When Duane Unruh, 21, of rural Peabody was in third grade, his siblings and neighboring cousins were raising and showing hogs in 4-H. He wanted to do something different. When his father suggested chickens, he went for it.
Unruh bought day-old chicks and ended up with 50 laying hens and 100 broilers that his parents helped him butcher.
Unruh liked what he was doing but didn’t begin to take it seriously until he was a freshman at Peabody-Burns High School in 2004-05.
“My ag teacher really pushed me, and it started to become more interesting,” he said.
By the time he ended his senior year, he had won the poultry proficiency award in his local FFA chapter and at the district and state levels. He went on to win the national award and was featured in the October 2010 issue of “FFA Nation,” a publication of the National FFA Association. He will receive his American FFA degree this summer.
He has named his poultry business Unruh Pasture-Fresh Poultry. With the help of his parents, Harlin and Doris Unruh, he maintains the business while attending college. He hopes to graduate from Kansas State University in two years with a major in entrepreneurship and a minor in animal science.
The enterprising young man currently has 140 layers and has just finished processing a batch of more than 200 broilers.
He couldn’t do all the work himself, of course. High school students and his parents helped him get the job done. He plans to have another batch of 220 to 230 broilers ready to butcher in three or four weeks.
Unruh said he developed a market for his products by taking eggs to the Newton Farmers Market. Through contacts he made there as well as in his own and surrounding communities, he has developed a list of customers who are notified whenever he has fresh chicken for sale.
“I’ve got a pretty good contact list,” he said.
He raises and processes two or three batches of broilers every spring and again in the fall. It is a seven-week process, and chick purchases are staggered to allow use of the hoop house by each batch.
How it works
Day-old Cornish Rock chicks are raised for three to four weeks in a shed to give them a good start and keep them away from drafts and wind. They then are placed into a hoop-style building mounted on wheels. The building is moved every day or so to give the chickens continuous access to fresh grass.
After three or four weeks, the chickens are ready to butcher. Unruh rents a processing machine mounted on a trailer. After the chickens are killed and bled, mechanical means are used to de-feather them. They are gutted by hand and placed into ice water for quick cooling.
Unruh and his mother or father cut them up or place them whole into plastic bags. Customers are notified and pick up their orders. Extras are frozen.
Unruh replaces his laying hens every year. He plans to get 350 day-old chicks in the next two weeks. They will be kept in a shed for a while and released into an attached outside pen to eat weeds and grass. After the usual losses and selling some to others, he plans to end up with at least 200 hens. They will begin laying eggs at about four months old.
At three- to three-and-a-half months old, the hens will be transferred to a pasture in an area bounded by an electrified mesh fence. The fence will be moved once a week or so to give them a fresh grass supply. The hens will lay their eggs in nest boxes in a mobile hoop house in the fenced-in area.
When the broilers and hens are on grass, Unruh also supplements them with processed grain. No antibiotics or hormones are used in the feed. Broilers get a purchased finishing feed to bring them to butchering size. For the hens, Unruh grinds corn raised on the farm and mixes it with a nutrient-rich supplement. They also get vegetable scraps from the house and garden.
Unruh hopes to grind all of his own feed someday so he can regulate the ingredients that go into it.
Unruh’s parents are involved in farmers markets with him. They sell garden produce and baked goods. He has two older siblings.
As a class assignment at KSU, Unruh recently developed a business plan for producing and marketing grass-fed meat of all kinds. In competition, he gave a presentation to judges who were entrepreneurs and received third place.
Producing chicken meat and eggs may not seem like a pleasant thing to do, but when Unruh gets to working with his flocks, he knows why he does it.
“I’ll go out there early in the morning, see them running around, do the chores, and then a lot of times I’ll just sit down and watch,” he said. “For me it’s just calming. It feels good.”
Unruh is not sure what the future holds for him, but his dream is to produce grass-fed beef, pork, duck, and turkey in addition to chicken.