Pollo Real Ranch is the premier
organic pastured poultry operation in the world. It lies in Socorro,
New Mexico, between two desert mountain ranges in the green Rio
Grande Valley, and encompasses 34 acres of irrigated land divided
into several sections. On these plots, clusters of yurts or small
moveable pens filled with small flocks of chickens can be seen resting
on fresh pasture. Also on the farm are a small processing facility
and two refrigerated delivery trucks. This modest appearance and
relatively small scale belies the significance of what takes place
Tom Delehanty, who owns Pollo Real with his wife, Tracey, has been
raising pastured poultry for 20 years and doing it organically for
the past 10 years. The farm's success, he says, is the product of
hard work, resourcefulness and determination. "We had torrential
rain, employee problems, no feed, water problems, distribution problems,
shelter design problems, cash-flow problems, all of it. We could
have given up but I just said, I am going to order more chicks and
I am going to keep on growing these chickens until I figure this
thing out. I will do this."
A sixth-generation farmer whose ancestors homesteaded in Wisconsin
in the 1830s, Delehanty is given to using expressions like, "It
doesn't take money to make money," and "There's no secret
to hard work." Leaving home in the late 1960s, he tried different
roads but eventually returned to his roots and went back to working
with chickens in Wisconsin by the 1980s. Over a period of years,
he tried a number of different poultry systems. Then he read an
article by Joel Salatin describing how chickens could be pastured
in moveable pens. "This really made sense," says Delehanty.
"It really meant a lot and I tried it."
Delehanty started experimenting with pastured poultry in moveable
pens in Wisconsin, but he wasn't sure how well the systems would
work in a cold climate. He also discovered that state regulations
would make it necessary to invest at least $200,000 in facilities
set-up. So he began searching for a place that would better meet
his own criteria for a successful pastured poultry operation.
In New Mexico he found what he was after. State laws were less
restrictive—largely because of a lack of big poultry operations
and resulting efforts to control them. There was a well-run state
organic certification agency, the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission,
with low fees and an excellent support structure for farmers transitioning
to organic. The climate was dry and relatively mild, with strong
sunlight that would help minimize diseases and parasites and keep
the chickens healthy. The cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with
their flourishing grocery stores, farmers' markets and restaurants,
presented excellent marketing opportunities. And last but not least,
in New Mexico Delehanty found excellent employees, comfortable with
traditional, small-scale systems and willing to work outside.
The central focus of the Pollo Real operation is the yurt, or moveable
pen, holding small groups of chickens. As the yurts are moved over
the pasture, the chickens work the soil with their feet and fertilize
it with their manure. This creates a soil-based system in which
the chickens create good soil that produces good pasture that nourishes
high quality poultry. In Delehanty's opinion, the soil is where
the true wealth of a farm lies and where the farmer's attention
should be focused.
During the winter the yurts are moved daily over annual pastures
of winter wheat, oats, triticale and rye. In the summer, the mixture
shifts to white clover, millet, milo and chicory. The combination
of forages is good for the birds and good for the soil.
Building a better yurt
Delehanty's yurts are oval-shaped portable pens about 11 feet long
and three feet high, welded together out of rebar and covered with
chicken wire attached by pig rings. A four by five foot door in
the roof allows access for feeding and watering and for adding and
removing chickens. In the winter, the yurts are wrapped with a 24-mil
woven plastic material (also affixed by pig rings), with a foot-square
opening for ventilation. In the summer, the roofs alone are tarped
and the sides are left open. The yurt also has two cables to serve
as handles, one on each end. One person can move a yurt, Delehanty
says, although it's faster as a two-person job.
Inside each yurt, a waterer and a feeder are hung from the roof.
Their combined weight—the feeder holds 30 pounds of feed—helps
to hold the yurt down against high winds and prying predators. A
second waterer is placed on the ground. The yurts are built by bending
the rebar around a jig. Counting materials, labor, feeders and waterers,
each yurt costs about $400.
Delehanty developed his yurt design through a process of trial
and error. At first he built square frames out of PVC pipe, but
he found that the plastic covering tended to slide and rip on the
PVC pipe and that the entire structure was too light, so it could
flip in windy conditions and dogs and other predators were able
to dig their way underneath. The rebar holds the polyweave sheeting
in place more firmly, and it also digs down into the pasture, foiling
predators and offering greater stability in windy weather.
