What Gives Our Chicken and Turkey Meats Superior Flavor

We hear many compliments about our chicken and turkey meats. But the one that we hear the most is how good they taste. We all know that chickens and turkeys raised on pasture taste better than conventionally raised poultry raised in large chicken houses. The grass and other plants in the pasture are an important part of the flavor, but it was not until this past month that I found out something else that we are doing that significantly contributes to the flavor and health benefits of our chicken that is different than most other pasture-raised chickens.

Last month, Cathy and I and some of our children had the privilege of attending the Mother Earth News Fair at the Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. One of the seminars that I attended was given by a professional butcher who understood the importance of grassfed meats and the science behind it. One of the things that he said was that muscles that have more activity are the meats that have the most flavor. Muscles that have had very little activity, such as beef tenderloin, are the most tender but also have the least amount of flavor.

He said that fat is what gives meat flavor. Muscles that are exercised more have small amounts of fat dispersed throughout the meat because the muscles need the fat stores for energy as they work. It is those small deposits of fat that gives those meats more flavor. Here in America, people have prized tender meats over flavorful meat. Tender meats are achieved by confinement rearing that limits the exercise of the animal or poultry. The result is that conventionally produced chicken, beef and other meats are usually lacking in flavor.

The thing that we are doing that is different than most pastured poultry producers that we allow our chickens to run. Most pastured poultry producers use the “Salatin pull pen” or “chicken tractor” method. It is a method in which 50 to 75 chickens are placed in a small 10 foot by 12 foot bottomless pen on pasture. The chickens probably get less exercise than what chickens do that are raised in large chicken houses because they are limited by the small confining space. I say that from my observations from working on a large confinement poultry operation when I was in college and from when we tried the “pull pen” method. In the large chicken houses, because they are not confined to a small 10′ by 12′ area, the meat birds can move about more.

Not only does the exercise give our chickens more flavor, but the fat that gives it flavor is a good fat. The fat is in a meat that has been able to get omega-3’s from the grass and store those omega-3’s in the fat. The exercise gives the chicken meat a more firm texture, but it is still tender and a good eating experience.

One of the keys to flavorful meats is animals that have been able to get plenty of exercise. In buying meat, ask the farmer how they raise the meat. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend among grassfed producers to move toward confinement on pasture such as mob grazing of beef. In mob grazing, a large number of animals are confined in a small paddock, such as 1/4 acre, on the pasture until all the grass is eaten or trampled into the ground. They are then moved to another small paddock. The cattle are moved three or more times a day, but they are confined in a small space 24/7. Mob grazing is supposed to do great things for the soil, but in my opinion, it is not humane to the animals.

Mob grazing 1000 head of cattle. There is approximately 1.2 million pounds of weight in cattle grazing this strip. http://mobgrazing.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html
Not all mob grazing is this intensive but the animals do have to be bunched in a “mob” with the equivalent of  200,000 plus pounds of animals per acre so that they consume most of the grass in a short period of time.

The Importance of Recycling Energy, Part 1: The answer to feeding a growing world population

What you are about to read is a different perspective than what you normally hear about our use of fossil fuels. We have within our reach the ability to solve many of the environmental problems that we face today with the use of “non-renewable” energy sources — crude oil, natural gas, and coal. We get the impression from many scientists that our use of fossil fuels that we are removing from the earth is polluting our environment with unnatural toxins that should not be there and that we are creating a big environmental problem with greenhouse gases. But their field of view is too narrow and pessimistic. We have the opportunity of recycling fossil fuel energy back to it original form. In the process, not only can we solve many of these environmental problems, but we can significantly increase food production to feed a growing world population using organic methods. Chemical farming and GMO’s are not the answer for increasing food production to feed the world.

To see the solution, it is necessary to see the bigger picture of what fossil fuel energy really is and how it can be recycled. Fossil fuels are formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that were buried many years ago. In Pennsylvania, layers of coal can range from a few inches to 10 or 12 feet thick. To make coal or oil, plant and animal matter is highly compressed. Now try to imagine how many plants it would take to make a layer of coal that was only one foot thick.  What those layers of coal and oil tell us is that many years ago the soil was highly productive and produced vast amounts of vegetation that in some locations was likely much greater than anything we have seen in modern times.

