FINDING BALANCE

This Peeler Farms pasture hen struts her stuff for the camera.

Marianna Peeler of Peeler Farms is our featured farmer of the day.  Marianna raises humane pastured poultry and eggs and will be hosting the next farm dinner in the Slow Food South Texas Farm Dinner Series.  Her poultry and eggs will also be featured during the Food Revolution weekend Farm to Family picnic on May 19th and the Fine Swine Cook-off and Flavor Fest on May 20th.

I don’t enjoy driving.  I would much rather ride on a bus, train or plane when I need to go somewhere.  Mass transportation allows me to zone out or fall asleep for a few hours, and then wake up having magically arrived at my destination.  As much I as I dislike driving, I have to admit that the drive to Peeler Farms during my family’s visit in late March was beautiful.  South Texas had been recently blessed with the perfect mixture of rain and sun, resulting in boon of spring wild flowers.  As we drove south towards Floresville, TX, we left the sprawling suburbs for the pastoral country and were welcomed by green fields accented with patches of yellow, purple, red, pink and blue flowers.

Herds of cattle graze in pastoral fields of blue bonnets and assorted wildflowers.

The Peeler family, like many south Texas ranchers, grow hay and raise cattle, but are becoming more well-known for their pasture raised poultry and ethical eggs.  Marianna Peeler, owner and operator of Peeler Farms Natural Poultry, got into the egg business in 2007 and her business has quickly grown as demand for ethically raised local food has increased.  Her business model can be summed up with two words, “seek balance.”  While seeking balance is easy to say, like everything in life, it is more difficult to put in practice.

Peeler’s newest chicks spend their days roaming between hotboxes. These chicks are only a few days old and are still too young for the harsh elements of the pasture.

The permanent poultry at Peeler Farms consists of a multiple variety of laying chickens, Peking ducks, and Guinea fowl.  The more “temporary” members, if you get my drift, consist of a flock of male Jumbo Cornish X chickens and raft of Peking ducks.  While Marianna doesn’t run a hatchery, she receives her chicks only a few days old, and then oversees their entire life-cycle to include the slaughter, sale, and distribution of her poultry birds sold for meat.  Peeler’s poultry begin the first few weeks of their lives under the protection of her barn’s roof, where they are initially separated by age.  They will stay in the barn until they are about 4 weeks old.  By then, they have their adult feathers and are hardy enough to survive the variable Texas weather.  In addition, while they still can’t protect themselves from hawks, owls, and coyotes, they are large enough to protect themselves from many of the other predators found outside on pasture.

Inside the barn there are six large enclosures with wood chips for bedding, fresh water, and feed trays.  In the center of each of these enclosures are large plywood and insulated sliver boxes, whose bottoms are raised off the ground slightly and emit a soft yellow glow; these are the hotboxes.  The young chicks are fragile and must be kept at a consistent temperature of around 100 degrees F, too hot or too cold and they are liable to get sick and die.  The boxes are Marianna’s solution to this problem.  Each box is set at the appropriate height for the age and size of the chick it serves.  If a chick is cold it can easily enter the warm comfort of the hotboxes and sun itself under the heat lamps.  If, while under the lamps, it begins to get too warm it can just as easily exit the hotboxes for the cooler air found in the barn.  The baby chickens learn to regulate their temperature without having to be in a high-tech climate controlled environment or be constantly monitored by a person.

Peeler’s chicks as they develop. Clockwise from left: Days old and warming themselves in the hotboxes, approx. two weeks old and drinking from drip systems, approx 4 weeks old with adult feathers coming in (almost ready for pasture).

Each enclosure has different accoutrements for the age of the chicken it serves.  The enclosures have lots of hotboxes and water trays for the baby chicks, and less hotboxes but a freshwater drip drinking system for the teenagers.  The chicks are rotated from pen to pen as they grow.  Similar to a high school, the seniors graduate and go out to pasture, while the youngest are replaced by a new crop of freshmen.  Between each rotation, the pens are cleaned by removing the old wood chips to be composted, mixing in a little lime to the dirt to prevent parasites, and laying a fresh bed of wood chips again.

The hens in the foreground feed on local milo, while the hens in the background forage for insects and grubs.

The pasture is where these graduated seniors will spend the rest of their lives, and the pasture is what sets Marianna’s operation apart from industrial poultry farms.  Peeler Farms pasture consists of a few acres of fenced in native grasses.  Like most sustainable farming operations her method for raising animals is based on rotational grazing.  When one thinks of grazing animals, chickens don’t often come to mind, but that is exactly what they are.  Chickens are omnivores, and when they are allowed to roam on pasture, will eat a variety of grasses and grains while also hunting for insects and grubs.  All of Peeler’s  birds, those raised for meat and the laying hens, live on pasture.  They spend their days scratching in the dirt, roosting, eating grass, and roaming between short grass for grazing and grass kept long for natural cover.  Once the grass shows signs of stress the birds are rotated to fresh pasture.  As the birds hunt and peck they leave behind nitrogen rich droppings that will ensure the pasture comes back greener and more vibrant than before.

Marianna’s chickens choose from a variety of coops. The mobile coop in the upper left provides shade and protection from the elements while the caged hoop structure on the upper right provides protection from flying predators. The chickens roam during the day and at night roost in the coops for protection.

Peeler’s birds are protected by portable hotwire fencing, designed more to keep land predators out than keep the birds in.  As added protection, Marianna’s employs a herding dog and doesn’t clip her birds’ wings, since flight is one of their best tools to flee from a predator that has gotten in the pasture.  While the flight defense works well with land based predators, the airborne predators are a much larger challenge.  Owls and hawks are a constant threat and often take their toll.  Marianna continues to battle this threat and has even designed a custom portable chicken coop to provide protection for her birds.  The coop is designed so chickens can easily enter and exit on the ground but is inaccessible from above preventing airborne predators entrance.  Under the protection of the coop is the mobile egg laying station where Marianna tries to convince her hens to lay their eggs.  It sits on skids, allowing it to be towed to new pasture as the birds are rotated.

The Peeler pastured poultry laying station.

Peeler happy hens laying yummy eggs.

These hens chat with each other in between egg laying. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I think it was something to do with knitting, or grubs.

The eggs are collected daily, sorted, and washed on site.  The birds raised for meat are also processed on site.  In fact, Marianna insists on slaughtering most of her birds herself; as she possesses the required skill and know-how to quickly, and as painlessly as possible, slaughter her birds.  The only exception to this rule is if she has a very large order from a local restaurant, and is unable to slaughter the all birds required.  The overflow are slaughtered at Windy Meadow Farm, a farm she knows has the same respect for the animals they raise as Mrs. Peeler.  Despite the recent increase in demand, Marianna Peeler’s poultry operation still consists of just 2 people, herself and co-worker Melissa.  It is their close control and oversight that allows her to maintain balance at her farm.  Through years of experience and daily interaction with the birds, they know when the birds are ready for pasture or when pastures need to rotated to prevent overuse or nitrogen burn.

The goal is to maintain balance.  Balance between too many birds or too few, too much nitrogen rich droppings or too little, too much freedom and the risk of predators or too little freedom and unhappy hens.  While the battle to maintain balance is constant.  The end result is worth it.  Poultry and eggs rich in flavor, humanely raised on pasture.  Pasture that not only sustains the animals on the farm, but is also improved by them.

A healthy variety of poultry on healthy pasture. Notice the spectrum of pasture, brown in the foreground where the birds have been the longest, short grass in the middle where the birds are foraging and fresh long green pasture waiting in the background.

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