Raise & Market Specialty Poultry For Meat & Profit

Chickens are the obvious poultry choice, but there's a strong market for specialty poultry, too, such as goose, quail, guinea fowl and more.

by Doug Ottinger
PHOTO: James/Adobe Stock

With a little forethought and planning, establishing a sideline business of raising specialty poultry for meat can become a viable business option for your farm. Poultry raised for specialty markets includes a wide variety of fowl. The most marketed specialty poultry are chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese.

Other more exotic fowl include offerings such as guinea fowl and pheasants. Specialty poultry can also include quail and pigeons (or squab). 

Identifying Your Niche

For the business to be profitable, you’ll need to identify the types of poultry that consumers in your geographic region will buy. Repeat advertising of your specialty fowl will let buyers know what you have and help generate interest in the specialty poultry you raise. 

You’ll need to be realistic about the prices local consumers are willing to pay. Learning about your customers’ preferences may take some time, including beyond the first year of operation. For this reason, it’s often best to start small, test your market and slowly expand your operations as you identify what works for you. 

One harsh reality that many specialty poultry producers face is that large retailers can sell turkeys and chickens so cheaply, especially during holidays, that raising and selling these birds locally can be challenging. This isn’t said to discourage but rather is one of the facts that must be considered when planning such a venture. 

Fortunately, for specialty producers, many options exist beyond the scope of just chickens and turkeys. These include farm-raised duck, fattened holiday goose, and even farm-raised pheasants and guinea fowl. Over the past few decades, duck and goose consumption has dropped significantly in North America. That doesn’t mean that these markets are dead in the water, however. 

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If you can entice consumers in your area to try these specialty fowl (you may need to supply a few recipes), you’ll likely have repeat customers. The same goes for farm-raised guinea fowl and pheasant. Because there is often little competition from grocery chains for these types of poultry, they retain a more exotic view in most people’s minds. Along with this exotic and rare perception comes a much better chance of getting a more profitable price per bird.

Planning and budgeting for a repetitive advertising program that reaches local consumers, letting them know who you are, what you have, why your product is superior and where you are located will be some of the most important parts of your business plan.

Without advertising, sales rarely happen. Allocate funding in your annual operating budget for frequent, repeat advertising. It’ll return many times the cost and money spent.

specialty poultry
courtesy Candace Lylyk, Breezy Bird Farm, Manitoba, Canada

Business & Legal Plans

Adherence to local health, zoning and livestock codes, while raising the poultry, are just a few of the regulations a specialty poultry meat producer will need to be concerned with. Slaughter, processing and distribution of the finished product falls under food and safety regulations overseen either by the United States Department of Agriculture or local state departments of agriculture or health. 

Fortunately, federal regulations for small poultry meat growers are simple and straightforward. Small growers, with a little forethought and operational planning, should be able to meet the legal requirements. Make sure you read and fully understand the laws, both federal and state, regulating your operation, as part of your planning process.

Under a federal law known as the 1,000 Bird Exemption, small poultry farmers who produce poultry for market can slaughter and sell within their own states up to 1,000 birds per year exempt from federal oversight and inspection. Under this allowance, direct sales to the consumer must be made from the farm where the birds were slaughtered and processed. The birds can’t be transported to a farmers market or to a secondary retail vendor. (Growers selling through these venues must meet additional inspection requirements.) 

For growers processing poultry less than the 1,000 bird exemption, specifics of state laws vary, however. Some states have very few additional restrictions, if the slaughter areas and methods used are sanitary. Other states have more stringent regulations that small producers must meet. 

Some states allow open air (outdoor) slaughter and processing of market poultry, while other states forbid this practice. It often comes as a surprise to many people that California allows open-air processing while Kentucky forbids open-air slaughter and processing of market birds. Some states also have very specific codes regarding offal and slaughter waste disposal. Others have very little regulation on this issue.

When planning your operation, make sure you are aware of what is required in your area. Failure to comply could become cause for local health inspectors to shut down your business.

While the laws governing the slaughter and sale of the poultry aren’t extremely difficult to understand, there are some quirks in the federal 1,000-bird exemption statute. Each chicken or duck counts as one bird. However, each turkey or each goose counts as four birds, meaning you can legally slaughter, for sale, only 250 turkeys or 250 geese, under this law. The law also mandates that the birds be from one farm and not producer or farmer.

Therefore, if two people are farming together on the same farm, each one can’t raise and slaughter 1,000 birds. They can only slaughter 1,000 birds between them (or the legal equivalent, if raising turkeys or geese).

There is also another federal statute, commonly known as the 20,000 bird exemption, for growers who produce and slaughter more than 1,000 but no more than 20,000 birds per year. Under these guidelines, the facilities are subject to inspection, and laws of packaging, sales and distribution are more regulated.

