What the f***, USDA?

A manual on how to bake alive every animal in a 20,000 bird poultry house

Fall plan. Page numbers below refer to this document

The USDA has officially sanctioned “ventilation shutdown” as a “depopulation” response to poultry houses diagnosed with the latest avian flu. (Page 15) Confined poultry operators can literally turn off fans and air conditioning until the 20,000 birds fatally overheat over a timeframe of 40-60 minutes.

To be fair, they do note that it is not the preferred method and would rather suffocate flocks with foam or carbon dioxide since those are the [direct quote] “the most human and effective methods”. (Page 15)

Also of note is how the USDA continuously blames the spread of the virus on backyard/pastured poultry and wild birds and the interactions between the two. Very proudly, the USDA boast of all of the resources it is spending on conducting surveillance on backyard flocks and wild birds including this 5 page manual.

An industry that prides itself on control and biosecurity hangs on a thread at the whim of songbirds and migratory fowl. When will they admit their system doesn’t work? When will tax payers grow tired of pouring money into this failed system both in the form of subsidies as well as expensive meat and eggs following every disease outbreak? And when will people fear for having a secure source of food?

Is cutting off the supply of clean air to 20,000 living creatures so they all die slowly an option in any healthy system? Even as a last resort it epitomizes the failures of the confines poultry practice.


Easy to Raise Protein for Chickens

January saw the establishment of my Red Wiggler composting worm colony. I have dialed in what makes them unhappy and act like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and what conditions make them all but invisible as they contentedly feed under the bedding. After separating the worms out of their old bedding and castings, my initial goal of raising them for chickens seemed quite misguided. Their wet environment makes them very hard to separate so the only way their production being feasible for chicken feed is by letting the chickens pick the worms themselves. However I am comfortable enough with the worms to scale up my colony (for gardening purposes) and look for a new composting project to feed chickens.

Mealworms are always included in raptor, reptile, fish and amphibian foods so it was not surprising that they are easy to grow. Like the red wigglers, they are content to feast on any carbon organic matter. Unlike worms, they require a very dry environment. That makes them easily separated from bedding and excrement which in turns makes them a viable feed source for chickens. Additionally, their colonies can be built vertically making them very efficient in regards to space.

I somehow stumbled on this amazing and thorough tutorial that knocked the wheels of this project in motion within my head. To summarize the linked tutorial, the author has a vertical colony that occupies about 1.5 square feet, cost her or him $30 to make, and produces 1.5 pounds of meal worms a week.

I’ll do a greater cost analysis of this in the future, but for now I can revisit my charts published previously (part 1, part 2)

Age Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Total # of Bags
One Bird 4.2 oz. 9.2 oz. 3.7 oz. 18.8 oz. 26.1 oz. 34.5 oz. 38.5 oz. 42.6 oz. 46.5 oz. 14.63 lbs.
25 Birds 6.56 lbs. 14.38 lbs. 21.41 lbs. 29.28 lbs. 40.78 lbs. 53.91 lbs. 60.16 lbs. 66.56 lbs. 72.66 lbs. 7.32 bags
50 Birds 13.13 lbs. 28.75 lbs. 42.81 lbs. 58.75 lbs. 81.56 lbs. 107.81 lbs. 120.31 lbs. 133.13 lbs. 145.31 lbs. 14.63 bags
100 Birds 26.25 lbs. 57.5 lbs. 85.63 lbs. 117.5 lbs. 163.13 lbs. 215.63 lbs. 240.63 lbs. 266.25 lbs. 290.63 lbs. 29.26 bags

The above chart is from The Organic Feed Store

For broiler (birds raised for meat), a chick will eat 4.2 oz. of feed a week as a new hatchling and 42.6 oz. of feed in the last week of its life. Chickens need a diet of at least 15% protein for laying hens and 20% for meat birds. Doing the math, a meat bird requires about 1 oz. of protein in its first week and about 10 oz. in its last week.

Protein is the largest expense in chicken feed, and the same holds true for human food! Grains are usually around 10% protein. Even with soybeans added, expensive supplements like animal meal (which I won’t use) or fish meal is required to bring the ration up to the needed protein levels.

Continuing the math, a single meal worm configuration like the one linked above could provide the protein needs of over 25 chicks (not even counting the protein in grains or soybeans). Protein requirements of 2.5 fully adult birds are met by the mealworm colony. The later does not seem very feasible but any reduction in expensive fish meal will be valuable. Keep in mind that any item produced saves the tax rate of the tax deduction in addition to the baseline savings in cost! That is not even including the self-sufficiency of producing animal feed on the farm.

While it would be great to have year round mealworm supplement, my chickens will have adequate access to the bugs of the pasture from spring until fall. Real value in mealworms will likely occur in the winter when the birds require feed exclusively for nutrition. On my farm this would only be laying hens, but the notion still holds true.

Now I only need to run a cost analysis to determine if the cost of feed for the worms (cereal grains mixed with manure or other organic matter) makes the effort worthwhile. Stay tuned!

Note: I have assumed mealworms are 100% protein in the above calculations which I know is not likely the case. All of the calculations above were also done in my head. I will publish a post with accurate data and calculations in the future!


Tips for working with Hardware Cloth (and the start of my DIY 40 bird mobile brooder)

Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm provides the inspiration for almost every piece of the farm model. However the goal is to keep all of the livestock infrastructure mobile in hopes of expanding to rented land in the future. Therefore everything must fit on a 12 foot trailer for transportation.


Unwelded edges of hardware cloth is very nasty so gloves and long sleeves/pants will prevent many many scratches.


Tin snips or shears rated for 20 gauge steel cut through 19 gauge hardware cloth like scissors through construction paper. This was made apparent after a few frustrating minutes attempting to cut the material with a fence tool then large cutting pliers.

Additionally, working solo required large rocks to weight down the hardware cloth whose memory of being in a tightly wound roll was apparent. Below you can see the large rock used to hold the loose end of the roll in front of the gate. Another rock was used as a chock to keep the rest of the wound material from rolling.


Predator proofing, not flooring:

Predation is the biggest concern through the entire lifespan of chicks here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Specifically, rats are known to carry many live chicks to their nest at a time and repeat the process every night. As such, the role of hardware cloth in the brooder is not to supply flooring, but to prevent access to rats. As a matter of fact mesh, wire and hardware cloth can damage a chicks feet, permanently stunting its growth. When complete, the floor shown below will be buried under about 18 inches of bedding material.

Attaching to Wood

I am still experimenting with the staples so I can’t give much advice. Hardware cloth has some jagged edges that love to dig in to the wood and wedge itself in the wrong position. It is a very frustrating material to work with!

Letting the convex side of the mesh (in regards to the curve memory from being in a spool) sit into the wooden frame helped in a few ways: Will protect the excess material from dragging on the ground when brooder is complete and flipped over, let me stretch material with pliers if I needed a bit more to hold the staple, and it let me drive one side of staple partially in to allow a bit of play before the hardware cloth is permanently attached (Shown below).





Objectively Determining a Chicken Sale Price: Part 2

Here are the quotes on bulk retail prices from the local feed mill.

Bulk, retail Quotes from Feed Mill
soybean 519 /ton
cornmeal 194 /ton
wheat mids 184 /ton
ground limestone 110 /ton
alfalfa meal 484 /ton
trace vitamins 60.35 /50 lb use at 5 lb/ton
salt 6.15 /50 lb use at 5 lb/ton
locally roasted soybeans 508 /ton 30% Protein and 20% Fat
kelp from acadia 59.75 /50 lb 10-20/ton

By linking the percentage make up of desired ration (from Polyface Farms ration), I can get a estimate of the costs per 50 pound bag

My desired Ration
Ration Percentage Price per mixed ton Price per mixed 50 lb bag Substitutions Notes
Corn 52% 100.88 2.522
Roasted Soybean 29% 147.32 3.683 Soybean meal, cottonseed meal
Crimped oats 11% 20.24 0.506 Whole oats using wheat midds for now
Limestone 1% 1.1 0.0275
Fishmeal 3.50% not mentioned by feedmill Protein booster, not availible from rockingham
Kelp 0.50% 11.95 0.29875 Probably Topdress, unless increases to replace nutrient
Probiotic 0.10% Probably Topdress (fast track)
Nutrient booster 3% 72.42 1.8105 Maybe salt + Kelp + trace vitamin? See PDFs
100% Total 353.91 8.84775

Seeing it will cost me around $9 per 50 bag at retail prices, I can use the chart provided in my previous post to estimate the cost to feed an individual broiler chicken in its lifetime.

Age Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Total # of Bags
One Bird 4.2 oz. 9.2 oz. 3.7 oz. 18.8 oz. 26.1 oz. 34.5 oz. 38.5 oz. 42.6 oz. 46.5 oz. 14.63 lbs.
25 Birds 6.56 lbs. 14.38 lbs. 21.41 lbs. 29.28 lbs. 40.78 lbs. 53.91 lbs. 60.16 lbs. 66.56 lbs. 72.66 lbs. 7.32 bags
50 Birds 13.13 lbs. 28.75 lbs. 42.81 lbs. 58.75 lbs. 81.56 lbs. 107.81 lbs. 120.31 lbs. 133.13 lbs. 145.31 lbs. 14.63 bags
100 Birds 26.25 lbs. 57.5 lbs. 85.63 lbs. 117.5 lbs. 163.13 lbs. 215.63 lbs. 240.63 lbs. 266.25 lbs. 290.63 lbs. 29.26 bags

The above chart from The Organic Feed Store shows that I will need a maximum of 14.63 pounds of feed per chicken in its lifetime.

Next in raising my broilers is moving a pen and refilling feed/water. A total of a half hour per day spread across the 75 birds per pen. Processing a 75 bird batch will take around 4 hours assuming my scalder/plucker builds are successful.

Hours Labor description
0.5 Labor for moving/feeding per day per 75 birds
0.006666667 ^ Per day single bird
60 Days birds are alive
0.4 Labor per bird over its lifetime
4 Processing labor for 75 birds
0.053333333 Processing labor for 1 bird
0.453333333 Total Labor per bird

From brooding to processing, the birds will need to be feed a maximum of 60 days in their lifetime so each bird will take .45 hours of labor to raise.

Adding up the feed and sourcing costs, I can figure my bottom line.

Bottom Line
2.23 Cost of chick at 50 Per order
0.5348 Cost of shipping per chick
5.35365165 Total cost of Chick in lifetime
90% 10% Loss Factor Constant
3.5 Average Dressed Weight
3.5 Price charged per pound
6.206713515 Profit
13.69127981 Hourly Wage


Manually inputting various pricing per pound, I found that $3.50 will provide an hourly wage of almost $15. Keep in mind that all estimated cost are done conservatively and the birds should source 20-30% of their feed directly from the pasture. Any increase in efficiency, decrease in feed costs, minimizing of losses etc. will give me a raise. As a centerpiece of my farm operation, seasonal pastured broiler production will support my desired lifestyle while I explore additional avenues for income.

 Here is a link to Google docs for my spreadsheet if you wish to download it.


Objectively Determining a Chicken Sale Price: Part 1

Under the banner of full transparency, here are the efforts and analysis I have done to nail down a price point for selling dressed broilers. This chart from the Organic Feed Store aligns with almost all literature I have read on raising broilers. Specifically that one bird will consume ~11 pounds of feed in an eight-week lifetime or ~15 in a 9 week lifetime. After 8 weeks, the birds start to eat more than they put on weight-wise so that is the typical culling age. Simply, they cost more to feed than the meat they put on.

