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The Green Book

Aaron and Kelly Silverman: Working with a Growing Group

Aaron and Kelly Silverman: Working with a Growing Group
by Anne Fanatico
APPPA GRIT! issue 22, Fall 2002

Aaron Silverman and his wife Kelly raise 13,000 birds per year on pasture in the coastal mountains of Oregon. Their production is coordinated with other growers as part of their collaborative business, Greener Pastures Poultry, LLC. Aaron processes the birds in a small federally exempt plant and sells to restaurants, farmers' markets, and selected retail outlets.

Aaron's background is actually in horticulture. He began raising chickens as part of the fertility system on his 20-acre Oregon vegetable farm. Already selling fresh produce to restaurants, he found an eager market for range poultry and started expanding his operation. The poultry manure, combined with cover cropping and compost applications builds good soil for the vegetables.

Production system
Aaron's production system is a hybrid of pasture pens and net-range. He used to use pasture pens but had a problem with rats attacking the birds through the pen. He began using net fencing to enclose the pens, surrounding five pens with two rolls of electric net fencing. The pens quickly evolved into basic shelters; they are opened up so the birds can roam the whole enclosure, returning to the shelter to sleep and lounge. During inclement weather (cold or wet) the shelters are closed for the evening. The shelters are moved forward in the enclosure every two days. Once a week, Aaron moves the entire enclosure. 80 to 100 birds are kept in each pen.

During hot summer weather, the birds only venture out in the morning and at dusk. Therefore, Aaron provides water and feed both in the shelter and outside.

The homemade 10' x 12' houses are tall in the center, so you can walk inside. The pens have a wood base, metal electric conduit frame, and are covered with chickenwire and an expensive heavy-duty tarp that is white on the outside and green inside. Trough feeders and waterers are constructed from 6 inch PVC sewer pipe. Metal gutters hung on the inside of the houses provide free choice grit & oystershell. Aaron takes the tarp off the houses for winter storage. He closes down his broiler operation in the winter but continues making sales with frozen product.

By moving the shelters when the birds are roaming the enclosure, Aaron can move the shelters quickly. Normally you have to move pasture pens slowly since there are birds in them.

Aaron's operation averages 9% mortality, which includes the occasional disaster; approximately 1/3 of his losses are in the brooder. He has 30 field houses. To produce 13,000 birds, he employs one full time person, and 1-2 part-time people. Nearly all the production labor is supplied by his hired crew, as Aaron's time is devoted mainly to overseeing the processing facility, and marketing for Greener Pastures.

Aaron's main production challenge is his limited space for pasturing. The farm close to his house is small, and devoted primarily to his vegetable production. Aaron keeps a small flock of layers year-round in an eggmobile in his vegetable fields. While he broods his chicks at his home farm and integrates the broilers with his vegetable production, the main part of his broiler production takes place on leased fields 5 miles down the road.

Aaron uses Hi-Y, a Cornish cross from the Hubbard breeding company. He buys chicks from Hoover's hatchery in Rudd, Iowa. Aaron uses cockerels only, since straight-run resulted in a lot of variation in grow-out weights. Due to the complexities of coordinating production with several other growers, his birds are harvested in stages, from 6.5 to 8 weeks old. Aaron averages a live weight of 5lbs in 6.5 weeks (dress-out average of over 3.5lbs).

A single ration is used for all of the growers participating in Greener Pastures Poultry. The ration is a diverse one, utilizing Organic grains when economically available. Their ration this year was composed of corn, roasted soybeans, soybean meal, wheat, oats, barley, lime, fishmeal, and Nutribalance from Fertrell Company. The ration is ground in bulk and delivered in 7 ton batches from a local feed mill.

Aaron has found that cover cropping makes good specialty poultry pasture. Most pastured poultry producers plan forage around their ruminants--a perennial polyculture pasture with multi-species legumes and grasses is usually ideal-Aaron finds poultry actually prefer broadleaf plants over grasses. He has found New Zealand white clover good for both cover cropping and poultry forage, although expensive. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, is low growing, and does not require mowing. It develops deep roots that allow it to stay green during long dry summers in the West, but it does not form a dense mat that is hard to remove for planting crops or limits diversity in a pasture. And, he says, the chickens love it. Aaron does not have ruminants; he mows in the spring or has the fields hayed.

Brooding:
Aaron broods in a stationary hoop house. The brooder house is a 20 ft x 100 ft quonset greenhouse (ie. large half circle hoops on legs) with 5 foot sidewalls. The house is covered with a single layer of 4-year poly, and further covered with 70% shadecloth to moderate the temperature swings throughout the day. Both sides of the house roll up. He has always brooded in a greenhouse. Until this year, when the large greenhouse devoted to brooding was constructed, half of a house was used for either plant starts (vegetables & flowers) or in-ground crops (mostly herbs that can easily be washed). Within the house, chicks are brooded in 16ft. x 16 ft. boxes constructed from sheets of plywood ripped down to 3 foot widths.

Aaron practices "enriched brooding." He allows access to the outdoors at 1.5 weeks and feeds greens from his garden. He believes this encourages chicks to forage more when they are later placed on pasture. Aaron provides access to the outdoors with a run built onto the side of his brooder house from metal T-posts & old roofing metal. By midway through the season, the outdoor runs are just exercise areas. There's really no forage left in these areas, even with a couple weeks between uses. The greenhouse shadecloth extends over the runs, and the entire house & runs are surrounded with electric netting to exclude cats, rats, & other predators.

According to Aaron, while electrical heat is okay for small batches of birds, propane heat should be used for larger batches. If the electricity goes out, you don't want to lose a lot of birds. Also, it is easier to keep a stable temperature with propane heat. Electric thermostats save Aaron a lot of money in propane cost. Hanging Plasson waterers are used in the brooder house, attached to a low-pressure water line. Waterers are washed after every batch. Bedding is removed after 3-4 batches, and used for composting mortalities or aged to be applied as mulch for over-wintering vegetable crops. He does not disinfect the brooder, and experiences an average of 3% mortality in the brooder, including disasters (rats, cats, heater malfunction, etc.). Aaron would be interested in field brooding but it is not possible in his current set-up.

Entrepreneurship
Aaron started with 2,000 birds, processing and marketing them on-farm. He then began exploring the state licensing needed to operate under USDA exemptions. It was a challenge because Oregon authorities were not accustomed to working with a small, federally exempt plant. He considered a mobile processing unit but decided against it since it was "already going to be confusing enough for the authorities to license an exempt plant."
Aaron leased a defunct 2,000-sq.-ft. locker plant nearby (built in the '50s) for just under $300 per month, after putting $20,000 into renovating the building. The group (Greener Pastures) also invested $40,000 into movable equipment and supplies. Since the plant was built to pack hogs, beef, and game, it is not an ideal layout for poultry processing, but is workable. The plant is capable of processing 500 birds a day.

The plant is currently operated 2 days per week. The plant is operated by a hired crew of seven people, who work anywhere from 3 to 10 hours per operating day. Aaron's wife Kelly helps with packaging and labeling. About 20% of the plant's production is frozen and sold through the winter.

Aaron is building his operation in two phases. The second phase will involve moving to a bigger plant that is USDA-inspected. The first phase will allow him to develop production, processing, marketing and distribution systems that can be expanded in the future. It was not feasible to establish a large business at first. A successful proposal writer, he has received several grants to conduct a market survey at a local farmers' market (see Grit! Issue 19), fund legal work, to lease a refrigerated vehicle, purchase equipment and operating supplies, and perform a feasibility study for establishing an expanded processing facility.

Aaron increased his production to 13,000 birds of his own, in addition to the birds raised by his business partners at Greener Pastures Poultry, LLC. However, operating under the federal exemption limits his business to 20,000 birds per year. He plans to expand to a larger operation in the near future. He wants to operate under USDA inspection in a plant capable of processing at least 200,000 birds per year, probably working with a group of 10-15 producers. Growers net about $1.00 per bird and help with weighing the birds to ensure that the price they receive is accurate. Growers working with Aaron are required to help out with marketing-they give him either 15 cents/bird or 20 hours of time assisting with farmers' markets during the growing season. Greener Pastures Poultry sells to local high-end restaurants in western Oregon, at 3 farmers' markets, and to several butchers and natural food stores.

Aaron is leading the way in terms of collaboration. He has a producer education program that includes Production Guidelines and troubleshooting assistance. In addition to standardizing the feed ration and genetics, the Guidelines provide beginning producers a basic handbook covering suggested methods for brooding, feeding, housing design, stocking density, brooder & field sanitation, and field management practices. He limits producers to 1,500 birds the first year so they can get production problems ironed out.