Rettland Farm

Rettland Farm

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Extreme Makeover, Rettland Edition

"We're a-movin' on up! (Movin' on up!)
To the top! (Movin' on up!)
Of a De-Luxe apaht-ment, in the sky-hy-hy!"

Yup, that's what my broilers are singing this week. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that my chickens are singing the theme songs of sitcoms from thirty years ago, but when they caught a glimpse of their new digs, they just couldn't help but channel old George and Weezy...

For two years now, I've been raising pastured broilers in what has become the "standard" housing model for pastured poultry, most commonly known as a "Salatin Style" pen, named after the Godfather of pastured poultry, Joel Salatin. And as much as I admire the beautiful simplicity of Joel's portable pens, I saw room for some improvements. So I redesigned it a little. Ok, I redesigned it a lot. But you're still the man, Joel!

Raisin' the Roof...

I needed to add height to the Salatin pen (which are only about 2 feet high), for a few reasons. Most important was air circulation. During the summer heat, especially when the birds were fully grown, the air inside seemed stale and stagnant. Since the goal here is to provide a better environment than a typical confinement house, I needed to improve air flow.
Another issue with the low height occurred when it was time to catch the birds on slaughter day. Picture me, army crawling inside the pen, among 100 freaked out chickens, at 6 am, on dew covered grass, trying to catch birds. Yeah, not a day at the beach for me, but even worse--it was VERY stressful on the birds. It seemed really dumb to spend 8 weeks trying to keep stress to negligible levels in these birds, and then blowing it by having them go completely nuts during the last hour of their lives.

So, I went with the hoop house idea that I saw on the web, and outfitted it for broilers. The almost-6 foot ceiling allows me to walk in almost upright (which the chickens are used to by slaughter day since I walk in every day before that to feed them) and calmly corral the birds in a corner. To solve the ventilation issue, the high ceiling, coupled with the open end and sides, draws fresh air into the house by a sort of natural chimney effect.

Unsafe at any Speed...

The other big issue was moving the old pen. The problem was that occasionally a chicken wouldn't move along fast enough, and would get pinched between the pen and the ground. I couldn't always see to be sure that the birds were out of the way, again as a result of the low height.

Well, the "Rettland Pen" is high enough off the ground that a slowpoke chicken won't get mushed by the pen--it will just pass over him. Rubber skirts keep the chickens in and the predators out while the pen is stationary, but floats over the lazy chicken while the pen's in motion. Even though the chicken is now out, and needs to be caught, at least he's not hurt.

Wet Weather Equipped

Lastly, I needed to be able to deal with wet weather, since Pennsylvania's new climate seems to include at least 2 monsoon seasons per year. When we have so much rain that the ground is saturated, the results are disastrous for the chickens. In the Salatin pen, they have nowhere to go. My choices at that point are to either let them wallow in the mud, or catch all of them and move them indoors somewhere. I usually opt for the latter. You can imagine how that goes...and the language involved.

So I added a perch that can fold down in wet weather, so the birds have somewhere to get out of the mud. When the ground is dry, it folds up out of the way, so the birds can graze as usual.

Time will tell if the "Rettland Pen" is a vast improvement over the Salatin Pen. I'm sure there will be bugs that need to be worked out, but this guy seems to be satisfied. For now.

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