Monday, September 30, 2013

Importance of Automatic Waterers in Pastured Poultry

Watering birds will literally wear you out. Water is dense, it's heavy, and chickens need a lot of it. In hot weather, chickens need EVEN MORE. At best, running out of water is just an inconvenience for the birds. At worst it is down right deadly. Usually, it's somewhere in between, and just costs you money.

How? you might ask... Well, it's because they don't eat if they're thirsty, and if chickens don't eat, they don't put on meat. This is just as true for laying hens as broilers. Think about the water content of that egg that you crack open for baking or frying up in the skillet...there's a lot of water there. Dehydrated hens either won't lay or lay smaller eggs. Either way, I loose money.

When we scaled up last year into doing thousands of broilers, an automatic watering system was one of the top things on our list to figure out. I can't imagine life without it. I spend only a few seconds each day on watering birds, and right now I have around 3500 birds on grass or in the brooder. I'd been out of business before I even got started if I had to hand water all these birds.

The system is pretty simple. Pressurized line with feeder lines that connect to sets of pens. The pens are daisy-chained together and each pen has a Plasson bell waterer like the one to the right. I prefer the breeder waterers over the broiler models. With only a few parts, they're really reliable. When a part fails it's usually only around a buck to repair it and by extra parts for the next waterer malfunction to have on hand. Living in poultry country, only miles from the Corporate HQ of integrators like Tyson, Simmons, Peterson, and more, I can literally just run to the store and by parts for the waterers.

The labor involved in watering is one of the main reasons that poultry production moved to confinement systems in the mid 20th Century.

As I type this...I realize that I too need a drink of water too...haven't figured out a way to automize that. Guys, if you think it's getting a wife, you've got another thing coming. If anything, it's the other way...but that's a whole other topic

Monday, September 9, 2013

Pasture Improvements

We've been running birds on our leaseland for our second year now, and the results are starting to show up. What you're about to see is ground that hasn't had much in the way of rain lately. We had a pop up storm about a week and a half or so ago, but other than that, it's been dry and hot for around a month now (I think that we call that summer).

Here's ground that had 3 or four cylces of birds on it since we've been out. Notice that it's green, looks a little dry, but overall, looks like grass. This time of year mostly foxtails and some red top, or "greasy grass" here in the Ozarks.

 Walk 40 or 50 ft to a spot that hasn't had any chickens, but is the same soil type with roughly the same aspect. Boom - dead, desiccated grass galore. You can see the forage composition is mostly the same, just looks like it's been under a blow drier...You'll also notice (or if you were standing out there you would if I pointed it out), that the grass cover is much thinner here.

So how does raising the chickens on pasture help the pasture out? Well, the manure (yes chickens poop, quite a lot actually) is very high in nitrogen and phosphorous. In fact, the poultry industry (yes, Tyson, Simmons and the like) actually made cattle farming possible in the Ozarks. Our soils were so poor that before litter from the chicken houses, it used to be around 10 acres to support a cow in a lot of places.

The manure directly adds organic matter to the field, which in turn attracts good critters like worms and dung beetles (which I've seen in poultry manure!) which take the fertility into the soil profile. It also stimulates the growth of grass, which as it grows, builds up massive root systems. When the grass is grazed by the birds or deer, trampled by the birds, or otherwise dies, a good portion of that chunk of roots dies adding more organic matter to the soil. Why's organic matter so important? Well, it acts as a long-term source of fertility, slowly breaking down over time and feeding plants, and more importantly these days, by acting as a moisture sponge that keeps the soil more moist for longer. 

One thing two with the birds is that they tend to lay a pretty good "sheet" of manure on the grass, which forms a really good mulch. Over time/when it rains, this breaks down as well and creates a perfect seedbed for new little grasses and other plants to explode through the temporary chicken-induced mulch, fueled by the nitrogen and other nutrients ready available once we get a good rain. The trampling the birds do is also important because it gives new plants a niche to pop up and get established since the existing sward is broken up. 


