Poultry Processing Inspection and Certificate

Our chicken and turkey processing facility has been inspected by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and we have received certification. We are now certified to sell our poultry at other locations other than our farm, including stores. While this inspection is not required for on farm sales of poultry, it gives you a level of confidence that the chicken and turkey that you purchase has been processed in a facility that has been inspected and has been processed in a sanitary and approved manner.

We did some investigation into having drop off points for the chickens or to sell our chicken in some of the Maryland MOM’s stores. We did not get much interest in the drop off points and so at this point we will not be pursuing that. After talking things over as a family, we decided not to pursue selling chickens in the stores at this point. It would mean significantly increasing production and processing chickens every week. None of us enjoy processing chickens enough to do it every week and the wholesale price would also reduce our profit margin. We are open to any suggestions you may have.

Eating on the Road

One of the difficulties we face, once we start eating good food, is what to do when we leave the comfort of our homes and don’t have access to our kitchens. After you hear about the effects of eating “store-bought” food and find yourself not feeling good when you eat out, McDonald’s just doesn’t seem so attractive anymore!

Last March, I took a trip out to Chicago for a health seminar. I had recently found out about the effects of glyphosate, and the prospect of eating low-quality food for a whole weekend did not appeal to me. I was flying, so I couldn’t take a cooler. I decided to try to pack four days’ worth of food in my suitcase and make all my own meals! Here’s what I took:

Grilled chicken breasts
Breaded beef sandwich steaks
1 dozen hardboiled eggs
Two heads of lettuce
A six-pack of yogurt
Two loaves of homemade bread
Sliced cheese
1 lb Heavenly Honey
Peanut butter
Homemade cookies
Small brown paper bags

You may be amazed that I was able to pack all that in my suitcase and still have room for my clothes. As I list it out here, I am amazed as well! After packing everything I wanted to take, I set the suitcase on the bathroom scales. It weighed 49 pounds–almost over the limit! I took out a few items and got the weight down to 47.5 pounds. Ready to go!

My room at the hotel had a small fridge, so when I arrived, I put the perishable items in the fridge and walked down the street to the nearby Jewel grocery store. I was happy to find that they had a selection of organic food–I wouldn’t have had to pack so much! Oh, well. I bought a bag of baby carrots, a bag of tortilla chips, and some distilled water. I was all set.

Yogurt made an excellent breakfast, along with a hardboiled egg and whatever else I decided to throw in–maybe a peanut butter and honey sandwich. After breakfast, I would spread out my sandwich fixings on the vanity and prepare lunch, which I took along to class.

Back in the hotel in the evening, I made supper. This could be another sandwich, or a salad with chicken breast if I so preferred.

This worked out well for me. I had nutritious, organic food, much of which was homemade. I didn’t have the luxury of hot meals, but that was a small price to pay for eating real food!

Six months later, Dad took us guys on a Dad-and-the-boys trip to Colonial Williamsburg. This time, we were only gone for two days, and we drove to Williamsburg, so we were able to take a cooler and an electric skillet. We had cereal for breakfast, made sandwiches for lunch, and heated up food in the skillet for supper. It worked very well. The hardest part was washing up the skillet in the bathroom sink!

For an extended trip, one strategy is to find health food stores along your route, and “re-stock” as necessary. You may not even need to take much along. You may also be able to find some healthy restaurants to eat at as well.

You don’t have to resort to eating “garbage” whenever you take a trip. With a little planning, preparation and extra baggage, you can eat nutritious food wherever you go.

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.

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.

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.

Pulled Chicken

This recipe is a form of BBQ chicken, but has a unique flavor because of the orange juice and lots of cayenne pepper sauce. Yes, 1/3 cup is the right amount of hot sauce. Cayenne pepper sauce is a milder variety of hot sauce that adds tang and flavor, not just heat. If your chicken is large, just double the amount of sauce you prepare. This recipe is delicious served with mashed potatoes.

2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green pepper, chopped
1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), cut into quarters
1/3 cup cayenne pepper sauce*
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

In a 5-quart Dutch oven or sauce pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and green pepper and cook until tender and browned, about 20 minutes. When vegetables are tender, add chicken quarters, cayenne pepper sauce, orange juice, brown sugar, ketchup, and vinegar. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 1 hour or until chicken is very tender.

With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken to large plate, cool slightly. Skim fat from sauce in Dutch oven. Remove meat from bones; discard bones and skin. With two forks, pull meat into large shreds. Return meat to Dutch oven. Cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat until heated through.

From Good Housekeeping Best Chicken Dishes.