It’s Harvest Time: Pastured Poultry
September 10, 2020
One of the top questions we are asked at farmer’s market is: “Do you have any chicken for sale today?” We’re very proud of the meat chickens that we raise seasonally at Rock Bottom Ranch, and believe that their high quality flavor is indicative of the care that we put into our pastured poultry systems (for more on pastured poultry, see below).
Meat chickens are also known as “broilers,” and the breed we’ve selected are known as Freedom Rangers. Freedom Rangers are a slower growing bird as far as broilers go, reaching market weight in a span of approximately 11-12 weeks versus a standard conventional bird like Cornish Cross, which reaches market weight by about 6 weeks of age. But why would we prefer a chicken that takes twice as much time to grow? The answer is in the pasture: we value foraging traits over fast production. Diversified diet, fresh air, and exercise all make for healthy, happy animals, and these factors all contribute to the quality and flavor of the meat. As with most good things in life, it’s well worth the wait!
A Season for Everything
Every year at Rock Bottom Ranch we raise 1,000 broiler chickens for market, in 4-5 batches of 200-250 birds each. We first meet our chickens as tiny, newly hatched puffballs when we pick up our chicks from the Post Office. They are shipped out from the hatchery shortly after they hatch and arrive in vented boxes. For the first 3-4 weeks of their life, they stay protected and warm within our heated and insulated brooder.
At four weeks, they are upgraded to the Hoop Coop – a mobile hoophouse structure in which they have access to pasture and forage beneath them, but can continue to be protected from aerial predation and cold temperatures. The Hoop Coop and its resident chickens are moved daily in rotation around our pasture using the pull of a tractor, giving the birds fresh bedding and foraging opportunities while also distributing the impact of their manure and scratching.
At eight weeks old, they are transferred to the Day Range structures – lightweight rectangular frames with metal roofing and tarped sides which provide shelter and shade as well as free roaming access to the pasture. Their size at this point makes them less of a target for easy aerial predation, though they remain protected from predators such as bears by their electric fencing perimeter. The Day Range structures are likewise moved on a daily basis in rotation around the pasture.
In Colorado, we are able to slaughter up to 1,000 chickens on site per year to sell direct-to-consumer. We feel grateful that this opportunity allows us to minimize animal stress and transportation, and that we can be in control and present within the slaughtering process for these animals we’ve cared for day after day. Our whole agricultural crew participates, and, additionally, we package everything on-site allowing us control and oversight of the whole process from chick to freezer.
Regeneratively Raised Poultry
We love our broiler product, but we equally love the positive impact we can impart on our land with pastured poultry. Our meat chickens rotate seasonally in pasture that has been otherwise grazed by sheep or cattle, and perform a great service of sanitization to clean up after these ruminants. The broilers spread out previously dropped manure in search of insect larvae, which balances out pest loads in our pastures and also aids in the distribution and cycling of that manure. The chickens additionally leave behind their own brand of potent fertilizer manure. This super boost of nutrients and animal impact is an amazing tool to build and enrich soil year after year, benefitting not only our livestock into the future but our entire farm ecosystem and the climate. For these reasons – as well as animal welfare, predation pressure, energy use, and growth efficiency – we choose to only raise meat chickens for a limited time between spring and late summer when they can participate in pasture cycles, and not during the cold, snowy winter months. When choosing to eat meat, it’s important to support those who use regenerative agriculture practices. Livestock can be powerful tools to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and an easy way to support that is to buy regeneratively raised meats.
We’ll have a full restock of chicken at Aspen Saturday Market on 9/12 and Carbondale Farmers Market on Wednesday 9/16, or visit us at the ranch from Tuesday-Friday 9-5 or Saturday 9-1. Remember, pastured poultry is a seasonal product so don’t delay!
Livestock & Site Lead