Contract pastured poultry production can work but only if you find the right people

By Allan Nation

This is the second year my Christmas turkey has been eaten by wild dogs rather than me because a contract pastured poultry producer forgot to turn on the electrified net fence at night.

According to farmers who have tried too contract out production to their friends and neighbors such horror stories are all to common.

Charles Ritch of Hartselle, Alabama, said he contracted out some pastured turkeys to a neighbor.

“Turkeys, after a certain age, are the easiest birds to raise on pasture.

“I figured they would fit contract raising better than hens or broilers.”

However, when he went by to check on them he found many were dead because they had been without water for several days.

“My grazier was not there. He was off playing golf and hadn’t checked on the turkeys in no one knows how long,” Ritch said.

Craig Hertel of Daleville, Mississippi is totally dependent upon outside graziers to supply his Blackwater Farms and can tell you enough disaster stories to discourage the most optimistic person.

“Good graziers are really hard to find and most don’t stick with it long.

“One called me the other day and told me to take over his chickens because he had fallen in love with a woman in Oregon and was moving there that afternoon.”

Hertel said many birds arrive at his poultry abattoir so poorly raised that they can only be used for sausage.

Even Joel Salatin, the dean of pastured poultry, has his own horror stories about contract raising.

“We had three absolute disasters in a row, but this year we’ve had spectacular success with contract production in both broilers and layers.”

Joel said his early wrecks stemmed from using personal friends and thinking they could stay on top of things without supervision.

“My experience has been that if you are going to contract production, you should expect a failure rate of at least 50%.”

“You have to be prepared to be disappointed. There’s no end to how clever people can be in lousing this up.”

He said pastured poultry production was particularly difficult because it had so many variables and quickly ran through a few.

“You have to know how to start them. How long to feed them. How to keep the feed dry and how long you can feed wet feed if it does get wet before it goes rancid. “You have to keep the grass short in front of them. You have to know to move them very early in the morning as that’s their big feeding period.

“The list just goes on and on,” he said.

Joel said to make money in pastured poultry required that you not only be knowledgeable but had to be able to work fast and efficiently.

“I can put up a case of eggs in 20 minutes. My contract guy was taking two hours.

“There’s no way he can make any money working that slow and eventually he’ll get disgusted and quit.”

He learned to be very wary of contract graziers who are from engineering or school teaching backgrounds who believe that doing it “right” is more important than doing it efficiently.

Also, contract growers tend to forget they are dealing with human food.

“I went over to one of my contract raisers and there were five days of eggs sitting outside in 95 degree heat

“You just can’t be that cavalier about human food.”

Joel currently has three outside graziers, two for eggs, one for broilers, and all three have been successful.

Here’s what’s different from the earlier attempts.

“The first thing we did was we started limiting the production variables.

“We wrote a step-by-step production protocol that they had to follow to the letter and we retained the highest knowledge tasks for ourselves.”

For example with their broiler producer, Salatin broods the chicks, supplies the feed, provides the pasture shelters, places the birds in the shelters and gathers them from the shelters for harvest.

“All the contractor has to do is move the shelters daily and make sure they have feed and water.”

The grazier is paid per salable broiler produced.

Joel said he has two different contracts with his egg producers.

One program is that the contractor owns the birds and Salatin buys the eggs for an agreed upon price.

With the other program, Salatin owns the chickens and brings them home after the green season. This producer is paid 15 cents a dozen less than the other grazier.

“Some people just don’t want to work in the winter and that’s fine with us.

“We’ve got to overwinter our other chickens anyway.”

Another thing that is different this year is that the three successful poultry graziers are women and the three unsuccessful ones were men.

“Men are good to have around for the heavy lifting but often lack the discipline to take care of things on their own.

“Pastured poultry works best if it’s a family affair. Putting up eggs is fun if three people are doing it and absolute drudgery if you are doing it alone.”

Joel said the best contract raisers are homeschooling families with school age children.

“Homeschoolers have a zest for learning new things. They haven’t been made fun of all their life in school for wanting to be farmers.”

Homeschoolers are always looking for family learning activities.

In many states there is a homeschool organization that will help you identify and communicate with homeschoolers in your area.

He said to make sure that all money for the contracted production is paid to the parents and not to underage children.

“What we have learned is that the more of the production variables you leave up to other people to decide, the more chances there are that you will have a variable consumer product.

“Limit the variables and you will limit the variability,” Joel said.

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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