For purposes of this article, we won’t deal with this issue. If you want to eventually enlarge your sales operation beyond 1,000 birds per year, just be aware of, understand and abide by this set of regulations. 

Read more: Mobile processing units help producers find bigger profits.

Getting Started

Planning a specialty poultry meat production business can realistically be a 1- to 2-year process, before the first baby fowl are ever purchased. This doesn’t mean you can’t start sooner if you really want to get started, but start small and proceed slowly during the first year or two, as you experiment and test your market.

For the business to be long term and viable, advanced, solid planning of everything from housing to brooders and feeders to your home slaughter and processing facility—and even the design and look of your sales area—is extremely important. Don’t underestimate the value of solid, long-term planning for this multistaged business, for this is exactly what you’re building and developing. 

Start with your end-product in mind. Do your research. Determine some different types of poultry that future buyers would be interested in. If raising heritage breeds, look for breeds that when dressed out meet what customers initially want and expect. As you develop your customer base, you can then start to entice them with more rare and special offerings. 

Calculate feed consumption and choose breeds that have the best feed-to-meat conversion ratios. Be cognizant of how many weeks it will take for the breeds you’re raising to reach desirable market weight. Learn ahead of time if grain-based fattening, at the end of the growing period, is a normal process for the given breed. 

Raising heritage breeds often takes several weeks longer for growth than modern production strains. Heritage breeds, overall, generally consume much more feed during the growing period than commercial meat strains. 

Pasture raising poultry can significantly reduce your feed costs. Some heritage breeds of fowl were traditionally grain-fattened at least two weeks before slaughter. While a layer of fat isn’t considered the desirable commodity that it was many years ago, some heritage breeds, when dressed out, won’t look as pretty and plump without it. The extra feed consumed by many heritage breeds can become a significant expense to the grower.

Crunch numbers time and again, as you plan. Make long-term plans how you can provide the necessary nutrition for your birds, in the most economical way, during the growing period. While they’ll often need some grain-based solids on the side, fowl such as geese can forage much of their own food in a pasture setting, after 5 or 6 weeks of age.

Turkeys, chickens and ducks also do well on pasture. Make sure that secure shelter and fencing are available to shield them from inclement weather and predators.

specialty poultry
courtesy of John Metzer, Metzer Farms

Harvesting, Processing & Selling 

Plan, design and build an area for the sanitary slaughter of fowl you’ve raised, or purchase a mobile unit, built for this purpose, even before you get your first batch of baby birds. Once the birds arrive, time and care will be needed to tend to them. Rushing to set up a slaughter and processing area at the same time may be more than you really want to deal with.

Such a unit should be set up for efficient killing, plucking, dressing, chilling and packaging of the fowl before the actual growing operation is ever started. Some sort of freezer units, for storage of the dressed carcasses, are also necessary. 

Explore and calculate the costs of building your own processing area versus buying a trailer or mobile unit specially designed for this purpose. To the best of your ability, calculate the operating costs, plus possible repairs. Also, know how much depreciation, or allocated cost the tax code allows you to expense out each year for the different options you consider using.

(This also includes all equipment and housing used in the growing operations.) 

In some regions, there are mobile processing units that can be rented. But in reality these units are currently rare in most areas of the country. Understanding these issues ahead of time will help your business be profitable.

Some growers are fortunate enough to be near a regional processor that is inspected under a federal or state inspection program and will slaughter and process poultry for a set price per bird. As an inspected and licensed facility, the birds they process can usually be sold at other locations, such as farmers markets or be delivered by you to your customers. 

If this is the case, plans should be in place as to how are you going to transport the live birds to the processor and then bring the slaughtered, dressed birds back to your home or farm. During transit, have a way to keep the dressed fowl at temperatures mandated by law. Reserve slaughter dates well in advance, even before you order or hatch out your baby poultry.

Know how many weeks it will take for the growing fowl to reach marketable size, and plan accordingly.

Lastly, plan your sales area well in advance. If you already have a farm stand for produce sales, adding a freezer and poultry display is often a fairly simple process. If you don’t, where will you meet customers coming to pick up their purchases? Visual presentation, attractiveness and cleanliness of the actual area where the sale and delivery takes place makes an instant and lasting impression on the customer. 

Raising specialty poultry for meat can be a wonderful side business, with many, varied options. With a little forethought and planning, it can be a business that will thrive for many years to come.

More Information

Find Out More

Here are two valuable on-line resources for growers wishing to do some long-term planning for their own on-farm, poultry processing set ups.

Niche Market Meat Processing Assistance Network

This program of the Oregon State University Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems is based in Corvallis, Oregon. It currently has affiliates in 43 states. 

USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

Get updated information directly from the United States Department of Agriculture, including small-production poultry slaughter.

 This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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