January 2017 Newsletter
What's Going On at the Farm
For January 2017
Hopefully everyone had an enjoyable and safe Holiday season. Like most of us, I'm sure your excited in November and over it by New Years. Seems we all stay so busy that its hard to enjoy the Holidays like we all should. Christmas has become so commercialized that we totally overlook what the true meaning is. Christmas at the farm was special this year with both Elijah and Emily at the age where they could enjoy Santa and all that goes with it; Christmas cartons, lights, and Christmas stories. Next year the house will be full with Elijah, Emily, Andrew who will be 2, and Joey that is due in February; we have several fun years ahead.
The adults around here stayed busy during December. Besides the normal daily chores, deliveries, and markets, a good deal of time was spent looking at the overall farm operation and looking for areas that could be improved. As mentioned several times in the past, dependable labor has been an issue for years. Though we have 3 good FFA student helpers now, they all graduate in May and will head off for college. We don't want to repeat some of the problems we have had in the past and decided now is the time to make a change.
With Annie and I getting older and working at transitioning the farm to Jesse and Amy, it is important that the farm continue to grow. Both Jesse and Amy have contributed greatly to the farm during their first year farming with us and have some good ideas for their vision of the farm several years down the road. We are very pleased with their optimistic outlook and their desire to keep the farm going for years too come. Their only complaint, as has been ours, is the lack of personal and family time. We decided that this issue would be item number one that we would address during our yearly planning meeting.
Chickens have always been the biggest consumer of labor on the farm. Everyday 4 hours is spent in the morning feeding the chickens in the brooders and in the field. In the afternoon, the high school helpers come out, help move houses, and make sure all feeders have enough feed to get the birds through the night; this is another 4 hours for both of the girls. Added up, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week is spent on chickens alone. This huge demand on labor greatly limits our ability to increase chicken production and takes time away from other tasks that need to be done on a timely basis causing us to be behind schedule continually.
We started raising chickens on pasture in 2005 and have raised Cornish Rock cross chickens that were housed in chicken tractors and moved daily around the field.. We currently have 13 to 15 tractors housing up to 2,300 to 2,500 birds total, on average, on any given day. It has become apparent that a chicken tractor production model works great for a smaller operation, but we outgrew this production model several years ago and need to make some serious changes.
As we have done since we began pasture farming, we are constantly conducting experiments. There are plenty of books on the subject of pastured poultry or websites to visit now, but when we started, there was very little information on the subject so we just tried different things to see what worked for us. For months we have been trying different breeds of chicken and working on a new production model that would allow us to continue raising the best tasting chicken around, while allowing us to address our labor issues. In November we took a group of our red broilers, raised them in a new type of house, and began to watch and evaluate their performance. In early January these birds were processed, we analyzed the performance of the birds, cost of the flock, as well as the flavor of the birds. The results were slightly better than expected and provided us with enough information to know that, with a little tweaking here and there, this production model will do everything we need and more.
Based on the results of our test flock and experimental production model, we have decided to take on the largest project in the history of the farm; we will totally revamp our chicken production system within the next 6 months and move to a totally free range production model. This project will require both a large financial commitment as well as a restructuring of duties to allow time for the new buildings and pastures to be constructed. During our planning meeting it was determined that the project would be split into 3 stages.
The first stage has been completed. Beginning in early January all of the chicks shipped in from the hatchery are Red Broilers. These birds are slower growing and have smaller breasts but work well in a free range system. We have 4 more flocks of Cornish Rock Crosses that are still growing in the field. Beginning in late February to early March, the remaining Cornish Rock's will be gone and we will only be raising Red Broilers. In the meantime there is a flock of Red Broilers in the field that are ready and will be taken to Kingstree this week.
The second phase of the project will be building a new phase 2 style brooder house. Building a new brooder is expected to take 4 weeks and will be the single most expensive part of the project; construction is scheduled to begin the first week of February. This new brooder will allow us to keep the chicks in the same space for 4 weeks until they are ready to move out to pasture. The house will have water and electricity and eliminate the time required to fill portable waterers twice daily. Heat will be provided by propane which will eliminate any risk to the young chicks if we lose power. Once the new brooder is complete and operational, the existing phase 1 brooder will be shut down. We will use phase 1 for storage and the battery brooders to brood our turkey poults when needed.
The third phase of the project will require converting our 5 largest chicken tractors into permanent free range houses and building an additional 3 houses from scratch. Each of these houses will hold 150 birds and be located in its own 100' x 50' pasture. Our pasture size allows for 33' of space per bird which exceeds industry standards by 10' or more per bird. Eventually we will build an additional 8 houses and pastures to allow each house to "rest" and naturally sanitize itself for 3 to 4 weeks between flocks. We have already completed the conversion of 3 houses and will have the corresponding pastures completed in the next couple of days. The remaining older chicken tractors will be retired with a few of the ones in good shape kept to handle any unexpected increases in production.