Delehanty began making the enclosures round (and hence referring
to them as yurts) because he observed that predators tended to concentrate
their efforts on the corners. Without corners, predators become
confused and can't gain entry.
Delehanty also tried various types of heavy plastic sheeting before
settling on the 24-mil woven plastic tarps, which he orders from
a Canadian company. The durable, rip-stop material resists photodegradation
and can support up to a foot of snow without caving in. Once, Delehanty
says, baseball-sized hail tore through the roofs of his older yurts
with regular plastic coverings, killing about 300 chickens, but
bounced off the polyweave coverings.
The production cycle
Pollo Real receives 1,100 new chicks a week by mail from a hatchery
in Iowa. As required by federal organic standards, the chicks are
not given any antibiotics and receive organic feed from day one.
At Pollo Real, they go directly out to the field in special brooder
yurts equipped with lights, gas infrared heaters, food and water.
Delehanty starts with 275 chicks per brooder, which gives them enough
room to space themselves out if they get too warm.
Unlike the other yurts, the brooder yurts remain basically stationary
on pasture, with wood shavings added regularly to keep the ground
dry. Even though the chicks are not really grazing at this early
age, they take an interest and begin to learn how to forage.
In warm weather, the chicks are redistributed to 180 per pen after
two weeks; in cooler conditions, they may remain in the brooder
yurts for another week before being divided. At four weeks, they
are moved out to yurts in the field, 60-65 birds per yurt, and remain
there until they are 9 or 10 weeks, when they go to slaughter.
At any one time, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 chickens in
about 100 yurts out on pasture. Each Monday, approximately 1,000
birds go to slaughter. The emptied yurts are moved back across the
pasture to the starting point and replenished with four-week-old
The chickens dress out at about 4 pounds, although Pollo Real
is attempting to raise slaughter weight to four and a half pounds
to make the business more profitable. "Every tenth of a pound
can pay somebody's salary," says Pollo Real manager Robert
Slaughtering at 9 or 10 weeks is late compared to most conventional
poultry operations, Delehanty says, which typically kill their birds
at six weeks or around 3.5 pounds. Part of the reason Pollo Real's
cycle takes longer is that they don't use lights to get the birds
to feed around the clock. If put under 24-hour light, chickens will
eat non-stop and put on weight very quickly. This puts enormous
strain on the birds' internal organs, a problem which conventional
producers have addressed by feeding antibiotics.
Organic strategies for accelerating weight gain include creating
a better nutritional balance in the soil, adjusting the feed ration
and starting the chickens on greens earlier. For the moment, Delehanty
says, it's too much work to carry greens over to the brooder yurts
on a regular basis.
Feed and nutrition
Although the chickens are out on pasture for most of their lives,
foraging accounts for only 10 percent of their total diet. Still,
this small percentage is essential to maintain chicken health and
create a high quality meat. As Delehanty puts it, "With greens
everything just works better."
The remaining 90 percent of the chickens' diet consists of organic
grain from Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. The feed is ground on-site
in an International grinder/mixer hooked up to a 1968 Farmall diesel
tractor. For each ton of feed, Delehanty adds 13 pounds of phosphorous
(0.6 percent), 26 pounds of calcium (1.2 percent), five pounds of
premixed vitamins and micronutrients and 20 pounds of salt. After
mixing, the feed is augured into a gravity wagon, pulled out to
the field and transferred to 55-gallon drums located near each group
of pens for daily dispersal to the chickens. The chickens go through
2,000 pounds of ration a day.
Delehanty does not see growing his own feed as an option since
he has limited land and feels the maintenance and improvement of
his pastures has to be his first priority. He would prefer to source
organic grain closer to home.
Delehanty is also keen to lower his feed bills and improve his
birds' nutrition. One way to achieve both these goals, he thinks,
would be to start an organic sprouting operation. The feed value
of grains like wheat, rye and triticale can be multiplied severalfold
by turning them into sprouts, which are high in protein, vitamins,
antioxidants and micronutrients. The ranch already has a sprouting
room capable of producing 14 trays— 600 pounds, of sprouts
Another way feed bills could be reduced and nutrition improved
is through vermicomposting. Currently, the liquid waste from the
slaughtering facility goes into a 2,400-gallon septic system while
the offal is placed in barrels and sent to the landfill. Delehanty
envisions a time in the not so distant future when the offal and
blood will be mixed with wood chips, placed in bins and fed to worms.
