Food IndependanceElsewhereThe Coming Storm
Soil CareCompostingGardenGreenhouseOrchardForest GardenHomestead ToolsLiving FencesFungi in the Homestead
PoultryCowsPastureBeesLivestock Overview
Harveys BookHarveys PresentationsIn the KitchenSeeds and PlantsToolsOrganizationsBooks and MagazinesBook ReviewsLinks
MusingsEllen's Little SoapboxQuestionsBoxwood StoriesShort Fiction

Serving a Niche Market for Started Birds

This article was first published in the June/July 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.

We work with our backyard flocks because it’s fun, it helps the household budget, and it gets us in touch with the natural world. And before we know it, we’ve developed a level of expertise that surprises us. We start looking for new challenges. Or maybe for ways to make that growing expertise pay.

If you’re thinking markets, you should check out “Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market”. Many have found that a profitable enterprise, though that may be a more ambitious expansion than you’re interested in. Maybe serving an egg market could be a little easier? (Patience—eventually I hope to offer you an article on producing eggs for market.) Here’s another idea that could reward effort in an under-exploited niche: If you’ve become comfortable raising chicks in a brooder, why not offer small-lot started birds for sale? You already have the experience, may not need a lot of additional equipment, and could find that word-of-mouth is all the promotion you need.

The Story of Brooklin Farm

My two young friends Leila Brooks (18) and Allison Hoblin (19) started thinking about their niche market enterprise when they were working together at a local Tractor Supply. Leila’s only experience with poultry was a single small flock of chickens—one of my “starter packages,” a Cuckoo Marans broody with her ten chicks, passed on to her family in 2005. Allison had no prior experience with poultry at all.

Each spring their Tractor Supply offers a limited number of day-olds, timed for the “Easter market” for cute, fluffy chicks. They heard time and again from customers, “Why can’t I get just a few?” or “I’d love to have a few layers, but I don’t want to mess with a brooder.” As well, the small number of chicks the Tractor Supply offered quickly sold out, and no more were ordered, so Leila and Allison heard complaints from many disappointed customers who failed to get chicks. They sensed a large potential customer base for small-lot sales of already-brooded birds. Both (unusually, for young people these days) had for some time had a yearning for farming. Perhaps this was a chance to make a beginning in that direction.

My friends were anything but timid: They ordered 300 chicks to start, in November, 2007. They concluded in retrospect that first order was naivethey ordered straight run stock, thinking there would be plenty of demand for roosters. On the other hand, they were willing from the beginning to butcher excess males, or any other excess birds, to sell as dressed poultry as necessary. As for breeds, again they were willing to experiment to find out what worked: They ordered a mix of Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, Barred Rock, Silver Laced Wyandotte, and Black Sex-Links.

They had no problem selling out that first brood—even the males sold well. By the end of those sales, however, it was becoming obvious that they had approached saturation in their market for cockerels; and their customers were starting to express a preference for pullets. In February of 2008, they ordered another big batch of day-olds, the same mix of breeds, but this time one-half pullets, the other half straight run. From that point, they proceeded on the basis of trial and error, and a willingness to stay loose and try anything that might work for them, to recognize and grab any opportunity for expanding the market for their started birds.

For example, in May they started 50 turkey poults (25 each Bronze and Broad Breasted White). In June they started 100 ducklings (Pekin and Rouen), which they found the easiest to brood of all the fowl types they’ve tried. The ducklings were a great draw at their farmer’s market for families with children, and drove sales of their other products such as eggs and dressed poultry. (Though the ducklings were great fun to raise, they will probably not grow more for the time being—unless they get access to a pond: Otherwise the ducklings are just too messy for their situation.)

They even started one batch of 400 all-cockerels, the same sort of breed mix mentioned above, because they were cheap (30 cents apiece) and they assumed they’d be able to sell them as fresh-dressed, all-pasture-and-grain poultry. They were right—they easily sold all they could bring to market—but the experience was “horrible,” to quote Allison. Processing large batches of birds was necessary (since their market showed a marked preference for fresh rather than frozen poultry), but difficult to coordinate with their job at Tractor Supply. To supply their fresh-broiler market, they began growing small batches (25 per month) of meat-type birds. (They were able to sell all the traditional-breed birds they brought to market as dressed broilers, but found more ready acceptance of the meat types. They have raised Cornish Cross to date, but I urged them to read “Sunday-Dinner Chicken: Alternatives to the Cornish Cross” and consider trying some alternative meat strains.)

A major event in the expansion of their business last year was meeting the owners of Smith Family Farm, long established in local markets, with whom they have established a productive and cooperative relationship. SFF contracted with them for 300 ready-to-lay (20 weeks) Black Australorp pullets needed for their egg market. In the fall, they bought all the turkeys Leila and Allison had, since they were getting more demand than they could themselves satisfy as Thanksgiving approached. Leila and Allison now take all their slaughter birds to SFF, exchanging help processing SFF’s birds for access to their excellent butchering setup and stainless steel equipment.

Another major event in the life of their business is their current move to a new farm. A fact of life for Allison and Leila, as for so many young people who aspire to be farmers, is that they simply cannot afford to buy land. Fortunately, they have found—again, as many aspiring young farmers do—that it is not unusual to find folks with land who are not farming it themselves, but are willing, even eager, to rent it out to someone likely to farm it well. Allison and Leila are looking forward to rooting an expanded operation at their new place, with more space, and especially, more access to pasture for their flocks.

The Brooklin Brooder

Here is a brief sketch of Allison and Leila’s production practices and their results so far.

Words of Advice

I’ve elaborated on the broader elements of Leila and Allison’s farming enterprise, which has expanded to include as well a few breeding rabbits, and they are currently bottle feeding a couple of calves. At their new place, they hope to raise some guineas (they were not allowed to raise such noisy birds at their former farm rental), and test the market for both started and dressed guineas. They’ve made a virtue of staying loose, and being willing to slaughter any excess birds, which have been easy to sell in their farmer’s markets. (As Leila said: “There’s always something you can do with a bird.”) But brooding hatchlings for the niche service they offer—furnishing no-minimum started birds the customer doesn’t have to brood, with a range of breed, gender, and species choice—has consistently led the way in the evolution of their business.

You might not want to be as broad-ranging in your own project. Specifically, you might prefer to avoid producing excess birds that have to be butchered, and to sell only small-lot started birds to local buyers. If you start small, you can determine the level of local demand for live started birds exclusively. If that is your preference, here are a few helpful hints you might glean from their experience.

Over the years I have encountered so many people who want to keep a small layer flock, but who have been deterred by the necessity of starting with a lot of twenty-five (typically the minimum order of chicks through the mail) or by nervousness about raising vulnerable, totally dependent baby birds in a brooder. Since the inception of Brooklin Farm’s small-lot, already-brooded service, I’ve been delighted to respond to inquiries about “getting just a few layers”: “Hey, I know just the thing for you!” Based on the grateful and enthusiastic feedback I’ve been getting from Brooklin customers I’ve referred, I believe this is a niche in the market begging to be filled.