A mobile chicken coop is just one of the ways Phil Eisenbeis is finiding his way on the plains of S.D.
BY SADAF CASSIM - FOR RURAL REVIVAL
If you have ever driven on old 44, just southeast of town, you might have noticed in the middle of the fields, a small house-like structure. And perhaps on a different day you spotted that same structure but most definitely in a different field. Happily, your senses are, in fact, sound and can be explained by an uncommon agricultural practice: the mobile chicken coop. While not a new concept, this unique and innovative practice is certainly not standard amongst the farms one finds in South Dakota.
Enter Philip Eisenbeis, the farmer responsible for the mobile chicken coop. Owning a humble 80-acres, Eisenbeis has practiced a unique brand of farming over the past three years. His story begins right here in Freeman. A native of this area, Eisenbeis’ family moved to Brazil when he was a child and spend a decade there as part of the Mennonite Mission Network. After moving back, he graduated from Freeman Academy and went to Bethel College where he completed a degree in history and German. Afterward, he received a master’s in German language and literature from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Not quite certain which direction he wanted to pursue at that juncture in his life, he decided to move to Madison, Wis. and later Chicago, Ill., where he was interested in encountering a diverse population and experiencing big city life. He spent the next 23 years there where he was a cab driver and owner. Every year he would visit his parents for a few weeks and on those visits he would read his dad’s books on farming, current trends in agriculture, and the natural food movement. Some of the works he read in those years were by authors like Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin. The concepts he found within such literature resonated with him and would later shape his own farming practices.
In 2017 Eisenbeis decided to change the course of his journey and moved back to Freeman — a decision partly motivated by the desire to be closer to his elderly parents. He started delivering raw, organic milk for his older brother, Tim Eisenbeis, a local dairy farmer who runs Happy Grazing Dairy. Since moving here, the junior Eisenbeis has established a hog, chicken, duck, bee and hazelnut venture, among other interests.
From hogs to hens
A playful group of hogs came bounding across the field to greet their owner, thrilled at the sight of their soaked barley supper. Eisenbeis purchased this delightful group in the spring as feeder pigs—young, newly weaned pigs. He raises them for several months until they are ready to slaughter. The pigs mainly eat grass, but Eisenbeis also supplements their diet with barley soaked in water or milk in order to fatten them up in time for slaughter. He limits how much grain they receive, though. The pigs especially love the milk and whey.
Although these pigs are not certified organic, they are a breed not intended for confinement and at this farm they certainly have full outdoor freedom. Eisenbeis believes that the taste of free-range pork is what is sought-after, not necessarily the organic label. Although he currently raises the hogs for slaughter, he plans to breed them as well, slating for a spring delivery so that the pigs maximize their access to grass.
Some of these hogs are ready to butcher now, but Eisenbeis was not able to secure a slaughter date until mid-December. By then some of the hogs will be quite large. Due to the pandemic, the larger butcher shops in the area were unable to accept orders so the smaller, local butchers were suddenly faced with an influx of orders, which pushed back their availability to local farmers. Eisenbeis’ hogs sell for $2 per pound, hanging weight, plus butcher fees. His buyers include Freeman residents and some clients from his brother’s milk business.
Eisenbeis also raises meat birds. He orders Cornish Cross broiler chicks online and raises them until they are ready to slaughter at about seven to eight weeks old. In large-scale operations, broilers are typically slaughtered at six weeks, but because he does not give his birds fancy feed or antibiotics, they take slightly longer to reach the right weight. They eat feed that Eisenbeis grinds and mixes himself. These broilers were raised organically but Eisenbeis found the process to certify them as organic long, drawn-out and difficult. He is still deciding if he wants to go through the hoops to obtain the organic certification. He sold most of the birds he slaughtered over the summer but the demand is slowing down now. He plans to fill his freezers up with the remaining birds and sell them throughout the winter season. Eisenbeis sells his broilers for $3 per pound.
In contrast, Eisenbeis completed the organic certification process for his hens and is now able to sell his eggs as organic. The largest part of his current operations are his laying hens. Eisenbeis gives them a feed consisting of corn, roasted soybeans sourced from nearby farmer, Will Ortman, organic oats when it is readily available, barley screenings, which contain a lot of nutrition, and soaked barley. The hens and pullets also forage on grass, alfalfa, bugs, and anything else they can scratch up. His eggs usually sell out every week during the warmer seasons but he continues to sell eggs throughout the winter, as well. The eggs sell for $3.75 for mediums, $4 for large, and $4.50 for extra large.
Eisenbeis has a sizable amount of young, laying hens and he also has a good number of older hens. When the laying hens pass their prime, they stop laying as robustly and may only lay eggs in the summer. They are considered past their prime after two to three years of age, although they can live well over 10 years. While some do not mind slaughtering older birds for soups and such, Eisenbeis came up with a creative alternative to keeping all the older and younger hens together in one area. When there is a surplus of hens in one spot, that area tends to get excessively scratched up; it is therefore advantageous to spread out the brood. Eisenbeis built his mobile chicken coop as a solution to keeping the older brood away from the main yard, without sacrificing their free range lifestyle.
