It has been a while since I submitted an article on my progress to be a chicken farmer on the Sunshine Coast. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. Since I last submitted an article I have grown, killed and frozen my first batch of chickens. I will have 5 turkeys growing until around November.Much of my focus on raising pasture poultry had been on the creation of a barn, 30' x 100', made of tire bales (100 compressed car tires measuring 5'x5' and weighing 2000lbs. each). This barn would have a passive solar front glass wall and then be burmed into the ground. All of these elements would create an extremely efficient barn with little or no heating requirements throughout the year. I have since then recognized that I do not need to go big like that to get started. I do not need to take out a farm loan for $80-100,000. At this time I am going to stay small.
I have mentioned a farmer named Joel Salatin from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Joel was featured on Food Inc the movie, and is also a key player in the book, "Omnivores Dilemma", by Michael Pollan. I also had the privilege of hearing Joel speak at a Chicken Forum this last March which was held in Quesnel. On top of that I bought his book, "Pasture Poultry Profits". This book is a step by step lesson plan in growing pasture poultry. Besides the fact that Joel's philosophy surrounds creating extremely healthy chickens it is also about doing it as cheap as possible without large infrastructure.
Joel has over 40 years experience so I decided to follow his lesson plan. His plan is about moving slow. Having the first year be simply meat for the family. He is constantly cautioning about getting too large too fast. So with his book in hand I stepped into raising my first batch of meat chickens. The purpose was to first practice and learn. Second was to fill our freezer. Third, give a few away to advertise our meat and pay back to people that helped me get this going. In this account I followed the book religiously. Joel was always warning not to attempt to second guess and cut corners on his system. He showed how his system worked and why. The system surrounds building 10'x12'x 2' high pens that the birds go into around 3 weeks of age. These pens move every day onto fresh ground which gives the birds clean grass to eat daily and spreads the manure daily.
So without further ado, My Journey from June 15 - August 3.
GETTING THE CHICKS
First was to order chickens from a hatchery. I used Rochester Hatchery in Alberta. That seemed to take quite a few emails but it happened, and on June 15 we received 52 chicks and 11 turkey chicks just as scheduled. The chicks were the standard Cornish Rock Giants and the turkeys are a Bold Bronze Breasted, heritage turkey. With the chickens this is the hybrid breed that was created for large breast meat. Joel chooses to use this bird instead of a heritage bird simply because that is what the market wants. In his view this bird has been physically handicapped when they bred it to grow fast and have large breast meat, so what he does is take this bird and give it the proper nutrients, sunshine, fresh air, green grass, bugs to eat things to scratch and no antibiotics or vaccines. All this drastically improves on the hybrid Cornish Rock Giant roaster chicken. The old adage, "you are what you eat", is the philosophy that has gone astray surrounding our food source in North America.
When they arrived I already had a dead turkey chick in the box, and then every day or so for the next 5 days one more turkey would be found dead. One of those though I think was my fault. The next morning I found one crushed underneath the waterer. I had replaced the water the day before and obviously did not see the chick when I replaced the container. My daughter Georgia took one of the sick turkey chicks to nurse and love for the day. She held it, talked to it, cuddled it. Her true nurturing instincts were coming out. In the end the turkey died. There was a moment when Mom and daughter cried and mourned. As I think about it, all of of chicks that died prematurely are in a feed bag in the freezer. We forgot to have a service for them.
I have not called the hatchery about the turkey deaths. I know turkeys need 10 degrees warmer than chickens when in the brooder house, which is what I did. I know they are trickier than chickens. They have a reputation of dying very easily during the first 4 weeks of life. They also have the reputation of being very resilient after 5 weeks. I have 5 turkeys left. They live down in the same pen that the chickens are in. move the pen every day just like I did for the chickens. Turkeys can eat up to 50% of their needs from the grass. So on pasture can save you large amounts of purchased feed while creating stronger healthier turkeys.