Surplus worms could be fed back to the chickens along with the sprouts
and the vermicompost could either be sold or spread on the fields.
Delehanty is waiting to acquire a loader before this part of the
operation becomes a reality. "With a ton a day of sprouts,
I can just about get rid of soybeans and then with worms you can
create a diet for a healthier bird," he speculates. "There
is so much potential."
In the early years, Delehanty did most of the work at Pollo Real
himself. "I did delivery, would take care of feed, move the
birds, go over to West Texas and get small grain," he recalls—not
to mention processing 50 birds a week. When his market expanded
to 200 birds a week he realized he had to hire people, but scaling
up was a challenge.
"I tried to do 400 birds a week and it was tough, then I
went to 600 a week and I started processing twice a week and then
everything fell apart because I had four people there with the clean
up and the mess." There were similar problems in the field,
where shelters were different shapes and sizes and it was hard for
employees to keep in mind all the little idiosyncrasies of Delehanty's
setup. "They couldn't understand; in one pen there were 70
birds and in another were 110 because nobody divided them right.
It took a number of years to get straight," he says.
Ultimately, Delehanty realized his operation was a hodgepodge which
only he could understand and that if he were going to employ people
he had to set some standards. "When I was doing it all I was
making a profit, but when I hired people they didn't have the passion
and didn't care as much as me. The way I got around this was to
standardize everything." He broke the whole business down into
separate components and analyzed them individually. In the fields,
the pens, the feeders and the waterers were all the same so that
employees could operate them in the same manner. In the processing
facility, inefficiencies in equipment and product flow were identified
and corrected. Now, by hiring enough people and starting early in
the morning, Pollo Real can process 1,000 chickens a day.
Recently Pollo Real hired a fulltime manager, Robert Iverson, in
order to give Delehanty the freedom to step back and assess the
business as a whole. Iverson has a degree in poultry science and
a keen interest in pastured poultry production. "It is an eye
opening experience," he says.
Altogether, Pollo Real employs four full-time and five or six part-time
employees, most of whom make between $7 and $12 an hour. Field laborers
work long days and have to be conscientious, attentive and smart—they
have to understand the chickens and keep a close eye on their behavior
and health. "Pastured poultry is a thinking man's game,"
says one Pollo Real employee, Eddie Chavez. The chickens' feed and
water are replenished twice a day and the yurts are moved once a
Labor and organic feed are by far the highest costs at Pollo Real,
with feed running about $2,500/week and labor about $3,000/week.
Delehanty sees labor costs as a contribution to the community and
believes in helping his workers as much as possible. "I want
to compensate my workers; they work hard and that is where the profit
and wealth are going to go. Give them a piece and then do profit
sharing. In farming, we need to include people and that is my dream
too," he says.
Soil and health
Pollo Real Ranch is a soil-based system, Delehanty emphasizes,
and it's easy to see that the silty, clay loam soils at Pollo Real
are healthier than those on neighboring farms. Manure, spilled feed
and the scratching of the chickens' feet have boosted organic matter
levels, increased fertility and improved water absorption. This
increased water holding capacity is very important in a dry state
like New Mexico and has saved Pollo Real time and money by reducing
the need for irrigation on its pastures. The pH has dropped from
the alkaline range and the salt content has been moderated.
Still, things are not perfect and much remains to be learned. Several
years ago, for instance, Delehanty realized he was getting big birds
off of some fields and smaller birds off of others. Curiously, the
larger birds were coming from fields that were new to the system
and had not been fertilized over time with manure.
After looking at an old farming book and examining his soil tests,
Delehanty concluded that the smaller birds were getting too much
calcium and phosphorous in their diets as an unintended consequence
of the improved soil conditions. So he lowered the calcium and phosphorous
in the birds' feed ration by 30 percent. This corrected the problem—but
more importantly it brought home to Delehanty the need for close
attention to the soil in pastured poultry systems.
Pollo Real has little trouble with diseases or parasites. Delehanty
offers several explanations for this. First, his chickens are kept
in small flocks in separate yurts and do not suffer from the stresses
of overcrowding. Second, the birds are moved daily, keeping them
out of their own waste and giving them a constant supply of fresh
greens. When the yurts are moved, the sun, weather and time off
kill most pathogens. Access to fresh air, sunlight and the soil
itself—where they can scratch up grit, minerals and insects—also
helps the birds stay healthy. Finally, the chickens are regularly
monitored and sick birds are immediately culled from the flock.
The production of high quality meat extends from the field to the
processing of the birds. One of the advantages Pollo Real has over
most poultry operations is that the chickens are processed in an
on-farm facility. This reduces the risk of contamination and allows
Pollo Real to set high standards for safe and humane handling. At
slaughtering time, the chickens are removed from the yurts, placed
in small pens, and carried 200 birds at a time into the processing
facility, where they are placed upside down in individual cones.
After a blessing is given, their jugulars are cut and they are bled
to death. (Most conventional chickens are killed by electrocution,
Delehanty says, which stops the heart immediately and makes proper
The birds are then scalded, mechanically defeathered and placed
in a cool water bath to lower their skin temperature. Next they
are hung by their feet on hackles suspended from the ceiling, eviscerated
and cleaned. Finally, they are placed on ice in stainless steel
vats, where they remain until packaging.
In many poultry operations, chill baths are used to cool large
numbers of birds at one time after slaughter. According to Delehanty,
these baths are a potential source of both contamination and loss
of meat quality, since dehydrated birds can absorb as much as 15
percent of their body weight in the water. Because Pollo Real's
birds are denser and healthier and are cooled on ice, they take
up less than 5 percent of their weight in water. Lower water absorption
means higher quality meat.
In the future, Delehanty would like to move to "cold chilling"
to cool down the meat more rapidly after slaughter and cleaning.
In cold chilling, each chicken is put on an individual prong on
a rack in a controlled cooler. Because the birds do not touch, the
potential for cross contamination is eliminated. Cold chilling can
drop the temperature of the chickens down to 30°F in half an
When asked about sources of contamination in conventional operations,
Delehanty says that ultimately it comes down to the conditions in
which the chickens are raised. At Pollo Real, the birds are kept
outdoors, in a healthy environment and are fed on high quality organic
grain and pasture. In addition, they are checked 10 times for healthiness
during slaughtering, processing and packaging. This far exceeds
what USDA regulations demand.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the birds are packaged, labeled and
loaded onto two refrigerated three-quarter ton trucks. Each truck
holds 500 to 600 chickens. At 6:00 AM on Wednesdays and Fridays,
the trucks are unplugged and sent off to their delivery runs.
Marketing and distribution
Pollo Real's distribution costs are less than 10 percent of it's
total costs—well below the industry average of 15 to 20 percent.
The difference is that Pollo Real is a producer, not an integrator
like most poultry processors. "We manufacture the product here,
we process it right here, we package it right here, and we put it
on the trucks the way it is going to be taken off on the order sheet,"
Pollo Real receives about $2.50/pound (or about $10.00/bird) for
its organic chicken. The average price for conventionally raised
chicken is $.80/pound. So far, Pollo Real has held to a policy of
selling only whole birds; Delehanty says at their current scale
offering cut-up pieces isn't economical. The hearts, gizzards and
feet are sold at $.50-1.00/pound (a quarter pound per bird) to restaurants
and Asian markets. Customers are willing to pay more for Pollo Real
chicken because they can taste the difference. The meat is denser,
leaner and more flavorful.
Pollo Real's earliest customers were chefs. As a marketing strategy,
this had both pros and cons, Delehanty says. On the up side, chefs
make terrific spokespeople when it comes to spreading the word about
a high-quality food product. Many of Delehanty's 15 to 20 current
restaurant clients identify Pollo Real by name on their menus, which
has nice impact on sales through other venues. On the down side,
the size of the restaurant orders varied, leading Delehanty to conclude
that a mix of different types of outlets was key. "It took
years to get the right scale because the restaurants are up and
down. You need the same amount at a grocery store, every week, all
year long, to stabilize the whole thing." It took a while to
build this store base because considerable volume was needed to
fill store shelves.
Today, about 60 percent of Pollo Real's output goes to grocery
stores, 30 percent to restaurants and 10 percent to farmers' markets.
