15th July, 2006: ABERDEEN - About 40 people with interest in the poultry industry came from around the Southeast Thursday to Cackleberry Farms in southwest Monroe County to learn about the benefits of a trend in chicken farming called pasture poultry.
The workshop attendees from Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama hoped to learn about raising hens in a field instead of cooping them up in traditional chicken houses. It's not the normal way of doing things, but Cackleberry owner Steve Schrock, who has been raising chickens this way since 1998, says it's more natural, is better for the chickens, offers a great way to fertilize a field and produces better-tasting chickens.
“If you ever try it, you'll be spoiled,” Schrock said.
Chickens at Cackleberry live in small bottomless metal pens that sit on the ground in fields surrounded by cattle. The pens are made with chicken wire on three sides to allow air to flow through and three-fourths of the roof is shaded to keep the summer sun away.
The chickens eat only grass, ground corn and soybean meal with a few vitamins. Cackleberry does not use any growth hormones or additives.
“We don't allow any animal byproduct on the property,” Schrock said. “We consider it toxic material.”
Each day, the pens are dragged a few feet further down the slope of the main pasture, exposing new grass for the chickens to eat. The farm has three pastures, one 43 acres, another 15 and a recently purchased 73-acre spread. Schrock has 67 head of cattle - mostly black Angus - grazing the farm.
The chicks, 800 per batch, arrive at the farm from a hatchery in Missouri when they are 2 days old. For the next seven to eight weeks, they live in pens in the pasture. On processing days, when the chickens are big enough to sell to hungry customers, folks come from miles around to get the freshest chicken.
Cackleberry's biggest source of business is individual customers. Schrock estimated Cackleberry has an active customer base of 450.
“We do sell to a country club who has a private chef,” Schrock said. “He says it's the best chicken around.”
Thursday's workshop was conducted with the help of an organization called SARE - Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
“This is the first time we've hosted an event like this, so I didn't know what to expect. I thought it went extremely well. The only problem was we didn't cook enough chicken,” Schrock joked.
Schrock gave workshop attendees a tour of his facility on Prairie Mills Road off Highway 45 Alternate, from the pastures to the processing house, showing them how the operation works.
“I always had a tremendous interest in natural foods,” Schrock said. “But I had never figured out how to make it profitable.”
Castleberry's chicken operation doesn't stand alone - Schrock sells cattle and operates a feed mill - but the pasture poultry business makes money when the chickens grow big enough. He's had some problems with small chickens at times, but things are going well now, Schrock said.
“We would love for people to become better educated about the food they eat,” Schrock said. “The concept is very simple - local farmers producing food for local people. It's fresher and healthier. We hope people value quality foods versus factory-farmed.”