Our very first batch of meat chickens arrived last week. We ordered 30 Cornish Cross that will be ready to butcher mid-July. I know it’s hard to think of these balls of adorableness as “dinner,” but in 8 weeks they’ll be full grown and, due to their breeding, will have essentially reached their life expectancy. In the meantime, we plan to give them good lives with plenty of green grass, fresh air, and sunshine. We are excited to be to taking on this new enterprise and to be able to provide our family the healthiest food possible.
We’ve been very upfront with kids that we’re raising these chickens for meat. It’s important to us that our children understand where their food comes from, and that they grow up learning skills for self-sufficiency. We want them to view this process as both normal and sacred. It’s easy to see that food that has been lovingly cared for should not be wasted or taken for granted.
Already we’ve observed many differences between our “broiler babies” and their “layer baby” counterparts. The Cornish Cross seem to be less active and more fragile. They have fewer self-preservation instincts and we have instructed our kids to be especially calm and gentle with them. We are glad to have limited ourselves to just one new farming venture a year as it is taking both of us some time to adjust to their specific needs. In preparation for their arrival, we pored over many books and websites and downloaded as many relevant podcasts as we could find. Our favorites have been Joel Salatin’s (our favorite farmer-innovator-world changer-genius) Pastured Poultry Profits and the coop-casts (downloadable on iTunes) of Andy and Kelli of Chicken Thistle Farm.
Clyde built two of these hoop-style chicken tractors for our meat birds and to accomodate the fluctuating needs of our laying flock. He has promised to provide a lot more details about their construction in the near future. This particular tractor has some temporary modifications (a wooden floor and wall partition) so that it can double as a brooder house. Once the birds have their feathers (about 3 weeks) they’ll be ready to go on the grass and will be moved daily for fresh grazing. We’re already using the other tractor for this purpose with our “layer babies” who are about 6 weeks old–more to come on that as well!
Once the coop was designed and built we were on to thinking about the outdoor set-up for our new flock. Although free-range was appealing in terms of chicken nutrition/feed costs and quality of life, we were concerned about the many potential predators and also wanted more control over where (and on what) our chickens roamed. I was investigating different types of chicken runs when I learned about chicken tractors and discovered the pastured poultry methods developed by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. At first I was disheartened to think our coop design had been a big mistake and that we should have gone with something small and mobile. Then I heard Jack Spirko interview permaculturalist Paul Wheaton on the Survival Podcast and knew his paddock shift system was exactly what we were looking for. Paul’s article explains the idea in detail and gives an overview and comparison of other systems.
The basic idea is to create four or more fenced areas (or use portable fencing) and rotate the flock so that each area gets at least 28 days of rest before reuse . This allows the plant life to benefit from the grazing and fertilization and rebound becoming increasingly lush over time (intensive rotational grazing.)
Our paddock set-up has a permanent access run with four rotating paddocks. Each has some shade provided by nearby trees. So far it seems to be working well. We’ve been shifting the same day each week, which only gives 21 days of rest, so we probably need to adjust that for optimal results, it’s just harder to keep track of a 9/10-day rotation. It’s really nice to have fresh forage for them and to know they’re not going to be swiped up by a wandering neighbor dog.
One predator issue remains in the hawk we often see inspecting the yard. We’ve considered using netting or even strands of wire and have thought about some type of shelter item that could be moved from paddock to paddock. I would prefer to see some type of evergreen shrubbery or other tall plant (like the peony bushes growing along the access run where they like to hang out) rather that additional structures, but it would take time for most plants to be big enough to make much of a difference. Ideally we’d have all kinds of established trees and plants that provide additional food inputs incorporated into the design. One of our hens ended up being a rooster, and he’s been taking his watch-dog, protective role very seriously, so maybe that will make enough of a difference safety-wise.
Anybody else trying a paddock shift system? Any hawk safety suggestions from the veteran chicken farmers out there?