Pollo Real Ranch is the
premier organic pastured poultry operation in the world. It
lies in Socorro, New Mexico, between two desert mountain ranges
in the green Rio Grande Valley, and encompasses 34 acres of
irrigated land divided into several sections. On these plots,
clusters of yurts or small moveable pens filled with small
flocks of chickens can be seen resting on fresh pasture. Also
on the farm are a small processing facility and two refrigerated
delivery trucks. This modest appearance and relatively small
scale belies the significance of what takes place here.
Tom Delehanty, who owns Pollo Real with his wife, Tracey,
has been raising pastured poultry for 20 years and doing it
organically for the past 10 years. The farm's success, he
says, is the product of hard work, resourcefulness and determination.
"We had torrential rain, employee problems, no feed,
water problems, distribution problems, shelter design problems,
cash-flow problems, all of it. We could have given up but
I just said, I am going to order more chicks and I am going
to keep on growing these chickens until I figure this thing
out. I will do this."
A sixth-generation farmer whose ancestors homesteaded in
Wisconsin in the 1830s, Delehanty is given to using expressions
like, "It doesn't take money to make money," and
"There's no secret to hard work." Leaving home in
the late 1960s, he tried different roads but eventually returned
to his roots and went back to working with chickens in Wisconsin
by the 1980s. Over a period of years, he tried a number of
different poultry systems. Then he read an article by Joel
Salatin describing how chickens could be pastured in moveable
pens. "This really made sense," says Delehanty.
"It really meant a lot and I tried it."
Delehanty started experimenting with pastured poultry in
moveable pens in Wisconsin, but he wasn't sure how well the
systems would work in a cold climate. He also discovered that
state regulations would make it necessary to invest at least
$200,000 in facilities set-up. So he began searching for a
place that would better meet his own criteria for a successful
pastured poultry operation.
In New Mexico he found what he was after. State laws were
less restrictive—largely because of a lack of big poultry
operations and resulting efforts to control them. There was
a well-run state organic certification agency, the New Mexico
Organic Commodity Commission, with low fees and an excellent
support structure for farmers transitioning to organic. The
climate was dry and relatively mild, with strong sunlight
that would help minimize diseases and parasites and keep the
chickens healthy. The cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe,
with their flourishing grocery stores, farmers' markets and
restaurants, presented excellent marketing opportunities.
And last but not least, in New Mexico Delehanty found excellent
employees, comfortable with traditional, small-scale systems
and willing to work outside.
The central focus of the Pollo Real operation is the yurt,
or moveable pen, holding small groups of chickens. As the
yurts are moved over the pasture, the chickens work the soil
with their feet and fertilize it with their manure. This creates
a soil-based system in which the chickens create good soil
that produces good pasture that nourishes high quality poultry.
In Delehanty's opinion, the soil is where the true wealth
of a farm lies and where the farmer's attention should be
During the winter the yurts are moved daily over annual pastures
of winter wheat, oats, triticale and rye. In the summer, the
mixture shifts to white clover, millet, milo and chicory.
The combination of forages is good for the birds and good
for the soil.
Building a better yurt
Delehanty's yurts are oval-shaped portable pens about 11
feet long and three feet high, welded together out of rebar
and covered with chicken wire attached by pig rings. A four
by five foot door in the roof allows access for feeding and
watering and for adding and removing chickens. In the winter,
the yurts are wrapped with a 24-mil woven plastic material
(also affixed by pig rings), with a foot-square opening for
ventilation. In the summer, the roofs alone are tarped and
the sides are left open. The yurt also has two cables to serve
as handles, one on each end. One person can move a yurt, Delehanty
says, although it's faster as a two-person job.
Inside each yurt, a waterer and a feeder are hung from the
roof. Their combined weight—the feeder holds 30 pounds
of feed—helps to hold the yurt down against high winds
and prying predators. A second waterer is placed on the ground.
The yurts are built by bending the rebar around a jig. Counting
materials, labor, feeders and waterers, each yurt costs about
Delehanty developed his yurt design through a process of
trial and error. At first he built square frames out of PVC
pipe, but he found that the plastic covering tended to slide
and rip on the PVC pipe and that the entire structure was
too light, so it could flip in windy conditions and dogs and
other predators were able to dig their way underneath. The
rebar holds the polyweave sheeting in place more firmly, and
it also digs down into the pasture, foiling predators and
offering greater stability in windy weather.
Delehanty began making the enclosures round (and hence referring
to them as yurts) because he observed that predators tended
to concentrate their efforts on the corners. Without corners,
predators become confused and can't gain entry.
Delehanty also tried various types of heavy plastic sheeting
before settling on the 24-mil woven plastic tarps, which he
orders from a Canadian company. The durable, rip-stop material
resists photodegradation and can support up to a foot of snow
without caving in. Once, Delehanty says, baseball-sized hail
tore through the roofs of his older yurts with regular plastic
coverings, killing about 300 chickens, but bounced off the
The production cycle
Pollo Real receives 1,100 new chicks a week by mail from
a hatchery in Iowa. As required by federal organic standards,
the chicks are not given any antibiotics and receive organic
feed from day one. At Pollo Real, they go directly out to
the field in special brooder yurts equipped with lights, gas
infrared heaters, food and water. Delehanty starts with 275
chicks per brooder, which gives them enough room to space
themselves out if they get too warm.
Unlike the other yurts, the brooder yurts remain basically
stationary on pasture, with wood shavings added regularly
to keep the ground dry. Even though the chicks are not really
grazing at this early age, they take an interest and begin
to learn how to forage.
In warm weather, the chicks are redistributed to 180 per
pen after two weeks; in cooler conditions, they may remain
in the brooder yurts for another week before being divided.
At four weeks, they are moved out to yurts in the field, 60-65
birds per yurt, and remain there until they are 9 or 10 weeks,
when they go to slaughter.
At any one time, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 chickens
in about 100 yurts out on pasture. Each Monday, approximately
1,000 birds go to slaughter. The emptied yurts are moved back
across the pasture to the starting point and replenished with
The chickens dress out at about 4 pounds, although Pollo
Real is attempting to raise slaughter weight to four and a
half pounds to make the business more profitable. "Every
tenth of a pound can pay somebody's salary," says Pollo
Real manager Robert Iverson.
Slaughtering at 9 or 10 weeks is late compared to most conventional
poultry operations, Delehanty says, which typically kill their
birds at six weeks or around 3.5 pounds. Part of the reason
Pollo Real's cycle takes longer is that they don't use lights
to get the birds to feed around the clock. If put under 24-hour
light, chickens will eat non-stop and put on weight very quickly.
This puts enormous strain on the birds' internal organs, a
problem which conventional producers have addressed by feeding
Organic strategies for accelerating weight gain include creating
a better nutritional balance in the soil, adjusting the feed
ration and starting the chickens on greens earlier. For the
moment, Delehanty says, it's too much work to carry greens
over to the brooder yurts on a regular basis.
Feed and nutrition
Although the chickens are out on pasture for most of their
lives, foraging accounts for only 10 percent of their total
diet. Still, this small percentage is essential to maintain
chicken health and create a high quality meat. As Delehanty
puts it, "With greens everything just works better."
The remaining 90 percent of the chickens' diet consists of
organic grain from Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. The feed is
ground on-site in an International grinder/mixer hooked up
to a 1968 Farmall diesel tractor. For each ton of feed, Delehanty
adds 13 pounds of phosphorous (0.6 percent), 26 pounds of
calcium (1.2 percent), five pounds of premixed vitamins and
micronutrients and 20 pounds of salt. After mixing, the feed
is augured into a gravity wagon, pulled out to the field and
transferred to 55-gallon drums located near each group of
pens for daily dispersal to the chickens. The chickens go
through 2,000 pounds of ration a day.
Delehanty does not see growing his own feed as an option
since he has limited land and feels the maintenance and improvement
of his pastures has to be his first priority. He would prefer
to source organic grain closer to home.
Delehanty is also keen to lower his feed bills and improve
his birds' nutrition. One way to achieve both these goals,
he thinks, would be to start an organic sprouting operation.
The feed value of grains like wheat, rye and triticale can
be multiplied severalfold by turning them into sprouts, which
are high in protein, vitamins, antioxidants and micronutrients.
The ranch already has a sprouting room capable of producing
14 trays— 600 pounds, of sprouts a day.