Monday, August 26, 2013

Reefer Trailer

I picked up a reefer trailer this year from my friends Andrea & Cody at Falling Sky Farm over in North Central Arkansas near Marshal. They'd picked it up cheap in the area - apparently it used to transport meat through the mountains from Jasper to Marshal back in the 70s-80s. Cody paid a guy to build a custom trailer to hold the box. Here's Cody and Andrea posing by the trailer.
Cody is total poser...
It's a cold plate technology, meaning that there's a huge steel plate that freezes in the front of the trailer.I don't have a picture handy, but just imagine a huge metal plate that gets covered with ice, and you get the idea. One of the things that I have to do is mount a fan in there to help push the cool air around.

The first thing that we noticed is that this trailer pulled like a ton of bricks. That big huge fluid filled steel plate was at the very front of the trailer, which put all the weight on the hitch of my truck, instead of on the wheels and axles of the trailer. It also meant that it backed up squirrly.

So a friend of mine suggested some guys in the River Valley down by Ft. Smith that could rebalance the trailer. They got a big winch and winched the box off the trailer, and with a little welding here and there did a great job - here's the finished product.

Notice how far it is back on the trailer. That big heavy cold plate is right in front of the front wheel, right about where we'd want it to go. You can see here how it almost leans back towards the back of the trailer - a great improvement from the days when I had to use a floor jack to get it off the truck!

So now we've been working on getting the darn thing to run consistently. I take a lot of swings and misses here on the farm, and my capacity for patience is almost as great as those who deal with me on a regular basis. As you can see below, there's always plenty of opportunities to practice:

I've had a quick crash course in refrigeration, although I leave it in the hands of professionals. Turns out one of the things that I remember from my Chemistry is the Ideal Gas Law - PV=nRT. Who knew I would use it in the real world!?! There ought to be a reward for farmers who apply chemical laws throughout their day...

The latest hitch with the reefer unit turned out to be a bad start capacitor (I think), causing short cycling, where the unit would kick on and off after a couple of seconds - so basically making it useless. Now, I can plug it in (oh yeah, it runs off of 110v), and 24 hours later, it'll be around 30 degrees. Slap a generator on the front of the trailer and we're all set.

All told, it cost us around $5000 - which isn't bad when you consider it would run around $15,000 for a new trailer reefer unit.  One of our friends leased one of these fancy new units and he said it was rickety and pretty flimsy. My experience is that when things were made in the 70s or 80s, flimsy usually never applies - unaerodynamic, ugly, or drug-induced possibly, but flimsy not so much.

The trailer is meant to haul around a 1000 birds, which we're getting around half that capacity per week. This is a good, necessary infrastructure buy for us. At some point, I'll get it swankied up with our logo painted on the side - but first I have to fix the tail lights...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Out with the Old Genetics - CX

So we started this year off relying on the standard Cornish Cross (CX) for our farm. This was a year of a pretty big scale up for us - moving from 3,000 broilers to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 by this December when we finish on up.
Just us and 9930 of our closest friends

We noticed last year that the chick quality seemed to really be hit or miss. Some batches would be great, some would be not so great - and by not so great I mean lots of runts, leg problems, etc. When it comes to blame, I've come to realize that the first place I need to start is me and my farming/lack of farming skills. But there are advantages to scale, and one of them is almost daily feed back. When you run birds weekly, or bi-weekly as we did last year, and they're all on the same feed, running through the same system, if one batch has triple the rate of problems as the one following and preceding, well, essentially your holding production constant and the only variable to blame has been the flock.

So this year we switched hatcheries. We went with a Cobb 500 variety of the Cornish Cross. A couple of years back, you could get the Cobb 300s (or Ross 308s), which were tough as nails. These are the birds that you'd seeing driving around in the REALLY OLD chicken houses, before the ice storms wiped them out. Tough as nails, not nearly as sensitive to the environment and food changes, this is the bird of choice in developing countries still. There's some sacrifice of performance, but for us pasture folks, the hardiness of the 300s really made sense. But I couldn't find them, they'd been "phased out" and the 500 was the best thing that I could do (compared to what I assume are the diva like 700s...)

