Broilers-Lessons Learned #1

This is the first in a series of posts that reflect my post season thoughts on my tiny broiler operation.  I’ve been raising broilers every summer for about a decade, and while some things go quite smoothly for me now, I feel like I’m still on the learning curve.  For the last five years, I’ve been working intentionally towards setting myself up to run broilers more efficiently, and therefore more profitably, with a view to this becoming a larger enterprise for me.  I’ve included pictures of my 2015 broiler season, in which I raised 145 broilers, put them out on the field at 12 days old, and processed 139 when they were 6 1/2 weeks old.  We kept 25 for ourselves, and sold out of the rest, which is typical.  One issue I don’t have is selling these delicious, pasture raised birds.  The pictures start with the day the chicks arrived, and finish with a picture of the pens a month after the birds were in the freezer, if you look carefully, you can see the darker green patches of grass where the pens moved each day on the field.

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Currently I raise about 140 broilers at a time.  This is mainly due to the size of my brooder set up, which has been a work in progress for a couple of years, and which at the moment, I’m  fairly happy with.  I also have two Salatin style pasture pens, the dolly which makes them work so well, a trailer for the lawn tractor which allows me to haul several bags of feed down the field at a time, and hundreds of feet of hoses that allow me to run water down the field from the main tap in the back yard.   Over the years, we’ve acquired 20 industry standard poultry crates, which has made transporting birds to the processor MUCH easier, and better for the birds.  The plan has always been to raise multiple batches of birds as the way to grow this enterprise, but so far, I’ve only been doing one batch a year, due mainly to some of the lessons learned which I’m going to cover in the next couple of weeks.

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A lot of things have improved and are going quite well with the broilers.  But every year, something happens to make the season feel difficult.  Sometimes, it’s just a once off event, perhaps due to weather or predators or a family crisis.  Some years, like the season I just finished, the reasons the broiler enterprise ran less smoothly than it should were more about me than any external factors.  What follows is probably the number one issue I have with any and all of my farming endeavours.  If this one was conquered, things like planning and processing would happen a lot better.  As it is, they’re coming up in later posts.

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Lesson Learned Number ONE.  Pick up the phone and make the call.

True story.  I hate making phone calls, except maybe to my immediate family.  I do it as part of working at the library, but that feels different, like it’s not really me making the call, but the person I’m acting as.  I have no idea why I’m like this. It’s not about chattiness.  You can tell from the blog that I’m a talker.  Anyone at the library will tell you I talk plenty.  I just don’t do it on the phone.

How does this relate to the broiler chickens?  I have to order the chicks by phone.  I have to phone potential or past customers, I have to phone the processor to arrange a processing date. I would rather muck out a chicken house after a winter of deep bedding.  Or butcher roosters.  Or do laundry.  OK, maybe doing the taxes is worse, but not much else.   Does anyone else procrastinate on things they don’t like doing?  Here’s the lesson about phone calls – if you procrastinate too long, you can really mess up your schedule, your family’s schedule and perhaps end up not getting any broiler chickens.

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That almost happened to me last year, when I found out the hatchery has a last hatch date (which made sense when I thought about it), which I only just managed to get some birds from, and not as many as I wanted, so I was slightly better about phoning on time this year, but not by much.  And phoning the processor?  Wow.  It’s possible he doesn’t like phone calls either, because it took 4 messages from me and ultimately a Facebook message (which he didn’t reply to, but did trigger him calling me back finally).  (As an aside, it’s fascinating to me how much of the farm world is still very much phone and paper oriented, vs social media/electronic.  Of the 4 or 5 processors (for pigs and chickens) I’ve dealt with in the last few years, ALL have phone contact only – most have no website, and only one has a Facebook page.)  Back to this year – then I had the issue of a processing date a whole week earlier than I wanted – not a good thing when a week makes as much difference in growth as it does for broilers.  In the end, it pulled together, but it was unnecessarily stressful, and partly due to the fact that I put off ordering chicks till it was quite late in the season.

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I have options here.  I can continue squeaking by with this last minute scramble of phoning to get broiler chicks, to book the processor, and to line up customers, but it’s super inefficient, and keeps my stress level elevated longer than necessary.  I have enough other stuff to stress about, I don’t need more.  Increasing the number of broilers I raise and sell would be relatively easy in some respects – a lot of the infrastructure is in place, and requires no additional effort.  In fact, ordering birds for more batches can happen with just one phone call.  Ditto for the processor; I can book processing for multiple batches in advance, which means more birds does not mean more calls.

So, what’s stopping me?  I am done with phone call phobia, and I’m moving on to phone call efficiency.  Next year, dear readers, you have my full permission to be on my case by June if I’ve made no mention of ordering chicks before that.  You can call me on that.

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18 thoughts on “Broilers-Lessons Learned #1

  1. avwalters says:

    I can understand your phobia. I don’t have a problem with calling–but I have avoidance issues with collecting messages from my phone. I’ll call back in a heartbeat (from the number showing on the history) but collecting the messages? Aughhh!

