Will Harris doesn’t believe in “chicken tractors” or other moveable, pastured poultry enclosures. But he’s serious about free-range poultry. His birds are free to roam, all 60,000 of them.
“I wanted to raise birds that were unrestricted and loose, so they can flap their wings, run, and fly up into trees and roost,” Harris says. “I think it changes the quality of the meat. Our birds are more muscular and athletic.”
Harris’ chickens may be loose, but his production system isn’t. It’s as tight as a drum. With the help of 85 employees, he runs 700 brood cows, 500 ewes, and, on any given day, 60,000 chickens. He recently added turkeys to the mix.
Farm employees slaughter all animals raised on the farm in two USDA-approved packing houses. That includes 30 head of cattle and about 1,000 chickens each day. All the offal is composted, blood is retained, and bones are ground. The bone and blood meal and finished compost goes back on the fields as fertilizer.
“Animal welfare, land stewardship and environmental protection are our claims to fame,” Harris says.
Five thousand chicks are delivered each week to White Oak Pastures near Bluffton, Georgia. New chicks are the only things confined on the farm. They are kept in brooders for the first two to three weeks of their 12-week production cycle.
Once they are feathered, they are brought to skid shelters on pasture, where they are confined for two to three days before being turned loose. The farm’s 100 16-by-20-foot shelters have garage doors on one end that can be fully opened or nearly closed in bad weather. A standard entry door on the other end allows workers to enter and leave if the garage door is down. Panels near the floor on the three solid sides can be raised for ventilation.
Food and water is replenished with twice-a-day visits by farm workers.
Letting the chickens truly range free means Harris may lose a bird or two to hawks. However, he learned what kind of damage ground predators can cause when he started raising sheep.
“We’ve got Great Pyrenees dogs to protect our sheep flocks,” Harris says. “When we started raising pastured poultry, we got dogs for them as well. They protect the chicks from feral cats and even opossum, as well as coyotes, wild dogs, bobcats and fox as the chicks grow.”
Puppies are introduced to chickens at an early stage. Harris keeps 12 Great Pyrenees with the chickens on pasture.
When the chickens have cleaned out an area, the skid shelters are moved 50 to 75 yards to fresh pasture.
“Every time a shelter is moved, the manure around it is loaded into a manure spreader and taken to fields that most need it,” Harris says. “We want it well-distributed. If there is too much in one place, it can be toxic to the grasses.”
At 12 weeks, the birds will produce the desired 3 1/2-pound carcass. Catching the birds is easy, thanks to those daily visits and the design of the shelters.
Harris’ chickens are distributed up and down the East Coast, as well as to the on-farm restaurant Harris recently opened.
“Each day our 85 employees, my two daughters, and a future son-in-law sit down at the restaurant and eat dinner,” Harris says. “My employees are great workers, and I am very grateful to them. They go above and beyond.”
Reprinted with permission from Farm Show Magazine.