POULET ROUGE CHICKEN
All the time people tell us our chicken actually tastes better. That's due in part to the way we raise them, but also due to the breed; rather than the white Cornish Cross raised by most conventional farms, we raise the French Poulet Rouge broiler, also known as the Freedom Ranger. As its name indicates, the Poulet Rouge is a red breed that grows more slowly and has better foraging instincts than the Cornish Cross, meaning the birds spend more time supplementing their diet with actual grass and insects from the pasture. We know this to be true because we raised Cornish Cross broilers ourselves until 2013. After raising our first batch of Poulet Rouge, we did a side-by-side blind taste test with a Cornish Cross broiler in our kitchen, while gathering feedback from our favorite local chefs. The unanimous verdict favored the Poulet Rouge: more tender, richer flavor, and more dark meat. We made the switch and never looked back.
The broilers arrive at the post office as day-old chicks then spend the first three to four weeks of their life in our brooder. Once they're big enough to survive in the field, we crate them up and move them out to their new home on the pasture. For many years, we housed our broilers in Polyface-style "pasture pens," but we grew tired of fighting gravity to move them on our hillsides, plugging holes on uneven ground, and suffering significant losses from predators, who would simply dig under or rip their way into the pens. Out of exhaustion, we accidentally invented our "Nomad" system, which is a simple, completely portable set up involving electrified net fences and a fleet of hay wagons topped with corrugated roofing metal for shade.
The net is positioned on a gradual decline and set up in rounded rectangle shape, with the Nomad wagons lined up on one end. The chickens congregate under the Nomads at night and during the heat of the day, laying down high quality natural fertilizer in the form of manure as they do. Each morning, we roll the Nomads forward a full space, giving the birds the opportunity to rest on clean new ground. By the time the Nomads reach the other end of their paddock, we set up the next set of nets and open them into a completely new space. This gradual progression over pasture allows for managed amendment of fertilizer without having to herd the birds over long distances, and keeps stress low for both the farmer and the poultry. The electric mesh fencing keeps ground predators out and chickens in, while providing exponentially more room to roam than the old pasture pens. Our Toulouse geese prevent attacks from aerial predators like hawks and crows. We use gravity-fed bell drinkers, which hang from the sides of each Nomad and are filled by a reserve tank uphill, and lightweight feeders that are positioned alongside each Nomad. The broilers eat antibiotic and hormone-free, non-GMO feed from Sunrise Farm, in addition to the young grasses and insects they harvest from the pasture.
We raise the white Pekin duck, a busty meat breed we like for its consistent growth, reasonable but not overwhelming fat content, and even meat-to-bone ratio no matter the dressed weight. They are relatively mild in flavor - rich and earthy, but not gamey. The Pekins are excellent foragers with high resilience in the field. Like the broiler chicks, they arrive to us at the post office, then spend only two to three weeks in the brooder before graduating to the pasture. The ducks also enjoy the Nomad setup but make less use of the hay wagon shade structures than the chickens, preferring to spread themselves out all over the paddock to preen and enjoy their personal space. This works out well because their manure is 90% water - they irrigate and fertilize the fields simultaneously.
One key difference between duck and broiler production is the watering system. Because ducks are waterfowl, they need to submerge their beaks fully in water to clean out their nostrils and get a big enough drink to maneuver feed down their long throats. We use gravity-fed troughs outfitted with float valves that allow them to dunk their heads, gulp, and preen as they like. Our ducks also supplement their pasture diet with antibiotic and hormone-free, non-GMO feed from Sunrise Farm. Unfortunately, we have not come up with a portable, low-impact, agony-free system that allow the ducks to swim, and opening up a batch of 400 ducks to any pond or stream at one time would overload that ecosystem with nitrogen from their manure. But factory duck doesn't get to swim either, nor does it get to eat grass, forage for crickets, or see the sun. We believe our pastured Pekins are a delicious and substantial improvement over factory duck, while being an excellent addition to our pasture management program.
