Pastured poultry enterprise: Profits, production, and processing support with new and diversifying small-scale farms

Final Report for ONE13-183

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,987.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project Information

Summary:

Six farmers collected information related to their niche poultry enterprises in 2013, including costs and profits, production data (e.g. hens’ rate of lay or broilers’ rate of gain), and identifying challenges, best practices, and planned changes for future seasons. The data was analyzed and compiled into enterprise budgets and case studies, published as a guide for farmers, “Niche Poultry Enterprises in New England”. Staff provided over 25 hours of technical assistance to the six farmers by phone, email, and in person. Five workshops were held relating to niche poultry production and marketing, drawing over 100 participants.

As a result of studying the finances of their enterprise, and/or implementing systems innovations, farmers reported positive outcomes at the end of the project:

  • One farmer used a Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (with extensive training and TA from New Entry staff) to process and market 400 chickens, saving over $1,000 in processing costs compared to using the nearest USDA-inspected slaughter facility.
  • The two farmers who adopted electronic mesh fencing reported total predation losses of less than 1% (compared to estimated losses in previous years of up to 5%).
  • One farmer used midseason on-farm innovations to reduce egg collection time by at least 10 minutes per day, freeing up over 24 hours of labor over the course of the season.
  • Five of the six participating farmers already have plans underway to significantly scale up their niche poultry enterprises in 2014.

Introduction:

Pasture-raised poultry can be environmentally beneficial to produce, and the meat and eggs have an amazing taste and quality difference relative to factory-farmed equivalents. Poultry production can enhance and diversify a crop-based farm operation and is a “gateway livestock enterprise” that is cost-effective to initiate and offers a quick return. Small-scale poultry production can provide an economic opportunity for producers because it does not require large areas for grazing or large financial investment. Organic producers particularly value chicken litter for fertilizing fields, and research has shown that appropriate rotational grazing of livestock, including poultry, can improve pasture quality and increase animal health. However, raising poultry is not as straightforward as purchasing a few birds and letting them roam the fields. There are many barriers to local small-scale production – board of health requirements, zoning, permitting/licensing, access to processing, as well as the nuts and bolts of raising and marketing poultry for efficient production of meat and eggs. New producers also need management strategies to operate small-scale operations profitably.

This SARE Partnership Project worked with producers to research and develop several detailed producer case studies that highlight innovative production systems management strategies; diversified marketing approaches; and local, field-tested financial models (ground-truthing established enterprise budgets) at different scales of production for small-scale poultry operations producing meat and eggs in direct markets in New England. While there were several pre-existing niche poultry enterprise budgets (University of Wisconsin, Washington State University, Purdue, U of Maryland, Penn State, NC State, Kansas Rural Center, Inc., and many others), there were few field-tested poultry enterprise budgets appropriate to New England. One of the more common frustrations new farmers face is coming up with reliable numbers to use in their financial projections. Case studies and enterprise budgets from other regions do not account for factors unique to New England, including high costs imposed by a strict regulatory environment, higher costs of feed inputs (especially organic feed), and access to niche/premium markets.

The project worked with six collaborating producers at different scales and experience levels who were willing to dig deep into their poultry enterprises and look at their specific production systems and challenges, business management decisions, marketing mix, and specific costs of inputs and other expenses to gain insight into profitability and to establish realistic expectations for small-scale poultry enterprises (primarily focusing on egg and broiler enterprises). Results of these producer case studies and lessons learned were incorporated into a guide to be widely disseminated, “Niche Poultry Enterprises in New England.”

Project Objectives:

  • With the help of partners and collaborators, New Entry staff compiled and reviewed existing poultry enterprise budgets and case studies to assess what would appear to work in this project – particularly accounting for differences in scale, geography, and production methods – and what wouldn’t, or would need to be modified in order to better match niche poultry production in New England.
  • New Entry staff consulted with partners and farmers to clarify project goals and scope. Six participating producers committed to tracking production processes, costs and revenues related to their niche poultry enterprises, challenges and barriers to profitability, and best practices applied during the 2013 season. As part of monitoring production processes, participants agreed to collect data which could be used to determine feed conversion rates for both eggs and meat (lbs of feed used and lbs of meat or # of eggs produced for a given period of time).
  • During the season, two producers left the project due to unexpected complications which interrupted their poultry production. These producers were replaced by two other niche poultry growers (Molly DellaRoman and Drew Locke). This was actually a very positive development, as Molly and Drew were able to provide rich data at a scale of production (about 300 laying hens and 1,000 broilers, respectively) which, while still qualifying as “small-scale,” was somewhat larger than the other participants – and which may represent a target scale for these and other beginning niche poultry producers in the region.
  • Staff and farmers discussed poultry production “systems innovations” which could be pilot-tested by collaborating farmers in 2013 to determine impact on productivity and cost or labor savings.

