Update: Free Range, Organic Turkeys

In my last post about turkeys, I took a video of them in their brooder. Back then, they were just large fuzz balls. Well, they have grown. Not long after that video I moved them out to pasture so they could free range around the chickens. At first, I had them in a chicken coop, but after a couple of days of figuring out their new abode, they started flying out of it. When that started to happen, I figured “ok, I guess that they are going to be free rangers then.” Now I just provide them some shelter from the sun, roosts to sleep on, and as much pasture as they want to nibble on.

So far, I am really enjoying raising these turkeys. Watch the video and you will see why.

If you want to order one of our turkeys for Thanksgiving, head over to our turkey page on The Foragers.

The Turkeys are here

This blog has been rather silent over the past couple of weeks. It is a sad truth in ranching life, that tending to a blog ranks way below tending to living creatures. Over the past few weeks, much has happened. We have processed our first chickens of the year, I have created my new website (theforagers.com – an upcoming post in and of itself), and most pertinent to this post, turkeys.

I have raised a few turkeys over the years, but this is my first big push into turkey production. I had so many people call last year around Thanksgiving that I just couldn’t not raise some turkeys this year. Plus as a bonus for our CSA members, we will to offer these turkeys at a substantial discount. It pays to be a member – err, which ad did I steal that slogan from?

You will see the poults (baby turkeys) in the brooder in this video and they will stay there for the next 2-3 weeks depending on the weather. They are a little slower to hit the pasture than chickens, but once out there, they are going to be grass eating machines. Rather than run these guys in coops like I do the chickens, these turkeys will be contained only by a portable fence to keep them in and predators out. I will have a portable roost in the center of the pen and the whole combo will be moved often to a new area. It will be an adventure for sure.

If you want to pre-order a turkey, head over to The Foragers.

2010, anyone? Part 3 – Cash flow

This is the time of year when we start to plan for the next year; the spring rush is over, the summer grind is done, fall is, for the most part, slow, and winter is the season that the next year starts in. So I have been taking odd bits of time here and there to play with our spreadsheets and run through all of the various “what-if” scenarios that might be.

I have broken down our thoughts into three main categories (Production, Marketing, and Cash flow) which I will post over three days. Here is Part 3- Cash flow

Cash flow is the last thing to consider in our planning process for 2010. We need to add dollars to each and every one of the issues we have mentioned in the last two posts and not only do we need to add dollar values but we also need to predict when those dollars will be spent/earned. True financial crisis’s happen when cash flow goes negative, not when balance sheets go negative. Luckily, we love spreadsheets and can spend hours fiddling with the numbers and scenarios. We know there is some debate over the best spreadsheet software, but right now we have to say that Excel 2007 rocks our world. It is tough verbally describe this mathematical portion of our pondering, but it is by far the most important part of planning. You have to make sure that you are going to be in the black month in and month out and should mean that you end the year in the black as well. There is no point in doing something for nothing. It is much cheaper and easier to do nothing for nothing. But if you want to do something and earn something, the price is planning (and of course all of the other costs as well).

Here are some cash flow questions that we are pondering for next year:

  • Production
    • How much does it cost to finish the animal?
    • How does that cost coincide with cash flow?
  • Marketing
    • How much does it cost to sell that animal?
    • How much does it cost to store that animal
      • We have walk in freezer but it ain’t a cavern. If we over produce and undersell we have to utilize a commercial freezer and that costs money.
  • Overall
    • How much gross and net does each animal make me based on a number of different scenarios?
    • Can we figure out a reasonable scenario that keeps our cash flow in the black for the whole year?

We have broken down our operation and our planning process into three nice and tidy categories, but the reality is that it is much more interrelated than this. We haven’t mentioned any sort of back office considerations like insurance, LLC costs, advertising, range rent, etc.  Nor we have accounted for the vagaries of Mother Nature. How this winter turns out (lots of rain, no rain, rain at the wrong time, rain at the right time) will dramatically change our plans for 2010.

Our point with this series of posts is to show how much planning and forethought goes into producing high quality meats and a sustainable, profitable business. We are not doing this by the seat of our pants nor could we even if we wanted to. But we are open to change and relish the opportunities that lie within the ever-offing tomorrow.

2010, anyone? Part 2 – Marketing

This is the time of year when we start to plan for the next year; the spring rush is over, the summer grind is done, fall is, for the most part, slow, and winter is the season that the next year starts in. So I have been taking odd bits of time here and there to play with our spreadsheets and run through all of the various “what-if” scenarios that might be.

