Sustainable Poultry: Production Overview - Part III

By Anne Fanatico, NCAT Agriculture Specialist - This is the third of three article's from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) which provides information on raising poultry on pasture, including descriptions of production systems and facilities, as well as detailed nuts-and-bolts information.
calendar icon 25 April 2004
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Sustainable Poultry: Production Overview - Part III - By Anne Fanatico, NCAT Agriculture Specialist - This is the third of three article's from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) which provides information on raising poultry on pasture, including descriptions of production systems and facilities, as well as detailed nuts-and-bolts information.

This discussion of the "nuts and bolts" of outdoor poultry production applies to any of the production systems discussed above, and many comparisons will be made to confinement production in the conventional poultry industry. It is important for range poultry producers to know the facts of confinement production. For one thing, that knowledge will help in their marketing of alternative poultry products. Also, much of the conventional information is "cross-over," applying to range systems as well.


Poultry housing should provide protection from cold, rain, wind, and hot sun, and provide heat during brooding. Housing should also provide protection from predators, as well as good ventilation to remove ammonia, humidity, and carbon monoxide. Many innovative housing designs are used in range poultry production.

There are many types of field pens. Roofing is flat, peaked, domed, or hooped. Building materials include wood, PVC, rebar, electrical conduit, and bamboo. Portable and stationary housing designs and materials also vary tremendously. The "best" type of construction and material may depend on your skills (e.g., whether you can weld). There are both floored and floorless designs. Some have multiple popholes; others have entire sides that open up. Housing usually provides at least 1 square foot per bird, with the birds spending much of the day outside in good weather. Building materials need careful consideration for certified organic production; no treated wood can come in contact with the animals.

Most portable housing needs to be staked or weighted down in strong winds. Insulation may be needed in roof and side walls in cold areas. Roosts will help keep layers clean and dry.

Multi-use housing is preferred by producers with diversified farms. A poultry hoophouse can also make a good shade hut for sheep or winter storage for hay. Andy Lee uses greenhouse bows and a 22-mil woven poly cover with chicken wire on the ends. Some hoophouses are designed to use solar energy in winter. For example, Joel Salatin uses double layers - a shade cloth and a clear tarp. The shade cloth can be removed to make a solar greenhouse during winter. Salatin uses a hoophouse made with steel bows from the Brower Company (26). Tim Shell, on the other hand, saves money by using a single white 20- mil woven polytarp from Northern Greenhouse (27). It provides sufficient shade in summer but lets in light in winter. Shell (17) can provide hoophouse construction plans. Shell has started using an 8' x 16' Winkler hoophouse kit (28). He believes it's the most economical option (under $1,000), and says it can be assembled in two hours.

Salatin Hoophouse.
The conventional poultry industry has done many housing studies. Although these were done with confinement production in mind, the information is useful for range poultry housing. Environmental control may become a useful feature in range housing. Conventional textbooks such as Commercial Chicken Production Manual (29) and Extension materials describe the use of insulation in roofing material, ventilation in houses, and convection cooling from air flow. Good ventilation provides fresh air while avoiding unwanted drafts. Natural ventilation is used in range poultry housing; open-sided housing and ridge vents allow heat to escape from the roof. Forced-air ventilation is common in the conventional industry, using fans, air intakes, and exhausts, often combined with evaporative cooling pads. Air is exchanged every minute in a house with forced-air ventilation.

See ATTRA's Range Poultry Housing for more details on design, construction plans, building materials, and alternative wood treatment recipes. Most designs are movable. Small-scale poultry production books such as A Guide to Raising Chickens (2) have details on small stationary house construction (the familiar chicken coop).


Natural lighting is typically used for broilers in range poultry production. In contrast, the conventional industry uses constant artificial light (24 hours a day) or intermittent lighting to encourage feed consumption. Light intensity is kept fairly low - 0.35 to 0.50 footcandles - for broilers, to reduce activity, piling, and cannibalism. The light level is just enough for a person to read by.

Turkeys originated in North America (Mexico) and therefore are sensitive to daylength (photoperiod). They are stimulated by increasing day length to reproduce in the spring. Decreasing daylength stimulates them to replace their feathers (molt) in the fall in order to have a new set for the winter.

Chickens originated near the equator where the photoperiod varies little year-round. They are not as photosensitive as turkeys but they are still somewhat so. Both conventional and many range chicken egg producers use artificial lighting to stimulate production during days of declining natural light, resulting in a more constant supply of eggs. Electrical, solar, and batterypowered lights are used. Extension publications and small-scale poultry production books are good sources of information on proper lighting for pullet and layer development. The wavelength of the light is related to bird activity. Long wavelengths (red, orange, and yellow light) stimulate sexual activity, which can lead to aggression. Fluorsecent lighting is short wavelength lighting and does not stimulate sexual activity; incandescent lighting is long wavelength lighting.


Litter dilutes manure and absorbs moisture, provides cushioning and insulation for the birds, and captures nutrients for spreading where you want them. Litter also protects wooden flooring from getting wet and rotting, and is sometimes used directly on the ground of floorless buildings. However, handling manure and litter by hand is very labor-intensive.

The conventional poultry industry uses rice hulls and pine shavings for litter. Other materials include recycled newspaper treated with boric acid, dried wood fiber, peanut hulls, and chopped pine straw. Small-scale poultry producers use other materials as well and have identified some problems: hay and straw become slimy; sawdust gets eaten by chicks; wood chips are costly, and hardwood shavings can put splinters in chickens feet.

In the conventional industry, litter is spread 2 to 4 inches deep and maintained at 20 to 30% moisture. There is a 10-day rest period between flocks. Houses are cleaned out or at least decaked once per year. After removal from the house, litter is usually spread on pasture. Some range poultry producers are interested in the "good" microbes that may be present in litter and help induce immunity in birds, particularly during brooding. They do not clean out litter, and may depend on "bioprocessing" inside the house to digest and keep it at a manageable level.

To stimulate bioprocessing, producers encourage birds to scratch up and aerate bedding , often throwing in whole grains to encourage more scratching. According to Salatin, at a density of five square feet per bird, the bedding is fluffed and tilled up as fast as the birds manure. it does not cap or cake. Broilers are not as active in scratching up litter as older birds, and so rototilling may be needed. Also, moisture from water leaks can cap bedding. Using portable roosts inside can help even out the deposition of manure. Heat from bioprocessing is an advantage in winter housing. Biodynamic additives or EM (Effective Micro-organisms) have been added to poultry litter to enhance bioprocessing and reduce ammonia. Call ATTRA for more information on EM or see .

Shell considers deep litter an opportunity for good manure stewardship, especially during the winter months when there is no growth of pasture, and nutrients from manure would be lost by being washed away or volatilized. Shell is interested in capturing the nutrients in poultry manure in a "carbon bank" and "investing" or spreading them on the farm where needed. Carbon helps absorb excess nitrogen. Litter from the houses has valuable nutrients and is spread on pastures or collected for gardens. Shell recommends a diverse mix of bedding materials: wood chips, leaves, sawdust, planer shavings, corn fodder, ground corn cobs, soybean stubble, hay chaff, spoiled hay, straw, peanut hulls. He removes litter infrequently, only once every couple of years.

Litter can also be composted after removal from the house. Composting will reduce odors and pathogens and improve the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. According to ATTRA Technical Specialist Steve Diver, it also makes stable humates that may be less vulnerable to leaching. Composting litter is sometimes combined with offal from processing or mortalities; however, scavenging wildlife may interfere. ATTRA has information on farm-scale composting available upon request.


While portable electric net fencing can be convenient and versatile, learning how to use it requires a significant time investment. It is important to mow the ground underneath the electric fence, or keep sheep or other ruminants there to graze beneath it, so that the growing forage doesn't short out the fence. Having the bottom of the netting close to the ground will help keep small birds in, but it also makes the fence more likely to short out. Shell recommends a very hot fence and repeated testing. Train young birds with a small-mesh netting before switching to the lighter, larger-holed netting. Poultry need training because their feathers help insulate them from shock.

Stray dogs are not always deterred by netting, because they may jump over before they realize what it is. Wildlife are more cautious. Electric netting can actually "train" the predators to avoid it.

Two companies that make electric netting include Premier (30) and Kencove (31). Some producers prefer to buy the charger from Premier . Shell recommends the Intellishock 42b portable solar charger - and the netting from Kencove. Compass Fencing and Grazing Systems (32) offers a range of poultry netting. Electric netting usually comes in 150 to 165-foot rolls and costs about $1 per foot. Netting may last two to five years.

Check the following features when choosing netting:

  • The mesh spacing should be close enough to keep young birds in. A large-holed mesh can be used for larger birds.
  • Posts with pins for treading-in are easy to place in the ground.
  • Dry soils require a positive/negative charge.
  • Good service by the supplier is important.

Shell is also pioneering the use of non-electric netting. He uses a plastic netting that is cheaper than electric and easier to use; there's no need to learn electric fencing technology and no need to mow under the netting to prevent shorting out. The grass growing up just improves the seal. Tenax Corp. (33) is a supplier. Layers and turkeys may escape over fencing. Turkeys, especially heritage breeds, may fly over fivefoot- high fences. Therefore producers usually clip their wings by cutting several primary flight feathers.


Perimeter fencing in extensive systems is usually for the sake of the ruminants and is built to keep them in and predators out. Intensive poultry systems also use perimeter fencing; it may be netting or another type of fence. Producer Jim Hawthorne (34) in Missouri uses net fencing in combination with three strands of electric wire.

Robert Plamondon's fencing is unusual: he uses only electric wires. "The best kind of fence," he says, "is going to depend on your goals, your land, and even your personal idiosyncrasies." He designs his fences to keep predators out, not chickens in. "A fence that 'leaks' chicken is not a big deal to me". He uses one electric wire at 5" off the ground to enclose chickens. He says that some chickens will still hop over the wire or duck under unless you go to a lot of trouble to eliminate high and low spots on pasture, but they do not fly over the electric wire. A second wire 10 inches off the ground will keep most raccoons out. .The predators content themselves with trying to pick off hens that have strayed past the perimeter, and stop chasing them if they recross the wire". He prefers low, step-over fences for ease of access. Fencing chickens out of a garden area involves different strategies. To exclude ruminants from poultry feeding areas, he puts the lowest wire 12 inches off the ground to keep sheep and goats out. Hens can come and go since they duck under wire if it is higher than their back.

Plamondon uses aluminum wire instead of polywire or steel. Aluminum is very visible to predators and to him. Polywire may be better if you need to rewind it back onto reels when moving fence. Plamondon just drags his wire when moving.


Chickens obtain limited nutrients from forage, while ducks, geese, and turkeys obtain more. Poultry can also obtain nutrients from seeds and live protein such as worms and insects - even mice and small snakes. However, when formulating rations, it may be best to assume zero contribution from pasture . it is difficult to know what nutrients will be supplied and in what amount. Winter production means less live protein on pasture.

