By STEVE BROWN
What started as therapy for a returning war veteran with no farming experience has grown into a successful business.
Terrell Spencer told his story in a recent webinar, sharing what he has learned about making pastured poultry profitable.
When the Army machine-gunner returned from a tour in Iraq in 2005, he took out trees and cleared pastures as an outlet for him to vent.
"I found I really liked doing that kind of stuff and started farming," he said. Now he and his wife own and operate Across the Creek Farm in West Fork, Ark., producing hundreds of chickens per week from March to December.
Because pastured poultry forage on plants and insects, he right away started realizing a 5 to 20 percent savings on feed. A hundred broilers produce about 1 ton of manure, "which they apply themselves." Moving the birds keeps them clean. And the birds are in high demand, drawing a higher price than conventionally raised broilers with a lower investment.
Broilers are ready for market after seven to nine weeks, and convert 2 to 3 pounds of feed for 1 pound of bird.
For prospects who want to farm full-time, he figured these costs per bird: $1.40 for the chick, $4 for feed, $4.50 for processing, 20 cents for gasoline, 25 cents for shelter, $1 for fencing and tools and 5 cents for labeling. The total cost: $11.40.
His Cornish Cross birds weigh an average of 4.35 pounds at eight weeks and sell for $17.62 for whole chickens or $19.96 for cut-up birds. His net profit: $5 to $8 per bird.
Not all climates are right for pasturing poultry, he said. Short growing periods make it difficult, as do climates that are too dry, too cold or too hot. State laws vary and may also complicate processing.
Spencer said his biggest problem is an inconsistent supply of birds from the hatchery.
Predators are also a challenge. "Everything likes chicken," he said. Physical barriers and livestock guardian dogs are a must.
Scaling up from raising 300 broilers in 2010 to about 10,000 this year may be considered overly optimistic, Spencer said, but it proves that even with no farming background and no land, "It is possible to get started and build it into a business."
Other pastured poultry webinars are scheduled in coming weeks through the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.