Melvin Fisher began raising free-range poultry on his organic pasture farm in 1997. In 1998, after seeing an article on the poultry system in a magazine, Melvin ordered Herman Beck-Chenoweth’s book Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing. . He subsequently attended a workshop on poultry production. In 1999, Melvin built six poultry skids using the plans in the book and stocked each with 400 Cornish Cross broilers. He removed the grazing poultry pens and never looked back. In 2002, he produced more than 6,000 chickens and 150 turkeys and prepared them in the only non-electric USDA-inspected poultry processing plant in the United States. This year he hopes to raise, sell and process twice as many birds for sale to restaurants in Indiana and for the many customers they pick up at his picturesque Park County farm.
Melvin’s operation is unique in many ways. His processing plant not only runs on diesel, but uses horsepower to move the skids to fresh pastures (short-grass pastures) twice a week. A 16-year-old trainee uses a two-horse Belgian-Percheron tug to pull the skates. He loads the float valve drinkers and feed pans on board and pushes the skid about 100 feet forward.
Moving the eight skids that house more than 3,700 birds (Melvin also keeps 500 laying hens in coops and puts the pullets out in the field) takes about three hours a week. Melvin claims that this type of operation is much more time efficient than manually moving poultry pens. In fact, an operation of this size would require 46 pens with 80 birds each.
The pasture field itself is surrounded by a secure woven-wire perimeter fence, but the broilers are protected by a single strand of solar-powered electric fence and two guard animals, a Great Pyrenees dog and a llama. These animals are used to spot predators since the crawl houses are not closed at night. Since the introduction of the guard. Animal predator problems have been miniscule. The unique wire of the electric fence keeps horses and cattle residing in the same field out of the skids and chicken feed. Laying hens and pullets spread out more than broilers, so their enclosure is surrounded by electrical poultry netting to keep them closer to home.
White and red clover, orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and alfalfa provide a good combination of legumes and grasses for pasture forage. Although university research shows that chickens get only 10 to 15% of their diet’s dry matter from grass itself, and turkeys up to 30%, forage plays an important role. In addition, the soil of the pasture, as well as the insects and larvae it supports, contains virtually ALL the vitamins, minerals and trace elements necessary for a healthy bird. This eliminates any need for additional vitamin supplements, all of which contain preservatives. Many people who think they are allergic to meat are actually allergic to the condoms in it. So Melvin buys organic beans from other farmers in the community and grinds and blends them to their specifications with no preservatives.
Poultry is healthier to eat
Recent findings support the view that pasture-raised animals 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 like Jo Robinson (Why Grassfed is Best) and Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) are creating a new type of consumer better informed about the health benefits of grass-fed meats.
Each skate has a surface area of eight by sixteen feet. All skates have wooden floors and bird wire walls. The initial skids had canvas roofs, but Melvin switched to metal. Since he raises birds well into the season, he has also modified Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing’s pull plan by installing a combination of collapsible shade and storm panels. In the book, the skates are depicted as having a man gate at each end, but Melvin has turned an end gate into a ramp that runs the full width of the skate. This allows younger birds easier access to the skid and reduces pasture wear. 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 on the Back40Books.com website or by calling 573.858.3244.
The skids have rot resistant wood floors covered with hardwood sawdust litter. The berth is purchased in semi-load for the price of the haulage. Manure deposited on the skids overnight produces a high-quality compost that is an excellent fertilizer. At The Organic Grass Farm, this manure has historically been used in the Melvin family garden and with production increasing, future expansion into berry and fruit production is planned.
Skids for laying hens have been modified to contain roosts and nest boxes. These skids contain 250 chickens each. Melvin uses hybrid brown egg layers like Golden Comets. ) Every year he buys a different type of bird so he can differentiate the flocks by age and color. In addition, he keeps complete egg-laying records so that when his sons take over the operation, they will know which strains performed best. He raises the layers in a hoop house structure that he also uses for rabbit production and for overwintering chickens.
The laying hen enclosure is surrounded by an electric bird netting and contains a Great Pyrenees watchdog. In hot weather, the eggs are collected twice a day and chilled in the farm’s diesel-powered cold rooms. The eggs are placed in new fiberglass or Styrofoam boxes and sorted by size. Melvin charges his wholesale customers between $1.75 and $1.95 per dozen. In Indianapolis, their eggs retail for between $2.59 and $3.00 a dozen, depending on the size.
At the farm processing plant
During the year 2000, Melvin and his family built a new processing plant on the farm. Planning for this facility began in 1999 and required six months of meetings with the Indiana Department of Agriculture, who provided design input. Construction was progressing during the last three months of the planning period. The building was completed in time for commissioning mid-production year 2000 and is bird-by-bird inspected. Melvin sees inspectors as his partners in producing a quality product and says that when it comes to working with inspectors, “attitude is everything and respect for authority is a must.”
The processing facility includes a 20′ x 30′ processing area, 12′ x 16′ refrigerators and freezers, and an 8′ x 24′ office and bathroom area. Suntubes provide light over work areas on sunny days. The walls are Glassboard (a type of waterproof panel required for use in many dairy and food processing facilities) and painted steel. A poured concrete floor is equipped with floor drains. Process water is provided by a deep well that is tested for purity. The plant cost about $50,000.00 to complete, including used equipment made by Pickwick and Ashley. Organic Grass Farm processes all ages of chickens ranging from 3 to 5 pounds. They also process turkeys in the 14 to 30 pound range.
Currently, the plant operates one day a week, processing about 250 birds in a four-hour processing cycle. Of course, additional time is required to bag, cut, weigh, and clean the plant. The crew of five usually consists of Melvin, his wife, and three teenage assistants. Harvesting the birds is very easy due to the nature of the slip shelters. The doors are closed confining the birds to the skid. They are then loaded into plastic crates for the horse-drawn journey to the processing plant.
As previously stated, plans are to double production this year, a task the facility can easily handle. These days, most birds are shipped to the Indianapolis area in rental vans, but Melvin also uses overnight express delivery services like Fed Ex and UPS to fill orders. Due to the fact that your product is USDA inspected, you can ship it anywhere in the United States.
The future for The Organic Grass Farm looks bright. Melvin’s attention to detail and his commitment to sustainable agriculture and animal welfare ensure a continuing market for his high-quality products. His success should encourage all of us who aspire to become leaders in supplying the needs of our local food depots.