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Recorded on October 10, 2021
[The following transcript was auto-generated using Otter.ai. If there’s a discrepancy between the audio and text, please reach out to me and I will correct it. Thank you.]
Matt Derosier 0:10
Welcome to the FarmHopLife Podcast, a traveling homestead family, I’m Matt. Joining me today is Joe Senger of Graze and Roam Farm in Victor, Montana. Joe was kind enough to give me in the family a tour of his operation a few months ago, and it was so hot, I didn’t even get a chance to ask my questions. So here we are. Are you doing, Joe? Good, man.
Joe Senger 0:32
Good to see you again.
Matt Derosier 0:33
Yeah, good to see you. Finally, we can make this thing work after a couple of months. So here we are. And you’re, you’re my first interview. So this will determine if I have a future in this or not.
Joe Senger 0:45
I’m excited about the opportunity. It seems like a neat idea.
Matt Derosier 0:49
Yeah. So we met through the Montana poultry Co Op through and through some BS saying I know a little bit about your background. But I’d like to know more. So how do you go from VP of Marketing for a well known taco chain in California, to raising cows, pigs and chickens full time in Montana?
Joe Senger 1:13
Well that’s a great question. I lived in Orange County, California, when I had that job, and my wife at the time, and I, we had some children in the house. And we opted to have some backyard chickens. So we had four or five chickens in the backyard, in our cul de sac and little tiny postage stamp backyard, it was a lot of fun. Fast forward several years, you know, after being in the fast food industry for, I don’t know, 15 years or so. And helping a lot of restaurant companies after that in a consulting capacity, watching how the food in our country has produced the the agricultural processes and systems that are in place to bring the quantities of proteins and grains and vegetables to restaurants, and which ultimately end up in the consumers hands. It’s really shocking. And there’s lots of documentaries out there, you can watch and scare yourself to death around how food is produced and grown. But the short answer is it had an impact on me watching it firsthand, knowing the purchasing processes being some of these vendors and that kind of thing. So I grew up in Oregon, and not rural Oregon. But I did grow up in Oregon, which is very, I guess you could say a left leaning kind of progressive state in general. And so the idea of responsibility and in choosing your food or just your choices in life in general, would that be how you spend your money or the companies you support cetera? That that was always stuck in the back of my mind and that upbringing I had there. So I knew that my I have great comfort in the restaurant business as far as understanding how it works and, and hospitality. I really liked hospitality. But I ran my own restaurant for five years fast food restaurant. That’s how I got started in the fast food business. My father was in the business and I bought one of his restaurants from me. Anyway, I’m not a restaurant guy from the standpoint of running a restaurant, but I love the environment and sort of the the cachet and the service component of it and serving people. A meal, I feel is kind of an intimate experience in a certain level, it can be very intimate or it can be very casual in a fast food drive thru environment. So my, my wife, Brenna and I, this is my second wife and she had always kind of fantasized about having livestock of some kind. And, you know, we moved from Southern California when we got married to back to Oregon to my home. And through that experience, we had a rental farm. We rented some property, that six acres, and I’ve been reading a lot about. Well, I was ready for for a career change, I guess you could say. And so I’ve been very passionate about the food. And so I was reading up on Joel Salatin and learning about his processes and watching a lot of food documentaries and that kind of thing. And so I I started raising some meat chickens in my, basically my backyard, and we had about an acre and a half of grass. And I started marketing those just to my neighbors through the next door app and started selling chickens. I mean, it was it was slow going at first, but it’d be a steep learning curve. You know, I’ve raised like I said before, I’d had chickens, but I’ve never done meat chickens. So it was a new new adventure. We added about 50 laying hens to our yard. So we had some eggs too. And so we just started out really, really tiny. I mean, just a couple dozen eggs a day. Our first batch of chickens, I think I bought them from a lady on Craigslist, they were half grown. And she was selling them just to get she had to move. And so I bought them for five bucks a chicken. And we experimented with those first dozen. And we process them by hand, we rented equipment from a farm that we met, they were advertising the rental equipment, and kind of like how you and I met. Yeah, and, and so we kind of got excited, like, wow, this is not only neat, as a process, I really enjoyed the process of growing the animal, watching it, knowing exactly what it was going into the animal, knowing exactly where it lived, and the ground it was living on. And knowing that those those things were as pure as I could make them organic feed, no sprays, no chemicals on her property, you know, that kind of thing. So
that was sort of the start. And it got me excited because like I said, I was looking for a career shift. And so I decided I was going to start to try to make money at this. And so we bought 100 meat, chickens and meat chicks, and a raise that first batch. I used a pastured model we we went to about John Suscovich, which is stress free chicken tractor book and I made three chicken tractors and I put them out in the grass and two things happen. Number one, the grass after the chickens went by, you know, after you move them down every day was shocking. The turnaround of that the productivity, the greenness, the lushness of that grass, and how fast it would grow just from that single passive chicken manure over the top. But secondly, I realized I had a lot of excited neighbors and and potential customers who were willing to pay a price that would give me not only cover my costs, but give me some profit. So I ended up selling out that first batch of 100, meat chickens to look through local farmers markets to the next door app, just just telling people that they’re available. And we immediately bought another 100. So anyway, we ran out of we ran out that season. We did 200 That first year. And I did 300 The second year. And then we got so excited that we decided we were going to buy our own property and do this full time. So I thought about leasing neighbor’s land, there was lots of agricultural land available in the area. But we decided we’re going to try to buy something. And that’s a whole other conversation how we ended up in Montana. But that’s that’s how we got here.
Matt Derosier 7:57
That’s awesome. Man, you really, you really jumped in with both feet going for the with getting 50 laying hens, like after only having, Did you say a dozen the first time around?
Joe Senger 8:11
we had four or five and California with my children. And yeah, that was probably back in 2004. That’s when we got our first chickens. We had chickens in Oregon, probably around 1998. But then just just a backyard flock almost as pets just as a couple, you know, a little tiny roost box and nest box and that kind of thing. And they will just run around the yard and eat the grass and bugs and stuff. So it was a big leap from a half dozen chickens to 50. And it felt it felt like an entirely different universe, when they would you know, as anybody who raises chickens knows they come out and mob you and they expect food and all that. And that was great fun. And we had a variety there were just a bunch of Oh 12 or 14 different variety of chickens. They weren’t selected for laying capacity that we just liked the chickens. And so again, we learned a lot about how to how to raise them how to keep them happy. The weather in Oregon, of course is nothing like the weather in Montana. So we’ve learned more here about what chickens require. Very glad that we selected our chickens here in Montana for cold hardiness. We still have some heritage breeds for aesthetic reasons. We’d like to egg colors, that kind of thing. And then I have about half of my chickens now that are I guess I’d call them production layers. They’re they’re cross breeds of varieties that you know will get 250 to 300 eggs a year out of each chicken. So I’m kind of splitting the difference on aesthetics and efficiency on laying. So but yeah, a steep learning curve. For sure.
Matt Derosier 9:59
Do you Do you like brood? I guess any of your own like, any of your own chicken species like, Hey, I’m going to mix this breed with this breed and try to get something out of here or do you just or what breeds Do you? Do you want? Like can you know the specific breeds that you, off the top of your head?
Joe Senger 10:23
So in Oregon, that was the first time we ever had broody chickens. And so we studied up on what is it birdie chicken and how to deal with them and whatever we thought they were sick at first, right? They wouldn’t leave the nest box and then we learned quickly that Oh, no, they’re potential mothers. Okay. Well, we because it was just a barnyard flock. We had roosters in the mix. And so we knew that our eggs were fertilized by somebody, we I think we had four or five roosters at the time and about 45 laying hens. So we just started gathering eggs up and stuck them underneath those broody hens and gave them something to do. You know, we had a greenhouse, we had an egg laying room, we gave them each their own space and make sure they had food and water and they were warm enough and safe and all those things. And lo and behold, they all popped out these beautiful little broods of barnyard mixed chickens. Unfortunately, the timing of that was 30 days before we actually moved to Montana. So they hatched we had them around for about three weeks. And then I ended up selling that entire flock because we couldn’t move them that far. They would be Wow. But But yeah, we had success doing that. It was just a barnyard mix. There was no discipline applied to it at all. But, Fast forward now to Montana. We’ve been here for years. This farm we’ve been here only one year and this is where we really put our efforts into agriculture. We The first place we live we picked a terrible location for agriculture. learn that lesson the hard way we’ve had to spend three years there before we could find this place. But here we really liked the Americana has the blue green egg layers. I do have a handful of Americana roosters in my in my flock. My plan is not necessarily crossbreed. But maybe we gather up some fertilized Americana eggs. We sequester, a few broody hens of any type whoever is going to be willing to sit and then we hatch those eggs and save yourself some money on replacement chicks down the road. So that is definitely a plan as far as being a breeder per se, I I don’t have the I probably don’t have the knowledge or discipline to do that right now. I could see the value of that offsetting your cost of replacement chicks. But to be honest with you, I got so much going on. It’s much easier for me right now just to place an order for 400 chicks, and then they show up and I know when they’re going to be here. So and that’s my plan moving
Matt Derosier 12:54
they might show up.
