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: