Serving a Small Broiler Market:
This article was published in the Feb/March 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. It was posted to the site January 26, 2009.
As said in “Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market: Thinking It Through,” I expect there are many visitors to this site who toy with the idea of using the experience gained producing their own family’s dressed poultry to expand into serving a small local market. They have no desire to become the magnates of the pastured poultry movement, just to introduce others in their area to the best poultry in the world, diversify their farm enterprise, and earn enough money on an expanded broiler operation to make it worth their effort.
This past summer and fall I followed three friends in my area who are growing for a broiler “micro-market” through one full production cycle. A peek at what they are doing may give readers an idea of the possibilities.
Chrystal Mehl and her husband Tony moved to their 13-acre farm near Amissville, Virginia two years ago. It wasn’t until June of 2007 that Chrystal got her first chickens, but then she hit the ground running, buying young pullets for a laying flock locally, and 24 Cornish Cross chicks from Welp’s Hatchery in Iowa. The latter constituted a trial run for broilers not only for her own table, but for sale to family and friends looking for good chicken. That first trial batch was followed by two production batches, of 30 and 50, once she felt confident in the process.
Chrystal keeps the just-arrived hatchlings in a deep plastic tub “nursery” for three days, then moves them into a corner of a stall in her barn—set up as a brooder using hay bales, a stall door with heavy gauge wire as a protective top, and a 250-watt lamp. The chicks stay in the brooder for four weeks, then go out on pasture for an additional four weeks.
The pasture shelter is inside poultry electronet, which is itself inside a horse pasture fenced with plastic posts and a special electric horse fencing. This level of protection has deterred all ground predators, including coyotes that are active in the area.
Chrystal moves the shelter once a day. During the drier parts of summer, when the pasture sod is less actively growing, the heavy application of droppings from the growing birds can kill it, or set it back severely. When necessary, she has used a sprinkler on the vacated spot, in order to help the grass recover. If there is suffcient moisture, the grass where the shelter was parked gets a marked boost from the extra fertility.
Chrystal and Tony had slaughtered the trial run of 24 birds earlier, using equipment at my place. I visited them on their first slaughter day using their own setup. Together they processd 30 birds, which dressed out mostly at around 5 pounds, though some were close to 7 pounds. They found it “a long day,” the most grueling part of raising broilers for sale.
Equipment consists of a purchased 14-gal electric scalder, and a 1/6 HP table top plucker. The small plucker seemed inadequate for production at the scale they are working, and they may find themselves in the market for a larger model.
Tony built a 2x6 work table, mostly from scrap material from a building site, incorporating a stainless steel sink donated from a relative following a kitchen renovation, and another sink and a piece of composite countertop purchased from a Habitat for Humanity auction. He estimates he paid $40 or less for the purchased parts of the table.
As with the earlier batch of 24, many of the dressed broilers went to friends and relatives, folks who were curious what “farm chicken” would be like. Chrystal reports that some who ordered from the earlier batch declined to buy again this round—they weren’t convinced it was worth buying her $2.50/lb chicken when supermarket chicken is selling for 79 cents per pound. Still, simply through word-of-mouth marketing, Chrystal is finding that the increasing demand for quality food is generating more than adequate interest in her birds, and anticipates easily selling all the broilers she’s willing to grow. Limits on production appear not to be potential market demand, but the limits on the time she—a mother of a three-year-old girl, with a part-time job as bookkeeper in a veterinarian’s office—will be able to give the project; and the time that Tony—a manager of construction and design for a development company—will be able to contribute in his time off.
At the moment Chrystal is selling her dressed broilers for $2.50/lb, picked up at the farm out of the cooler. She plans to experiment with packaged chicken (cut and vacuum sealed for the freezer) at $3.50/lb.
Chrystal’s plan for next year is to start a new group of 30 chicks every four weeks through the growing season, perhaps six batches or so, for a total production of 180 to 200 broilers. She will move them to pasture after four weeks in the brooder, and slaughter them at good carcass weight at eight weeks, making way for the next batch from the brooder.
