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Friday, September 23, 2016

Artisanal Chicken: Is it Working?

I have been contacted by a number of people, curious to know my experiences with raising chickens under the Artisanal Chicken program of Chicken Farmers of Ontario ("CFO").

Application deadline for new entrants for chicken farmers to join the Artisanal Chicken program for January 2017 closed as of 2016/09/09.  However, true to form, CFO has changed the rules at the last minute, and has extended the CFO Artisanal Chicken deadline to 2016/09/30.

Therefore if you are an Ontario chicken farmer (or wanna be), there is still time to join the Artisanal Chicken pioneers.  CFO doesn't share all of the details, but I will.  Here is the info you need to make a great decision.

  1. In short, as an Artisanal Chicken farmer, CFO has treated me in a friendly, respectful, and reasonable manner.  Lord knows they had reasons to do otherwise to me due to this Blog.  More or less, CFO has left me alone to grow my chickens. If they have treated me well, they will likely do the same for you and other Artisanal Chicken applicants.  Of course, all that can rapidly change whenever CFO unilaterally decides.  Trust takes along time.
  2. CFO reserves the right to terminate the program any time they feel like it.  Of course, if CFO did that (or some other big player in the Supply Management system forces CFO's hand for their self-serving monopolistic, crony capitalism reasons), that would leave me and most other Artisanal Chicken farmers financially stranded with no recourse.  I doubt I could scream "Unfair" loud enough to make a difference within a reasonable time.  If you borrow money to do Artisanal Chicken, you will be at suicidal (or significant) risk until you get the loan paid off, likely losing everything if CFO harpoons you, you become a beached whale, and the bank come to collect its pound of flesh.  Knowing (or fearing) CFO, I would recommend against borrowing money to enter the Artisanal Chicken system.
  3. After you apply, CFO will come to your farm to interview you and view your farm, barn(s), and infrastructure (eg. water supply, barn yards, pasture, etc.).  My audit was very low key and accepting of where I was staring from.  CFO currently seems to accept you where you are currently at, and makes allowances for you to learn and grow into the program.  You are not expected to be perfect, nor to have everything already in place (eg. your barn doesn't have to be already built before applying).  Of course, CFO could change that approach tomorrow, so be ready.  You should have a reasonable plan for each step that you will have to achieve for your entire first year as an Artisanal Chicken farmer.  I would suggest it would be frowned upon to tell CFO "If approved, I will buy 500 day-old chicks, and once they arrive, I'll figure out what I'll do next", and you likely won't be approved by CFO with this half-baked plan.
  4. CFO will likely approve your reasonable plan and application, as there is more quota available than farmers available to fill it. I base that upon CFO extending the application deadline.
  5. CFO has a tendency to notify tour acceptance at the last minute, which put me at great disadvantage, requiring me to start construction on January 1st.  It wasn't easy.  Be prepared for that.
  6. Once approved, CFO will send you a bill for immediate payment of CFO's fees & levy & license for the entire 2017 year.  Your cash flow for capital purchases will be stretched even thinner by this, but that is CFO's desire to make sure they get their pound of flesh.
  7. You may not be able to get the chicks you want, when you want them.  Call your hatchery before you apply to find out the details and get a tentative commitment (eg. if you get approved by CFO, the hatchery will guarantee to supply you the chicks you need).  You may have to order chicks 6 to 8 weeks in advance.

     
  8. Once you start, be prepared to continue along your plan, assuming all goes according to plan.  If you hesitate at each step, awaiting proof that each step works as you hoped before you move forward to the next step, you will be lost before you get once through.  Plan well, think about all of the things that could go wrong, what is the earliest point you can detect plan failure, and have remedial plans ready for each of those major risks.  Once you have your plan perfected, put the accelerator to the floor and go for it full speed.  You can re-assess further at the end of your first year.
  9. Abattoir capacity is likely even more constrained than hatchery supply.  OMAFRA has admitted that they nearly killed all of Ontario's small local abattoirs 5 to 10 years ago, and we're still recovering from their bureaucratic mistakes.  I suggest you have a primary abattoir who will process 66% to 90% of all your chickens, and a backup abattoir who will do 10% to 33% of your chickens.  That way, you have a foot in the door if your primary abattoir has a problem and can't serve you as you need.
  10. Due to the long trip to the nearest abattoir, economics said I must raise flocks of 500 birds to keep costs down.  Therefore, I needed a brooder that could handle 500 day-old chicks, and maybe some turkeys and ducks.  I chose a 40 ft. decommissioned sea container.  I made the necessary customizations to create a state-of-the-art brooder.  A
    Inside a brooder compartment with 100
    chick who are 2 days old, maintained
    at 35 deg C, 2 drinkers and feed trough.
    An electric radiant heater is shown at
    the bottom of the photo, added to
    each compartment for the first 48 hrs.
    for those chicks who need extra heat.

