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.