More about the
mobile chicken coop
Eisenbeis built his mobile chicken coop with help from his father last summer. Since then his older chickens have called it their home, forming a symbiotic relationship with the cows. Eisenbeis moves the coop about every two days to a different pasture, following a drove of grazing cows. The idea behind a mobile coop is that cows drop a lot manure, which flies then lay eggs in. The chickens peck at the cow pies, eating the maggots and any undigested feed or seed. This helps control the pests and all of their scratching effectively spreads out the manure, which is more beneficial to the pasture than having large piles of cow pies. The coop has a wire mesh floor so the chicken droppings fall directly to the ground, further fertilizing the fields. When it is time to move to a different area, Eisenbeis drives a tractor or pickup truck that hitches to the coop and parks it in a different grazing location. While Eisenbeis is able to pursue organic certification for his younger hens, this older brood is not certifiable because they were not raised organically from the beginning of their life.
The inspiration for the mobile chicken coop came from the works of Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown. Salatin practices a version of it, which he calls the chicken tractor, in his book “Pastured Poultry Profits”. Brown from North Dakota follows a similar model, which he lays out in his book, “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture.” Here in Freeman, Eisenbeis is the first to put this wholesome practice into use.
Eisenbeis also runs a small duck operation. His dad once saw fertile duck eggs for sale online and they decided to give it a shot. They put two of their chickens on a few of those duck eggs and much to their delight, the chickens hatched the duck eggs. He raises the males for butchering and keeps some of the females for eggs. The females will lay in the spring and continue laying until about June. He currently doesn’t have enough duck eggs to sell but hopes to continue growing the operation and be able to sell duck eggs in the future. Duck eggs are bigger than their chicken counterparts and according to Eisenbeis, make really fine eggs. He is waiting for the cold weather to set in before butchering the ducks. The colder weather will make plucking easier otherwise they are really difficult to pluck. Because their feathers are waterproof, scalding causes them to float, making the technique inefficient. The ducks are much easier to care for than chickens or other livestock. They do not require much feed as they mostly eat grass, bugs, insects, and other foraged findings.
Elsewhere on the farm
Eisenbeis is also experimenting with alternative crops like hazelnuts and chestnuts to diversify his farm income. He planted hybrid hazelnuts that are specific for this type of climate and 100 hybrid chestnut trees. The hazelnuts can provide almost everything that soybeans do. They yield high quality oil and a nutritious flour can be made from the pulp. The hazelnut plants grow into 12-foot bushes and need to be cut every seven years, which provides an abundance of wood. Chestnuts also provide great lumber. Chestnuts are difficult to start due to the prevalence of squirrels but once established, the same plant can live 500 to 1,000 years and produce nuts every year. Eisenbeis explains that the value of establishing perennial crops such as hazelnuts and chestnuts is that, once established, they can provide many annual harvests without the costly annual tillage required and the consequent damage to the soil in order to produce annual crops.
Eisenbeis is still experimenting with various farming practices and has not quite made up his mind as to the future he sees for his farm. He views his farm as a work in progress. He has thus far implemented trial and error techniques based on what he admires in the books of other farmers. However, the ideas laid out in some of that literature would have to apply here and be able to generate an eventual profit.
In rural South Dakota, where conventional agriculture comprises the vast majority of farms, Eisenbeis is committed to running a farm that utilizes natural, wholesome and organic practices — with the term ‘organic’ referring to general holistic and sustainable practices and not to the specific label.
Eisenbeis’ motivation comes from a desire to produce excellent, high quality, local food. Many of the people he has met over the years suffer health problems and are looking for the cleanest, most wholesome food they can find; and Eisenbeis is happy to produce exactly that. He prefers to focus on producing smaller, high-quality products even at the expense of a high profit rather than increase yield but sacrifice quality. He believes his farming practices produce a better tasting chicken and that his buyers can differentiate and prefer its taste.
Eisenbeis envisions an opportunity-laden future. In this vision he would set up a certified organic butcher shop and the other farmers in the area would raise organic chicken that they would bring to his facility to process. This could be a good business opportunity for the community and then he would be able to sell organic, local chicken to the health stores in Sioux Falls — the Sioux Falls Food Co-Op and Pomegranate Market, who have both expressed immediate interest considering their only organic chicken comes from Minnesota, a far cry from local. These stores pay an organic producer $4 to $4.5 per pound and from there mark up the price for the consumer.
The problem with supplying to stores is they want a year-round supply but it is challenging to raise chickens in the winter. Raising chickens indoors does not yield the same quality as chickens raised on green plants containing omega three fatty acids. A possible solution is to get a walk-in freezer and fill it up throughout the summer months.
Obtaining the organic certification for a butchering facility is not easy and poses a considerable hurdle though. He enjoys butchering and would be willing to pursue it if others committed to raising the chickens. As for raising chickens himself, it is a lot of work and he can see himself stopping unless he adopts a much more efficient model.
Eisenbeis also envisions a permaculture farm that would produce high value crops, fruits and nuts. A small, diversified farm can make a good income for a family or group of families without needing a large amount of land. Eisenbeis believes that if more people did that, the population would increase and there would be an expansion of cultures. People would subsequently be happier living out here; and that would change this place for the better.
This article was written and submitted for publication by Freeman resident Sadaf Cassim on behalf of Rural Revival, a local group that focuses on the development of a local food system, the transfer of land to aspiring farmers and educational/informational programs. Learn more at ruralrevival.org.