Another way feed bills could be reduced and nutrition improved
is through vermicomposting. Currently, the liquid waste from
the slaughtering facility goes into a 2,400-gallon septic
system while the offal is placed in barrels and sent to the
landfill. Delehanty envisions a time in the not so distant
future when the offal and blood will be mixed with wood chips,
placed in bins and fed to worms. Surplus worms could be fed
back to the chickens along with the sprouts and the vermicompost
could either be sold or spread on the fields. Delehanty is
waiting to acquire a loader before this part of the operation
becomes a reality. "With a ton a day of sprouts, I can
just about get rid of soybeans and then with worms you can
create a diet for a healthier bird," he speculates. "There
is so much potential."
In the early years, Delehanty did most of the work at Pollo
Real himself. "I did delivery, would take care of feed,
move the birds, go over to West Texas and get small grain,"
he recalls—not to mention processing 50 birds a week.
When his market expanded to 200 birds a week he realized he
had to hire people, but scaling up was a challenge.
"I tried to do 400 birds a week and it was tough, then
I went to 600 a week and I started processing twice a week
and then everything fell apart because I had four people there
with the clean up and the mess." There were similar problems
in the field, where shelters were different shapes and sizes
and it was hard for employees to keep in mind all the little
idiosyncrasies of Delehanty's setup. "They couldn't understand;
in one pen there were 70 birds and in another were 110 because
nobody divided them right. It took a number of years to get
straight," he says.
Ultimately, Delehanty realized his operation was a hodgepodge
which only he could understand and that if he were going to
employ people he had to set some standards. "When I was
doing it all I was making a profit, but when I hired people
they didn't have the passion and didn't care as much as me.
The way I got around this was to standardize everything."
He broke the whole business down into separate components
and analyzed them individually. In the fields, the pens, the
feeders and the waterers were all the same so that employees
could operate them in the same manner. In the processing facility,
inefficiencies in equipment and product flow were identified
and corrected. Now, by hiring enough people and starting early
in the morning, Pollo Real can process 1,000 chickens a day.
Recently Pollo Real hired a fulltime manager, Robert Iverson,
in order to give Delehanty the freedom to step back and assess
the business as a whole. Iverson has a degree in poultry science
and a keen interest in pastured poultry production. "It
is an eye opening experience," he says.
Altogether, Pollo Real employs four full-time and five or
six part-time employees, most of whom make between $7 and
$12 an hour. Field laborers work long days and have to be
conscientious, attentive and smart—they have to understand
the chickens and keep a close eye on their behavior and health.
"Pastured poultry is a thinking man's game," says
one Pollo Real employee, Eddie Chavez. The chickens' feed
and water are replenished twice a day and the yurts are moved
once a day.
Labor and organic feed are by far the highest costs at Pollo
Real, with feed running about $2,500/week and labor about
$3,000/week. Delehanty sees labor costs as a contribution
to the community and believes in helping his workers as much
as possible. "I want to compensate my workers; they work
hard and that is where the profit and wealth are going to
go. Give them a piece and then do profit sharing. In farming,
we need to include people and that is my dream too,"
Soil and health
Pollo Real Ranch is a soil-based system, Delehanty emphasizes,
and it's easy to see that the silty, clay loam soils at Pollo
Real are healthier than those on neighboring farms. Manure,
spilled feed and the scratching of the chickens' feet have
boosted organic matter levels, increased fertility and improved
water absorption. This increased water holding capacity is
very important in a dry state like New Mexico and has saved
Pollo Real time and money by reducing the need for irrigation
on its pastures. The pH has dropped from the alkaline range
and the salt content has been moderated.
Still, things are not perfect and much remains to be learned.
Several years ago, for instance, Delehanty realized he was
getting big birds off of some fields and smaller birds off
of others. Curiously, the larger birds were coming from fields
that were new to the system and had not been fertilized over
time with manure.
After looking at an old farming book and examining his soil
tests, Delehanty concluded that the smaller birds were getting
too much calcium and phosphorous in their diets as an unintended
consequence of the improved soil conditions. So he lowered
the calcium and phosphorous in the birds' feed ration by 30
percent. This corrected the problem—but more importantly
it brought home to Delehanty the need for close attention
to the soil in pastured poultry systems.
Pollo Real has little trouble with diseases or parasites.
Delehanty offers several explanations for this. First, his
chickens are kept in small flocks in separate yurts and do
not suffer from the stresses of overcrowding. Second, the
birds are moved daily, keeping them out of their own waste
and giving them a constant supply of fresh greens. When the
yurts are moved, the sun, weather and time off kill most pathogens.
