I'm sure that most of
you have heard about the broiler operation that is the primary subject
However, as well-known as the Polyface Farm model is, I've had trouble
finding real data on the internet. So here's a quick summary of
the numerical side of Salatin's pasture operation --- if you're at all
interested in following his lead, I highly recommend that you track
down his book for more information.
Salatin's business model
is pretty simple, and probably looks good to farmers (accustomed to
making minimum wage), but not so hot to white collar workers.
Salatin's book walks you through raising 10,000 broilers during a busy
six months, netting $25,000. He estimates that each bird
takes about 5.5 minutes of caretaking while on pasture and another 3.5
minutes of butchering, which results in an hourly wage of $12 to $20
per hour (when the book was published in 1993 --- presumably more
now). Yes, that does mean you're working about 60 hours per week,
over a third of which is killing chickens, but you get the other half
of the year to recover. In addition to the time constraints,
you'll have to come up with $10,000 to $15,000 in startup costs (along
with 20 acres of pasture) to repeat Salatin's success.
The reason you can make
a moderate to good living raising pastured poultry is because keeping
the broilers on pasture results in a high quality meat you can't buy in
the grocery store. Salatin moves his chicken tractors daily (or
twice daily when the birds are big) to ensure that the flock is always
enjoying the "cream" of the pasture --- bugs and tender, young
grass. Quick movement also prevents disease buildup by keeping
the young chickens from sitting around in their own waste.
Salatin provides 1.3 to 2.4 square feet per bird, hitting the sweet
spot in which chickens aren't stressed by overcrowding and don't burn
off too many calories "running around". The result is a 20%
reduction in feed cost for broilers, and a feed
conversion rate of
2:1 (liveweight) or 3:1 (carcass weight). He sees 5 to 10%
mortality, which sounds like it's about par for the course for this
"race car" breed.
I think that those of us who
want to pick and choose pieces of Salatin's method to incorporate into
our own farms have to keep several things in mind. First of all,
Salatin has had no luck selling heirloom meat birds to the public, so
he has little information to share about non-Cornish
Cross broilers. (I'll write about his heirloom egg-laying
flock in another post.) Less sedentary heirloom broilers act very
different and will probably need at least slightly different management
The success of the
Polyface Farm broiler operation also stems in large part from the
diversity of the entire farm. In addition to raising chickens,
Salatin grazes beef cattle, which he sends through the pasture to
prepare the ground for the broilers. If you don't have access to
some ruminants, you'll need to mow the pastures to maintain grass at
the proper height for chickens, and you should expect your broilers to
get less nutrition from a pure grass pasture since you won't have the
bug-laden cow pies. (I've written about the ecology of a Salatin-style
All of that said,
Salatin clearly has a lot to teach anyone who's new to pasturing
poultry. And his method has turned hundreds of wannabe farmers
onto a business model that allows them to make a living on a small
family farm. If that sounds like you, check out Pastured
for a step by step guide to making your dreams come true.
chicken waterer is perfect
in tractors since it never spills on uneven ground.
post is part of our Pastured Poultry
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The first year we
raised meat chickens, I simply froze them all whole. I was new to
cooking with real meat, and roasting a chicken was the only easy recipe
I knew that used up the entire bird.
However, I've started to
spread my culinary wings, and have also realized that I need lots of
chicken stock in July, August, and September to make harvest
soup. As a
result, this year I'm cutting up the first
batch of broilers (and maybe the second as well) and am making stock
out of the non-prime portions. Here are the steps in my chicken
Cut off the legs.
Slit through the skin to release the legs (including the thighs) from
the breast of the chicken, then bend the leg down until the bone snaps
out of its socket. Next, you can quickly sever the entire
thigh with a sharp knife --- no need to cut through any bones.
(My favorite recipe for this part of the bird is Garlic
and Thyme Chicken Legs.)
Slice off the breasts.
I leave the skin on the legs for culinary reasons, but I
peel back the skin before removing the breast. I carefully filet
breast meat off the bones, not worrying too much if I leave a few big
meat behind. (It won't go to waste --- I'll get it in the a later
Cook the carcasses.