We lost 4 chicks due to leg issues. Joel speaks on this issue quite a lot. What happens is the birds grow so fast that their body weight overtakes the strength of their legs. If you listen to the industry specialists they speak of lack of calcium as the culprit. What Joel has found is not the lack of calcium but the deficiency to absorb the calcium in the food. Joel in an emergency, separates the chick and feeds it beef liver "B12", within a couple days the chick is walking. What he has found is adding brewers yeast to their food nearly eliminates the issue of leg crippling. I had 1 chick that I separated and attempted to feed beef liver to. The chick did not seem to eat it. Maybe it was in my delivery. It lived to slaughter day but did not put on much weight and is by far the smallest in the freezer. When a chick becomes weak the first thing is to separate them from the flock. If you don't the others will peck at it and shove it aside. Nature doing its job to keep the breed strong.
We bought bag feed for this batch, non-medicated. Next year I will attempt to buy bulk feed. Besides being able to add supplements like brewers yeast to feed, the cost will be at least 40% less. Feed is your largest outlay of cash so cutting it down is a good thing. Because of the fact that we were going on vacation on Aug 6 the chickens were only just 7 weeks old. They ended up being around 4.5-5.5 lbs ea. This equated to around $6 of feed per chicken. My friend Jeff raised his birds to 10 weeks and by that time he spent more like $13 of feed per bird. As they grow they will just start to gorge themselves on feed. He ended up with 6.5 - 8 lb chickens, which were huge by my standards. I think next year I will take each batch to around 8 weeks, hoping for an average of 6 lbs per chicken cleaned.
Joel speaks of feeding organic feed or conventional non-medicated feed with the following ideology.
Subject A: a chicken lives in an over cramped barn with very dim lighting, no sunlight at all, bad fecal air to breath, only sawdust and fecal matter to scratch at, no fresh greens or bugs to eat, but fed certified organic food.
Subject B: chicken, lives outside in uncrowded conditions, has fresh air, lots of sunshine, fresh grass and bugs to eat, but fed conventional non medicated feed, who will be healthier? Consider how you as the reader would fair being put in the same scenario. Joel determined that the feed they eat is about 20% of the equation. He chooses not to pay for organic feed and chooses to improve on the other 80% of the equation. I feel the same way.
The issue with certified organic chicken is simply the above argument. Chickens are raised conventionally in barns with no natural elements, but fed organic feed and called organic. We as consumers need to decide what does "organic" mean to us?
THE BROODER HOUSE (the first 3 weeks of life)
We have a barn on our property that was built to raise meat birds in. It is fully insulated and ready to go. I used it this time and it worked great. When we bought the property the people before us had dabbled in growing meat birds so there was some watering and feeding gear already here. Even though the investment would have been less than $100 for those parts it was nice to have something here to start with. Ultimately we had all the fixings to get our chicks to 3 weeks of age and onto the moveable pens.
When growing chicken chicks you need them to be in a 90 degree or more environment for a week then you can slowly start to bring it down. With the turkeys we needed the area to be more like 95-100 degrees. So it is a balancing act between the two types. Keep the turkeys warm enough and the chicks not to warm. The chicks require almost hourly attendance at first. So when chicks arrive be prepared to be around most of the time or plan on picking up lots of dead chicks.
Next year my barn will not be available because my mother in law is going to remodel it and move in. I know this must sound kind of weird but that is what is so. The good news is that Joel is all about not spending anymore money than necessary so things like his brooder house are simply small walled lean twos on the ground. I have a smallish sheep barn that I built 2 years ago and I will convert it into a brooder house. The biggest hurdle will be getting electricity down to where the barn is. I have a plan to do that which involves an electrician friend of mine doing the electrical installation in exchange for good chicken meat over the next few years. I have not done all my home work yet though so if your talking to him, Mums the word.
THE MOVABLE PEN (the next 5 weeks)
Once the chicks had arrived I needed to get going on building the movable pen that Joel bases his entire operation on. I had mentioned this pen earlier. It is !0' x 12' x 2' high. It can hold up to 80 chickens at a time. This is enough space for these chicks as long as you move the pen every day giving them fresh ground to eat, scratch and poop on.
