By Tom Collins
CURRAN — Kornel Schneider is used to the strange looks he gets from fellow dairymen. He pasture feeds his 100 cross-bred milking herd and plans his seasonal calving where there will be 120 calvings in May and June but none for the rest of the year.
That’s why he didn’t pay much heed to the looks he got when he also started raising grass-fed chickens last year as part of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario’s artisanal chicken program. The CFO last year changed their rules to increase the number of chickens allowed to be raised without quota from 300 to 3,000.
“I’m used to getting strange looks because we graze our cows,” Schneider said. “This is just a strange guy being even stranger now.”
The move to chickens has paid off. Schneider estimates at least 20 per cent of his 2016 farm income came from the chickens and says a farmer could live just off the money made from the chickens.
“When you spend your money, the return is there much, much quicker than in the cattle industry,” said Schneider, who farms at Curran, about an hour east of downtown Ottawa. “We bought our first chicks April 17, and June 15, we had our chickens ready for sale. It’s not that you raise an animal for two years and hope it doesn’t die.”
Schneider, 47, who farms with his wife, Olga, 40, sells each chicken for $44 to $46. He commands a high price because the chickens weigh about 8 pounds each, about 60 per cent heavier than the average Ontario chicken. He also charges a premium since the chickens are grass fed.
His cost of production — which includes the chicks, the feed, the water, electricity, and processing (processing alone is almost 10 per cent of his cost) — is about 28 per cent of his chicken revenue. That number doesn’t include employees from the dairy farm who help out, depreciation of buildings or the cost of equipment such as a freezer and two home-made chicken coops. Adding those numbers in could put the cost of production as high as 50 per cent. But that still means the farm makes around $67,500 to $97,200 per year.
There were 103 Ontario farmers that raised artisanal chickens last summer. Eighteen of those were in Eastern Ontario and another 25 in Central Ontario. While farmers can raise anywhere from 600 to 3,000 chickens per year as part of the program, Schneider raises the chickens in six batches of 500.
All of the chickens and cows at Schneider’s Ferme Reveuse are pasture fed. To ensure the chickens have fresh grass every day, Schneider invented a new type of chicken housing. He took a 27 ft. by 35 ft. greenhouse and put it onto skis. At least once a day, a tractor uses a chain to pull the greenhouse to a fresh patch of grass. The chickens used about eight acres of pasture last year.
An electric fence is also moved daily to keep the chickens safe from predators. The electric fence gives about 2,500 sq. ft. of space for the chickens to run around.
Each chicken is on the farm for about 65 days. Schneider’s chicks — the same variety as most conventional meat birds found in Ontario — are kept on top of a wagon inside the barn where they are fed a conventional 100 per cent plant-based grain with no animal by-products. When the chicks are ready to go to pasture, the wagon is driven to the field and the chickens walk down a ramp from the wagon into the pasture system. The chickens are also given the grain while in the field but it’s up to the chicken to decide whether it eats grain, grass or bugs it finds in the soil.
Schneider spent about two hours per day raising the birds and another hour per day on marketing. Farmers who get into the artisanal chicken game need to be prepared for the amount of marketing involved, said Schneider.
“Marketing will be a bigger issue than production,” he said. “Look for clients first. Because it’s pretty simple to produce these chickens, but it doesn’t help if you have them in the freezer and have nobody to buy them.”
About 50 per cent of his chickens are sold through private sales between Montreal and Ottawa, with the rest sold wholesale. He counts a high-end Ottawa hotel and a couple of restaurants as part of his clientele.
Schneider’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Chickens Farmers of Ontario contacted Schneider to see if he wanted to expand. Schneider turned the offer down as anything more would require a minimum purchase of 14,000 units of quota. He is looking into offering pastured eggs this summer.
“Talking to clients, they want their birds to be raised in a non-industrial way,” he said. “So what does it help if you’re going to have 20,000 chickens on pasture? You never know, but for now we have enough to play with.”