For Jim and Judy Protiva, of West Plains, Mo., pastured poultry has been part of their lives for almost 20 years. “We took our maiden voyage with chickens in 1996,” recalled Jim. “From there we continued to grow, adapt and raise chickens and turkeys for individual sale and consumption.”
Starting out with chickens, the process was pretty labor intensive according to Jim.
“We had coops that we moved around the field that held about 75 birds. So for a 600-bird flock, like we usually grow, we had to have about eight houses. It took at least two people to move the coops and it took more than an hour to do that,” he explained. “About five years ago, we modified our procedures to use hoop houses, which are bigger and can house more birds.”
The hoop houses they use are 30 feet by 30 feet and will house up to 700 birds. “Now it takes about 10 minutes to move a house and one person can do it with the tractor, so it has made the process a lot more manageable,” said Jim. “Since they are bigger than what we’ve used in the past, one batch will fit in one house.
“This year we are also starting a new learning process. We are working to completely enclose our hoop houses. In the past we’ve left the chickens out on pasture and given them the opportunity for cover in the houses, but last year we had too many losses to predators.”
Jim explained this was new. “In previous years, we’ve had small losses but never like last summer. Red tail hawks and owls were our biggest challenge,” he said. “It was like they invited all their friends and family last summer and had a buffet on our chickens,” he added with a chuckle.
“We probably lost about 10 percent of our birds last year and that was just getting too expensive. So this year, I’m looking for netting to close in the ends of the hoop houses. It will have to be something that I can roll-up to move the house and then herd the birds back into it once we move it, but it should help on our predator losses,” he reasoned.
“We get day-old chicks from Estes Hatchery in Springfield, Mo., and keep them in our brooder pens for about three weeks,” he explained. “I’ve changed the way we keep our brooder chicks and it’s done well for us. I have converted a wagon, 8 feet wide by 24 feet long. We keep the chicks in that with wood shavings on the floor,” he explained. “Then when we are ready to put them on pasture, we just hook up and pull the wagon out to the field.
“Then I add the shavings to the compost pile and allow the sun to sanitize the wagon for a good three or four days and that has almost eliminated any illness I’ve had with the brooder,” Jim said.
Baby chicks are kept in the brooder for the first three weeks and then taken to pasture. “Once they are on pasture they stay there for another five weeks before we process them,” he explained.
Processing on the farm
The Protiva’s process their poultry on the farm and customers pick it up fresh that day or they deliver it the next. “We are USDA exempt (PL90-492). It says that small growers can process and sell to individuals up to 20,000 birds a year. We generally raise about 5,000 a year.”
They process birds on a two-week cycle.
On processing days it becomes an event at the farm. “Our friends come around for processing day and we start early in the morning,” he explained. “We finish up around noon and have a big pot luck meal and customers begin arriving by 2 that afternoon. We sell fresh processed chicken from the farm until about 6 that night. Then we make deliveries the next day to Springfield, Rolla and sometimes even the Poplar Bluff area.
“We sell most of the poultry right here from the farm and about 1/3 we deliver the next day,” he said. “We deliver the fresh chicken the ‘old school’ way – packed in ice. If I had a refrigerated truck I would need to keep it up and running. This way we can just buy more ice,” he added. “It works for us and is the most cost effective.”
The processing facility uses older equipment that the Protiva’s have been able to obtain from other poultry facilities. “The shackles we hang the chickens from to eviscerate them are actually old Tyson equipment. It’s out-of-date for the large producers and processors but still works perfectly well for us,” Jim explained.
“Our cooling tanks, where we put the chickens in ice water, are stainless steel milk tanks. We are able to utilize discarded equipment and make some of our own processing equipment and what we have works well for us now,” he said.
Poultry, children and life lessons
Jim and Judy have four children who have been raised on the poultry farm. Beth, 26, Kristin, 23, Eli, 21, and Isaac, 13 have all grown up on the farm with the animals. “I believe farm life is the best way to raise children,” Jim said. “They develop a strong work ethic, understand life cycles from birth to death and are involved in raising, harvesting, processing and storing poultry and crops. It’s a true education that can’t be bought at any university,” he added.
According to Jim, the basics for producers interested in pastured poultry are: start small; develop a good product and invest in labor saving devices. “It’s best to do something small and do it well than to invest too much to get too big and do it poorly. We have worked for almost 20 years to develop a good product and a good process.”