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 🙂

Pea-eating pests and pastured poultry

During evening chores the other day, we found the broilers were entertaining guests – Black Tailed Deer.  In the middle of our second thunderstorm of the month.  We might normally get a thunderstorm once every two or three years.  weird year.  I’m finding it a bit rude of the deer to not even be anxious about us standing just the other side of the poultry pen from them.  We are seeing them almost every evening, and they’re beautiful, but they are also the creatures that ate my peas.  I’m not over it, you pea-eating pests.

Yes, I got most of the broilers processed last week.  But these four were runts that I held back, and we’ll process them ourselves this weekend for our own use.  Do you remember the young broiler that got attacked by an owl?  She recovered really well, so well in fact that though I was going to hold her back with these four, I mistakenly caught her in the dark on processing day, and had no idea, till I got back that night and found she wasn’t there.

There were seven runts originally,  all birds with leg problems, which they developed about week 2 or 3.  This is the first year I tried separating them out and keeping them in their own pen, and it worked wonders.  My thinking was that they wouldn’t have to compete for food and water, and with time and less stress might develop some strength.  I put the injured bird in with them, and she looked huge in comparison, but that probably worked in her favour as it meant she didn’t get pecked or hassled.  On processing day, I took the four biggest birds – one of which was obviously her.  The remaining four all walk completely normally and they’ve grown out nicely without the competition from the larger birds.  I’m expecting they’ll dress out around 4 lbs. They do look a little lost in the big pasture pen though.

Chicken Processing Day

Unlike many small producers elsewhere in North America, here in BC it is illegal for us to sell any meat that has not been processed in an inspected facility.  So my post isn’t going to show you pictures of my cones, my plucker or the eviscerating station, sorry.  For us, chicken processing day is an entirely different kind of day than what other producers go through to get quality meat ready for their customers.

Our day starts just like theirs: good and early (330am) to load the birds into transport crates.  But no heading back to turn on the heat for the scalder.  Instead I head back in to grab a couple travel mugs of coffee and stick them in the van we rented.  Then we load the crates into the van (cargo area covered in tarp to protect the floor from all the poop!) and off we go.

It’s a one hour drive to the only inspected poultry processor on the Island, called Island Farmhouse Poultry.  We’re fortunate – the facility was only built about 5 years ago.  Before that, for a couple of years if anyone was producing chicken they either processed it illegally or had to take it over to the Mainland for processing (ferry trip one way for 1 pickup and driver – $75). Prior to that, there had been a processor, but it was a Lilydale plant, controlled by the industry, which meant that custom (small) batches could only be processed when the industry didn’t need it.

I book processing dates as soon as I know the arrival dates of chicks I’ve ordered.  Custom processing happens twice a week through the summer, less often outside the peak season, and is limited to turkeys only just before Thanksgiving.  Custom days can book up fast.  For orders up to 100 birds, the processing cost is $4.10 per bird this year.  That makes a BIG difference to how much profit I can make on broilers.  The only consolation is really that everyone else in my market area has the same cost.  I’ll talk about that another time.

We’ve learned over the years that the chickens generally go into the facility in order of when they arrive, so we try to get there early.  Yesterday morning we were third in line, which is not too bad.  The two orders ahead of us were about the same quantity as us, so our birds probably went in the door by 8am, meaning they wouldn’t have to sit out in their cages for hours.  We unloaded our crates onto a pallet, tagged them with our name and phone number and waved goodbye.  Time 6am.  Coffee long gone, we hunted around the area for somewhere open for breakfast – unsuccessfully.  Back home by about 730, we got the other chicken chores done, and rewarded ourselves with a big breakfast and lots of coffee.   He headed out to work.  I took a nap – the 330am start was bad enough, but I was up early the previous morning to pick up new chicks from the post office, AND I’ve been pitting and freezing plums late at night.  Whine, whine…

5 of 9 boxes

I headed back up Island at 2pm to pay for and pick up the finished birds at 3pm.  Things were more relaxed at the facility and I got to chat to the manager a bit (who looked every bit as tired as I felt).  They did 2500 birds that day.  On a commercial day, they do 5000.  They have about 15 or so people involved – one or two to do the throat slitting, a couple to manage the scalding/plucking, a couple more to cut the cavities, and a couple more to monitor the automated evisceration process (!!).  Couple more to unload the birds for blast chilling.  The inspector wasn’t mentioned, but was presumably involved somewhere.  They all have lunch together, and then everyone gets involved in bagging and boxing, which has to be done by 330pm, the official pick up time.  I didn’t ask for a tour, but my husband has been shown around on a previous visit. Staff are cross trained so that no one is stuck on one part of the line for a whole day.  They’re a friendly bunch, and proud of where they work.

a “ute” – 6.5 lbs, missing a leg on the other side

My chicken in boxes, all loaded up in the front part of the van, I went round back to pick up the (ucky) crates – nicely piled, thankfully.  There were probably 15 more piles of crates, a huge variety of industry standard to home made ingenious.  Once home, we unloaded all the chicken to the freezer, except for the 8 utility birds, which I cut up for home use.  It was younger daughter’s turn to learn how to do that – and we always start off with the youtube video of Daniel Salatin demonstrating how he does it.  She did 4 of them herself, and did an awesome job, so now both girls know how, I can delegate next time (maybe!).