Poultry do not graze in a particularly orderly fashion. It is important for forage to be young instead of long and rank. According to one producer, "chickens ignore vegetation over four inches high - all they will do is trample and poop on it". Salatin stresses the importance of ruminant grazing to keep the pasture short (about 3 inches high), instead of mowing, which can leave sharp points that hurt chickens. feet. Producers who combine range poultry with ruminant production usually choose their forages and manage their pasture to meet the nutritional needs of the cattle, sheep, or goats. Many variables come into play in determining the "best forage" for your operation: soil type, pH, amount of rainfall, field fertility, crop history, type of tillage for seeding (broadcast over existing pasture for improvement, or complete tillage), size of pasture, and other planned uses of pasture, such as grazing other livestock or making hay. Contact your local Extension service to discuss options.

A perennial polyculture pasture with multispecies legumes and grasses may be ideal. Pasture swards of diverse species are the most reliable for a wide range of conditions, from high moisture in spring and fall to the hottest and driest days in summer. A common recommendation with ruminants is .graze what you have. instead of re-seeding. This can also apply to systems that include poultry. Polyculture pastures are not created overnight.they require a few years of fairly intensive management.and they require ruminant grazing. The composition of the pasture gradually changes and improves.

There is some interest in specialty pastures for poultry. In the U.K., for instance, there are special pasture seed mixes available for sheep/poultry pastures. Much of the research done in the early- to mid-1900s on feeding forages to poultry is still applicable today. Plamondon summarizes his readings: "As for re-seeding, everything I've read points to oats as the ideal cool-season green feed, while ladino clover, alfalfa, and to a lesser extent other clovers are better summer feeds. My own experience with oats has been very favorable. Oats seem to do very well when broadcast by hand. (35). .In Ohio Experiment Stations in the '40s and '50s, ladino clover and alfalfa remained palatable throughout the summer if mowed occasionally. In fact, the Experiment Station published special rations for pullets on firstclass pasture, with a protein level of only 10%. Pasture supplied the rest. (Note that this was growing pullets, not modern broilers. Results with laying hens were also pretty good, though). (36).

According to Aaron Silverman in Oregon, poultry prefer broadleaf plants over grasses. He integrates poultry with vegetable production and runs poultry on the cover crops. He has found New Zealand white clover ideal, although expensive. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, is low growing, and does not require mowing. It develops deep roots that allow it to stay green during long dry summers in the West, but it does not form a dense mat that resists removal for planting crops or limits diversity in a pasture. And, he says, the chickens love it (37).

Grasses such as perennial and annual ryegrass and sudan grass can stay green in the long dry summers in the West, but poultry may not like them as much. Producers are also interested in millet and sorghum for their drought tolerance.

Dry pasture is an issue for western producers. Plamondon in western Oregon recommends mowing dry pasture to turn dead grass into mulch and reduce fire danger. He also finds that if the grass gets too tall, his hens do not range much. They "only move through a few tunnels through the grass to get to the feeders and waterers" (38). He has found that throughout the summer, his eggs retain the deep orange yolks characteristic of birds on fresh pasture. He believes the layers find dandelions and other deeprooted plants that stay green all summer. He is reluctant to place field pens on dry pasture because he.s concerned that birds with only dry forage to eat could lead to crop impaction. Some producers in the West raise birds on irrigated pasture.

Shade is an important consideration when pasturing birds. Some certification programs in Europe require shade, such as tree and bush plantings, for bird welfare and to integrate the poultry building into the landscape. Tall crops such as corn or sunflowers could also be planted to provide shade and additional feed. .Agroforestry. combines agriculture with forestry production. For example, woody ornamentals (dogwood, curly willow) could be planted for multiple uses, including shade. An orchard could be an ideal setting.

Special shade units are built on range in France.

One U.S. producer provides shade with a portable hade/water wagon. A hay wagon is covered with a tarp, and waterers, supplied by a 200- gallon stock tank, are hung from the corners. Birds lounge under the wagon during hot weather and eat from movable feeders placed close by. The wagon is moved every couple of days to keep manure from collecting (39). The producer finds that the birds like the shade so much that it.s hard to get them back into the house at night in the summer.

Fire ants on pasture can be a concern in the South, especially for field pens. However, one producer actually used layers to control the problem: "We put a cage of our Rhode Island Reds on our mounds and they dig them out and eat them with great gusto. The next day we move our cages and there's a hole where the ants used to be and they've never returned" (40). ATTRA has a publication on sustainable fire ant control.


Feed and water delivery are important parts of a range poultry production system, and depending on design, they can be automated to save labor. It can be difficult to automate feed and water delivery in portable housing or pens, but hauling five-gallon buckets of water and feed gets old. Some other considerations for delivery systems include adequate access of birds to feed and water, automation, regulating water temperature, sanitation, and avoiding spillage.

To improve their birds. access to waterers, French producers in the Label Rouge program keep water and feed both in the house and at locations on pasture. That way the birds do not have to run back to the house between mouthfuls of feed to get a drink. Water intake can be a limiting factor in bird growth. If birds cannot drink, they will not eat.

Water availability and delivery should be planned for weather extremes. Birds will not last long in hot weather without plenty of water. Water needs increase dramatically in hot weather and may increase the producer's workload. Two rules of thumb are: water consumption increases about 3.5% for each degree of temperature over 70°F, and water consumption over a 24-hour period is about equal to the age in days multiplied by 0.18 ounces. Because of the inactivity of Cornish cross, it is especially important not to place water too far from them in hot weather. Birds need less water in cold weather, but freezing can make winter watering a problem. Ideal water temperature is 70°F. Very hot water (above 86°F) or very cold (below 40°F) will decrease intake and slow growth.

