While the market team doesn’t like to pick favorites, it’s fair to say that Otto’s Chicken, owned by Gary Otto, is one of the most popular vendors at the market. A few weeks ago we had the chance to visit his farm, and we hope you enjoy this photo essay that walks you through the whole process from raising one week old birds to eventually bringing them to the market.
We started our visit in the production room, and by some luck, we showed up on the same day as the USDA Auditors! They inspect Otto's Chicken once per year, and let me just say that they pass every time with flying colors. The inspectors we talked to said they really haven't been to a facility like Gary's before, and he's the best in their midwest juristiction. One thing they said to pay attention to at chicken farms is the sounds that you hear on the other side of the wall, meaning where the birds are kept and slaughtered. If you hear squawking, something is wrong and they aren't being handled well. If you just hear some gentle peeps, then those birds are calm and relaxed. Apart from the yearly inspection, since Otto's processes their own birds on site they are required to employ a USDA Inspector who sits on the line on production days. Each week they'll process 5,400 chickens.
Moving onto the next room, we saw where the birds are kept before being processed. Every Monday and Wednesday, a small crew wakes up at 3AM to get started catching 2,700 birds. Why so early? The darkness helps to keep the chickens calm, and even the barn that they are kept waiting in is dark. Once the production line starts, the crew has six hours to get all the birds processed and in a water bath to cool before being packaged.
Otto's has two barns on site for chickens, with six bays that each hold a different group of birds from one week up to six. As we walked up to the first door, Gary knocked gently, a chorus of peeps filtered through, and he started trying to sush them while telling me to speak quietly since they aren't yet used to humans. These babies are the newest crop, and their barn is kept at 90 degrees at all times. Gary checks the temperature under each heater twice per day, including after dinner, to make sure they keep warm.
On the way to visit the five week olds, we saw where Otto's mixes their feed. Non-GMO corn is grown by a local farmer, and he mixes it onsite with soy protein in a machine he rescued from the junk pile and refurbished years ago. Gary is a third generation farmer, and his parents had used this machine at one time.
This machine lets him change the size of the grain, which is different depending on the age of the birds. Once it’s mixed it is transferred to a bin by each chicken bay (there are six, for each week/age of the chickens), and at the flip of a switch it’s moved from the bin and through the barn into the feeders. The automated process for food and water really simplifies the process, and pulleys in each barn can lift the height of both lines as the birds grow.
Otto's Chicken is an antibiotic free and cage free operation. The standard regulation for that means that each bird has .85 square feet of space, but Gary is proud of the fact that he gives his 1.30 square feet each. When he started farming on his own, his one guiding principle was that he was not going to crowd his birds. In fact, one thing that he does different from others is that at five weeks old, they remove 20% of the birds and put them in a separate area. This gives everyone even more space as they grow into their sixth week. The barns are kept clean, and Gary picked up one bird to show us their feet; they’re smooth and don't have any scabs or burns like they would have if their space was not kept as clean.
Gary takes great pride in what he does, and he thinks there are probably less than ten farms in the country doing things like they are at their scale. You can find Otto's Chicken every Saturday at both the outdoor and winter market, as well as at several SW MI grocery stores. We're sure you'll be able to taste the difference!
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