In physics, The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change form. Energy is said to be conserved over time. In the case of fossil fuels, when they are burned the energy is not destroyed but rather changes form. A significant portion becomes carbon dioxide. But before we go further, we need to back up and look at where fossil fuels came from in the first place and look at the carbon cycle. First,  in very ancient times there was very fertile topsoil that was rich in carbon. That very fertile soil produced vast amounts of plant matter. The plant matter was buried and over many years was converted into fossil fuels. Today, fossil fuels are being removed from the earth and burned and vast amounts of carbon dioxide are being put into the air. What we need to do is to capture that ancient topsoil that is now floating in the air as carbon dioxide and put it back into our topsoil. If we can accomplish that we have the potential to significantly increase food production.

The bottom line is: gasoline came from topsoil, we burned it in our car and put the “topsoil” in the air. It is interesting that many of the oil rich countries, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, are largely desert countries. Their topsoil is buried way below the surface in the form of oil. (It is interesting to note that the Garden of Eden, with its lush vegetation, would have been in their general area.) They are pumping their topsoil out of the ground as oil and selling their topsoil to us to burn in our cars. We are burning their topsoil and using the energy for transportation. In the process we have put their topsoil into the air where it is polluting the environment. Our responsibility and opportunity now is to recycle the topsoil out of the air and put it back in the topsoil where it belongs.

Why it is important to recycle energy back into our topsoil
Why is it important that we recycle carbon out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil? We have a great opportunity to restore soil productivity back to the way it was right before fossil fuels were formed. The carbon dioxide in the air is an important resource that we need to utilize.

The main difference between topsoil and subsoil is the carbon content in the topsoil. The carbon content is usually referred  to as organic matter. By increasing the carbon content of our soils we can increase the depth of the topsoil and make the soil much more productive. Dr. Carey Reams used to say that if he knew how deep the top soil was, he could tell you what the production would be. Research at Michigan State University indicates that a 1 percent increase in organic matter offers a 12 percent increase in crop production potential. (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1083169.pdf)

Adding carbon to the soil helps make the soil more drought proof. Carbon is like a sponge and can hold about four times its weight in water. Therefore increasing the carbon content of the soil enables the soil to hold water for an extended time after it rains and makes more water available to the plants. High carbon soil can also absorb moisture from the air during times of high humidity, increasing the water available to the plants even though it doesn’t rain.

Carbon in the topsoil makes it more porous so that when it rains the water soaks into the soil and does not run off as quickly. That is important for keeping the water where the plants can use it, but it also is very important in reducing topsoil erosion and flooding. This summer here on the farm we had an inch of rain in less than a half hour. I went to a place where we have often had water running off the pasture in the past. This time there was no run off. The soil had absorbed the entire inch of rain. That was a satisfying result of the work we have done in increasing the soil carbon content of our soils.

Carbon also provides a “hotel” for the microbes and bacteria in the soil. Those microbes and bacteria in the soil are important for making nutrients and minerals available to the plants and converting decayed plant matter into soil carbon.

It is important that we complete the carbon cycle and put the “topsoil” that we burn in our cars back into the soil where it belongs. The real answer to feeding a growing world is in organic farming that sequesters carbon and builds topsoil.

To be continued.

Food Shortage – “It Will NEVER Happen” But if it does, are you ready?

Since I wrote our last newsletter, I attended three different grocery store auctions where the stores closed and they could not find a buyer for the store. The first auction was the grocery store that we went to often when we lived at our old farm before we started eating almost exclusively organic. It was a large store, Selby’s Grocery in Poolesville, Md. I was looking for a large meat grinder for making pet food and I was able to buy it for an incredible price at the second grocery store auction (the store pictured above). One guy accused me of stealing it, it was so cheap.

The prices kept dropping with each auction. By the third grocery store auction, there were only about ten people buying. Most of the freezers, refrigerated cases, and store shelving in that store were sold for scrap because no one had a use for them. Being in a grocery store that couldn’t make it, with only a hand full of bidders, and prices way below where they should have been, had a profound affect on everyone there. It is hard to describe in words.

There are a number of events that are happening that I think are important that we keep in mind as we plan for the rest of the year and the next several years. There is a good possibility that nothing significant will happen and things will continue as they have been. But there also exists a very real possibility of significant food shortages.

