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.

Multi-tasking

I was working on the chicken fences yesterday in the mist and gloom that is Vancouver Island in January and reflecting on just how long the project was taking me (forever) and how long it would last before I would be doing it all again (not forever, unfortunately).  Which took me in a downward spiral to thinking about how pointless it was …which was when I went and got a cup of tea and a leftover mince tart to get my perspective back.

The pointlessness really arises from the fact that the whole quarter acre that I have been busily rebuilding fence on throughout the last several weeks is used only for the layer flock. Despite all the now amazing fencing, no other creatures graze in there, I don’t grow any crops in there; the walnut tree is in one run and it is the only other productive element of the set up.  It’s the same with the pig paddock.  It’s lovely, but it’s just for pigs.  If I keep going this way, the whole farm will be compartmentalized into different bedrooms for every species, and as I heard Gabe Brown remark recently, I’ll be running a bed and breakfast for livestock, instead of having them out there getting their own breakfasts.

In theory all my fencing efforts are to allow me to use my rotation system better.  I am theoretically set up with 4 runs for the chickens to rotate through over the course of the year.  The theory is that I move them to a new run before the run they’re in gets eaten down/worn down too badly.  This allows the plants to regenerate, and breaks the parasite cycle.  This is all good.  But did you check how many times I use the word “theory” there?

In practice, the forage regenerates at different speeds depending on the seasons, how long it’s been resting, the weather, how big my flock is, etc.  Over the course of about 10 years, the runs are basically worn out more or less permanently.  There is some grass in there, but it’s not a kind the chickens like to eat.  There is a lot of thistle, which they definitely don’t eat.  Not much else.  I’ve tried to improve the situation by adding compost, manure, wood chip, etc.  I’ve tried re-seeding.  I’ve tried reducing the flock size, and I’ve tried only letting them into the run in the afternoons.

The fact is that sooner or later, chickens forced to stay in one place will destroy it.  Not only that, chickens develop favourite places within each run and will just go there all the time regardless whether there’s anything to scratch around for or not.

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The best that can really be said is that this system is an improvement on the dirt yard off the hen house that is the most common arrangement for layer flocks in these parts.  And that’s fine as far as it goes.  I also have a sheltered area called the lobby on the north side of their house filled with straw, which is where I throw scraps and goodies – they tear this up and do a good bit of scratching around, and every month or so I take all that scratched up, composted stuff and spread it, and put new straw in.  This is also a big step up from the normal hen house/dirt yard set up.  They access whichever run they’re in at the moment from this lobby.  On wet days, they prefer to stay in the lobby.  On hot days , they prefer the lobby.   If I didn’t have 14+ acres, I would be pretty happy with my set up.  Well, actually, if all I had was an acre and 1/4 of it was being used by this chicken run set up – well, it wouldn’t be, would it?  I’d have long ago turned part of it into a veggie patch or put goats in with the chickens or something.  Because it would be a waste of space.  I’m using this much space because I can, not because I should.

Once I had been restored by tea and mince tart I started thinking about Joel Salatin and what he says about stacking principles.  In the winter, his layer flocks inhabit hoop houses that are used for growing crops in the summer.  Some hens are in the building that houses the rabbit cages in the winter, scratching up the bedding under the rabbit cages.  When the birds are out on the fields in the summer, they are in various models of eggmobiles, portable henhouses sometimes surrounded by portable electric fence, rotating around the 100 acres or so of pasture, fertilizing, scratching and moving on.  In no case are the chickens in a single use housing situation. They are stacked with another enterprise.   Out on pasture, they’re following the cattle, sanitizing the pasture, providing some fertility themselves and moving on before any degradation starts.  Inside, they are in buildings that are also used for other purposes/livestock and their fertility and scratching power add their own functions to those buildings.

Salatin works to get multi-use out everything and every creature – there are many more examples available if you read any of his books or check out the myriad YouTube videos that feature himself or Polyface Farms.  He got the idea from permaculture, where stacking is also used – and permaculture got it from nature, where many flora and fauna interact in a kind of symbiosis.  Agroforestry and silvopasture are also techniques that get more than one function out of a patch of acreage.

So back to these chicken fences of mine.  I thought some time ago, working on the second fence in the system (I’ve just finished the third – only one big one to go!) that one way to improve this situation is to get some edible planting going on in these runs.  I was hacking away at a blackberry bush that was reaching from the middle of the run toward the fence, so I could have room to deal with the wire, and thinking I should just hack the whole thing down.  But I was reading Restoration Agriculture at the time, and I could hear Mark Shepard’s voice in my head reminding me how much the chickens love sheltering under those blackberries, safe from eagles and ravens, and how much I enjoy the berries for jam and cooking and even just a handful here and there.  I don’t necessarily want the brambles all over my fences, but a bush in the middle of the run might actually be a good thing.  So it got pruned back severely and left in place.  Still channeling Mr. Shepard I wondered about maybe planting some trees along my fences – apples, nuts.  The walnut tree in the first run is also a favourite hangout with the hens, providing shade and leaves to scratch around in, and since we love hazelnuts here maybe a couple of those could be in each run.  Mulberries – chickens supposedly love them.  Maybe I could plant grapes to train along the fences …you get the idea.  This gives at least a little additional use to the runs, though it doesn’t really address the issue of the chickens ruining the soil, but it will provide shade, some extra food for the chickens, food for humans and a better aesthetic than the current Alcatraz look.

