It’s been twenty years since Joel Salatin created the grass-fed chicken industry by publishing Pastured Poultry Profit$ in 1993.
The book has many praiseworthy aspects, one of which is that Salatin describes in great detail the methods he was using at the time, and the thinking behind them. Lots of people have copied his methods, with varying degrees of success. (Farming is like that.)
Something unusual happened along the way, and I think it’s something Salatin didn’t expect. Because it’s the only detailed book on the topic, his single example of how to go about raising meat chickens on pasture has been accepted by many as the only way, and sometimes this gets people into jams.
For example, Salatin’s method is to get the whole clan together a few times per summer, and butcher a lot of chickens. These are pre-sold to customers from near and far, who drive out to the farm. Fair enough. This is a good method if you’re not too far from town, have a workforce to draw upon, and can assemble a group of loyal customers who are prepared to receive chickens in large batches. We tried it, and it worked … for a while.
One sticking point is that we sort of ran out of relatives who were willing to slog through a long day of chicken butchering. We also had the opportunity to sell at local farmer’s markets, where we would sell a few chickens per market, which doesn’t mesh well with the marathon butchering sessions Salatin describes.
This was back when I was doing a survey of all the poultry books, magazines, and extension bulletins ever written, and I was intrigued by an article in a poultry magazine from around 1960, describing a farmer in Los Angeles whose shtick was “the freshest chicken in town.” He butchered chickens six days a week, all by himself, and delivered them to local restaurants. He sold 1,000 chickens a month this way. That’s pretty fast work! But if he handle 1,000 chickens a month by himself, Karen figured she could manage 1,000 chickens a year.
She’s been handling the broiler side of the business on her own for more than ten years now, so I think we can say that it works! We do two farmer’s markets a week, so she butchers twice a week, the day before the market. We have fresh chicken at the market, while our two competitors, who follow Salatin’s model more closely, have only frozen chicken — a side effect of butchering more chickens than you can sell right away.
Another way we deviated from Salatin’s practice is in broiler house design. Salatin uses very low metal houses, which are very hard to work with. Salatin ignores the old maxim of poultry houses, “make it small enough that you can reach every corner from outside, or big enough that you can walk around inside it,” and crawling inside his houses is a real pain.
So Karen invented a lightweight, easily moved chicken house that you can walk around in, made from lightweight cattle panels bent into an arched roof. This is infinitely better, and has been adopted far and wide. See my Hoop Coop writeup.
There’s plenty of room for additional innovation with pastured poultry! Or for the reintroduction of old ideas. For example, the most expensive pieces of equipment we use are the scalding tank (used to loosen the feathers) and the plucking machine. But in the old days, there was a technique called “dry picking” which didn’t use either of these. Alas, the technique is quite difficult to learn unless one is taught by an expert. I don’t know if any still exist. Karen has tried on her own without success.
Anyway, if you’re interested in trying your hands at raising meat chickens for profit, get your copy of Pastured Poultry Profit$, and expect that you’ll innovate from there to match your unique circumstances.