From Chicken Coops to Chicken Hoops
This year we changed how we raise broiler chickens and I cannot be happier with the result.
In the past, as I'm sure you all know, we relied on our 8' x 8' pasture shelters that were made in the Joel Salatin style. These shelters were and are awesome, and were a great place for us to start as a business because we had just gotten back from Polyface and were familiar with raising broilers in them. Further, they are very inexpensive, easy to build, and are pretty much scale neutral. Each shelter you build fits 50 chickens, so when it is time for your small farm to expand you just build new shelters. There is never any wasted capacity or pressure to grow faster than you'd like.
That said, their scale neutral nature is also their biggest drawback. Every new shelter brings in an equally larger amount of work as the previous shelter and so your business and your workload grow in a linear fashion.
At the end of 2012 we were completely tapped out. Kevi Jr. was a handful, we weren't sleeping very much, and the business still needed to grow to support all of us. So, over that Winter we came up with a new plan for raising broilers that I've been so excited all year to share with you all, but wanted to wait until the last broilers were gone so I didn't jinx it.
For 2013 we raised our broiler chickens in what we are calling Pasture Hoops (Please note, we desperately need a catchy name for these shelters. Email us right away if you have one!). These hoops are made of a steel frame and covered in canvas tarps and have a row of doors on each side that can be opened to let in cool breezes on hot days or shut during cold and rainy weather. They are put in the middle of a portable electric fence and moved every morning onto fresh grass just like we've always done. What makes them quite amazing is we can house 500 chickens in each one! This has allowed our business to scale because instead of taking 45 minutes to move, water, and feed 10 shelters with 50 birds each, we now can now move, water, and feed 2 hoops with 500 birds each in 35 minutes TOTAL.
Let those figures sink in, because it has taken me all year to stop grinning. It has been so exciting to see this program succeed. Our day-to-day schedule has been vastly improved, the chickens have gained greater access to pasture, and we've been able to double chicken production!
I'm so proud of what it has done for us and what it means for the rest of our operation. So often the new agricultural movement focuses on helping farmers start and we forget about helping farmers keep farming. We fell into that trap and kept making decisions like we were just starting our farm. Every decision was based around saving money instead of saving our backs and sanity.
This experiment has been a huge boon to our spirits and such an education. The significant loans we took out were at first daunting, but I have to say that this has been my favorite year farming and while that may be biased by the fact that Kevi Jr. comes with me on every chore, I think it cannot be forgotten that there comes a point in each business where the soundest investment is the one you make in yourself.
I promise there will be more exciting changes to come, but before that I have some work to do to get ready for turkey season!