Salatin-designed pastured egg production system lowers labor costs

by Allan Nation

SWOOPE, Virginia: In the age-old question of "Which comes first the chicken or the egg?" Joel Salatin believes that for beginning direct marketers the answer is easy. It is the egg.

"Eggs have the advantage of being a whole meal. There are no parts to an egg. This is so much better than a chicken or a steer where your customer may only want certain parts of the animal," he said.

Salatin sells around 40,000 dozen pastured chicken eggs a year at an average price of $1.75 a dozen. Seventy-five percent of these go to upscale restaurants at a delivered price of $2.10 a dozen.

For on-farm customers the eggs are priced at $1.60 a dozen loose or for $1.75 a dozen in cartons. Salatin offers no volume discount on eggs because there is too much hand-work labor involved and getting paid for labor is a major goal at Salatin's Polyface Farms.

"We have a minimum wage goal here of $20 per hour. If an enterprise won't return that to our efforts it's not worth having," he said.

Four members of the Salatin family plus two young interns are able to wring an annual gross income of $300,000 from the farm's 100 acres of permanent pasture. Pastured poultry - eggs, broilers and turkeys - produce half of this income. Grass fed beef, lamb, hogs and rabbits are the other half. (Sales of Joel's books, speaking fees and registration fees are not included in this figure.)

This high level of productivity has required a constant re-engineering of production systems to lower labor inputs. One of his inventions is a low-labor, pasture-based, egg production unit he calls the "Feathernet System."

EGGMOBILE PROBLEMS

Many Stockman Grass Farmer readers are probably familiar with Salatin's rolling hen house - called the "Eggmobile" - which follows the cattle through their paddock rotation. He emphasizes that while the Eggmobile is an excellent pasture sanitation tool - it has almost completely eliminated heel flies on his farm - it is not a commercially viable egg production system.

Salatin lists the Eggmobile's primary drawbacks as:

1. A high death loss to both aerial and ground predators.

2. Chickens get lost in fence rows and woods and can't find their way back to the hen house.

3. The wheeled hen house is difficult to park on steep hillsides.

4. The mesh floor is not as warm as a solid floor.

5. It is not cow proof. Curious cows can play havoc with it.

6. Lack of chicken control. With the Eggmobile chickens are free to range out from the rolling hen house. This allows them to get into gardens and other places they shouldn't be.

Salatin said his Feathernet system solves most of the problems of the Eggmobile.

Each Feathernet unit consists of 1000 laying hens. The hens are allowed to free-range within the confines of a 450 foot circle of electrified poultry netting. The electrified poultry netting keeps the chickens in and ground predators and cows out.

Each unit has two 20 X 20 foot canvas-roofed, hoop structures built on skids. These hoop structures have nest boxes hanging down in the middle of each structure where the hens can lay their eggs.

Adjacent to hoop houses are also two sleds with bulk feeders that can hold enough feed for three weeks. Self waterers are fed from the stockwater system with snap-on hose connectors.

Salatin said it is these self-feeding systems that allow for the tremendous lowering of labor. "What just kills you are daily chores," he said.

All of the above structures are chained together so that they can be moved by a tractor or pickup simultaneously in what Salatin calls a "train."

MOVE EVERY THREE DAYS

The unit is moved to a fresh pasture every three days. These frequent moves prevent disease problems in the chickens and lasting damage to the pasture sward. If chickens are confined and not moved frequently they can reduce an excellent pasture to dust in just a few weeks.

To move a unit Salatin first builds another circle of electrified poultry netting adjacent to the first. These two circles meet similar to an hourglass.

The net of the previous circle is opened so that the hoop house train can be moved through the now open neck of the hourglass. The chickens walk along with the hoop houses on their own.

When the hoop house train and the chickens are in the new circle the opening is closed and old fence taken down and repositioned in front of the current circle for the next move. In this way, the unit moves across the pasture in a monkey bar fashion with the electrified fence in back being moved to the front with each move.

The free-ranging hens spread their manure much more evenly than more confined chickens and do not make a mat of manure on the pasture.

CATTLE ARE INTEGRAL TO PASTURED POULTRY

Each unit of 1000 hens requires five acres of pasture. However, Salatin also grazes both sheep and cattle on the same land to shorten the pasture for the chickens. He is adding irrigation to his pastures and believes this will allow him to double his grass production.

Chickens prefer their pasture to be around three inches tall. Tall pasture will just be mashed down by the chickens and wasted. Therefore, Joel believes that cattle are an integral part of pastured poultry production.

The only problem the Feathernet has not completely solved is aerial predation. As a result, Salatin recommends that the units be operated within eyesight of your house.

Salatin said each unit requires only seven hours of labor a week and can net $10,000 a season if the eggs are sold for $1.60 a dozen.

"The Feathernet is the way to go for commercial pastured egg production," he said.

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