Serving a Niche Market for Started Birds
This article was first published in the June/July 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
We work with our backyard flocks because it’s fun, it helps the household budget, and it gets us in touch with the natural world. And before we know it, we’ve developed a level of expertise that surprises us. We start looking for new challenges. Or maybe for ways to make that growing expertise pay.
If you’re thinking markets, you should check out “Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market”. Many have found that a profitable enterprise, though that may be a more ambitious expansion than you’re interested in. Maybe serving an egg market could be a little easier? (Patience—eventually I hope to offer you an article on producing eggs for market.) Here’s another idea that could reward effort in an under-exploited niche: If you’ve become comfortable raising chicks in a brooder, why not offer small-lot started birds for sale? You already have the experience, may not need a lot of additional equipment, and could find that word-of-mouth is all the promotion you need.
My two young friends Leila Brooks (18) and Allison Hoblin (19) started thinking about their niche market enterprise when they were working together at a local Tractor Supply. Leila’s only experience with poultry was a single small flock of chickens—one of my “starter packages,” a Cuckoo Marans broody with her ten chicks, passed on to her family in 2005. Allison had no prior experience with poultry at all.
Each spring their Tractor Supply offers a limited number of day-olds, timed for the “Easter market” for cute, fluffy chicks. They heard time and again from customers, “Why can’t I get just a few?” or “I’d love to have a few layers, but I don’t want to mess with a brooder.” As well, the small number of chicks the Tractor Supply offered quickly sold out, and no more were ordered, so Leila and Allison heard complaints from many disappointed customers who failed to get chicks. They sensed a large potential customer base for small-lot sales of already-brooded birds. Both (unusually, for young people these days) had for some time had a yearning for farming. Perhaps this was a chance to make a beginning in that direction.
My friends were anything but timid: They ordered 300 chicks to start, in November, 2007. They concluded in retrospect that first order was naivethey ordered straight run stock, thinking there would be plenty of demand for roosters. On the other hand, they were willing from the beginning to butcher excess males, or any other excess birds, to sell as dressed poultry as necessary. As for breeds, again they were willing to experiment to find out what worked: They ordered a mix of Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, Barred Rock, Silver Laced Wyandotte, and Black Sex-Links.
They had no problem selling out that first brood—even the males sold well. By the end of those sales, however, it was becoming obvious that they had approached saturation in their market for cockerels; and their customers were starting to express a preference for pullets. In February of 2008, they ordered another big batch of day-olds, the same mix of breeds, but this time one-half pullets, the other half straight run. From that point, they proceeded on the basis of trial and error, and a willingness to stay loose and try anything that might work for them, to recognize and grab any opportunity for expanding the market for their started birds.
For example, in May they started 50 turkey poults (25 each Bronze and Broad Breasted White). In June they started 100 ducklings (Pekin and Rouen), which they found the easiest to brood of all the fowl types they’ve tried. The ducklings were a great draw at their farmer’s market for families with children, and drove sales of their other products such as eggs and dressed poultry. (Though the ducklings were great fun to raise, they will probably not grow more for the time being—unless they get access to a pond: Otherwise the ducklings are just too messy for their situation.)
They even started one batch of 400 all-cockerels, the same sort of breed mix mentioned above, because they were cheap (30 cents apiece) and they assumed they’d be able to sell them as fresh-dressed, all-pasture-and-grain poultry. They were right—they easily sold all they could bring to market—but the experience was “horrible,” to quote Allison. Processing large batches of birds was necessary (since their market showed a marked preference for fresh rather than frozen poultry), but difficult to coordinate with their job at Tractor Supply. To supply their fresh-broiler market, they began growing small batches (25 per month) of meat-type birds. (They were able to sell all the traditional-breed birds they brought to market as dressed broilers, but found more ready acceptance of the meat types. They have raised Cornish Cross to date, but I urged them to read “Sunday-Dinner Chicken: Alternatives to the Cornish Cross” and consider trying some alternative meat strains.)
