Two Days at Polyface Farm

Joel Salatin describing "hot" composting
In July, we visited Polyface Farms for a two-day farming intensive where we learned about the innovative farming techniques that Joel Salatin has developed over the past forty years. There are some remarkable things about his operation. First, his grazing practices not only produce large quantities of animals, but at the end of each year the fields and more fertile and productive than the year before. Much of this is accomplished by management practices that pay attention to both the needs of the animals and the needs of the pastures.  Second is the scale of the operation: he wants to show that sustainable farming is a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. Each year he produces 25,000 chickens, 3000 turkeys, 700 hogs, 200 cows, 800 rabbits, hundreds of thousands of eggs. Everything is sold locally (within about 200 miles from the farms). Sales divide between the store on the farm, restaurants, and online ordering with food delivered to pick-off destinations weekly. What is most surprising is the apparent simplicity of the overall operation - no heavy farm equipment or fancy devices. Much of the infrastructure there is is hand build from resources found on site. By working with nature, much is accomplished with electric fences, an extensive water distribution system, and the animals themselves.  In the next few blog entries I'll be highlighting some of the things we learned over the two days.
Here are the chicken tractors, one of the things Salatin is best known for. They allow the chickens to be moved every day so they have fresh grass. Each unit provides sun and shade and, of course, water and feed. They also are put in pastures where they follow a few days after the cows, after they have "mowed" the grass and new tender shoots are growing.  Each 10 by 12 tractor can hold 75 chickens.
The unit is moved daily using a simple handtruck that slips under one end. When pushed to the ground it lifts the back slightly on its wheels. The unit can then be easily moved by one person by pulling from the other end. The whole operation takes less than a minute. A key thing to remember is to build the unit with light materials so it is easy to handle. They use small size lumber and metal roofing materials, using cross braces to give strength without adding weight. 
See the difference in the grass after one day (upper left half of photo). The chickens have eaten all the tender grass tips and the ground is covered with chicken manure. Leaving the chickens there another day would start to injure the grass and delay its recovery, and the chickens would not be getting the fresh grass. Even with constant access to grass, 80% of their nutrition still comes from provided grain.  The grazing, however, provides the natural nutrients in a rich diet that cannot be found in a commercial  chicken operation where they only get feed.

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