Biodynamic birds

On Thursday I went along to an evening walk and talk with friends, Vicky of Starnash Farmhouse, and Andy of Almost Off Grid, at Tablehurst Farm to have a guided tour of their poultry unit by Robin and some of the volunteers. I find biodynamic farming absolutely fascinating, and love the general ethos of keeping everything within the farm system, valuing the soil, and utilising rotations of livestock in addition to organic principles. I love my chickens, and in my last post about the chicks I was saying about perhaps rearing some roosters for the table, so I was really interested to see how it was done at Tablehurst.

The meat birds – broilers – arrive as day-old chicks, and are immediately put in to a circular enclosure with paper on the ground, and bottomless food, water, and a heat lamp:

There are 200 in this group, and they are a hybrid breed from France. They are wholly organic from their arrival, and moved every two weeks to the next housing system. The paper stops them getting trapped under straw and can be easily cleaned, and the enclosure is round to prevent cold spots, otherwise they can huddle in corners and end up crushing each other. The height is to prevent rats getting at them, and the whole unit is inside a large outbuilding. They are mixed sex – so just as hatched. They are vaccinated against coccidiosis and infectious bronchitis as these are two diseases which carry high mortality.

Here are the batch at 2 weeks old, in the block next door:

They are off the lamp but the room is nice and warm, and they are starting to feather up.

Two weeks later, they move to large, moveable polytunnels out in the chicken enclosure. The whole area is fenced to prevent foxes and badgers getting in, so the chickens are free to range completely at will, and the popholes are open all the time. For the first week however, so when the chicks are 4-5 weeks old, buzzards can be a problem so they are kept inside. The sheds are moved to new grass for every new batch of chicks, so they have plenty of scratching and exploring to do, with straw bales, feeders and drinkers.

The sheds are designed for 1000+ chicks; Tablehurst house 400. The ground is sprayed with a biodynamic preparation called CPP:

Cow Pat Pit (CPP) is a biodynamic preparation that stimulates soil activity and enhances the humus forming processes of the soil. It also helps to initiate the fermentation of manure and activates organic matter conversion in compost. Research carried out after the Chernobyl disaster showed how it helped reduce the effects of radioactive fallout on land where it was applied.

It is amazing that there is no smell in the sheds. Anyone who keeps poultry will know how quickly ammonia builds up; when I worked on the farm and we were spreading manure from the local battery egg unit, the stench used to permeate the air for miles around and my mother would make me leave my overalls in the garage…

Here are some photos of the increasing ages:

The chickens are killed on site at 12 weeks, and they are sold in the farm shop. The sheds are then moved along and cleaned, ready for the next batch. The rectangle where they were before is rich in nutrients and your can tell where the sheds have been by the patches of fat hen, docks and thistles. These provide food and habitat for insects, which are then eaten by the hens as they forage. The feed is an organic ration but you can see the hens are out eating all the various grasses and other vegetation, and this must make such a difference to the quality of the meat – both in taste and nutritional value.

The birds don’t perch as they are too heavy to fly well, so they tuck up by the straw bales and sit down for the night. They were still out as it was getting dark: filling their crops before bed…so lovely to see them behaving naturally rather than in artificial light.

The day-old chicks above will actually be a bit older as they will be slaughtered for Christmas (yes I said it) so they will be heavier. Watching them in natural mixed flocks, bedded on straw was an absolute delight. Robin is incredibly knowledgeable and the birds are in such fabulous condition – absolutely no sickly-looking birds, and they were calm and quiet, and such a pleasure to watch.

Another highlight was seeing the turkeys who live in an orchard area, which again is electric fenced all round :

It was so interesting to see how this commercial but high-welfare, low-stocking density system operated. We ended with a supper of farm produce: tomato and basil soup with Flint Owl Bakery bread, followed by blackberry and apple crumble with Jersey milk custard. It was a brilliant evening.

4 Replies to “Biodynamic birds”

  1. Really interesting post. Thankyou. I know where I’m going to be buying my meat from in the future! Did they have any tips on how this system could be scaled down for garden/backyard chicken keeping, say 24 or so every three months or perhaps 12 every 6 weeks (producing two a week for the table)?

    1. It would be really interesting to discuss this. I think it is wholly applicable to a smaller-scale operation and I’d love to have a look in to breeds. If there was a cooperative of cockerels, we could swap round to prevent inbreeding if we wanted to rear our own broiler chicks…

  2. I’m such an undecided meat-eater. But, if I’m going to eat something I feel compelled to give a name to (Dotty, if you want to know), well, this is the type of place I’d want to eat it from. The whole where-my-food-comes-from thing is always so interesting.

    1. Exactly. It’s places like this that make you realise that eating meat is, and can be, something to be enjoyed and respected and really valued. It also becomes apparent that charging what they do for an oven ready bird is entirely justified, and as soon as you reduce the price, you compromise the animal’s existence.

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