2004 Annual Poultry Report: Demmel Farm
This report has been prepared
by Dennis Demmel, farm operator. The Demmel Farm has raised pasture poultry
since 1997, marketing processed chickens directly to local consumers. The
operation has been a business of Demmel children, Paul, Sarah and Laura. Laura
is the current owner and manager of the Demmel Farm Poultry Division. The
operation uses grass, buildings and equipment already available on the farm, so
capital investments are very minimal with this “stacked enterprise”. Birds
are raised in a brooder house the first 4 weeks and on grass in portable pens
for another 4 weeks. The chickens are slaughtered off farm at a USDA certified
“custom exempt” facility near
Feed processed on the farm can be a lower cost alternative to purchased bulk feed when milling equipment is available. In addition, quality is likely improved when grains are grown under sustainable management. This is important to quality for the consumer.
“Limit’ feeding has stimulated greater foraging when using free range systems, and bird quality has been excellent. Feed efficiency has been favorable. Evidence indicates that vegetative intake is high. Adequate feeder space is likely important to uniformity of bird size at slaughter. Medication for starter ration has been eliminated with no negative effects.
Return to labor is excellent in this enterprise. Feed cost is 30-40% of total cost. Little capital investment is required, unless the business is scaled up considerably.
Free range during the day is considered important to avoid heat stress and to allow more foraging. Predators have not been a significant challenge. Lack of slaughter facilities probably inhibits the expansion of the pasture poultry industry. Public policy change concerning regulations, financial incentives and technical support could well influence greater utilization of pasture poultry operations.
2004 Pasture Poultry Observations
Costs & Ingredients
A major change in 2004 was to
eliminate medication in the starter ration which is purchased in bags for
convenience. (A 23% protein starter
ration makes up about 10% of total feed use.) The change resulted in no negative
results and many customers prefer the non-medicated ration.
For this operation, feed costs
have steadily dropped over the years, as the farm moved from bagged feed to bulk
feed. Eventually farm raised grain milled on the farm has been used for the
finish ration. 2004 feed costs were up about 10% from the previous year
primarily due to increases in grain prices. In recent years, feed costs have
dropped from $2.10 to $1.25 per bird with a cost of $1.37 per bird in 2004. Farm
raised grains are considered to be of better quality over bulk feed purchases,
since grains are raised under sustainable practices. Extruded soybeans have been
used in recent years. In 2005, the ration will use soybean meal instead.
Extruded soybeans have a higher fat content and it is not known if that is
beneficial. Experience on this farm indicates that feed does not seem to go
rancid when using the extruded soybeans when stored for several months, although
warnings in some publications have raised concerns about this factor. The ration
also includes corn and wheat in addition to fish meal and vitamin/mineral
supplements. Millet is another alternative in this western region and can be
used up to 30% of the ration. Currently corn is cheaper. Coarse milling is
Efficiency and Limit Feeding
In recent years, feed has been limited to approximately 30-32
pounds per day for a group of 100 birds during the last several weeks of
production. Feeders are empty by mid-day. We
feel that this “limit feeding” stimulates more foraging of the birds outside
of the pens. Although some producers report weight loss due to chickens running
around in a free range environment, we do not believe this is a major issue.
Exercise probably improves muscle tone and, along with the “limit feeding”,
is considered a factor in lowering the risk of overfeeding and lameness. Feeder
space is a consideration during the last couple of weeks as the birds are larger
and more crowded.
During 2004, feed consumption
was approximately 11 pounds per bird. A
random sampling of birds at slaughter showed an average of about 4.3 pounds per
bird. Since birds are sold by the bird, rather than by the pound, total weight
is not available, although some extra effort here could provide a more
scientific analysis. Using the 4.3
pounds per bird, the consumption is estimated at 2.6 pounds of feed per pound of
Pasture grass should be short
enough for poultry consumption and growing. The grass sometimes requires mowing
prior to poultry utilization. Grazing with cattle would be a better approach.
The chickens do consume considerable amounts of grass and weeds. They really
like legumes such as alfalfa. An
examination of gizzards at slaughter in October indicated considerable
vegetative content. Since pens are
moved only several times per week, the sleep area of the pen is raked by hand
after pen moving to break up the chicken waste “pad” so it does not seal off
the grass. The waste is also spread
out to avoid “burning” the grass. A tractor harrow would perhaps simulate
this aeration process in larger operations. This farm has irrigated winter wheat
with a clover legume that has been considered as a late season pasture for
poultry after harvest. With the stubble mowed or grazed, the volunteer wheat and
clover would be good grazing for the chickens.
Customers are charged $7.50 per
slaughtered broiler, which is bagged and ready for the freezer. Feed expense is
one of the larger costs, accounting for 30-40% of the total cost. Since the
poultry enterprise is a “stacked” enterprise utilizing existing grass,
buildings and equipment, the “gross profit” is favorable with other
enterprise opportunities. Profit per
bird has been over $3.50 per bird in recent years. Feed costs were about 10%
higher in 2004. Chicks are purchased for just over 60 cents per bird delivered
to the local post office from a
of Bird Size and Age at Slaughter
The operators of the slaughter
facility, that conducts slaughter of the Demmel broilers, are very impressed
with the uniformity of size of the birds when compared to other producers.
