Winter Production of Pastured Broilers Using A Portable Hoophouse and Winter Annual Pastures
We currently have about 170 broilers in the hoophouse, ready to be butchered. To get to this point, we’ve done the following: we purchased four sections of Kencove portable electrified poultry netting, we’ve raised 200 chicks, started on the 25th of November, and we’ve butchered 20. The remainder are now at butcher weight, and we are planning to butcher at least 50 of them this afternoon. We had some challenges to getting started, beginning with an 80 m.p.h. windstorm which destroyed our 100’x20’ hoophouse and two smaller hoopstructures. So this summer and fall, instead of building one hoophouse for the broiler project, we had to construct a new vegetable hoophouse, plus rebuild our two smaller hoops, which are used for turkey raising and broiler brooding. We have the materials for the 20×50 broiler high tunnel, but the weather has been so cold and icy since December that we have not been able to get it constructed. Instead, the broilers have been raised in the smaller 12×30 hoophouse which we use as a brooder. This has worked, but it has had some challenges. We also got a late start on broiler production for market reasons; we’ve usually found that every chicken we produce is snapped up by waiting customers at the Farmer’s Market. Instead this year, we went to the market less, as we are relying more on the CSA to sell the rest of the farm production, so we were looking at about 100 chickens in the freezer, and another 150 in the field at the first of October, which made it seem like a bad idea to start raising more right then. Fortunately, we started a meat CSA in November, and that has been a great success, with 15 members, and lots more interest. So, we held off on purchasing more chicks until we were certain we had some sort of market for them.
So far, the things we have learned include this:
-Winter broilers consume considerably more food, at a much lower feed conversion rate, perhaps even more so because our winter this year has been exceptionally cold and bitter. The broilers, which would normally be at optimal butcher weight (5 lbs) in about 10 weeks, have taken 14 weeks to get this big.
-One of the major issues we’ve faced has been moisture build-up in the hoophouse, leading to constant dampness and wet bedding. I suspect that this is closely linked with the excessively cold and wet winter we’ve had. I’m sure this contributes to the slow growth rates we’ve been observing.
-It would be unwise to plan on having broilers outside every winter, given that there is always the possibility of another winter like this, when it has been consistently too cold to let the broilers out on pasture, leading to less healthy chickens, and no benefit to the pasture.
-On the upside, the market for spring chicken still looks really good, and so we are hopeful that even with the increased feed costs, this batch of chickens will be profitable, and secure customer loyalty early.
-Because of the extreme cold, we’ve had more issues with the waterers staying frozen all day than we anticipated. In most years, I expect hoses to thaw out five days out of seven, between the sun and the mild temps. This winter, it has been the inverse, with hoses being constantly frozen, with only occasional thaws.
We will get the broiler tunnel constructed this month, and be ready to fill it with chickens this fall. I plan to put 250 broilers into the tunnel starting the second week of September, which will allow a December butcher date, with a longer grow out, based on what we’ve learned so far. It seems likely that the fall broilers will grow faster, as they should have less cold weather to contend with, and more nice pasture days. We also plan to orient the tunnel east-west, as opposed to north-south, to get more sun into the winter tunnel, and increased temperatures, which should allow greater ventilation, hopefully addressing some of the moisture problems. We’ve expanded our land base this year, with some land leased for vegetables, which should allow us to use the garden more effectively for winter pasture, since we can designate one area to clear out earlier, and then not have to wait so late to start our cover crop/pasture mix.
So far, all our information sharing has been very informal, with conversations with local farmers. We are going to host a field day in October, and attend the Small Farm Today show in November. We will write an article for GRIT magazine after the spring 2011 chicken harvest.
As the first progress report was lost, and then I was slow getting to you, I thought I would add an update. We have completed the 50×22 hoop structure for housing the broilers this winter. We have broilers scheduled to arrive mid September, who will be raised from start to finish in the hoophouse. Waterers, feeders, tanks, etc. are all in place, ready for raising meat birds. Our market for chicken is once again booming, and the demand for fresh pastured chicken in the winter is undoubtedly going to be strong. We have also switched feed sources to a non-GMO feed, which we and our customers feel good about.