Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Hello everyone! First of all, I would like to apologize for not writing a blog post sooner. Hopefully the title of this post explains the reasons why I have been seemingly missing in action…
Since I haven’t written in a few months, some of you may forget who I am. Just kidding! (Sort of.) Anyway, last summer while I was interning for Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm (read my posts from that experience here), Dan held down the Sugar River Farm fort back in New Hampshire. While working full time, he also managed to run a coop of meat chickens and rotated five pigs through pasture.
Preparing to Raise Chickens Commercially
Through the generous support of friends, family and neighbors, we sold pretty much all of our product and planned to ramp up production now that I was back from Virginia with a brain full of relevant knowledge.
Then came the spring and it was time to build coops. Over the winter, we managed to secure a contract with an up-and-coming company in Massachusetts to raise chickens for them. This company essentially makes agreements with local farmers to raise animals for them following their pasture-based, humane handling model, specific to each type of animal (beef, pigs, chicken, turkey and lamb), which they then deliver to their customer’s homes. This company ended up pre-ordering a significant amount of chickens per month from us, which necessitated the building of six new coops.
Chicken Coop Design for a Commercial Operation
In coop design, we deviated a bit from the traditional Salatin-style chicken tractor, making the footprint 10 foot x 12 foot as opposed to 10 foot x 10 foot. Instead of being a low-profile shelter, ours look more like a mini hoop house.
Dan had used this type of model at the first farm he worked at and liked them. Now that I have used them, I like them, too. There are pros and cons to both models. The Polyface tractors, being heavier and lower to the ground, are a better option if wind is an issue where you live.
The adapted model we use is lighter, which I like, as moving is easier. Also, the taller structure makes feeding and catching a bit more ergonomic for me. I am not known for my brute strength and sometimes would have trouble lifting the lid of the Polyface tractors in one hand while putting the feeder in with the other. Everybody has their own style, strengths and limitations, and different models of tractors will work better for different people.
In an effort to not get in a heated debate about who has a better mobile coop, I think we can all agree that as long as the coop is moved every day to fresh grass and the birds are protected from weather and predators, who cares what it looks like?! I do plan to write a detailed instructional as to how to construct a coop of this style in a later post.
Designing the Brooder
For our brooder, Dan made a generously sized area lined with hay bales for insulation (also because they were inexpensive and disposable, in case our concept didn’t end up working out) with one half being covered in insulated foam boards with heat lamps installed and the other half covered by plastic netting for ventilation. The netted half lifts up using a pulley system to give us better access.
When the birds first arrive, we put them exclusively under the foam board covered section with the lights on to better control the temperature. As they get a few days older, (also depending upon the ambient temperature of the barn the brooder is in) we then let them access the other half of the brooder.
They then stay in the brooder until they are three weeks old. Many people put their birds out at two weeks, but we prefer to have our birds a bit more feathered out before they go outside. (This is New England, after all.)
Expanding Beyond Chickens
Along with the chickens, we were able to get 21 piglets, one group of nine and one group of twelve, both heritage crosses. The group of nine has been living in the forest and the amount of underbrush they can clear is impressive. The other group of twelve is living in some pastured areas and Dan has been rotating them every few days.
There is also my group of Indian Runner ducks that I wanted for pets and for eggs. They are definitely a skittish breed and make a lot of noise, but they are really cute and funny. We got them as ducklings in April, so the eggs haven’t shown up yet. We should see them in the next few weeks!
Along with our wholesale account, we are selling at one farmers market, which has been a lot of fun. We are getting a lot of community support and are working towards getting our name out there and educating people on the benefits of eating locally. It’s pretty amazing to think how far we’ve come from imagining what it would be like to be able to have a viable farm business and now we’re actually working towards it.
Granted, our wholesale client brings us the lion’s share of our business and it has been a blessing to have this steady income while we build infrastructure and obtain more equipment. We were able to buy chicken crates, water storage units and pay for the materials for the coops with the income we have received from this partnership and we are very grateful. It is our goal to become more efficient, which will make us better able to provide for our animals and in turn provide more food to our community.
My next post will be a more descriptive explanation of how our coops were constructed. Please be sure to comment if you have any questions or if there is anything else you would like me to write about. Until next time!
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.