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Pastured Poultry are Gifts from the Good Earth
This article was first printed in the July - August 2002 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Mike Hansen is a man who loves to talk and share ideas, and so a recent field day at his farm, sponsored by MOSES and GrassWorks, found him truly in his element. 29 people from across Wisconsin, Minnesota and into Michigan gathered on a hot July Saturday to tour the Hansen operation and discuss the production of organic pastured poultry.
Mike, Deb and their three children operate Gifts From the Good Earth, near Milladore, WI, between Stevens Point and Marshfield. The Hansen's bought their 80 acre farm in 1995- thinking it would be the perfect place to explore their dreams of undertaking an organic farming operation. This year, seven years into that exploration, they are midway into raising 4400 certified organic (MOSA) Cornish Rock Cross meat birds, marketing most directly to consumers, retail outlets and some to restaurants.
We began our tour in the dairy barn, a corner of which now serves as the brooder for their 800 to 1000 chick batches. It quickly becomes clear that the Hansen style is to retrofit and design to continuously improve systems in order to increase efficiency. Mike points out that he does well both as a farmer and at his day job, as a Rural Planner for Portage County, because he is the kind of guy that just can't stop trying to figure out a "better way". Complemented by Deb's expertise with numbers (she is Director of Fiscal Affairs for the research division of the Marshfield Clinic, as well as farmer and Mom), it is easy to see why things really happen at Gifts from the Good Earth.
Back to the brooder. 1000, 3+ week old chicks were happily chirping their way around the 12x30 foot pen inside the dairy barn. With a little cement work, a few 2x4's, hog panels, chicken wire and poultry netting, the Hansen's created a very clean and airy brooder facility. Chicks stay in the brooder for exactly four weeks, after which they are rotated into pens out in the field for the remaining four weeks of their growth. Chicks have easy access to clean water, clean bedding and organic starter feed. Bedding in the brooder is 6" of pine shavings on a cement floor. Mike notes that he much prefers pine shavings to anything else he has tried for bedding, as it is very absorbent and stays clean and loose for the chicks. He adds a new 20# bag of chips as needed, and will pull all the bedding out between batches of chicks.
Mike's keys to good organic brooder management:
From the brooder, the chicks are herded into a nifty loader cart that Mike just designed this year. The cart (actually a sledge) is made from an old steel door, flat and on wood runners, with foot high walls built on three sides, and a drop down mesh door on the fourth (long) side. At one point Mike tells the group that his four wheeler is 'the most important piece of equipment on the farm', as he uses it to not only haul birds, but also to haul feed and for numerous other daily chores.
The Hansen's have designed their own pasture pens using hog and cattle panels ("you can do everything with cattle panels," Mike tells us.) Hansen's pen design will be elaborated on in an article for the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (www.apppa.org) later this year.
Birds go into the 8.5x12 foot pens for four weeks. Around 80 birds live in each pen, each has a hand built feeder, (modified from 15 and 30 gallon buckets) that is filled every day and holds about 5 gallons of organic chicken feed. The watering system utilizes used equipment bought from the turkey industry. Gravity and plastic hosing run the system, with each of the plastic watering containers hanging in the 10 pens connected to each other with plastic hosing. Mike currently runs his water system off his pasture watering system, as the birds are close to the cows in this rotation. Pens are moved forward to new pasture each day, using a two wheel dolly.
Keys to organic success in the field:
After 4 weeks on pasture, all 800 birds are loaded into transport pens (again handmade) and taken by truck to a certified organic USDA processing facility in NE Iowa. (Wapsy Produce) Once there, the birds are butchered, cleaned, bagged, labeled, frozen and put in cardboard boxes (6 per box), which are then weighed and transported back to frozen storage near the Hansen's farm. Cost of processing (excluding transportation) is $1.75 per bird.
Birds have to this point been direct marketed, frozen, through word of mouth connections and visits to restaurants in the Marshfield area. This year the Hansen's are more than doubling their production, and know that they will need to gear up other marketing techniques, including advertising, to sell the birds. Currently the price for birds is $2.89 per pound when purchasing fewer than 12 birds, or $2.39 per pound for two or more cases (6 to a case).
Deb calculates variable costs (cost of chick, feed, etc, not including labor) to be about $6.83 per bird. Fixed expenses (depreciation, insurance, certification, interest expense etc.) averages about $3.08 per bird for 1300 birds (their production last year). These averages put the costs of a 4.5 pound bird at $9.84. Sold for an average of $12.00, this leaves a gross profit of $2.16 per bird. The Hansen's have a goal of $4.00 profit per bird, which they feel will make their labor worthwhile. They continue to work with lowering costs, but feel they have overall production very efficient and cost effective now. They see the only other variable is to increase numbers of birds produced, which will spread fixed costs out over a larger group, reducing the production cost per bird. Doing this assessment is what is leading them to larger production this year, and plans to continue expanding their operation as their time and patience allow.
Mike and Deb generously offered to build one of their strong and lightweight pens, nicknamed the "Pasture Schooner", constructed from the all-purpose cattle panel, for the group. Hammers and wire clippers flew, as participants lent a hand. In exactly one hour, a new pen sat on the front lawn, with a moderate $95.00 price tag (not including labor. Lower if you buy the materials on sale or at a bulk discount).
While the kids played in the new pen (great for a kid sleep-over, one participant remarked) the adults gathered round, relishing the new found knowledge of the day and the beautiful Belted Galloway beef burgers Deb had just pulled off the grill.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP