Chickens in school buses: A smarter way to grow

Duane Unruh of rural Peabody, standing in a patch of tall rye grass, holds one of the 900 or so grass-fed chickens he currently  is raising on their family farm, Graze N Layz, located about a half-mile north of the Marion County line on Indigo Road. Passersby have been curious about his use of old school buses to house his flock, even stopping on the road to take photos. “I would much rather have them pull in and walk around taking pictures,” he says. “But it’s perfectly fine for people to take pictures. I love it that people think it’s cool. I think it works out great.”<p>
Duane Unruh of rural Peabody, standing in a patch of tall rye grass, holds one of the 900 or so grass-fed chickens he currently is raising on their family farm, Graze N Layz, located about a half-mile north of the Marion County line on Indigo Road. Passersby have been curious about his use of old school buses to house his flock, even stopping on the road to take photos. “I would much rather have them pull in and walk around taking pictures,” he says. “But it’s perfectly fine for people to take pictures. I love it that people think it’s cool. I think it works out great.”<p>
Duane Unruh of rural Peabody isn’t putting all his eggs in one basket, but he is trying to house all of his chickens in retired school buses.

So far, Unruh and wife Shelby have two buses in operation at their rural Peabody residence located about a half mile north of the Marion/Harvey County line, and a third bus on the yard ready to be retrofitted.

Unruh figures each 65-passenger bus he has adapted for chickens can comfortably host 500 birds. He envisions some day having up to five or six buses on the place. With three buses his target goal is 1,200 to 1,500 birds.

But his unique chicken houses is only part of Unruh’s larger business vision. His primary goal is to raise chickens in a more unique way: as grass-fed egg-layers and broilers worthy of the couple’s Graze N Layz business motto: “Bring­ing high quality food to the community.”

“Growing up, I always wanted to do different things,” Unruh said. “So now that I’ve gotten into chickens. It’s more like I want to do grass-fed.

“Instead of doing a chicken barn with tens of thousands of chickens, I’m trying to do more with quality rather than quantity.”

Hooked on chickens

Unruh has been thinking about his business for quite awhile. He grew up on a farm about a mile west from the place where he and Shelby have been living since March 2015.

He said as he grew up, chickens interested him more than did his father’s cow-calf operation and his uncle’s experience with hogs.

“I first did chickens in third grade,” Unruh said. “That was just for small projects for 4-H.”

When he involved himself in FFA at Peabody-Burns High School, “I really started taking off,” he said. “During high school I did the chickens and the egg-selling, and I did some butchering of meat birds. But mainly it was the eggs. We took them to the local grocery stores and that sort of thing.”

Two years out of high school, Unruh earned his state and national degrees through FFA, and in 2010 he won the Entrepreneurship Proficiency Award at the organization’s national convention in Indianapolis.

“That was pretty cool.”

After a two-year stint at Bethel College, Unruh spent three years at Kansas State University, where he graduated with degrees in entrepreneurship and animal science. While at K-State, he received third place in the university’s “Next Big Thing” for the business plan he developed for Graze N Layz.

Unruh, now 26, said,“I’ve slowly been doing this for a while, but now that I’m out I’m really trying to take off and do certain things with that.”

And what are those certain things?

“My ultimate goal is once I get everything cleaned up (around the yard), I would like to have a storefront somewhere here, and have people come and pick up what they want, and then also try to partner with schools or FFA to do tours.

“I’ve had some friends in college who had no idea where food comes from, how it was raised or anything like that.”

Beyond chickens, Unruh envisions adding turkeys and even a few cattle and hogs.

“My ultimate goal is to have people come out here to pick their food, but then also give tours around the farm,” he said. “The (Unruh) family owns the land around (their residence), so if I need to expand to do certain things, I can always do that.”

Focus on grass-fed

Unruh said he is committed to further developing his niche with grass-fed chickens.

“My parents had them on brome a lot of years back when I was in high school and college, but now we have few acres here and I’m planting rye and sudan grass,” he said. “I’ve got clover and maybe a clover-brome mix. I’m just trying different things to see what results I get and what works.”

What impact does grass have on the eggs and meat?

“If you were to test them, I’d guess there would be some differences (in the eggs)—but as far as taste, not a whole lot,” he said. “But the greenery they eat just really makes a difference in their eggs.”

Unruh said one of his core interests in raising chickens on grass is the absence of hormones and antibiotics in their diet.

“You can taste the difference—even with my meat chickens,” Unruh said. “They’re alive for seven weeks, but after Week 3 they go out to pastures and eat grass. We move them every day to two days, depending how old they are. As they get older you almost move them every day. Then they get new grass.

“However, they can’t sustain themselves just on grass,” he added. “It’s not possible for those types of chickens.”

Buses as coops

Unruh said his father suggested the idea of using buses to house his flock. It seemed like a better idea than his original one: hoop houses made with a PVC-pipe frame covered by a tarp.

“It would blow over if you didn’t stake it down right, and the wind would pull the stakes out,” Unruh said. “So I was trying to think, what could we use to put the chickens in that we could move, and be available for them to use during the winter time?

“I wasn’t able to keep them in the hoop house during the wintertime because there was no insulation, and there’s no way to keep wind out. So we always had to move them back to a permanent shed.”

Unruh and his father discussed using used horse and cattle trailers, but they were deemed too expensive.

“My father came up with the bus idea,” Unruh said. “He had heard about it way back in the ’80s—that somebody did something with buses. We thought about it, and tried to figure out how we would do it. Then one of my uncles had a buddy who was getting rid of a school bus. It was fairly cheap so we decided to get it.

“The first one we’ve had for four or five years now. So it’s really made a difference. Now they stay out all winter, and because it’s a bus, you can push up the windows—it’s all sealed, it’s also insulated along the roof area and some of the walls.

“And they’re stoutly built—they’re not going to blow away. It’s worked great, and I haven’t been able to think of anything else that would be better.”

Unruh said they remove the engine and transmission of the bus and attach a hook on the front to pull it from location to location.

“In the bus, you go back to front—you have the rooster in the back, then you have nest boxes in the middle, and then feed and water in front,” he said.

“Right now they are yellow in the middle,” Unruh added. “We’re going to paint that all black and then we’re going to put out logo on it.

“Eventually, we’ll put our company name on the roof so that way, when Google Earth takes pictures, you can see it. You can see the buses pretty well from Google Earth.”

Unruh said passersby on Indigo Road—or Northeast Lake Road, depending on which county you’re in—have stopped to take photos of the chickens strutting around their school bus coops.

Unruh is concerned about safety when cars park along the side of the busy road, but he loves the curiosity of the people.

“I would much rather have them pull in and walk around taking pictures,” he said. “But it’s perfectly fine for people to take pictures. I love it that people think it’s cool. I think it works out great.

“This summer, hopefully, I can get a sign made along the road.”

You can learn and see more about the Unruhs’ business at Facebook/GrazeNLayz.