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Navigating pastured poultry challenges

posted on

December 6, 2023

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If you’ve followed us for long, you know that we’ve been working through significant challenges that have threatened our ability to continue offering chicken to our customers.

That said, we’re not giving up; instead, we plan to double down our efforts with significant investments and new collaborations for 2024 and beyond.

This blog post is longer than usual, but because trust and transparency are a high priority to us, I invite you to read along to stay informed.

Before diving into the updates, let me first explain the gravity of the challenges that small-scale pastured poultry farmers are up against.

The 3 biggest challenges facing small-scale poultry

Challenge #1: Lack of processing

Compared to beef and pork, our ability to access USDA processing capabilities for poultry is extremely limited and costly. You see, the chicken industry has built multi-million dollar processing plants utilizing robots and automation to the point they are easily 10-20 times more efficient than small plants. As you can guess, these plants are “locked up” by the big guys. This pretty much has put a monopoly on poultry processing in the U.S.

Not to mention the picture below shows the scale and level of automation that we compete against for efficiencies:

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Photo credit: The Washington Post

According to Reuters, in the past three years, Tyson Foods has invested over $1.3 billion in automated processing equipment, allowing them to harvest over 100,000 birds per day in a single facility. Compare that to our small-scale processor that processes less than an average of 1,500 birds per day. This becomes very difficult to compete with and is a significant factor that drives our prices higher than store-bought chicken.

Challenge #2: High labor needs

I won't belabor this point (no pun intended😉) raising birds on pasture requires an exorbitant amount of manual labor cost. I would estimate our labor requirements to be 10-12 times higher compared to traditional poultry farms. In today’s labor market, finding the help we need on the farm has become increasingly difficult, as our family can only provide so much labor.

To make matters worse, all this labor is only needed during the summer, resulting in winter layoff periods and having to hire and re-train new staff the following year. Providing steady pay and work throughout the year is a major conundrum for pasture-based poultry farmers. This leads me to my next point.

Challenge #3: Seasonality

Since we’re located in the northern part of the country, we have cooler weather for six months of the year, with snow and temperatures dropping below freezing at times.

In the past, this has meant that for us to be able to sell poultry during the winter, we must raise and store double the amount of chicken during the summer.

Storing up chicken in the summer to sell later in the year means that the chicken itself ends up older than we'd prefer by the time it reaches our customers and requires a lot of expensive freezer space and energy costs. Not to mention, this leads to unmanageable cash flow challenges for us.

Many farmers attempt to extend their production window by raising birds earlier in the spring and later into the fall, but the cold conditions lead to a high bird mortality rate. That's just not something we'll consider doing.

We’ve considered raising and selling chicken only in the summer, which would only exacerbate our struggles with seasonal labor and processing inconsistencies.

Pastured poultry farms are closing their doors

All these issues I’ve discussed above are compounding to the point that they threaten our ability to continue offering chicken to our customers.

Just in the last few years, I’ve witnessed several well-established poultry farms give up after over a decade-long attempt to make it work.

I also see many of my fellow farms struggling with thin margins because they are absorbing all the cost on themselves, thus crippling their ability to make a meaningful long-term impact. Other farms forward the high cost and inefficiencies to their customers, resulting in prices that few customers can or are willing to absorb.

To be honest, we’ve considered giving up as well.

But, the fact remains that the demand for poultry continues to outpace that of all other proteins, and I believe consumers deserve better choices. That’s why we’re marching forward!

Moving Forward Through Collaboration

I’m convinced that the path forward must be collaborative, which finally leads me to the solutions and changes we have in the works:

Solution #1: Collaboration for Labor

In addition to raising ethical chicken on our farm next year, we’ve also invested over $170,000 to help three other farms in our area begin raising poultry on their farms. Our investments have helped provide our partners with equipment and startup funds, while each of our partnering farms will provide the much-needed labor to care for the birds. 

We’re locking arms with these fellow family farms to raise birds on pasture during the growing season when temperatures are warm enough for birds to live outside comfortably.

The pictures below show the mobile coops that we purchased for these farms that allow the birds to be moved for fresh pasture daily:

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Solution #2: Collaboration for processing

We’ve seriously contemplated building our own inspected poultry processing facility on our farm for years. While we’re not ruling this out completely, we are opting to support another family farm that has already made this commitment.

The King family (pictured below), located in the neighboring state of Ohio, has operated their own small-scale USDA poultry processing facility for over a decade. My hat goes off to this family for their commitment to serving small-scale poultry farms in our area.

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Their job is not easy, and our goal is to support their efforts by helping them establish better economies of scale over time. Next year alone, we aim to collaborate with Kings to harvest and process 70,000+ of our pasture-raised birds.