    • We don’t have call display on the home phone, and I don’t have a cell phone, so retrieving numbers isn’t an option for me, and thankfully, playing back messages from the machine is something I have no problem with. My daughter has no clue how to retrieve voice mail on her cell phone though…

  2. Joe Villines says:

    This is the first year I have raised broilers, and boy have I learned a lot. I jumped in with a hundred this fall and really pushed the season and lucked out due to unseasonably warm weather. I sold every single one at the price I am asking. Totally worth the stress.

    • I’m glad your first effort went well. Raising broilers can be extremely rewarding, and I think the market for broilers raised ethically and without antibiotics/hormones is growing all the time.

  3. I totally get it. There’s no ability to read body language/facial expressions when you’re on the phone. Phoning on behalf of, like at work, is easy because you’re just delivering the company message. Stakes are higher when it’s for yourself.
    I am pretty good at procrastination (or “parking issues” as the Bean Counter calls it) but tend to tackle the whole phone call thing head on, which has it’s own fall out. Often I’ll make the call before I’ve actually nutted the whole plan out and that causes the stress of running around getting stuff done that, had I waited a couple of days, would have fallen into place.
    Looking forward to reading your lessons – our happy band of (currently) 9 chooks are always acting like we’re rank amateurs so we need all the help we can get 🙂

    • Yes I think you’ve got it in one with the inability to “read” the other person’s expression and body language. Although, I have to admit, I’m not much better at approaching people “cold” either – I’d have made a terrible door to door salesperson.

  4. valbjerke says:

    Lucky lady to have a processor available 🙂
    Years ago we used to run a hundred broilers through a month – and process them ourselves. (Yep – that got old fast). When the rules changed and we weren’t allowed gate to plate – there was nowhere to send the birds. However – we could sell them live, and the purchaser could do their own processing. Which is how I learned people don’t keep their word. One lady ordered a hundred – we raised them. Nearing processing week, she seemed very vague on a date for us to deliver them. Long story short – we ended up allowing her to bring her help over to our place (read herself and a couple of 8 year olds), which led to us teaching her how to process chickens (she admitted she had no idea) which led to me hiring some help, running the scalder while my husband ran the plucker (all not allowed under the new rules) which then led her to write me a check for sixty birds only because she claimed she’d never ordered a hundred, which led me to scramble to sell the other forty. Which ultimately led to me fielding many phone calls because apparently she’d skipped the step of pulling the crop out.
    Never again. There is now (I think) a mobile processor in the area – but last I heard they were charging five dollars a bird. Am curious to how much you charge and how much does your processor charge?

    • Wow! That is a saga and a half.

      Not to rub salt into the wound, I actually have relatively easy access (if I call and book far enough in advance) to TWO poultry processors, one serves the whole Island, the other just the south end. Cost for the smaller guy is around $4.25/bird (not looking at the invoice, so I might be wrong), and the bigger guy up-Island has scaled pricing – $4.50/bird for less than 25, $4.25 for 26-100, and if you do more than 200, it’s $3.75. Turkey is more for both, and neither will do quail, pheasant, duck or goose.

      Yup, we processed our own birds the first two years (the second year illegally), and even at our very small numbers, knew that the only way to make that work was to invest in equipment to do it efficiently. The huge cost of the processor is a pain, but ultimately, since it’s been built in to my price to the customer for so long, no one bats an eyelash at the $4.95/lb I’m charging, which covers all my costs, the processing fee, gives me my own chicken free, plus a few cents/lb for labour. So it’s not very Salatin-esque of me, but I’m happy to have them done by someone set up to do it properly. My smaller processor is only 20 minutes down the road, super convenient, and the bigger guy is an hour away – still not bad in comparison to many other people’s situations.

      We used to have a mobile processor in the area, they worked under the radar and by word of mouth since it was during those years you’re talking about when they changed the rules so drastically. Isn’t it up your way that the government funded that swanky $500,000 mobile abbattoir that could do red meat or poultry?

      • valbjerke says:

        If I remember correctly that swanky abbattoir went out of business in short order – mostly because there simply weren’t enough people to support it. The Central Cariboo Poultry Processing mobile abbattoir took forever to get off the ground – and last I heard, did have some docking station in the Vanderhoof area – not sure. I know she tried to strike a deal to dock at Kawano Farms (just down the road red meat processor) but he wasn’t interested. I think the government finally allowed a couple of the ‘class C’ processors to reopen until a better solution comes up.
        I see I wasn’t charging enough for my broilers though ……. 🙂

  5. Bill says:

    Back in my office job I had dozens of phone conversations daily. Now I feel really put out if I have to talk on the phone at all. So I get it.

    Around here everyone processes their own birds. Our law permits a farmer to process up to 1,000/year on farm. The law allows poultry only. We aren’t allowed to process pigs for example, except for our own use. Even if we wanted to use a processor, I’m not aware of any within a few hundred miles that do chickens.

    We’ve never raised broilers and I don’t plan to start. Plenty of people already doing it and I don’t want to have to process them. But the demand is high here too. Once people have a chicken that’s been raised right, they don’t want to go back.

