Archive | October, 2013

Chicken economics – ranger vs cornish

27 Oct

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So I wrote earlier about the results of our first experimental batch of red ranger chickens, but I’d like to get all geeked-out and dive right into the nitty-gritty numbers of it all.
Read ahead at your own risk (you might find it all dangerously boring.)


 I wanted to do an in-depth comparison of Cornish-cross and Red ranger chickens for any other farming-type folks (0r customers) who might be interested.  I need to figure out which chickens I’d like to raise next year, and figure out what price the chickens need to bring.  It helps immensely to have a solid set of numbers to base my decision-making on.



Live weight – 6lbs at 7 weeks

Dressed weight – 4lbs (66% dress-out)

Cost per chicken:

  • Chick – $1.05
  • Feed – $2.97 (13.5# x $0.22/lb.)
  • Processing – $3.13 ($2.80 + $0.33 transport cost)
  • Labor – $1.20 (7 weeks * 7 days * 5 minutes * $15/hr. [divide by 50 chicks/pen])
  • Equipment – $0.33 (pasture pens, brooder, feeders, etc.)
  • Marketing & Overhead – $2.00
  • Mortality Loss – $1.21 (9%  * $13.40)

Total Costs – $11.89

Income – $13.40 ($3.35 * 4lbs.)

Profit – $1.51


Red Ranger

Live weight – 6lbs at 11 weeks

Dressed weight – 4lbs (66% dress-out)

Cost per chicken:

  • Chick – $2.20
  • Feed – $2.97 (13.5# x $0.22/lb.)
  • Processing – $3.13 ($2.80 + $0.33 transport cost)
  • Labor – $1.93 (11 weeks * 7 days * 5 minutes * $15/hr. [divide by 50 chicks/pen])
  • Equipment – $0.33 (pasture pens, brooder, feeders, etc.)
  • Marketing & Overhead – $2.00
  • Mortality Loss – $0.80 (6% * 13.40)

Total Costs – $13.36

Income – $13.40 ($3.35 * 4lbs.)

Profit – $0.04


There you have it: red rangers cost more to raise than NASCAR chickens.  We would need to charge $3.95 per pound for our red ranger chickens to make roughly the same amount of profit that we’d make raising cornish-cross.  And that’s not even factoring in the opportunity cost of having the equipment and labor tied up for an extra 3 weeks.

Several times this past year I’ve had other farmers ask me why our prices are so low.  Mainly, our prices were a complete shot in the dark.  I’d done the math way back at the beginning of the season, so I knew we weren’t losing money, but it was going to take a year to get a really comprehensive view of the costs involved with raising chickens on pasture.

For next year it’s pretty clear that we’re going to have to raise our prices.  Raising Cornish-cross (which we’d prefer not to do) we would only make $906 in profit for a whole years work at our current prices.  It’s even worse with red rangers, profiting a mere $24.  That’s not much for a year of hard work.


On feed conversion:

I just used the industry-standard 2.25:1 feed conversion ratio for my calculations.  We buy our feed in bulk, so it’s difficult to compare exactly how much the cornish or rangers eat.  The meat chickens, turkeys and young layer pullets have all been eating from the same 4-ton batch of feed.  I estimated the amount of feed that I would need for this year based on a lower conversion ratio (about 3:1, I can’t remember) and we came out with more feed than I thought at the end of the year.  Judging from this powerpoint presentation, it looks like 2.25:1 is a solid number to aim for.

Red Ranger Chickens

26 Oct

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Just last week we finished up the last batch of chickens for the year.  We ended 2013 with a small batch of Red Ranger meat birds. They’re a newly-available meat bird that’s a bit different than the average Cornish-Cross “NASCAR” chicken.


The red rangers are slower growing, and more active bird.  That means that they do a much better job of foraging around in their chicken pens for grass and bugs. I like it that they use the pasture more effectively and have less mortality than the NASCAR chickens. You’ll like the way that these new chickens taste. They’re very flavorful birds, which defy the “tastes like chicken” stereotype, with a skin that crisps up beautifully when roasted.  I talked to a few other farmers who said that the red rangers were hands-down the tastiest chickens you could raise.  I don’t disagree.

From a practical farming perspective, these chickens have both good and bad points.

The good:

Better meat quality, better foraging behavior, lower mortality, faster and more-consistent growth than pure-bred chicken breeds.

The bad:

Higher chick costs, longer grow-out, larger weight “spread” than NASCAR chickens.


Here’s a pretty good picture of the problems with the red ranger chickens


On the left is a “normal” NASCAR chicken.  In the middle is a male red ranger, and on the right a female red ranger.

All three chickens were hatched the same day, lived in the same pen, and ate the same food.
The NASCAR chicken weighs 7.5lbs.  That’s 1/2 pound more than the other two chickens combined!  Broken down to the cold hard numbers, we’d gross 53% more income by growing NASCAR chickens instead of the red rangers.  The red rangers are better foragers, and should have a lower feed cost than the NASCAR chickens, as well as having lower mortality loss.  But there’s no getting around the fact that red ranger chicks cost twice as much, and they take twice as long to grow.  Time, after all, equals money and that means the red rangers are a costlier bird to grow.

There is quite a difference in weight between the male and female red rangers.  Normally, even a small amount of sexual dimorphisim is frowned upon in broiler production, but I haven’t yet decided that it’s a bad thing for us. Because we direct market our chicken, we have a lot of different customers who like a different sized bird.  It’s nice to have a little bit of variety to choose from in those cases.

As this is our “experimental” batch of red rangers, we’ve left our price the same at $3.35 per pound.  Hurry up and try one before they’re all gone!

If you do get to try one, please let us know what you think of it!  We’ll be looking for customer feedback to decide what chickens to raise next year.



Now Even Greener!

23 Oct

We just took the plunge.

Green Machine Farm is now 100% wind-powered!

Turns out that our utility company offers a program called Windsource through which they will sell you 100kwh “blocks” of renewably-sourced energy for an extra $1 per block.  For the average US household, that would add up to an extra $9.40 on each electric bill.

Around here, we tend to keep a pretty close eye on our electricity usage. Even though we live in an old drafty farmhouse we use an average of 700kwh per month, 26% less than the US average.  So for an extra $7 we get to go a little greener.

The Windsource program isn’t perfect, and we’d like to actually generate some of our own power eventually, but for now it beats the heck out of the alternative.

Pig Prison

20 Oct

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We’ve got this chicken-secure stall in the barn that we’ve been referring to as our “Chicken Prison.” That stall is where we put any chicken that is suspected of doing something bad (eating eggs, laying in the haybales) or is otherwise sick and in need of isolation. It’s come in very handy for the chickens and turkeys this year.

With all the goings on with pigs this fall, it was high time we built a pig prison.


So there it is, the new pig prison. It’s got two “cells” that each have a separate indoor and outdoor area. The outdoor run can then open to the rest of the paddock if the pigs are ready to be let out.
We made it out of a lot of scraped-together materials: recycled dog-kennel gates, livestock panels.

Right now, we’ve got the feeder pigs in one side, and Harry in the other.


Harry needed a nice place to cool his heels for a week while he adjusts to life on our farm. He’s coming along pretty well, and by Tuesday he’ll be ready to come out and play nice with our fences.
After Harry’s done his time I’ll add a bit of electric fence wire to make the cell a “training pen” for any new pigs on our farm. A training pen is where a new animal is “trained” to avoid electric fence wire. Just place pigs or cows in a securely-fenced area with a little bit of electric fence. In a few days they all know to stay the heck away from that little grey wire. That thing hurts!
Once they’ve been trained to electric fence, they can be let out on pasture.

Harry would love to be out on pasture, but he has a few more days left on his sentence.


Till then he’ll just hunker down and wait it out.

Feeder Pig Digs

16 Oct

After starting my very first pigs in the bottom half of the Woodshed, our subsequent pigs have moved around a bit. First they moved to the polebarn, then they got a nice spot made up for them in the big barn. But now, for the first time, we have the need for 2 separate places to raise different age-groups of pigs.

Back when we replaced the waterer, we had to pull out and then replace almost all of the heavy-duty lot fence that separates our two pig (and cow) living areas. That fence is now very capable of holding any cow or pig.  Plus we added two working gates, a 14′ gate for vehicles & equipment and a 3′ gate for people to walk through.


While the fence was out we took the opportunity to address some of the really dumb drainage problems. We spent a couple of days getting the contours right with the tractors bucket and rear blade.  The bare dirt was then seeded in a mix of pasture grasses and legumes with oats as a quick cover.  As we get time we’re even spreading some old hay from the hayloft down as a mulch.

We got the fence reconstructed just in time for our final batch (hopefully ever?) of feeder pigs to arrive.

Feeder pigs are generally young 1.5 to 2 month old pigs that we buy to then grow out to their market weight at about 5-8 months.  In a few months we should have baby pigs of our own, so we can quit buying feeders from someone else.

You pretty much have three options for buying feeder pigs around here, none of which are good. You have the “know a guy” option, but being new here, I don’t know any guys with spare pigs. Craigslist is #2 but almost never has feeder pigs, when they do, it’s often someone selling sick barn-raised pigs. The third and most reliable option is the weekly feeder pig auction at Zumbrota’s Central Livestock Association.

The auction always has pigs for sale (between 400 and 700 per week usually) and at least you can see them in the ring (and see any shots they’ve had on the screen) before you buy them. The downside is that you can always assume that the pigs you’re getting were from a “conventional” pig farm.  Assume they were raised indoors, on concrete with limited fresh air and no sunshine.

Unless I know otherwise, I always assume that a feeder pig (especially from an auction) has ZERO experience with electric fencing.  For a while they get a pretty small area that’s fenced with a small run of two aluminum hot-wires.


The area isn’t very big, but it gets them to respect the electric fence in a hurry. Plus, for the first week or so, indoor-raised pigs just don’t know what to do with themselves outdoors.  They tend to stay by the building, a bit overwhelmed by the great outdoors, only venturing out for food and water.