Water quality should be tested regularly. Water from wells may have high nitrate levels and high bacterial counts because of runoff from fertilized fields. If the water is hard, minerals may cause blockages in valves and pipes. Types of waterers include:

  • Founts
  • Hanging waterers (bell-shaped domes or "plasson" waterers)
  • Trough waterers
  • Cup and nipple waterers

Pan-and-jar waterers are a type of fount used for baby chicks in the brooder. Larger founts are used with older birds. Aaron Silverman uses a type of bell waterer (.low profile.) that even very young chicks can drink from (41). Bell waterers are often used in field pens. A five-gallon bucket is set on top of the pen with a gravity line leading to the bell waterer inside, which should be hung so that the rim is at the bird.s shoulder height. As birds grow bigger, they may bump the bell waterers and slosh water out. Shell recommends keeping the water level in the bell low and filling the ballast completely to reduce sloshing. One bell waterer may be enough to supply all the birds in the pen during most of the year, except in the heat of summer.

However, since the lines can get clogged, having more than one waterer is an important safeguard. During the hottest summer weather, field pen producers must usually refill the fivegallon buckets several times a day. One producer places feedbags over the tops of the buckets to block the sun and lower the water temperature.

Trough waterers use a suspension valve or float valve to turn the water off and on.

Brower Company (26) supplies many founts, hanging waterers, and trough waterers.

To increase automation of water delivery on pasture, water can be delivered via plastic water lines from a stock tank. Piped water saves labor and helps ensure a constant water supply. Delivery can be by gravity or by pressure from pumps. Bell waterers have plastic valves and cannot handle household pressure, but some trough waterers have float valves and can handle higher pressure (42). Above-ground systems like this can be dragged when pens are moved; however, they are subject to freezing in winter. Robert Plamondon and Karen Black in Oregon describe the system they use thus:

Our broiler watering system is fed by a 500-gallon stock tank at the top.of our property. Half-inch black poly tubing is the main line, fed via a bulkhead connector. We have t.s at intervals, with a valve and a garden hose adapter. We run garden hose from the mainline to the clusters of houses, and there is usually an irrigation distribution adaptor to feed 2 or 4¼" drip tubing to the houses. The bell waterer tubing is just large enough to slip over the ¼" tubing; the Little Giant waterers get a barbed-to-pipe thread adapter to connect them to tubing. (43)

Cup waterers and nipple waterers have the potential to automate water delivery in a house and can work off low-pressure gravity. Cup waterers are small drinking cups that are filled by a suspension valve or a trigger operated by the bird. Nipple waterers are also operated by the bird. Cup and nipple waterers reduce water use by preventing spillage, which also keeps the litter drier. Cup waterers and nipple waterers are placed at regular intervals on a water line and put water in easy reach; birds have only to move one or two body-lengths to reach it. Nipples should be placed at the bird.s eye level. The height of nipple waterers needs to be adjusted as the bird grows; cup waterers are more forgiving and do not need to be adjusted as often (42).

Tim Shell has been a leader in using cup and nipple waterers for range poultry production. Since his house is stationary, it is especially important to avoid sloshing and the wet spots that would contribute to capping of his litter. Shell puts a 55-gallon drum in the house in the shade. He plumbs it with a float valve and gravity-feeds without a regulator. He uses a subsoiler to bury the black plastic pipe to keep the water cool in summer, and the reserve of water cools at night to lower the water temperature during the day.

I would recommend the nipples in two tenfoot joints hung down the inside of the house about two feet in from the walls. They come pre-installed on ¾ inch pvc pipe spaced 8" or 12" or 15" apart. I would go with the 8" and get the roaster nipple, it lets more water through. (17)

This would service 200 to 300 birds. He also uses courtesy waterers in the field. Shell has bought nipple waterers from Val Products (44) and G&M Sales (45); he has bought cup waterers from Georgia Quail Farm (46). Robert Plamondon stresses the importance of the reserve tank when using nipple waterers especially if using above-ground black tubing. The water heats up in the tubing and will burn birds. mouths unless it is first mixed with a reservoir of cool water. Plamondon is also interested in cooling water tanks with aluminized bubble wrap for insulation.

Commercial Chicken Production Manual recommends one bell waterer per 63 broilers (45 roasters), one eight-foot trough for 250 broilers (167 roasters), and one cup or nipple per 10 broilers (seven roasters) (29). Sanitizers are used in the conventional industry to keep water lines clean. According to the Ross Broiler Management Guide, the conventional poultry industry chlorinates at 1 to 3 ppm. Range poultry producers have tried apple cider vinegar, chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, and Shaklee.s Basic H to help limit algae growth in water buckets and tanks. Lids on buckets help keep out bird droppings, and screens filter out bugs and debris. Plamondon suggests making the buckets dark to prevent algal growth or wrapping them with aluminum foil and clear packing tape.

Types of feeders include:

Hand feeding

  • Shallow pans for brooding
  • Trough feeders
  • Hanging feeders
Automated feeding
  • Conveyor-and-pan
  • Trough-and-chain.

Hand feeding is labor-intensive. Shallow pans are needed for tiny chicks in the brooder; the lid of a cardboard box works fine. Trough feeders are long feeders that come in many sizes and styles. Some have flip-tops, others have a bar on top to unseat birds that try to roost on them (droppings would dirty the feed).

In field pens, 5-foot feed troughs are commonly used for 90 birds. Some producers fill the feeders twice per day toward the end of grow-out when birds are big (47). Those using field pens usually have to remove the feeder first to move the pen, adding additional labor, unless they are able to attach the feeders to the pens as "sidewall feeders".

According to Robert Plamondon, one problem with trough feeders is that you need several sizes for birds as they grow. It can be difficult to find large trough feeders. Brower (26) has vinyl feeders 4.5. long x 4. tall x 6. wide that hold 35 lbs., partially full. The old galvanized type can be found used (48). Kuhl Company (49) has both 50-pound and 300-pound-capacity shielded range feeders.