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But wait!  There’s more…this morning I woke up with the idea in my head that I could really change this whole issue with the runs getting worn out by putting the flock out on the field in an eggmobile for part of the year.  This isn’t exactly a new idea – Salatin published about his eggmobile way back in the late ’90’s, and he’d been doing it for a while before that, plus George Henderson, an English farmer from the first half of the 20th century, who wrote The Farming Ladder, and Farmer’s Progress, used a kind of eggmobile system long before Salatin.  Chism Heritage Farm has a pretty skookum one.  I’ve been well aware of the concept for more than a decade, but never taken action on it because there is no likelihood of me getting a tractor ever, and most of them are built on old wagons or trailers, pretty much necessitating a towing device of some sort.

But I did get inklings of possibility a couple of years ago at the Salatin workshop I went to at Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm.  There, Salatin talked about the prototypes to the eggmobiles he uses now – he first started with a 6’x 8′ shelter on bicycle wheels, with pop holes on each side, so that he could configure the fence around the shelter about 6 different ways before he had to move it – by hand.  He kept something like 40 hens in that. Now I have 50 hens, and a couple of roosters, so that might be a little small for me.  But it did get me thinking, OK, maybe I could put the flock in two shelters and enclose both with portable electric netting.  A woman I met at lunch at the workshop and I were discussing eggmobiles and she told me she keeps a flock of 60 in three little mobile shelters that she moves around her field daily – she says they were like really big wheelbarrows, with handles at the back and wheels at the front, and she could move them alone.  So there was an option that might work for me.  The only problem really is my almost complete lack of carpentry skills.

I believe I could get past the construction challenges, probably by hiring that part of the project out.  This may seem like a cop out, but seriously, someone who knows what they’re doing will do the job faster and better than I could – left to me, the project will probably never get off the ground.  Moving the mobile coops and fencing every few days will definitely add to the chores, but I will be out in the field anyway with the broilers.  I think we’ll put the flock in two coops, with one big fence around both.  They can probably be on the field from May to the end of October.  Then they’d go back into their hen house with the 4 runs, which will probably be lovely and verdant after several months rest like that.

Now I’m starting to get into a win/win scenario – the chicken run area doubles as a fruit/nut orchard.  The layers spend half their year not only providing eggs but plenty of fertility and cultivation all around my fields for six months.  The fertility improves my pasture – in the short term, that’s important for hay, but longer term will be valuable for the sheep/cattle that will come sooner or later.

So now, I just need to make it happen, and then…how am I going to get the pig’s paddock to be multi-functional?

“Mr Salatin, may I ask you…”

I’m starting to get excited about my impending visit to Foxglove Farm to attend a workshop with Joel Salatin (you know – Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc) , the featured topic being pastured livestock.  Foxglove Farm is owned by Michael Ableman also a well known author, speaker and farmer.

I got to attend a workshop with Joel Salatin once before when he came to Duncan BC three years ago.  It was a packed hall, and we enjoyed his presentation thoroughly.  When he opened the floor to questions in the afternoon though, I was disappointed as people got mired in the minutae of deep bedding (how much, how long, materials, floor area, etc) or how often sheep should be rotated when they graze in a forest.  We probably spent half of a two hour Q and A on deep bedding.  Seriously.  Is there even grass in a forest ?  Turns out not, making the question something else entirely.   I do respect his willingness to take any question and run with it though, and there is no such thing as a silly question right?

That said, I do want to make the most of my opportunity to ask him a question or two.  I’ve read all of his books, some more than a few times (Pastured Poultry Profits is falling apart).  Pastured livestock is an area we want to get into, probably with sheep, but perhaps with smaller cattle like Dexters or something.

He’s really big on mob grazing these days, but we’re talking 14 acres here and both of us working off farm.  So could my question be about stocking density?  He often says he doesn’t use straight lines for his fencing, but follows the keylines and contours.  Again, 14 acres – in a very straight line L shape.  No pond, no hill, no forest.  What would he do with that?  I’m starting to get why we talked about deep bedding and arboreal sheep for so long at the last workshop, I think I’m a little mired myself here.

So maybe I should keep it general and not be irritatingly specific to my own situation.  I could ask about how to adapt his grazing strategies for small acreages  as most people there will likely be from places like mine – the average farm on Vancouver Island is between 10-30 acres.   I’ve always wanted to know more detail about Theresa’s part in things, especially in the days before apprentices and significant income – following the maxim that behind every good man, there’s a better woman 🙂 – which might be of interest to others in the same boat.

Or I could keep my mouth closed and just listen. Always a good strategy.

What do you think?  What should I ask?  What would you ask given the chance?