Broilers-Lessons Learned #2

Follow The Recipe

Anyone who follows this blog probably has an inkling of my die-hard devotion to Joel Salatin’s farming methods, as demonstrated on Polyface Farms.  I have almost all of his books, well thumbed, and read repeatedly.  I’ve been to two workshops when he has been up in my corner of Canada.   I didn’t realize it in the beginning, but I’ve come to understand that farming is a lot like cooking.

When you are trying some new kind of technique or a food you’ve never cooked before, you probably should follow instructions or a recipe pretty closely.  Once you understand how the ingredients work together, or why the order of things is the way it is in the recipe, then you can start tweaking or adapting for your own tastes, ingredients, etc.  Farming can be like that.  I knew nothing about broilers when I began raising them.  We had been keeping a laying flock for a couple of years, but the guy who used to cut our hay way back then warned us that broilers were a different thing.  I did some reading, bought Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits, and we launched.  Fortunately, we took Salatin’s advice and kept to low numbers – 25 that first year, and 40 the next.  We had a ton of learning to get through in those early years.

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Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman Foxglove Farm 2012

We made the mistake back then of not following the recipe very closely.  We skipped over the parts in the book about building the pasture pens – like almost everyone out there raising broilers, I initially believed the pens would be too heavy and cumbersome, they looked like they wouldn’t hold a lot of birds, and we didn’t think we had the skills to build one anyway.  Instead, we put together a pasture pen out of pallets and a lot of chicken wire.  It was 8 x 10 ft, smaller than a Salatin pen, and 4 ft high, thanks to the pallet dimensions.  We had to keep a stool near the pen so we could climb in and out to do the feed and water.  It weighed a lot more than the roughly 200 lbs that a Salatin pen weighs.  It took four people to move it, so needless to say, it didn’t move daily like the method calls for.  Obviously, we didn’t think the method was too wonderful, given the poopiness of the bird’s living conditions.  We nearly packed it in, but there was no denying the difference in the grass where the pen had been – the fertility the birds were adding to the soil of that old hay field was almost magical.

With a lot of thumb bruising and sailor language, we eventually built a Salatin pen, following the very basic guidelines in Pastured Poultry Profits and the hand drawn schematic provided on a blog called A Daring Adventure.  We did pretty well, and it was amazing how spacious it looked compared to our 8 x 1o white elephant.  We realized almost immediately that we had improved on our previous pen, but still had a distance to go, as we had skipped a few important details in the design.

It took us another four years to finish getting the pens right. We got Hay Guy to build the dolly right after the first season when we tried to make do with an awful little moving dolly.  We put a loop handle on the closed end of the pen that winter too.  And built a new pen the next summer, so we had two.  The third summer, I finally got around to putting loop handles on the open ends of both pens, and the result was a pretty efficient pasturing system this past (fourth) summer.

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September 2013

There is a standing joke in my family about a dish called “Oregano Chicken”.  The joke is because the first time I made the recipe (and this is a true story), I didn’t have chicken on hand, so I used fish.  I also didn’t have the white wine it called for, so I used red.  Wine is wine, I figured.  The fish looked a little purple, but I figured the taste would still be good.  I also didn’t have oregano.  I substituted sage.  You won’t be surprised to learn that the meal was not a success, and it was years before I went back to that cookbook and gave it another go – with chicken.  I cannot blame the chef who created the recipe for the terrible meal – I was the one who made all the substitutions. To this day, if I have gone off the page with a recipe, I will warn the family  “this is Oregano Chicken” and they know what not to expect.  At the same time, I’m a far more experienced cook nowadays, and I have a much better idea  of how ingredients interact in different dishes, allowing me to occasionally create new, tasty versions of a basic recipe.   I see a lot of evidence in other blogs of people who have given broilers a try, and who then blame the farmer who developed the model they were “following”, when in fact, they followed the model about as well as I followed that recipe.  Frankly, it’s not the fault of the farmer who developed an efficient production model if the people who copy him don’t use the same ingredients.

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Now, don’t get me wrong – there are other cooks out there, with different recipes for the same cake.  There are easily a dozen versions of pasture pens for broilers out there on the web.  Some of them look better than others to me.   Fundamentally I’m saying : find a cook whose style appeals to you, and follow their recipe as close to the letter as you can.  Adaptations can come when you have more experience.  Trust me, I’ve been there.

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23 thoughts on “Broilers-Lessons Learned #2

  1. We are rather prone to tweaking before trying; sometimes it works but mostly you retweak the next chance you get and generally end up with doing what the original “recipe” dictated anyway. You’d think we’d learn 🙂
    Love the oregano chicken story; our equivalent is “parsnip surprise” – the surprise being it contains no parsnip. The family knows when the answer to the big questions “what’s for dinner” is parsnip surprise that they are in for it. Whether “it” is good or bad…and if it’s good, will I remember what I did so I can replicate it…another of life’s mysteries 🙂
    You speak wisely; I hope the day will come where we follow the recipe exactly as written at least the first time…but I’m not convinced we will.