Feed Consumption Chart – Meat Birds – Cornish Rock Cross

Age Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Total # of Bags
One Bird 4.2 oz. 9.2 oz. 3.7 oz. 18.8 oz. 26.1 oz. 34.5 oz. 38.5 oz. 42.6 oz. 46.5 oz. 14.63 lbs.
25 Birds 6.56 lbs. 14.38 lbs. 21.41 lbs. 29.28 lbs. 40.78 lbs. 53.91 lbs. 60.16 lbs. 66.56 lbs. 72.66 lbs. 7.32 bags
50 Birds 13.13 lbs. 28.75 lbs. 42.81 lbs. 58.75 lbs. 81.56 lbs. 107.81 lbs. 120.31 lbs. 133.13 lbs. 145.31 lbs. 14.63 bags
100 Birds 26.25 lbs. 57.5 lbs. 85.63 lbs. 117.5 lbs. 163.13 lbs. 215.63 lbs. 240.63 lbs. 266.25 lbs. 290.63 lbs. 29.26 bags

Even though I am going to cull at 8 weeks, I will use the feed requirements for a 9 week bird as it gives room for spillage, waste and just a general buffer. Now that I have the amount of feed required to raise a broiler, I contacted local feed mills.

One of the feed consultants, in his Appalachian drawl, inquired if I was going to be “One of these more natural operations.”  I responded that it will be a more natural, pasture-based approach but I personally place more emphasis on local sourcing than shipping “natural products from the Midwest” or natural kelp from Iceland. To my surprise, he about jumped out of his shoes in excitement to help me by immediately explaining their local lightly roasted soybeans, corn, alfalfa meal. He spent quite a while explaining how their mill works and the various blades for crimping, rolling or pelleting feed. He also listed the retail prices for all his ingredients as well as feed rations they have formulated for other poultry customers. They are willing to mix small amounts for me as samplers and will happily scale up production along with my operation as it expands. Needless to say, I have found my feed source!

So based on the quoted prices, I can build a model to determine all of my costs that go into each bird in its lifetime. From there it is a simple step to formulate the price per pound at which selling the birds will support my lifestyle. Stay tuned as I will publish the calculations and spreadsheets in a following post.

Cattle, Chicks, Side Projects

Experiment: Growing Bamboo for fodder

Turns out just about every livestock animal enjoys bamboo at different stages of its growth. Chickens will eat new shoots, cows/horses will graze the foliage and goats will browse any part of it that isn’t overly mature/woody.


About Bamboo:

I’ll always remember a poem from one of my rather-hippie forest ecology professors:

“Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints unless there are cops around.”

Therefore, bamboo is technically a grass!

Found on bamboofarmingusa,com, 2 laboratory analysis reports were shared that break down the nutrient content of bamboo.

From Dairy One Forage Testing Laboratory (PDF Link):



From the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Customer Services:


The crude protein figures above are high enough to be considered a “Premium” grass hay by USDA guidelines (retrieved from Oregon State University). Bamboo requires significant amounts of nitrogen so some sort of legume ground cover (likely peas or clover) would be a natural companion for the bamboo stands.

Letting animals graze bamboo also has the subjective benefit of breaking the monotonous boredom of extended hay feeding. As bamboo is an evergreen perennial, the stands could be opened to grazing in winter. I am not sure how nutrient composition changes with winter dormancy though.

Containing the potentially invasive bamboo:

Growing up in a metropolitan area that has spent countless resources battling the encroachment of bamboo, I want to take steps to ensure it remains contained. Originally meant for containing hops plants from taking over the garden, physical root barriers were actually invented with bamboo in mind.

Here are my two favorites on Amazon:

18″ x 100 ft

24″ x 100 ft


Time will tell how this experiment goes!

A friend brought up an interesting point in a comment on yesterday’s blog post. There is a species of bamboo native to Virginia and the Southeast US called Giant Cane. He provided a descriptive PDF from the USDA that explains the historical value and use of the plant. My favorite passage states:

According to environmental
historian Mart Stewart (2007), “Modern studies
have established that cane foliage was the highest
yielding native pasture in the South. It has up to
eighteen percent crude protein and is rich in
minerals essential for livestock health.” Livestock
eagerly eat the young plants, leaves, and seeds and
stands decline with overgrazing and rooting by hogs
(Hitchcock and Chase 1951).

Which demonstrates the plant is on par with bamboo as a nutrition source for livestock. Not to mention the renewable building material provided by mature stems. I could build chicken coops, green/hoop houses, storage sheds, etc. Interesting stuff to say the least!