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The Farmers-Shail & Sarah           

Our Models

Chicken Tractor

Comparison of models

Hoop House

Sustainability

Trials and Tribulations

Planned Improvements

 

Incorporating the Environment in Agriculture

There is a wealth of information available in books, movies and websites about the unhealthy, unsustainable and inhumane practices of industrial chicken farming.† Rather than reproducing that work, we have collected below a list of ways in which a chicken tractor and a moving hoop house are a better way of rearing chickens for meat and eggs. We also believe our methods are better than those of a typical organic chicken farm.

Chicken tractors and moving hoop houses:

  • allow the chickens to be moved on to fresh pasture every day or two, which keeps the pasture from being overgrazed
  • stop the build up of massive quantities of feces in the area used by chickens
  • prevent health problems created by chickens standing in their own feces, a common problem in chicken operations that are not mobile
  • spread feces out over the pasture so it is deposited in quantities that a healthy pasture can absorb and utilize. This stops burning of plant roots and nitrogen toxicity in the soil from excess feces, while fertilizing the pasture to encourage faster, lusher growth.
  • provide chickens access to fresh plant matter, which is a natural part of a poultry diet. Fresh pasture makes for healthier birds, meat and eggs. Chickens with access to vegetation produce eggs and meat that contains less cholesterol and a lower percent of saturated fat. You can see this difference when you cook a conventional bird and a pasture raised bird side by side: the conventional birdís fat is white and hard at room temperature, indicating high saturated fat content. The pasture raised birdís fast is yellow and soft at room temperature, indicating more unsaturated fat content.
  • reduce prepared feed consumption. Feed is primarily grains and soy beans which could be more efficiently fed to people than animals. Reducing feed also reduces fossil fuel use related to growing, harvesting, packaging and transporting feed.
  • provide more room to move around than caged birds. This eliminates excessive pecking and cannibalism so we arenít compelled to debeak (cut off most of the upper beak and some of the lower beak) the birds.
  • prevent a reduction in invertebrate diversity due to constant pressure from foraging birds. Pasture rotation confines the birds more, relieving pressure on the invertebrate community and ensuring there is always pasture that the birds do not have access to. This allows the invertebrate populations to reproduce and remain healthy.

Other sustainable aspects of our operation

Use of Land Trust pasture: There are many authors on sustainability out there that have commented on the fact that if land is bought and sold as a commodity, ultimately we can not produce all of our food sustainably because good arable land near water sources is bought up and divided into ranchettes which are mainly used for lawns and an occasional pet horse.

Land Trusts are the hope of the future for sustainable agriculture. Land trusts manage land in a non-profit driven manner. They have easements on the land that essentially remove the possibility of development of the property for as long as the legal system exists. Most stop the division of the land as well and restrict use to agriculture and/or habitat. The land we lease is managed by the Jacoby Creek Land Trust which attempts to lease to farmers that farm in more a sustainable fashion. They encourage organic farming and pasture rotation. They have also fenced off the entire riparian corridor to make the creek healthier, provide habitat, stop erosion and keep the cows from polluting the water with feces. The Land Trust has also planted native vegetation along the creek.

Heritage breeds: Conserving diversity in plant varieties and animal breeds is important for protecting against disease and maintaining the ability to raise products that do well in a particular climate. We started with a variety of breeds to see what worked best for us under our pasture and climate conditions. Two of the breeds, Production Red and Black Star ,are industrial breeds and I believe the Black Star is a hybrid that does not breed true. The other seven breeds are all heritage breeds. They include Minorca and Brown Leghorn,† both of which are strictly egg layers, Araucana, Barred Rock, Australop and New Hampshire Red, all of which are dual purpose varieties.

Some unsustainable components of our farm and possible solutions

  • Importation of grains and soy. Importing grains and soy from the Midwest for feed actually works at counter purposes with our overall goal, to grow a sustainable local protein.

-†††††††† Grow grains ourselves or commission grains from a local farmer. Oats and wheat can both be grown in the Arcata climate and were at the turn of the last century. Growing grains ourselves would be a much larger investment of time and land and it would be difficult to produce without investments in machinery. Another downside is that the machinery would require fossil fuel, though we could run farm equipment on local recycled biodiesel. However, the local supply of biodiesel is limited and may not be able to support many farmers or many more residents.

If we did grow our own grains we would be able to significantly reduce production waste that is common on grain-only farms: we would turn our chickens out onto the grain field after harvest to glean.

-†††††††† Grow an alternative protein source since soy does not grow well here. Lemna is the most promising protein source I have come across. Lemna, also known as duck weed, is a tiny plant that floats on water and often covers the surface of ponds and gives them a green appearance. Lemna is high in protein. It is around 25% nitrogen (protein is made up of nitrogen containing molecules) It also contains chlorophyll which reduces the saturated fat ratio in the birds.

-†††††††† Use fish by-products from local fishery as an alternative protein source. This may work well but fish isnít a natural component of the poultry diet. Bioaccumulation of heavy metals and toxins found in fish are also a source of concern.

-†††††††† Feed waste soy from the tofu making process. We have a local tofu maker in Arcata. I understand that currently the okara (waste solids) are fed to hogs. We may be able to acquire some for feeding the chickens but the logistics of frequent pick up, needing small quantities compared to what is produced and the spoilability of the okara need to be researched.

  • Fossil fuel mobility. Currently the hoop house has 4 small wheels and can be pushed around with two people. However, Sarah and I are rarely out at the farm at the same time since all other chores only require one person, so the HH often ends up getting moved with a truck which uses fossil fuel or biodiesel, and the weight of the truck compacts the arable soil beneath. Sometimes my outrageously kind and generous boyfriend comes out to help move it by hand, but this takes a lot of his time and he ends up sitting around waiting a lot. Then I have to give him backrubs and make him breakfast in bed. Ultimately this is not a long term solution.

-†††††††† Ideally we want the HH to be movable by one person. We need bigger wheels but are at a complete loss at how to install larger wheels and still make it turnable (castor wheels are too small). One option is to put the wheels in the middle like a teeter totter, but the wheels are more likely to rub against the floor.

-†††††††† We could also get a horse to move the HH but this is not economically sustainable at such a small scale.

  • Non-renewable electricity. We used 3 200 watt bulbs for approximately 2 solid weeks for brooding our batch of 176 chicks. We may be able to get up to 300 chicks under the same number of bulbs, but we were erring on the safe side for our first flock.

We eventually plan on either getting a solar array to produce our electricity or moving to a new farm that has a barn with a solar array already installed.

  • Imported carbon material. We need to have dry, absorbent bedding for the young chicks that can be composted when the flock is put out to the fields. Wood shavings work the best because the chicks can scratch at them and essentially turn the compost in the brooder as they grow. When we began we assumed it would be easy to get local wood shavings since there is so much logging in the area. Alas we have been unable to find a source of shavings that arenít contaminated by walnut, cherry, red wood or cedar, all of which have toxic oils in them that make them poor bedding. The mills here tend to send all their shavings to the pulp mill and the furniture makers use unsuitable wood types.

-†††††††† We are going to continue looking for a local source of non-toxic wood shavings.

  • Imported chicks. Our chicks were hatched in a hatchery in Iowa. All hatcheries are out of state.

-†††††††† Our goal is to eventually have a breeding flock to produce our own chicks. We need to research if this is economically viable since it requires that we either have hens that raise chicks for us or invest in an incubator. Mother hens are more appealing since they tend to reduce chick losses and make for happy chicks, but mother hens do not produce eggs for sale and while continuing to eat expensive feed.

The hens would also probably need their own enclosure in which to raise chicks. If we use an incubator then the hens that produce the fertile eggs will continue laying eggs for the market. Fertile eggs also require roosters which eat feed and donít produce eggs, but they may help protect the flock from predators and increase the egg output of the hens.

  • Farming away from home. Not living on the farm requires transportation to the farm which can be done by bike, but is often done with fossil fuel because of time constraints and hauling. The gas gets expensive but land lease is cheap. Not having the flock at home also increases mortality because we cant just run out the back door to check and see how high the creek is when it is raining or check to make sure the chicks are content with no drafts .

-† Eventually we want to move our operation to a new farm in the Arcata bottoms which will be managed by the neighboring cohousing community. I hope to become a resident at the cohousing community so I can live close to my livelihood and enjoy the community of intentional neighbors. Sarah hopes to eventually buy a piece of land as well, at which point we may dissolve our partnership and form a co-op.