What you have left after cutting off the legs and breast
is a rather meaty carcass. I simmer it in water for about half an
hour to an hour, then pull the carcass out to cool (keeping the water
as the beginning of my stock). For this first cooking step, you
don't want to simmer the carcasses for too long or the connective
tissue between the bones will dissolve, making it more likely that
you'll accidentally pick out a small
bone with the meat in the next step.
Pick the meat off the bones.
Once the carcass is cool, I carefully pick the remaining meat off the
bones. If you're pretty good at picking meat off the bones (don't
forget those lumps at the base of the spine) and only so-so at slicing
off the breast, you should expect to get about half a cup of meat per
three month old, heirloom chicken. Presumably, you'd get about
twice that from a big supermarket bird (or homegrown Cornish
Cross). I ignore the feet during this
process but do carefully pull a bit of meat off the neck. This
meat is perfect for turning into chicken salad or chicken pot pie.
Make stock. Throw
the bones back in the water along with the feet and necks and simmer
for at least three hours (longer is better) until the water has turned
cloudy and yellowish. (Non-pastured birds won't produce yellow
stock --- it will instead look light brown.) Pour the contents
of your pot through a collander to remove the bones, then freeze or can
the stock for later use.
Although this process
sounds a bit complex, I completed the whole thing
in about four hours for seven broilers, not counting the time the stock
spent simmering on its own. As a result, we enjoyed four servings
of pesto chicken salad, put away two cups of cooked meat and three
of broth to turn into four gallons of summer soup, and have about two
meals worth of breasts and four meals worth of legs waiting for us in
the freezer. Homegrown protein for 34 meals --- not bad for a
I was disappointed by the feed
conversion rate of
our first round of 2012 broilers. I felt like I did everything
right --- providing higher quality pasture and feed than ever before, and even carrying
jars of cicadas to the chicks now and then. But the
feed to meat ratio was a disappointing 5.6, worse than 75% of last
year's efforts. What happened?
I have several
hypotheses, one being that our new method of providing unlimited
storebought feed tempted the broilers to sit around the trough rather
than foraging. (The chickens did seem to be foraging a lot, but
they clearly ate more storebought feed too.) Granted, this year's
broilers also grew a lot bigger than ever before, as you can see in the
first graph in this post --- that blue blob nearly poking off the top of the
chart is the average weight of a 12 week old Black Australorp cockerel
in 2012, compared to the weights of Black Australorp, Cuckoo Marans,
and Light Sussex cockerels last year.
In a way, it's worth
giving the chickens extra feed if you end up with larger broilers,
because there's less butchering involved per pound of meat that
way. It was also handy to be able to slide our three keepers (two
pullets and a cockerel) into the laying flock without the newcomers
being so small they were immediately beaten up. And I had fewer
hard decisions to make since my chores simply consisted of topping off
the feeder so it was always full. On the other hand, it's
disappointing to still be feeding nearly twice the industry standard
per pound of meat.
All of that said, I'm not
entirely sure that the unlimited feed was the cause of the lower feed
conversion rate this time around. On a whim, I took a look at how
the proportion of male to female birds in the flock affected the feed
to meat ratio. Although there's not nearly enough data to come to
any conclusions, there is an interesting trend toward more males in the
flock meaning the birds eat a lot more per pound of meat they
produce. Maybe those boy birds spend so much energy posturing
that they mess up my feed conversion rate?
I'm going to go ahead
and finish raising the second round of 2012 broilers with unlimited
feed this summer and will crunch some more numbers before deciding on a
game plan for our fall batch.
It's easy to provide the
flock with unlimited clean water using our chicken waterer.
As we get better and better
at processing chickens, it becomes more and more apparent that plucking
takes more time than all of the other stages in the butchering process
put together. Last year, Mark built me the very simple, washboard-style
plucker shown here,
and the contraption sped us up so much that I was able to squeeze two
or three more birds into each three hour butchering episode. But
was there an even better (but still low tech and cheap) solution?
