My name is Michael Gutschenritter. My wife Courtney and I own and operate Three Brothers Farm in Southeastern Wisconsin. We raise 1800 hens, 3000 roasting chickens, and about 30 sheep on pasture. We also grow flowers for Courtney’s floral business and vegetables for a small CSA. I spend most of my time with the birds.
By no means am I the expert on chickens. That’s for sure. But I’ve been learning for six years now. I built new models of chicken coops at least once a year for the first five years. They’ve been stationary, semi-portable, and built onto running gear. They’ve had every kind of roof, every kind of nest box, and every kind of feeder I could think of. There has always been something frustrating about each model. It made me question how some people were able to produce so many clean eggs, keep their flock healthy and safe, and maintain a lush pasture. Seeing some of these farms on social media made me feel so self conscious and frustrated that I had considered stopping the egg production on our farm. I’m grateful I stuck with it.
When a restaurant asked me to produce chicken meat for them, I joined the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) to get help. I discovered a whole world of farmers producing huge numbers of eggs and chicken meat on pasture. Most of the big guys were using large skid structures that comfortably housed 500-600 roasters per batch. And some of these folks were moving several of these structures every day onto fresh pasture almost year round. They inspired me. That became the clear solution to me for raising the roasting chickens. But having built so many coops for the laying hens in the past, I immediately thought about the possibilities with these skid structures from Prairie Schooners LLC. After a couple phone calls to these bigger producers and to David Schafer, the coop’s designer, I decided it would be a worthwhile investment to buy one for the roasters and another one for the laying hens. I hadn’t actually spoken with anyone else running laying hens in the Schooners, but I had built flimsier, underdesigned versions out of wood. I liked those but they were tough to move without having to repair them every day. It seemed like the Schooner would be easier to move, sturdier, and could house a lot more laying hens than the junkers I had built.
They worked well. There were kinks to work out and I continue to improve some things, but I was able to move 900 laying hens at a time in about 15 minutes. I noticed the actual movement of the coop only took about a minute. But the extra details of water lines, fencing, trying not to run over birds, keeping the guard dogs under control, etc, are what take so much time. Once I could figure those things out, I’d have a lot more time to observe the birds and focus on growing the business. The Schooner became the foundation of our pasture-raised egg enterprise and the roasting chicken enterprise, and it’s part of the reason we were able to double our production after one year.
Throughout the next several blog posts, I will cover some of the techniques I’ve implemented to improve the health of the flock, produce a better product, maintain a lush pasture, and afford myself a better lifestyle. I will also freewheel a bit and explain some thoughts on more general topics related to pastured poultry. Our farm is always evolving and the constant experimenting is really what keeps me so interested in the enterprises. I hope that some of the following posts save the reader a few years of headaches and encourage him/ her to use farming as a creative outlet and to share ideas with the greater community of land stewards.
Like I said, I’m not an expert. I just spend a lot of time with my birds, experimenting and tweaking to make life a little bit better each day.