My wife and I operate a pastured poultry business in Northwest Wyoming at an altitude 6,000 feet. I grew up on a poultry farm back when everything was pastured and organic. Things were simpler then… the weak, fast growing commercial birds had not yet been developed, and we didn’t have to contend with many of the exotic diseases that international trade has brought to the American farm.
For a breeding flock of 75 turkeys plus a chicken operation, we have a total of six acres devoted to pens and pastures. Our land is high desert with no supplemental irrigation. Years of previous owners running horses on the land had destroyed everything but salt sage and prickly pear. Working with the local Extension Agent, we selected native grasses, trees and shrubs that do well in our dry, alkaline soil. We had our well tested under the Montana Well Educated program (operated by Montana State University) which gave us detailed information on our water. We learned for example, that high salinity and dissolved solids rendered our well water unusable for irrigation and only marginal for livestock use. We got around this problem by purchasing and hauling water from the nearest community water treatment plant.
For permanently fenced pastures, we opted for the 16’ by 50” cattle panels with steel T-posts. The panels don’t sag and stretch the way woven wire does. To avoid deer injuries, we cut a number of ‘jump throughs’ where the top 24 inches of a small section of the fence is removed to allow even young fawns an easy passage across the pasture. Our temporary, movable fences are either cattle panels or electrified poultry netting.
Using designs that my father and uncles came up with years ago, we built moveable turkey shelters. Covered with corrugated steel panels, the shelters are open on one end and provide protection from rain and snow as well as sunlight in the summer. Built on skids, the units can be relocated with minimum effort. The field turkey nest is also built on skids. It has drop-down side panels for access to the nest boxes and a central walk-thru the hens can use to enter or leave.
The chicken hen house started out as an Amish built mini-barn that we insulated and finished off with exterior grade plywood on the inside walls. A hygrometer controlled exhaust fan serves to keep moisture low, while heat is provided by a 600 watt carbon fiber lamp plugged into a temperature-activated switch. To control ammonia and odor, we apply ‘Barn Fresh Plus’ to the wood shaving litter.
Our turkeys are Narragansett… a heritage breed that reproduces naturally, is extremely cold-hardy, produces large spotted eggs from March to September and is just plain delicious on the table. In the past, we selected non-industrial Rhode Island Reds as our laying chickens, but are in the process of converting to the Bresse which is called the “Queen of Chickens… Chicken of Kings”. For meat chickens, we prefer the Red Ranger and are hoping the Bresse lives up to its reputation.
I recommend you buy young chicks from reputable hatcheries instead of trying to incubate the eggs yourself. There are a couple of reasons why I say that. First is the cost. If you are going to be serious about it, the entry level incubator runs about $920 for a GQF 1502 (or similar), all the way up to $5,000 or more for a Grumbach unit from Germany. Look for digital controls and readouts as an indicator of a quality unit. Difficulty is another reason to leave the incubating to experts. Temperature, humidity, altitude… they all have significant effect on the hatch. An old hen can make it look like child’s play… but it isn’t.
In short, “brooding” means getting that newly hatched bird through the first few weeks of life. I’ve read experts who will tell you that the temperature must be controlled within a degree or two during the brooding period, but have you ever seen a hen carrying a thermometer and an electric blanket as she leads her parade of chicks? (Me neither.)
Our brooding pens are dead simple. On the floor is a 3⁄4” thick rubber mat for insulation and to provide sure footing for the young birds. (NEVER PUT THE NEW CHICKS ON A SLIPPERY SURFACE SUCH AS NEWSPAPER). Our brooder is constructed of 3⁄4” plywood screwed together to make a 4’ X 8’ box sitting on the rubber mat. On each end is a simple door to provide access. Wood shavings are used for litter and a couple 250-watt heat lamps on adjustable ropes keep the chicks warm. Thick cardboard roofs keep the heat from escaping. How do you know they are warm enough? If they are huddled together, they are cold. If they are panting and wings drooping… raise the heat lamps or open the lid. We have plenty of open space in the brooder so the birds can move freely to and from the heated areas. When the wing feathers are fully developed, they should be about ready to leave the brooder.
The newly hatched birds are placed on a high protein, non-medicated ration. After a month or so, replace the starter feed with a grower/finisher. If you are raising the fast growing Cornish variety, you cannot keep feed in front of them around the clock as they will simply eat themselves to death. For normal birds, keep clean feed and water in front of them at all times. Most poultry are natural foragers and should have access to pasture during the day. Our heritage turkeys will form ‘skirmish lines” a dozen or more abreast and march through the grass, chasing up insects. (If you allow your birds to free range around your house and buildings, you will note a significant reduction in spiders, scorpions and other crawling pests.) A quality “layer ration” is a must for the egg producer flock. Make sure grit and oyster shell are available as needed.
We have yet to find a veterinarian that knows anything about poultry, so we handle most of the health care issues ourselves. The Internet is a valuable tool and The Merck Veterinary Manual is always handy. Our veterinary antibiotics are purchased from on-line retailers, since most veterinarians will not dispense antibiotics without a ream of government forms and questionnaires.
Our breeding flock of turkeys has been on pasture for many years. I believe as a result, they have developed immunity from most common diseases.. Fact is, we have not lost a single turkey to disease in the past ten years. The chickens that we bring in from the hatchery are separated from our own flocks. We do not vaccinate any of our birds… period.
A harsh suggestion is that euthanizing a sick or injured bird is your best option. It prevents further spread of the disease and chances of nursing an injured animal back to health are almost nil. There are exceptions of course, such as when you mistakenly allowed the kids to give names to the birds.
At the present time, the only USDA inspected poultry processing plant in the Rocky Mountain West is located in the Boise, Idaho area. A USDA inspected facility must process your poultry if you intend to sell them across state lines. In addition, some states require USDA processing if you wish to sell your harvested birds to commercial establishments such as stores or restaurants. There are a few state inspected poultry processors scattered here and there. As a general rule, If you are harvesting your own birds for your personal use, or plan to sell them directly to the end user, you can kill and process your own birds at your own farm. But be sure to check your state and local laws.
If you are harvesting your own birds, then consider the following suggestions:
- Take the birds off feed 12 to 18 hours in advance to minimize fecal contamination
- Keep the birds in a calm setting
- Don’t cut the heads off.. use a kill cone and bleed the birds out
- For turkeys, remove the wing and tail feathers by hand prior to the scald
- A scald temperature between 140 and 145 is ideal
- Scald until you can easily remove the larger feathers by hand
- Use either a plucking machine or hand method to remove as many feathers as you can
- Rinse with clean, cold water to bring the skin temperature down
- Remove the head, neck, feet and all internals
- If desired, save the neck, gizzard, heart and liver. Some folks save the feet. We grind them upwith the head for dog food
- Rinse the carcass thoroughly and spray lightly inside and out with CHIXCIDE or similar productsto remove bacteria. Allow a minute or so, then immerse the carcass in ice water
- Bring the carcass temperature down to 40 degrees within 4 hours
- After thorough chilling, drain and age at 35 to 40 degrees for two days to tenderize
- Seal the birds in heat-shrink bags and freeze for future use
The Oregon Extension Service has an excellent guide for home slaughter.
We are not ‘animal rights’ fanatics, but we do believe that we have an ethical and moral responsibility to humanely care for the livestock that The Master has placed under our watch.
When the harvest is done and one of those beautiful, pasture raised, antibiotic-free birds is on the table, it makes all the work and worry worth it. – WyoDutch