Pastured Poultry: Big Benefits for Small Farms

Muriel Barrett

So you are considering adding a broiler flock to your small farm operation? In his book Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, "All the indicators point to pastured, home processed poultry as one of this centuryís best family farm enterprises." I couldnít agree more. The poultry flock, whether for egg or broiler production, is the ideal livestock choice for a small farm.

Chickens are relatively easy to raise, and many people have had experience with them. Baby chicks are readily available through mail order, and are inexpensive compared to other forms of livestock. They can be started in a brooder house, a horse tank with a heat lamp, a bathtub, or a cardboard box.

Because chickens are small, the whole family can help with a pastured poultry project. With proper supervision, preschoolers can soon become adept at chicken chores, and school age children can take on the work fairly unsupervised. There is no fear of injury from the chickens, unless your children can convince you that being pecked by a hungry chick or a broody laying hen constitutes an injury.

Chickens are a great addition to the cash flow of a small farm. The day-old chicks arrive at the post office at an approximate cost of 55 cents each. Eight weeks later they are ready for butchering and sale, with under a dollar of feed cost per bird. This year, feed ran approximately $165.00/ton, or eight cents per pound. The average feed use is 11 pounds per chick, or 88 cents.

In Nebraska, you can get $1.65 per pound for your dressed chickens. On a 3.5 pound average, this comes to $5.78 per bird. There are other costs you need to figure in, such as electricity, labor, capital expenses, and death loss. If you are careful, however, this can be a profitable venture.

It doesnít take a lot of capital outlay to set yourself up in the chicken business. Simply use your imagination to construct low-cost poultry equipment. I have seen frames for the 10í x 12í x 2í or 12í x 12í x 2í pens made out of materials such as wood, converted hog panels, PVC pipe, or metal tubing. Chicken wire covers the largest area of the pens, with tin, plywood, or fiberglass panels covering the remainder. Most of this material can be found lying around, unused, on many farmsteads.

You will need to invest in some quality processing equipment. You wonít convince many of your family members that this is something to do for the long haul if they have to pick all those chickens by hand. The JAKO Company of Kansas has an inexpensive scalder and plucker available, and the Brower Company has added a pastured poultry division that manufactures low-cost processing equipment for small farms.

You should expect to spend $4,000 - $5,000 for the equipment you will need to raise and process your birds on-farm. Sharing the cost with like-minded neighbors, purchasing used equipment, or contracting the processing (average cost $1.00 - $1.50/bird) can reduce this cost. You can also spread your purchases out over several years.

The one indispensable purchase is the plucker. You can improvise the other equipment on a small scale. For example, as long as you are careful to keep the water temperature at 145 degrees, scalding can be done in a metal barrel fueled by a propane burner. Instead of killing cones, you can hang the birds on a wire strung between two trees. With proper sanitation, you can eviscerate the birds on kitchen-type tables with sharp kitchen knives.

If you donít have any experience raising chickens, start small. Raise just enough for your own use the first season.

If you want to start your chicks early in the spring, make sure you schedule their delivery after major threats of bad weather are past. If you plan to raise them later in the year, avoid shipping them during the hottest parts of July and August. For laying chicks, babies that arrive in April should be ready to lay by late September or early October.

Remember, your broiler chicks will be ready to move to pasture at three weeks of age. I recommend building your pens before your chicks arrive.

Be prepared to pick up your chicks as soon as the post office opens in the morning, usually around 7:00. Prepare the brooder the night before with heat, water, feed, bedding and grit. Initially, your chicks will need temperatures of around 90 degrees. This can be decreased gradually until they can stand normal temperatures.

Remove the chicks from the shipping boxes, one by one. Dip each of their little beaks in the water to give them their first drink, then place them under the lights, either on the grit or the feed. They will find their way to the other soon enough. Eventually they should huddle (but not pile up) contentedly under the light. Check on them regularly. Problems such as wet chicks, cold or drafts can be corrected without loss if found quickly enough.

Waterers should be kept full all the time. Feed should be allowed to run out late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Refill the feed first thing in the morning.

Move the chicks into the pasture pens early in the morning, so they have some time to get used to the pen before nightfall. This first night is critical to their survival. If a storm strikes, you must immediately get the chicks back to cover. The sound of rain or hail on the tin shelter scares the chicks, and they will run to the unprotected part of the pen and die of suffocation or exposure. This isnít as critical after the first night, but you should continue to check them during storms.

Low spots are another thing to watch out for. Sometimes ground can be deceiving. You might not notice a low spot until it has standing water in it, and standing water will kill your chickens. Check on them often to prevent this.

Heat will kill your chickens as fast as cold, wet weather, especially as they get near butchering size. If you are using partially enclosed pasture pens, you might need to raise the enclosed end up slightly to maintain air circulation. If you are using a totally free-range method, you must provide shade.

Chores are best done at sunrise. The birds will graze and eat enthusiastically if their pens are moved at this time. You should provide water several times a day.

With proper care, your birds will reach butchering weight at eight weeks. If you are butchering a large number of birds, catch them the previous night and place them in cages at your butchering site. A horse trailer works well. If you donít catch them the night before, they should have no food or water. If it is hot, catch your birds after the temperature has cooled. If you place them in a large cage, such as a horse trailer or pickup bed, make sure you donít overcrowd them. It is heartbreaking to bring them this far, only to have the biggest birds die of stress or suffocation.

Butcher as early as possible in the morning, before it gets hot or flies become a problem. The butchered birds should be rinsed thoroughly and placed in water, kept cold by running water or ice. If you are selling your birds, it is best to have customers pick them up as soon as they are cooled down.

If you need to package and freeze them, wait until they have cooled down completely. Quickly put them in freezer bags, and freeze. Be careful not to place too many in a freezer at once, or to pile them all together. Either way, the birds will freeze too slowly and they might spoil.

Research and advice are extremely important, but you can only learn how to manage your chicken operation through experience. Good luck!

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