Joe Senger 12:58
fairpoint 2020. Well, 2021 was kind of a nightmare. I ended up we can
Matt Derosier 13:05
get into that later. Oh, sure. No, like we can go wherever you want. I was just thinking about about Bo. Oh, man, I’m forgetting his last name. But you know, Bo, he lives right down this road for me. Hopefully I get a chance to interview him at some point. But that’s only living here. What made me think of that question. Yes. Living river farm. Yeah, yeah. So. So growing up in Oregon, you said you you were around food production kind of like to do things sustainably responsibly. Like, did you like when you were a kid? Let’s say 10 years old. Did you have a garden? Did you have chickens? Did you have any livestock at that point? Oh,
Joe Senger 13:54
that was in 1977. So we lived in the city we had, we live in a nice little nice little house across the street from my grade school. And agriculture. Livestock was not something that our family specifically to pardon. We did have friends and I went to their house at least once a week because we went to the same church. And they had lots of chickens out. They were out in the rural side of our town. And I was fascinated by that. I loved that experience of going out and collecting eggs and having that sort of immediate payoff of oh my gosh, we’re gonna go find something cool. You know, in this in this room. They also had rabbits they did rabbits for meat a while. I was there for one processing Day, which I did not want to do again at that age. Now I could I could probably do it now but at 10 or 12 years old. It was pretty, pretty jarring. Sure. They also had some goat See, and so that that one particular family, they exposed me to lots of things that having to do with creating your own food, including hunting. That was their dad was a hunter, and he taught me how to carry a rifle and those sorts of things. So, so providing for yourself being independent of the food system, if you will. Those were ideas that they sort of, implied that never said that was not a sophisticated plan. It was just, hey, we have
Matt Derosier 15:30
layers, the way of life, Mike wasn’t a thing that you really needed to talk about. They were just values, it was just like instilled in you like, why are we even talking about this?
Joe Senger 15:40
Right. Right. So yeah, but but at that young age, that was pretty much my experience. And, you know, we traveled a lot. We drove in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, there’s lots of agriculture and we, our family would go out, sometimes my mom would take us out sometimes when we’d go see cows and see pigs and things like that. But getting close to those animals was a rare treat. And it was very exciting. As a young kid, you know, to see them up close. So we always went to the fair to, and to look at all the baby animals every every summer at the fair. And that was also a highlight. I remember talking to my wife about that recently. That’s a good childhood memory.
Matt Derosier 16:23
Are you still in touch with that family?
Joe Senger 16:26
Um, I am not. But my mother is she is still friends with the mom of that family. And, and they still live in Oregon. I think it’s even in the same house that they lived in for, I don’t know, close to 50 years now.
Matt Derosier 16:40
Wow, that’s not relevant to what like we’re talking about. I was just curious, like, if that, you know, kind of it sounded like you guys were really close. And obviously, moving a state away. really puts a damper on friendships and stuff. But yeah, if you kept in touch, or reconnected or whatever,
Joe Senger 16:58
not with that particular family, but it’s interesting. Having the agricultural lifestyle as a job, which is, this is my full time job, I don’t have employment elsewhere. I mean, I’m fortunate that my wife makes enough money for our family to leave, I don’t have to earn money right now, at the level I was used to doing. But right. A lot of my connections from California, good friends, they come out to visit, and they’ll spend a week or 10 days or even two weeks here on the farm, and help me with projects. Just relish the animals and the air and the VISTAs and, you know, I mean, it’s just exciting for them being in a 13 million person area of the world. Out here, you you can shoot a gun in a direction not at a house. I mean, it’s, it’s a it’s a nice place to be. So So those connections are very strong. Those are more adult adult relationships that I’ve maintained over the years. But yeah, it’s, it is interesting how those young influences can steer you in ways you don’t even realize.
Matt Derosier 18:12
Yeah, yeah, definitely. And, like, yeah, it’s just sorry, I was just thinking about this old picture that my mom My mom sent me recently. So like, my one and a half year old son, Milo looks just like me as a kid. I mean, almost to a tee. And there’s an old picture of me and like these blue and light blue striped, like overalls with they’re like, super short and like crimpy or whatever, just weird. 90s Weird 90s Oshkosh, bogash style, whatever, like I’m, like, locked in like a chicken coop or something like that. Just looking out. And so like, the like, does. Does, did that have anything to do with you know, having chickens on my own at 30 years old or? Or whatever? Who knows? You know, I mean, my roots both grew up on farms, but they could not leave the farm fast enough, more or less,
Joe Senger 19:22
I mean, they’re definitely as an adult. An agricultural lifestyle, did feel like a novelty, you know, coming from the corporate world. And we I remember having co workers who are nearing retirement and they would always talk about what they were going to do after retirement and there was a one fella he said, I’m going to move to Oregon and I’m going to open a llama ranch. Good for you, because because the agricultural lifestyle. I think there is a really interesting latent hunger to connect with the land. I connect with animals to connect with nature, all the facets that that I get to do all the time. And we’re not talking, I mean, of course, there’s fun things like tractors and, you know, chucking 1000 pound bales of hay around to feed my cows and stuff. Like, that’s fun. But it’s really, there’s just sort of this very subtle, soothing connection that I get from going out on my porch at dawn, scanning the horizon, I always look for wildlife, I look for elk and deer and whatever else is out there. And then I look over my animals and they’re right outside my front door, you’ve been to the ranch. So you know, but yeah, I can, I can keep my eye on them. And I’ve got my livestock Guardian dogs out there who greet me every morning. And it’s just like, I have my own fan club. I mean, it’s it’s sort of a it’s a nice fun. It, it almost harkens back to being a dad in a way, right? I have two adult children. I don’t have any grandkids yet. But okay, maybe this is my surrogate grandchildren. We could talk about another story. But anyway, I just just the connection to the land and watching the grass grow and, and not on a daily basis. But over time, you know, watching the pastures change and watching the animals grow up and how they interact with, with the land that we offer them and their their weather needs and all the different pieces. It just it’s a really fun way to spend my time. It is not without stress. But the stress is not the same kind of stress I had in the corporate world. Corporate world stress was fear, just terrible fear of screwing up losing my job losing an income that I had, I had become so dependent on that it was terrifying to think about it shrinking at all. Because you build your lifestyle up to the income you have generally as Americans, that’s our that’s our thing.
Matt Derosier 22:00
We’re pretty good at it.
Joe Senger 22:02
We were no exception, right? So. So this lifestyle is like, Okay, let’s see what I can make out of this. It’s, it’s it’s a very luxurious position. I recognize that a lot of folks who may be listening to this may roll their eyes and go, Well, of course you can do this, he’s got somebody else paying the bills. And that’s true. If I were to attempt this as a replacement for a desperately needed livable wage, I would be doing it differently. I guarantee I would be doing it differently. I’m in a luxurious privileged position, if you will, that we don’t need the income so I can I can kind of experiment we’ve invested a lot of money in livestock cattle, for example, pigs, sheep, a lot of chickens, I would not have started that big. I would have started slower and gone deeper. And chickens because I think chickens are by far, the quickest way to start earning income, not layers, but meat birds. By far the quickest turn.
Matt Derosier 23:10
Well, I mean, what I mean, yes, you have all of these things that a lot of people don’t, but at the same time, what are you going to do handicap yourself? Because like, you’re, why would you not take all the advantages, like, I know your kids, are roughly my age, and they’re not at home. So you don’t have you know, the time commitment of kids, like, you know, me and my wife do, you know, taking care of a one and a half year old, and you know, me having to go to work and you know, there’s only so much time in the day, blah, blah, blah, all these things you like just, of course, you’re going to take those advantages, like why would you why would you not? So I mean, yeah, people people like to make excuses like, Oh, of course, he can go do that. And they just kind of they just more like whine about it like, okay, sure he has this advantage, but maybe you have an advantage that he doesn’t. What is that? exploit that. What like if this is what you want, quit crying and go do it. Like, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know.
Joe Senger 24:19
I can tell you that. Location is a massive, important piece of the puzzle when it comes to success in agriculture. You know, in Portland, where we live where I where we started doing the meat, meat birds. There are so many people there who are hungry, literally and figuratively for a product that they can feel good about eating. Yeah, it was it was a no brainer. And had we found a farm in Oregon where we could still market to the Portland marketplace. We would have stayed sit there, and we would have done it there because I would be raising 10,000 chickens a year and probably have a few cows as pets. But we would have easily been able to sell 10,000, maybe more chickens a year. And there was a farm out on the west side of Portland out in the suburbs that was doing exactly that. And they asked me to contract grow for them. And I thought, Well, no, I don’t. I’m a former marketing person. So I feel confident that I can develop a market connect with people, tell them about the product and find a way to get it to them. I don’t need to do that. But if you’re an introvert, I bet you there’s places that would buy the chickens that you raise, and you wouldn’t have to talk to folks. I mean, just again, everybody’s unique. Every situation is unique. Location is a big deal. Here in Victor, we are 45 minutes south of Missoula. We’re about 25 minutes north of arguably a very small town, but pretty progressive thinking food town, Hamilton. And I sell products in both of those towns, I sell almost nothing in within 10 miles of my farm. Everybody here, they have their own chickens, they have their own meat, they know a rancher who lives three doors down and they buy their beef from him. So I’m my my opportunity has come from population that doesn’t have that sort of, it’s sort of the place that I came from that corporate world or they live in a city and they don’t have access to farms. So So yeah, so that’s, but yeah, every every situation is unique, and everybody has their own limitations and gifts and privileges. And yeah, it just and I don’t mean to say that I’m discounting my success in any way. I just recognize that I am a rare situation for a lot of a lot of folks.
Matt Derosier 27:02
Well, maybe it’s something that other people can aspire to also like, and you know, like, it’s also a lot of work. It is a little you know, like, I mean, right now I’ve got 17 laying hens and we talked you talked a little bit about like you know, your fan club or you know, when you go out and step out your front door. I mean, I love taking food scraps from my kitchen out to the chicken run. And they know like as as dumb as chickens are and as small as their brains are they know when I walk out that there’s a good chance that I have food with me. So I mean they they come flock in meet me at the gate and I mean, how can you not not love that? I mean, this just,
Joe Senger 27:54
it is a good feeling to be needed. That is true. My pigs, my cattle, My sheep, my chickens, my dogs. They all have the same reaction when they see me come home with a bucket or you know, in the morning they know the routine. So yeah, it’s it’s a fun part of the job for sure to feel appreciated in the morning. Yeah, not a lot of jobs. Give me that.
Matt Derosier 28:18
No, no, not a lot. So what what methods, practices or techniques are you working on at your place?
Joe Senger 28:28
Oh, that’s a good question. We. So as a whole, we practice no till agriculture. So we’re not plowing up the ground to plant seeds to grow to grow grass to feed the chickens. We’re, at best. We’re using the native plants that are here or what what was here when we moved here to feed our chickens. We were fortunate that the pastures that the cattle are on, there’s enough forage for them. We just started feeding them, hey, this week, in fact, because the pastures are pretty poor, we decided to lease part of our farm to another rancher. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. We didn’t have cattle when we made that decision. And now that we have cattle, I will never lease another piece of grass. I will definitely use that resource from my from my own herd and because every day they don’t they don’t eat pasture, they have to eat hay and hay costs money in this in 2021. The hay prices in this valley have more than doubled in some in some cases 150% increase in hay costs. So that’s making beef Wow, a real challenge. And because my pastures are kind of lousy, because we’re just beginning this this farm we bought was It was founded in the 40s so almost 80 years ago I don’t know the historic uses of and turkeys at one point they are turkeys here I’m sure there has been some cattle here there’s some cattle infrastructure. But in the last 15 years, nothing is basically set. The person we bought from, I think she had six sheep. And we’re talking a lot of acreage here. So the six sheep basically lived on two acres. That’s all everything else just sat. So consequently, we have a lot of invasive plants. So we have a lot of mustard, two kinds of mustard, we have cheatgrass, which is plague, and other things that aren’t good for cows. So specifically poisonous plants, although they’re not as common. So we don’t spray we don’t use chemical weed deterrants. My my pastured egg layers, I’ve got 325 on the pasture and another 75 for what we call our house flock, they just roam around the barnyard and do their thing. Those 325 birds, they are in a mobile, egg mobile. And then they they’re outside all day in a electric net paddock that I’ve set up. And then I move that egg mobiel down pasture every day, another 3540 feet, so they have fresh ground underneath that egg mobiel which Where’s where they spend most of their time. So over time, you know, 50 feet by 100 feet a day. 5000 square feet a day. We’re marching toward eradicating invasive plants, cheatgrass mustard, the chickens do a great job of eating all the seeds that are on the ground, they scratch the soil and pick up some of those those cheap grass seeds. And they pluck all the seed heads off of the mustard, things like that. So there’s still things on the ground that they also like there’s alfalfa out there from a previous attempt at making hay 10 years ago or something. And then some native good, good pasture grasses, but not a lot. So we do have the benefit of irrigation privileges here, we have a pond that we can irrigate out of it. So we tried to put a lot of water on the on the one pasture where the chickens are to keep that, that what was their green. And it worked. It has worked well. We had a really hot, dry summer on that really hot, but just know what no water coming out of the sky all summer. So it made it challenging to maintain the pasture quality. But the irrigation really got us over the hump. So we do feed organic feed. We believe in organics as far as not adding chemicals to the food system wherever possible. So an organic feed is critical component. We only sell locally, we don’t ship our products around the country adding to I guess what you call a carbon footprint. We don’t. Let’s see. When we first started doing chickens, I thought we needed to do things like become a certified organic farm for marketing purposes, right? We knew we were going to follow those principles anyway. So I thought well, what the heck might as well get certified organic. I quickly changed my mind once I saw the level of documentation required the rigorous inspections and to be honest, the cost
as an upstart farm, it just wasn’t financially reasonable to do. So then I shifted gears to look at Certified Humane because we we are a livestock we are we are a meat farm. That’s what we grow here mostly is meat. So animal welfare is really important. So he means standards came to my top of my list, I thought let’s look into that. Well, I was really surprised at some of the things that are allowed under the humane standard, Certified Humane,
Matt Derosier 33:56
Can you give an example?
Joe Senger 33:57
For example, chickens, you can cut their beaks off to keep them from pecking each other. That’s that’s considered Certified Humane and sane. As long as it happens under a certain age. And it’s done in a certain way. They they have good standards when it comes to numbers of feet per of rousse per are numbers of inches of risk per chicken, number of inches of water or number of inches of feed feeder space, but there’s no requirement of what kind of feed that you feed them to be humane. So both of those the organic certification and humane certification. Felt like imperfect systems to me. And so, so we, the way we’ve kind of explained to our customers what we stand for is that our farm exceeds both organic and Certified Humane or excuse me, certified organic and and Certified Humane animal standards, because we don’t cut off our beaks. We don’t use light to force molting to keep our chickens laying all season. We do everything else that is on that list of things. We have backup water sources, we have all the required space allocations and treatment parts processes and all those different things. And on the organic side, you know, I can’t prove it because somebody walked out and inspected me. But I can tell you that we don’t use chemicals, we feed organic feed from a certified organic feed provider. Anyway, so I mean, you know, we don’t use GMOs in our, on our farm of any kind. But all that documentation, the certification processes, in my opinion, are imperfect. Joel Salatin one time, I heard him on a video say, Oh, we’re better than organic, we’re customer certified.
Matt Derosier 35:55
Nice. You know, that’s definitely the best.
Joe Senger 35:58
It is, in a way though. It’s it’s playing both sides of the coin. On one hand, we spent as farmers a lot of time trying to educate folks, consumers, about the importance of choice and what a choice means if you’re buying a cage free egg, which means something, a pasture raised egg, which means something or a pastured egg, they all mean the different things. But there’s no legal definition. So marketers, which I am one, but in the agriculture side, play games with stretching the truth, exaggerating, set using those hot button words that have been out in the marketplace to get their products sold, without the consumer. So the consumer sees a cage free egg, for example. And they think, wow, that’s, that’s great. California passed a law while I lived on there about, you know, if a chicken is in a cage, it has to have so many square feet by so many square feet, and so on. And that law passed because as humans, we don’t want to see animals suffer as a general rule. So that seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Well, free range chickens, they can still live in a barn full time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And that’s a free range chicken, that chicken may not see the sun, never see the sun, right and may never see grass, it can live on a concrete floor covered with wood chips that get replaced every few days. Anyway, so the games that people play with words matter. Because when you say I’m customer certified, yes, Joel Selten is probably one of the best people out there who has tried to educate consumers on what that what the terms mean, and where the food comes from, and those sorts of things. But he’s also admitting that customers don’t know everything. And they’ve picked me as their choice,
Matt Derosier 37:59
Joe Senger 38:00
And so they’re trusting all of the previously known information about Joel Salatin and to to make their choice to buy his eggs or his beef or his pork or what have you. And that’s fine. And I don’t begrudge him because he’s fantastic. And he was one of my early idols and getting started. He’s made some decisions in the recent past that I disagree with, but, you know, shipping across the country. For one, I think that that was a mistake from a principle standpoint, you know. So that’s one of the things we do is it is a standard, we choose to sell local online because we really believe that that’s where the food industry makes the biggest impact. Not because I’m famous, and I can sell chickens anywhere I want. You know, so.
Matt Derosier 38:47
I’m big in Japan.
Joe Senger 38:52
It’s kind of like that deal where, you know, I grew up in the 80s and 90s. And let’s see, U2 was an 80s, the band U2. And when they were struggling as a band, man, I loved them. They were awesome. And then they became Achtung Baby and Joshua Tree and they were still okay, they were still okay, I liked them. The music was great. And then they became the biggest band of all time on the planet. And I’m like, Oh, my God, I’m so over it, you know. So there’s when you root for them when they’re small, but then they get so big that they can do anything they want, and they start to exert their authority as a as a influence over the world. I start paying a lot of attention to what you’re, and it matters. So I you know, I’m not afraid to disagree with Joe Salatin on that one particular point because I do agree with him on a lot of what he’s doing and I still follow a lot of his models when it comes to intensive rotational grazing and moving birds after beef, that kind of thing. And, you know, so we do those, we do those things, and it does work really well.
Matt Derosier 39:57
Well, yeah, you don’t throw the baby out. with the bathwater type of thing, like,
Joe Senger 40:02
no, but as you probably are very well aware in our current culture in 2021, getting canceled is easy. And all it takes is one disagreement. And folks are willing to exactly throw that baby right out, which I think is a shame because I, I can disagree with him on that one particular point, I haven’t vocalized it on his social media channels, along with a lot of other folks who are upset, but doesn’t make him a bad guy just makes him a guy who does things differently than I do. And he still has a lot of great ideas. And I respect him for what he’s done for, for the industry. So let’s move on. Yeah, right.
Matt Derosier 40:43
Right. I mean, it I love the education that Joel Salatin has been putting out, but at the same time, we can’t just like hope that he does, like all the education because, like, just for like, you know, education to consumers that is. because I have one of his books, you can farm sitting on a bookshelf. If you ask my wife, like, ask my wife “Who is Joel Salatin?” I guarantee you, she will be of like, say, I have no idea who that is. Even though almost every day she like sees the cover of that book. And just like, I don’t know,
Joe Senger 41:28
Matt Derosier 41:28
Which, which is fine. I’m not like, it’s just, it’s just another author, like, I’m not gonna remember, you know, I’ve been to her, it’s another author anyways, you know, so like, I’m not gonna remember all the authors of the book that she has either. So what I’m saying is like, I feel like as, as farmers, ranchers, homesteaders that are trying to, you know, sell our products, like, half the battle is to educate, which is if the job wasn’t hard enough, like, you know, “why does your egg cost $6 a dozen?” like, “Well, because let’s see, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Joe Senger 42:12
Right. And it’s a, it’s a very careful balancing act. I really enjoy the farm tours because of that, going back to Joel Salatin, I think, to your point, he’s one guy who gets a lot of press. That’s great. But did you see the press as a customer? Maybe not. So now, as a, I guess, I wouldn’t call myself a disciple. But someone who has learned a lot of the principles that he is used. And now I have experimented with them. And I’ve adopted them and modified them and taken other people’s learnings and other people’s ideas and my own ideas, and have my own farm. It’s my turn to affect the people I can locally. So one of my biggest one of my biggest focuses is to get folks to come take a farm tour. I don’t really have to do much to an uninitiated person who just wants to come see a cow. They just want to see a cow up close. They want to see how our eggs are grown. Or they are maybe they don’t know what they want at all. They just know we have animals here. And oh my gosh, isn’t it neat? harkening back to the 10 year old Joe Senger who lived in the city, who thought that was a cool way to spend a couple hours, right. So I really connect. I connect with that with that idea a lot. And so I am my doors are always open to guess I’d like notice so I can have my act together a little bit before you show up.
Matt Derosier 43:50
Right. Put on the presenter face. Yeah,
Joe Senger 43:53
Right. But we’d like to live through transparency and you go back to the certification questions. There’s no I hide nothing. If you have a question about anything you want to see my feedbags you want to look at the labels you want to see how the animals are treated. Here. I can explain it on show it to you right here it is. So So again, touching one more time on Joel Salatin, his customer certification, I think the farm tour is the linchpin to achieving that. I think getting getting your customers or, or just curious people to come to your farm. Spend time with you get to know you, the farmer and learn about your processes like you’re you’re asking me these great questions. Kids are some of the best farm tour patrons there are because they’re just gleefully curious, and they’re not afraid to ask questions where their parents may. So, so the farm tour is a tool that I use extensively, talking again back about tactics or systems I use. farm tours are one of the best marketing tools I have because I live in an agricultural heavy area. But on a Saturday, folks are willing to drive the 45 minutes from the 100,000 person city up north, and come down and check me out. And I really love when they do. Most of my eggs are sold to restaurants. To be honest with you, I find a lot of I get excited about that coming into the restaurant business. But because I get to reach a lot of people that way, they get to eat my product, and they don’t even know they’re eating my product. But I don’t care. Because I know it’s a good product, it’s healthy for them what have you. My private customers will say my my household customers, without exception, have all taken a farm tour. Not one person has bought an egg from me, because my eggs are not $3 a dozen, they’re $6.99 or $6, depending on how it wherever they buy them. I have a Premium Egg, I’ve charged a premium price. And it covers my costs and gives me a little bit of profit. But folks aren’t willing to pay that here in Montana. They’ve got chickens in the backyard down the road from me. But folks in Missoula are the other cities I mentioned. They think it’s novel. It’s an interesting. So finding my niche has been a challenge this year. But I think I finally did, I found some agreeable restaurant folks who understand the value of what I’m selling, and they they’re happy to pay the price. So I’m happy to have them as customers. So
Matt Derosier 46:34
awesome. That’s awesome. It’s funny that you bring up the the kids taking the farm tours. So my my brother and his whole family came out and to visit for the weekend before heading up to Glacier. And the first night we had spatchcock chicken. So thank you for thank you for the recipe, they loved it, from from the meat birds that we had raised, which is obviously how we met. So So we had that and I was like, you know, I try to tell my niece and my nephew who are nine and five, I was like “you will probably never have a meal sitting where you can see where it was raised again” like like, I mean, they’re they live in Minneapolis, like in Minneapolis. Not like, you know, IDs tower IBM building like downtown, like, well, like a wealthy suburb.
Joe Senger 47:39
That’s a metropolitan area. Yeah,
Matt Derosier 47:41
this is not a thing. They’re not really. And so it was like, you know, like 30 yards that way is where that chicken lived and died. Well it started in my basement, then it lived over there, then it died in my driveway.
Joe Senger 47:54
Matt Derosier 47:55
Sorry, it was processed humanely in the driveway
Joe Senger 47:59
Matt Derosier 48:00
And then and but my my nephew, man, he got a kick out of anything that had had to do with the laying hands. It was like “Hey Louis, you want to, you know, feed the chickens?” “Yeah!” Like “hey, Louis, do you want to see how the of the chickens sleep in the chicken coop?” “Yeah!” I’d be like “see them all roosting and stuff and want to collect some eggs in the morning?” “Yeah!” And then So earlier this year, I had bought a lamb of a specific breed from that I was looking at getting for myself, I bought a lamb processed from a from a farmer and then a processor down to Hamilton. And I got the when I got the meat, the head was still attached because I wanted to try my hand at tanning and tanning the hide and everything. And so when I took the skull off, I had hung it on the outside of the chicken coop. And the second night that they were here. We had lamb for dinner
Joe Senger 49:01
Matt Derosier 49:01
So I was trying to tell my nephew, like, you know, “this lamb right here, like, we ate him for dinner tonight” And he’s like, “we ate his body?” Like “yeah, like where do you, where did you think like, meat came from, just in general?” And he’s just like “I don’t know” you know, he’s, he’s, he’s five. He just doesn’t think about it. Whereas, you know, my my boss’s kids who are a little older. Like, they’ll drive, I mean, they’re from here. They live here. They live in cow country, and they drive by like, cows or whatever. Like, “I’m going to eat you” like they
Joe Senger 49:47
Matt Derosier 49:47
they know. They know where their food comes from
They’re, I said they’re connected to the food. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. Um, so what what have you tried that worked well, so far.
Joe Senger 50:05
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is rotational grazing. Specifically with with the chickens, the meat birds, moving them on pasture, instead of in a fixed housing environment where they grew up. And you know, I have to maintain fresh bedding and all that kind of stuff. We do breed them till three weeks old indoors, and then we move them out on pasture if the weather’s appropriate for that, but just watching the ground change, and there’s there’s dozens of YouTube videos out there you can watch a lot of folks get a drone and they they show you the squares as they progressed on the pasture. Joel Salatin has got some amazing footage of hillsides that just have this quilted look to them because the chickens have done their magic. I really like the idea of the intensive cattle grazing my pasture this year was not set up for it, meaning I had I had the infrastructure set up I had the posts, I had the nets, I had the wire all the all the different pieces that needed to sequester my animals, but I didn’t have the graze. So the food was not available. And they they over well, they didn’t over, they ate it too fast to rotate. And so I ended up just letting them range, the whole pasture. Okay, so that was a fail. But I also learned something important that I underestimated the value of the food that was there. So, as I said, the neck next year, I’ve got a whole huge pasture down below that I have leased out all summer to somebody else. So they can grow their cattle down there, thinking I had ample food for my animals forage up, up up above. I didn’t next year, we’re going to take advantage of that. And I will do rotational grazing down there, so that they have small paddocks, and they get moved, I don’t know that I’m going to put meat birds behind them right away down there. Because there’s a lot of predators down to that side of the world. We are the way our land is laid out a lot of trees, a lot of travel corridors for large predators, small predators, avian predators. And I would be concerned about that until I can get my livestock Guardian dogs down there. So kind of the the steps you have to take to make it ready, I’ve got to put up two and a half miles of fence. Basically, that’s what boils boils down to, to to get around the entire pasture that I have, right? So that then now I could turn my dogs out in there, and they can protect all the animals that live in there from predators from ground predators. Now I can exercise the rotational processes that I want to do, I could start smaller, I could make it small, but we’re gonna go ahead and take the big step next summer and dispense the whole thing. So it’s one and done. It’s an investment we’re willing to make to, to keep everybody securely in the farm. I don’t want to worry,
Matt Derosier 53:02
Joe Senger 53:03
Yeah, but I mean, it’s, I don’t see those those numbers as bragging. It’s just it’s more of a situation where to do what we want to do. There’s more, there’s more investment to be made than just having the farm right. There’s always something else. So things are really things that really like livestock Guardian dogs, great investment, they they make me in the words of Joel Salatin, he doesn’t like horses because they don’t make him any money. Technically, my dogs don’t make me any money, but they do save me money in the form of dead livestock. I don’t I haven’t lost a single chicken. I haven’t lost a single lamb. I haven’t lost a single pig or a cow haven’t had an even attack, let alone a loss. So vet bills are zero with my livestock relative to predators, right? Because the dogs are doing their job. We do have two livestock Guardian dogs and they are free ranging the entire pasture where all of our livestock is. They haven’t attacked any of the animals or harmed anybody. So I’m really happy with having livestock Guardian dogs, and I would recommend at least one to anybody who has animals on pasture. It keeps you from having to shoot coyotes or Cougars or bears or whatever that might be out there. Messing with your animal or feral dogs or just loose dogs. The neighbor’s dogs I mean, we had a neighbor dog come and kill a deer right down the 100 yards from our house here. He was just out loose runing around
Matt Derosier 54:37
dog killed a deer?
Joe Senger 54:39
Yeah, yeah, he got out here. He killed a yearling fawn and attacked the lady who lives next door to me and her horse so
Matt Derosier 54:50
Joe Senger 54:51
My dogs make sure
Matt Derosier 54:52
that not a good dog
Joe Senger 54:55
So it’s nice. So rotational pasture or rotational grazing lifestyle Guardian dogs, I work really hard to try to find local sources for feed. There are there are several in our valley, thankfully. But none of them are organic. So I have to bring feed in from it’s almost four hours away, driving. But I buy it by the pallet fall. So I, you know, I have it shipped over. And that cost me more than buying it locally. But we started off with talking about the Montana poultry growers Co Op, being a member of the coop gives me a price that we all get the same price, but I get a good price that saves me enough money to justify this shipping. So balancing act, I could probably find a cheaper feed. I know I could in fact, locally, but it at least it’s Montana feed. It’s grown here in the state. It’s processed here in the state, it’s certified organic by the state. So I feel good about using it. And I think that’s an important thing. I tried to use small non national chains and non national brands for my agricultural purchases. So whether it be chicken waterers, or bales of straw or whatever, we have a couple of small feed stores, I guess you’d call them in the valley. And I prefer to use them because I know they’re small, and their families just like me, and I like to support those kind of businesses. So I tried to shop local might try to sell local. Those are two things that I also believe in a lot. And it worked well. I can tell you something I wouldn’t do again.
Matt Derosier 56:47
That’s my next question, what have you tried that failed or didn’t work well?
Joe Senger 56:53
Well, we talked about rotational grazing on crappy pasture. That’s one thing. under estimating know what your know what you have before you commit to a decision, I think because that’s one thing.
Matt Derosier 57:05
How would you do that? To know, like knowing what you know, now, like get like a test or something?
Joe Senger 57:10
Yeah. So there’s resources here in Montana. And I would imagine there’s probably resources in lots of places around the country. Extension Office is the term that we use in this area. I don’t know if that’s a common term. I know they had extension offices in Oregon. But they may not be universal. For everyone listening to this. It’s a it’s a county based organization that they have all kinds of information that helps you make decisions. So what is the pH of the soil? What should it be to raise the crop you’re trying to grow? What kind of in the in the grasses and haze that your cattle are eating, so that you know what to supplement to them so that they have a healthy system. You can have your hay tested for all the nutrients, proteins, fats, all the different pieces of the puzzle for your cow diet. And so I would have done those things sooner. I did do them. But I did them later than I probably could have. Because I know I could have done it sooner. And I would have learned what I know now earlier, which would have helped me avoid mistakes. So I guess the mistake is if my impulse was get my hay tested right away, and I delayed by 3045 days, or whatever. And so what I didn’t realize is my my cows were eating an inferior hay. It wasn’t bad. It was just average. But I wasn’t given the proper mineral. So it didn’t cause any harm that I noticed the animals. But when I realized it, I felt guilty. It’s like feeding your kids for without knowing any better feeding your kids some junk food thinking you’re doing the right thing. And then realizing because you get new information. Oh my goodness, I’ve made a mistake. So you got to move on from those and I have so one of the biggest things I could have done earlier that I should have done earlier and I regret not doing earlier was calling the county weed control district. They will come out here and our Ravalli County is where we live. They they have a free service that they offer to folks who have pasture or land. They will do an inventory for you have the plants on your pasture. And so they they taught me that I have cheatgrass I have two kinds of mustard and a whole plethora of other things. I think I’ve got 37 different kinds of plants growing on our pastures. Different pastures have different plants because they’re different environments. One super dry one Sub irrigated ones. One has surface water on it. So different plants require different environments. The pasture that I was going to be using for my cattle was almost exclusively garbage, cheap grass. And so, but being the uninitiated, cattle person, cattle farmer, conventional wisdom says, For for rotational grazing will let your grass grow to six to eight inches before you turn your animals out, give them a day and move them and that way the grass has enough growth that it can feed the animal but it can also regenerate itself you’re not eating it down to the dirt, right? So like a good newbie
Matt Derosier 1:00:36
is that the Allan Savory model?
Joe Senger 1:00:38
Basically, I think he was the he was the first person to discuss those sorts of parameters of how to graze, but not too much, right? And then Joel Salatin took it to the next level. So I looked at my pasture, we have all this beautiful green grass growing everywhere and thought, oh my god, this is gonna be fantastic. Because we moved here in November so it was already gone. You know, it was already late, almost winter. So the first spring Oh my this is beautiful. Look at this grass. I’m out taking pictures of my cows with this beautiful social media foreground of these waving grass in the foreground. And I thought I was so proud of myself at the time. And then the county came out
Matt Derosier 1:01:24
Hit a goldmine here, yeah
Joe Senger 1:01:26
Right, jackpot, man, we’re doing okay. And I, as soon as it hit six, eight inches, I turned out the cows and they came right back to the barn after eating for about an hour. That’s what I that’s what I was experimenting with my rotational paddocks. They came back and they’re like “and where’s the hay, knucklehead? There’s nothing out there to eat.” And I’m looking at the pasture and I’m looking at the cows. I’m like, “You guys are just spoiled” So I didn’t give them any hay that day. I said, Do you want to eat go outside. And they went back out and they came right back and moved. I did this for about two weeks. I forced them to eat what was in front of them, because I knew they were going to want the hay. It’s better. But I knew there was food out there. I knew it in my heart and in my gut into my brain because there was research right? So middle of the summer, I finally invite the county weed control to come out and they do my inventory. As I said 90% of the plants on the upper pasture where the cows had been grazing was cheap grass and mustard. Mustard is very obvious, but cheap grass, I had no idea what she grass was. It looks gorgeous. It’s beautiful green grass, they should have been eating it right?
Matt Derosier 1:02:41
I’d eat it probably
Joe Senger 1:02:42
cows won’t eat it.
Matt Derosier 1:02:43
It’s good in salad.
Joe Senger 1:02:47
Right? Cows won’t either because it’s got sharp seeds. And then when they eat it, it pokes in the mouth and they know better. And by the time it’s reaches six to eight inches, it’s mature and it has seed heads and they’re Pokey and sharp, and cows won’t touch it. So in my first spring, I inadvertently gave my cows almost nothing to eat on a pasture that to my inexperienced eyes looked beautiful.
Matt Derosier 1:03:17
Joe Senger 1:03:18
And then what did I do, I leased the good pasture away. Because there was an arrangement with the guy, the rancher, and he brings this 30 Cows over every year and sure, it’s a couple grand in my pocket for doing nothing, all I have to do is make sure his cows don’t get out and I get a couple thousand dollars. sweet so I ended up feeding my calves hay until June when the cheatgrass had gone run its full cycle. And it was now out of the picture. And now there’s alfalfa and some other grasses out there. And I started irrigating and doing the things that I needed to do earlier. So it’s a long story, but the point of it is, know what you have before you make a huge decision to put 13 cows on a pasture. Know what it is you’re feeding them.
Matt Derosier 1:04:09
No, I think that’s important to go into “Why?” because when you when you said hey, you should you know, get this kind of test bring so and so out from the county, if that thing exists in your area, like okay, that sounds kind of over the top, you know, I’m like, I’m just trying to raise livestock here like, they’ll just eat whatever but to your the moral of your story. If I’m if I’m getting a crack like you thought you just had picky animals, they’re they’re new to you. They’re new to your area because you got them from somewhere in Kalispell, I think you had mentioned before,
Joe Senger 1:04:49
Correct. Yeah, about 100 miles away.
Matt Derosier 1:04:52
Yeah. And so they’re new here. They’re just like this is just not what we’re typical, typically fed or whatever. Just go Eat. So if you hadn’t, if you hadn’t brought in so and so from the county and gotten that assessment, you might have continued to more or less starved your cows Am I getting…?
Joe Senger 1:05:16
That’s exactly right. And I, my instinct told me that they were not eating enough. And I, that’s when I, I pulled the plug on the rotational grazing concept. I said, there’s the I know, there’s alfalfa here, I know, there’s grass, I just let them free range. And they have, they went from a paddock that was about 600 feet by 60 feet, so 36,000 feet or so square feet, to 17 whole acres. Okay, so they had a whole 17 acre pasture. So which is an enormous amount of land for seven cows at the time we had. So in that change, they immediately changed, they were able to find enough food, and I watched the behavior. Within a couple of weeks, that county came out, and they told me why, like, oh, but most importantly, they also gave me a strategy, it helped me develop a strategy moving forward. So what I learned was, I can graze my cattle on cheap grass, as long as I do it when it’s first out of the ground. Right, because cheatgrass is the first one of the first plants that comes up in the spring here in Montana, and our dry area we live in is one of the first things out of the ground. And when it’s in that tender vulnerable state, the cows will eat it, and it’s actually they like it. So fantastic. That’s good. Number two, I think if you’re not getting your hay tested for proteins, and the different nutritional values, you don’t have the luxury of going into the store and picking up a product and reading that label that has been tested by a laboratory. That box of cookies, or that, that soda or that milk, or that whatever that that nutrition label that we depend on as humans, that’s real information. Well, hay, doesn’t come like that. Hay, can be really great hay, or it can be garbage hay, and so people use marketing terminologies to kind of sell their products, well, unless you actually have it tested. You don’t know if that certified organic hay is even good for your cows, or horses or pigs or whatever you’re feeding it to. So get it tested. It cost me I think 27 bucks at the county. They gave me the tools to use, I brought them the samples of hay. It took a couple of weeks, I got the information back and I was like “Okay, now I know exactly what to supplement, nutritionally, minerals, what have you to keep make sure my cows are not only growing, but they’re healthy as I do it” So. So knowing my resources that were available to me, and then the greater step using those resources, because it took me a little bit of time, I was kind of stubborn. Those are two huge takeaways from this, this first season we had here on the farm. And I encourage folks to…. it’s okay to make mistakes, I think, especially if you learn from them like I did. Because I know 2022 is going to have a whole new slate of mistakes for me. I don’t want to repeat the ones I made this year. So that was good. That was a good takeaway for me from last year.
Matt Derosier 1:08:32
I’m trying to understand how you break the cycle of the cheatgrass and the mustard that’s currently in your field. So um,
Joe Senger 1:08:43
Matt Derosier 1:08:44
So you, you, you let the cheatgrass grow up to four inches and then it’s nice and soft in the cow. It doesn’t have pokey seeds, this cows can come in and nibble it down so like it’s not really giving it a chance to grow properly. I’m assuming so then
Joe Senger 1:09:03
I am, I am not a botanist, nor am I any sort of expert on cheatgrass or mustard. So if there’s anybody out there listening
Matt Derosier 1:09:14
Joe Senger 1:09:15
that that has more information, just roll your eyes and just keep on going because I’m I’m going to share what I what limited understanding I have. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a growth height to the cheatgrass and the spring that it and I just know that when it starts to develop the seed heads on the stalks, that’s when it becomes unpalatable for animals. So I was told that we can make an impact on the growing cheatgrass, the actual plants that are there to grow by grazing them early. So as soon as that growth starts to come out of the ground, put animals on it, and I will be putting 400 laying hens on that and I’ll be putting cattle and sheep and pigs on that. So they will do as much as they can do with my acreage that has the cheatgrass problem. The mustard. Oh, the other thing we can do for cheat grasses, we can water it It hates, but hates wetness. It does not do well, Aaron plant so it really likes dry ground. So if we get our irrigation going least didn’t start that till almost middle of June. And that was after we had… remember that week of 105 degree weather we had?
Matt Derosier 1:10:30
Joe Senger 1:10:31
that that triggered me to start irrigating. That was another mistake. I should have started irrigating as soon as I had the right to do so which I think was like April 30. My water rights give me a window of time that I can irrigate. So water will help to keep cheatgrass from germinating. And one of the things I did learn about cheatgrass by reading a study, I believe it was Montana State University, but I don’t remember for sure. One of the things they learned about cheatgrass, they did a survey of a ground that took a three foot square piece of dirt that had cheatgrass on it. And then they sifted it basically, to determine how when the seed load is in that one square yard. I want to say it was 250,000 seeds per square foot of pasture. So…
Matt Derosier 1:11:22
Joe Senger 1:11:22
from what I may have the number incorrect, but it is a massive number. It is a giant number that chemical sprays don’t kill the seeds necessarily they kill the living plant when they’re vulnerable and growing. So that’s definitely out because I don’t like chemicals anyway. If there’s a way to burn the crop or burn that grass, when after it matures, you can damage a lot of the seeds that way, but there’s still so many in the dirt unless you have a really hot fire, which would kill everything else you’ll want. You know so there’s there’s trade offs anyway. Cheatgrass hates water, so I’m going to water the hell out of it. And as I said, the chickens doing their chicken business of digging through the dirt, picking seeds, they are going to put a huge hurt on the cheatgrass seeds wherever they have been.
Matt Derosier 1:12:17
Joe Senger 1:12:18
so I expect next season to see a dramatic difference in the density of cheatgrass, it’s not going to be gone. But every year that should get better in my, that’s my vision, we’ll see if that comes to pass. The other thing that chickens do for mustard is they pull, they reach up and they bite off all the little yellow seed heads. So those seeds are not regrowing in the ground. Unlike cheatgrass that has to re germinate every year from a fresh seed. Mustard has long tap roots, so it comes back every year. And I don’t, I always screw up perennial annual, I always I mix this up all the time. So I’m not gonna even try to guess which one should be. But mustard can be can be burned, it can be cut down, you can mow it, you can do lots of different things that don’t involve chemicals. But my chickens are doing a great job of handicapping that mustard. It won’t drop more seeds, so at least it’s not spreading. And they have done such a nice job. It’s not the clean, beautiful patchwork of gorgeous pasture behind my chickens that I had in my meat bird days in Oregon. But it is dramatically different. It is much less cheat grass, much less mustard, the ground is more fertile. So I do expect a different result next season and I do have pasture that will not have been touched. So I will have a side by side comparison to look at and see what the difference is. So I’m expecting the chickens are doing a lot of good work for me. Just out there being chickens for making the eggs.
Matt Derosier 1:13:54
Okay, so is there anything unique that you’ve got growing or like running, running on your on your farm there?
Joe Senger 1:14:04
Well, I wouldn’t I mean, the marketing guy and me could probably come up with some way of saying it uniquely. Now our farm is Graze and Roam Farm and our secondary position is birds and beef. I raised chickens for eggs for meat, also have Turkeys, heritage breed turkeys that we raised for meat. And my beef is British white cattle. So that’s unique in this area of Montana is the land of the Black Angus. My renter cows, they’re all black angus all my neighbors have Black Angus. So having a white cow with the name British in it. That’s just, you know, sacrilege.
Matt Derosier 1:14:51
Joe Senger 1:14:54
So, so, you know, we have pigs that are the breed is kunekune. They’re a smaller pig from I believe it’s New Zealand. The reason we selected them is because they’re considered a grazing pig. And we really liked the pasture idea. Everything was pasture, right? In fact, the original name of our farm was Red Shed Pastures because we really liked the whole notion of pastures. But the name just didn’t get traction like we hoped it would. And this was it felt kind of hokey. So we changed it. But we haven’t changed what we do. We just changed the name of the farm. That’s neither here nor there. The unique part, I guess, is the species we selected. You know, we raised cows, we raised pigs, we have some shape, we have chickens. And the way we do things is definitely unique for the area. But as far as the the universe of growing meat, now there’s lots of people doing what we do. In fact, we’re we’re basically immitating things we’ve seen before. But the unique component is where we’re doing it in a very competitive market for beef. There are a few people growing meat chickens here. You mentioned Beau and Chris at Living River Farm. They they do a great job. They’ve they’ve grow 1000s of birds a year. I don’t know how many but a lot. And they have a really robust business, that they do a great job. So that’s not a foreign concept to raise meat chicken in this valley, its not widely accepted. Still. I think I don’t remember the statistic I read 98.7% of the chicken consumed in the state of Montana is from another state. And that tells me there’s opportunities
Matt Derosier 1:16:55
Blows my mind.
Joe Senger 1:16:56
I know. It’s shocking.
Matt Derosier 1:16:59
Joe Senger 1:17:00
I don’t even know where I saw that statistic. It might have been on some agricultural page on the state state website somewhere.
Matt Derosier 1:17:08
Sure, yeah. I bet
Joe Senger 1:17:09
So So consequently, things like processing chickens is difficult, because there’s nobody growing them. So how do you get that done. And so something we’re doing that’s unique is we will be processing our own chickens. And we have, the state has recently passed a law called the 1000 Bird exemption law. The federal government has had this law on the books for a long time. But that local producers are growers of chickens can process their birds and sell them to local customers, as long as those birds do not cross state lines. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to process your own chickens, we’re going to sell them to customers, and do it that way. There are rules around selling to retailers or restaurants and things like that. And, you know, getting a USDA inspected or state inspected, you know, processing facility, things like that. But so anyway, I tried to stay active and understand those regulations, because as I said, Before learning about the pasture, I learned something really important while learning about the laws, I also learned something really important that until this summer, I couldn’t legally process a chicken and sell it to a customer,
Matt Derosier 1:18:25
Joe Senger 1:18:25
So this first year, we didn’t, I grew zero meat birds this year, because I didn’t think I had the legal right to do it. But then the laws finally caught up in Montana with the federal law, And now I can. So in 2021, we’re going to hit the ground hard, and I’m gonna do all 1000 chickens, I’m gonna do 1000 chickens and sell them to my local local customer. So that’ll be a nice big change in how we’re, we’re doing things.
Matt Derosier 1:18:53
Do you think you’ll do Cornish cross or Red Rangers or anything specific like that?
Joe Senger 1:19:01
You know, that seems like it would be a really easy question to answer. Those are the kinds of questions that I literally lay awake at night talking to myself about because I see the benefits of both right?
Matt Derosier 1:19:17
Joe Senger 1:19:19
What are the people here in Montana used to getting 98.7% of them are used to getting a Cornish cross. And they’re used they’re probably used to getting it on a styrofoam tray all cut up and tidy and pretty. I’m sure there’s a there’s a pretty fair percentage to buy a whole chicken and they know how to handle the whole chicken right. So let’s let’s put the cut up chicken versus Whole chicken conversation aside for a second. Let’s talk about breeds. Well, if I do a Cornish cross, I know I can get a saleable product in about six to eight weeks depending on my customer base. I have A restaurant in Missoula, who told me I will buy all the chicken wings you can make. I’m like “really? Okay!” now I just have to sell the rest of the bird.
Matt Derosier 1:20:15
What to do what to do?
Joe Senger 1:20:16
Neat. So I have the I have, I’ve sold, I sold 2000 chicken wings. But for a restaurant, I might consider growing 10,000 chickens because he could use them, and he would pay me a decent price for him. And he might actually pay me enough that it pays for the entire bird. And then I can sell the rest of that bird for much less than I normally would and still make a nice profit. That keeps the farmer and I’m saying so yeah. So those are
Matt Derosier 1:20:47
Double dipping on birds
Joe Senger 1:20:50
Well, exactly. So. So
Matt Derosier 1:20:53
I mean, why not? If they’re willing to pay that price?
Joe Senger 1:20:56
Matt Derosier 1:20:56
So they don’t have to buy it.
Joe Senger 1:20:58
Exactly. So there in, that leads me to the conversation. Do I want a fast growing bird I can turn quickly in six to eight weeks. Or do I want a more flavorful, more chicken like behavior bird that doesn’t have the physical limitations of a Cornish cross, but takes 12, sometimes 16 weeks to hit the same size. So the Cornish Cross does in six to eight. My costs to keep a bird alive for 12 to 16 weeks is a lot more than six to eight weeks. The feed ratios are probably not the same. So I’d have to experiment by raising both side by side and get the real data to know for my property in this climate. Doing it the way I do it. What are those two side by side costs to better understand the decision. All that aside, I really liked the idea of chickens acting and behaving like chickens. I’ve never been excited about the Cornish cross the way they just sit. And, you know, they they lounge around waiting for the food to show up. I like chickens because of what they do. They dig they scratch, they hunt. They you know, I like all those behaviors. But I’m also torn because I also like a fast turnaround. And if I can make my money back in six to eight weeks. That’s a business question i Is that a principal thing? Is that a business decision?
Matt Derosier 1:22:37
I guess it’s both
Joe Senger 1:22:38
It’s both, right? And that that’s why those conversations keep me up at night because it’s not like I’m agonizing over. But sooner or later, I’m gonna come to the decision making process. I’ve got to order my 1000 checks, and I’ve got to schedule them out. And I’ve got to plan it and I got to build my chicken tractors and get all the pasture ready and get the brooder set up all those different questions. Right. So yeah, I don’t know. It’s a good question. And I I’ve done both in Oregon, I raised Red Rangers, I also raised a local version of a Red Ranger. I don’t remember what they call them. And then I did Cornish cross all side by side I did 30 of each side by side on the same pasture, same food, everything. And I processed all 90 birds the same day, which was a huge mistake. The Cornish crosses were four to six pounds apiece, all the other birds were two or three pounds apiece. Just tiny, bony scrawny little critters, they needed six more weeks, eight more weeks to really get fully fleshed out. And that was a rookie mistake. So but it proved to me that the duration of the raising period is an important consideration. And if I’m going to raise a heritage breed or a more chicken like breed and natural chicken like breed that walks around and clucks and does its thing. It’s going to cost me more money. And that’s a question I need to answer for myself. Am I okay with that? If I have a customer willing to to compensate me for that extra cost? And I
Matt Derosier 1:24:18
right, it goes back to educating the customer again, like
Joe Senger 1:24:21
Matt Derosier 1:24:22
you go with what they know. Do they like tasteless chicken? Right? Like because that’s what they know. I mean, not to say that, you know, the things that you do on your farm, like, make it tasteless. That’s just how the breed is like it’s, it’s like, yeah, they just put on weight like crazy, though, right? Right. There’s only so much you
Joe Senger 1:24:48
can do. And that statement you just made there’s only so much you can do when affecting the taste of the bird. raising them on pasture obviously helps raise them with organic feed. It obviously helps every little incremental improvement helps. But let’s change the conversation a little bit. There’s only so much I can do to educate people about ALL the different stuff I do. Right? “So why should I buy your beef? It’s from that that silly white cow that looks smaller and it’s from? Is it British? You have a British cow?” right? I mean, there’s I have a hurdle to overcome just selling my beef. “Those are cute little pigs. You mean you sell those for meat? They don’t root around? What?” There’s another hurdle I have to overcome. “You raise your chickens out on the pasture? Don’t they get eaten by coyotes and eagles and stuff?” Well, no. “And you feed them organic? Don’t they just eat the grass? Why do you have to feed them at all? That seems like that would be cheaper eggs, not more expensive eggs?” Another hurdle I have to overcome, right?
Matt Derosier 1:25:55
Joe Senger 1:25:56
So how many hurdles? Do I want to build in my way? Because every decision like that is I have the control. I could raise things conventionally and take away all the hurdles. And just say “look at this great six pound bird is dollar 29 a pound, you should buy this.” And there are folks in the valley that do that. And that’s great. And I’m not Living River Farm, they do it the right way, in my opinion. But there are places you can buy a whole chicken grown in Montana. And they sell it for 99 cents. And I have no idea how they can afford to do that unless they’re just using processes that and systems that I won’t use, which is fine. That’s, that’s their prerogative. That’s their business. Business decision. So anyway, so those are the kinds of things that’s why that simple question of Red Ranger, like those birds, Cornish cross, like those birds, different reasons? I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I guess I may do both
Matt Derosier 1:27:03
I mean, not to go. I guess not to get too far into, you know, hey, like, let’s, let’s, let’s hash this out right now, you’re gonna make a decision by the end of this show. But I guess it depends on who you’re really trying to market to, if you if you’re trying to go like wholesale wholesale to restaurants and whatnot? Or are you trying to pick up people that that are buying a dozen or two dozen eggs at a time? You know what I mean? Right? I guess, like, Who Who are you trying to market to and the way you currently operate your farm, like you, you already do things just like a little different, like for the better obviously. So like, so then it would almost be out of character to go with the Cornish cross over the Red Ranger, like, but I mean, obviously, that’s not up to me, it’s up to you. It just be like, Hey, this is why we picked it, it’s a better thing. And eventually, you like your customers, your current customers train your next set of customers, like “Hey, I love buying my meat from Grayson Rome, because they do this, they do that they do this and they do that I love all these things that they do.” And so like, there’s almost no way for you to screw up that sale. If that person is like “you know what, I am tired of buying crap meat from the grocery store. I want to get it from somebody local here in the Bitterroot you know, hey, you know that that burger or that steak? Or, you know, the bacon that you that you had the other day or whatever? Who’s that guy that you use? Oh, yeah, you know, give me his number. I want to I want to check him out.”
Joe Senger 1:29:03
Right. Yeah, they I think every farmer who raises food of any kind, whether it be a vegetable or grain or an animal has to make those decisions for themselves. Right? So you brought up a good point is a Cornish cross… Let’s back up. Is my objective as a farmer to grow the best possible food I can poss… I can grow or the best possible version that I’m growing, right? Is a pastured organically fed egg The best possible egg I can grow? Or the best possible egg there is? You understand the difference? I’m saying?
Matt Derosier 1:29:56
Joe Senger 1:29:56
I could probably invent a grain over the rest of my life and develop a feed that blew away all the other feeds or work with scientists, and how far do I want to go? Right? So I’m playing it out to the nth degree, for example purposes. So with the tools I have, which are locally grown organic feed, which is, in my personal opinion, the best feed I can find on a pasture that is really to be honest with the lackluster from a quality of forage standpoint, I’m producing the best egg I can grow right now. And I’m able to explain that enough to people that they’re willing to pay my price of $6 to $6.99 a dozen. So, which, I mean, if I’m honest, my lay rates are not great because I have heritage breeds mixed with production breeds. And so the number of chickens lay rate for anybody who doesn’t know what that means. You take the number of chickens, and you divide that by the number of eggs you get every day. So if I have 300 chickens, and they lay 200 eggs a day, that is a what 60% Lay rate, I think that’s the number 150 eggs would be would be 50%. So half as many eggs as there are total chickens to lay them, that would be 50%. And so you just divide the number of eggs by the number of chickens, that gives you the rate, lay rate. My lay rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50%. Right now, for 325 chickens on pasture, you complicate. So I’m feeding 325 birds, and I’m only getting 160 ish eggs a day out of them. That makes my costs skyrocket once they hit their 80%, but they’re still young, and some of them haven’t even started laying yet. And so I’m feeding chickens that aren’t making me any money, and they’re not giving me something that can sell. But they will. And once that time comes, now my profit line goes up. So take that move it over to chickens. Am I in a place where I desperately need the income going back to our conversation around privilege and my particular situation? Or do I have the latitude to grow a chicken that’s going to take 12 to 16 weeks to mature and become a saleable size? It’s going to cost me more or I can make it not cost me more by cheapening the food, not using the organic feed. Right? I mean, they’re all just cogs you can adjust this lever and this switch and this dial and get an outcome you want. So it doesn’t feel as black and white to me as well. You you, Joe, you say you’re a guy who likes to grow the best best food possible. Well, that’s true. But I can grow the best Cornish cross you’ve ever eaten. I believe I can do that. Is that the best chicken you’ve ever eaten? or will ever eat? Are there better flavored chicken? If do I should I grow pheasants or quail? Because they’re, they’re more delicious, right?
Matt Derosier 1:33:19
I mean, yeah, where does it end?
Joe Senger 1:33:21
And that’s the kind of those are the conversations that I have with myself. And that’s how we that’s how we settled on… I don’t like to grow commodities. I like to grow premium products. Sometimes it’s a product that does not exist elsewhere. I don’t know of anybody who’s raising pastured chicken or pastured eggs, excuse me, at the scale that I’m doing and the scale that I plan to do. I don’t know anybody in the valley that’s doing that. So I feel that that’s a Premium Egg compared to my competition. Is it the best egg on the planet? I have no idea of knowing that but it’s the best egg I can grow and I’m taking measures to make sure that my animals are well cared for the ground is respected the ground is improved by their behavior than being there all those things I make a little bit of money in the process and I can keep going because if I’m not profitable, It’s all just a big dream and nice it was fun for a year.
Matt Derosier 1:34:24
It’s an expensive hobby. Yeah.
Joe Senger 1:34:27
Exactly. So then meat chicken same thing. Can I grow, A really, To get course, a kick ass Cornish cross chicken? Yeah, I absolutely can. Will it be demonstrably different than a neighboring farms Cornish cross chicken. I don’t know that the average consumer would know. But I know. I don’t know what goes into that chicken right you know so. So then the then that if I’m if I’m going to make decision if I’m going to sell a chicken that looks just like the chicken that’s selling for $1.29 in the grocery store. The same conversation we just had. I have to go back to consumer education and tell them why this chicken is worth $5 to $6 a pound instead of $1.29