pastured poultry

Newsletter January 2018: Cooped Up

Cooped Up

Happy New Years! I hope everyone had a great holiday season. We had a good time with family and eating delicious food. This time of year for us is a time of planning, rest, and recuperation. We’ve got a few exciting things in the works that we’ll let you all in on very soon.

Something important happened this past fall that is just starting to get attention now. The USDA is attempting to keep animal housing guidelines in the National Organic Program (NOP) loose. This is a big deal. The NOP had been working on standardizing animal welfare rules for years (these are the guidelines that regulate housing standards for animals). Currently, I believe that animal housing is a huge loophole in the Organic standard. The loophole is coming from vagueness in the wording; the NOP requires that an animal has access to the outdoors and enough space to “express their animal behavior.” To accommodate, large chicken houses (150,000-200,000 birds) simply added screened-in porches to count for outdoor access, and any ability for a chicken to move is considered expressing animal behavior. This is why you can find relatively cheap Organic chicken at the supermarket--it’s certified poultry raised in a confinement setting--something that breaks the spirit of Organic law and should break the letter too. There has been overwhelming support from Organic farmers for removing the vagueness and instituting very strict housing rules, but the USDA isn’t seeing it that way and is backtracking on potential changes to close the loopholes.

It’s hard not to see Big-Ag’s fingers in this. The Organic industry has shown that it’s not a fad and is continuing to grow each year. This means that there’s consumer confidence in the Organic seal. What would happen if these large chicken houses had to start allowing access to outdoors or giving birds more space to roam? They would not be able to meet these requirements. The USDA stated they were:

“…concerned that the…. final rule’s prescriptive codification of current industry practices in the dynamic, evolving marketplace could have the unintended consequence of preventing or stunting future market based innovation in response to rapidly evolving social and producer norms. Overly prescriptive regulation can discourage technological and social innovation… distorting or even preventing technological development.”

The entire point of Organic certification is to have “prescriptive regulation.” Certification itself insinuates a standard to be met. How can we make the standard easier to meet just so that large chicken suppliers can continue to meet them?

In contrast, here’s how our housing at Alden Hills works. Our beef herd is always outside with access to both shelter (wooded lanes) and pasture. Laying chickens are out on pasture and roost in movable coops at night. Their winter quarters are a heated coop that still has full access to the outdoors. Meat chickens and turkeys are raised in a hoop house brooder until 3-4 weeks old and then are moved to pasture where they are on fresh grass 24/7.  Why does this matter? Organic certification is a good thing but it’s not always enough. Certification is something that we do believe in at Alden Hills, but knowing your farmer and how your food is raised is equally important. These two things should work in tandem to ensure clean food for you and your family.  

Levi Powers

Newsletter December 2017: Winter Quarters

Winter Quarters

               We hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! We almost sold out of our turkeys this year so we are very thankful to all who made us a part of your holiday! We had a lot to be thankful for here for the farm this year as well. We’ve had a lot of people asking about if Emily had our baby or not. Our little boy Soren Powers was born a few weeks early before Thanksgiving, so it was an especially grateful holiday for us this year!

This mild weather has been nice as we continue to button the farm up for winter. There is always a struggle this time of year between the warm and cold temperatures, and that battle can affect the farm quite a bit. I’ve come to learn that the sooner the ground freezes over the better! During the muddy times (usually mid-spring and late fall) the herd is kept to “sacrifice” pastures. These pastures are areas where we know the herd will damage the turf but is necessary to keep the other fields undamaged. With a grass-based herd, no matter the weather or season, we must have a place for them to go and these sacrifice areas are crucial to controlling potential damage. The biggest damage in muddy conditions is hoof damage and “pocking” in the field. The grasses will come back but it will take much longer. Ideally your sacrifice pasture will move around year by year to spread the damage out. A sacrifice pasture can sometimes be ungrazeable until early summer.

As soon as the ground is frozen the cattle can’t damage the fields, so the herd gets moved to their permanent winter quarters. Winter quarters are chosen based on how accessible it is to a water source and then I will try to find a section of poor pasture. The reason for wintering the herd on bad sections is that I can help rejuvenate those areas over the winter months by feeding hay on them. The hay is great because it usually has a large amount of grass seeds inside the bales. Once it warms up again in the spring these seeds will have the affect of reseeding my pasture for me. The other benefit is that the cows will lay down a large amount of manure, which gives the soil a real boost as well. I’ve learned from experienced farmers how much easier it is to work with the seasons… and it makes our lives so much simpler here when all the pieces work together to build a better farm.

We hope you have a great holiday season!

Levi Powers

Newsletter September 2017: Freshness

               Just a quick farm update! There wasn’t a newsletter last month, but things are moving right along at Alden Hills. Summer is nearly over, but we’ll stay pretty busy for another 5 weeks or so. We have 2 batches of chickens and turkeys left so we aren’t quite done with the poultry… the day the last batch of chickens go to butcher is probably my favorite day of the year. We still have another hay cutting to get in, and once that’s finished we’ll stay busy with getting cattle to butcher until winter.

               I want to tell you about a frustrating conversation I had with a passerby at market a few weeks ago. He was not too impressed with our meat selection and asked why it couldn’t be fresh and in a specific steak cut like he could get at Whole Foods. This conversation stayed with me for a while-- I think I take for granted how challenging raising local meats is, as a consumer I am very used to being able to purchase just about whatever I need conveniently. Logistically, raising local meats is very difficult… here is a synopsis of what it entails for us:

·        We breed and raise our own beef. All steers take 24-30 months to finish on grass so that means that my production needs to be anticipated at least 2 years out. Poultry is about a year out as well; we must stockpile enough inventory each year to last until next summer.

·        For beef, all my butcher dates are set over a year in advance. A local producer usually can’t get animals in at the last second so it’s important that I have harvest dates set and ready to go. This requires a lot of flexibility to walk the line of not running out of inventory and yet maximizing weight gain before butcher.

·        Once at butcher I only have a few options for different cuts. For example, I can choose tenderloin or I can choose porterhouses, but not both. I try to mix and match as much as possible to keep the variety up, but unique cuts aren’t available to me (think tomahawk steaks or tri-tip roast). On a side note, if I’m able to get a customer a certain preferred cut, I will. It never hurts to ask, and I will try!

·        There are some cuts that end up in high demand because there will only be a few per animal. For example, flank steak is hard to keep in stock because I only get 2 per animal. Brisket is another example of a low quantity cut like that as well.

·        From there we have our meat packaged frozen. The shelf life on fresh meat is about 5 days before it goes bad. Because I am stockpiling to last the next 12 months, you can see how this would be a challenge to offer fresh!

All of these variables add up to make a lengthy, complicated process of getting a calf from birth to finished to butcher to your dinner table… it can be very challenging to keep inventory levels up to meet demand! We had a great conversation with a regular customer last week about how he appreciated that we didn’t have a full assortment of cuts because that meant that we were more likely to be genuine with our products. A small farm simply cannot provide vast array of cuts that I sometimes see at farmers markets, and I always am very wary of the integrity of those farms. Your support means a lot to us, and we will continue to work to raise local, pastured meats for you!

Levi Powers

Newsletter October 2017: Final Harvests

Final Harvests

My personal favorite time of year is here again. I love the chilly mornings and clear, sunny afternoons that mean fall is in full swing. It also signals that we’re getting very near to the end of our farming season. We’re still finishing up our last few items, namely, final batch of chickens go into butcher this week, turkeys still have another month to go, beef will be taken to butcher regularly until the end of year, and if you’ve been past the store lately you’ll also notice a new fencing project as we continue to upgrade our infrastructure.

One of our last items for the year is finishing up our final hay cutting. We take our first hay as soon as it’s dry enough in May, and our final cutting is in Sept/Oct. We’ll usually get three different harvests from the hay fields each year. Baling good quality hay is as much an art as it is a science. Grass needs to be mowed at a particular stage in growth to maximize nutritional value; if it’s too early you will get a low yield, and if it’s too late you will get very poor quality.  

We feed our own hay, which means that we’re kept pretty busy through the summer getting in enough to last us all winter. We have about 200 acres in hay, which is about how much acreage we have in grazing pasture as well. We’ll put up about 700 large square bales, which is about how much we need to keep our 150 Belted Galloways fed. This comes out to about 315 tons of hay to be fed through the winter. You can see why hay is our largest overhead cost! Feeding hay in the winter months is a definite downside to farming in the Midwest, but winter gives time for the soil to rest and rejuvenate so there are benefits to it as well.

I’m learning that not all hay is the same. In the past I think we had overlooked hay quality somewhat, but now I’m starting to understand how much of a difference it can make. It’s important to feed our steers the highest quality and most nutritional hay so they can continue to finish through the winter instead of holding their weight steady. In the grass-fed business, every opportunity to get that animal finished counts! All of our hay fields had previously been seeded in a straight grass seed mix, which makes great hay but not a very complete nutritional meal. This spring I overseeded red clover into the hay fields to add in a legume. Legumes are important to have in your hay because it adds much-needed energy for the animal. Legumes in the field also work as a green fertilizer and add nitrogen to the soil; it ends up being a great symbiotic relationship! We’ll have better hay and better soil at the same time.