    • There are probably no processors precisely because of the legal exemption for small producers in your state.

      It’s true that Joel Salatin’s message seems to be falling on fertile ground – I too am aware of far more people doing broilers than even a couple of years ago. I’m glad, it gets more of the chicken that’s grown well onto people’s plates, and there’s plenty of room in the marketplace still.

      I think you probably have enough different enterprises going that you don’t need to add broilers to the list. Just the thought of trying to contain goats and keep them fed and happy and inside fences makes me quail. I am happy to leave goats to you and Union Homestead.

  6. I am really looking forward to this series especially since we plan to do broilers at some point. I’m encouraged to hear you have no problem selling the birds – I worry that the price we’d have to charge to cover our costs and make somewhat of a profit will be too high for the area our farm is located. I was talking to our electrician last week about our farm plans and he said he knew a guy that sells out every time and can’t keep up with the demand. So i’ll be paying close attention to all of your lessons learned!
    I’m already applying lesson #1, albeit not related to broilers, just to the list of follow up calls to the plumbing supply, fence installer, electrician, lumber yard, etc… I don’t know why I procrastinate on phone calls either but I think unionhomestead is probably hitting the nail on the head.

    • Bear in mind that where you are the exemptions in your state may well allow you to process birds yourself, which changes the pricing quite a bit, and probably keeps the price per lb down compared to what I and my competitors charge – we, after all, are all forced to pay for processing, so even those who price their birds lower than I do still make sure they make that cost back, which sets a base price across the board.

      But yes, in general, most people I know have no trouble selling birds raised this way – even without pasturing – one of my neighbours raised them in his garage, and still sold out.

      • yes – we can process up to 1000 birds a year under the exemption. Our plan is to do the processing ourselves but I wonder about the “pastured poultry burnout” MOH mentioned in her latest post. BTW – pastured poultry around here sells for $5 – $6 a pound and these are farmers that are processing the birds themselves.

      • Wow. OK, my price was $4.95/lb and included processing – but probably not enough profit for me. I’m definitely not bottom of the price pile locally either. Pastured Poultry burnout – yeah, it’s a risk. Pace is needed. I talk like I know – with only 1 batch a year, I really don’t. 🙂

  7. I have to add my two cents, since we still are suffering from PPBO… The single biggest mistake we made was not paying attention to Salatin and we jobbed out the processing. We have a processor within 20 minutes, and it all sounded so good on paper. But, my husband is a city boy, well, not now, but despite the fact that his dad was butcher he was adamant that he didn’t want to butcher birds. Hindsight is so clear. At the time we were starting poultry the only equipment available really was about 5K, now you can get a nice scalder and plucker for around 2K. Featherman is pretty good, but they were starting out at the same time too and out of frustration decided to start designing equipment for the small producer, it was too late for us then. The getting up early to catch the birds, transport them, go back and get them, and then deal with customers is what killed us. Not to mention one more person handling your birds in maybe not as sanitary conditions as you would like, getting birds back that aren’t your own, it just finally wore us down. Since we stopped selling, and are just raising them for ourselves, we borrow a neighbors Featherman setup and wow, no stress, who would have thought? Now we have the feathers, blood and guts for our compost, and we are the inspectors of the food. No one will care as much as you, how your birds are processed.

    As for selling, the birds will sell themselves, When we quit 8 years ago, we were charging $4.50 per pound, and we weren’t making a dime because of the processing cost. We could make money on turkeys though because they graze so much, lowering the feed bill, and the processing fee worked out lower because they weigh so much more, Turkeys are easy to contain in electric netting since they actually are much, much smarter than chickens, and come when you call them like the cows. I probably need my head examined, but if I were to do some kind of poultry again for sale, I would do turkeys, over broilers, layers or ducks and geese.

    So glad you’re posting again, I love reading West Coast blogs!

    • I totally agree that if you have the option to be allowed to sell broilers you’ve processed yourself, it’s hands down the best way to go, for all the reasons you cite. Since most of the US appears to have some sort of exemption for allowing small producers to do that, it makes complete sense to go that route. Processing your own is what makes Pastured Poultry Profits true. Without it, it’s a slightly different model, that’s for sure.

      I sometimes process broilers for our own freezer, if they’re not up to size to go to the processor for example, but we’ve never invested in the equipment to do it properly, since it’s only 2 or 3 birds max at a time. We do our layer flock every few years, but we skin them rather than plucking, so equipment is necessary. I’m not fast, but it’s not difficult either. I would happily get the equipment and process our own if we had the legal exemption to do so.

      Turkeys are interesting huh? I’ve so far resisted – getting booked at the processor is even harder for turkey because of the shorter window of availability, and the growing consumer interest in fresh local turkey (which is of course why I’m interested myself). Another giltch that might be worth another post is that in BC we are only allowed to grow 50 turkeys per year without getting a quota from the marketing board. There a lot of creative solutions to get around that, but it’s still a hurdle.

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