Introduction to Pastured Poultry
By Jody Padgham Fall 2005
For: “Raising Poultry on Pasture” Published by APPPA, Feb 2006
Many of us remember going to “Grandma’s House” and having a tasty chicken dinner. Or, maybe we are young enough that we just hear other people talking about how wonderful, and easy to take for granted, that experience was.
Anyone you ask who has memories like this will at some point say “you just can’t get chicken like that anymore.” Although many country people still “keep a few hens” or have 25 roasters running around to catch for Sunday dinner, poultry production has in general gone the way of all things agricultural in the United States - bigger is better, efficiencies reign, and animal lives are compromised and speeded up - all for the sake of keeping food prices low and profits high. The average supermarket chicken has never seen the light of day, may be only four to five weeks old when butchered, and is grown in very close quarters with thousands of other birds inside huge buildings. Their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death. Hens producing eggs are in very small cages, one on top of another, never to see the sun or grass. Is it no wonder that chicken and eggs today don’t taste like they used to?
The Beginnings of Pastured Poultry
Enter the new world of pastured poultry production! Early in the 1960s, a pioneer named Joel Salatin of Swope, Virginia, started experimenting with growing chickens outside, so they could live more “normal” poultry lives, eat bugs and grass and enjoy the rain and sun. Salatin is passionate about efficiency, and he knew that to make his poultry dreams work in his farm system, the chicken production needed to be cost effective, efficient, good for the birds and good for the land they were living on. The bonus is that the system produces very high quality food.
After several years of experimentation, Salatin developed a “Pastured Poultry Model” which he captured in his book Pastured Poultry Profit$, first published in 1993. Over the years thousands of people have visited Polyface Farm in Virginia to learn about growing poultry on pasture. In 1997, an organization to bring all of those people together, the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), was formed, with Joel Salatin as one of the charter board members.
APPPA has thrived over the years, with its keystone being the “APPPA GRIT!,” a now bi-monthly newsletter offering features and innovations from poultry producers from all over the country. Producers have studied the concepts that Joel Salatin pulled together into his pastured poultry model, and developed tangents of their own. Because of this, it is not as easy as it was ten years ago to describe what pastured poultry is. In this introduction we will give you an overview of chicken broiler production. Specific details on laying hen, turkey, goose and duck production can be found in the APPPA book “Raising Poultry on Pasture”.
Is Pastured Poultry for You?
Perhaps you own a few acres of land that you’d like to “just do something with,” or you have a family farm that you would like to diversify. Pastured poultry can be raised on very small acreage, either as an independent operation or as an integrated piece with other farming ventures, such as a market garden or grazing ruminants. Poultry can be raised for family consumption only, or as a profit-making venture. The size of your operation, efficiencies, and time put into marketing are the primary things that will distinguish a commercial pastured poultry operation from a home operation, but much else will remain the same. Whether you raise 50 or 50,000 birds a year, many of the same concepts hold.
Almost anyone can do the work involved with raising poultry on pasture. It is an excellent project for school age children or as a side-business for any farm. In general, there is a very low overhead to get started (it can be done without buildings or large mechanical equipment, for example) and the turn around time of the product is quick (the chicks you buy today will be ready to sell as ready-to-eat broilers in eight weeks).
Find Your Market First!
Those wishing to get into pastured poultry to make money must first explore potential markets in the area. Are there others selling pastured poultry in your region? Do they fill the market or is there room for more? Will the local farmers market let you sell chicken? If so, what are the regulations for licensing or handling? Most states limit the number of birds you can process and sell from your farm. How many birds do you want to try to raise and sell? Who will those be sold to?
Although in most areas the market for pastured poultry is greater than the supply, it can take a few years to both develop your production systems so that you can produce consistent quality and not suffer a lot of loss, and to get the word out that you have pastured poultry available to sell. The best way to get started is to grow poultry for a few years for family and friends to “get the bugs out” of your production and slowly grow a business with neighbors and friends. Most successful growers say they started small and grew their businesses, mainly through word-of-mouth expansion of their sales base. Don’t make the mistake of starting out with 300 birds ready to sell and no customers in sight.
Make a Plan
We recommend that you do some planning before you jump right into poultry production. First, read the book “Raising Poultry on Pasture”. Join APPPA, so that you can keep up with innovations and get answers to questions that invariably come up. Visit other farms that are already raising poultry on pasture so that you can see some of the equipment first hand and learn about decisions and challenges those producers have experienced.
Once you have done those things, you are ready to make a plan. What kind of production system will you try first: pen or day-range? How many birds will you raise the first year, in five years, or ten? Where will the pens go? Who will do the work? When do you want your first birds to arrive? How many batches per season? Who will process the broilers? What are the laws of your state that regulate poultry production and processing? Where will you market the birds, and what do you need to do to make that happen—apply to be at a farmers market, take out an ad in the paper, put up posters at the grocery? Write your thoughts down so that you have a general idea of what you are up against.
Decide on a Production System
Pastured poultry producers have in the past ten years taken two main paths: the first group raises birds in small, enclosed shelters (anywhere from 8 x 10 ft. to 12 x 14 ft., of varying heights). These shelters are placed out on a pasture, with chicks, feed and water and moved every day by pulling or using a dolly (“moveable pens”). The other group of producers builds a shelter that may be bigger and may have a floor, but certainly has doors which allow the birds to come in and out. This shelter will be surrounded by electric fencing (either netting or strands of electric fence) and moved only occasionally. The electric fence is moved regularly to allow the birds access to new pasture (“day-range”).
There are different advantages and challenges to each of these systems. You should research and explore which system might best fit your individual needs. Once you decide on a system and pen design, you will need to build or purchase the type of pen you’d like to start with. This must be fitted with a watering system and feed trays.
Starting the Chicks
Most pastured poultry producers use day old “broiler” chicks purchased from a local or regional hatchery. A nice diversity of hatcheries can be found with an internet search. The most common broiler chick is the “Cornish Cross.” Some producers are working with hatcheries to develop genetics more suited to pasture production--the Cornish Cross has been developed for the confinement poultry industry and is not ideal for pasture production.
Day-old chicks will generally be shipped in the mail, unless you can drive to get them yourself. You will need to get the young chicks set up immediately in a brooder, where they will stay for two to three weeks, depending on conditions. Key issues in the brooder are bedding, space, heat, access to water and feed and predator control. Loss in the brooder is not uncommon and can occur suddenly. Some losses are due to poor conditions during shipping and can not be predicted or avoided on your end. If you see more than 8% loss during brooding, you must trouble shoot your brooder situation.
Feed may be purchased as ready-made “chick starter” from the local farm store or mixed with a ration by your local feed mill. Note that a generic chick starter in a bag will probably have antibiotics and other medications in it. If you’d like to raise your birds “chemical free” you will have to avoid medicated feeds and use alternatives (such as vinegar in the water) to keep the chicks thriving. A clean brooder set-up is the key to keeping little chicks healthy; medications only mask poor management. Game bird or waterfowl feed generally is not medicated and can be used if desired.
Some like to feed baby chicks more finely ground feed, but this is not essential. Poultry feed generally contains corn, roasted soymeal, sometimes oats or wheat, another protein source such as fish or crab meal, calcium and minerals. Soybeans MUST be roasted, as raw soy contains an enzyme that inhibits protein absorption and will kill chickens.
Those desiring to sell organic poultry must feed certified organic feed. Check with regional feed mills for availability of organic poultry feed, which will not contain any medications and is made with organically grown grains.
A broiler will eat 9-15 lbs. of feed during its lifetime. Although broilers love to eat bugs and grass while on pasture, the amount of each of these they eat does not significantly affect the volume of feed they consume.
When out on pasture, it has been found that if feed is allowed to run out during the evening hours (vs. keeping a full feed tray 24-hours per day) the birds will have fewer problems with legs and heart attacks (common in confinement systems).
There are a variety of feeder designs for pastured birds. Some use traditional feeders that can be purchased at farm supply stores. Inexpensive feeders can be constructed by cutting lengths of six-inch PVC in half lengthwise and stabilizing with end caps or attaching together into “feed- rafts” for large groups of birds.
On the Pasture
Chicks are moved out to pasture pens anywhere from two to three weeks of age. The exact timing depends on the time of year and weather conditions. Young chicks can do very well if protected, but will die from exposure if wet and cold. Some producers wrap pasture pens with tarps or plastic early and late in the year in order to extend the season.
It is critical to keep water in front of the birds at all times, but especially in hot weather. Some producers put two watering systems into each pen in case of failure. Others check pens every hour, or several times a day, to be sure waterers are working properly in extreme heat. There is nothing worse than to put a lot of time and care into birds and then find that one broken hose on a hot day has caused several of them to expire.
A general rule of thumb is that each bird will need 1.5 sq. ft. of space in a pen as it matures. This means that you can put 100 three-week-old chicks into a 10 x 10 ft. pen, but when they are bigger, at five to six weeks of age, you will want to move 25-50 birds into another pen so that they have room to grow.
A day-range system can plan on about .66 sq. ft. of housing per bird, as the birds generally only come into the pen in the heat of the day and at night. In a day-range the birds will not move far to find food and water; for this reason many recommend keeping nourishment inside the day-range shelter.
Most producers will run numerous batches of birds per season, allowing a succession of chicks to run through the brooder and then out into the pens. You can have chicks growing up in the brooder while your previous batch is finishing out on the pasture. Once the pasture birds go to processing, chicks can move right in from the brooder. Depending on the area of the country you live in, the season starts anywhere from February to May, with those lucky producers in Texas, New Mexico and other far southern states able to run batches year round.
One reason large-scale commercial poultry producers have moved their birds inside is to avoid problems with predators. It seems that just about every predator on earth loves chicken. In the brooder, rats can be a problem; out on pasture, everything from skunks to raccoons to weasels and dogs to hawks, eagles and owls will try to eat your flock. Throughout the book you will read suggestions in dealing with many of these. A bad predator problem has shut many a pastured poultry producer down. You must learn to act decisively and quickly when dealing with predators.
Most broilers are ready to process at eight weeks of age, and will be four to six pounds processed weight. In ideal situations they will grow faster, and some producers regularly process at seven weeks. Others like slower growing or larger birds and will wait till birds are nine to ten weeks old. Once you explore your market and know the size bird you are aiming for, you can plan accordingly. Remember that these birds are growing fast. A week in a broilers life is a long time, so you must plan your chick order dates carefully to be sure that you have time to deal with processing on the exact dates the chickens are ready, seven to nine weeks later.
It is important to set up processing arrangements before you order your first birds. Finding someone to process your chickens (or especially ducks or geese) can be very challenging in some areas, as most of the small processing plants that were plentiful in days gone by are now shut down. You may have luck finding a list of processing plants at your State Department of Agriculture; otherwise, you will have to ask around to find where you can take birds to be processed.
If you plan to take birds across state lines to be sold, they must be processed in a USDA-inspected processing plant. In general, those selling at a farmers market or to stores or restaurants must have birds processed at a state (or federal) inspected plant. Some states allow limited on-farm processing for direct-to-consumer sales. Check with others in your area or your state Department of Agriculture to find out the details of your state laws.
As stated earlier, by the time you get to this point you should already know who is buying your chickens. Many established pastured poultry producers ask customers to pre-order birds at the beginning of the season; some even ask for a deposit with each order. This helps a producer plan on the number of birds to raise in a given year and relieves market pressure later in the season when in the thick of production.
If raised correctly, the fine taste of a pasture-raised bird will “sell itself.” Successful producers create brochures highlighting their farm story and the qualities of their poultry products. Many find that web sites are helpful to encourage sales. Some producers ship poultry nationwide to take advantage of distant markets.
One key to a successful business is the proper pricing for your product. It is important to learn this lesson early. Understanding the issue of pricing may present a huge learning curve for anyone that has not approached it before- and it can easily destroy any unaware entrepreneur. It is a basic truth that if you sell something for less than it costs you to raise it, you will LOSE MORE MONEY WITH EACH ADDITIONAL PIECE YOU SELL. This is counter-intuitive to some, they think selling more of something is always a good thing. If you have not figured how much it costs to raise up your birds, and added in amounts to cover your labor and a little profit, it is not worth raising poultry to sell unless you are just doing it for fun and don’t care if you loose money. Even if this last sentence describes you, you should be aware that in charging low prices, and possibly undercutting your neighbor who is trying to make a living selling their chickens, you are not only loosing your own shirt, but possibly helping other producers to loose theirs too, which isn’t very neighborly.
One of the reasons many have found success with pastured poultry is that they enjoy the opportunity to grow high-quality food and to talk to their neighbors and members of their community about how that food is grown. Your relationships with your customers are key and should not be taken for granted. In this world where fewer and fewer have direct connections to farms, the option of buying from you can be a very important experience for your customers. Make the connection a strong one and you will never regret it.
For more information, purchase “Raising Poultry on Pasture” edited by Jody Padgham.
Also, join, APPPA! Regular information-filled newsletters, and a dynamic electronic listserve to answer all your pastured poultry questions. Join today!