Starting a pastured poultry business...


Interstellar Duck Academy
10 Years
Jun 23, 2009
Northwestern Washington
I thought some might find what we're doing informative.

I work on a certified organic farm that mostly sells vegetables and occasionally has grass fed beef for sale out of our small Hereford herd. However, we're mostly known for our veggies. This year we decided to try pastured poultry and after looking at the different bird options, bought our first batch of 100 cornish cross. I entered into something akin to a sharecropping agreement with the farm owners: 50/50 split on risk, profits, losses, labor - no capital costs reimbursed. We have access to a growing market of "locavores." There is a much higher demand for local poultry than there is product. The farm already has a customer base.

Here are the economic assumptions I made before buying the first batch.

Anticipated Costs:
100 Birds - $110
1 ton of 18% Feed - $860
Brooder Bedding - $24
Renting Processing Equipment - $50
Bags - $15
10% mortality
Labor - no paid labor
Total Anticipated Costs - $1,059

Anticipated Profits:
90 chickens @$20 per chicken - $1,800

March 24th our first 100 Ross 308 broilers arrived from Central Hatchery. We had one DOA. I downloaded the Ross 308 performance objectives found here and started weighing our chicks at day 7. I had made the decision to feed an 18% protein from start to finish, but as I started comparing our weights to the objectives as well as to what I saw in the "meatie weigh along" thread, I began to think I made mistake. We ran about 30% under the objectives until we couldn't weigh anymore due to our scale not being able to go that high.

At day 10 we started seeing curled toes in some of the chicks with one of them bad enough that it was walking on its haunches. We removed the affected chicks and fed them raw beef liver and brewers yeast believing it to be a riboflavin deficiency. We started supplementing the rest of the chicks with brewers yeast. The chicks we removed got better after about a week and we put them back in the brooder. No other chicks were affected.

Our brooder experience was a nightmare. Their brooder was 3.5'x7.5' and located in an awful spot. It was almost impossible to clean and quickly became overcrowded. We moved them into the chicken tractor at 3 weeks with some supplemental heat. We took the heat away at week 4.

During week 5 we had our first mortality and had five more during week 6. I processed the biggest bird I could get my hands on in week six to see what the carcass weight would be. The cockerel weighed 5.28lbs live and 3.5lbs dressed. I was a bit disappointed since he was about the biggest. We decided to do two processing days, one at 7 weeks 4 days, and then a week later at 8 weeks 4 days. We lost 6 more before the first processing.

At 7 weeks 4 days we processed 40 birds. The smallest dressed weight being 4.17lbs and the largest at 6.30lbs. The average being a little over 5lbs. Of the 40 we processed we sold 30.

We lost 2 more over the next week and processed 43 birds at 8 weeks 4 days. I left three in the tractor because I was running out of time and they didn't want to get caught. The average weight of these was 6.25lbs. During processing I overscalded 6. Of the 37 we had up for sale, we sold 23.

We did virtually no marketing other than a sign in front of the farm and email out to our email list. The sign brought us 6 new customers. We are not on a busy road.

53 birds sold at $5 per pound.
14 birds lost through mortality
6 birds unsellable due to processing errors - in freezer
3 birds still alive in the pasture
24 unsold birds - in freezer

Actual Costs
100 birds - $110.00
1 ton of 18% feed - $855
Brooder Bedding - $24
Renting Processing Equipment 2x - $100
14% mortality
bags - $15
Labor - no paid labor
Total Actual Costs - $1,104

Actual Profits
53 chickens @ $5lb - $1,380
minus costs - $1,104
$ 276

I'm not dissatisfied with the results. We didn't lose money and we had a 1/4 ton of feed left for our second batch which is now 3 weeks old.

Things I will do different, things I learned, and how we're moving forward.