While brainstorming with
Mark's mom over the winter, we came up with the idea of repurposing a
cat grooming glove to expedite plucking even more. The
washboard-style plucker did an awesome job when the bird came in
contact with the plucker, but birds have all kinds of nooks and
crannies that the plucking fingers seldom reached. Could human
fingers, aided by a bit of technology, do it better?
The first couple of grooming
gloves we tried weren't very helpful, but the one shown here did indeed
speed matters up. By the end of the experimental butchering
session, Mark and I had settled on pulling out the big wing and tail
feathers by hand (they're easy and fast, and our technological plucking
assistants couldn't get them), running the chicken through the
washboard (since the device is fastest at removing feathers), then
going back over the bird with the plucking glove, before finally
pulling out the last few ornery feathers by hand.
The plucking glove
worked much better when we turned the hose on the bird to wash away
loosened feathers. I also quickly learned to run my hand over the
feathers in the reverse direction (roughing them up rather than laying
them flat), and to pull wings and legs this way and that to reach into
We still have seven more
broilers to process in this round, so we'll use those birds to figure
out how long it takes me to pluck a bird by hand vs. with our two
contraptions. Stay tuned for more details.
Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free, perfect
for keeping healthy chickens of all ages.
I've posted before about
chickens and mushrooms
(in the permaculture sense, not literally). Another way to save
space on the small homestead is to put honeybees in your chicken
I've read that a few
chickens learn to nab bees out of the air as the insects come in for a
landing, but most people seem to have no problem putting a bee hive in
the chicken pasture. The only small problem we ran into is that
our chickens wanted to scratch all of the straw off the kill mulch
around the base of our Warre hive.
Bees like living in an
area without too much activity, so if you have too many chickens in
your pasture, adding bees might not work. Of course, if you have
too many chickens in your pasture, you'll have other problems to
contend with as well. In our rotational
are only pecking around the hive for one week each month and the bees
don't seem to care.
After compost worms, I think
chickens and bees are the first livestock beginning homesteaders should
consider. Bees take less time, but are also less intuitive, so
you'll need to study a few books or take a class before starting your
apiary. Chickens require just a little more caretaking (although
not much more if you install our chicken waterer), but they have the benefit
of acting enough like a pet cat or dog that you don't have to learn a
whole new skill set before adding them to your farm.
Either way, I highly
recommend never adding more than one type of livestock to your farm per
year. I've learned the hard way that it's awfully easy to go
overboard with animals!
When you bring a new set of
chickens home, or move a flock to a new coop, it's important to take a
little extra time to watch them going to bed. The move was
probably a bit traumatic for both you and your flock, and chances are
you'd like to turn in early, but it's a lot easier to get chickens into
the habit of roosting in their coop if they don't spend their first
night perching in a bush.
Later, having chickens
in the coop at night will keep them warm, dry, and safe from
predators. If they've accepted the coop as home base, your hens
will be more likely to lay eggs where you can find them, and it'll make
everyone less likely to fly over fences and wander away. Night is
also the best time to snag chickens who are going in the pot, and if
you can grab
them right off a perch in the coop, that duty will go much more
So we took the time to herd
our month old chicks into their coop the first night, then watched them
the next evening to ensure the youngsters went inside on their
own. A few chicks thought it might be more fun to perch outside,
but once a critical mass accumulated inside the coop, even those
mavericks went in.
Mark suspects that the
issue we've had with getting chicks to go in the coop during their
first few nights is due to the fact that it gets dark inside early and
chickens don't like walking inside if they can't see. A carefully
placed window or two might make next year's night training sessions
Our chicken waterer keeps our youngsters
hydrated with plenty of pristine water.
Although most of us
won't be able to recreate Salatin's success, it's worth understanding
how he's able to raise laying hens while spending only 33% as much on
feed as the average egg-producer does. Here are the key factors
in Salatin's layer operation:
Non-hybrid breeds ---
Salatin raises Rhode Island Reds, Barred
Rocks, and Black
Australorps. Even though they only average about five eggs
apiece per week, he believes that these heavier birds experience less
strain per egg since they lose a smaller percentage of their body
weight with each egg.
Young hens --- After the
chickens have been laying for two years, Salatin kills his layers and
sells them as stewing fowl. This keeps egg production high and
the operation economical.
Free choice food ---
Hens in the Eggmobile enjoy a buffet of whole corn, oats, meat and bone
meal, and oyster shells in separate compartments. Since they get
plenty of protein from pasture, most of the chickens' storebought feed
consists of cheap grains. The feed analysis I listed earlier in
the post is a bit misleading --- if you weighed the amount of feed you
give each laying hen and the amount Salatin gives each of his hens, he
wouldn't be feeding only 33% as much. However, since Salatin's
birds focus more on ingredients like corn, his feed cost is only a
third as high.
Plenty of bug-filled pasture
--- This is the real reason most of us can't replicate Salatin's
results. He keeps about 100 birds in each Eggmobile, letting them
free range as far as they want (about 600 feet), then moving the coop
every three or four days. Since Salatin rests each pasture area
for four weeks before letting chickens back on it, one Eggmobile ends
up covering about 50 acres each year, or half an acre per bird.
Also keep in mind that Salatin's pasture is home to cows, so the
chickens get plenty of fly maggots in the manure.
I like to look at
systems like this as an incentive to make our homestead-scale pastures
even better. No, we don't have cows and 50 acres of pasture, but
surely we can use some of Salatin's techniques and a bit of ingenuity
to lower our feed costs at least a little. Stay tuned as I
continue to experiment with the backyard-scale chicken pasture.
Our chicken waterer makes any pasture operation
easier by providing lots of clean water.
post is part of our Pastured Poultry
Read all of the entries:
I've posted before about
much land you need to pasture your chickens, but what if you wanted to
become totally chicken self-sufficient and grow your own feed
too? For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to use Joel
Salatin's feed recipes,
and will assume you want to keep buying the ingredients other than
grains and soybeans. (I've also included all of my math so you
can correct me if I'm wrong.)
Let's start with laying
hens. How much corn, soybeans, and oats does a single bird eat
per year? (Keep in mind that these figures assume your hen is
getting no nutrition from pasture, so hopefully your actual feed usage
will be a bit lower.)
in winter (coldest areas)
pounds/hen/year (assuming 120 day winter)
Now, let's convert that
into land area. In the following table, bushels per acre will
depend on your climate and the quality of your land --- I've used U.S.
figures from factory farms. What I haven't factored in at all is
succession planting --- you could potentially grow a winter grain then
soybeans in the same field during one year. So, if anything, I'm
overestimating the acreage you need to feed your flock.
Based on my math, a
single hen would consume the harvest from 0.02639 acres of corn,
soybeans, and oats. Our current flock of eight hens and a rooster
would need just shy of a quarter of acre to feed them --- not too bad!
So, our broilers needed
0.00283 acres apiece to produce their feed. Since we're planning
on raising around 45 broilers this year, that comes to about an eighth
of an acre to feed the meat flock. (Keep in mind that my
are very different from Cornish Cross. You'd probably raise half
as many mainstream broilers to match the same amount of meat we get
from our Australorps, but would feed roughly the same amount or a
That means our total
acreage to keep two people very well fed with chickens and eggs for a
Feed for 8 hens and a rooster
Feed for 45 broilers
Giving two people all
the white meat, eggs, and bone broth they need from a quarter of an
acre apiece seems like a bargain! If you aren't sick of math, you
might also like to read my
math on the total land area we use to grow the rest of our food. And please do let me
know if you check my numbers and they don't come out straight.
Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free
alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted early Monday morning, June 18th, 2012
Eric sent me this video
of his chickens enjoying their homemade chicken
waterer, built using
one of our DIY kits. When I complimented him on the simple
elegance of his design, he told me that this was actually just his
trial waterer, which he meant to replace with something fancier.
But it turned out so nicely and hangs so well in his tractor, he might
keep it --- I would!
For three months, our
laying hens did great in their pasture. I moved them to a new
paddock once a week, then Mark
came along behind me to mow. That routine
prevented last year's problem of the pasture going to seed during the
spring rush, but a new issue was on the horizon --- lack of water.
