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2024 - The Year of the Pig

  • , by Jacob Wolki
  • 7 min reading time
2024 - The Year of the Pig

In 2023 I earnestly tried to level up my broiler (meat chicken) game.

A friend from afar with top chicken knowledge guided me as I fumbled through technical issues and knowledge gaps.

I built a brooder in a semi van body. Automated climate control, feed and water. Heaters and coolers toggled on and off to meet the chicks needs while they were young and growing feathers. A pan system automatically delivered feed. I had extraction fans to keep the air fresh and I even had a 4g weather module that updated my phone live with temperature and air quality alerts. 

We got brooding down pat with our best batch incurring 5 losses out of 700 birds and the chicks leaving the brooder at day 21 around 675 grams. On pasture we built Prairie Schooner V1.0. A 16 x 6m structure with long skis for the base and repurposed greenhouse hoops for the ceiling. We covered it with greenhouse plastic and installed nipple waterers. Moving it sideways (6m) the chickens would walk along to fresh pasture for their daily moves. Weight gains were good and on field casualties were generally very low. 

The brooding shed was brooding 700 chicks every 21 days which was about a week or so quicker - weather depending - than we were able to finish growing the broilers on pasture, so we built #2. We changed some structural points and Schooner V2.0 was a real level up on V1.0. I almost had the feed automated through a jacky bin and a feed pan auger system before we packed up production for 2023 with the heat and humidity starting to become a concern. I had practical designs in my head to also mitigate this environmental pressure but just didn’t get there.

Life is busy and I spent a lot of my spare time, mental horsepower and cash on innovating and designing our pastured poultry enterprise during 2023. We spent approx 40k on equipment and a small amount of labour outsourcing - my time obviously not factored. (Plus we also spent another 40k on a portable micro abattoir that we never got rolling).

All in all is shows how much value and sophistication you can generate on farm with a modest budget. (700 chickens every 21 days is 12,000 per annum. $30 per chook = 360k… why am I stopping this again?)

At the end of the year we are forced to take a bit of a breath as the abattoirs shut down and subsequently the butchers knock off for a couple weeks. As I’ve been setting into our new farm with the family and organising our lives a bit I’ve been reflecting on our farm enterprise. Since 2019 we have organically grown quickly - considering we came from no land, no livestock and no knowledge!

But, we are ambitious and don’t want to spend the next 10 years organically and slowly growing out enterprises.

We believe in our production models. I talk about our “5 Pillars of Production”. I really believe if animal welfare is addressed (contextual, species specific) then our environment thrives, our food is better quality which improves our health and our community can flourish. This is why it’s imperative and exciting to get more animals - a lot more - into our systems. 

Pastured poultry has so much upside in Australia. I calculated a while ago that Australia is producing & consuming approx 1.5 million chooks per day. Genuine national Pastured Poultry production would be around a couple hundred per day - or 0.0001%.

If I have under estimated the industries production by a factor of 5 it brings the production up to 0.0005%… you get the idea.

If we look to the USA we can see a shining star in the Pastured Poultry space, no doubt standing on the shoulders of greatness of early pioneers like Joel Salatin. Pasturebird, headed by Paul Greives and his extensive team, are doing what needs to be done. They are meeting the market. Bringing authentic pasture raised poultry to the masses by taking on equity, scaling, and driving the cost of production down. How to we make regenerative protein affordable to the masses? Look at what Pasturebird are doing and take notes.

So what are the main factors that have contributed to our decision to mothball our poultry enterprise?

It’s not the amazing impact these animals have on pasture. It’s not the great feedback we get from customer and restaurants. It’s not the fast cash flow cycle.

Each batch of 700 chickens we did required at least 30 hours of driving. Some shared with other producers, most done by ourselves. Over half of that done at night time. Sending my team down the Hume towards Melbourne at 11pm is a big liability that has never sat well with me. We have 1 abattoir to service us within an 8 hour round trip. There is only a handful of suppliers of quality day old chicks and access seems to get tighter as time goes on.

We always had to slaughter on a Wednesday and by the time our chickens were ready for collection and came back we had a team at the butchery working until late Friday evening. Delivery trucks frequently bringing chickens back late or not at all.

All of these hurdles are solvable - and quite easily. 1 word. Scale. If we started doing 1000 chickens a week instead of 250 everything becomes easier in a logistic sense. If it’s so easy, why mothball it?

About 2 weeks ago Mrs W asked me to duck into Safeway to grab some pineapple. She was making pizzas with the boys. I rarely go into any shops at all, and when I do I generally get distracted and spend a long time in them. Looking at branding, pricing, positions, cuts, flavours, expiration dates. Hungry to suck up as much information as I can. I walked to the back of the supermarket, to where the butcher display cabinet was. I saw the pork. Pale pink pork with a perfect fat cap and pale skin. Loin chops $22kg. Scotch steak $24kg. I was caught a bit by surprise and I just stared for a minute. For years I’ve been told how expensive my small scale heritage breed pastured pork is.

I generally get $30kg for the above cuts. Sure, my loin chops cost 40% more. But my chicken is essentially 250-300% more when doing the same comparisons. I haven’t been able to get this out of my head.

More market research shows smoke houses all around Australia selling their premium bacon for $60kg, $70kg and even $80kg! No pork provenance, just quality smoking and slicing.

To give you some perspective, our 700 chickens every 21 days was the source of all my logistic headaches. Our 40 pigs every 6 weeks is essentially the source of none. Top line revenue compared to poultry was equivalent for us, with pigs being more profitable because of far lower on farm labour and a LOT less driving required.

Another consideration is that my weaner piglet supplier, Jason Bates at Stockingpiggle, is value aligned and benefits from the success of our business. The same likely can’t be said by the big hatcheries that have always kindly supplied me. To get chickens slaughtered we have a 9 hour round trip that starts at 11PM, to ensure that we arrive at the abattoir at the crack of dawn. To get pigs processed we have 2 options within a 1 hour radius and we can frequent these facilities at more civilised hours.

This decision has come down to economic opportunity and ease of market access. The path of least resistance. Moving out to the farm at Woomargama, 30 minutes from our main operation at Thurgoona, has no doubt contributed to this decision but not in as large a way as one may think.

I’ve been working through this decision publicly, as I often do, and lots have been asked about our cattle and sheep enterprises. These ruminant grazing enterprises are a long play. They are like an index fund, where the monogastric chicken or pig enterprises are more like tech stocks. We will keep our Nguni cattle and shedding sheep cranking along in the background - don’t worry!

Thanks for reading and get ready to put some pork on your fork!

“The other red meat”.

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Comments

  • I truly admire your tenacity You gave it your best shot I’m glad we got to see the work in progress

    CA

    catherinegulhane@protonmail.com

  • We are not stopping eggs

    JA

    jakewolki@gmail.com

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