The most fascinating of Chrystal’s customers is the owner of a kennel of championship field-trial Labrador Retrievers. Having concluded that supermarket meats do not support the level of performance she is striving for in her dogs, she feeds them local farm meats exclusively: Beef from other small farmers, and all Chrystal’s birds she is willing to sell—15 in Chrystal’s second batch, 25 in the third. (She would have preferred to buy more, had it not been for commitments Chrystal had already made to other customers). She feeds one of Chrystal’s birds per day to a nursing bitch.
Will the reader pause to focus on this astounding fact: Here is a customer who believes that supermarket meats are not fit to feed her dogs! Can we doubt that the growing concern about food quality will lead more and more paying customers to seek out local small-producer poultry for their tables?
Deanna Child and her family moved onto a 13-acre small farm near Orlean, Virginia two years ago. Deanna, long smitten with the urge to produce food not only for her family but for a small market, immediately began assembling her supporting cast: a small flock of laying hens, pigs, goats, etc. This past spring, she added Cornish Cross broilers, raising three batches of 100 each.
We had a look at Deanna’s new 12x8 pasture shelter in the Oct/Nov, 2007 issue of Backyard Poultry. She added a plywood hover inside the shelter to serve as a brooder for 100 Cornish Cross chicks. In addition to the protection of the shelter’s metal rear wall and roof, the hover is insulated by reflective bubble insulation and by empty feed bags, covered with pine shavings, over the plastic mesh floor to block chill from the ground. The hover is heated with one 100-watt and one 250-watt bulb. Since the chicks can come and go from the hover, they are able to self-regulate for temperature. Deanna had excellent results, with only two losses in the brooder phase.
Once the chicks were feathered, Deanna either moved them to a different pasture shelter, or simply moved the brooder shelter to the pasture and opened it to give the growing birds access to the outside.
Unfortunately, Deanna encountered problems with her last two batches in the post-brooder grow-out, resulting in serious losses—20 birds from the second batch, 22 from the third. Clearly she cannot continue the project with this level of losses, and will have to make some changes in management.
The biggest problem I observed in her operation was the failure to move her pasture shelter and the electronet surrounding it frequently enough. She needs better to undestand that “pasturing” the birds means not just access to the outside, but frequent moves to fresh grass, allowing the pasture sod to “digest” the heavy load of droppings laid down by rapidly growing birds, especially Cornish Cross. Without frequent moves, the droppings soon coat the pasture grass, rendering it unusable as green forage and most unsanitary for the growing broilers. My advice to Deanna was to move her flock much more frequently to fresh pasture. If that is not practical for her, it would be better to grow her broilers inside a section of her barn on deep litter, which would provide more wholesome conditions.
I very much hope Deanna can resolve her management challenges and establish a thriving broiler operation, if only because she has the advantage of the most intriguing marketing arrangement I have encountered. Deanna enjoys raising her birds, but is uncertain at this point whether she wants to begin processing her own broilers. Fortunately, her friend Susannah is eager to get her birds. Susannah has a diverse small farm from which she sells beef cattle, goats, pigs, broilers, eggs, and (in summer) fresh produce. As an alternative to struggling with labyrinthine regulations for farm slaughtering, she has cultivated a market among local ethnic and immigrant communities, who often retain more exacting standards for food quality than the typical consumer inured to the insipid fare on offer in the supermarket. Crucially, they are also willing to do their own butchering. By selling live animals direct to her discriminating (and willing) customers, Susannah has short-circuited the regulatory rigmarole required for processing the animals herself.
Though Susannah raises some broilers herself, she cannot meet customer demand on her own. To avoid disappointing her customers—and keep them coming not only for broilers but for high-profit items like sweet corn, eggs, goats, and pigs—she is willing to take Deanna’s birds to help supply them, and to remit to Deanna all the receipts from the sale of the broilers—currently $8 per bird.
