Melvin Fisher started raising pastured poultry on his Organic Grass Farm in 1997. In 1998, after seeing an article on the free-range system in a magazine Melvin ordered the book Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing by Herman Beck-Chenoweth. Later he attended a workshop on range poultry production. In 1999 Melvin built six poultry skids using the plans in the book and stocked each with 400 Cornish Cross broilers. He retired the pastured poultry pens and never looked back. In 2002 he produced more than 6,000 chickens and 150 turkeys and dressed them out in America’s only U.S.D.A. Inspected non-electric poultry processing facility. This year he expects to raise, sell and process twice as many birds for sale to restaurants in Indiana and for the many customers who pick up at his scenic Park County farm.
Melvin’s operation is unique in many ways. Not only is his processing plant diesel powered, he uses horsepower to move the skids to fresh range (short-grass pasture) twice a week. A 16-year-old apprentice uses a two-horse Belgian-Percheron hitch to pull the skids. He loads the float-valve waterers and feed trays on board and pulls the skid ahead about 100 feet.
Moving the eight skids housing more than 3700 birds (Melvin also keeps 500 laying hens in skid houses and starts pullets on range) takes about three hours per week. Melvin states that this type of operation is much more time effective than hand moving pasture poultry pens. In fact, an operation this size would require 46 pens containing 80 birds apiece.
The pasture field itself is surrounded by a secure perimeter woven wire field fence but the broilers are protected by a single strand of solar powered electric fencing and two guard animals, a Great Pyrenees dog and a llama wether. These animals are used to deter predators as the skid houses are not closed at night. Since the introduction of the guard . animals predator problems have been minuscule. The single wire of electric fence keeps the horses and cattle that reside in the same field out of the skids and chicken feed. Layers and pullets range further than broiler chickens so their compound is surrounded by electric poultry netting to keep them closer to home.
White and red clover, orchard grass, Kentucky blue grass, perennial rye grass, and alfalfa provide a nice mix of legumes and grasses for pasture forage. Even though university research shows that chickens get only 10-15% of dry matter for their diet from the pasture itself, and turkeys up to 30%, the forage plays an important role. In addition, the pasture soil, as well as the bugs and grubs it supports, contains virtually ALL of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements required for a healthy bird. This eliminates any need for added vitamin supplements, all of which contain preservatives. Many people who believe that they are allergic to meat are actually allergic to the preservatives contained therein. Therefore, Melvin purchases organic grain from other farmers in the community and has it ground and mixed to his specifications without preservatives.
Range Poultry is Healthier to Eat
Recent findings support the view that animals raised on pasture have much higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated lineolic acid (CLA), and beta carotene. These animals also have lower levels of fat and fewer calories. Authors and researchers such as Jo Robinson( Why Grassfed is Best) and Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) are creating a new type of consumer better educated about the health benefits of grass fed meats.
Each skid has a floor area of eight by sixteen feet. All of the skids have wood floors and poultry wire walls. The initial skids had tarp roofs, but Melvin has switched to metal. Since he raises birds far into the season, he has also modified the skid plan from Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing by installing fold-down combination shade and storm panels. In the book, skids are depicted as having a man door on each end, but Melvin has , converted one end door to a walk-up ramp that runs the full width of the skid. This allows younger birds easier access to the skid and reduces wear and tear on the pasture. This modification has been recommended by the author. and the revised plans have been included in the updated version of Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing available from the Back40Books.com web site or by calling 573.858.3244.
The skids have rot-resistant wood floors covered with hardwood sawdust litter. Litter is purchased by the semi-load for the price of hauling. The manure deposited on the skids at night produces a high quality compost that is an excellent fertilizer. At The Organic Grass Farm this manure has historically been used on Melvin’s family garden and since production is increasing future expansion into berry and fruit production is planned.
The skids for the laying hens have been modified to contain roosts and nest boxes. These skids contain 250 hens each. Melvin uses hybrid brown egg-Layers such as Golden Comets. ) Each year he buys a different type of bird so that he can tell the flocks apart by age and color. In addition, he is keeping comprehensive egg-Laying records so that when his children take over the operation they will know which strains performed best. He broods the layers in a hoop-house structure that he also uses for rabbit production and for overwintering the hens.
The layer-hen compound is surrounded by electric poultry netting and contains a Great Pyrenees’ guard dog. In hot weather eggs are gathered twice per day and cooled in the farm’s diesel powered walk-in coolers. The eggs are placed in new fiber or Styrofoam cartons and are graded by size. Melvin charges his wholesale clients from $1.75 -$1.95 per dozen. In Indianapolis his eggs retail for $2.59- $3.00 per dozen depending upon size.
On Farm Processing Plant
During 2000 Melvin and his family constructed anew on-farm processing plant. Planning for this facility began in 1999 and required six months of meetings with the Indiana Department of Agriculture, who provided input into the design. Construction was progressing during the last three months of the planning period. The building was completed in time to be put in service midway through the 2000 production year and features bird-by-bird inspection. Melvin considers the inspectors to be his partners in producing a quality product and says that when it comes to working with inspectors that “attitude is everything and respect for authority is a must.”
The processing plant includes a 20′ x 30′ processing area, 12′ x 16′ walk in coolers and freezers and an 8′ x 24′ office and restroom area. Suntubes provide light over the work areas on sunny days. The walls are Glasboard (a type of water impervious paneling mandated for use in many food processing facilities and dairy milk houses) and painted steel. A poured concrete floor is equipped with floor drains. Processing water is provided by a deep well tested for purity. The plant cost about $50,000.00 to complete including used equipment manufactured by Pickwick and Ashley. The Organic Grass Farm processes all ages of chickens in a 3 -5 pound range. They also process turkeys in the 14- 30 pound range.
Presently the plant operates one day per week and processes about 250 birds in a four-hour processing run. Of course, additional time for bagging, cut up, weighing and plant clean up is required. The crew of five typically consists of Melvin, his wife and three teenage assistants. Harvesting the birds is a snap due to the walk-in nature of the skid shelters. The doors are closed confining the birds to the skid. They are then loaded into plastic crates for the horse-drawn trip to the processing plant.
As stated earlier, plans are to double production this year, a task that the facility can easily handle. Presently most birds are delivered to the Indianapolis area by hired van but Melvin also utilizes delivery by overnight express services like Fed Ex and UPS to service orders. Due to the fact that his product is U.S.D.A. inspected he can ship anywhere in the United States.
The future of The Organic Grass Farm looks bright. Melvin’s attention to detail and his commitment to sustainable farming and animal welfare insure a continued market for his top-quality products. His success should be uplifting to all of us aspiring to become leaders in supplying the needs of our local foodsheds.