It was a long day of driving, about 4 hours.  I know it’s a much longer, harder day for those who process the birds themselves (we do our spent layer hens ourselves, so I have an inkling).   I’m grateful that since we have no choice but to use an inspected facility, that we have one within reach that caters to small producers and is a decent, clean, friendly place.  Ultimately, our processing day ends much the same as those doing their own processing – that full freezer is a deeply satisfying sight, all that really excellent meat for ourselves and others, it is the culmination of 7 weeks of nurturing birds from birth to maturity in as healthy, sustainable, and natural a way as possible.  It feels pretty good.

Broiler chickens on pasture

I thought I’d share a couple of pictures of the state of the pasture after the broilers have spent a day in one place.

There are 65 birds in this pasture pen.  We move it late afternoon every day.  In Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin, he moves them in the morning.  That’s great if you don’t work off farm, but for us, it’s always worked better in late afternoon – right after work on work days, right before I start supper prep on the days I’m at home.  It takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.  It takes Polyface something like an hour to do 60 pens, which means my system is a “little” inefficient, or I don’t move fast, or both.  That’s OK, 15-20 minutes works for me.  If it’s just the actual moving of the pen, then I probably am up to speed, I think it takes me about 2 minutes…it’s all the other stuff – changing the water, topping up feed, putting the lids back on, that take time.

Why do we do it this way?  First off, to get some poop on the ground! We want the fertility for the soil.  Chicken manure packs a wallop of nitrogen.  Second, the birds actually eat a surprising amount of grass, given the chance.  For the first few minutes after a move, all you can hear is the chirruping noise they make when they’re happy, and the ripping sound of grass being torn off by 65 beaks.  Since you are what you eat, and chickens are no exception, this is good news for those who eat our chicken:  these chickens are getting fresh air, sunshine, protection from predators and a fresh patch of grass and bugs every day.  It absolutely makes a difference to the meat.  A good difference!

Take a look at how much of this they’ve actually eaten, not just trampled or pooped on:

They’ve been on pasture almost 2 weeks, you can see where they’ve been.  This will be a big strip of green about 3 weeks from now, right through to next year:

These birds are almost full grown.  They go up to the processor in just over a week.  It ain’t over till it’s over, but right now, they’re looking pretty good.

Chicken injured by mysterious attacker

The Cornish Cross broilers went out on pasture yesterday after I got home from work. This is about a week later than I wanted to do it, but various circumstances made me delay the event – not least being (sorry Midwest folk) the storm and rain we had on the weekend.  I don’t mind them being out there in rain, but I don’t want them to spend their first night all miserable in the damp.  Work was another factor – I’ve been working extra hours lately, which hasn’t left a lot of time or energy for things like prepping the shelter, finding the big waterer, etc.  They’ll still get about 3 weeks on grass – good for them, good for the soil.

We use a field shelter modelled off the ones Joel Salatin uses at Polyface.  I say that like it was no big deal to throw one together, but it was in fact a huge undertaking to us – being pretty much construction neophytes.  There are lots of pictures of this type of shelter all over the web, and in Salatin’s books, but so far I have found building plans only in one place, and even those made some assumptions about our abilities.  However, we did get it done last year, and it is pretty darn good if I do say so myself.  If you’re thinking it’s a bit “House Beautiful” to have painted it, you’d be on my side, but my husband is from Newfoundland, and in Atlantic Canada, painting everything wooden that lives outside is part of the religion.  There is a reason – wood became hard to come by (expensive) in some areas like PEI, so people painted stuff to preserve it in the very bad winters they get there.  My husband paints everything wooden faithfully every year, even though he’s lived out here more than 30 years.  A modification that didn’t get done before I filled it with birds yesterday though, was to take off the chicken wire and use wire mesh instead, as it’s stronger and might inhibit a predator a bit better.

Sadly, not doing that may have been the cause for some injuries sustained by one of the birds when I checked them today after work.  I warn you, the picture below is not for you if you’re squeamish.

It looks to me like she got a good puncture in the head (near the eye).  She also has a loose flap of skin on her left wing.  I’ve cleaned her up and put her in with a couple of runt birds that I kept back from being tromped by the monster birds, to see if she can recover, but her head is swelling, so I don’t know if she’ll make it.

I’m not really sure what happened.  I checked the pen carefully – all the wire is fine.  All but one of the other birds are fine too (there is one other I discovered later with a peck or puncture wound above his eye).  The top has two removable panels, but one is covered in metal and too heavy for a critter, the other is covered in wire and is light, but both are weighted down with bricks, which were all in place when I went to check on them.  There are no feathers anywhere.

I would expect more bloodshed and feathers from a racoon, and dead carcasses from a mink.  A cat could reach through the holes in the wire, but I wouldn’t have thought this to be the result of those kind of claws.  I suspect it was a bird of some sort – perhaps a raven – as there are plenty about with the haying going on all around.  There’s also a bald eagle nest about 500 metres away, but again, they’ve been more interested in the rabbits and mice than chickens lately.  Especially chickens in a shelter.  Another possibility is that this was a bad result from pecking order battle, but these birds have been together for 4 weeks and have sparred plenty without bloodshed, and the wing damage seems excessive for something like that.

I also don’t know if it happened in the night or during the day.   I topped up water and feed before I left for work in the morning, did a quick scan of the birds and thought they all looked ok, but it would have been easy to miss if she’d been hiding in a corner.  Other members of the family checked their water in mid afternoon, but didn’t notice any birds looking other than normal.  So it’s a bit of a mystery.

In the meantime, the rest of the birds are very happy to be out on grass, in the sunshine and fresh air.  They get to enjoy it for about 3 more weeks before heading up to the processor.

If you have any ideas about what could have happened, feel free to comment.  There’s a lot of collective experience out there.