Living River Farms tour and pastured chicken

Earlier this month, I visited Living River Farms in Stevensville to catch up with farmers Beau McLean and Christopher Green. During the height of the season, there are chickens in all phases of growth on the farm. They had just moved a batch of young chickens out on pasture and had cleaned the brooding trailer in anticipation of the next group of chicks arriving that week. Living River receives day-old chicks that are kept indoors under warming lights until they are three weeks old in the summer (or until they are four weeks old in the colder, shoulder season). Once they have their warm adult feathers, the birds are on pasture in floorless movable structures that provide the chickens with shade, protection, food and water, while allowing them 24/7 access to grass on pasture. The beauty of this system is that because they are moved daily, the chickens always have clean bedding and fresh grass. This controls the distribution and volume of manure allowing it to break down more quickly and improve the soil. Chris and Beau also raise grass-fed beef so the cows mow down the grass first, enough that the birds can comfortably move through the springtime pasture.

 New chicks growing nicely.

New chicks growing nicely.

 Cows helping out the with "mowing" ahead of the chickens.

Cows helping out the with "mowing" ahead of the chickens.

I had just listened to this Sustainable Dish podcast in the weeks before my visit. It featured a farm in Southern California that raises birds exclusively on pasture, and the interview covers a number of issues relating to the lack of humane standards for slaughter in the USDA poultry processing facilities, the reason overall that chicken is priced "cheaper" than other forms of meat due to government grain subsidies and what "free-range" really means on factory farms versus what consumers believe.

 Protection from predators, the sun and access to grass. 

Protection from predators, the sun and access to grass. 

One of the factors in educating the public about what it means to eat local is sharing the climate challenges we experience here in Montana. We have four seasons here with lots of extremes in between. Pastured chickens don't grow in the winter on snow, or bare frozen ground. So our climate dictates that we grow chickens on pasture in the warmer months, and freeze the processed meat to enjoy  throughout the year. Some of you might have noticed that our Mountain Meat Shares chickens are several months old by the time we get to spring. That is because we source the chickens when they are processed in the summer and fall, and store them for use later on. This issue was raised in a recent episode of this podcast where a large pastured egg wholesaler discussed that they only contract with farms in the warm southern part of the United States so that the chickens are always outside. This raises a dilemma for us Montanans. Do we ship in our food from warmer climates the rest of the year? Do we make concessions for our egg chickens to be inside during part of the year? Or do we modify our eating standards to eat only in season? I'll delve into this more in the upcoming egg blog post

 It's a jungle out here

It's a jungle out here

The shear number of times the birds need to be handled under this management style is surprising. From first chick delivery to moving to pasture, to sorting for finishing weight, to transporting to the processing facility in Hamilton-- these chickens require a lot of labor. And while being raised, there are a number of times the birds need to be handled to prevent behavior such as "piling." When the sun begins to set, the birds seek the warmth of each other and panic a bit while piling on top of one another. Inevitably, someone is going to get squished. Convincing the birds to stagger their nighttime ritual, especially during the shoulder months, or seek warmth under a structure placed inside their hooped house requires even more hands-on time.

When I first met with Beau and Chris last year, I asked about their motivation for raising pastured chickens. They listed their wish to bring jobs to the Bitterroot valley. So far, the scale is such that the processing employees are part-time, and the hope is to expand and increase work hours in the future. For me, learning that poultry would be finally processed in Montana was one of the motivating factors for creating Mountain Meat Shares. Having raised pastured chickens for ourselves over the years, I was excited to know that finally someone struggled through the bureaucratic maze of getting a licensed processing facility built in Montana.

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Micah and I have already processed our homestead meat chickens for this year. Our relatively tiny flock raises many challenges so I appreciate the work that Chris and Beau do to ethically produce pastured chicken in Montana.

For further reading and listening:

  • The Sustainable Dish podcast episode I mention earlier. If you are interested in learning more about the ethics and environmental and nutritional aspects of the poultry industry, please give this a listen.
  • Missoulian article on the initial formation of the Hamilton poultry processing facility
  • Read my prior post about the book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats