SPIN and Livestock: Finding the Best Fit

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Established livestock farmers looking to diversify into crop production find their way to SPIN-Farming for the same reasons new vegetable farmers do – SPIN-type operations are quick to set up and produce income. But before established SPIN farmers diversify into livestock, they should apply the same ROI analysis. When they do, they’ll see livestock farming is a much different animal.

SPIN’s relay cropping system has relatively few inputs — capital, labor or land — which makes a quick return possible. No such quick returns exist in most livestock operations with the exception of small meat animals that can be produced in a short time, like broilers and rabbits. But more infrastructure is required for rabbits, or more land for poultry. And these businesses are much more regulated.

What about selling eggs from your backyard chickens? Here’s how SPIN farmer Andrew Bennett lays out those economics: “Let’s say it takes 5 months to raise a chick just to the point that it’s laying small eggs. I spend about $2.50 per dozen eggs just in organic feed costs. A typical hen costs $5 as a chick, $10-$15 in feed to raise to 5 months old, and about $5-$20 in labor. Once I start selling eggs, I need a margin of $1 per dozen to pay back the initial cost of the bird, so you are looking at 20-40 dozen eggs for the bird to finally pay itself off. For most birds, that’s half to a whole lifetime’s worth of eggs, so eggs aren’t profitable unless you can do about 400 hens or more.” You’ll need a pretty big backyard to accommodate them all. That will force your operation further from core markets inside cities and towns. The further you are from population centers, the less sales channels you have, and the more limited your business model options become.

Farming, perhaps more than other businesses, constantly tempts you with ways to spread yourself too thin. Some say that even though livestock might not make sense as a solo enterprise, it compliments other parts of a farming operation. Everything has its price, and it’s up to you to  decide if it’s worth it. SF photo chickens

These chickens belong to SPIN farmer Erik Halvorson who began in 2013, leasing 5 acres from his parents. He started with livestock, offering pork, turkey and eggs. In 2015, Erik  is diversifying to include crops from a ¾ acre plot. He has access to 5 markets within a 30 minute drive. You can read more about Halvorson Farms here.



Tips for Incorporating Chickens into a SPIN Farm

I’ve had chickens a number of times over the years. Chickens are hardy animals in general. Below are a few key things that you might keep in mind that over the years I’ve found especially useful to pay attention to.

Use of chicken manure in SPIN-Farming has to be carefully managed. Generally soils exposed to animal manure are supposed to go six months before you can plant and harvest edible plants in them. This is a food safety issue that can bite you badly if you aren’t on top of it.

Using chickens as part of your composting operation, in other words feeding them your garden and food food wastes, is an excellent way of reducing the need for feed for them as well as producing excellent compost for your SPIN garden. Restaurants and grocerys can be a good source of food waste for your chickens. But you need to run the resultant chicken manured compost through a further compost process to ensure that the manure is well rotted before adding it to your soil or using it as top dressing for beds: food safety issues again.

One generally reliable rule of thumb I suggest you keep in mind when raising young (and mature) chickens is to watch carefully to see if any of them begin to appear “hen pecked”. This is exactly as it sounds. One of the chickens will begin to look bad due to missing feathers. Stressed chickens tend to establish a pecking order, and the one at the bottom of the pecking order will get the cranky attention of all the other stressed chickens, and if the stress isn’t promptly relieved, will kill it. If the stress continues the next lowest in the pecking order gets pecked to death. So if you see a badly pecked young (or mature) chicken you know immediately that something is wrong with your chicken operation. If none of the chickens look pecked this is usually a pretty good sign that all is probably well in chicken land.

You should also pay attention to what’s going on around and on your property. Do you have feral cats? Raccoons? Coyotes? Other such varmints? Neighbor dogs running loose? It only takes a few minutes for a varmint that breaks into your coop to decimate a flock. So pay close attention to how they’re cooped when you first begin keeping them outside. It’s heartbreaking to deal with the aftermath of a varmint attack.

Even full grown chickens are vulnerable to varmints, even when running loose in a penned yard. You may think that a high fence keeps them safe from varmints, and it generally does, unless you have raptors. You may have to run chicken wire over the top of your chicken run to protect them from raptors.