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Polyface pens

I'm sure that most of you have heard about the broiler operation that is the primary subject of Pastured Poultry Profits.  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 Salatin processing chickensestimates 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.

Cornish CrossI 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 techniques.

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 pasturing system elsewhere.)

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 Poultry Profits for a step by step guide to making your dreams come true.

Our chicken waterer is perfect in tractors since it never spills on uneven ground.

This post is part of our Pastured Poultry Profits series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, June 1st, 2012 Tags:
Pastured chicken broth

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 catch-all 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 processing operation:

  • Cutting off a chicken thighCut 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 the breast meat off the bones, not worrying too much if I leave a few big gobs of meat behind.  (It won't go to waste --- I'll get it in the a later step.)
  • 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 Chicken saladaccidentally 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.
  • Strain stockMake 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 quarts 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 morning's work.

Our chicken waterer kept the broilers healthy until butchering day.
Posted early Monday morning, June 4th, 2012 Tags:

Feed to meat ratio for chickensI 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 Pulletspoking 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. 

Percent maleAll 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.
Posted early Wednesday morning, June 6th, 2012 Tags:

Homemade chicken pluckerAs 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?

Chicken plucker gloveThe 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 crevices.

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.
Posted early Friday morning, June 8th, 2012 Tags:
Chickens with bees

I've posted before about stacking 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 pasture.

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 in a 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 pastures, chickens are only pecking around the hive for one week each month and the bees don't seem to care.

Bees at the hive entranceAfter 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!

Posted early Monday morning, June 11th, 2012 Tags:

Chicks climbing rampWhen 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 smoothly too.

Chicks perchingSo 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 easier.

Our chicken waterer keeps our youngsters hydrated with plenty of pristine water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, June 13th, 2012 Tags:

A few weeks ago, I regaled you with a summary of Joel Salatin's broiler chicken operation.  This post continues the story by looking in on his Eggmobiles, which house laying hens on pasture.

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 chicken feedFree 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.

Although it's not relevant to the discussion of lowering feed costs, I thought you might also like to know that Salatin solves the winter chicken pasture problem by simply moving his hens to hoop houses full of deep bedding.

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.

This post is part of our Pastured Poultry Profits series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, June 15th, 2012 Tags:

I've posted before about how 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.)

Pounds/hen/day in summer
Pounds/hen/day in winter (coldest areas)
Total 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!

How about our broilers?  Our first batch of broilers in 2012 ate 11.9 pounds of feed apiece during their three months of life:

Total pounds/broiler

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 heirloom broilers 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 little less.)

That means our total acreage to keep two people very well fed with chickens and eggs for a year is:

Land use
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 Tags:

ChooksI read a few Australian blogs, and always smile when they refer to chickens as "chooks".  That got me thinking about all of the names we have for chickens, like...

  • The obvious hen and rooster with chook and chicken referring to both.
  • Chicks seem to have the most pet names --- peeps, diddles, diddlies, diddlersdibs, deebers, and biddies.
  • Hens come in next with biddies, cacklers, broodies, sitters, layers, and pullets
  • Roosters can be cocks, cockerels, or capons.
  • You can have a flock of chickens and a brood, clutch, or chattering of chicks.

I also stumbled across information that the term "chicken" used to refer only to chicks, with the whole species being known as "domestic fowl" or just "fowl."

Did I miss any fun chicken terms?  I hope you'll take a minute and leave a comment with your own favorite chicken names.

Our chicken waterer keeps diddlies and chooks hydrated.
Posted early Wednesday morning, June 20th, 2012 Tags:

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!

Posted early Friday morning, June 22nd, 2012 Tags:
Over-grazed chicken pasture

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.

Chickens running into the woodsWe 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.

Grassy garden aisle

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.

Lush pasture

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.
Posted early Monday morning, June 25th, 2012 Tags:
Ever-bearing mulberry

Bush cherryI have a bad tendency to plant edible trees and shrubs in the chicken pastures...then forget about them.  Some die from the neglect, but others hold their own and eventually get their feet under them.

The Nanking cherries and Illinois ever-bearing mulberries are in the latter category.  It it hadn't been for a late frost, both would be coated in fruits, but at least we'll get to taste the first three mulberries this year (from a tree only one year in the ground!)  Maybe in two or three years, we won't have to turn our laying hens out into the woods at this time of year --- they'll be happily chowing down on mulberries.

We've had more failures than successes, though.  Giant timber bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax) lingered 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.

Anti-chicken cageOn 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 possible.

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.

Our chicken waterer rounds out the flock's diet with POOP-free water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, June 27th, 2012 Tags:

Pastured Poultry ProfitsOne of the interesting facets of Pastured 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 prices:

Part of the chicken
Price per pound
Boneless skinless chicken breast
Chicken tenders
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.

Parts of a pig
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.

This post is part of our Pastured Poultry Profits series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, June 29th, 2012 Tags:

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