Pasturing poultry for profits

CEW-MR-1-Pasturized poultryby Tamara Scully
Terrell Spencer, Poultry Specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, recently shared details of his profitable pastured poultry production. The February webinar provided practical first-hand how-to and economic information on building a successful pastured poultry operation. Spencer, an Iraqi war veteran who is relatively new to farming, has built his pastured broiler operation from a 2010 start-up with 300 broilers and 50 laying hens to anticipated 2013 production of 8,000-10,000 broilers.
Broiler margins
Spencer raises Cornish Cross broilers on pasture, in protected portable pens. The Cobb 500 Cornish Cross broilers allow him to offer perfect boneless/skinless chicken breasts, a high-value cut. The birds do well on pasture, and have a good amount of white breast meat. With a grocery store wholesale account, as well as direct market sales, the farm sells 2/3 of its broilers cut-up, and 1/3 as whole birds.
Pastured poultry operations should “net much more per bird than in a conventional poultry system.” With little sanitation problems on pasture, there is no need for antibiotics and little loss from illness. Forages provide the birds with much of their nutritional needs, and there are very minimal startup costs, according to Spencer.
“Don’t be optimistic when it comes to your costs,” Spencer said. “Try to make a profit the first year.” Profit margins on poultry are very slim, and accurate record keeping to track costs is imperative.
Spencer has calculated his cost of production at $11.30/broiler. This figure includes feed, processing, gas/transportation, chicks, shelter, infrastructure — such as fencing and automatic waterers, as well as freezers for storage — and labeling. This cost is estimated a bit high, with a margin for unanticipated expense. He also calculates that the birds weigh less than they normally do when processed.
“The important thing to look at here, at the yield, is that the two cuts that give us the most amount are the backs, and the boneless/skinless breasts,” Spencer said. “We want to try to make it so that good food isn’t only affordable by rich people. Our chicken breasts is expensive. Our tenders are expensive. We consider them convenience cuts.”
The total production costs for a whole bird are about $17, while a cut-up bird costs the farm about $20. It costs him around $2 to have the birds cut-up, however, he can sell more chicken in cuts than in whole birds, and net about $2 more per bird. So, there is about $6 net profit per bird on average, either way, he said.
“Once you know how much you can net per bird, on average, that helps you figure out ‘how many birds do I have to raise to farm full-time?’” Spencer said.
Pastured broiler production
Spencer’s broilers are outdoors on pasture at three weeks of age, and are pastured in moveable pens known as Hopkins Pens. These pens are made with wood frames and PVC hoops covered with tarps, to provide shade and shelter. The tarps can be rolled up on the sides, providing good air flow, which helps to prevent illness. The pens are six feet high, 120 square feet in area, and are moved with a dolly. The initial cost is approximately $300, and they are durable, withstanding 70 mph winds. Each pen holds 70 broilers.
Broilers are slaughtered at nine weeks. Getting the birds on pasture early gives them time to “learn what to eat,” Spencer said, insuring they get the maximum benefit from the forages. Alfalfa, vetch, and clover are some of their preferred forages. Bluegrass, orchard grass, rye, timothy, crabgrass, wheat and fescue, along with chickweed, dandelion, dock, kale and purslane are all chicken favorites.
The birds also love to eat grasshoppers, and grasshoppers eat grass, so the birds get the nutrients and benefits of grass through their consumption of grasshoppers. Insects, Spencer said, are “worth about four times the same amount of volume as poultry feed,” as far as nutrition is concerned. To keep the insects available, Spencer moves the pens each evening and every morning to fresh pasture. The broilers compete to get to the fresh ground. Moving the pens at these times coincides with the natural feeding times of the birds.
Lush forages provide increased levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids and lower cholesterol content in the meat and in eggs. Pastured birds provide a healthier food product, one which can be drug-free. There is also a taste and texture difference in pastured birds, Spencer said.
“Sanitation should not be a problem on pasture,” and coccidiosis is a disease of improper sanitation, he said. Pasturing birds properly eliminates the need for amprolium or antibiotics in poultry production.
One of the questions each producer must ask is whether or not it is cost-effective to seed pastures, or to work with what is there. Each 100 broilers will deposit one ton of manure over their short lifespan. This manure, along with the chicken’s foraging, will naturally enhance the pastures.
“Chickens make the forage-base better,” Spencer said. “Seed banks are built up over centuries,” and as the birds enhance the soil fertility, some of these native seeds will begin to grow naturally, without seeding, he said. “As you change the soil environment, new stuff will happen.”
Birds do not eat constantly, Spencer said. With proper nutrition, a chicken “will eat what it needs, and then it is done.” Anytime a bird is constantly feeding, the nutrition is off, he said, and proper nutrition is the key to profit in pastured broilers.
Broilers do eat a lot, particularly in the last week of their lives, Spencer cautioned, so don’t underestimate how much feed will be needed. Spencer uses 50 pound Kohl feeders, which help him “know exactly how much was fed.” His feed conversion rate is 3.5 pounds of feed/1 pound of dressed chicken.
“You can’t skimp on quality or quantity,” of feed he said. “By cheaper, I mean cheaper in terms of quality. You can buy organic feed which that’s worse than the conventional stuff they sell at the feed store. But, you can buy conventional stuff that’s awesome,” and there are a lot of factors which impact quality. “I taste our feed. If you can’t stand eating it, your birds won’t either.”
The feed given to the chickens is all GMO-free. Spencer made the decision to switch from conventional to GMO-free because he has found that the GMO-free feed, although it costs more per pound, provides a much higher quality of nutrition and actually costs less per bird in the end.
The archived webinar can be accessed at: www.attra.ncat.org. and also includes a session on pasturing laying hens.

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