Mike and Deb Hansen: Gifts From the Good Earth
Mike and Deb Hansen:
Gifts From the Good Earth, Milladore, WI Summer 2002
Mike and Deb Hansen and their three children operate Gifts From the Good Earth Farm near Milladore in north central Wisconsin. The Hansens purchased their 80 acre farm in 1995. They have been experimenting with systems for pastured poultry for seven years, producing 1000 to 1500 birds the last several years, but expanding production this year to 4400 certified organic (MOSA) Cornish Rock Cross meat birds. They market most directly to consumers and retail outlets, with some going to restaurants. Both Mike and Deb have full time off-farm jobs in nearby communities, Mike in Stevens Point as a Rural Planner for Portage county and Deb in Marshfield as the Director of Fiscal Affairs at the research division of the Marshfield Clinic. They have been improving systems and closely studying the economics of their production with the goal of finding a way to get Mike on the farm full time in the next few years. Recently they have expanded their operation to include pasture raised Belted Galloway beef, which they also direct market.
Production System The Hansen's this year will start 5 batches of chicks, two batches of 1000 and 3 batches of 800. First chicks arrived in mid April. The brooder is a 12x30 foot pen inside the dairy barn, which has been retrofitted with cement work, 2x4's, hog panels, chicken wire and poultry netting. Hansen's have till now used red lamp brooders, but this year are converting to two gas brooders, as they feel these will be less stressful on the birds and more economical. Straight run Cornish Cross chicks are pre-ordered for the year and purchased from Welp Hatchery in Bancroft IA (www.welphatchery.com, 800-458-4473) for $0.52 per chick. Birds stay in the brooder for exactly 4 weeks, living on a cement floor with 6" of pine shavings. New shavings are added on an as-needed basis.
The brooder watering system is a ziggity nipple drinker, purchased from Poultry and Livestock Supplies in Wilmer, MN ( www.palsusa.com 800-328-8842. cost approx $200 for 60 ft). The drip tubes are a vast improvement over bucket systems, as the water stays clean and there is no beak dipping needed. Mike has the tubes hung on pulleys, so they can be raised as the birds grow. The brooder is carefully cleaned after each batch is moved out, with a light bleach solution which is then well rinsed. Mike notes that excluding wild birds, bird nests and droppings from the brooder area is key to maintaining chick health.
Birds are moved out to the fields using a hand crafted transport sledge made of a metal door on wooden runners with foot high plywood walls on three sides. The fourth (long) side is a drop down mesh door. The sledge is hauled to the brooder door, and the 4 week old birds are herded (using a piece of flexible plastic used more commonly as a manger liner) onto the sledge. After the door is closed, Mike hauls the sledge out to the field pens with his four wheeler. Mike claims the sledge has increased his efficiency at this stage many times over, as the birds do not need to be individually handled. In the field, the pens are propped up with a cement block and the birds are herded down the mesh door/ramp and into the back of the pen. After this batch leaves, the brooder is cleaned and ready for a new batch arriving the next day.
Field pens are Mike's design, nicknamed the "Pasture Schooner". They are 8.5 x12 ft, and constructed with a 2x4 frame, cattle and hog panels with plastic tarps for weather protection. Details on the construction will be outlined in an upcoming issue of the GRIT! and available on the APPPA website this winter. Cost of each pen is about $95.00. Pens are moved daily with a two wheel dolly.
The field pen watering system utilizes gravity waterers purchased used from the turkey industry for about $10 each. The water unit in each pen is connected via hosing to a centralized water system that also runs water to the cows.
Pastures are rotated for three years, managing with the cattle and mowing in non-poultry years. Mike notes that the three-year rotation is also very important for organic coccidia control.
The Hansens at this point have not had any significant predator problems. They credit this mainly to the open landscape, but also to keeping surrounding habitat low and clear.
Feed is an organic starter and grower mix, delivered from Golden Grains in Sparta WI, (608-269-5150) in an 11,500# batch, and stored in a bulk grain bin (purchased used for less than $100). This quantity is what their 800 birds will consume in 8 weeks. The feed contains organic high lysine corn, wheat, roasted soybeans, kelp and McNess poultry mix, and costs the Hansens $300/ton including transportation.
In the brooder, after 6 days the feed is served in a 12 hours on-12 hours off system, which Mike has found significantly reduces leg problems and heart attacks. Turmeric (the yellow Indian cooking spice) is sprinkled on the feed daily, for it's mild anti-bacterial qualities. Any evidence of coccidiosis is treated successfully by spraying a light spritz of organic cider vinegar for 3 to 5 days on the feed as it is unloaded from the storage bin. The mild change in the bird's digestive pH has successfully brought birds back to full health.
Feed in the field pens is offered in feeders custom made from plastic 15 and 55 gallon containers. 5 gallon buckets are used to fill feeders from a trailer pulled with the 4-wheeler. Feed is rationed so the birds eat the supply by 1pm.
At exactly 8 weeks, on a Monday evening, the birds are herded from the pasture pens and set into custom-made (again, from cattle and hog panels) transport pens, which sit on pallets and can hold 80-100 birds. Pallets of transport pens are lifted with a folk attachment on the tractor onto a custom made trailer with removable sides. Extreme care is taken to ensure there is proper ventilation for the 800 birds before and during transport. Finding a certified organic processor was one of the biggest challenges for the Hansen's. They are now very happy with Wapsy Processing, a certified organic USDA inspected processor in Decorah IA, but the plant is a three-hour drive from the farm. Wapsy butchers, cleans, labels, bags and freezes the birds. They are put in cardboard boxes (6 per box), which are then weighed. Cost of processing (excluding transportation) is $1.75 per bird. The Hansen's estimate live transportation costs add $0.15 per bird, if they take 800 bird loads. Mike drives the loaded truck to Iowa very early Tuesday morning, and drops the pallets of birds. He drives back with the truck, and contracts a return hauler to bring the frozen birds back to frozen storage near the Hansen's farm by Wednesday afternoon. Return frozen transportation adds an additional $0.15 per bird.
Mike says that the biggest help he has on the farm, after Deb and the kids of course, is from his 4-wheeler. He loads bulk feed into a small cart, jumps on the machine and can fill feeders and move pens in a very short time before he goes off to work. Two of the three children and Deb help to get full sized birds into the transport pens, and Deb is chief partner in brooder cleaning and most other tasks. Deb also does the bookkeeping for the farm. The Hansens are able to keep labor output to a minimum.
To this point, last year raising 1300 birds, the Hansen's have relied on their personal and work contacts and word of mouth to sell their birds. The majority are sold direct to consumers, but Mike has also developed a strong market with local restaurants. Hidden in Central Wisconsin, they are far from the educated food consumers of Madison, but find that their bird's taste and quality are easy to sell. They also offer grass finished beef, and find cross marketing has been effective. Hansen's encourage sales of full boxes of 6 frozen birds (birds are not individually weighed at the processor) and so offer a discount for those purchasing 12 or more birds. For two or more boxes the price is $2.39/lb, fewer than 12 are $2.89/lb. Deb and Mike are gearing up for the additional sales effort this season, and are planning advertising on public radio as their first big PR push.
The Bottom Line
A cost and time study from the University of Wisconsin last year included the Hansens, and is continuing this season, and so they have a pretty good handle on their costs. Raising 1300 birds, Deb's numbers show that variable expenses (chick, feed, bedding, marketing, trucking, processing etc.) come to $6.83 per bird. Fixed expenses (depreciation, insurance, certification, interest expense etc.) averaged about $3.08 per bird for 1300 birds. Adding these two averages put the costs of a 4.5 pound bird at $9.84. Sold for an average of $12.00, this leaves a gross profit of $2.16 per bird. The Hansen's have a goal of $4.00 profit per bird, which they feel will make their labor worthwhile.
They continue to work with lowering costs, (and have found that there are great economies of scale, as in reduced chick and feed price, once they moved over 1000 birds) but feel they are on the right track for production efficiency and cost effectiveness now. They see the only way to increase profit is to increase numbers of birds produced, which will spread fixed costs out over a larger group, reducing the production cost per bird. Doing this assessment is what is leading them to larger production this year, and plans to continue expanding their operation as their time and patience allow.
Mike is a man of huge energy and fast thinking. Combined with Deb's finesse with numbers, they are a power-packed team. Raising three children, managing the farm, holding down mind-intensive off-farm jobs and still being able to plan for change is something not everyone could do. The Hansen's have capital to work with, though they tend to use invention rather than dollars to make things work. Mike's inventiveness and good grounding in physics and mechanics are a real plus in their operation. Mike readily reaches out to others and shares what he knows, and will continue to be a leader in WI poultry.
The majority of this information was collected at a recent field day held at Gifts from the Good Earth, attended by 29 people from WI, MN and MI. Inspired by the day and the conversation, the group decided to explore an "Upper Midwest Chapter" of APPPA. A centrally located meeting is being planned for November or December. We will send notices to APPPA members in the area to let you know of the meeting, and encourage all to attend to share information and discuss challenges and solutions. For more information contact Jody at 715-667-5501 firstname.lastname@example.org, or Mike and Deb at 715-652-3520.