There are many possibilities for homemade trough feeders, such as recycled rain gutters with capped ends. Andy Lee cuts a 20-foot PVC well casing in half lengthwise; each side holds three 5-gallon buckets of feed and can serve 150 large broilers. Shell (17) offers the following recommendations for using PVC feeders: cut only onethird off the top of a 4-inch pipe, use anti-tip sticks, cap the ends, and drill half-inch weep holes at both ends to let rainwater out.

Using large bulk outdoor feeders can reduce labor. They are easier to fill because you can back a pickup to them and dump in feed. Some large feeders even have skids so they can be dragged. Plamondon's feeders hold two to four weeks' worth of feed - 550 lbs., delivered by truck to the field. Joel Salatin's feed sled holds 1 ton of feed.

Wet feed is a concern when feeding outdoors. If feed gets wet, it can harden and be difficult to remove. Some producers allow wet feed to freeze in winter and feed on top of it. Some bulk feeders come with rain shields. Plamondon uses old turkey range feeders with waterproof lids on top and rain shields above the pan. Similar feeders are made by Shenandoah (50). Rain shields can be made from light-gauge sheet metal. Shell doesn't worry about rain on the feed. He recommends regulating feeding so that there is only a 1% residue left daily. Since birds will be cleaning it up every day, it won.t have time to spoil. And he finds birds actually like wet feed (51).

Hanging feeders are traditionally tubes with a round base. Some tube feeders also have rain shields. Since hanging feeders are off the ground, they cannot be tipped over by the birds. An advantage of hanging feeders is that they can be lifted higher as the birds grow. Feeders should be at the top of the backs of the chickens to keep them from wasting feed by slinging it to the ground.

Feed wasted by spillage is common in feeders filled by hand; wind also blows fines out of the feeder. Feeders should be filled only halffull. If feed is spilled, encourage birds to clean up the residue by moving the feeder daily before the birds have a chance to dirty the feed on the ground with their manure (17). Adequate feeder space is important so that birds can get to the feed. According to Commercial Chicken Production Manual, birds need 2 inches of trough space each through the first 5 weeks, 3 inches to 7 weeks, and 4 inches beyond 7 weeks. For troughs that are accessible from both sides, divide the length requirement by two. When tube feeders are used, 20% less feeder space is needed than the above recommendations (29). Broiler breeders on a restricted diet require 6 inches per bird (52).

Make sure the feeder is large enough to hold the amount you need to feed daily. The conventional industry's rule of thumb for broiler feed consumption is 2 times the body weight: A 5- pound broiler eats 10 pounds of feed during its life. Broilers are generally full-fed - there is no restriction on the amount of feed they get. If you regularly allow the feeder to become empty, there may be a frenzy at feeding time. Hungry birds will climb over each other to get at feed, resulting in scratches that can get infected and need to be trimmed or discarded at processing (17). Since not all the birds will be able to eat at once, only the most aggressive will get enough feed, and growth will not be uniform. If feeders do not run empty, there is no frenzy and no need for all birds to have access at one time (53).

Some producers intentionally restrict feed because they are limiting growth (i.e., for broiler breeders). They have sufficient feeder space for all birds to eat at once. Shell makes a raft of PVC pipe feeders. If you are exclusion-feeding to keep ruminants out, make sure your whole flock can fit in the feed area. In his usual spirit of innovation, he has considered feeding pellets and whole grain in the grass.

Few U.S. range producers are using automated feed systems such as conveyor-and-pan and trough-and-chain. However, these feeders can provide a uniform distribution of feed throughout a house. They can be adjusted to the proper level as birds grow. In French free-range production, automated feeding is commonplace in stationary houses, and bulk feeders are also placed on pasture.

Feed should be used within four weeks of milling to prevent nutrients from deteriorating (2). Store feed off the floor and away from moisture. Many small-scale producers use clean plastic trash containers; larger producers may use bulk bins on wagons in the field. Stationary houses may use a feed bin on a pad.


Chicks need to be brooded after hatching to prevent chilling until they are fully feathered. They also need protection from predators. The temperature at the start of brooding is 95°F and is reduced by 5°F every week for 2 to 4 weeks. Books and Extension publications are excellent sources of general brooding information. After brooding, birds are moved out to pasture.

Brooding can be "cool-room" or "warmroom" Cool-room heats a localized area with heat lamps or a large pancake brooder. Warmroom heats an entire room with space heaters. The conventional industry often does "coolroom" brooding in a large house using pancake or infrared brooders; birds are confined with brooder guards or cardboard curbs. Pancake or infrared brooders are sometimes called "hovers". They are usually umbrella-shaped and use electric or gas heat. Most range poultry producers use the cool-room method.

Small-scale poultry producers brood in a variety of set-ups. Heat lamps are generally used above a box that confines the chicks close to the heat source and reduces drafts. Litter covers the floor. Sand can be used but is not useful for composting later as shavings are. The box is usually placed in an outbuilding. For more birds, more or larger lamps are used and the chicks are confined in a larger area such as a small brooding house. Some producers brood in a greenhouse. Plamondon has an interesting description on his website for an electric-lamp brooder in a wooden hover. It was developed in the 1940s by the Ohio Experiment Station and was popular for small commercial flocks.

Small-scale producers sometimes use brooder boxes. These are individual boxes that contain their own heating element, feeder, and waterer. Some are floor brooders that are placed on litter. Battery brooders are brooding boxes stacked on top of each other to save space. They have wire floors. Hatcheries such as Murray McMurray (54) sell brooder boxes and battery brooders. It may be possible to find older used battery brooders.

