Broiler Lessons Learned – Last lesson !

I cannot do this alone.

This probably should have been listed as lesson#1.   I would have had serious issues with animals running out of water this summer were it not for the fact that the younger daughter was at home most of the time and was therefore able to check all the waters around mid afternoon.  That one thing alone turned out to be a weak point in the whole set up.

I actually went into the summer knowing it would be an issue, but just didn’t create a contingency plan to deal with it.  Last year, when I was still working at the local library branch down in the village, it was a 3  minute drive home – plenty of time on my lunch break to nip home, throw jeans on, add water to all the pens, and whip back to work with time to spare to swallow a sandwich.  Now that it’s 15 minutes one way, it’s still possible, technically, but not super practical.  Yet this was the thought in my head at the start – if no one was home, that’s what I would do.   And when I did have to put it in practice a few times, I quickly realized how unrealistic the plan was.  15 minutes each way, plus 20 minutes doing all the waters, plus 5 minutes to find a parking space again when I got back to work – it was a tight race.  If I ran across an issue while I was doing the waters what was I supposed to do?  Ignore it and get back to work on time?  Call work and say I had an issue to deal with?  My supervisor is incredibly supportive of my farming activity and has said more than once that I can do just that, but I don’t want to abuse the privilege.    Planning to handle it on my own was not a good plan.

broilers week 2 005 small

Younger daughter now has a job herself that will likely involve way more hours during the summer months.  She’s not an option I can rely on next time.  So what should I do?  What is the real issue?  Do I need a person to be there at midday to do the waters?  Could I set up the waters so that they don’t run out?  My other daughter has suggested having two waters per pen, at least during the day, a practical suggestion that should be simple to implement.  It might mean reducing the number of birds per pen a bit because of the space, but I believe it would be worth it.

It’s not just the water.  During brooding, the chicks need checking several times daily.  When it’s butchering day, catching the birds goes a lot faster with two people, and I’m not strong enough to lift a poultry crate with 8 birds by myself, so someone has to be up at 4 in the morning to help me catch and load 20 crates worth of birds and unload them a couple of hours later at the processor. On customer pick up day, with fresh chicken and the need to keep it chilled, there is only about a 2 hour window between pick up at the processor and having the chicken in my customers cooler or fridge.  Some customers come direct to the farm to pick up, and about half meet me in town to pick up, which means one person stays at the farm and one person goes into town.   Astute readers know that I don’t own a truck, so transporting the birds to the processor has meant either renting or borrowing one – borrowing is cheaper (1 chicken or a small ham) but means that I’m depending on someone for yet another aspect of this enterprise.  I’d love to get a truck, but the reasons why I haven’t done that yet are numerous, so I’ll spare you.

harvest season 014 small

Even more important than the physical requirement for an extra set of hands and muscles, however, is the benefit of companionship.  Someone to talk over the issues, brainstorm for solutions, commiserate over the bad stuff that sometimes happens.  Someone to crack terrible chicken jokes with, who will enter into plans for improvement and sees things from a different angle, but can still see mine as well.  This of course applies not just to broilers, but to life – although maybe not the part about chicken jokes.

So I’m not completely sure about long term prospects for the broiler enterprise.  My plans to expand this enterprise are all well and good, but without a second person available at least at certain points, it will not work.  Whether I tap into my local community and neighbours for that, or rely on family, or hire someone, that second person is essential.  Part of this depends on scale – like any small business.  I could affort to hire someone for an hour/day if I was producing enough to pay for them.  To produce that much I need to hire someone.   Part of the reason for working my way through my lessons learned in such detail (sorry, but thanks for sticking with me!), is to determine whether I’ve mastered enough of the basics to be able to take a big enough step up in scale to hire someone to help.  The answer at this point is – I think so.  Do I want to do that?  Still thinking about it.  What would you do?

p.s. Sorry for all the recycled pictures from previous posts for this series – I simply didn’t take very many pictures this summer, and didn’t want to post such long screels without decorating them in some way 🙂

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16 thoughts on “Broiler Lessons Learned – Last lesson !

  1. avwalters says:

    Barter. Expand knowing that the cost of expansion is inclusion. The person who helps takes their “percentage” in chickens. A freezer full of organic meet would get my attention, and I’d sign on to such a deal. My neighbors, retired organic farmers, “donate” their cultivating time as a local organic farm, in exchange for vegetables. There must be more like us, in your area. The barter-partner, will have been selected for some combination of grunt strength, knowledge, humor, companionship–and, having a stake in the outcome, is a guaranteed chicken keeper companion. There was more reason than reproduction that Noah’s ark took everyone, two X two.