We haven't had a real rain
here in weeks, and our usually wet farm is bone dry. Rather than
rebounding after being grazed, pastures are starting to grow up in
smartweed and other plants chickens don't like...if anything grows back
at all. Plus, without rain, the manure is building up on the soil
surface, which leads to flies. So I decided to revert to my
winter escape hatch and let
the hens out into the woods.
We saved a rooster from
our first round of broilers to join the laying hens, and I'm hoping
he'll hold the flock together during their summer vacation. The
woods is just as dry as the pastures, of course, but there's a lot more
space out there for the chickens to scratch through.
If you don't have acres
of woodland handy to turn your chickens into, there are other
possibilities for summer escapes when the pastures are looking
over-grazed. We water our vegetable garden using sprinklers,
which means that the grassy aisles are just as green as can be.
In a pinch, we could separate our laying flock out into two or three
tractors and graze them on this lush ground. Alternatively, we
could fence off a compost/deep bedding area and keep the mulch thick
enough that it wouldn't matter if the hens scratched it bare.
Another alternative is
simply to improve the quality of the pastures. I gathered most of
the compostables from last year's pasture compost piles this spring to
feed the garden, but I missed one that had been scratched flat into the
soil. There, dandelions and clovers are happily growing, several
inches taller than the surrounding pasture. I've always read that
better pasture management means more forage, but it's striking to see
the results of extra organic matter in person. Someday, I hope
all of our pastures look that lush, even several weeks into a drought.
Our chicken waterer ensures the flock stays well
hydrated, even if their pasture dries to a crisp.
We've had more failures
than successes, though. Giant timber bamboo (Phyllostachys
for a year, then keeled over (probably because we're near the northern
limit for timber bamboos). My hardy almonds were eaten so hard by
Japanese beetles that they bit the dust too. And several home-propagated
grapes couldn't handle the neglect.
On the one hand, it would be
nice if I committed the time to babying these perennials for the first
year or two. But I'm also looking for plants who won't need
much care beyond annual mulching (if that), so my neglect may be just
the ticket for figuring out the best pasture plants as quickly as
While I'm talking about
my experiments with pasture perennials, I should mention the species
that need more time before I'll know whether they make the
low-maintenance cut. We put in two Asian
persimmons (only one
of which leafed out) last winter, and a dwarf
Korean nut pine from
two winters ago is growing extremely slowly in another pasture.
New this spring are Rosa rugosa and Siberian pea shrub. Only time
will tell which ones turn out to be perfect plants for our pasture.
One of the interesting facets
Poultry Profits is
that Salatin tacked on extra information at the end to show how his
business grew and changed. One of the most recent changes to the
business model is that he finally caved in to customer requests and
began to sell his chickens by the part as well as whole. In 2010,
he charged $3.25 per pound for a broiler, but sold parts for following
Part of the
Boneless skinless chicken breast
Legs and thighs
Backs for stock
Necks for stock
Feet for stock
Hearts and livers
As you can tell by the
more than ten-fold difference in price between the necks and tenders,
customers like some chicken parts much more than others. Walter
Jeffreys wrote about this concept very eloquently on his blog, explaining that meat
producers have to ensure that the whole animal gets sold. So even
though his customers might prefer that all of his time be devoted to
making bacon (or chicken tenders in the case of Salatin's operation),
you have to raise the price of the in-demand pieces and lower the price
of everything else until sales come out even.
Although we don't sell
any of our meat, we had to think in a similar manner when we started to
grow your own (and to buy whole lambs from a local farmer). Two
years ago, the only red meat I was comfortable cooking was steaks and
hamburger meat, but a whole lamb required me to learn how to roast
shoulders, stew up bones, and much more. Like most parts of the
sustainability learning curve, the result was good for my wallet, the
earth, and our taste buds.
Which is all a long way
of saying --- even if you don't have room for chickens in your backyard
yet, you can start your journey toward self-sufficiency by simply
learning to cook with unusual cuts of meat. Maybe then you can
afford to buy the meat from a pastured producer rather than supporting
CAFOs and factory farms.
Our POOP-free chicken waterer ensures that our broilers
stay healthy and taste delicious.
post is part of our Pastured Poultry
Read all of the entries: