Thank goodness for the French. If it wasn’t for them, we would have been completely restricted by their raising methods. However, since we can’t actually call these birds “Poulet de Bresse,” because they’re not in the AOC, we get to call them American Bresse and therefore, we can use our “freedom” to explore a better way…maybe.
The French standard calls for putting the birds on pasture at about 35 days. Up to that time, they are in the “startup” phase, which requires only locally raised grains, some restricted additions (like legumes, milk products, etc), but nothing from outside the AOC and no more than 6% fat content. At 36 days, the birds go out to graze. The farmer must have a minimum of 5000 square meters of land within the AOC to qualify to raise Bresse. The pasture area must be a minimum of 10 square meters per bird. During this period, protein in the feed supplement is usually kept low, encouraging natural foraging for nutritious treats (think bugs). Then, after 108 days, the birds move into the barn and placed into finishing cages (also with room restrictions). Here, they receive a mixture of local grains and milk. Depending on the type of bird (chicken, poulard, capon), they imbibe in this delicious meal, out of the elements and without want, until the necessary number of weeks have passed. Finally, they are processed and sent to the French market. The only variation is that capons are only processed for the Christmas holiday season, where they are purchased for more than $100…for a single bird.
We are trying to maintain the spirit of the French method, with some adaptations. We moved our birds out to pasture at about 42 days…this was more the result of conflicting weather and work schedules than calculated efforts. Rather than use our open pasture area, we decided to utilize the rows between our walnut trees.
There were a number of considerations here. First, our weather gets very hot in the summer. We will be processing sometime in mid May, but even then we can have pretty high heat. In terms of protection from the sun and heat, nothing is better than trees. They offer a natural sun-break, allow free movement of air, and prevent rapid evaporation of water from the soil below, all creating a naturally cooler environment, somewhere around 10+ degrees cooler than the surrounding area. Second, this allows us to utilize the same surface area without any addition of land. We can maintain our garden and pasture, and raise these birds, without taking up any additional space. The rows under the trees are vacant. Third, natural weed control. Our birds are grazers, we’ve watched it happen. They love to eat the grasses and “chickweed” that grows in the rows. We have also added organic pasture blend for chickens to increase the nutrient value of the pasture, and to increase the benefit to the soil. Fourth, a symbiotic relationship. As the birds move under the trees, eating bugs and greens and scratching up the soil, they leave behind little “presents” full of nitrogen and other natural fertilizers. It’s a win-win, for the birds and the trees. Finally, we also supply only organic supplement feed from local sources. Our feed supplements are soy-free and include organic herbs, kelp, and diatomaceous earth. We source all our feed from Modesto Milling, just a couple of hours away. We start our birds on their Soy-Free starter/grower crumble, and move to the Soy-Free finisher crumble as they grow. The starter crumble can be fed up to 18 weeks, but the protein content is higher than the French method recommends. For that reason, we will likely move to the finisher crumble shortly, encouraging the birds to seek out a greater amount of their own protein.
We are not allowing the birds to “free-range” in the traditional sense. For a number of reasons including predators, management, and control, we are not allowing the birds to range at their whimsy. In this area, we have adapted a method similar to that used at Polyface Farms (however, Mr. Salatin uses cornish-cross, which are not really grazers, and does not use organic feed, to our knowledge). We have constructed an 8’x4′ mobile chicken tractor for our 13 Bresse.
It has an open bottom, and half of the enclosure is protected on three sides, including a top cover, to provide shelter from the rain, wind, and sun. The other end is open on all sides, covered in chicken netting. This allows fresh air and sun to provide a healthy, sanitary environment.
For the 70+ days the birds are on pasture, we move it at least 5 times every 7 days (depending on weather, pasture condition, amount of grazing). That means, at a minimum, the birds will have covered 1600 square feet in the time they are on pasture. Following the French method, for our 13 birds, they would only need access to 130 square meters, or about 1400 square feet. That translates to a net coverage of about 11.4 square meters per bird, or 15% more than required by French standards. Each bird has 2.5 square feet of new pasture each day, compared to an equivalent of 1.8 square feet of pasture/day for the French method. Using the Sunbird Farms method, the birds cover more area over all, and the grazing and fertilizing is much more closely controlled, resulting in an even distribution of nutrients into, and out of, the soil.
Additionally, while the birds have ample fresh greens, fresh air, sunlight, and organic supplements (locally sourced, remember), their movement is more controlled, which we believe will result in a higher quality of meat. This controlled environment will also allow us to utilize their same living quarters during the finishing process, if we so desire. Using our method, we see the birds every day, have easy access to their food and water, and can monitor their health and condition much more carefully than if they were wandering freely. The birds get access to more space than required by French standards, and have an equal, if not higher, quality of life and nutrition. We are really excited about our Sunbird Farms method, but this is the first experiment in what will likely be a long learning process.
We welcome your thoughts or comments and will keep you updated as our American Bresse Adventure continues.