A major event in the expansion of their business last year was meeting the owners of Smith Family Farm, long established in local markets, with whom they have established a productive and cooperative relationship. SFF contracted with them for 300 ready-to-lay (20 weeks) Black Australorp pullets needed for their egg market. In the fall, they bought all the turkeys Leila and Allison had, since they were getting more demand than they could themselves satisfy as Thanksgiving approached. Leila and Allison now take all their slaughter birds to SFF, exchanging help processing SFF’s birds for access to their excellent butchering setup and stainless steel equipment.
Another major event in the life of their business is their current move to a new farm. A fact of life for Allison and Leila, as for so many young people who aspire to be farmers, is that they simply cannot afford to buy land. Fortunately, they have found—again, as many aspiring young farmers do—that it is not unusual to find folks with land who are not farming it themselves, but are willing, even eager, to rent it out to someone likely to farm it well. Allison and Leila are looking forward to rooting an expanded operation at their new place, with more space, and especially, more access to pasture for their flocks.
Here is a brief sketch of Allison and Leila’s production practices and their results so far.
- Stock: All Leila and Allison’s purchased stock thus far has been in the form of day-olds. They have had good luck getting sound, healthy stock shipped through the Postal Service, from a hatchery they’ve settled on as their preferred source. (They did have disastrous results last year with a batch of poults they felt was of poor quality, from a hatchery they now avoid.) They have not requested vaccination of hatchlings in the past, though plan to do so this year (as extra “insurance” they will not have disease problems, given the mix of species they routinely work with, and the frequency of outside visitors to the brooder operation). This year, they may try incubating some of their own batches of chicks—or even experiment with hatching under broody hens, if any of their older hens decide they want to be mothers.
- Batch size and composition: After the big batches (300 to 400 chicks each) of last year, Allison and Leila have concluded that it will fit their needs and their job schedule better to do smaller, more frequent batches—say, 200 chicks once a month. Since they have enjoyed raising turkey poults, they will fit batches of them into the schedule as well. They expect to have up to four batches of various ages in brooders at one time. They plan to stick with the mix of mostly dual purpose, traditional farm breeds described above, since that is the type bird most customers are looking for. Ameraucanas have been especially popular, because of the novelty of the pastel tinted eggs. Rhode Island Reds are also a frequent choice, perhaps because that is a breed more people have heard of. But Leila and Allison have found that customers are pretty flexible about breed choice, and are usually happy to pick from whichever are available at the time. Starting this season, one early batch will be straight run, since they have frequent requests for “a good flock rooster.” Afterwards, batches will be all or mostly pullets, to serve the greater demand for started layers.
- Brooding: Leila and Allison like to brood over a litter of wood shavings or pelleted horse bedding. They’ve also found especially useful the fuel used in pellet-burning stoves. (They are careful to buy pellets made from 100 percent hardwood sawdust, and avoid those containing additives.) They spread the pellets, then mist the surface just a bit. The moistening causes the surface pellets to expand into a fluffy litter. As moisture penetrates the surface, intact pellets below also fluff up, for a constant renewal of fresh litter. Usually they clean out the litter between batches, though not always—“It depends on how it smells and looks.” (I suggested allowing the litter to become more biologically active by keeping it in place throughout the season, as described by Jean Nick in “Brooding Chicks on Deep Litter.”)
- Equipment and structures: Brooklin Farm’s started bird enterprise has been do-it-yourself from the beginning. Equipment is simple, an elaboration on the sorts of 250-watt heat lamps, wade-proof waterers, and chick feeders well known to any flockster who has raised chicks in a home brooder. They have built three 8x16-ft brooder houses. Each can brood up to 300 chicks, with the number reduced to 100 per brooder if they need to hold the growing birds beyond six weeks. They have begun using electric net fencing from Premier Fencing Supplies to confine and protect their flocks.
- Feed: Allison and Leila take advantage of their employee discount to buy their feeds from Tractor Supply. They start with a 24 percent protein chick starter, then at six weeks switch to a 20 percent grower ration. They feed free choice, which in their experience results in less stress and conflict among the chicks. Once the birds start going outside, they feed in addition cracked corn and small grains, as a scratch feed.
- Getting the birds onto pasture: And with regard to “outside,” Allison and Leila are big believers in pasturing their flocks, and try to get the young birds out on pasture at five or six weeks, depending on the season. Early on, they keep the heat source on inside the brooder structure, so the chicks can come and go as they wish, to self-regulate temperature.
- Predators and other losses: The young birds ranged freely outside the structure last year. Aside from a few episodes with hawks, their only major predator problem has been the loss of fifteen to twenty growing birds to a fox. The fact that losses were not greater in a free-range flock had much to do with the fact there were a number of dogs at their previous farm, who kept predators at bay. They will be using electronet for predator protection at their new place. They have had no disease problems—no coccidiosis or serious cases of pasting up—in their brooders so far. They did have heavy losses of Black Australorp chicks in one batch, but concluded the cause was heat stress in an unseasonal temperature spike.
I’ve elaborated on the broader elements of Leila and Allison’s farming enterprise, which has expanded to include as well a few breeding rabbits, and they are currently bottle feeding a couple of calves. At their new place, they hope to raise some guineas (they were not allowed to raise such noisy birds at their former farm rental), and test the market for both started and dressed guineas. They’ve made a virtue of staying loose, and being willing to slaughter any excess birds, which have been easy to sell in their farmer’s markets. (As Leila said: “There’s always something you can do with a bird.”) But brooding hatchlings for the niche service they offer—furnishing no-minimum started birds the customer doesn’t have to brood, with a range of breed, gender, and species choice—has consistently led the way in the evolution of their business.
You might not want to be as broad-ranging in your own project. Specifically, you might prefer to avoid producing excess birds that have to be butchered, and to sell only small-lot started birds to local buyers. If you start small, you can determine the level of local demand for live started birds exclusively. If that is your preference, here are a few helpful hints you might glean from their experience.
- Brooklin’s “average” customer: I asked Leila and Allison to describe what they think of as their average customer. The reply, without hesitation, was: “Somebody buying for a family of four, concerned about healthier eating, and looking for a good experience for their children. Lately we’ve seen a lot more concern about food security because of the economic downturn.” It seems that more people than ever before—previously content to get their food from anonymous sources—are now thinking about ways they can put more wholesome food on their family’s tables by raising poultry in their own backyard. You can serve that expanding market.
- Look for partnerships: Remember Allison and Leila’s successful relationship with Smith Family Farm. In the expanding better-foods market, you may find operations such as theirs who are unable to supply all their demand for eggs, broilers, or turkeys. They may be eager to buy started birds from you.
- Diversity: Brooklin Farm from the beginning has avoided a rote offering of only the most common “super-hybrids” for their customers. Offering a mix—mostly of older breeds, with more of a sense of heritage—has worked well for them.
- Profits: Leila and Allison plowed most of the profits earned last year into growing their business—investments in the brooder sheds and equipment, electronet, etc. As the business expands this year, they should start realizing significant income from their enterprise.
- Promotion: Promotion of the service they offer has not been a problem to date. They put up fliers in feed stores, post offices, pet stores, grocery stores—“anywhere with a bulletin board.” Their work at Tractor Supply gives them direct contact with the sorts of customers eager for their service. They did a trial listing on craigslist. (“We got a lot of responses, but few serious inquiries.”) I have circulated numerous announcements of stock availability for them, both to my personal “chicken list” and to a couple of state-wide homesteading online venues. By far the most successful part of their promotion has been word-of-mouth. They have found especially that children love it when they are allowed to pick the specific birds their parents are going to buy, making for a more memorable buying experience—and increased “buzz” in the area about what they are offering.
Over the years I have encountered so many people who want to keep a small layer flock, but who have been deterred by the necessity of starting with a lot of twenty-five (typically the minimum order of chicks through the mail) or by nervousness about raising vulnerable, totally dependent baby birds in a brooder. Since the inception of Brooklin Farm’s small-lot, already-brooded service, I’ve been delighted to respond to inquiries about “getting just a few layers”: “Hey, I know just the thing for you!” Based on the grateful and enthusiastic feedback I’ve been getting from Brooklin customers I’ve referred, I believe this is a niche in the market begging to be filled.