    • Two farmers piloted on-farm poultry processing. For niche meat poultry production, slaughter/processing was agreed to be a major profitability factor, and perhaps the single most important factor.
    • Two farmers piloted electrified mesh fencing to prevent losses from predators. Predators are an important production risk factor for pasture-raised poultry in the Northeast; a single dog, weasel, or fisher cat can kill as many as 30 chickens in a single night.
    • Three producers applied frequent pasture rotation and tracked the practice’s impact on bird health and productivity, product attributes, and pasture quality.

  • Project participants expressed an interest in piloting several other practices but for various reasons were unable to commit to doing so in 2013. Instead, participating growers made note of adaptations and innovations individually adopted during the season, treating these as “pilot-tested” practices. For example, one farmer adopted labor-saving methods for egg collection; one began adding apple cider vinegar to the birds’ water to treat and prevent digestive tract problems; another farmer made innovative brooder design modifications to reduce chick losses.
  • Producers received extensive technical assistance (over 25 hours total) from New Entry staff related to production, marketing and regulation. Producers were also connected to other resources and potential sources of technical assistance, including contacts at state and federal agencies (e.g. FSA, NRCS), the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and Extension through University of Maine, University of Connecticut, and Ohio State University.
  • Based on data gathered from a survey sent to New Entry’s 800+ member livestock and poultry e-list, New Entry coordinated five poultry-related workshops, recruiting guest speakers from the Tufts Veterinary School, Cornell Cooperative Extension, University of Connecticut Extension, and Ohio State University, along with independent poultry farmers and New Entry staff. The workshops attracted over 100 unique participants in total, many of whom attended multiple workshops.
  • Using the data provided by participating farmers, case studies and composite enterprise budgets were created for small-scale laying hen and broiler enterprises. Due to variations in the extent of data collected and provided by the farmers, and variations within the data itself, some of the determinations or estimates we hoped to make had to either be supplemented by information from additional producers or included in the final case studies/enterprise budgets with an explanatory note. For example, only one producer was able to provide an actual figure for the initial cost of housing (construction of a mobile coop/”eggmobile”); other producers provided their best estimates, most of which differed substantially from the one “actual” figure. Labor estimates varied especially widely, to the extent that it was useful to present enterprise budgets with the note “not including labor” and to address labor costs separately.
  • The case studies and enterprise budgets were presented in a guide for farmers, “Niche Poultry Enterprises in New England.” Some of the project results were also shared through an article published in Small Farm Quarterly (summer 2013) and a presentation at the 2013 New England Meat Conference.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

April 2013 — New Entry staff and partners review existing poultry production and enterprise budgets for formats, ease of use, types of information gathered and shared, and determine producer monitoring protocols accordingly. Schedule and outreach for poultry processing training for spring 2013 (early-May).

Conducted as described. Partners assisting with review of existing poultry enterprise budgets and case studies were primarily a) cooperating farmers, and b) co-participants in the New England Poultry Extension and Advisors group facilitated by the University of Maine’s SARE Professional Development Project. Poultry processing training was scheduled for early May and outreach was conducted through New Entry’s 800+ member livestock/poultry e-list, regional event listings/calendars, and other related e-lists, as well as through direct contact with farmers likely to be interested.

May 2013 (early) — New Entry staff, cooperating farmers, and research team meet to discuss the proposed project, set realistic goals for the research to be conducted, and describe any potential barriers or pitfalls to the major goals of the project.  Conduct site visits to cooperating farms.

Staff communicated with partners (especially farmers and co-participants in SARE Professional Development grant described above) to discuss the project and any potential pitfalls or barriers and to agree upon goals and scope. Due to partner availability and geographical distribution, most discussion happened via phone and email. In order to encourage discussion, partners and farmer-participants were copied on group emails and encouraged to “reply all,” which was somewhat successful; however, most discussion ended up being one-on-one between partners/participants and New Entry staff.

Only two site visits to cooperating farms were conducted in the early part of the year, partly for logistical/scheduling reasons, but also partly because as we gathered preliminary information from farmers by phone and email, including photographs of operations, we determined that the initial site visits were non-essential.

May 2013 (mid/late) — Through individual discussions by phone or in person, New Entry staff compiles producers’ background information and baseline data from 2012; staff and farmers identify key innovations to research and/or pilot test over the course of the project. Conduct day-long poultry processing training.

Participating farmers did their best to provide baseline 2012 data, although for some producers certain figures had to be estimated as they had not kept extensive records the previous season (a practice we hope to instill through this project!) or, in two cases, because the farmer did not operate a poultry enterprise in 2012.

