Ukko Robotics, a startup based out of Daniel Badiou and partner Katrina Jean-Laflamme’s farm near Notre Dame de Lourdes, won a Startup Canada award for innovation two years ago.
The pandemic caused them to delay the commercial launch of their robotic chicken coop until this year, allowing them an additional year of research and development.
But this spring they shipped their first units of the Rova Barn — a novel chicken coop that automatically moves a few feet per day across a pasture making the production of pasture-raised chicken a lot less labour intensive as well as creating all sorts of other valuable environmental benefits.
The movement of the coops constantly exposes the birds to fresh grass and soil, provides natural fertilizer for the pasture, protects the birds from predators and creates about a 90 per cent saving on labour costs.
Daniel Badiou was raised on the family dairy farm in Notre Dame de Lourdes and remembers that the need to regularly milk the cows meant there was not a lot of vacations.
When he and Jean-Laflamme started their own separate farming operation on the property and wanted to add pasture-raised poultry to the mix, they worried about the time it would take to manage them.
That prompted them to come up with the idea for the Rova barn, a solar-powered enclosed movable coop that travels between six and 30 feet per day across the pasture.
There is no denying it is a niche market they are addressing, but it’s one that is growing steadily.
Mike Badger, the executive director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, said pasture poultry consumption has likely not hit one per cent of the total poultry market in the U.S. But he said it is growing steadily and considering its health values and positive attributes relative to concerns about climate change and the degrading state of the global environment, it is not hard to imagine the market will continue to grow.
Free-range chicken is not to be confused with pasture-raised. Badger said people who buy "free range chicken" might be surprised at what they are getting.
"In the U.S. the reality is, the free range chicken you buy in the store probably never stepped foot on green grass or into the sunlight," Badger said.
But there are some specific limiting factors to the growth of Ukko Robotics, in addition to the relatively tiny current market for it to address.
Badger’s organization has about 1,000 members, but many are small and most of the producers are very independent, typically selling their product right off the farm. That means the viability of pasture-raised chicken is pretty much limited to proximity to metropolitan areas.
There are no national distributors of pasture-raised chicken.
But Badiou and Jean-Laflamme have the benefit of being able to operate the company off their farm property availing themselves of the tools and workspaces that can be found on a farm without incurring additional operating expenses.
"We buy pre-cut galvanized steel but we build them ourselves," he said, including sewing the cloth covering. The units can be built in various sizes housing from 250 to close to 1,000 birds.
Because of the climate in Canada — which means there is a seasonal limitation to raising chickens outside — as well as the supply-side quota system for poultry in this country, Badiou sees the U.S. market as providing the most opportunities.
"But some of the provinces are starting to allocate a specialty quota which allows you to raise more as an independent," Badiou said.
That’s how one of their first customers, Casie DeBoer of Caledon, Ont. was able to be in a position to buy one of the first units.
"We love it. The birds love it," DeBoer said.
DeBoer, whose extended family also operates a direct-to-consumer retail operation called DeBoers Market had been following the developments of the Rova Barn and were keen to be an early adapter.
"It’s a good fit for all of us," she said in a telephone interview. "What Ukko is doing with Rova is making it more efficient to make use of the season that we have."
The Chicken Farmers of Ontario implemented an artisanal program for raising chickens without quota. DeBoer has been approved to raise 750 birds this year.
"When we were considering raising chickens and getting into the artisan program, time was a big factor," she said. "We really would not have been able to up-size without something like the Rova Barn. We just don’t have the time and resources."
The units may create a dramatic reduction in labour expense but they are pricey enough that Badiou was not keen to quote a number out loud.
"To be honest, I would rather people contact me for the pricing," he said. "We have a lot of options. But yes, it is a significant investment. Typically we aim for a payback of five years on one of these units."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.