I have broken down our thoughts into three main categories (Production, Marketing, and Cash flow) which I will post over three days. Here is Part 2- Marketing

If I were a conventional rancher, we could stop at the end of Part 1 with our production questions because once the animals got to a certain weight/age; we would sell them into the conventional market and never think about them again.  That is not the case here, we sell everything that we produce straight to our customers and that opens a whole other can of worms that need to be considered.

First thing that we need to consider is how much we are going to sell. We know that our beef sells really well. We have been selling it for years and people know and love our beef and we could sell three times the amount we can grow. Lamb sales are less than beef, but still good and are increasing as more people realize how wonderful good grass-fed lamb can be. Our free range pork was new this year and considering people are just discovering it, sales have been quite good. Our pasture raised chicken sales were a bit off from our prediction this year, but the sales were good enough to keep on with producing them. We think our chicken sale issues came from poor marketing, not flavor (not with how good our chicken is).

We have attached some numbers to how much we think we are going to sell next year. The question is when those sales are going to occur? Farmer Market sales tend to be in the summer and fall. Bulk sales are in the spring and summer. And our new Meat CSA should spread the sales out over the whole year but it is a new enterprise so we can’t plan around it very well.  Knowing when our sales are going to occur is critical when we get around to our cash flow plan (part three) as well as informing our production needs.

Here are some marketing questions that we are pondering for next year:

  • How much volume will our existing markets move? Is that enough?
  • We think we need to expand our marketing. Should we consider more FM’s requiring extra help or should we spend our time pushing our CSA?
  • Are our prices right? Do they need to go higher or lower? Essentially, we are considering “do I want to trade margin for volume?” i.e. sell fewer pounds but make more per pound or sell more pounds but make less per pound? This question of course is relative; we are not going to be Tyson anytime soon or ever.

Questions for you, our loyal reader:

  • Would you like to see us at a farmers market near you? If so, how far would you travel to get some our delicious meats?
  • Do you have a favorite farmer’s market? Do you know of a farmer’s market that would appreciate our meat?

2010, anyone? Part 1 – Production

This is the time of year when we start to plan for the next year; the spring rush is over, the summer grind is done, fall is, for the most part, slow, and winter is the season that the next year starts in. So we have been taking odd bits of time here and there to play with our spreadsheets and run through all of the various “what-if” scenarios that might be.

I have broken down our thoughts into three main categories (Production, Marketing, and Cash flow) which I will post over the next three days. Here is Part 1 – Production

 

A large part of the reason that we are planning for next year now is that meat we sell comes from animals we grow and animals grow slowly. You need to plan months if not years in advance to make sure that you have your production system matching your marketing system. To wit, grass-fed lamb takes 12-14 months to go from conception to harvest, grass-fed steers see that time upped to around 24-36 months, free-range pigs take about as long as a lamb and the speed racers of our production world are the pasture raised broilers which take 8-14 weeks depending on the breed.

 

The other tricky part to planning our production for next year is to make sure that the animal’s last day coincides with the right season. For instance, our grass-fed beef is only harvested off of our lush spring pasture, which lasts for about 90 days. So we need to plan three years in advance to make sure that our steers start the spring weighing about 900lbs in order to meet the harvest deadline. As you can guess that is a tough juggling act. Each of the species we raise have their own harvest season, and each needs to be raised in a honest, conscientious way that arranges their production cycle to best suit their needs and best suits our needs.

 

Here are some production questions that we are pondering for next year:

  • Should we plant some pasture that would allow for early spring grazing for the beef or plant some pasture that would extend spring into early summer? Both? And what does that type of planting offer to the other animals?
  • If we plant pasture, what sort of infrastructure does that require? Fencing, irrigation, etc.
  • Is planting pasture worth it? Do we have the time to make it work and work well? No point in doing it half assed – that would just be money and time down the drain.
  • Should we sell our spring lambs on the hoof now or finish them next spring and sell them as grass-fed?
  • Drought has reduced our cowherd to the point where next year we won’t have much beef to sell. Should we consider sourcing steers from another grass-fed operation that fits our production criteria or just say this is what nature allowed us to produce?
  • We have 15 pigs on pasture now, but our prediction is for us to sell about 3x that many next year. Should we load up on those weaners over the winter and have them ready for harvest early next summer or should we stagger them throughout the year?
  • Our chicken supply feels comfortable right now, but we are thinking that next year we might have to change our production practices away from organic feed to a high quality but non-organic feed to bring the cost down. That would be a tough decision because we strongly believe in non-GMO grain but if we can’t sell organic chickens then we shouldn’t grow them

Questions for you, our loyal reader:

  • Would you feel comfortable buying beef from us that we bought from another sustainable rancher?
  • Which would rather eat: a chicken fed an organic feed or a chicken fed a high quality, but non organic feed?

