A Sustainable Farm that Isn’t

The hard, heart breaking reality that sustainable farming is not as sustainable as we once thought it was.

My heart ached as I stood at the edge of a field on another farm and looked at what had once been Salatin style pull pens, used for raising pasture-raised chickens. The pens laid smashed together on a pile in the woods. That style of chicken pen is named after the man who promoted the design and method. The pens at one time had been two feet high and 10 feet wide by 12 feet long. The pens are called pull pens because they are pulled across the pasture by moving them one pen length a day. It is a very labor intensive system. Almost every farm here in America that starts raising chickens on pasture uses this method. The method is romanticized and made appealing to new farmers.

A pile of smashed Salatin style chicken pens
A pile of smashed Salatin style chicken pens that had at one time been used for raising chickens on pasture. It represents the smashed dreams of two sustainable farmers, and the unsustainability of what is supposed to be sustainable agriculture.

The pasture where the             pasture-raised chickens had been raised
Turning around from where the above picture was taken, this is the view of what had once been the pasture where the pasture-raised chickens had been raised. The farm was located in Maryland State Park property. After the sustainable farm failed, the land (about 50 acres) has become a wasteland filled with noxious weeds, thorns, and poison ivy. About four years ago the Maryland Forest Service planted it in trees to reforest the land, never to be farmed sustainably again. The last crop that a farm grows is trees. (We have not yet been able to prove to the world that sustainable farming is the answer to feeding the world and that we are more sustainable than big corporate agriculture. We have more work to do.)

The farm, Full Circle Farm here in Maryland, went out of business over 10 years ago. The pile of chicken pens represents not only the labor of the farmers and their wasted funds, but it also represents the smashed dreams and hopes of a man and a woman who had been told that the system that they were using was the answer to conventional confinement agriculture. They thought they were practicing sustainable agriculture that would last and endure long after the conventional, confinement, big corporation chicken houses had gone out of business for being unsustainable.

Little did they know, as beginning farmers, that the method that they were using was not sustainable and that few people who would try it would be able to make a living wage with it. Most of them would quit after a few years.

I am writing this in hope that the many farmers and want to be farmers who subscribe to this newsletter do not make the same mistakes that I made and that Full Circle Farm made. I used to think that it was me that was having the problems and that others were being successful. I kept hearing glowing reports about how great everything was on other farms. But as I have observed things over the years, and from reading articles in Stockman Grass Farmer Magazine, I have pieced together that the profits were not there that those giving the glowing reports made it sound like it was. From my perspective, the reason that many sustainable pasture based chicken farms are no longer in business is not the farmer’s fault, but the fault of the system that they used. If you are experiencing some of these failures, it is not you, it is the system you are using. Chickens will not be super healthy just because they stand, sit, and sleep on the cold wet ground with grass on it 24/7. If we are going to have sustainable pasture based farms and last long after the conventional, confinement chicken houses have gone out of business, we need follow a different method.

There are a number of reasons why pull pens are not a sustainable method of raising chickens on pasture.

  • It requires too much labor for the few number of chickens that the farmer is raising to make a living wage. The pens have to be moved once or twice a day or the chickens will sit in their own filth. If you have 20 inexperienced apprentices running around your farm working basically for free, building and pulling pens is good grunt work to keep them busy.
  • The chickens are not protected enough from the heat, the cold, the rain and wet ground, and from predators. I will not go into details, but it is not a humane method. The death loss is too high. Every chicken that dies represents a loss of profit. The overhead costs and feed invested in the dead chickens are still there.
  • Because of the high labor input, it is difficult to have enough time in a week to raise, process, and market enough birds to be able to make a full time income. In other words, the hourly wage is below minimum wage. That is why most farms using the pull pen method stay part time or shut down. It is not profitable. They have to have off farm income to live on. For a sustainable farm to be sustainable, the labor input has to be low enough for the number of birds raised, to be able to raise enough chickens with a normal day’s work to make a living. Those that have promoted this method of pasture based farming have made it sound like the animals do most of the work. That is not true.
  • Pull pens are a micro version of confinement chicken rearing, only it’s on pasture. The chickens have very little space to move in their small pen.

Likely, unbeknown to the farmers at Full Circle Farm, there was another significant factor that may have contributed to them not being able to sell enough chickens to make a go of farming and be sustainable. The farmer who had taught them the method of raising chickens on pasture had a big name recognition and was illegally delivering chickens that were not USDA inspected across state lines into Maryland to customers relatively close to Full Circle Farm. At that time period in Maryland, Full Circle Farm could only sell their chickens at their farm because their chickens were processed under Federal exemption and were not USDA inspected. People had to go to their farm; the chickens could not be delivered to drop points like the other farmer was illegally doing. It is one thing for a farm to compete with a legal competitor, but it would have been very difficult for them to compete with a competitor with name recognition that was doing things illegally to provide what the customers wanted and taking business away from them.

The black market of illegal pasture raised chickens coming from Pennsylvania and Virginia into Maryland and Washington DC continues. If you are a farmer that is doing this, please stop. If you are buying this black market chicken, please stop. If the illegal chicken and illegal raw milk does not stop coming across state lines, it will endanger the sustainability of all pasture based farms.

For sustainable agriculture to be sustainable, the farmers have to stay in business. As sustainable farmers, we need to look out for each other and help each other and not take business from other sustainable farms by doing things illegally or misrepresenting our products as something that they are not. If you are a consumer, do not hurt the sustainability of the sustainable farms in your area by supporting the big guys (or the little guys) who are doing things illegally or are misrepresenting their products. One of the most common misrepresentations is a farm giving customers the impression that their chickens and eggs are organic when they are actually not feeding their chickens organically and are feeding non-organic feed. Non-organic feed is much cheaper than organic feed. Contrary to what you might think, a pastured chicken actually eats more feed than a confinement raised bird because they get more exercise and because they need to keep themselves warm during cool weather and on cold nights. It is important that the feed is organic.

Sustainable agriculture is a team effort of farmers and consumers. If we do not make sustainable agriculture sustainable, big business, confinement, “pasture raised” animal operations will be what is sustainable.

Related articles from past newsletters on this subject:
Sustainable Farming – The Farmer Has to Stay in Business
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Raise Chickens on Pasture
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Produce Eggs on Pasture

For those who are farmers
Here in the United States, much of the information that we have been given about raising chickens on pasture is outdated by 20 years or more. There have been a lot of advancements in the last 20 years that we as small growers have not kept up with. Europe with their free-range chickens, and the larger poultry breeders have a lot of beneficial information for us to learn from. Raising chickens on pasture is a lot more high tech in meeting their nutritional and other needs than we have been led to believe. Small mistakes in nutrition and management can end up costing a farmer a lot of money and may mean the difference between making a living and going broke. Here are some valuable resources that have been beneficial to us:
The following three books available from 5M Books – http://www.5mbooks.com/agricultural-books/poultry-books/poultry-signals-training.html
Poultry Signals
Broiler Signals
Laying Hens

Online Resources:
Ross 308 Broiler Handbook
ISA Brown Egg Layer Alternative Management Guide
ISA Brown Nutrition Management Guide
Hy-Line Brown Egg Layer Red Book – A Management Guide

Grass Fed is Best? A Horror Story From our Living Lab

To hear some people talk, you might get the impression that raising chickens and animals on grass is the secret ticket to success in farming and to health. With grassfed, there will be no more problems and the chickens and animals will excel far beyond conventional farming methods. Any grass is good. All you have to do is get the animals out on the grass, in the sunshine and fresh air.

That is not true.

Before you think I fell off my rocker, I will state that I believe that grass fed is BEST! But, as you will see, not all grass is best or even able to properly sustain life.

I was shocked and very disappointed with the large amount of weight loss that our sheep experienced after only 16 days in the new silvopasture. Two specialists from the Maryland Extension service, had visited the silvopasture just before the sheep were put into the new pasture. They were very impressed with what they called the “high dairy quality” of the grasses and clovers. They were concerned that the forage would be too lush, too rich for the sheep and that they might bloat (their stomachs fill up with gas) . On the contrary, the sheep did not bloat and we were in for a big surprise when we weighed the sheep.
The 54 Adult Sheep : lost (-345.5 lbs.) total in the 16 days between May 14 & 30, 2015. This number included rams (males), ewes (females) with lambs, and year old females that were not bred. Many of the nursing mothers lost 10 to 15 lbs!

The 48 Lambs: gained significantly less than they did the 16 days before they were turned into the Silvopasture:

Gain between 4/28/15 & 5/14/15 (16 days) = 465.5 lbs. an average of .61 lbs of gain per day before being in the silvopasture.
Gain between 5/14/15 & 5/30/15 (16 days) = 209.1 lbs. an average of .27 lbs of gain per day
Weight gain difference = -256.4 lbs.

While these weight losses were very disappointing, they showed how dramatically different pastures can be. Grass fed will not produce healthy animals and poultry if the soil is not built up properly. The main part of our farm, where the lambs gained the most, probably had the same quality of grass as the silvopasture eight years ago when we first moved here. We applied some principles that we learned from Carey Reams and some that we had developed on our own from some of his teachings and it made a dramatic improvement in the pastures. The main concept is that at least 80% of a plant’s nutritional food/energy comes from the air. By building up the soil and foliar feeding the plants with milk and honey, we were able to increase the amount that the plants were able to take out of the air. One of the main things that we did was to repeatedly mow our pastures and let the grass lay on the ground. We have explained this in some of our other articles.

I also need to add that there were also a few other things that likely contributed to the weight loss – over maturity of some of the grasses and grazing too long for the quality of the forage.

What was significant was that on the main part of our farm, the pasture alone, with no grain feeding, produced a weight gain of .61 pounds per day in the 16 days before the lambs went onto the silvopasture. That is exceptional for grassfed only and comparable to grain feeding.

Mike Neary, Ph.D., Extension Sheep Specialist at Purdue University says this about lambs in the 45 – 80 lb range, which was the size of most of the lambs that we put on the silvopasture: “Lambs with high to moderate growth potential that are fed a grain based diet with proper amounts of protein should gain from .5 to .8 pounds per day…
“If lambs are grown on high levels of forage [pasture], then one can expect slower gains than if fed diets with a high amount of grain. Gains for lambs grown on pasture will normally be from .25 to .5 pounds per day.” http://ag.ansc.purdue.edu/sheep/articles/feedlamb.html

During the 16 days in the silvopasture, the lambs averaged .27 lbs of gain per day which is at the bottom end of what Neary said is the expected gain for lambs on pasture. However, the results were actually worse than that. During the time that the sheep were in the Silvopasture, it appears that from the amount of weight that the lactating ewes lost, they gave the fat off their backs to their lambs and that is why the lambs gained and did not lose weight like their mothers.

Last week we weighed a few of the ewes and lambs when we were sorting out the lambs to take to the butcher. We were encouraged that they were gaining weight again. Those lambs had gained about .67 lbs a day in nine days. We do not have the data yet for all the lambs.

The lesson in all of this is that all pastures are not the same and will not give the same health qualities to the eggs, meat and milk that they produce. The same is true of fruits and vegetables in the store. They may look beautiful, but be lacking in the nutrition to adequately sustain life.

Sheep grazing what appeared to be very lush forage in the silvopasture demonstration plot.
Sheep grazing what appeared to be very lush forage in the silvopasture demonstration plot.

The soil in the 8 acres in the silvopasture is about as chemical free as it will get. It has been probably at least 20 years since it had any chemicals or chemical fertilizers put on it. It also had not had any animals on it or any farming activity for at least 10 years before the silvopasture was established; therefore, it did not have the immediate negative affects of chemicals or bad farming practices. The forage specialists had recommended the grasses and legumes to plant to reduce the amount of tall fescue grass that was in the pasture. Tall fescue has a toxin in it that negatively affects sheep and cattle. Those grasses and legumes had been planted and looked beautiful as you can see in the picture.

In spite of the problems, I am looking forward to what we will be able to accomplish in the silvopasture. I feel that we have a solution, by repeatedly mowing the silvopasture to build up the soil. We also will be spraying milk, honey, and egg as a foliar spray to increase the photosynthesis and brix (sugar) of the pasture grasses and legumes. In the next three years, I believe that we will see a very significant improvement in the pasture growth and nutrition in the silvopasture, and a significant growth increase in the trees over the trees planted in the adjacent fields.

For me, the silvopasture gave me a reference point that showed that we had indeed improved our pastures from when we first moved to this farm.

Meet Your Farmers

Each of the next number of months we will tell you a little bit about two members of our family and their role on the farm, their interests, and the talents that they contribute. This month we will introduce the two people that you will likely meet when you come to the farm to pick up chickens or if you call on the phone.

Cathy

Cathy grew up near Hutchinson, Kansas. Her father was a dwarf and passed away from skin cancer when she was 20. She also had a severely mentally handicapped brother and sister who have also passed away. The challenges of helping care for her handicapped brother, developed character and strength in her.

We met in Bible college while we were singing on the college chorale on a 12,000 mile tour through the US and Canada. Cathy is a talented musician and can sing soprano, alto, and tenor. Her favorite instrument is the piano/keyboard, but she can also play the guitar, accordion, and autoharp.

Cathy with her beloved cookbooks.

It is said that an army marches on its stomach (its food). In the same way on our farm, we do our farm work on our stomachs. Good nutrition is important to Cathy and she keeps us well fed with a wide variety of foods and ways of preparing them. She likes to garden, not for gardening’s sake, but to produce the most nutritious food for her family that she can. Cathy cooks almost exclusively from scratch using whole foods from our garden and farm, with only a small part being purchased. Bread, cookies, and other baked goods are made from whole wheat that she freshly grinds into flour just before making the item. Cathy and the girls can or freeze over 1,000 quarts of fruits and vegetables each summer.

If you have a question about how to prepare chicken, turkey or lamb, she is the one to ask. She loves to talk about cooking and also loves to hear about good ways of preparing and seasoning food that you have found. She loves it when people stop by between chicken processing dates to purchase products and chat. Cathy also has a strong interest in heath and how to help people to be healthy.

Kara

Kara is our oldest daughter and is 20 years old. She works full time on the farm as cook and gardener. She also helps with chicken processing, and processing eggs. Kara enjoys gardening and is in charge of our greenhouse where she raises plants for our gardens and flower beds.

Kara, like her mom, is a good cook. The guys say that they can’t tell a difference between her cooking and her mom’s. So if you have cooking questions, she can probably answer them too.

She enjoys singing and can sing soprano and alto. Kara also plays the flute.

Kara also has an interest in health and herbal healing. This past winter she completed a herbal healing course from Dr. John Christopher’s School of Natural Healing and is certified as a Family Herbalist. Kara is the one who makes the Everyday Miracles Salve that has been so helpful to us.

Life on the Farm In Pictures


Sheep shearing several weeks ago. The sheep were getting hot with their three or four inch thick wool coats still on.


New kittens and their mother on the porch of Melody’s log cabin playhouse.


Sheep grazing in the silvopasture demonstration plot.

What is the Difference?

Jehovah-Jireh Farm Chicken Grocery Store Free-range Organic Chicken
True free-range, pasture raised Large confinement factory farm chicken house with limited or no access to the out of doors.
Fed fresh ground organic feed with added vitamins Fed organic feed
Practically no ammonia smell in shelter Lots of ammonia vapor in the chicken house
Normal day lighting Artificial lighting 23 hours a day
Small groups (350 or less) Huge groups (10,000 or more
Low stress in small groups High stress in large groups
Clean air Air hazy with manure particles and ammonia
Fresh air and sunshine Limited or no access to sunshine
Plenty of exercise Limited exercise
Fresh daily salad bar (pasture) Basically no greens
Promotes family farming Promotes large corporations
Rural revitalization Promotes urban expansion
Consumer/producer relationship Consumer/producer alienation
Environmentally friendly Same environmental impact as conventional confinement chicken houses

The difference between the two is much more than the “free-range” grocery store label implies. The “free-range” organic grocery store chicken is not much different from conventional chicken, except it receives organic feed and does not receive antibiotics, or arsenic (fed as a growth stimulator!). A door may be open to let a few chickens out to scratch in the dirt.

Meat is much more than a combination of nutrients that we eat. All meat is not the same. We have been conditioned to believe that all meat is the same and that the main difference is the price. That is not true. Even though the nutrients in a downed cow and the nutrients in a healthy beef may analyze in the lab basically the same, the true nutrition is NOT the same! The same is true in the way chickens are raised. Just as we need sunshine, sunshine is important for chickens too. Just as fresh green vegetables are important in our diet, so fresh green vegetables (grass, clover, etc.) are important in a chicken’s diet. It is important that we get exercise to be healthy. So it is important that the meat we eat had the proper amount of exercise to be healthy as well. It is important that we get plenty of fresh air. In the same way it is important that the chicken meat we eat was not raised in an environment where the air was hazy with with manure dust and ammonia. We are what we eat. The way that the meat we eat was raised is important. It has an effect on our bodies. That is why we, at Jehovah-Jireh Farm, go to the extra work to produce a product that is raised in the best way possible.

The Frederick News Post had an article this week about reduction of antibiotic use in food animals. Our farm was one of the featured farms. You might find it interesting. http://www.fredericknewspost.com/news/economy_and_business/agriculture/concern-for-proper-antibiotics-usage-in-food-animals-prompts-groups/article_3d4a1279-938c-5488-a6a6-562e1b55e992.html

Farm Red Cross


When you are up to your eyeballs in work is often when disaster strikes. We were in the middle of processing dog food when we received a call from Phil Freeman at House in the Woods Farm, about three miles from us. The wind had ripped the plastic off of their greenhouse, and he wondered if we could help him put new plastic on. From one end of the 100′ greenhouse to the other were rows of flats of very young seedlings. These seedlings represented most of the income for their farm for the entire year. We went over that evening and helped Phil remove the rest of the old plastic and get ready to put the new plastic on. But it was too windy to put the plastic on the 28’x100′ greenhouse, but fortunately it was warm. The next morning the wind had died down some so we went over and worked in the rain and got the greenhouse covered. The plants were saved! In this picture you can see all the human “paper weights” keeping the plastic from blowing off again before it could be fastened down.


We were all very happy when the plastic was on. And you know, even with the emergency, we were able to get all our work done at home. The dog food even got packaged quicker than normal!
http://www.houseinthewoods.com/index.html

Time to Put Eggs Back on the Menu

The nation’s top nutrition advisory panel has decided to drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food after many years of warning people not to eat high cholesterol foods. It has been discovered that for healthy adults, eating high cholesterol foods does not significantly increase the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease. This is something that has been known for a number of years, but has just now been acknowledged by the government. (Why didn’t scientists and doctors know that dietary cholesterol didn’t significantly increase blood cholesterol years ago?)

So now you can eat your Jehovah-Jireh pasture-raised eggs without any guilt. We do recommend that you do not eat an excessive amount of eggs at one time – definitely not more than one dozen eggs at one time. I say that in jest, eggs naturally tell you to stop eating after you have eaten several eggs. They are not like some foods where you want to keep on eating.

To read more about the amazing reversal in scientific opinion on dietary cholesterol, you can check out this Washington Post article.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/10/feds-poised-to-withdraw-longstanding-warnings-about-dietary-cholesterol/

All of this makes me wonder how many other “scientifically” proven “facts” are error, and we will look back years from now with amazement of how naive and unscientific we were.