Solution 3: Collaboration for winter production

Moving forward, we will continue raising birds outside with daily pasture movements for as long as the weather allows each season. As the cold northern weather approaches, we plan to adjust our production approaches to accommodate raising birds in the winter as well. This is exactly what we do for all the livestock on our farm.

For example, our cattle are relocated to woodlands for wind protection, receiving winter hay. Our pigs are raised with access to warm water and shelter over their heads. Our laying hens move indoors with outdoor access, weather permitting.

Moving forward, our meat birds will also be raised in warm, protective poultry houses during the harsh winters. Starting in January of 2024, we plan to partner with Corwin Heatwole and the farmers at Shenandoah Valley Organics to source ethically raised chicken for our customers during the winter.

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Above: Corwin Heatwole & family at their farm near Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

Corwin and his partnering farms have always raised chickens ethically inside protective houses, giving birds more space and access to pasture than organic standards require. I believe this is exactly how birds should be raised during the winter in cold climates. We know this because this is the same approach we’ve always taken with our laying hens each winter, and it has proven to work well and provide a wonderful product.

I’ve personally traveled and visited with the people and farmers at Shenandoah Valley Organics, and I was encouraged by how open and transparent they operate.

Our winter birds will be raised with the same protocols that we’ve always adhered to when raising our hens in winter houses:

  • Always non-GMO feed
  • Antibiotic, drug-free
  • No added hormones 
  • Access to pasture (as weather allows)

I’ve shared a few snapshots I took while touring their operation earlier in December with my brother Brandt.

These pictures demonstrate the winter housing environment at one of the producer farms we visited.

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This indoor environment above is very similar to how we accommodate our laying hens on our farm in the winter. This is also a Certified Organic production system, but several differences go above and beyond organic requirements: 

  • Even though this particular barn was on the larger side, I was glad to see that the space was divided into smaller subgroups to keep stress and flock competition low.
  •  The birds were also given 10-15% more space beyond what organic certification requires.
  • Opposed to conventional barns, you will also notice generous amounts of natural sunlight that shines in throughout the cold winter days. 
  • As an added perk, the doors open on warm winter days so birds can access the pasture.

While this is a great winter setup, it makes me appreciate it when spring rolls around each year when our animals can enjoy being out on fresh grass.

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Lastly, here we are at the same producer's farm, standing in a field of warm-season Miscanthus grass. This special perennial grass is grown and harvested annually to provide a regenerative source of bedding for the chickens.

While we will continue raising birds on pasture during the summer, I’m thankful to say we will continue to have a consistent source of ethically raised chicken all winter long. As discussed above, this new partnership will be critical to solving our seasonal production challenges.

To learn more about how both our summer and winter chickens are raised, I’ve created an entire page you can view at any time here.

How to Buy Summer Chicken Only

In a perfect world, we'd love only to raise poultry during the warm months, but we understand that consumers need a source of healthy, ethical chicken all year. 

That said, we appreciate our customers who desire to consume food seasonally. If you are willing and able to stock your freezers with a seasonal supply of summer-raised chicken to last your household all year - you can do so in the following ways:

  1. Fill your freezer now
    From now until Jan 31st (or while supply lasts), you can stock up and fill your freezer here with our summer-raised chicken.
  2. Stock up each summer
    Moving forward, you can stock up on summer chicken during our planned 2024 Summer Chicken Harvest sale. This event will celebrate the debut of our pasture-raised chicken each season and will ensure you are getting the freshest chicken of the year. Please stay tuned to our Sunday farm newsletter to join the wait list for that event.
  3. Purchase Whole Birds
    You may purchase Pasture-Raised Whole Chickens year-round, as we plan to store enough summer-raised whole birds to last all winter. We can do this because very few consumers purchase whole birds these days, so this doesn’t impose a significant freezer space or inventory expense for us.

Moving Forward With Transparency

Because we are committed to transparency and accuracy when presenting our products to consumers, moving forward, we will refer to our chicken as “Ethically-Raised.”

In northern climates, birds can only be “Pasture-Raised” during the growing season, so we feel “Ethically-Raised” better reflects our efforts to continue to raise birds on pasture as long as we can while allowing them to live in warm barns during the winter.

Instead of giving up on raising chicken, we’re doubling down with new investments while keeping an open mind and moving forward with collaboration and transparency.

Solving the complex problems plaguing the poultry industry will require incremental improvements over time. We are committed to taking incremental steps forward and supporting innovations in the pasture-based poultry movement for decades.

We value your continued support and willingness to help us solve the many unrelenting challenges in our farming and food system.

As always, you can contact me and our team with questions anytime.

Thank you for your continued support!

Your farmer,

- Blaine Hitzfield (the 2nd son)

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