  2. valbjerke says:

    Ah yes – I’ve a dish I used to threaten the family with called ‘Alpo’ – created on an evening when I was so tired from work I could barely stand at the stove. Started out as hamburger patties with mushroom sauce, ended up looking (and tasting) like I’d opened up two cans of dog food.
    You make good points about raising broilers. I think what’s also important, is that one also has to consider what works for them and adapt. We have a lot of predators so we used to go with large/tall outdoor pens that were attached to the barn, allowing the birds to be in at night. We also used to have issues with wings dislocating during processing no matter how careful we were. (We raise ours to 12 weeks). We finally solved the problem by mixing oyster shell in with the feed at four weeks til slaughter date. 🙂

    • Alpo – lol
      My mum used to fry an onion while she figured out what she was going to cook for dinner. It made us all think something delicious was coming, even though what she ended up with was sometimes not really the sort of thing that benefited from onion.

    • You make a good point about regional challenges. I agree, sometimes you need to adapt for your circumstances,as in your case with predator issues.
      I’ve not heard of issues with dislocating wings during processing being an issue, but it makes sense that oyster shell would help. Twelve weeks – wow, they must be huge by then.

      • valbjerke says:

        Yes – generally they’re between seven and nine pounds. It’s what our customers preferred – another example of adapting. I had one lady explain that she’d roast the bird then pull all the meat off and use it in wraps, burritos, quesadillas and so on. Sort of a way to stretch the meat budget.

      • Interesting…my customers, many singles or double income no kids types, want 4 lb birds. Hence my seven week processing.

      • valbjerke says:

        Makes sense – this particular lady – seems to always have a houseful of grandchildren, exchange students she’s billeting etc. She has a large goat dairy to stay on top of, or I’m sure she’d raise broilers herself.

  3. Yep, nodding head in agreement.

  4. Joe says:

    I have a question about the pens. I built one this year and think I may have put my pen bracing on the wrong side! Are the braces shown on the last page on the top or bottom of the pen? I learned so much this year!

  5. Love the cooking analogy! I hate following recipes to the “T” but hate making mistakes more. I generally read several different recipes and then come up with my own version.
    We tend to do the same with projects at the farm, hence the burgeoning farm book library, but time rarely seems to be on our side and so we have a tendency to just jump in and adjust as we go, hoping we’ve done enough research to get it close to right!
    I’m loving the benefit of your hindsight – thanks for sharing your experiences. I think the details about what and why and the mistakes made give us a lot of insight and can be a lot more helpful than a “how to”.

    • I like Joel Salatin’s maxim that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly first – meaning that the first time you do something it probably won’t turn out even close to perfect, but the important thing is to aim high and do your best. I think by following someone else’s model closely one has a better chance of having less to tweak.

      I too tend to consult a lot of sources before cooking something new, and the same goes with farming. But to work the analogy to death, I keep coming back to a single recipe for certain things – I think my old Purity cookbook falls open to the page for chocolate cake. There are a million fabulous recipes out there, but in the end, that recipe is simple, reliable, and easy to find.

      People have created some amazing pens out there, and I’m probably missing out on something even better than Salatin’s pens, but for me, the Salatin pen works very well, I’ve pretty much mastered the design and I don’t need extra equipment to make them. Even with my very very basic carpentry skills I can pull one together (with an extra set of hands) in about 2 days, and it looks and works like it should.

      • Joe says:

        I must be doing a lot of things worth doing!

      • The saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” comes to mind. I’m with you – no use messing with something that works. Efficiency counts for a lot.

        and now I’m craving chocolate cake!

      • I think there are quite a few sayings that pertain – one that comes to mind for me is “don’t reinvent the wheel”. Sorry about the chocolate cake…this nice day after all that storm is too good to waste on baking. You’ll have to bake one the next rainy day, which I’m sure isn’t far off. Sooo glad you got all that ditch work done before this week launched it’s full barrage at us.

      • well, we may have filled in the ditches, but there is a LOT of topsoil getting washed down the hill. There wasn’t time to get it seeded so we’ve been spreading hay like mad – even had to dig an emergency swale to divert the mad rush of water screaming down the hill. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t waste the seed as it would have washed away anyway.

      • Couldn’t hit the “like” button for that one. It was a humdinger of a storm, all right. I didn’t suffer any significant damage, but the pigs paddock is a quagmire. I’m hoping today will dry it out a bit.

  6. avwalters says:

    I, too, am loving the benefits of your hindsight. I won’t be starting with chickens until next spring, and probably not meat birds until the following year. So I’m at the “perusing multiple recipes” stage. Thanks for the info.

  7. Bill says:

    We’ve never done broilers and don’t plan to. We’re just not able to add another enterprise. But I’m very envious when I see those wonderful green swaths trailing behind the pens.

    Just this morning I was looking longingly at the lineup for this years Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in January. Includes Wendell Berry on Thursday and Joel Salatin on Saturday. It’s been a privilege to hear them both before several times, but they never disappoint.

    • I had a look at the line up for your conference, and while I’m envious of your chance to hear Wendell Berry (!!!!) and Joel Salatin in person, I am most struck by the thought that this movement is growing. All the countless people “out there” that each of us has never heard of, but doing their significant best to add their might to turning this ag ship around. And it’s happening, no doubt about that. I don’t know any of the other names on that list, but I’m sure some are familiar to you, and the reverse would be true for a similar conference up here or down in NZ or over in the UK. This is a movement that is not a flash in the pan, but here to stay – a truly grassroots movement.

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