 

Of Freezers and Turkeys

Life is going in so many directions I can’t select just one topic to talk about. So here is a tasting of everything that is going on at the ranch.

Freezer – The freezer has been a bit of a larger task that I first thought it would be. Back in the spring, John and I planned to spend a couple of weekends and a few evenings putting the whole thing together. That turns out to be a massive underestimation of the actual amount of work necessary to build a walk in freezer. Adam (our intern) and I have spent just about two full weeks on it so far. Week 1 was cleaning, layout, and shopping. Week 2 has been construction, electrical, and hopefully refrigeration.  Right now, the freezer has walls but no ceiling, the trench is dug for the electrical and the contractor is supposed to be working on it this afternoon, and our freezer guy says we are next on his list. It won’t all come together tomorrow, but it sure seems like next week, we will have a functioning walk-in freezer.

Refrigerated Trailer – Holly (my fiancée) was cruising on craigslist earlier in the week and found a refrigerated trailer for sale.  An odd find to be blogging about you might think, but to me it is a magical find. Have you ever pondered the logistics of transporting hundreds of pounds of meat around? Well, there are good solutions and workable solutions. So far, I have been surviving with chest freezers in the back of the truck to transport meat around, which is a workable solution, but involves a lot of lifting of both meat and freezers. While I am young and stupid, someday I want to grow up to be old, wise, and not lifting 60lbs boxes of meat all the way up into a chest freezer in the back of my truck. Hence, my delight in this potential trailer, that I finally have a good solution. Let’s just hope I didn’t jinx the sale with this post.

Chicken updates – Our last batch of 2009 chickens are two weeks away from harvest. I am looking forward to this harvest and testing all of the updates to our processing line. Since our last big harvest, we have added a printing scale which saves us having to hand calculate all prices, devised a way to transport 200 chickens to the processing unit, and streamlined our chilling process. (Thank you, refrigerated trailer). This may be an odd reason to be excited about harvest, but the reality is that if we want Barbarosa Ranchers to be a success, we need to get this part of our operation down to a manageable task. Currently, it is doable, but requires hard long days with only moderate output. In the future, we need this process to result in high output and only require regular hours of labor. Every time we harvest, we move closer to that end goal and I love to make progress, so hence my excitement over our upcoming processing weekend.

Turkey thoughts — I have been too busy with building a freezer to have gotten turkey poults in time for T-day. Right now, if I bought them next week they would be ready for Christmas. However, I am hesitant to buy more than my family and friends can eat because I am worried if people would be willing the pay the price that I would have to charge for the turkey.

Before I shock you with the price, let’s consider what attributes our turkeys will have; free range, organic, sustainably family farmed, allowed to roam and roast like turkeys should, and absolutely delicious. You think our chicken is good? Try what we can do with turkey.

Now the price sketch: A turkey poult costs $4, organic feed for one turkey is $40, labor is right around $50. So the basic break-even puts a whole 20lb turkey right around $100. So now you can see that a free range organic turkey isn’t cheap. The question is — Is it worth it? If I knew that people would say yes, then I am off to the races. But since I don’t know, I am hemming and hawing. If anyone wants to pre-order a turkey for Christmas, contact me.

Next week looks to be Adam’s last week out here on the ranch, funding for his program is running out. I hope that we can finish off the section of fencing we started back when he first showed up.  But that is only my hope for next week; plans have a way of going out the window out here. All I know is that next week is going to be fun, exhausting, and rewarding.

Chicken Harvest this weekend

Barbarosa Ranchers is going to be harvesting our second flight of chickens of the year this weekend. We will working on both Saturday and Sunday. If anyone would like to pick up their chickens fresh from the chill tank, let us know. This a great excuse to come out to the ranch for the day and see all of the sights. We can point you to the creek for some exploration/splashing adventures. Also, if you let us know far enough in advance you can pick up other meats at the same time.

Here is a flyler/picture essay of last weekend’s harvest (ChickenHarvestFlyer).