I had a bunch of used 1" x 4" treated decking around so I used it to build the pen. The next pens will be made of cedar. This will make them substantially lighter. My pen is not bad but a bit of a pig to move around. With my chickens everything went quite good. One day I was moving them though and did not shoo everyone forward as I dragged the pen 12' to its next location. I ran over one of my 6 week old chickens and killed it. Yesterday I was moving the pen and the same thing occurred but for it was my 5 remaining turkeys in the pen. Normally they move along and all is good. Yesterday one of the turkeys did not move. I yanked thinking that is was the ground that I was stuck on and when I was done I had crushed one of my 10 week old turkeys. I was very bummed. Technically I still am. So the pens do have some hazard to them. Paying attention will help. The system is quite cool. The watering is portable also with the use of a 5 gal bucket on top, which gravity feeds into a watering system.
During all this I also bought a book, "Anyone can build a mechanical style plucker". So I ordered the parts and built it 2 days before I needed it. We were a 3 person team. Me as the killer, blancher, plucker person. My wife Heidi and a volunteer each morning on the cleaning table. We were quite slow and only did approx. 25 chickens in 3 hours. Processing chickens is not nearly as bad as most people think. What is very clear about the whole thing, is the therapy element to growing one's own food.
On the 2nd day we had our friend Andrea come join us on the cleaning table. Professionally a dental hygienist and scared to participate, she came anyway. With goggles, mask and gloves she urged through most of the process. In the end, she felt like she had run a marathon. Next year she would like to grow 40 of her own and be a part of everything.
Lee's farming and therapy unit will be the future. I can see it. $300 a person and you too can participate in the slaughtering process. The chickens will simply be a by-product of the Wellness Center. The farm will be on the Today show. I'll be famous. My kids will have money to go to university. I can move off this farm and get a condo. I will be able to shop at Whole Foods Grocery, I will never get dirty again. Then I woke up.
Kidding aside, we could all stand to be more connected to our food sources. The last 40 years has truly spoiled all of us in terms of understanding the work surrounding growing food. Getting dirty.
My friend Katherine made the statement last week that she wants to stay blind in terms of eating and understanding that the meat on her plate was at one time alive. Bacon comes from a pig. Rib eye steak comes from a cow and barbecued chicken was once feathered and alive. Many of us have huge death anxiety issues surrounding our lives. Understanding life and death is the conversation. I will invite Katherine to participate next year in the processing on what ever level she can. I will encourage her, but in the end it needs to be her decision.
The new meat regulations have re-opened the allowance for small farms to produce food for their local community. How will small local farms react is to be seen.
THE FUTURE: Next year
With my mother in law moving into my barn I need to recreate a new brooder house. If I make my sheep barn into a brooder house then I need to get electricity down to it. This will be at least a $3,000 investment. I will also need to construct or get constructed 2-4 more movable pens. In terms of time line I would start ordering batches the first of April and order 85 every 3 or 4 weeks maybe 4 times. All of this needs to be balanced with my in town job. I would need to be here on the farm most of the time for most of the summer. It is all something to consider over this winter. My wife Heidi has convinced me that it is not my responsibility to feed my community with good healthy food. On the other hand it would be great to create a partial living for myself.
Farming is unknown to most of us. I am beginning to understand what that term really means. In simple definition it means to grow something for the sake of market and then make some kind of living from it. If I had no mortgage and no children to raise it would be way more simple. It is easy to understand why the food industry has gone to concentrated food production. It makes cents to do so. Where it has all gone wrong is the concern over how the animals are treated and being natural about the whole thing. Feeding animal byproducts to herbivores is just not right. Having our livestock live in pens filled with their own feces is not good. Transporting our livestock with no concern over its well being shows zero respect. This is not a PETA conversation. We are still eating our animals, but if we treat our food with respect then maybe, just maybe, we will treat our neighbors with the same.