I know that hay is not the most interesting topic in the world, but it would be impossible for us to survive without it so it’s very important to us here at Alden Hills! I am always a little more amazed as I continually see how everything at the farm is so connected and dependent on each other.

Levi Powers 

July Newsletter 2017: Day Ranged

Happy July 4th weekend! We have about 3,000 meat birds running around right now, anywhere from 7 days old to 70 days old. Add in about 70 turkey poults, and things are staying pretty busy here! We run our chickens in batches of 1,000 birds every 3 weeks so as an old batch is going to butcher we get a new batch in.

Raising chickens can be an equally frustrating and rewarding experience, and this year has been a perfect example of that. We start our broilers in the brooder for the first 3 weeks of their lives, which is an airtight, heated building that allows the chicks to develop in a controlled environment. At this stage chicks are very susceptible to many things-- the slightest breezes or dampness for example can be disastrous! When they are in the brooder it requires constant checking and adjusting each day to keep conditions perfect.

Once the chicks have started to develop feathers, they’re able to deal with temperature fluctuations and are moved out to pasture. The first week out on pasture is when the chicks are most vulnerable because they’re at the mercy of weather. This year has been especially frustrating on our end for this reason as we’ve had two terrible storms come through at the worst times, which were disastrous. 

We run our chickens in what is called a “Day Range” system. This means that once out to pasture the broiler chickens are given a large section of pasture each week and allowed to freely roam. This is different than the Salatin (or movable pen model) where birds are in pens that are moved every day. We use the day range system because we believe that we get a healthier, more robust bird, and it’s a lot less labor each day. The only downside is catching them all on butcher day, which can be an adventure! A day range system also means that we have to keep predators away; we have our two Great Pyrenees guardian dogs patrolling around the chicken batches 24/7, which keeps out other animals.

We feed a certified Organic chicken feed from a local mill here in Wisconsin (with most of the grains also being grown right here in the state as well). A freshly mixed, high quality feed is really important to getting a great tasting chicken. Chickens are great foragers and they will actually eat grass in addition to their chicken feed. While foraging doesn’t do much for feeding the chickens, this grass helps add flavor to the meat and is why a pastured bird will have a distinctly better flavor than a grocery store chicken. There are a lot of small factors that also go into successfully raising pasture poultry, and if you’re ever out our way we’d love to show you in person!

Farming is really about learning from each experience. Raising chickens is no different. It takes vigilance and constant care, but we believe that a great chicken comes from a great farming environment!

Levi Powers

Newsletter May 2017

May 1st

Happy May Day! Compared to this time last year it feels like we are lightyears ahead of schedule. Well, things have escalated quickly already at Alden Hills; we have two batches of meat birds (over 1,700 birds total) in brooders right now, which will be ready for pasture by this coming week. We’re also fully in calving season as we already have had about a third of our calves born with 18 little guys running around right now. Things are a little crazy!  

I was asked over the winter about when I fell in love with farming, and I was thinking about that question again recently. For those of our customers that know me then you know that I was not raised on a farm and come from a very different background than most farmers. My family never had animals around growing up so I wouldn’t have even called myself an animal person before coming to work at Alden Hills full time. I have a degree in business, and so I tended to look at the farm mostly through those eyes. That has definitely changed in the last year, and now I find my view of the farm more personal. I don’t have a moment to go to when a switch flipped and I fell in love with farming. I think I fall in love with farming a little bit more every day.  I have more moments where I stop what I’m doing, look around, and what I’m surrounded by amazes me. Whether it’s a sunrise, a full green pasture, or a newborn calf – those are the moments that connect me to the farm. My favorite part is still the end product; I love raising pastured meats that you and your family can enjoy, I enjoy working with chefs, and asking you what you did with the brisket you bought last week. But I am also learning to appreciate the process of raising that animal the right way.

A lot has changed with how I view the land and the animals, as you work with each daily you learn to appreciate the subtleties of nature. A younger me rushed around finishing chores as quickly as possible and moving on to the next task, but I’m starting to understand that most chores on the farm are never “done.” There is a mindset change when you find that you aren’t as annoyed as you used to be when you’d have to go out and check on day old chicks at 9pm. They say with farming that the work never ends and that’s true, but I also think that the farmer is the person that enjoys that. At least that’s what I’ve discovered about myself.