Sunday, June 14, 2009

Let Them Eat Grass

A Home on the Range

This Sunday, the Park Kitchen team took a field trip just south of Scio, Oregon to meet our friend Joe Schueller at his ranch. Joe started Rainshadow el Rancho in 2001, and we have been buying pigs and rabbits from him since 2006. Joe has been working hard on a poultry processing plant for the last few years, and it is finally operational. We all wanted to take a closer look at his work on the ranch.

Joe keeps a diverse population on his ranch. He has a small herd of buffalo, a warren of rabbits, a few sheep, cornish hens, chickens and ducks (both layers and meat birds) and turkeys. During the construction of the processing plant, Joe's hogs have been raised on his neighbor, Claude's land. When they come back to Rainshadow, they will rotate on the pasture with the other animals. He has over 140 acres of pasture, and this is the primary diet of his animals. During our tour, Joe mentioned the writings of Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms, author of "Pastured Poultry Profits," as an inspiration to his own model of pasture raised farming.

There are a number of hatchling coops near the house. They stay under the lamps for the first three weeks before they go into the pasture. Then the chickens and ducks live in portable huts that are moved every day, so the animals have fresh grazing, and the manure is evenly dispursed. The animals are rotated in the pasture as well. The chickens will eat the bugs out of the manure of the larger animals and help to break it down, layering the nutrients in the soil. Once the soil is healthy, the environment is favorable for the growth of nutritious legumes like clover and lupine, dandelions and bluegrasses. This is the lifeline of the pasture. Once this harmonic balance is achieved, just letting the animals graze naturally perpetuates the pasture, which minimizes the cost of nutrient grain feeds, antibiotics to combat illness and malnutrition, and drugs to accelerate growth and weight gain.

The laying hens and turkeys have a more permanent residence, grazing under Joe's orchards of apple, cherry, plum and asian pear. The birds seem very happy there. Their eggs are delicious, and a bargain at $5 per dozen. This year will be the first for his Black Star chicken layers and Ancona duck layers. I'm looking forward to his first year of duck eggs and meat birds.

If you build it, they will come.

Joe began building the poultry processing plant on his ranch after twenty years in construction contracting. Joe said this was one of the most difficult projects of his life, in large part due to the difficulties of securing skilled workers for a small, rural project. After $600,000 worth of headaches and more than three years of work, Joe can process his own chickens, ducks, turkeys, game birds, and rabbits. Small growers and distant neighbors can bring their animals for custom processing as well. Today, small processing plants (less than five hundred head per day) are increasingly rare, but a great asset to everyone in the area.

This is Joe's wife, Karen in the doorway of their processing plant. The first room contains the funnels seen here for bleeding, as well as the scalder and plucker machines for poultry. When we were here, Joe had not yet acquired the wax tank for duck processing.

The poultry enters the cleaning room through a chute from the centrifugal plucker. The hangers hold the poultry by the head and feet, and the belt turns around the processing table. Then they enter the chill room, followed by bagging, weighing and freezing (unless they will be shipped fresh). With the plant running at 40% capacity, Joe said the electricity bill is about $450 per month. The economics of the small processing plant are challenging, but they cover the real cost of processing meats. Unlike their large scale competitor, the CAFO infrastructure is usually funded with tax dollars, and so is the waste treatment. Guys like Joe aren't using your tax money to sweep costs under the rug.

An Exceptional Breed

Joe has been raising rabbits, and they have always been outstanding. After a suggestion from a friend at OSU about cross-breeding, they have become the finest rabbits in Oregon. By cross-breeding three commercial breeds (Californian, Satin, and New Zealand), he has cultivated a rabbit that has good weight gain and a finer bone structure, which means a meatier rabbit that costs less than most of the competition. You can see the dressed weight written on these rabbits are all over 3 1/2 pounds! As with most of Joe's products, quality is high and prices are competitive.

The mighty buffalo roam in their own pastures. This is an entirely different scale of animal. There is about one bull for every ten cows, and right now Joe has a bull near 2,000 pounds! The average buffalo weighs about 1,200 pounds and dresses out to about 600 pounds of meat. It's nice to see the buffalo returning to American pastures. It's a rare sight, but Joe has a rare vision, and it's exciting to watch him bring it to life.


  1. Nice post! That's a very inspiring setup. I wondered about the economics of processing plants, because you really don't see anything but massive plants these days.

  2. It's a tough economic scale. On the one hand, you have the $600,000 startup cost, and your operating costs and labor. The cost of processing small animals may be between 3 and 5 dollars each, but if you are normally doing less than 500 heads a day, or an average of half that per day over a week, you can see that it will take a long time to turn a real profit. Yet, this is the real cost of eating meat. The large plants don't pay their own expenses, and that is how you can buy pork and chicken for less than $3 per pound at a grocery store where those meats have two or three middlemen.