    Roof vent cut into steel roof of sea container

    Inside the brooder, showing the 6 compartments (4' x 6' each),
    with a 2' wide aisle on the right, and sheets of Silverboard
    foam wall insulation as lids, 3 LED lights in each
    compartment, and fresh air makeup distributed to each
    compartment via a 4" diameter pipe (5 compartments
    currently in use @ 100 chicks per compartment)

    Propane fired hot water heater (from travel trailer),
    and hydronic heating system for brooder.  Each brooder
    compartment has a separate radiant floor heating zone


    Fresh air inlet to brooder, with hot water heating coil to
    pre-heat air to 35 degC






  11. You will need to do some CFO training via watching 1 or more video.  While this is a mandatory requirement, CFO still doesn't have this set up so it can be accomplished, so I have not yet been able to accomplish this step 10 months after CFO approval.
  12. You will need to prepare a written farm manual saying how you will meet all of the mandatory requirements of the CFO and Chicken Farmers of Canada ("CFC").  Fortunately, CFO has a template manual as a Adobe Acrobat pdf form.  You can fill in the form on your computer and print it off, or print the blank form and fill it in via pen & ink.  The CFO form is a little flakey (ie. the form has limited space in the fields, and won't print properly if you have a long answer).
  13. CFO will do an on-farm audit to see if you are in compliance with your stated methods described in your farm manual.  For example, your manual says what you plan to do, the on-farm audit ensures you are doing what you said you would be doing.

     
  14. You will need to keep documentation on a daily basis to support and prove that you are following your plan (eg. brooder temperatures, mortality, treatments, chicken feed retention samples or Lot Code numbers, etc.).
  15. I have a 17 to 23 hr day when I go to the abattoir, starting at midnight to catch and crate the birds.  You will likely need some help.
  16. Your vehicle will likely be contaminated by the live birds on their way to the abattoir, and want a clean vehicle before loading your eviscerated meat so it doesn't get cross contaminated.  I have limited vehicle space, and can't afford to make 2 trips to the abattoir (ie. one trip to take live birds to the abattoir, a second trip to pick up the cold, eviscerated meat).  To solve this problem, I had to design a insulated 4' x 8' x 4' cooler box that is stored in pieces in the back of my pickup truck while I travel to the abattoir with my live birds in crates in my trailer.  Once I have offloaded the birds at the abattoir, I go to a truck wash to clean the empty crates and trailer, offload the crates, build the cooler box in the trailer, reload the crates in the pickup truck box, then await the cooled meat from the abattoir.  I load the cold, eviscerated meat in the insulated cooler box, throw a temperature recorder in with the chicken so that I can prove I kept the chicken at the proper temperatures, throw on the ice to keep the chicken cool for twice the expected travel time (in case of a flat tire or other travel emergency), close up the cooler box, and head home.  A long, hard day!  If you have other animals on farm, you still have to do farm chores before you go, and after you get back.  Think about that and get the help you need.  Don't plan on being Superman.
  17. I haven't figured out how to get 500 customers to rendezvous with my trailer full of cold fresh never frozen meat when I return home.  I sell some of it fresh, but am forced to freeze most of it.  Freezing isn't as simple as throwing 300 chickens into a standard home chest freezer.  The typical chest freezer has a limited freezing capacity, and will take up to 2 weeks to freeze the chickens in the middle of the freezer if you load it full of cold chicken.  The chicken in the middle of the freezer will be cold but spoiled (ie. rotten smellly meat unfit for human consumption) by the time it starts to freeze.  To solve this problem, I tightly pack about 30 chickens into the bottom of a large chest freezer.  I then spread 25 kg. of dry ice (-90 deg C) on top of those chickens, then place another layer of 30 or so chickens on top of the dry ice layer.  I continue to add layers of chicken and dry ice until the freezer is full.  I close the lid, and the cold CO2 gas comes blowing out of the freezer as the chickens are rapidly frozen (you need adequate ventilation of the CO2 gas escaping).  Within 12 to 24 hours, the 300 chickens are frozen solid, and the chest freezer's compressor can take over the job to keep the frozen chicken at -18 deg C.  Dry ice is expensive, so I charge 16.9% more for frozen chickens vs. fresh never frozen chickens to help pay for the dry ice.
  18. Growing your chickens is probably the easy part.  The hard part will be marketing.  You will have long days at Farmer's Markets, and costs for advertising and marketing.  Be sure to keep those $/hr labor and marketing costs allowances in your planned selling prices.
  19. Artisanal chicken can sell at a premium price over the crap CAFO chicken that is sold in the grocery store.  I raise grass pastured, free range, no drug, no antibiotic, no chemicals, no hormone, all natural chicken and sell it at $3.85 per pound fresh never frozen, and $4.50 per lb frozen.  I make more profit when the birds are heavy (eg. 7 lb chickens at $31.50 per bird), but most consumers get sticker shock when the birds are too heavy.  You may find it an easier sell at 4 lb birds at $18 per bird.
  20. I will be applying to do Artisanal Chickens for 2017.
  21. There will be some people who need the high quality Artisanal Chickens, but can't afford them.  Please consider:

    •  A discount price to sell some of your chickens to your local Foodbank; or
       
    • Donating some of your chickens to your local Foodbank; or
       
    • My insulated wood box, 4' x 8' x 4', disassembled, awaiting
      my next trip to the abattoir.  One person can pick up each
      piece, and assemble the box.  Add eviscerated chicken and
      ice, and off you go.  The box is re-assembled with about
      20 screws and a 25' long cargo web strapping around the
      middle.
    • Donate a part of your gross sales or profits to the Foodbank so that those who can afford your chickens help subsidize affordable food for those who can't.
I hope this helps you decide if CFO's Artisanal Chicken is for you.  Please add your comments and experiences, tips, and questions to the Comments section below.

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