Hatchery Hoopla, Searing Heat, and Other Farm Start-Up Fun

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Posted by Jennifer | Posted in Past Posts 2011 | Posted on Sun,06-19-2011

Has anyone out there read Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poutry Profits? He is often credited as the first to use the pastured poultry model (never mind what our grandparents and great grandparents did).  He does have a lot of good ideas and has simplified many of the them into several books.  Many of his methods apply to him directly though, rely on extra work hands, and existing infrastructure. The break down for raising meat chickens in the pasture goes something like this: get day old chicks, keep chicks in brooder until three weeks old, at three weeks put chicks in portable coops on pasture, move daily, harvest when at desired weight, process, and sell from the chill tank.

Here is the reality:

Get Day Old Chicks

What a phenominal pain in the neck it is to find quality Cornish X Rock chicks – did you know there are several different types of these chubby little food-to-meat convertors?  The hatchery down the road from us doesn’t sell year round, has inconsistent quality birds, and can’t count (orders are shorted), so we had to look out of state initially.  A few months back one of the best meat bird suppliers in the country decided to send their worst birds to the regular buyers, so the show kids could get the best stock. Ordering from them ceased as a result.  Next we tried a hatchery in Nebraska known for good stock.  After seven shipments of some of the smallest, weakest, slowest growing chicks ever, I am glad to say we have found a replacement.  Another problem with the Nebraska hatchery was that most of my order arrived dead for three weeks in a row.  We are trying a better line of Cornish X Rock chickens from a hatchery in Waco starting next week.  Keep your fingers crossed that works out.

 

Picture of chick

Day Old Chick

 

Keep Chick In Brooder For Three Weeks

Okay this part is pretty easy and we’re actually able to turn our birds out to pasture at two weeks because it’s so warm here.  The brooder does have to be cleaned and we have to run fans to keep it tolerable, even for chicks that thrive at 95 degrees. So far the only struggle here was constructing the infrastructure, but it’s up, open, airy and clean. Ventilation fans would be nice, but Joel conveniently leaves out the cost of starting up a farm like ours, so they’re out until we stop hemorrhaging cash and start having some chickens to sell.  The damn fans are over $500 each new!  I’ll be searching Craigslist.

 

Picture of chicks in brooder

Chicks Gossiping at Brooder Watering Hole

 

Put Chicks on Pasture in Portable Coops

Heat hit early this year, but Harry still welded twelve portable coops and we were able to cut and grommet tarps for ten so far. The reality problem with this step of pastured poultry operation is actually collecting the birds and moving them to the coop.  We don’t have transportation crates at the moment (we’re frugal people and they’re about $60 each unless we find them used or pick them up at the port in Houston after ordering direct from a manufacturer), and it’s too hot most parts of the day to safely stir up the birds, put them in boxes and drive them to pasture.  What’s a determined crate-less chicken-farmer to do?  Become nocturnal.  The birds are easy to catch/handle when sleeping and the temperature drops to a more safe bird transporting one.  We’ll be moving birds around 9:00 tonight, for example.

 

Picture of Harry Welding
Harry Welding Coop Frame

Quick picture disclaimer: Harry is only dressed as he is for welding safety.  He does not normally wear all denim – anymore that is. This was just one aspect of getting the infrastructure in.  The coops Joel Salatin recommends turn into ovens for Central Texas meat-birds.

Move Coops Daily

The coops are light enough for me to move by myself and I’m wimpy.  Currently though we’re stuck dragging hose behind the coops which doesn’t always reach the 5 gallon waterers, so I find myself carrying lots of 40+ pound waterers to each coop.  It’s only a short distance but it does take a lot of time – my arms are looking very tone however.  Next, feed has to be schlepped from nearby barrels to the coops and each feeder topped off.  I’m normally done with the first round by 7:00am-ish but I do have to refill waters around 1:00pm.  Joel neglects to mention that this is hot, sweaty work; of course, he may not have many 100+ degree days on his farm in Virginia, but we’ve had a rash of them here and way early in the season.  The extreeme heat presents a special challenge here for the birds too.  Not only will they refuse to grow, but they will kill over if too hot.  All of our coops are now equipped with patio misting systems.

 

Pictures of coops in field

Portable Coops Closed Up for Night

 

Harvest at Desired Weight

Our desired live weight is 4.2 – 5 pounds and typically we have about 42% of our flock within this range at five weeks.  Searing heat and poor genetics however are really slowing our growth – the birds’ feed consumption seems much higher, however; that equals more feed in, less meat out.  At five weeks old we didn’t have a single bird ready this time and at six weeks we were lucky to pull 35 birds for processing.  We actually just did our first processing from our first batch of 200 birds.  All the little Scotts (what we call big, white chickens) were six weeks old but after finding only 22 birds at weight, Harry gave up and started feeding.  In the dark, out of pure desperation, I continued to pick up individual birds, who by this time had gone to sleep (it was after 9:00pm) and managed to find thirteen more.  Never-mind we were supposed to deliver 50 birds the next day.  Another aspect of the harvest at desired weight that I don’t remember reading in Joel’s book is that the birds sometimes exact their revenge by…how do I say this nicely…shooting explosive fecal matter all over the handler.

Process

Sometimes this is a smooth and painless process, sometimes it is not.  What I have deemed as our first “real” processing (aka processing birds for commercial customers) was last Friday and it was not a smooth process.  First, we didn’t get birds out of the field and to the processing shed until about 9:50pm, and then that was only to discover the power was out.  I cried.  Seriously.  Then the power came back on and we processed.  We’re lacking a few fun tools that would make processing more efficient and I had my worst eviscerating night ever – I broke every crop and had to go after it from the neck end of the bird.  The lack of processing necessities and my slow eviscerating meant we didn’t finish until about 1:30am.  It was a long night to say the least.

Sell from The Chill Tank

The State may actually allow this, but it’s gross.  Who wants someone sticking their arm up to their elbow in a chill tank of multiple chickens and pulling out a bird, bloody water and all?  No thanks.  That and we’re in the sticks.  Directions to our house include things like turn right at the ONLY light in town, and turn left when you see the feral flock of fighting chickens. No one is coming out here regularly and it is not cost effective to raise chickens seasonally.  We prefer to air chill and drain our birds overnight before poly-bagging or vacuum-sealing them, depending on customer preference.  Then we deliver the birds to their new homes on set days.  This first batch was delivered on Saturday morning; fortunately I had time a brief nap first but this customer prefers frozen and we didn’t even have enough time to let the birds freeze before delivering.  I bet no one realized the chicken they got on Saturday was alive at 10:00pm the night before.

What does all this mean to you?  Not much, other than please be patient with us.  Chickens are not widgets and we truly do produce at Nature’s rate, which is slower than normal right now.  We’ll be turning out the best tasting, humanely raised, carefully processed and neatly packaged chickens in no time.

Comments (2)

This seems the epitome of slow food. No chicken before it’s time! Keep up the good work.

Wow, Jennifer. I can’t believe all the problems with hatcheries etc.
I admire your perseverance but am glad that you just keep going in spite of it all.

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