HERITAGE BREED PORK
We raise a variety of heritage breed pigs, including Tamworth, Gloucester Old Spot, Berkshire, Large Black, and Ossabaw. Our pigs roam the oak and hickory forests that surround us, rooting up the soil in pursuit of protein-rich insects and feasting on acorn and hickory nuts. Due to infrastructure and time constraints, we do not farrow, meaning we do not breed our own sows or keep any boars. Rather, we purchase weaned piglets from trusted farmer friends when they are approximately 6-8 weeks old and train them to our simple electric fencing setup when they arrive at the farm.
Our pig paddocks are completely portable systems comprised of plastic step-in posts, two strands of polywire, and a solar-powered fence charger. Depending on their age and batch size, we move pigs to a completely new paddock every few days to every week or so. In addition to the natural feed provided by our forests and pasture edges, the pigs dine on antibiotic and hormone-free, non-GMO feed from Sunrise Farm. We provide feed to them free choice at all times, which keeps stress low and actually reduces consumption. An 85-gallon field drinker fed by either buried water lines or a reserve tank keeps the pigs hydrated, and throughout the hot summer we spray them down to cool off during the heat of the afternoon. Because pigs don't have sweat glands, they instinctively create wet, muddy areas and wallow around in them; as the breeze hits the wet mud on their bodies, it lowers their body temperature. This can create a messy aesthetic, compact the soil, and invite weeds to thrive once the pigs have gone, so we create small wallows in new locations each day to minimize impact.
Our favorite thing about pigs is their ability to make use of calories that would otherwise go to waste. With roughly 1/3 of the world's food supply being lost or wasted each year, especially in developed countries like the US where food is wasted largely post-production, humans' continued squandering of valuable natural resources is dismaying. So it gives us great pleasure to further supplement our pigs' diet with scraps and seconds from local business in Charlottesville, like our favorite - Marie Bette Cafe and Bakery. Each week when we deliver eggs, we also take home any baguettes or pastries that didn't sell, which are then gobbled up enthusiastically by the pigs rather than ending up in the landfill. Collaborations like this are a great example of how meat production, when thoughtfully done, can transform waste into valuable, nutrient-dense food.
BRITISH WHITE x ANGUS BEEF
Around the time we began the farm in 2010, a neighboring hobby farmer raising British White cattle was retiring. British Whites are a heritage breed prized for their good mothering skills, gentle demeanor, heat tolerance, and excellent feed conversion ratio on an all grass diet. These traits were attractive to a couple farmers interested in raising 100% grass-fed beef, but without a cattle herd. So we worked out a deal: he handed off his herd to us in the form of a no-interest loan, and we paid him back over a few years with beef, various odd jobs, and checks when we had the funds. (Side point: if starting a livestock farm is financially intimidating, get creative!)
As we grew our beef program, we were happy with the meat but not with our finished weights. British Whites are a naturally small and stocky breed, and because grass fed animals can take two years or more to grow to slaughter weight, we wanted more yield in exchange for our labor. We began breeding in Angus genetics, which increased frame size and marbling without sacrificing temperament. When you move animals every day on foot and without permanent fencing, it is vital to maintain a calm, aggression-free herd, and the British White genetics help us do that well.
Our herds get moved every day to every few days throughout the growing season, with the exception of the cold winter months when we're feeding hay. The cow paddocks consist of step-in pigtail posts, electric polywire, a solar fence charger, a mineral tub, and a water trough with float valve. Everything is lightweight and completely portable, allowing a person of any size or strength to manage a large group of animals without large machinery. Many factors contribute to how much space we allot the herd when we move them: their impact in the current stand, the weather, the maturity of the forages, topography, access to shade, when we can move them next, the cow-calf ratio, whether or not we're breeding or have sassy females coming into heat, etc. Over the years we have calibrated ourselves and trained our farmhands to consider all these factors when they set up a new paddock, relying less on technical data and rigid, advanced planning and more on observation in the moment. This gives us the flexibility to meet the needs of the cattle and the pasture in real time, and is increasingly necessary in our changing climate.
To grow our beef supply, we periodically collaborate with neighboring grass farmers whose management programs match our own. Our beef is always completely grass fed and finished, and considerable research affirms this to be healthier for the cows and the consumer. Regarding flavor, if "grass fed" makes you think "tough" and "gamey," you'll be happy to learn that most times that's because a butcher doesn't allow a grass fed animal enough hang time. A beef carcass must literally hang out for a bit to allow the meat to tenderize, and grass fed animals need a little longer to do this than fatty, grain fed animals. Our abbatoir is co-owned by a grass farmer, so they understand this and allow our animals to hang at least three weeks before fine processing. The result is delicious beef that tastes like beef, which is the way we like it.
GENUINELY FREE RANGE EGGS
Over the years we've raised a variety of laying hen breeds - Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, Golden Laced Wyandottes, Araucanas, etc. While we enjoyed these breeds for their good foraging instincts and lovely appearance, we found they were more aggressive, grew broody more quickly, and were inconsistent layers. Eventually we landed on the Golden Comet, a hybrid brown egg layer with an easy-going temperament and unbeatable production - egg numbers are remarkably even throughout the growing season and drop only minimally as days get shorter and colder. As ours is a working farm where profits matter, we value their hardiness and consistency.
The laying hens inhabit yet another portable dwelling, complete with roosts and nesting boxes, that traverses the pastures in tandem with our cattle herd. Surrounded by several of our portable electric net fences, the hens have thousands of square feet to free range. Like the rest of our poultry, their pasture diet is supplemented by antibiotic and hormone-free, non-GMO feed from Sunrise Farm. We time their placement in the pasture and proximity to the cattle by the fly cycle: flies lay eggs in the cow paddies and the larvae take approximately four days to become writhing balls of delicious insect protein. Around that time, we position the laying hens' paddock where the cows were grazing, allowing the hens to scratch out the paddies in pursuit of the larvae. The hens (which are omnivores) benefit from all that animal protein, and their distribution of manure paddies prevents clumpy growth and nitrogen hot spots the cows avoid when they next graze that stand.
Perhaps you've put together that if we're moving the cows frequently, we're also moving the laying hens frequently to keep up with that fly cycle. We like to point out the great pains we take to keep the layers moving to new ground, because it's common for farmers to call their eggs "free range" when really they just live outside in the same dirt-packed lot and never see new ground. Our layers not only have seriously ample room to roam, but they are actually moving to completely new ground every couple days. We believe this creates a better egg, one that is richer and more flavorful with a sturdy yolk and deep yellow-orange color indicative of beta carotene from all that fresh grass in their diet. Our roll-out nest boxes allow us to gather spotless eggs with no need to scrub them clean, which keeps their natural protective coating intact and results in incredible shelf life.
FRENCH TOULOUSE GEESE
One drawback to our Nomad poultry system is the broilers' vulnerability to aerial predators. In 2018, we began raising Toulouse Geese with the hope that they'd be a sufficient deterrent for hawks, owls, and crows. Turns out geese not only prevent attacks, but are also a delicious centerpiece for your holiday meal. They cohabit with our broilers (which pleases us to no end because who doesn't love interspecies friendship?) while enjoying the luxuries of a pastured lifestyle, complete with fresh forage and all the grasshoppers one could hope for. Periodically they munch on the same Sunrise Feed the rest of our poultry consume, but the geese spend much more time eating greens than grains. They dress out in the range of 7-14 pounds - a perfect weight for Christmas dinner - and boast a rich but mild flavor that pairs well with a diverse array of sides.
We'll raise two batches in 2019 and will begin accepting pre-orders for holiday birds in late summer. Sign up for our email list to stay in the know.