    • Great idea – I already use barter a few ways, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me in this instance. Probably because my kids who have been my only employees up till now aren’t interested in what I have to barter – except cash :). But I do barter my annual fruit tree pruning – he gets a year’s worth of chicken for his family of 6, I get my 6 fruit trees pruned. I also barter for the use of the pick up truck that I use to take my chickens to the processor – usually a chicken or a small ham. And the owner of the truck also give me his time and expertise on pig hauling day, when he drives the same truck with a trailer of pigs on the back, up to the slaughter place and back – again, chicken (2) or pork for his freezer. So, I already do this, just need to apply it in another area. Thanks!

  2. There’s no way we could do what we do (which is a waaaaay smaller operation than yours) without two of us on Homestead full time. Like you say, it’s not just the physical stuff, it’s the problem solving, brain storming, person to laugh manically with when something goes so wrong it’s that or sob, and of course the incredibly tasteless jokes. What would I do? Probably cobble some sort of barter/child labour/mad dash in lunch hour time table together for another season to check that I’m on the right track and then look at taking the plunge and doing it full time. But then, I am the ultimate dreamer 🙂

    • Yeah, well. Dreaming is definitely a strength for me too :). But there is no longer any dream that includes me working on the farm full time. Working full time off farm is my foreseeable future and I’m grateful that I enjoy my job and my colleagues so much that I see that not as a burden but as something to feel good about. I’m pretty lucky.

      As to two of you working full time on the Homestead – rock on! I don’t believe the size of the operation is or should be a measure of how successful it is in achieving the goal of producing quality food without compromising quality of life. Those huge poultry barns where thousands of unhappy hens crank out millions of eggs in their short lives can be run quite efficiently by two people but where is the quality of life? for hens and workers? What quality is the food?

      Homesteading is a lifestyle in which you are seeking qualtiy of life, quality of food and balancing that with the need to have income to meet financial needs now and in the future. For people in my scale of farming, those are the same goals. Even my hero Joel Salatin with his large farm of multiple enterprises and a dozen or so employees would say the same of his operation. Preaching to the choir, I realize 🙂

      What you do is full time work, no mistake about it. I am under no illusions that by trying to do too many things on my own in my “spare” time, I am doing too many things not very well. The imbalance of this is what has been such a difficult thing for me to accept this summer. Yes, I will cobble something together for next season, but the real work is figuring out priorities for the longer term – and since jumping in full time isn’t an option, I need to figure out what is.

  3. I thought of bartering too, or finding a business partner. M has participated on butchering day at a local farm and everyone there was “paid in poultry”. Give that an organic chicken around here will set you back $25-30, it’s a pretty good deal. Besides, who wouldn’t want to hang out with a farmer???
    I’m not sure what your water set up is, but I was talking to a fellow chicken lady the other day and she said her husband had rigged up one of those float thingies (that’s the technical term for the doo-hickey in the tank of your toilet) in their chicken water bucket that is hooked up to a hose so it refills automatically. I might ask her to take a picture of it to see how it is set up – she said it was pretty simple. Anyhow, some sort of automation would greatly improve your at least that part of your issue with needing help.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share all of the trials and tribulations – and especially the hard-earned victories!

    • In the Navy, we referred to such things as “chummies” or “chumblies” – and there were a great variety of them :).

      I’ve seen various float assemblies, and yes, they work well. When the line isn’t broken, the layer hens have gravity feed automatic drinkers that work very well – but an unmentioned lesson learned is to turn those off if there’s risk of the line freezing. Nuff said.
      Unless we get the hen house line fixed (we probably will), and/or unless we run another line under the driveway and out the corner of the barn, I cannot run a hose 24/7 for automatic water because it crosses the driveay. I guess I could build a thingy/chummy to allow cars to go over the hose without touching it, but frankly, there’s already plenty of building projects I need to get done that aren’t getting done, that one would probably just languish at the end of the list.
      Hubby is keen to get someone to run the underground water line, and there are funds to make it happen, so that’s probably what will happen next, and THEN I’ll be able to do things like automatic waters.

    • I’ve been thinking around the business partner angle for a while – it’s used to quite good effect between landowners and veggie grower lessees locally. Because I already work via bartering (and sometimes straight up cash) with another, larger, local farmer, I’m toying around with the idea of expanding that relationship both for marketing and labour. Problem is, that’s more of a win for me than it is for him, so it needs work.

      The straight up barter for labour is easier to figure out, but it does mean raising significantly more birds. 40 birds each year are raised specifically for barter payment. 25 are for my own freezer. At min wage (currently $11/hr), if I hired someone for 1 hr/day to come do chicken chores for the seven weeks of producing one batch – that would be about 20 birds. So out of 140, 85 don’t bring me any income. That said, the birds for my freezer are free, since I calculate price to include the cost of my birds as part of my wage. Also, that 40 for barter is only from one batch. So, If I raised more batches, both my share and the 40 are done, so that only the 20 to pay the worker would be non-income earning, and even at 120, that second batch would increase my existing sales volume dramatically.

