We had another chilly week, and although spring is coming, we’re still snowbound here with just a few bare patches of brown grass showing through on the most windswept fields. I thought it might be a good time to talk about the seasonality of our pasture raised chicken, what pasture raised is all about, and how we work with our seasonal constraints here at Wrong Direction Farm. I also get interrupted along the way by a visiting polar bear.
Hi I’m Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm. I wanted to talk to you today about the seasonality of pasture-raised chickens
So you can see behind me I’ve got some of the cattle herd and they’re out here in the snow. It’s about 15 degrees – not too windy today. It’s really… it’s cold for me. It’s a pretty comfortable temperature for the cattle or for the livestock guard dog. They grow a thick coat of fur that does a tremendous job of insulating them. It’s funny because I can see the dog some days and it’s, you know, 10 degrees and there’s a bright sun out, and the dog is sleeping in the snow in the shade. And I don’t understand it but they’re quite comfortable in temperatures that make cowards of me.
So on our farm pasture-raised chicken and pasture-raised turkey are a big part of our summer. We raise them starting in the brooders around April 1st. And we’ll go, usually our season ends up in October or November. But if you think about those months, those are the months when the grass is still green. And those are the only months when we raise chickens on pasture. So if you look behind me, it’s all snow. Nothing is growing and nothing will be growing until we get, really even in March, that the grass begins to green up but it doesn’t really grow substantially until early May. So early May is when the grass starts just taking off and it grows really through the early part of October. And then it kind of tapers off and it stays green until late November, maybe the first week or two of December when the deep frost’s really cut in and when the snow starts falling. So our green season is limited to April to November. And that’s when we have chickens on the farm.
Now the thing to know about chickens is, as a mature bird they can handle really an incredible range of temperatures. So I’ve seen, you know, old hens that are doing just fine well below zero. And, you know, we don’t get temperatures this high around here but there are plenty of places in the world where temperatures can get up into the 110 degree range and the chickens are still just doing their thing. So they are remarkable birds for their tolerance of temperature extremes. But chickens that are raised for meat are young chickens. If you were to eat an older chicken you’d have to stew and stew and stew and stew it. They take a long time to break down those tough old muscle fibers. So we do have a few customers asking for them but by and large everyone wants young chicken. Now a young chicken is also a chicken that’s growing and if you think about the metabolic demands of growth there’s quite a bit of energy that needs to go into growing. But when the temperature starts to drop the chickens need to use that, you know, metabolized energy for thermoregulation. They need heat. I’ve just been going through helping the kids with some homework. We’ve been talking about phosphorylating ATP. And there’s all this work that needs to be done to create the chemical energy in the body to create the heat that these chickens need. And if they’re… you know, there’s a limited budget. It’s basically a budgetary problem. There’s only so many calories they can eat in a day and those calories can go to thermoregulation for themselves or they can go into growing the chicken’s body. So you can’t have both. Now in a barn, in a closed environment where the heat is taken care of for the chickens, we can get chickens raised year-round. But then it’s not a pasture-raised chicken. A lot of the chicken sold commercially as “pasture raised” is grown in a barn environment where they have some sort of outdoor run. So you can imagine chickens that are raised in a barn with some outdoor access. In cold weather they’re not really going to be spending much time at all outdoors. And when they are outside there’s nothing for them to eat out there. So they’re just getting out there to get some exercise, you know, which is better than nothing but they’re not really getting the advantages of pasture-raised. So when we talk about “pasture raised” we want to make sure that our chickens are, you know, on green grass. So that’s the first thing. We maybe could substitute that with hay to some degree in the winter, but we know that hay doesn’t have the same nutritional density as green grass. So the vitamins are a bit lacking. It’s not as good of an environment for them. All right, the second thing we want are bugs. Chickens are bug scavengers. So we want them to be able to be out there finding bugs and obviously there aren’t any bugs during the winter. And then the third thing we want is for the chickens to be actually improving our soils by scratching around in the soil, and then leaving it alone for a while. In the winter there’s really no opportunity for them to get down to the soil level, scratch around, disturb it, and then move on. We’d typically have to have fixed housing for them in the winter which means that whenever there are bare patches of soil the same bare patches are going to be disturbed in a continuous manner. And that leads to over-fertilization of some spots, stripping the plant materials back, exposing the soil to erosion and to desiccation. That’s really not accomplishing, again that’s not accomplishing our goals for pasture raised. So we’ve decided that we’re going to stick with a purely seasonal approach to pasture-raised chicken.
You can look behind me, there’s a polar bear.
As consumers of pasture-raised chickens we are going to have to realize that based on our constraints – every area has constraints – based on our constraints we have a season that extends, you know, April to November. That’s when our chickens can grow successfully on pasture, if we’re going to be really honest about what pasture raised is about. So those are our limits. We can work within those limits. We might be able to do a few things to stretch that a little bit. But we’re not going to have a year-round supply of fresh chicken coming off of pastures in Upstate New York. And that’s okay. We can produce great chickens for the, you know, the six months, seven months of green grass that we have. So of course what we do on our farm to keep a year-round supply is we stick the chicken in the freezers. And we rely on frozen chicken sales to get us through a year-round cycle. Our summer schedule then becomes really busy because we’re trying to get ahead the whole summer and to build up a stockpile to get us through the winter. The early years we were pretty bad at forecasting our demands, and so we would always run out February, March and we would have a few months of no chicken. We’ve gotten better at forecasting and the last couple of years we’ve been able to run through this full seasonal cycle without running out of chicken. So that feels pretty good.
Thanks for watching. If you have any questions about our chicken, if you have any questions about our beef, if you have any questions about our farm, I’d like to hear from you. Let me know. Thank you!
Thinking about what is appropriate or inappropriate in farming is an endlessly challenging exercise. In real ways, every kind of farming works with nature. And every kind of farming works against nature. I’d prefer to think of myself as one of the “good guys”, someone on the pro-nature side of things. But the reality is complicated. Our endeavors always impose some human order into naturally chaotic systems, and simultaneously impose some human chaos into naturally ordered systems. Inevitably there will be some amount of crossed purposes.
But instead of positioning ourselves as being somehow special in working with nature, maybe the better framing of the issue is just stating we must constrain ourselves to a particular model of farming. Once we chose a model, that serves to guide our thinking. We can’t claim to be perfect, but we want to work with a model that allows us to make reasonable and appropriate decisions.
In this case, our model for chickens is pasture raised, organic, and family-scale. Once we’ve set those constraints, we can look for ways to meet those goals and probe to understand where the boundaries lay. As we think about the topic of seasonality, we can begin to feel our way toward the edges and corners to know what fits and what doesn’t. Since we are emphasizing pasture raised, that means we want the chickens to live on grass as much as possible. Once we have that set, we can start looking realistically at the length of our green grass season, at the hardiness of chickens in cold weather versus warm weather, and at the ways in which this can work with our family’s situation.
As I note in the video, there are other ways to produce chicken year round. And those other methods may not be wrong in an absolute sense. But they don’t meet our goals for pasture raised, organic, and family-scale, so we’re taking a different path.