Chickens: The Gateway Animal to Farming
Q&A with Emily Travis of Endless Mountains Ranch
When the pandemic hit, hatcheries across the country were flooded with orders for chicks. People took to homesteading in droves, and the gateway animal was the chicken. I have to admit, in our downtime in spring of 2020, we built a coop and stocked up on brooder supplies, eagerly awaiting our seven Buff Orpingtons, just like all the rest of America. We had always wanted backyard eggs, and now we had a little spare time to invest in the process. We loved the idea of gleaning this awesome protein source right from our own animals. With spring ramping up, the chick orders will be flooding in and the Post Office will be loud with the peeping of fuzzy chicks huddled close and warm in boxes.
Maybe it’s your turn to join the movement. But will you buy layers, or do you prefer the next step up, meat chickens? To help you decide and prepare for everything you will need in the world of poultry-keeping, our friends Paul and Emily at Endless Mountains Ranch are here to educate you and provide you with some awesome advice when it comes to entering this world! Join us for a Q&A with Emily below to get your own questions answered!
What was it that encouraged you guys to invest in chickens?
Layers: Paul never wanted layers but once I entered his life, that quickly came to an end. When you farm the way we do, we definitely want to “walk the walk” and make sure that we’re feeding ourselves and our family the way that we’re encouraging others to feed their families and raising our own layers to provide eggs for ourselves was just a part of that. And, if you know anything about chicken math, the number of chickens you have just seems to grow and grow rather inexplicably, so, now we have enough layers to offer eggs to the public too.
Meat Birds: If we’re being honest, we both like good quality food! We knew that we wanted to raise our own meat and had high hopes of someday making a living off of our farm. Paul originally started this ranch before I came into the picture and he had done so with a lot of inspiration from Joel Salatin. He loved the concepts that Joel spoke of in his books and wanted to see the benefits of chickens firsthand on his pastures. The ideas that Joel posed sounded logical and benefited both the Rancher and the animal.
Were they your starter animal or were they a secondary addition to the farm?
Layers: were actually the last addition to our farm since Paul was not interested in having them at first.
Meat birds: were a tertiary addition! Paul started with pigs, then added the cows and followed those with the meat birds!
Was it intimidating at first?
Getting into any new endeavor offers a certain level of nervousness but Paul had done his homework and was ready to jump in. His nervousness erred on the side of excitement, rather than intimidation. As Joel Salatin would say, “if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly first.” Of course you don’t want to do it poorly but we’re definitely students of the school of trial and error!
What were some of the major lessons you learned in the beginning?
Layers: Predators are real. You don’t want to assume you won’t have an issue. Be prepared to at least have Roosters to protect your flock.
Meat Birds: These birds grow quickly! They go from little chicks to full grown, ready to be harvested chickens in 6-8 weeks. When you think they’re ready, they probably are!
What essentials do you recommend for starting with chicks?
A designated brooder space with plenty of heat, space for them to get away from the heat if necessary, water, and food. Our meat birds eat high protein chick feed their whole lives. With layers, they start with high protein chick feed and eventually you lessen the protein in the feed. Not with meat birds, though! They need all the protein! You’ll also need wood shavings to soak up their manure and give them a comfy space to live and grit for their feed! Since they’re too little to be outside foraging for rocks and bugs and things like that, you’ll need to give them grit to help aid in their digestion.
Where do you personally go to get supplies?
Our chicks come from Myers Poultry in South Fork, PA. We purchase their feed from a feed mill located in Upstate New York. They’re a family run business and they’ll deliver to our farm so it’s a win-win! For other supplies, we purchase from Montrose Feed & Supply, Premier 1 Supples, or Tractor Supply. Our goal is to shop local as often as possible!
Suggestions for a good coop? Build or buy?
Layers: We built our coop. We had an idea of how many chickens we wanted free ranging around our home and built a coop that could accommodate. Chickens need 2-3 square feet per bird to live comfortably. Our suggestion would be to do your research and decide how many chickens you want. If you only want a couple birds then a small, store-bought coop may fulfill your needs and be more cost efficient!
Meat Birds: We raise our meat birds in chicken tractors. They spend their first two weeks of life in our brooder and then they’re moved into the tractors out on pasture! This is where they’ll stay for the next 4-5 weeks! We built our own tractors mainly because we wanted to try a few different designs to figure out what worked best for us. We’ve tried a few over the years and landed on the style that you see in the photo. We move them every day so that the chickens get a new piece of pasture to forage on for all the yummy goodness it has to offer while dropping their rich manure and fertilizing our pastures. Each year we raise our meat birds on a different pasture in an effort to get the pastures ready for cows!
