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Polyface Farm visit by Mid-Atlantic Gardening

July 9, 2012
As I have visited the farmers who are producing food for the Wild Ramp, the name Joel Salatin has come up many times. He runs Polyface Farm in Virginia and has many ideas about sustainable farming that bucks the USDA trend and yet produces amazing quality food without chemical intervention.

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Mid-Atlantic Gardening

Helping people in the Mid-Atlantic region realize their gardening potential

Polyface Farms: Broilers

Posted on April 25, 2012 by 

Yesterday we looked at the rabbit operation at Polyface Farms. Today, we’ll continue our tour and mosey on up the hill to the broiler operation. For those who don’t know, broilersare the chickens that we eat. They differ from the layers that provide eggs in that they have a very short life. Joel said that you can raise a broiler in the same time it takes to grow a radish: 8 weeks. Most people don’t realize how quickly baby chicks are transformed into 4 pound birds that are ready for the table. I won’t profess to know all of the details; after all, I’ve just started reading Pastured Poultry Profits and my kids required a lot of my attention during this part of the tour. It was raining at a pretty good clip and the kids were worried about their umbrellas.

Polyface Farms’ broilers are moved everyday to fresh grass. Joel said that they have the cows come through and mow down the grass because chicks don’t particularly care for tall grass. This also provides cow manure for the chickens to pick through. The portable houses are 10′ x 12′ x 2′ tall. Up to 75 chickens can be housed in each shelter. Here’s a picture to give you a better idea.

polyface farms

See the simplicity again? Sheet metal roofing, chicken wire sides, a bucket on the top with rubber hosing and a feeder. These pens are also moved by pulling them with the rubber covered wire to fresh grass. Joel stated that it takes one minute to move each pen and one person can move 60 pens in an hour…impressive.

The chickens in this particular portable shelter are actually pullets. The broilers are Cornish Rock Crosses which are the industry standard. But these chickens are grown without antibiotics, arsenic (to stimulate their appetite) or any of the other pharmaceutical cocktails that are given regularly to factory farm chickens. Joel told the tour group that these chickens never touch the same piece of ground twice in a season; in fact, no other chickens will be grazed on that patch of ground until the following year. The reason? Soil health. The soil can only capture and metabolize 200# of nitrogen/acre in a season…any more than that runs off and is lost. His chickens are capable of producing enough free fertilizer for the grass that synthetic fertilizer isn’t even a thought. Here’s a video of Joel discussing the pastured broiler operation. It was taken with my husband’s non-smartphone so it’s a little choppy. Sorry.

Joel on Pastured Broilers

I was interested in predator protection. These broilers are out in the middle of a field and they can’t be seen from the house. How is it possible that they aren’t eaten by raccoons, foxes, skunks or other wild animals? That is the main reason that I haven’t pursued getting chickens for our backyard…we have raccoons that we could claim on our taxes they’re here so much. They’ve become so use to us that they just stare at us if we interrupt their forays in our trashcan. So what keeps Polyface Farms’ broilers safe? The answer is this guy:

polyface farms

Not the cute little girl in the monkey hat…that’s my Maddie Tate. Her friend for the day was Michael. From what I could gather from Joel through my daughter’s chatter, Michael is 1/2 Great Pyrenees, 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd and 1/4 Akbash. If I got that wrong, please leave a comment with his true heritage. Michael can run 37 mph and is a fierce protector of the broilers. Joel figures that Michael successfully takes care of skunks, raccoons and possums on a weekly basis. I’d say that Michael earns his keep at Polyface Farms.

The broilers at Polyface Farms are processed after three weeks on pasture so they have another batch of chicks ready for the pastured pens when the older ones move on. Polyface is all about efficiency while not compromising the ecological integrity of the land. Through years of experience, they have learned how far they can push an operation to increase revenue without sacrificing the land that they have worked so hard to develop. Joel said that when his parents’ purchased the 550 acre farm in 1961, it was the worst farm in the whole valley. There were large areas of shale exposed and through the Salatin’s careful stewardship of the land, those areas have been rehabilitated and now grow beautiful grass. Grass that the bunnies, pastured broilers, beef cattle and layers can enjoy. So that we can enjoy them.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the beef cattle operation and deep litter. If you enjoy this type of discussion, please leave me a comment below or e-mail me at If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list, become a fan on Facebookand follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 6:10 pm

    great story. the pens look a little short but what do I know. I have thought about getting chickens for laying but have to really think about it. great story !!!

    • July 10, 2012 11:17 am

      They look shorter than the chicken tractors I have seen here on farm visits, but Joel Salatin has a reputation that he uses what works, so we can assume they are tall enough for the birds.

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