Access to fresh air, sunlight and the soil itself—where
they can scratch up grit, minerals and insects—also
helps the birds stay healthy. Finally, the chickens are regularly
monitored and sick birds are immediately culled from the flock.
The production of high quality meat extends from the field
to the processing of the birds. One of the advantages Pollo
Real has over most poultry operations is that the chickens
are processed in an on-farm facility. This reduces the risk
of contamination and allows Pollo Real to set high standards
for safe and humane handling. At slaughtering time, the chickens
are removed from the yurts, placed in small pens, and carried
200 birds at a time into the processing facility, where they
are placed upside down in individual cones. After a blessing
is given, their jugulars are cut and they are bled to death.
(Most conventional chickens are killed by electrocution, Delehanty
says, which stops the heart immediately and makes proper bleeding
The birds are then scalded, mechanically defeathered and
placed in a cool water bath to lower their skin temperature.
Next they are hung by their feet on hackles suspended from
the ceiling, eviscerated and cleaned. Finally, they are placed
on ice in stainless steel vats, where they remain until packaging.
In many poultry operations, chill baths are used to cool
large numbers of birds at one time after slaughter. According
to Delehanty, these baths are a potential source of both contamination
and loss of meat quality, since dehydrated birds can absorb
as much as 15 percent of their body weight in the water. Because
Pollo Real's birds are denser and healthier and are cooled
on ice, they take up less than 5 percent of their weight in
water. Lower water absorption means higher quality meat.
In the future, Delehanty would like to move to "cold
chilling" to cool down the meat more rapidly after slaughter
and cleaning. In cold chilling, each chicken is put on an
individual prong on a rack in a controlled cooler. Because
the birds do not touch, the potential for cross contamination
is eliminated. Cold chilling can drop the temperature of the
chickens down to 30°F in half an hour.
When asked about sources of contamination in conventional
operations, Delehanty says that ultimately it comes down to
the conditions in which the chickens are raised. At Pollo
Real, the birds are kept outdoors, in a healthy environment
and are fed on high quality organic grain and pasture. In
addition, they are checked 10 times for healthiness during
slaughtering, processing and packaging. This far exceeds what
USDA regulations demand.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the birds are packaged, labeled
and loaded onto two refrigerated three-quarter ton trucks.
Each truck holds 500 to 600 chickens. At 6:00 AM on Wednesdays
and Fridays, the trucks are unplugged and sent off to their
Marketing and distribution
Pollo Real's distribution costs are less than 10 percent
of it's total costs—well below the industry average
of 15 to 20 percent. The difference is that Pollo Real is
a producer, not an integrator like most poultry processors.
"We manufacture the product here, we process it right
here, we package it right here, and we put it on the trucks
the way it is going to be taken off on the order sheet,"
Pollo Real receives about $2.50/pound (or about $10.00/bird)
for its organic chicken. The average price for conventionally
raised chicken is $.80/pound. So far, Pollo Real has held
to a policy of selling only whole birds; Delehanty says at
their current scale offering cut-up pieces isn't economical.
The hearts, gizzards and feet are sold at $.50-1.00/pound
(a quarter pound per bird) to restaurants and Asian markets.
Customers are willing to pay more for Pollo Real chicken because
they can taste the difference. The meat is denser, leaner
and more flavorful.
Pollo Real's earliest customers were chefs. As a marketing
strategy, this had both pros and cons, Delehanty says. On
the up side, chefs make terrific spokespeople when it comes
to spreading the word about a high-quality food product. Many
of Delehanty's 15 to 20 current restaurant clients identify
Pollo Real by name on their menus, which has nice impact on
sales through other venues. On the down side, the size of
the restaurant orders varied, leading Delehanty to conclude
that a mix of different types of outlets was key. "It
took years to get the right scale because the restaurants
are up and down. You need the same amount at a grocery store,
every week, all year long, to stabilize the whole thing."
It took a while to build this store base because considerable
volume was needed to fill store shelves.
Today, about 60 percent of Pollo Real's output goes to grocery
stores, 30 percent to restaurants and 10 percent to farmers'
markets. Delehanty is also a founding member of the New Mexico
Organic Livestock Co-op, which includes producers of organic
chickens, eggs, lamb, turkey, beef and goat cheese. Established
in 1997, the NMOLC operates a reciprocal distribution network
through which members carry one another's products to farmers'
markets and shops throughout the state. The co-op also shares
costs such as liability insurance. Delehanty himself attends
five farmers' markets in central New Mexico, selling other
NMOLC products alongside his own chickens.
Although the percentage gained from going to farmers' markets
is small, Delehanty considers it to be crucially important
because farmers' markets are the best place to build a loyal
customer base. Even though people can just as easily buy his
chicken at the grocery store or eat it in restaurants, he
says, "they want to see me at farmers' markets to feel
connected. Ninety percent of the farmers' market customers
have 9 to 5 jobs and want to connect with the farmer, they
want to know what you are doing, they want to try your product,
they want to come to your farm." Once people have made
that connection—and tasted the chicken—they're
more likely to look for it elsewhere and to spread the word,
essentially providing the farm with free publicity.
Delehanty hopes soon to be hatching his own chicks rather
than buying them. Like other pastured poultry producers, he's
come to believe that conventional hybrid chicks lack the necessary
hardiness to really thrive in a pastured system. In early
2004, Tim Shell of Virginia sent Pollo Real 60 chickens of
the Corndel line (a cross between Cornish Rock and Delaware
breeds) that had been crossed back to line-bred meat chickens.
After an initial set back—many of his breeder-birds
were killed by dogs—Delehanty has since been working
on his own breeding program, selecting five to ten chickens
out of each shipment the farm receives. He looks for consistency,
size, shape, vigor, hardiness and other factors, reckoning
he needs one rooster for every eight hens.
The breeder chickens are raised on a limited diet of 25 to
30 pounds of feed per hundred birds per day. Iverson thinks
their breeding program can produce a generation every six
months, leading to a complete breeder flock of 300 hens capable
of producing 1,200 chicks/week within the year. In two years,
Pollo Real expects to have its own line-bred chickens, acclimatized
to the altitude and weather. If all goes well, the ranch may
even be able to market its chicks to other pastured poultry
operators around the country.
Delehanty counts Pollo Real's low overhead as one of the
big reasons for its success. Most poultry operations are overcapitalized,
he argues, with major investments in buildings and machinery
that make it difficult for producers to respond to emerging
market opportunities—such as the demand for pasture-raised
organic chicken. "My whole operation will make $500,000
a year, which is equal to 5 percent of the largest agriculture
operations in the country," he points out. "[But]
I couldn't get $25,000 out of the equipment if I were to sell.
That is a powerful thing and it is hard for people with money
For "start up" ventures or small-scale family farms,
however, the Pollo Real system is ideal. The Pollo Real model
is also "family friendly," in part because there's
minimal use of heavy machinery. Delehanty's two children,
Shayna and Griffin, have been active in the business from
a young age and are now planning their own chicken operations.
Pollo Real's future growth is limited by land availability.
"[We] would be more efficient if everything were on one
whole plot" instead of on scattered parcels, Delehanty
admits. "In this way, we could scale up to 2,000 or 5,000
birds." But such an expansion would also require additional
capital to create a USDA-inspected facility, with a full-time
USDA inspector on site (Pollo Real's current facility is inspected
by the state of New Mexico but not by the USDA), and Delehanty
is reluctant to take that step. "It is terribly expensive.
It is another scale of production that I don't even know about.
These would be some changes that I can't even conceive of
For the time being, Delehanty is content with his farm's
current size. "This scale supports what I am doing and
it has taken a number of years to get here," he comments.
"I could get bigger, but at this scale I am learning
and growing and using all the resources. I am not in this
to feed the world—I want to feed my community and my
Ultimately, the Pollo Real model is as resilient and flexible
as its yurts. As Delehanty says, "The system has no secrets.
. . [it's] about hard work and resourcefulness." It's
also a system that could readily be integrated with other
farm enterprises, he suggests, such as organic garlic or strawberry
production. Delehanty believes the true wealth of a farm lies
in its soil. Under the yurts, the soil has improved remarkably
and has created possibilities for other agricultural endeavors.
Delehanty constantly seeks to strengthen Pollo Real through
networking, consulting and promotional events. "My biggest
thing is to educate people. To build on simplicity and a passion
and something that they can do well. I want other people to
do this in their communities… this is how we can create
culture with our food again."