 

Innovations identified and pilot-tested included on-farm poultry processing, electronic mesh fencing as a predator barrier, and tracking the impact of frequent pasture rotation. While producers were interested in piloting several other innovations – for example, improved watering systems to reduce labor – they were ultimately unable to do so in 2013. Primary reasons for this were the project’s timetable and costs associated with adopting the particular innovations; by the time these discussions took place in May, the season was already beginning for most of the producers, making it difficult to commit to substantial systems shifts in the 2013 season. In response to this challenge, to ensure enough innovations were being piloted, farmers agreed to monitor adaptations and innovations adopted mid-season – the occurrence of which is almost inevitable for pastured poultry producers.

 

The Livestock Farm Day was held on May 11, 9:30am – 3:30pm, in Grafton, MA, with 46 participants, featuring mini-workshops covering poultry health and biosecurity. The Poultry Processing Hands-on Training was conducted May 18, 7:30am – 1:30pm, in Concord, MA, with 12 participants and a curriculum approved by the Massachusetts Departments of Agricultural Resources and Public Health.

 

June 2013 — Producers begin tracking 2013 profitability and production data, processes and management decisions. Schedule “Livestock Farm Day” including 4 short workshop sessions including poultry: incubation management, pastured poultry, egg candling/grading, and processing regulations.

Producers began tracking data, confirmed by direct communication with New Entry staff. Livestock Farm Day held previously, in May; it ultimately did not include the topics listed above, except as relating to poultry health and biosecurity, due partly to input from the survey of our livestock/poultry e-list (e.g. incubation and egg candling did not draw much interest) and partly to those topics being covered in other planned 2013 workshops.

June – November 2013 — New Entry staff follows up on farmers’ progress, providing individual technical assistance where appropriate on poultry production, processing and profitability; farmers contact New Entry staff and partners as needed for additional technical assistance and resource sharing. Conduct 2 pastured poultry “field trainings” on established poultry farms to showcase innovations in action (one in July, one in September).

During the growing season, New Entry staff followed up with farmers and provided over 20 hours of technical assistance related to production, processing and profitability, both through the course of check-in communication and, increasingly as the season went on, in response to producer inquiries.

Two pastured poultry field trainings were held in September: Pastured Poultry Health and Nutrition (Sept 13, Grafton MA) – 23 participants; and Pastured Poultry Systems and Economics (Sept 14, Sharon MA) – 15 participants. The latter was hosted by one of the farmer-participants who presented her preliminary data as part of the event. Additionally, a June 11 Meat Marketing Workshop in Grafton, MA, with guest speaker Matt LeRoux from Cornell Cooperative Extension, drew 28 participants, at least half of which raised poultry for meat in 2013 or hope to do so in 2014.

 

November 2013 — Staff and farmers meet individually to review data and observations gathered by farmers during the 2013 season and analyze farm financials.

Through a combination of in-person meetings and phone conversations, New Entry staff collected and discussed farmers’ data and observations from the 2013 season, including some initial farm financials analysis. Further analysis is underway and more one-on-one discussions will occur over the next two months to go over each farm’s financials from 2013 and plans for 2014.

December 2013 – January 2014 — Using season-end information provided by farmers, New Entry staff develops composite enterprise budgets and detailed case studies highlighting innovations in poultry production and processing. Budgets and case studies are compiled to form a pastured poultry enterprise manual.

Data has been collected and is currently being compiled, analyzed, and used to develop composite enterprise budgets and case studies.

January – February 2014 — Enterprise budgets and case studies submitted to farmers and partners for review; taking into account farmer and partner feedback, New Entry staff finalizes enterprise manual and begins to format, upload to website and disseminate. Conduct a workshop on poultry enterprise budgets and financial planning for poultry producers.

Data collection and analysis was a more lengthy undertaking than originally anticipated, delaying completion of the final niche poultry enterprise guide by several months while staff followed up with participating producers, waited for additional data, and consulted with additional poultry producers (beyond the core participants) to shore up areas where the information collected was thin or inconsistent. The final result was a guide which highlights the data which can be presented with relative confidence (e.g. revenues, prices received, total production estimates, feed costs), acknowledges the areas where data was less conclusive or is perhaps by nature highly variable/situational (e.g. labor, housing and certain other startup costs), and emphasizes many of the qualitative results (specific best practices, farmers’ advice for new niche poultry growers, shared challenges, etc.).

In place of a standalone workshop on poultry enterprise budgets, staff presented on pasture-raised broiler enterprise budgets and considerations at the New England Meat Conference in March 2014.

