Raising poultry naturally
STORY CITY – Amber Miller said she and her husband, Kendel Miller, briefly considered not bringing in 450 chickens for their farm site at the height of the avian flu outbreak in June.
A backyard flock is lacking in biosecurity, she said.
Avian flu took the lives of 31.5 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa.
Nevertheless, the Millers decided to bring 450 Freedom Ranger chickens onto their farm, and they are happy for that decision.
The bulk of avian flu deaths were chickens and turkeys in confinements.
According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, a total 5,110 backyard birds were destroyed as a result of the epidemic, just 1/10,000th of a percent of the total.
Miller said she doesn’t know why outdoor birds fared better during the avian flu outbreak. However, they have lost an estimated 50 birds to natural causes and predators.
“We’re more worried about hawks, minks and raccoons,” Miller said, “than avian flu.”
The Millers are relatively new to the industry of raising livestock naturally. This is their fourth flock of birds, which is set to be trucked to Martzahn’s Farm Poultry Processing in Greene on Aug. 17.
Miller said they will retain up to three dozen of the smallest birds and use them as egg layers so they can complete their development.
“They’re not as heavy on their feet,” she said. “And they’ll get more nutrients and get to grow to full maturity.
“And they will be truly free-range.”
Before the chickens arrive, the lot is planted with radishes, turnips, rape seed and clover, Kendel Miller said. These plants provide a natural food plot for the chickens which, Miller said, will have the entire lot eaten down to near nothing before they go to market.
The birds’ diet is supplemented with a corn-based poultry feed and waste grain from a local brewery, which is a good protein source.
A-frame structures provide covering for the birds and some other coverings have been provided to keep them out of the weather and provide some safety from airborne predators.
The Freedom Ranger chicken, Amber Miller said, is a heritage broiler and layer breed.
They purchase the chicks online from a hatchery in Pennsylvania. They are shipped through the U.S. Postal Service.
The processed chickens will be returned to the Millers, who have pre-sold about 340 of them, including 100 to what she called a Des Moines-area food box.
This is a pilot program of adding meat products to a CSA – community supported agriculture – venture, which are typically for providing fruit and vegetables to its members.
The Millers will sell the other chickens and use some for themselves. The same with the eggs they’ll get – some sold, some used by the family.
When the chickens are gone, the lot and the A-frames will be returned to serving the farm’s free-ranging hogs.
They market their hogs and chickens as naturally raised – that is, no antibiotics are used.
“But we won’t let an animal die,” Miller said. “We’ll use (antibiotics) if we have to, we just won’t sell it as natural-raised.”
Raising hogs and chickens in a natural, free-range setting is a lot of work and requires long hours, Miller said.
“It’s not the cheapest or least time-consuming method,” Miller said. “But this is the meat we prefer, so for us, it’s worth it.”
The Millers are part of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Savings Incentive Plan, a two-year program that pairs beginning and aspiring farmers with experienced mentors.
This program provides targeted learning opportunities, offers business planning support and guidance and gives participants the chance to save money and receive matching funds while learning how to build a profitable farm.
Miller said they enrolled in the plan in 2013 to learn how to expand their customer base, explore new marketing ideas and streamline the overall efficiency of their operation.
The Savings Incentive Program works by encouraging enrollees to save up to $100 per month for two years.
Upon completion of all program requirements, participants will earn a dollar-for-dollar match on money saved up to $2,400, for a possible $4,800 to use towards the purchase of a farm asset.
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