Back in the day before the automatic water system in the brooder
Things started off great, then chick quality declined as we got into late spring and early summer - my guess is that the increased demand from the increasing popularity of folks growing their own food means that every egg gets hatched, as well as every chick getting sent...even the runts.

This year's been interesting, because we've been getting in several hundred broilers EVERY week. Which means if there's a problem in quality, then guess who sees it?! I noticed in mid-May that we started having leg problems...which I tracked down to viral arthritis...then a batch came in with the sniffles...then a batch got left out on a loading dock somewhere, and I had 200 dead chicks in my order...then a box of chicks went through Memphis in a heat wave 9 weeks ago, and nearly 300 were dead. This wasn't working, so we canceled our future orders.

And we switched to a new meat breed - I'd did a trial for researchers out on pasture earlier this year, and they performed nearly equal to the CX in both FCR and dress out, with the only difference being around a 10% reduction in breast yield (which at our prices is significant, but not a deal breaker). They're local, (advantage to living in heart of CAFO chicken country), and picking them up is less than an hour drive - no more shipping chicks in the mail, no more post office disasters.

Here's a picture of the boys unloading the first batch of the new breed 8 wks ago, with a little help from one of our Army guys, Baker.

 I'm pretty happy with them (the new birds) overall, but we'll process next week, and the proofs in the dress out. They better work out, because I've got 3600 of them on the farm!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's been a while, but we're still clucking


It's been a while hasn't it. Other than a short lived intern blogging idea that never really took off, we haven't blogged in a while. Well, I'm hoping to pick it back up, and given that I'm fighting a bout of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, it's a good time to catch up.

So what's new on the farm?

1. Broilers - we'll do around 10,000 this year. Yikes! We're also raising a local breed that is performing well against the ubiquitous Cornish Cross (CX) in terms of Feed Conversion, and excelling in a lot of other areas...

2. Non-GMO - our farm is totally non-gmo. Boom - that's right - no gmo feed here. We also sell to other farmers in the area, acting as a regional distributor for our feed company.

3. Hogs - We're getting started on them. We'll see.
4. Lease land - we've moved our poultry operation onto 20 acres of leaseland.

5. Veteran work - as you may recall, I got into farming as a way of dealing with the war. Well, it's worked out well. We now have a veteran internship program for other vets wanting to get into agriculture. We do workshops as well, and have two part-time paid internship positions for a couple of grunts. Listen here for a good NPR story on one of the things we've done:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Okay, so I'm back...

Wow, it's been a while hasn't it?

So keeping up kind of fell by the wayside this spring. Record-breaking/scary flooding (nearly two feet of rain over a couple of days) followed by record drought, plus a military deployment alert, and well, a lot of other stuff...and the blog kind of fell by the wayside.

But family, faith, and farm didn't and we've been steadily working on all three this year. Life's balanced and growing, and we're glad for it.

Carla (my wife) and several other people have been on me to fire the blog back up. I acquiesced when I met some random person in Kansas City, and they asked what had happened to the blog. I'll catch you up to speed over the next couple of weeks. Lots of cool things going on...I'll tell you about them soon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New feed ration

So, we've switched our feed for our meatbirds to a better ration. We're getting our feed from a source a couple of counties over. The ration is ground on spot, in the grinder above. In addition, the most of the ration is (relatively) locally grown, being grown in North Central Arkansas in the Ozarks.
The best thing about this stuff is that it's 1oo% from nature. GMO free, but beyond that, the protein in it comes from fishmeal. By the way, did you know that Certified Organic Chicken feed typically uses a synthetic, powdered protein manufactured in a lab? Yeah...well, that's true for the stuff you buy from the major organic producers that use defunct conventional chickehouse at least...

The feed above smells so great...meaty, almost like a really thick beer. It smells wholesome and really nutritious. I'll have to raise our prices around 15-20 cents/lb, which I would have had to do anyways with the sky-rocketing corn prices. We're very happy with this move.