Salatin Brooder

After brooding, transition to the field is a concern. In the spring and fall, producers may brood birds up to three or four weeks before moving them to grass. In the summer, birds only spend a couple of weeks in the brooder and may not be fully feathered when they go to pasture. With field pens in particular, young birds can be chilled, especially by contact with wet ground.

Adaptations can be made to houses to ease the transition. Aaron Silverman in Oregon has built a run onto the side of his brooder house. A sheltered roosting compartment in a field pen or straw for extra warmth can be useful before releasing birds to pasture. Wire-floored sunporches were used in the past. Some were even positioned above the grass to allow the birds to eat some forage.

Total field brooding holds potential. Robert Plamondon believes that the potential exists to brood from day one in a portable brooder house in the field, if appropriate heat sources are used, such as small propane hovers. "The U.S. models are all enormous 500+ chick brooders, but the British Maywick brooders seem to be available in sizes that can be throttled back to a reasonable level of heat for a small flock. They have a U.S. distributor. (My experience with using hundreds and hundreds of feet of extension cords to run heat-lamp brooders has not been encouraging)" (55). David Schaffer (15) in Kansas has used a propane brooder in a hoophouse on pasture, but the propane lasts for only three days. After that, he uses body warmth of the flock for heat (500 chicks). The hoop house has flaps that enclose chicks but some wriggle through to the pasture at three days old. Advantages included not having to move chicks after brooding and putting chicks on pasture sooner. However, with field brooding it is more difficult to closely monitor the chicks.


Weather is the big variable for outdoor poultry operations. Year-round production systems can be planned for hot summers, cold winters, and prolonged periods of wet ground. However, seasonal production systems provide less shelter and are more vulnerable to drastic, unexpected temperature swings, storms, and winds. Strong winds can chill birds and overturn pens and houses that aren.t staked down.


Range layers are often overwintered. Layers can handle cold weather fairly well as long as they are dry, but wet conditions are a problem. Some housing for range layers is heated in the winter, but unheated housing is also common, even in the North. Many producers rely on the heat that layers generate together at night. Field pens are generally not used for winter, but some producers have tried to winterize them for layers by wrapping plastic around the pens. Pens are hard to move in the snow and would require litter. Bales of hay can be added to enclosed housing to help insulate the birds. Temporary winter quarters can actually be built from straw bales.

Measures need to be taken to prevent water from freezing, and warming the water will help production. Birds may not drink water if it is very cold. Some producers are content with dumping a frozen bucket of ice out every morning and refilling it with fresh water. A heated metal platform can be used to warm the water; one producer recommends using a metal waterer rather than a plastic one because metal heats better. Heat cables or heater tape can also be used to keep water from freezing. Some producers do not provide water if there is clean snow.

Although the goal of seasonal producers may only be survival of the birds during winter, the goal of year-round producers is continued production. They want the birds to keep laying well. U.S. range producers usually do not raise broilers in winter, but there is interest in range production systems and housing that will allow year-round production.

Enclosed housing, such as hoophouses, is important to continue broiler production in winter. In the past, houses were designed with open ends in order to draw them together in a row in winter to make servicing multiple units easier during a time when birds do not venture outdoors as much. For areas with long winters, more floor space is required, since birds stay indoors. Some houses are designed to capture solar energy in winter. Bioprocessing litter can also add warmth.

Winter Production Issues

  • Birds do not have green forage and insects to eat in the winter but there are still advantages to outdoor access in winter, including exercise and fresh air. Birds may venture out in snow if it has a layer of straw or is beaten down by other animals.

  • Hauling thawed water through snowdrifts can be a problem for producers.

  • Frozen ground makes using net fencing difficult in winter; it gets hard to push the posts into the ground.

  • In unheated housing, eggs can freeze. Some producers collect every two hours to prevent freezing; some heat the nestboxes.

Wintering Case Study

Joel Salatin uses a stationary hoophouse for layers in the wintertime in Virginia. Although the 20. x 120. hoophouse is unheated, bioprocessing in the litter provides significant warmth. The temperature of the house reaches about 70°F even on cloudy winter days.


Predator control is an important consideration in range poultry production. Most predators are nocturnal (raccoon, opossum, weasel, owl, etc). Daytime predators are mainly stray dogs and hawks. It is important to identify the predator affecting your flock so you can control it. Nocturnal predators can be controlled by shutting the birds in houses at night, as long as the houses are predator-proof. During the day, stray dogs can be controlled by fencing. Other predator controls include moving the house frequently to keep predators off guard, grazing on shortgrass pasture which predators do not like to cross in the daytime, keeping housing away from wooded areas, keeping the housing close to your residence, grazing birds with cattle or other large animals, and using guardian animals. Flashing red lights mounted on posts have been developed by pheasant producers in Minnesota to discourage night-time predators. Robert Plamondon comments that, in his losses to predators, he has not noticed plumage color to be a factor (56).

However, there is no proven control for aerial predators such as hawks and other raptors during the day. Some producers have a lot of predator pressure and lose several birds per day to hawks; others lose only a few per year. Bald eagles wiped out a range turkey operation in Wisconsin; spectators came to view the eagles.

Young Cornish-cross broilers are not known for seeking shelter from raptors. Older roosters may be able to sound an alarm and teach young broilers to seek shelter. If the broilers seek shelter but cannot get there in time, wider doors or wider eaves on housing might help them. Tall crops like corn and sunflowers can also help. Breeds other than Cornish cross may seek shelter more readily. Young birds are sometimes kept in the safety of a field pen until they are larger and less likely to be preyed upon by raptors.

