos with the purpose of assembling a slideshow of the a complete season of production, from brooding to processing. At both workshops McDowell County Agriculture Extension Agents were present to answer questions. On November 1st, we presented the results of our project at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Anderson, SC with a attendance in our session of 25 people. At the conference I had the opportunity to talk with Joel Salatin, pasture poultry pioneer, about our project. In late January we will be presenting our project at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Chattanooga, TN. We kept our website (www.foothillsfamilyfarms.org) updated with information about the workshops and presentations and fielded numerous email requests for information. At tailgate markets we were able to interface with our customers about our project and it further encouraged sales of birds. As mentioned above, a fortunate but unintended outreach effort was made, albeit informal, with many farmers in our community due to the proximity of our farm in the community.
This purpose of this SARE project was to demonstrate the integration of small scale pastured poultry production on a diversified vegetable farm. 500 Cornish Rock meat birds were raised in vegetable field that was being intensively cover cropped as a means to manage nutrients. The project was an integral part of a producer awareness campaign for building capacity for small scale poultry producers in our area ahead of the construction of an inspected small animal processing facility for independent growers. This regional effort also included other workshops and the introduction of a new Mobile Processing Unit for poultry. The birds were raised in 100 bird batches in 8’x8’ portable floorless “Salatin style” pens that were moved daily at a stocking rate of 33 birds per pen. The birds were processed at 7 and 8 weeks for a target carcass weight of 4.5lbs. Two on-farm workshops were held covering all aspects of production and processing. Two additional workshops were offered at regional sustainable agriculture conferences. Over 125 producers and potential producers received outreach through the project. Approximately 480 birds or 2,150 lbs. of meat was produced on ¾ acre netting over $2,700 to the enterprise after labor cost were paid to the farmers and hired help. As of this writing, the results of nitrogen and phosphorus gain for the plot has not been established. Significant organic matter was realized as a result of the manures and cover crops grow therein.