Producers that have groups of birds that are over 100 birds/pen seem to have
greater variation in slaughter size. The Demmel Farm birds ranged in size after
slaughter in October, 2004 from 3.25-5.6 pounds, with an approximate average of
4.3 pounds, based on random weighing. This seems short on uniformity, but
reportedly is better than others, as indicated previously. One improvement on
this farm would be to provide more feeder space during the last two weeks of
production so that all birds have equal access to limited feed.
In 2004, one group of the chickens was slaughtered at 7 weeks to
determine if slaughter at a younger age was feasible, even when feeding extra
feed the last several weeks. The
results were less than satisfactory. Eight weeks is now the rule for maturity.
The pens used on the Demmel
Farm are 10 X 10 ft square and made of old steel gates used previously for a hog
operation that was discontinued. Most operations utilize light wood or PVC pipe
to make pen moving a simple task for even the youngest of a family member.
However, high winds in this region require heavier pens. Dolleys are used to
move the pens. For a larger operation, it is thought that a small tractor and
loader could be utilized to move heavy pens, especially after morning pen
opening and feeding when the birds would be out of the pens. The best approach
would be backing up away from the birds. A hook on top of the pen would be
preferable for the loader to easily engage without chains, etc.
In this operation, the
“open” side of the pen is often turned toward the sun and away from the wind
in cooler weather, and dollies are used to adjust the direction to provide
Several years ago, side doors
were added to the pens to allow for free range during the day. This was a
necessity to allow the birds to spread out during hot weather and to utilize
shade of trees or other shade. This provides exercise for the birds and more
fresh air. In addition, capacity was increased 33% from 75 to 100 birds per pen,
since the pens are primarily occupied during cool nights. Watering is provided
both inside and outside of the pens. Feeders are placed outside of the pens
except in the first days the birds are placed on pasture, when the side doors
remain closed until the birds are fully acclimated to the facility. As the birds
get older, they will wonder great distances to forage for food; however, they
seem to always know where “home” is at night, even if they may get close to
other chickens from another pen. All birds are usually back in pens before dark
when doors are closed.
Pens are best located away from
low areas where water can accumulate in case of heavy rains. Straw placed on the
ground has been used temporarily within pens to provide dry conditions in
extremely wet weather. In hot weather, some poultry growers run water under the
birds to help keep them cool.
Chickens are loaded onto a
stock trailer with a double deck arrangement for transport to slaughter.
However, loading can provide some stress to the bird. One attempt was made at
loading at night when the birds remain less active. This works well the night
before slaughter. However, pens with a taller ceiling or movable top cover would
allow for ease of lifting the birds out of the sleeping area. Chickens do not
move easily in the dark, but they are easy to catch. Currently, birds are
normally moved from the low-roofed pens to an outer catch pen for easier loading
during the day.
Predators have not been a major
issue for the Demmel Farm poultry business, although animals like coyotes exist
in the area in fairly high populations. However, the birds are grown on grass
that is near to the farmstead, which may inhibit wild predators.
The farm is not near a river or stream which reportedly increases such
predators. However, this past season, a farm cat was found to be killing birds
and had to be destroyed. Pens, as indicated, are closed at night. For high
predator areas, pens may need to be closed during the day or an electric
“netting” would be used to keep out predators from the grazing area.
In 2004, a “hospital” was
contrived as a small pen in a shop building for birds that became lame or had
other afflictions, so that they would not have to compete with healthy birds for
adequate water and feed. Birds that may have gotten a cut or laceration can be a
subject of cannibalism by other birds, but can be returned to pasture pens after
healing. This all requires careful observation by the flock manager.
Considerations & Comments
Any future expansion would likely require more expense in
advertising and marketing. Press
releases are welcomed at local papers when a news-worthy change in operation
occurs, such as expansion or change in management. Expansion may require higher
capital investment in equipment, perhaps a slaughter facility. Surveys of buyer
interest would be valuable to this operation. Customers may wish to comment on
preferences of processed bird size after processing, charge by the bird or
pound, taste and fat content, dislikes, etc.
Every community should have a
local pasture poultry operation. What seems to be an inhibiting factor is the
access to slaughter facilities, rather than return on investment in labor and
capital. The question seems to be related to what communities need for
facilities. Should such a facility be on-farm, or be at the local multi-species
slaughter facility, or be in the form of a portable operation? These are
questions related to public policy review and related to public incentives
designed to stimulate pasture poultry and direct marketing. Changes in
regulations, more technical support and perhaps financial incentives, as from
“value added” programs, would be beneficial to stimulating growth of the
small pasture poultry industry.