February 2014 — New Entry staff creates anonymous online evaluation survey for farmers; farmers complete survey. Farmers, project advisors and staff review survey feedback and develop recommendations for future training and technical assistance efforts. Conduct Poultry Processing Regulations Training in preparation for 2014 producer licensing.

Poultry processing regulations training administered through a new online self-study course, accessed by over 40 participants between January and April of 2014. The course led to additional one-on-one staff TA for several small-scale broiler growers. At least three of these producers went on to apply for licensure for on-farm slaughter and processing through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and at least two of them are in the process of building their own licensed on-farm poultry slaughter/processing facility.

Once data collection was complete (May 2014), participating farmers were asked to complete anonymous evaluations. The response rate left something to be desired (50%) – even though farmers had been informed from the outset that they must submit an evaluation in order to receive their stipend. This was an interesting unexpected result, underscoring the importance of finding other ways to keep farmers motivated to participate, e.g. doing more to get them excited about what they might learn about their own enterprise, helping participants to feel more invested in the project’s outcome.

However, response rate was high (>90%) for the anonymous evaluations distributed at the five in-person workshops. These evaluations were analyzed and summarized after each event, helping to shape future events.

March 2014 — New Entry staff obtains additional quantitative and qualitative project evaluation from farmers and project advisors by phone, compiles with process evaluation to create SARE final report.

Evaluation obtained from farmers by phone or in person (May/June 2014). These conversations lasted 15-30 minutes and yielded a great deal of valuable input.

Research results and discussion:

The quantitative data collected from this project shed important light on some key questions and provided valuable guidance for farmers and farm service providers creating enterprise budgets for niche poultry enterprises in New England, although some categories returned a lack of reliable data or responses too disparate to yield definitive figures that future producers could plug into their own enterprise budgets. However, the qualitative information gathered – including systems innovations, best practices and key challenges for startup niche poultry enterprises in the region – exceeded expectations, both in breadth and depth.

(For more detailed project results and milestones, see “Methods” section.)

Research conclusions:

As a result of studying the finances of their enterprise, and/or implementing systems innovations, farmers reported positive outcomes at the end of the project:

  • One farmer used a Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (with extensive training and TA from New Entry staff) to process and market 400 chickens, saving over $1,000 in processing costs compared to using the nearest USDA-inspected slaughter facility.
  • The two farmers who adopted electronic mesh fencing reported total predation losses of less than 1% (compared to estimated losses in previous years of up to 5%).
  • One farmer used midseason on-farm innovations to reduce egg collection time by at least 10 minutes per day, freeing up over 24 hours of labor over the course of the season.
  • Five of the six participating farmers already have plans underway to significantly scale up their niche poultry enterprises in 2014.

Five workshops were held relating to niche poultry production and marketing, drawing over 100 participants. Of the over 100 anonymous evaluations collected after these workshops, 100% answered “yes” when asked if they would recommend the workshop to other farmers and potential farmers.

Staff provided over 25 hours of technical assistance to the six participating farmers by phone, email, and in person. The regulations, logistics and economics of poultry processing options were particularly impactful TA topics for broiler growers. At least three of these producers went on to apply for licensure for on-farm slaughter and processing through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and at least two of them are in the process of building their own licensed on-farm poultry slaughter/processing facility.

It is too early to adequately assess the impact of the guide produced as part of this project, “Niche Poultry Enterprises in New England,” but with a broad dissemination and the popularity of the topic, we expect the guide to reach at least 250 unique readers by the end of 2014.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Publications produced:

Niche Poultry Enterprises in New England. A guide for beginning and potential farmers interesting in launching a niche poultry enterprise in New England, and for more experienced farmers interested in adding a niche poultry enterprise to a diversified farm. Emphasizes case studies, best practices, systems innovations, and composite enterprise budgets.  See document in Project Information Product section.

“Profitable Broiler Enterprises in New England.” Small Farm Quarterly, Summer 2014. Distributed in print and electronically. (http://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2014/07/08/profitable-broiler-enterprises-in-new-england/) A partial summary of this project’s results (and cited as such in the text).

“Poultry Enterprise Challenges & Opportunities.” Presented at New England Meat Conference, March 8, 2014. First presentation of composite enterprise budgets developed as part of this project. Also including side-by-side comparison of niche broiler economics in New England and large-scale/conventional contract broiler economics.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

(See “Impact of Results / Outcomes” for specific farmer results. Reporting more extensive or comprehensive economic results for participating farmers would have been difficult, and perhaps not possible, given the limited scope of the project and, on most of the farms, limitations in baseline data for comparison.)

Farmer Adoption

(See “Impact of Results / Outcomes” for some specific farmer adoptions of systems innovations.)

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.