Insect Consumption and Optimum Utilisation of Pastures

These chapters in 'Pastured Poultry Nutrition and Forages' from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) cover insects and other animals as forages and pasture management tips.
calendar icon 18 October 2013
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Insects are an important source of nutrition for birds worldwide. Insects and other invertebrates provide around four times more usable protein and energy for chickens and other poultry by weight, compared to poultry feed rations (Bassler, 2005). Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other species of fowl will greedily consume every insect on pasture, as these are excellent sources of protein and energy (see Table 1).

Table 1. Protein and energy value of common pasture invertebrates
Invertebrae Type% Protein% Fat
Cricket 6.7 5.5
Grasshopper 14.3 3.3
Large spider 63 10
Source: National Research Council. 1996.

Poultry consumption of insects not only promotes the health of the flock while saving on feed costs, but also helps the pasture, as many insects feed on and negatively impact high-value forage species.

Crickets and grasshoppers especially can be problematic. Pastured poultry turns this pest problem into a valuable asset in much the same way that brush and weeds despised by cattle ranchers are valued by goat farmers. On the author’s farm (Across the Creek Farm), the summer of 2012 was one of the most brutal on record for the county in Northwest Arkansas. The second record-breaking drought in a row, with barely a drop of rain over a period of months, left pastures in the county in a poor state. Then the grasshopper population exploded. It was all over the news: stories of hay fields, gardens, and lawns being plagued by the hoppers.

The author's layers and broilers gorged themselves on the pests. Feed consumption dropped quite a bit, without a drop in production from the birds. As a bonus, the birds were getting forages that they did not normally touch, like barnyardgrass, into them because the grasshoppers were eating these undesirable plants and then getting gobbled up by the hens and broilers. It did not take long before grasshoppers became pretty scarce in the pastures. At least, there is an upside to droughts.

The best way to increase the population of insects in your pastures is to improve the quality of the forages in your fields. The denser and more diverse the pasture sward, the greater the quantity and diversity of insects the birds have for foraging.

It is worth noting that insects are not the only animals that poultry relish. Other invertebrates such as worms, spiders, and ticks and even vertebrates like snakes, lizards, amphibians and mice are fair game if the birds can catch them.

Utilising Native Pastures

The most profitable strategy for utilising forages often means using those that are already established. With the host of challenges that face a pastured poultry operation, especially new operations, spending money on planting forages may not make economic sense. Seed costs can be significant, especially for smaller farms, and a farmer would do well to assess current pasture resources before expending cash.

An existing pasture often has a large community of plants that are already established and have survived on your farm at no cost and with minimal attention. With an investment of a little bit of management, such as the addition of the nutrients from pastured poultry manure, existing forages will likely pay dividends by offsetting feed cost. Additionally, the soil more than likely has a diverse seedbank that was decades in the making, full of new species that will appear and thrive when conditions become favorable. Rotational grazers of all animals are very familiar with the phenomenon of reaping what they do not sow when pasture management takes priority.

Joel Salatin, the modern-day grandfather of pastured poultry, has this to say about native pastures: “Every geographic region has its native forage species. I have not found any forages that the chickens dislike. Whether it is fescue or lovegrass, the height and density seem far more important. In areas where grass grows sparsely, it may be necessary to move the pen more frequently to ensure that the birds get enough to eat. The critical factor is that it be fresh, short, and preferably composed of many different species so that the birds have a great variety.” (Salatin, 1996)

A diverse pasture, containing a mix of cool- and warm-season grasses, legumes, and broad leaves of different heights and stages of maturity, gives the poultry a constantly changing 'salad-bar' (a term coined by Joel Salatin) of forages to choose from.

He wrote: “I hesitate to rank the species in order of preference because someone may then try to provide only the most desirable thing. Actually, in their first few minutes of grazing, some birds eat fescue and others eat seeds and others eat clover leaves, just as people would pick over a salad bar that would contain ‘favorites’ and ‘I need to eat this because it’s good for me’ items.” (Salatin, 1996).

One of the greatest things about utilising existing pasture, besides the fact that it is essentially free, is that it requires little maintenance; there is no liming or fertilising needed. The existing plant community is hardy and well-adapted to the current environment. The pasture should only respond positively to the manure and activity of a well-managed pastured poultry operation.

Establishing Poultry Pastures

Despite the economic sense of utilizing existing pasture resources for pasturing poultry, there are situations where establishing pastures for poultry makes sense. Perhaps land is being converted from cropland or forest to pasture, or the current pastures are filled with weeds and brush without any real value for poultry.

In this case, the following advice for establishing a poultry-friendly pasture may be of help: "Oats and peas sown together very thinly with a liberal seeding of red clover and a very little rape make a good combination. The oats and peas furnish a rapid growth of green feed. Much of it will get tramped down and some go to seed, but will serve to protect the clover and the rape, which will make good feed late in summer and fall. Three pecks of oats, two of peas, a pound of rape and five quarts of red clover seed make a good proportion for sowing an acre. The oats and peas should be first harrowed in deeply, then the clover and rape sown mixed and lightly scratched in. (Kains, 1920)

Protecting Pasture from Poultry

While the benefits of poultry on pasture have been discussed at length, it is worth ending with a caution to the producer about the damage that poultry can do to pasture.

Poultry production can be seen as a neutral tool for pasture management: the birds can either improve or destroy pasture health.

The keys to maintaining healthy pastures are to move the birds often and to watch the condition of the pasture. If possible, avoid grazing pastures when they are wet and the soils are at their weakest. Laying hens, with their constant scratching, and heavy birds, such as mature turkeys, are hardest on pasture. Additionally, if broilers are left too long in one spot, they can put so much manure on the ground that the soil becomes too rich and “burns” plants trying to grow there.

Many pastured poultry farms use designated areas as 'sacrifice paddocks' during the winter months, wet season or other periods when the forages are dormant and vulnerable.

Observation and common sense go a long way in keeping pastures healthy and making sure that your pastures will be providing forages for your flocks for years to come.

October 2013

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