Where can people turn for support as they're learning with their flock along the way?
We enjoy listening to podcasts and watching a number of different people on YouTube such as Polyface Farm, John Suscovich (Farm Marketing Solutions), Just a Few Acres Farm, etc. John Suscovich wrote a book with instructions on how to build the chicken tractor design we’ve liked the best.
Why would you suggest someone raise meat chickens or buy pastured local raised rather than going to the grocery store? What are the advantages?
We have each been given one body. Only one. It is so important that we take care of it. What you fuel and nourish your body with MATTERS. Every week we hear about new recalls and outbreaks. Animals that are raised in clean and healthy environments produce clean, healthy meat. It’s our goal to make sure that the animals we raise enjoy each and every day until they fulfill their purpose of fueling our bodies with high quality protein. It should be a symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit.
If someone wanted to raise chickens for meat in an effort to be a little more self-sustaining, do the benefits still outweigh the costs in your opinion?
ABSOLUTELY. This may not align with everyone’s views but, in my humble opinion, the cost of being self-sufficient is priceless whether that means growing your own food or being proactive about researching where to source your food sustainably.
What are some of the major costs involved?
The main costs, after infrastructure is established, are the cost of chicks, feed and, for meat birds, butchering (unless you butcher them yourself). Layers really have rather minimal costs once the coop is built and feeders and waterers purchased. Basically just feed and grit. As the days get shorter in the fall, we will supplement our birds with crushed oyster shells to attempt to aid in the development of the fewer and fewer eggs they produce each day, but that’s a very minimal expense.
What are some major do's and dont's for those interested in raising birds for meat?
DO create a “goals” sheet specifying how many birds you want to raise in any given year. DO put some forethought into the entire process. DO set butcher dates well in advance to ensure you get a spot! DON’T assume you’ll be able to find a butcher last minute. DON’T sign up for butchering all the birds yourself without at least watching some YouTube videos of the process. Make sure you’ve got the stomach for it before you commit yourself. DON’T commit to butchering all the birds yourself without the proper equipment to do so. DO ask questions!! DO consider your region and the weather therein. Winter comes with responsibilities that summer doesn’t always require (this is more pertinent for layers since you wouldn’t typically raise meat birds on pasture in the winter).
Are there regulations for raising and/or/selling meat chickens in PA?
Check with the zoning for your town and neighborhood. Some towns and ordinances don’t allow people to raise a certain number of birds within city limits. It would be a real disappointment to build the tractor, purchase the feeders and chicks and everything else and then be told you have to get rid of it all.
If you CAN’T raise chickens yourself, or you decide that you don’t want to, do some research and find a farm near you to purchase from. When shopping this way, you’re supporting a local business, you know where your hard earned money is going, you know what you’re putting in your body, and you’re building relationships with people within your community who are working their tails off to make the environment around you a better place. It may cost more than going to a big store, but isn’t the investment in yourself and your family worth it?
An excerpt from a book I’m currently reading: (An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler): “Buy a whole chicken at a farmers’ market if you can. They’re much more expensive - up to three times as expensive - as chickens raised in factories, which most, even the ones labeled “free range,” are. The two are completely different animals. As soon as you boil a chicken that was raised outdoors, pecking at grubs, you’ll notice that its stock is thick, golden, and flavorful. When it cools, it will thicken. Chickens that’ve led chicken-y lives develop strong, gelatinous bones, which contribute to the soup you get from them and to how good they are for you. If you’re getting more meals out of your chicken, and more nutrition out of those meals, spending the extra money makes sense.”
For more information on how you can support Endless Mountains Ranch: This year, we plan to see our birds in a Chicken CSA. We did the same last year and people really loved it! The CSA is a monthly program (first Saturday of each month) and, when you checkout, you select the size of the program you want to take part in. We offer Couple’s Shares or Family Shares. A Couples share is 2 chickens per month and a Family share is 4 chickens per month. You can choose whether you want your birds as whole birds, half birds or a mixture of both! Pickup or delivery is available! The program runs just July through December. Information about how to get signed up will be coming out in our Newsletter so please, go to our website and scroll to the bottom to stay “in-the-know” about what’s the come! firstname.lastname@example.org