      Of course, I’m not sure how much chicken my hypothetical worker would actually want. Possibly not 40 birds. So maybe some combination of solutions is needed here. I guess this is brainstorm blogging 🙂

  4. valbjerke says:

    I don’t have a solution for your water problem – other than to keep it simple simple simple. Over the years we’ve run the gamut here – from the basic waterers to complex gravity feed system with small cups with their own individual floats (we’ve no pressurized water at the barn). The gravity system worked awesome – but on a regular basis the floats would get hung up on bits of feed and we’d come home to an empty water system. Work and more work and a mess. These days were back to chicken waterers, and when the birds are larger, an open pan.

    • Keep it simple is definitely an important mantra to repeat. Now that MOH has given me a link to somewhere I can actually get the Plasson bell drinkers, I’m definitely going to go that route. We do have a gravity feed system out in the hen house for the layers and it works well, except when it doesn’t :). Like when I leave the system on during a cold snap, and it freezes and the pipe splits. Or when the little spring thingies give up and it just fills forever, creating a flood.

  5. You might want to consider the bell waterer like Salatin uses. We started out with waterers from the feedstore fashioned for the hobbyist and they quickly became a pain to deal with and didn’t hold up. Too much lifting and movement for servicing and the wrong design for a field pen. Soooo, we reread Salatins book and did what we should have in the first place, use something that was proven. We still have all those bell waterers after 20 some years and they have held up well. The 5 gallon bucket should last 24 hours and its easy to dump before moving the pen. It so simple, it’s criminal almost, they hang in the pen and can be raised as the broilers grow. If you do decide to use a float system instead, make sure you install some kind of back flow vacuum breaker so you aren’t getting a cross contamination situation going between livestock and humans.

    Here is a link for the waterers where you can buy just a few. We bought a big lot with someone else and paid a little less but the peace of mind and reduction in labor and worry is well worth the $40 – $50 IMHO.

    http://www.cornerstone-farm.com/equipment/poultry-production-equipment/plasson-bell-waterer/

    • You are GOLD. I have been looking for those Plasson bell waterers forever. We apparently don’t have them in Canada (I checked with Plasson directly), and I hadn’t found a company that would ship them over the border, so I was going to go with the cheap and nasty look alike that is badly reviewed but is what IS available I have long suspected that since so many other “small” things in the Salatin model turned out to matter, that possibly the watereres would too. I’d rather pay more for something that’s going to last than keep replacing something that doesn’t work – or even worse, stops working when I’m not around. Looks like the company you linked for me WILL ship anywhere so – thank you!

  6. You are welcome. I have been doing a KonMari purge for our Xmas gift to ourselves and just went through all my photos and notes from my Heifer Project trip to Polyface and Andy Lee’s. Approaching the 20 year mark for that trip and some things are just not relevant anymore, I either know it or don’t need it. We really shaped up here after that, watching Joel Salatin service (move, feed and water) 30+ field pens in 45 minutes was an eye-opener for sure. Another tip that most don’t know, always, always face your pens east if you’re doing your birds in the summer. Morning sun is so different than afternoon sun. Same with plants, and siting a garden if 6 hours of morning sun is different than 6 hours of afternoon sun. I guess animals and plants are morning people. 😉

  7. Bill says:

    I’m slow responding to this, but these sorts of issues have been on my mind a lot too lately. Do we need to spend more money/hire employees to get to a level of financial sustainability, or would that only worsen the situation? I don’t know, but being extremely conservative financially I’m inclined to try to find a way to do it without taking on the expense of hiring someone. I like the way you put it: you have to hire help in order to be able to produce enough to afford to hire help. I’m thinking of scaling back instead, but I don’t know which way makes most sense. One thought about bartering–our experience has been that the people most interested in bartering are also people who will buy the products (unless they barter for them). Not always, but if that’s true then you are losing potential sales by bartering for labor. Hasn’t been an serious issue for us since we’ve usually been able to sell out anyway, but maybe something to keep in mind.

    • I may well go to the scaling back side of the coin, but right now I’m still working through the options. One concern I’d had about the barter was the same as yours – might it cost me sales? The other is that the easiest labour pool for me to tap into is teenagers (friends’ children, siblings of my kids’ friends, etc), who are not remotely interested in being paid in chicken or sausage :), but are hungry for cash. On the other hand, I have a few elderly neighbours with time available who would love to get free chicken, but I’m concerned that the physicality of lifting the water jugs would be too much for them. Such circles – if I can get the bell drinkers going, topping up water in the heat of the day becomes easier, meaning someone with less strength could do it, which opens up my labour pool…

      At the end of the day, though, you’re absolutely right. I do want a profit at the end of the day, not just come out even.

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