The chicken tractor system allowed us to fertilize our fields with the manure the chickens spread, on their own, daily. Our new system requires the houses to be bedded with shavings. These shavings will be cleaned out of the house between every flock and either composted or spread directly on our pastures and hay field. We have a couple of fields that we couldn't run our chickens in so the new system will allow us to use the manure to fertilize them as well.
Unlike the industrial "free range" model that allows access to an outside patio bedded with shavings, our system will allow, and encourage, access to a grassed pasture. In our trials we have seen 100% of the birds out of the house for hours on a nice sunny day providing ample opportunity for the birds to eat grass and bugs and provide manure to fertilize the grass for the next flock. Within days of moving the birds out of the lot, we have seen young grass begin to grow in the warm temps we have experienced this month.
Because of the commercial, industrial, use of "free range" we will continue to call our chicken pastured. Pastured best describes chicken that truly lives and eats grass.
This restructuring project requires a large capital commitment. Thankfully our Ag lender has been supportive of our efforts for over 10 years. In December Jesse, Annie, and I sat down with our lender and went over the needs of the project. We received a verbal commitment of support and will provide a final business plan this week outlining the cash requirement for this project as well as for the farms yearly operational needs.
One final word about chickens and we will move on. The project is forcing us to lower the number of chicks we will receive weekly for a few months while new pasture houses are completed and old chicken tractors are taken out of service. To try and eliminate the possibility of running out of chicken, we increased our production in October, November, and December and have built up a very good inventory of whole birds as well as parts. If you want to stock up, this would be a very good time to do so.
We want to welcome all of the new meat share members and thank everyone that participates in this program. January's drop's and home deliveries have all been made. We understand the confusion regarding the different drops sites and dates. We have also seen confusion regarding our bi-weekly pre order delivery in Summerville with some members confusing the pre-order drop with the meat share drop. To try and limit the confusion, we will begin posting the meat share drop on the calendar on the Keegan-Filion Farm website. We will update the calendar monthly and list the order deadlines, pre order pick up dates, home delivery dates, meat share drop dates, as well as the days we will participate in local farmers markets. Please check the calendar for updates.
Facebook has been an outlet that we have used to keep our customers and meat share members informed on what is happening on the farm or in the farming industry. We have posted items that we think are important regarding the unadvertised use of GMO's or other hot topics in industrial agriculture. We also post pictures of the farm, farm animals, and provide updates on a weekly basis. If you want to keep up with the farm, check out our Facebook page.
Believe it or not, its time to pre order your Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey. The website has been updated with the new order form. The form is located near the bottom of the home page, in the article regarding Holiday turkeys. Current prices for our Holiday turkeys remain the same as last year and can be found in the article. Sign up early to insure your not one of the families disappointed because we didn't have any birds available.
Working with Jesse and Amy has provided us with a set of young eyes that view the farm differently than Annie and I do. They see where technology can help us with some of the very time consuming tasks associated with running the business. I'm sure you have all seen the Ipads that we are now using at the markets. This one application that Amy found saves Annie over 4 hours a week in updating the books and makes checking out at the market quicker. Amy has also found an app that we are considering that will help with inventory control. To date, knowing what we have in stock means looking in the freezers in the market, going into the walk-in freezer and looking or spending time controlling inventory manually. I expect we will see more changes regarding our use of technology coming this year.
There are several others things being considered that we are unable to provide details on at this time. As plans are finalized we will provide details.
We have always said that this was your farm. Over the years we have opened the gates and invited everyone out to see how the animals are raised and to spend some time in the country. Now we are asking you what we can do better to serve you. Are you pleased with our products? Do we meet your quality expectations? Do you receive good customer service at the markets and at the farm? Are you pleased with the website? Do you hate the newsletter? Would you like to see a recipe of the month in the newsletter or recipes on the website? How about recipes from our customers that we could share? We really would appreciate hearing from you, good or bad, and would like any suggestions.
Everyone here is truly excited about 2017. We realize there will be several challenges but there will be some great rewards. In mid February we will welcome baby Joey into the family and will begin breaking him into life on the farm. Emily and Elijah are already getting into the swing of things and are becoming good little helpers; Andrew is still a year or so behind. We know we will face problems in the summer with heat and possibly a lack of rain or too much rain. We still have a few months worth of winter and could face more of the extreme temps that we experienced in early January. Farming has always been a challenging field and will continue to be challenging in 2017; maybe that is why we love it so much.
We thank you for your support and are looking forward to your comments and suggestions. We wish all of you a year full of happiness, good health, and many blessings.
Annie, Marc, Amy, and Jesse