Other aerial predator controls include the use of overhead netting, like the type used for fruit trees; however, it is impractical in many range production systems. Producer Jim Hawthorne believes portable radios and realistic scarecrows are helpful. One Alabama producer uses low eaves on his house to deter hawks.panels at the bottom of the sides open like clamshells. Producers have even strung CDs to flash reflected light at raptors. Hawk control in the past included a trap on a post or an electric shock on top of a post. Today, it is likely to be illegal to trap hawks; check your state and local regulations first. You may be able to trap them in a leg trap without crushing the leg. (One producer recommends padding the jaws and welding a piece of iron to them so the trap does not close all the way.) Then you can haul the raptor to another location; however, hawks may return. Call the local USDA-APHIS office and ask for the local federal trapper. The trapper may have suggestions and can also remove the animals. Rodents such as rats may be a problem, especially in stationary houses. The space between the ground and a raised floor provides a darkened airspace and nesting sites. Make sure the floorspace is one foot or more above the ground so rodents do not feel protected (57).


Mortality can be high for beginning range poultry producers - as high as 30% - because of brooding problems, weather, crushing of birds when pens are moved, and predation. After a producer has several seasons of experience, mortality is much lower.


In addition to their needs for physical shelter and feed and water, poultry have behavioral needs that should be considered in production. These include eating, drinking, and foraging behaviors; social behaviors such as flocking, aggression, dominance, feather picking, and cannibalism; reproductive behavior; egg laying behavior, including timing of laying and nest-site selection; as well as dust bathing, pecking and scratching, and roosting (8).


Range poultry can provide supplemental income on a small scale. Many producers raise about 1,000 birds per year and report that they are easy to direct-market. You can get in with a low initial investment . under $1,000 if you find some of the processing equipment used or make it yourself. Most producers sell meat directly for about $2 per pound and are able to net about $2 to $3 per bird. When farmers start out with their first batch of birds, hourly earnings may be very low. However, as they gain experience and their efficiency increases, hourly earnings also increase. University of Wisconsin studies show an experienced farmer can earn nearly $10 an hour (58). Eggs provide a particularly good cash flow - you have something to sell every day.

For production budgets detailing income and expenses for both small and larger-scale production, see Growing Your Range Poultry Business: An Entrepreneur's Toolbox. In addition, the Toolbox can help you study the feasibility of a start-up or expanded enterprise or to plan a business such as a small processing plant. It takes you through a marketing plan, production plan, and using an income statement to determine whether your enterprise will be profitable, as well as a cashflow plan to determine whether you can afford to do it.


The title of this ATTRA series is Sustainable Poultry. Sustainable agriculture refers to agriculture that is environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just. Broad knowledge is needed for successfully raising small commercial flocks. The main considerations include:

  • Environmental. The re-integration of livestock with the land base is a key concept of sustainable agriculture. When feed is produced on the farm and manure recycled back to crop fields, nutrient cycles are closed.

  • Economic. You should be profitable unless you have planned for it to be a hobby or intentionally subsidize it from other farm operations; otherwise you will not remain in business and will not be able to make a positive impact on your community and environment.

  • Social. Agriculture is increasingly more consumer-oriented as more consumers make conscious choices about their food and how it is raised.


1) USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

2) Damerow, Gail. 1995. A Guide to Raising Chickens. Storey Communications, Pownal, VT. 341 p. Order from:
Storey Books, 4818 West Converter's Drive, Appleton, WI 54913, 800-441-5700. $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping

3) NCAT. 1999. Pastured Poultry Producers Speak Out. National Center for Appropriate Technology, Fayetteville, AR. 10 p.

4) Leeson, S. and J.D. Summers. 1991. Commercial Poultry Nutrition. University Books, Guelph, Ontario. p. 181

5) Sharpley, A.N. et al. 1999. Agricultural Phosphorus and Eutrophication. ARS-149. USDA ARS, Washington, DC. 37 p.

6) Daniels, Mike et al. 1998. Soil Phosphorus Levels: Concerns and Recommendations. SERA-17. University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, Fayetteville, AR.

7) Ensminger, M.E. 1992. Poultry Science. 3rd ed. Interstate Publishers, Inc., Danville, IL. 469 p.

8) Appleby, Michael C., Barry O. Hugher, and H. Arnold Elson. 1992. Poultry Production Systems: Behaviour, Management and Welfare. CAB International, Wallingford, Oxon, U.K. 238 p. 9) Joel and Teresa Salatin, Polyface Farms, Inc. Rt. 1, Box 281, Swoope, VA 24479 540-885-3590

10) Robert Plamondon 364775 Norton Creek Road Blodgett, OR 97326

11) Thear, Katie. 1997. Free-Range Poultry. Published by Farming Press Books, Ipswich, U.K. Distributed by Diamond Farm Enterprises, Alexandria Bay, NY. 181 p.

12) Salatin, Joel. 1993. Pastured Poultry Profits. Polyface, Swoope, VA. 330 p. Order from: The Stockman Grass Farmer P.O. Box 2300 Ridgeland, MS 39158-2300 800-748-9808 Book ($30 plus $4.50 s/h) Video ($50)

13) Egganic Industries 3900 Milton Hwy Ringgold, VA 24586 800-783-6344

14) Andy Lee Good Earth Publications 1702 Mountain View Rd. Buena Vista, VA 24416 540-261-8775 telephone and fax [email protected]

15) David Schafer and Alice Dobbs 760 SW 55th Ave. Jamesport, MO 64648 660-684-6035 [email protected] http://www.schaferfarmsnaturalmeats .com

16) Lee, Andy and Patricia Foreman. 2002. Day Range Poultry. Good Earth Publications, Buena Vista, VA. 308 p. (Order from author for $22.00 plus $4.00 shipping.)

17) Tim Shell 407 Mt. Solon Rd. Mt. Solon, VA 22843 540-885-4965 [email protected] $12.00 for book 18) Beck-Chenoweth, Herman. 1996. Free- Range Poultry Production and Marketing. Back Forty Books, Creola, OH. Order from: Back Forty Books 26328 Locust Grove Road Creola, OH 45622 [email protected] 740-596-4379 740-596-3079 fax $39.50 (plus $4.50 s/h)

19) Lee, Andy. 1998. Chicken Tractor. Straw Bale Edition. Good Earth Publications. Columbus, NC. 320 p. (Order from author).

20) Mollison, Bill. 1988. Permaculture: A Designer.s Manual. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia. 198 p.

21) Moore, Alanna. 1998. Backyard Poultry Naturally. Bolwarrah Press, Bolwarrah, Victoria. 151 p. (Also see website http:// COMMEGGS.htm).

22) Kip Glass 2169 North Farm Rd 71 Bois D.Arc, MO 65612 417-732-4122 [email protected]

23) McWilliams, John. 1993. Chickens in the garden: possibilities in pest control. Countryside & Small Stock Journal. September-October. p. 28-29.

24) Dr. Jim McNitt Small Farm Family Resource Development Center Southern University and A&M College Box 11170 Baton Rouge, LA 70813-0401 504-771-2262 504-771-5134 fax [email protected]

25) Clark, M. Sean and Stuart H. Gage. 1996. Effects of free-range chickens and geese on insect pests and weeds in an agroecosystem. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture. Vol. 11, No. 1. p. 39-47.

26) Brower Company P.O. Box 2000 Houghton, IA 52631 319-469-4141 800-553-1791 [email protected]

27) Northern Greenhouse Sales Box 42 Neche, ND 58265 204-327-5540 204-327-5527 fax Contact: Bob Davis

28) Winkler Canvas, Ltd. 204-325-9548 800-852-2638 204-325-5434 fax [email protected]

29) North, Mack O. and Donald Bell. 1990. Commercial Chicken Production Manual. 4th ed. Chapman & Hall, New York, NY. p. 470

30) Premier 2031 300th St. Washington, IA 52353 800-282-6631 800-346-7992 fax [email protected]

31) Kencove 334 Kendall Rd. Blairsville, PA 15717 724-459-8991 724-459-9148 Fax 800-536-2683

32)Compass Mountain Farm Compass Fencing and Grazing Systems Suttons Bay, MI 800-968-1778 [email protected] Contact: Maggie Gingras

33) Tenax Corp. 4800 E. Monument St. Baltimore, MD 21205 410-522-7000 office 800-356-8495 order line

34) Jim Hawthorne P.O. Box 214 Rayville, MO 64084 816-470-7000

35) Plamondon, Robert. 2001. Re-seeding and lime. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. February 21.

36) Plamondon, Robert. 2001. Re: Reseeding. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. August 7.

37) Silverman, Aaron. 2001. Re: Summer grass in Oregon. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. November 29.

38) Plamondon, Robert. 2001. Dry summer pasture. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. May 27.

39) McDonald, Peter. 2001. Re: Dayrange killing profits. Email posting to DayRangePoultry listserver. August 1.

40) Nameth, Marc. 2000. Re: Ants. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. September 16.

41) Silverman, Aaron. 2002. Re: Bell waterers. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. January 9.

42) Plamondon, Robert. 2002. Re: Bell waterers. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver.

43) Black, Karen. 2002. Re: Bell waterers. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. January 13.

44) Val Products P.O. Box 958 Lancaster, PA 17608 717-392-3978 717-392-8947 fax

45) G&M Sales 4562 South Valley Pike Harrison, VA 22801 800-296-9156 540-433-9156 540-433-4818 fax

46) Georgia Quail Farm (GQF Manufacturing Co.) P.O. Box 1552 Savannah, GA 31498 912-236-0651 912-234-9978 fax

47) Plamondon, Robert. 2000. Re: Feeder Space and Capacity. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. May 30.

48) Timothy Shell. 2001. Re: Broiler Feeders. Email posting to PasturedPoultry listserver. August 24.

49) Kuhl Corporation 39 Kuhl Road P.O. Box 26 Flemington, NJ 08822-0026 (908) 782-5696 Fax: (908) 782-2751

50) Shenandoah Manufacturing Co., Inc. 1070 Virginia Ave. Harrisonburg, VA 22802 800-476-7436 or 540-434-3838 800-434-3068 or 540-434-3068 fax [email protected]

51) Shell, Tim. 2001. Digest number 301. Email posting to DayRangePoultry listserver. September 19.

52) Black, Karen. 2001. Re: claw scratches. Email posting to PasturePoultry. May 11.

53) Plamondon, Robert. 2000. Re: Feeder Space and Capacity. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. May 30.

54) Murray McMurray Hatchery P.O. Box 458 191 Closz Drive Webster City, IA 50595 515-832-3280 800-456-3280

55) Plamondon, Robert. 2001. Re: Chickens on pasture.was coccidiosis. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. July 5.

56) Plamondon, Robert. 2002. Re: Need advice on which breed to start with. Email posting to PasturePoultry listserver. January 6.

57) Damerow, Gail. 1994. The Chicken Health Handbook. Storey Communications, Pownal, VT. 353 p.

58) University of Wisconsin.s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems 1450 Linden Drive University of Wisconsin Madison, WI 53706 608-262-5200 608-265-3020 fax briefs/057.html Email: [email protected]

59) American Pastured Poultry Producers Association P.O. Box 1024 Chippewa Falls, WI 54729 715-577-5966 (cell) Contact: Jody Padgham [email protected] Membership is $20 per year and includes newsletter.

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Source: National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) - February 2002
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