One event that could cause a significant food shortage is the drought in California. Statewide, the drought is getting worse. The drought could end at any time, but some scientists are saying that it is likely going to be a prolonged drought. A prolonged drought would have a significant impact on our food supply. According to the California Department of Agriculture website, California produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/
California produces (as a percentage of all US production for each food item):
Almonds 99%
Apricots 88%
Strawberries 91%
Peaches 73%
Plums 97%
Walnuts 99%
Broccoli 65%
Fresh carrots 81%
Cauliflower 86%
Lettuce 75%
Processing tomatoes 96%
Plus significant quantities of other fruits and vegetables.

Another thing that could cause food shortages is high inflation. Massive amounts of money have been created in recent years without much apparent inflation. Exporting money out of our country has helped keep inflation down. The US dollar is the world reserve currency and it is used by many countries to to buy and sell with other countries. However, in the last month or so, Russia, China, India, France, and others have agreed together to stop using the US dollar for trading between their countries. A significant part of the world ceasing to use the US dollar for trade has the potential to cause higher inflation (not necessarily hyperinflation) here in our country.

High inflation often results in the government imposing price controls on certain items such as food to keep prices from rising. What usually happens then is that those items disappear from store shelves because they cost more to produce than what they can sell for. Just last month, this very thing happened in Panama, which uses the US dollar for their currency. The Panama Post reported July 21:
“During the last couple of weeks, Panama — with expected annual economic growth of 7 percent this year — has faced what hardline socialist nations such as Cuba and Venezuela experience every day: food shortages. As many experts warned, and only 15 days after newly elected President Juan Carlos Varela announced the price-control law, the empty shelves are everywhere.” http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/07/21/econ-101-for-panama-new-price-controls-bring-rampant-shortages/

Food shortages can also occur when there is high inflation, even if there are not price controls. Items with a very low profit margin such as rice, eggs, chicken, produce, and other basic food items tend to disappear from the stores because there is not enough profit margin to cover the losses from inflation. Costs continue to rise for the producer or manufacturer.

Another event that could cause significant food shortages is Walmart going out of business. The first thought of many is that Walmart will never go out of business. But if we have high inflation, it could potentially put Walmart under. Walmart has put many smaller grocery stores out of business in recent years, such as Selby’s Grocery in Poolesville, as they have expanded their grocery departments. Grocery sales now amount for 55% of all of Walmart’s sales. Forbes magazine reports that Walmart now has 25% of the US grocery store sales. http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2013/05/20/wal-mart-cleans-up-on-poor-america-with-25-of-u-s-grocery-sales/

Walmart’s business model has worked very well for them during periods of low inflation and low interest rates. However, Walmart is currently facing a difficult retail environment. Their same store sales have declined in each of the last five quarters. Their CEO recently stepped down and a new CEO was appointed. Walmart does not have much inventory in warehouses, but buys most of their products just as they need them. Their trucks on the road making deliveries are a significant part of their “warehouse” inventory. Low inventory, coupled with very small profit margins, could be a recipe for disaster for Walmart if high inflation and high interest rates occurred. In other countries that had high inflation, many businesses were able to keep going by using their stockpiled inventory as a hedge against inflation.

What should we do to have food if there is a food shortage?
Don’t become a paranoid “prepper” that has a year or more of freeze dried food stashed around the house. But I do think it would be wise to not have the current “Walmart inventory mentality” in which you have less than six days of food on hand and need to run to the grocery store several times a week for food. Having a month or two worth of food on hand would give you a nice cushion. There is a certain satisfaction knowing that you have food on hand at all times and that you don’t have to run to the store to stock up every time they are calling for a snow storm.

A freezer is a good investment. It is a simple, easy way to stock up on food without it going bad. It is also a way to save money even if there is never a food shortage. For example, you could buy larger quantities of chickens from us at a time and only come to the farm several times a year rather than every month. The savings on trips to our farm and to the store could add up quickly. With a freezer you can also save significant amounts of money by buying in larger quantities and stocking up on items when they are on sale or when you find them at a really good price.