Delehanty is also a founding member of the New Mexico Organic Livestock
Co-op, which includes producers of organic chickens, eggs, lamb,
turkey, beef and goat cheese. Established in 1997, the NMOLC operates
a reciprocal distribution network through which members carry one
another's products to farmers' markets and shops throughout the
state. The co-op also shares costs such as liability insurance.
Delehanty himself attends five farmers' markets in central New Mexico,
selling other NMOLC products alongside his own chickens.
Although the percentage gained from going to farmers' markets is
small, Delehanty considers it to be crucially important because
farmers' markets are the best place to build a loyal customer base.
Even though people can just as easily buy his chicken at the grocery
store or eat it in restaurants, he says, "they want to see
me at farmers' markets to feel connected. Ninety percent of the
farmers' market customers have 9 to 5 jobs and want to connect with
the farmer, they want to know what you are doing, they want to try
your product, they want to come to your farm." Once people
have made that connection—and tasted the chicken—they're
more likely to look for it elsewhere and to spread the word, essentially
providing the farm with free publicity.
Delehanty hopes soon to be hatching his own chicks rather than
buying them. Like other pastured poultry producers, he's come to
believe that conventional hybrid chicks lack the necessary hardiness
to really thrive in a pastured system. In early 2004, Tim Shell
of Virginia sent Pollo Real 60 chickens of the Corndel line (a cross
between Cornish Rock and Delaware breeds) that had been crossed
back to line-bred meat chickens. After an initial set back—many
of his breeder-birds were killed by dogs—Delehanty has since
been working on his own breeding program, selecting five to ten
chickens out of each shipment the farm receives. He looks for consistency,
size, shape, vigor, hardiness and other factors, reckoning he needs
one rooster for every eight hens.
The breeder chickens are raised on a limited diet of 25 to 30 pounds
of feed per hundred birds per day. Iverson thinks their breeding
program can produce a generation every six months, leading to a
complete breeder flock of 300 hens capable of producing 1,200 chicks/week
within the year. In two years, Pollo Real expects to have its own
line-bred chickens, acclimatized to the altitude and weather. If
all goes well, the ranch may even be able to market its chicks to
other pastured poultry operators around the country.
Delehanty counts Pollo Real's low overhead as one of the big reasons
for its success. Most poultry operations are overcapitalized, he
argues, with major investments in buildings and machinery that make
it difficult for producers to respond to emerging market opportunities—such
as the demand for pasture-raised organic chicken. "My whole
operation will make $500,000 a year, which is equal to 5 percent
of the largest agriculture operations in the country," he points
out. "[But] I couldn't get $25,000 out of the equipment if
I were to sell. That is a powerful thing and it is hard for people
with money to understand."
For "start up" ventures or small-scale family farms,
however, the Pollo Real system is ideal. The Pollo Real model is
also "family friendly," in part because there's minimal
use of heavy machinery. Delehanty's two children, Shayna and Griffin,
have been active in the business from a young age and are now planning
their own chicken operations.
Pollo Real's future growth is limited by land availability. "[We]
would be more efficient if everything were on one whole plot"
instead of on scattered parcels, Delehanty admits. "In this
way, we could scale up to 2,000 or 5,000 birds." But such an
expansion would also require additional capital to create a USDA-inspected
facility, with a full-time USDA inspector on site (Pollo Real's
current facility is inspected by the state of New Mexico but not
by the USDA), and Delehanty is reluctant to take that step. "It
is terribly expensive. It is another scale of production that I
don't even know about. These would be some changes that I can't
even conceive of yet."
For the time being, Delehanty is content with his farm's current
size. "This scale supports what I am doing and it has taken
a number of years to get here," he comments. "I could
get bigger, but at this scale I am learning and growing and using
all the resources. I am not in this to feed the world—I want
to feed my community and my region."
Ultimately, the Pollo Real model is as resilient and flexible as
its yurts. As Delehanty says, "The system has no secrets. .
. [it's] about hard work and resourcefulness." It's also a
system that could readily be integrated with other farm enterprises,
he suggests, such as organic garlic or strawberry production. Delehanty
believes the true wealth of a farm lies in its soil. Under the yurts,
the soil has improved remarkably and has created possibilities for
other agricultural endeavors.
Delehanty constantly seeks to strengthen Pollo Real through networking,
consulting and promotional events. "My biggest thing is to
educate people. To build on simplicity and a passion and something
that they can do well. I want other people to do this in their communities…
this is how we can create culture with our food again."