Birds for Profit

3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Course Covers Small-Scale Chicken Production

LEESPORT, Pa. — Faced with the prospect of investing tens of thousands of dollars in large poultry houses, most people with little or no knowledge of raising chickens would not go full-fledged into large-scale production.

The alternative is having a few hens on a little bit of land, maybe letting them roam freely to scrounge off the ground and perhaps selling the eggs and meat to family and friends.

Some people would call this “backyard” farming.

But what if you want to turn this into something profitable?

For Penn State program assistant Brian Moyer, the basic mindset is no different from a large-scale commercial grower.

“It’s that old farmer adage, always plan for the worst and hope for the best,’ ” Moyer told a group of 30 people attending a small-scale poultry production course Monday at the Berks Ag Center.

Moyer, a farmer himself who at one time raised 2,500 broilers, 200 layer hens and 100 turkeys, said good planning and execution are key to turning even the smallest of poultry operations into a moneymaker.

Getting chicks from a reputable hatchery that is free of salmonella or other disease is essential but could take extensive research, he said, especially if a producer wants to raise more exotic or heritage breeds.

Raising birds, he said, has some distinct advantages over other livestock in that it’s relatively cheap to build housing for broilers or layers, the birds are generally low maintenance, eggs and meat can be sold for a premium price, and the birds are good for building soils and organic matter.

Basic housing, he said, can be built fairly easily so long as some basic principles of raising birds are followed, including providing room for exercise, but not so much as to encourage more feeding; giving them a clean, dry area so they don’t get too cold; and having some protection from predators.

When it comes to processing, Moyer said birds should be taken off feed at least six hours beforehand to give them time to empty their intestines. He also said producers should have two separate areas — one for slaughtering and one for further processing — to prevent potential sanitary issues.

But the past few years, he said, have been a struggle for small-scale producers, with high feed prices making what are normally tight margins even tighter.

“Recordkeeping is probably more important now than ever before because of those high feed prices,” Moyer said.

Diversification has been key for farmers Joanna and Marc Michini, who raise chickens, lambs, pigs and turkeys on 30 acres of leased land in Pipersville, Bucks County.

Even at $4.25 a pound — their broilers grow to about 6 pounds — the couple said there is very little profit in raising meat birds and layer hens.

But the fact that demand for pasture-raised eggs and meat is high gives them a way to sell other, higher-priced items from the farm, like their pastured pork, which they consider their bread and butter.

“Eggs are going to sell,” Joanna Michini told the group. “It gets people to know you. You have to establish relationships with people, and a good way to do it is through eggs.”

Both the broilers and layers are raised free-range, with some slight differences in the details.

Marc Michini said he’s had to change housing systems for the broilers several times because of issues with hawks and also to provide a larger area for the broilers and easy access for him.

He started with the “Salatin-style” housing system, a type of covered, wood-framed housing that sits low to the ground and can be moved using a basic hand truck.

He’s made modifications since then, making the houses taller to improve air circulation and equipping them with wheels for even easier transport.

“It really depends on where you’re raising the birds and what works for you,” Joanna Michini said.

Another thing the couple have done is feed the birds apple cider vinegar — 1 ounce of vinegar to a gallon of water — to cut down on heat stress, since doing this has the effect of a blood thinner.

“It’s huge for us and cuts down on heart attacks,” Marc Michini said.

Layers are raised in larger paddocks where they lay their eggs in moveable nesting sheds called eggmobiles that the couple have purchased.

Still, the last several years have been a struggle for the couple. They are planning to cut broiler production this year from 1,300 to just 400, although layer production will increase slightly.

Whether their efforts are profitable or not, Moyer said he hopes, through education, that people get a better sense of what it’s like to raise chickens.

“My hope is folks come away with a basic knowledge of what it is to do meat and egg production, because that’s most of the interest here,” he said. “Just to be able to come away with enough knowledge to ask questions of themselves and think, You know, do I really want to take this on as a potential income generating project?’ ”

Gloria Scott and Kathy Showalter attended the class in hopes of gaining knowledge they can pass on to villagers in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

Even though the women are from Maryland — Scott is from Port Deposit, Showalter from Rockville — they’ve spent most of the past 20 years working as missionaries in the landlocked West African country.

Neither has a working knowledge of raising poultry for profit, although Showalter’s family raised some free-range birds on the family farm.

But the two hope to bring some helpful knowledge to the villagers they work with to help them make more money from their farms.

“People are subsistence farmers in Africa. We don’t feel like they’re making money. So we’d like to see if there are ways of helping them rethink how they’re doing it,” Scott said.

Matthew Schaus, who raises sheep, goats and several types of turkeys, geese, layer hens, ducks and pheasants on 25 acres in Lenhartsville, Berks County, hopes to add broilers to the mix as well.

Coming to the class was sort of a refresher course for him, as he learned once again the virtues of doing things such as putting apple cider in water.

“I’d totally forgotten about that,” he said.

The past three years, he’s been concentrating on improving his pastures, Schaus said, so he’s let go of meat birds. But he sees some potential marketing benefits.

“We want to get back into meat birds, too. Just as an extra to offer our clientele,” he said.

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