Historically, price controls are put on items sold by large corporations. If that were to happen here, knowing local farmers, such as our farm, could also be an important source of food. We will do all we can to be here for you. Hopefully there will NEVER be a food shortage, but if there is, be ready.

International Poultry Producers Expo

In January, Cathy and I (Myron) attended the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a huge event with 28,000 attendees from all around the world. The Poultry Expo was located in two very large buildings and it took us an entire day to look at the exhibits in each building. Most of the expo was geared to the big poultry growers and processors, but not all of it. For us it was a very profitable trip. We were able to find some good products and suppliers as well as other helpful information to be able to provide you with even better eggs and chicken.

After we left to return to our motel, our first day at the Expo, we got caught in the snow storm that paralyzed Atlanta. Fortunately, our side of the highway was not blocked and we were able to make it back to the motel. At 9:00 pm there were still 99 school buses stuck in traffic. Some school children spent the entire night on their school buses! The second day we were not able to attend the Expo because the highway was still blocked with tractor trailers.

The International Poultry Expo, Atlanta, Georgia

This is a cage system for laying hens. Each cage is divided into about 4 cages which hold about 4 or 5 hens. This cage system is only four levels high.

This was a picture at the Expo showing the cage layer system with hens in it. It is how most grocery store, restaurant, and fast food eggs are produced. These cages are stacked five high. Each cage is only wide enough for 4 hens to be side by side. This is the way most hens live their entire life and shows part of the reason why we feel it is so important to provide our hens with a better living environment. As I look at this picture some of the descriptions that come to my mind are: “jail birds”, prison labor, and mechanical egg laying machines, as well as inhumane, heartless, and greedy.

The organic and pasture based farming movements are making an impact on society, and the big pharmaceutical companies are getting concerned. Two large poultry and animal pharmaceutical supply companies have launched a campaign to combat our influence with this fancy, expensive tractor trailer rig that they had at the Expo. Inside is a theater where they show movies knocking organic and pasture based farming, claiming that in order to feed the world we must use large confinement animal facilities (and of course their drugs and antibiotics).

Read the egg label carefully. It is not misspelled. We saw these eggs at a booth promoting pasteurizing eggs (similar to pasteurizing milk). Egg companies know that consumers want eggs that come from chickens on grass, not from chickens stuffed in small cages. They often design their egg cartons, like this one, in a deceptive way to give the impression that their chickens are happy hens that roam in the outdoors on grass.

We Have Sequestered 162 Tons of Carbon!

In the first seven years here on our farm, we have sequestered over 325,500 lbs of Soil Organic Carbon on 35 acres. We have sequestered as much carbon as the yearly CO2 output from approximately 146 cars. That was accomplished by increasing the soil organic matter on most of the farmland by almost one percentage point. That is without spreading organic matter or fertilizers other than lime. The only manure was the droppings from chickens when they are on the pasture and from the sheep and cows while they are grazing.

The method that we used to sequester the carbon was letting the grass grow a foot or more tall and then grazing or mowing the grass and letting it decompose into the soil. This is a method that we discovered as we mowed the grass in the American chestnut orchard located here on the farm and observed the significant increased growth of the grass and the increased growth, vigor, health, and blight resistance of the American chestnut trees. Grasses have approximately the same amount of root mass and depth as the mass and height of grass above the ground. When the grass is mowed from a height of 24″ down to 4″, the roots slough off from a depth of 24″ to approximately 4″. As these roots decompose, they build organic matter in the soil to the depth the roots had been. It is not just organic matter on the surface of the ground from the mowed grass.

The soil tests that we took are just of the top 6″ of soil and do not represent any increase in organic matter below 6″. It would be interesting to test the soil at a greater depth. The soil test from A&L Eastern Labs tested at the end of 2013 shows that the front pasture closest to the road had an organic matter percentage of 4.6%. A soil test from the small parcel of ungrazed fallow grassland adjacent to the road was used as a control to compare with the front pasture soil test since we do not have soil tests before we started managing the farmland. That small parcel of fallow grassland in years past had been part of the front pasture. That area had soil organic matter of 3.8%. 3% organic matter is considered good soil and 1% is not uncommon on cropland. The soil tests show an increase of .8% organic matter in the front pasture.

Our goal is to build enough organic matter in the soil to try to “drought proof” the pastures and to make the soil like a sponge so that there is very little water runoff when there is a heavy rain. Carbon acts like a sponge and holds moisture and other nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous and keeps them from being leached out of the soil into the Bay. The carbon then releases the water and nutrients to the plants as needed.

One method that we have experimented with to increase the carbon content of the grasses was to spray the grass with a mist of a mixture that consisted of water, raw milk from our cows, a little honey, and some eggs. The milk, honey and egg mixture increases the photosynthesis of the leaves and increases the brix/sugar (which is high carbon) content of the grasses about three percentage points. The sugar is transported from the leaves to the roots. In theory, if we can increase the sugar/carbon production in the leaves of the pasture grasses we should be able to increase the amount of carbon that we can sequester in the soil. We want to experiment with this some more. Last year we did not have enough milk.

Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Produce Eggs on Pasture

One hundred years ago, most eggs were produced by true free-range hens on family farms. But as egg production became more mechanized, the chickens were put into confinement chicken houses, with many of them in tiny cages stacked three or four high to get as many hens in a chicken house as possible. In the past 50+ years, much of the knowledge of how to produce eggs on pasture on a larger scale has been lost. In many ways, we feel like we are trying to reinvent the wheel again in regards to pasture-raising chickens because so many of the important little details have been lost. What works for a small family flock of less than 50 hens becomes far too labor intensive when you have 3,000 hens on pasture.

Why would a farm want to have 3,000 hens on pasture? The reason is that in order to have 100% of our income from the farm, and to be able to pay our sons a living wage for working full time on the farm, we have to have enough income. Most small, pasture-based farms receive a majority of their income from off farm sources and are stretched thin making a living off-farm and trying to give adequate care to the farm and animals too. For a farm to try to make a living from only 200 hens would be like a doctor who is a general practitioner only having one or two patients a week,  or a mechanic trying to make a living by changing oil in only two cars a day.

As we looked around at the various methods of raising chickens on pasture, we were not pleased with what we saw. The main promoter of pasture raising eggs, Joel Salatin, recommended the use of moveable hen shelters that one moved on a regular basis to new grass areas. It is a method that makes a good story and that works in the warm months of the year, but when winter comes it is a method that becomes very labor intensive with frozen water hoses and difficult access to the hens through mud and snow. In the wintertime, the pastures quickly get torn up and muddy moving the chickens around. If the hens are kept in one spot the ground gets totally denuded of grass and turns to mud with likely manure runoff and erosion. Salatin’s solution is to move his hens into confinement chicken greenhouses for five or six months during the winter with no outdoor access for the hens. The eggs then are no different than white confinement chicken house grocery store eggs for about half the year. That was not acceptable to us.

To learn how to best raise chickens on pasture we did a lot of research. We visited both the Library of Congress, and the National Agricultural Library several times and researched books and publications that were written in the early 1900’s. Then, taking a blend of old technology and modern technology, we developed, over a number of years, a system that provides a good living environment for the hens, protects the soil and grass from being destroyed, and provides you with a high quality, nutritious,  excellent tasting pasture raised egg.

Our first hen shelter design was the one pictured below. It was stationary. The pasture was divided into six paddocks that radiated out from the shelter. There was a door on each end of the shelter and on each side. Each week we let the hens out a different side of the shelter into a new paddock and let the paddock that they were just in rest for the next five weeks.

This shelter and setup had many problems. The picture was taken the last day we used it. The shelter was too low, and too small for the hens on rainy and cold days. There was not enough space to keep them penned up when it was too muddy for them to be outside. The dark sides encouraged them to lay eggs on the floor. The feed and water were outside. In rain, snow, and the bitter cold, the hens had to go outside to eat and drink. As a result the grass got killed and they tracked lots of mud in and onto the eggs.

We worked with a Soil Conservation consultant, and he helped us design a heavy use area for the hens. We call it the picnic area, and it has wood chips on the ground like a playground. It gives the hens a place to scratch, dust bathe, and dig.  The picnic area is an important management tool that we use help protect the pastures from becoming destroyed and denuded of grass. In the picture above, it is the fenced areas to the left of the shelters. The picnic area is always open for the hens 24 hours a day so that as soon as it starts getting light they can go outside. During the warm months of the year, the hens are let out into the pasture about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and the gate is closed again at dark to protect them from night predators. The hens are confined to the shelter and picnic area any time that it is too muddy and their little feet would trample the grass into the mud. In the winter time when the grass is not growing, the hens are only let out on the pasture for two or three days a week. This protects the pasture, while allowing the hens to have some grass throughout the winter to help keep up the nutrient content of the eggs. Each week we also bring home 10 to 15 big boxes of organic vegetable trimmings from the stores where we sell eggs, and feed the veggies to the hens. This helps them get their greens when they can’t be out on pasture as much. We also significantly increased the size of the shelters to make it more roomy for the hens. We raised the height of the roof to make it easier to work in the shelters and to let the heat rise and escape from the hens on those hot summer days.

This is inside our new hen shelters. The sides are open at floor level so that the hens stay cool in the hot summer months. In the winter, we cover the sides and one end with clear plastic. The light that comes in the sides close to the floor helps to discourage the hens from laying eggs on the floor.

These are our hen shelters in the winter time. Each flock has about two acres of pasture. The small sheds along the lane beside the shelters are the nest houses where the hens lay their eggs. The nest house concept was an idea that we got from a book written in the early 1900’s. The central lane makes it efficient for hauling feed to two shelters at each stop and also for gathering eggs.

We designed geo-thermal waterers for the hens. The blue barrel, with the bottom cut out is buried halfway in the ground. The waterline from the well is buried in the ground to keep it from freezing and it comes up through the bottom of the barrel. The geo-thermal heat from the soil keeps the water in the small two gallon bucket on top from freezing on all but the coldest nights. The most that it freezes is about an inch on top, which we remove in the morning when we check on the hens. These waterers also help to keep the water cooler for the hens on the hot summer days. Also, for those hot summer days we installed fogger nozzles under the peak of the roof to help keep the hens cool.

We developed a predator-resistant fence that has made life a lot simpler because we don’t have to move the fence like the electronet fences have to be moved. The wires of this fence are electrified. It does a good job of keeping out foxes and other predators and keeping the hens in.

This is one of the nest houses that we designed and custom built. In the nests and the trays are blue astroturf nest pads. The hens lay their eggs in the nests and the eggs roll out into the tray. This design helps keep the eggs clean and simplifies egg gathering.

Inside the nest house. The hens access the nest house through a covered ramp from their shelter. The floor is slatted to discourage them from laying eggs on the floor and to make the nest house self cleaning. That is also important to keep the eggs clean.

Our method of raising eggs on pasture is part of what goes into making some of the best tasting pasture raised eggs you can buy. We do not feel like we have “arrived”, but we continue our quest to have the best, most humane, environmentally sensitive method of raising chickens that we can. We also are continuing our quest to produce the most nutritious meats and eggs that we can for your health and ours. As our slogan says, we are: More than a farm — A living laboratory researching the secrets of food, health and life.”

Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Raise Chickens on Pasture

Like most others who raise chickens on pasture, when we first started farming in 2000, we followed Joel Salatin’s method of raising chickens on pasture. The Salatin method of using 10 foot by 12 foot movable pens sounded great, and the description of the chickens getting a fresh salad bar of grass each day and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine were great selling points. But it was not long into that first year that we realized that putting 75 chickens into a 10 foot by 12 foot pen with no floor was not as great or humane as we had been led to believe that it was.

The problems with the Salatin “pull pen” method
Instead of our chickens being in a large commercial confinement chicken house, they were in a small confinement chicken pen. They had much less space to move around than in a big commercial chicken house. It was confinement chicken raising on pasture. Confinement was the very thing we wanted to avoid. The birds only had about an hour after the pen was moved when they could eat fresh green grass. Within an hour, most of the grass became contaminated with chicken manure from the chickens stepping in their wet droppings and walking around on the grass. For the rest of the day the chickens had to lay in their own filth. By the time the pen was moved the next morning there was a mat of manure covering the ground. Not a very humane situation.

Because the chickens were in such tight confinement, they got very little exercise. Therefore, when the pens were moved they did not like to walk very much and it was easy to trap a chicken’s leg under the back of the pen and cripple it. It would then have to be put down because it could not walk properly. That was especially likely to occur when the pens had to be turned around at the end of the pasture.

This was our “pull pen” patterned after the Salatin method our first year of raising broilers. The rope in the front was used to pull the pen forward one pen length to a new clean section of grass – hence the name “pull pen”.

On an ideal warm sunny day, like the one in the picture above, the pull pen looked great sitting in the green pasture. But in the spring and fall when we had cold nights in the 40’s or 50’s and it rained, it was not a very humane situation. The poor chickens had to be on the cold wet ground 24/7. There was no place for them to get off the damp ground. We tried putting down some hay in the pens, but it took a lot of hay and the hay quickly got wet also. We have heard of chickens dying during a rain storm because their pen was in a low spot or a place in the pasture where the water ran through the pen.

On the flip side, when it was hot, the pen turned into an “easy bake oven”. We lost chickens because of heat stress. The pens were too far out in the pasture to run electric for fans.

The pull pens also required a lot more labor than what we had thought they would. So we looked for a better method.

Day Range Method
The next year we tried the Day Range method of raising broiler chickens. The shelter was stationary and had a slatted wood floor to keep the chickens up off the ground. The feed and water were outside on the pasture. We set up an electric fence on one side of the shelter and the chickens had full access to the grass in that paddock. That solved a lot of the problems with the Salatin pull pen method. The grass stayed much cleaner and there was much more fresh clean grass for the chickens to eat. The chickens got a lot more exercise and because of the exercise, it took a week longer for them to get to market weight. They had a floor that kept them up off of the damp cold ground and the higher roof of the shelter allowed the heat to rise away from the birds better on hot days. A number of our customers commented that the chicken meat had a better flavor and texture.

Our Day Range shelter in our early years of raising chickens on pasture.

The Day Range method had its problems too. The raised slatted floor created a breeding ground for flies and we produced an abundance of flies. Sigh!! Chickens wake up just before dawn, which is about 5:00 am in the summer. By the time we opened up their shelter at 7:00 or 8:00 am they were starved and would dash out to the feeders, fill up and then go back into the shelter to rest. They did not eat as much of the pasture as we wanted them to. The mixture of feed and manure around the feeders killed the grass and made bare spots that would last for several months. The bare spots became a problem after a number of batches of chickens had been run through the shelter. I did not feel like I was being a good steward of the soil and the pasture because the grass was being destroyed rather than being built up.

We continued to modify things in the Day Range method over the next number of years until we developed the method that we use now which we call the Jehovah-Jireh Method.

The Jehovah-Jireh Method – Let Them Run
“Jehovah-Jireh” means “The Lord will provide”. Over and over, we ask God to teach us how to farm and to give us answers to our problems. The method that we now use is one of those answers. We feel it is a much better and more humane method of raising chickens on pasture than anything else that we have seen or tried.

The shelters are large, airy, and stationary. The sides are open on all four sides. The roof has an 11 foot high peak that allows the heat in the summer to rise and escape away from the chickens. We also installed fogger nozzles on the shelters to provide a cooling mist on those really hot days. In the early spring and late fall, if it is cold and windy, we close up one end and a side of the shelter to provide a windbreak.

The floor is a bedding pack of wood chips. When the wood chips become contaminated with manure, we rototill the manure into the bedding pack and bring up drier bedding. Periodically we also add more wood chips to keep the bedding dry. It solved our fly problem. The manure and wood chips in the lower layers of the bedding pack decompose into compost which we apply to our gardens.

The feed and water are kept inside the shelters. Now, when the chickens wake up at 5:00am, they can have their breakfast right away. Then when the doors on the shelter are opened a little later in the morning, they are more ready to roam around and eat grass and look for bugs. The grass in the broiler pasture has been steadily improving in quality and is now the best pasture on the farm. We can see that difference in quality when we put the cows in that pasture. They always give more milk. The chickens now have access to a lot of fresh clean grass, even at the end of the summer.

The broiler chicken shelters in our current setup.

The broiler chickens on fresh, clean pasture.

We continue our quest to have the best, most humane, environmentally sensitive method of raising chickens that we can. At the same time, we also are continuing our quest to produce the most nutritious meats and eggs that we can for your health and ours.