Brooding. They stink... a lot. We will be moving to pasture brooding like these pictures from Jericho Settler's Farm. We're doing something similar to it now... taking our brooder out of the barn (it's on a cart) when it's not raining and letting them run on the grass during the day. We need to build different brooders.

We will separate each batch of 100 into two batches of 50 when they head into their chicken tractors. I felt the 10'x12' Salatin style tractor was overcrowded with 100 chickens. I'm wondering if that didn't have something to do with the mortality rate we had.

The darn chicken tractor needs darn wheels! We added two wheels part way through, and will add another pair soon.

I will do the 18% protein from start to finish again though the current batch I started on 20% because I thought I had made a bad decision.

We will be advertising in the local paper. We already have customers who bought from our first batch signing up for the next batch.

We now know what a bird looks like before it dies. We will cull them out instead of pulling bodies out of the tractor. The blue combs and blue/red skin usually meant the bird died within 24 hours. Add heavy breathing and/or listlessness to the list and they were usually dead within 8 hours.

We got our 1000 bird permit without a hitch. Our inspector was easy to deal with and the requirements were easily met. When we speak with people at our co-op we're amazed at how many haven't gone through the inspection process because they think it's difficult. It's not.

We will keep running batches of 100 until we have a customer base where demand exceeds our supply. None of us are scared of more chicken in the freezer, and besides, it's great trade fodder. For example our livestock vet will come out for a couple of chickens and a dozen duck eggs.

In the meantime we are working with our inspector to get our under 20,000 bird permit. It looks like our biggest hurdle will be a flush toilet. I still don't understand why that makes a difference since one washes their hands regardless of where they squat. It's not like anyone's butt is touching the poultry....

We processed our first 40 birds in three hours and the other 43 in an hour and a half. We could not have done so without the help of other local farmers. Their experience helped us tremendously. I've been volunteering to help others process since last winter trying to gain experience and it was well worth the time. I now know three other farmers who I can trade processing labor for processing labor.

This is probably a dry read, and many may not find it interesting, but I was looking for this sort of thing before starting out. I'm sure I left tons of stuff out so feel free to ask questions if you have any.
Welcome to the business. It's not easy and things never go as planned. You did very well with the first go around... most people lose money.

I'm always still amazed the West Coast gets $2.00 more / pound for their birds than the East Coast. You have a ton of good markets in Washington that would help you launch this program. However I think your regs are a little stiffer at market than ours.

Good luck with it....
this was an interesting read! I don't think I would ever want to start a business of this kind but I have been curious about it.
Good for you, hope it all goes well (which, I think, in this day-n-age it will)
Keep us posted.....
Not dry at all. Very informative. I love seeing the details of someone diving in head first. Congratulations.
My first ever processing of a batch of 10 is in two days. Gotta start somewhere. Very motivating.
I think we pay more for feed out here than you all do, don't we? My part of the world is not known for grain growing. We grow rain out here

I can't remember what your feed costs are, but I thought I remembered being envious when I read them.

It does bother me that our product is not for the economically handicapped. Everyone deserves access to healthy wholesome food.
Just did a little more math and it looks like it cost us $12.84 to grow out each bird.

I'm glad you're finding it an interesting read. I will try to update this as the season moves on.
Are you the folks in McCleary or Tumwater that were just on the farm tour? A friend of mine was on the tour, and he is with the Washington State Conservation Commission.

If you need advice from a chicken friendly banker, I know a guy.
No we weren't on that tour. I think Fred Berman the WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program Coordinator was on that recent tour. He spoke later that evening to our co-op.

Did you know that this week the state budget cut all general funds for the WSDA Domestic Marketing program? This includes the small farm direct marketing program and Farm to School. I think Small Farms had some contingency plans they are looking into.

And of course ATTRA got cut from the federal budget...
I was aware of MANY budget cuts this year. Education certainly took a few hits. I have a friend who is a rep, and unfortunately they were left with many poor choices based on the condition of the State budget.

Best of luck on your endeavor.

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