At the end of the first week, it’s time to take the fence down and let them roam around more.  This time after remembering something from a video of Joel Salatin’s pig operation, I put up a cattle panel as part of their initial fence.  I took down the cattle panel and the electric fence at the same time.


Within a few moments the pigs figured out that they were free to explore where the cattle panel had been taken down. But it took them hours to actually believe that the electric wires were gone.  If you’ve ever been shocked by a high-powered fencer, then you might understand their abundance of caution.


The feeder pigs now have a whole paddock all to themselves!  Day by day they venture out further into the paddock. Within a few days they’ll be brave enough to get to the other corner, where the crabapple tree awaits with oodles of windfallen treats. If they knew about the apples, there would be a race to get there, but I haven’t let them in on the secret yet.

Adventures with the new Boar

15 Oct

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We’ve had a few lady-pigs for a little while now, but with only a cursory knowledge of biology, I was pretty sure we’d need a boy-pig of our own to make things work out.  I’ve been talking to Wayne at Green Acres farm for a while now about getting a Tamworth boar pig, and he emailed me a few days ago to let me know I could come pick up a pig.

I came back home Sunday afternoon with this little fella.


He was met with many squeals of “Oh how cute!” (from my mother and wife, not the other pigs). The other pigs were a bit indifferent. So we closed him off in a section of the barn and left him to calm down from his trip and acclimate to his new digs.

He had other plans.

About 15 minutes later, I noticed the dogs were in the driveway barking at something.
No UPS or mail delivery (it was Sunday after all)…
Hmm, that’s odd, they’re barking at something out in the pasture…

Oh hell, they’re barking at the new pig, who is looking for a way under the electric fence and out into the countryside.

Thus began an epic 2-day pig-chasing extravaganza.
The little boar mostly hung around the farmstead, defying all attempts to contain him. He munched on acorns under the oak trees around the house, he grazed and rooted in the alfalfa field, he lived off the land and found every gap in every fence that he could possibly squeeze through.


We tracked his movements as best we could, trying to corral or corner him. But if you were lucky enough to spot him, you had to try with all your might to keep him in sight. One momentary glance away, one shortcut around a building, and *poof* the little boar would disappear.

So Monday night rolls around, still no luck catching the wayward pig. It’s getting dark, and I glance out the window towards the neighbors house across the road.

There’s a little dog walking down the neighbors long driveway…
Hmm, that’s odd, I don’t remember the neighbor having a little dog…

So Monday ended with one last bout of pig-chasing, ending as the little boar retreats up the neighbors driveway faster than I can follow on foot.

On Tuesday, I wake up and do my pig-searching routine, but the little pig isn’t in his usual places. He’s not under the oak trees, he’s not in the alfalfa.
After lunch, I head across the road to search around the neighbors house. The neighbor has a now-defunct elk farm, complete with 10′ tall woven-wire fences. There are only a few places where a little pig could squeeze under the fence, and sure enough, there are tracks!

After calling the neighbor to get permission to go back and pig-hunt, I find an unlocked gate, arm myself with the trusty dip-net, and set out hunting.


The neighbors 10 horses and mules cannot help but investigate this new situation, following me around the entire time.
After tromping about for quite a while, I’m in the very back corner of the neighbors property. I haven’t seen the pig, I’ve hardly seen any sign of him (tracks or rooted-up spots) and I’m about to head back home…


But what’s that sticking out behind the tuft of grass in the distance?
It appears to be two ears and a rump.

The little boar knew he’d been spotted. He glanced nervously at me, then at the mules.
The mules stared back.

And then, the little boar moved.

The instant the mules saw the pig move, the chase was on. Three big mules chased the little pig as fast as his little hooves could carry him. Unfortunately for him, little pig hooves are not as fast as big mule hooves. The mules caught up to him pretty quickly, and that’s when the squealing began.
It took about 2 minutes for the chase to end up on the other side of the property, with the little pig cornered against a building by a whole pack of horses and mules.
I hear a lot of squealing, and run to intervene, hoping that my pig is not currently being stomped to death by the mules.
I encounter one very worn-out pig who halfheartedly tries to escape the dip-net before deciding that he’s done fighting.


I pick him up, fend off the mules and get him back home.
But this time, he goes in the pig version of the ultra-max penitentiary.


He’ll be there a few days, until he can figure out that we’re actually pretty nice people and that he ought to stay inside the fences.

I had already come up with a name for the boar. He was going to be named Harold, after a Drive-By Truckers song, but that no longer seems to fit.

After two days of disappearing acts and narrow escapes, this little fella earned himself a new name: Harry, as in Houdini.

3 Months, 3 Weeks and 3 Days

9 Oct

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It’s about time to take Bill back home. He’s finished up his work around here, and in 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days we ought to have some pretty cute little spotted piglets running around the barn. That puts us around February 2nd. A bit cold, but we’ve got a barn and heatlamps for that.