Deanna thus simply raises her birds from brooder to butcher weight, loads them in a horse trailer, and delivers them to Susannah, who houses the birds in an outbuilding on her place for the week or two it takes to sell them off to her customers. This arrangement with her friend is an ideal way for Deanna to develop her broiler enterprise, allowing her to learn and gain experience without gearing up for processing at this time.
Matthew and Ruth Szechenyi have lived for ten years on Briars Farmstead, near Boyce, Virginia, a farm next door to the one on which Matthew grew up, and which has been in his family for several generations. Though Ruth retains a “day job,” Matthew three years ago committed full time to operating their place as a diversified small farm, offering from the beginning a diverse mix of broilers, eggs, turkeys, pork, and fingerling potatoes. In their first year they raised 400 broilers, 800 the second, and 1200 the third. Matthew anticipates keeping production at approximately the same level next year. He has the pasture capacity to increase production, which would be profitable; but is hesitant to do so until Ruth is able to commit to the farm full time, or he finds someone reliable to help with the work, especially on processing days.
Matthew raises his broilers in a day ranging model—large range areas inside electric net fencing, with hoop shelters moved with his pickup truck. He has found grazing by the birds and deposition of their droppings to be excellent for boosting the quality of his pastures.
The Szechenyis sell most of their broilers either to customers who come to the farm, or at their county farmers market one day a week in its main season. Matthew has found restaurateurs he’s approached resistant to paying an acceptable price for his broilers, but does sell from time to time to a caterer who loves his chicken and is building a reputation on its quality.
An interesting marketing opportunity for the Szechenyis opened up when Forest Pritchard, who sells fresh broilers at markets in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, asked them to grow for him. This past season, Matthew raised four batches (200-250 birds each) of Cornish Cross broilers for Forest, and found the arrangement a cornerstone of the farm’s income for the year. When it is time to butcher, Forest brings a refrigerated truck and a crew of three. Matthew and Ruth join Forest’s team to slaughter and dress the birds. Though Forest would take all the broilers Matthew could supply, Matthew has concluded that within his current limits he will be able at most to grow one additional batch of 200-250 next year.
Matthew raises Cornish Cross for Forest, whose market insists on its broader, plumper carcass. For his own customers, Matthew raises Freedom Rangers exclusively, because of their superior flavor and performance on pasture. He has no resistance from customers to his Freedom Rangers, which dress out at 3-½ to 4 pounds (higher for males), slaughtered at 10 weeks, selling at $4.00 per pound. Indeed, the day I visited the Szechenyis at their market stand, they sold out of broilers by mid-morning.
They sold out of eggs about the same time. That happens too early every market day, so Matthew plans to add more hens to his layer flock next year. “Eggs are an important point of contact with the customer,” he explains. ”They may be leery at first about buying farm meats, but if they try our eggs, they recognize their quality and start to develop trust in our other products as well.”
Matthew buys his feed from a local mill, which grinds his broiler feed to his recipe in ton lots. The mill delivers the bulk feed into a “gravity wagon,” which Matthew uses to distribute to the pasture feeders daily.
The Szechenyis completed a new processing facility on the farm this fall—a 12x24 hoop (a Farm Tek kit for erecting a tractor shelter) on a 12x28 concrete slab. Inside is an ensemble of stainless steel equipment, almost all of it new. The layout is based on their experience with earlier, temporary setups and, says Matthew, “the fact that I’m left handed.” The cost of the slab, hoop, and equipment was about $10,000, which Matthew noted could have been reduced had he had time to do more of the work himself.
Ruth and Matthew do all they can to cultivate a community of repeat customers, with whom they keep in touch via postcards and emails. Person to person contact is the key to their operation, the opportunity to pass on to the customer not only a food product but a point of view—about what constitutes food quality, about appreciating the seasonality and the breed-specific character of local foods, about the relation between the diverse small farm and the rural ecology and economy. “We’re not just selling a product, but enhanceing our customer’s relationship to her food,” says Matthew. “This is the ultimate retail transaction.”