The Pryor Times

June 28, 2007

Raising free-range chickens

Kay Mc Farland

Geof Colpitts is producing organic meat.

The principles of Colpitts PineRidge Ranch were established by Dr. Tom Colpitts, a dentist turned alternative health practitioner. They have dedicated their ranch to providing the consumer with meat free of steroids, antibiotics, arsenic, pesticides, and herbicides, and introducing them to healthy food.

The enterprise started eight years ago with grass fed beef. The benefits of grass fed beef include lower total fat, two to four times more Omega-3 fatty acids and higher in vitamin E. Dairy and meat products from grassfed animals are the richest source of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA).

“The direct sale of beef is somewhat limited, and the length of time involved in raising beef is also prohibitive,” said Geof Colpitts, owner of Colpitts PineRidge Ranch.

The raising of free-range pastured poultry was the logical alternative to fill the gap in the beef production. Free range, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is any animal having access to the outside. The Colpitts’ are one of only three producers of pastured poultry in the state of Oklahoma.

Their first attempt to raise free-range chickens was less than successful. They started with 200 birds and only 73 were left when it was time to process them. The wire mesh fence around the one acre pen and the shed was not enough defense against predators.

“It seems as though chicken is high on the food list of all predators on the ground and in the air,” said Colpitts.

Colpitts decided to put the chickens in the pasture with his goats and let the guard dogs protect the herd as well as the flock. The goats are used for brush and weed control, and rotate pastures with his grass fed beef. The goats and cattle are contained behind four strands of high tensile electric fence, with every other strand carrying 10,000 volts.

The chickens were placed in the pasture with the goats in boxes containing 50 birds each with screen wire on half of the top. Goats are animals that like to climb and jump on things, so the boxes were great fun for them, but not for the chickens.

So Colpitts developed the huts he is now using. The huts are 10-foot by 12-foot, and approximately seven feet tall in the center. The sides are constructed of PVC pipe bent to form a U-shape and attached to each side of the frame. The frame is covered with a tarp on the sides and the ends are enclosed with wire. Each hut contains 50 to 60 birds.

“The tarps do get holes in them, which I attempted to patch,” said Colpitts. The raccoons figured out how to tear the patch off and get the birds. Then one of the guard dogs also decided to help himself to a chicken dinner killing about 30 birds. Colpitts then put up a mesh fence to keep the dogs out, but it didn’t slow the raccoons down.

“It’s a constant battle,” Colpitts said. He is in the process of replacing the current tarps with new tarps of a heavier weight. Three hundred and eighteen of the 400 birds in his second batch reached the finished stage. Colpitts’ third batch of birds will be ready to leave soon. He appears to have achieved a good livability rate on this flock.

The chicks are ordered from a hatchery in Wisconsin and shipped to the ranch. They are brooded for a couple of weeks then placed in the huts. Colpitts has chosen to raise the Bronze Ranger breed, which is similar to Rhode Island Reds. They produce a four and a half to five and a half pound chicken in eight to 10 weeks.

Colpitts’ free-range pastured chickens grow up on grass that is free of pesticides and herbicides, eating a natural diet, supplemented with a nutritional 21 percent protein feed without any additives.

The final week before processing the birds are fed straight corn. Colpitts PineRidge chickens are grown slowly and naturally without steroids to rush them to maturity. The huts are moved every day to provide fresh grass for the birds.

“Spurlock Feed in Locust Grove has been very helpful in locating feed without additives for us. Most of the mills make feed without additives. You just have to keep looking for it,” Colpitts said.

Colpitts hauls the finished birds to Pel-Freeze in Rogers, Ark., where they are processed under USDA inspection. He sells the chickens through Oklahoma Food Co-op, and at the Muskogee Farmers Market. The products at Oklahoma Food Co-op can be ordered on line at www. oklahomafood.org. The food can be picked by in Claremore, Muskogee, or Tahlequah on the third Thursday of the month.

Colpitts moved to the country in 2003, after spending eight years in the regular Navy and the reserves. He also worked for a couple of credit card companies in Tulsa.

“I really enjoy the country life, even if it is a seven-day-a-week job,” Colpitts said.