Why Raise Poultry on Pasture?

Advice on keeping free-range poultry from Terrell Spencer, NCAT Poultry Specialist.
calendar icon 21 September 2012
clock icon 6 minute read
By: Banrie

For many beginning farmers, poultry may be the most logical livestock choice. Birds have several advantages — their small size, quick return on investment, and low cost of start-up, to name a few. Poultry can be the 'gateway' animal to raising larger stock like sheep, goats, hogs, or cattle.

Poultry are raised on the farm for many reasons – egg and meat production, insect and weed control, selling stock, and more. Due to the great variety of sizes, diets, foraging behaviors, and hardiness among poultry species, poultry can be advantageously incorporated into almost any existing livestock or horticultural enterprise.

The addition of poultry can diversify the farm's offerings to customers through meat and egg production. Poultry can provide insect and weed control, increase soil fertility, and serve as a marketing and educational tool for families.

NCAT Poultry Specialist, Terrell Spencer, owns Across the Creek Farm in Northwest Arkansas.
He and his family are raising 3,000 broilers and about 200 laying hens on pasture.
Photo: NCAT

Healthy Pastures, Healthy Flocks

Many producers are shocked to see just how much green forage the birds, especially chickens and turkeys, will eat when given the opportunity. Depending on its quality, pasture may replace up to 25 per cent of the feed consumed.

Birds raised on pasture are typically quite healthy. Their immune systems are generally strong because they are exposed to sunlight, fresh air, and frequent fresh pasture in a naturally sanitary environment. The use of antibiotics and other medications is rare in pastured poultry production.

When poultry graze on healthy pastures, gobbling insects and plants, the birds produce flavorful meat. The yolks of pastured eggs are usually dark orange and the fat deposited in the meat is often yellow, evidence of the elevated vitamin, mineral, and Omega-3 content of the meat. Many customers appreciate the humane practices of farmers who raise their chickens on pasture. All these factors mean that the pastured poultry farmer can charge a premium price.

It is not all a bed of roses with pastured poultry production. Hurdles include predators, processing, marketing, complex regulations, pasture seasonality, severe weather, product storage, and transportation.

Once you get past the learning curve, though, pasturing poultry can be a great system. With a virtually untapped market and a tremendously popular product, farmers who are able to meet the challenges can profit from the emerging pastured-poultry industry.

Resources for Raising Poultry on Pasture

Grazing Multiple Species on Your Farm

Grazing more than one livestock species on your farm will help you use more of the forages, improve the health and growth of your animals, and keep weeds (most of them, anyway) from taking over your farm.

Each species of livestock can improve the bottom line as you spread out cash flow. Poultry offers a fast return on investment and a steady income from batches of broilers or dozens of eggs. Larger livestock will convert low-cost forages into meat and can be raised and marketed with less daily labor.

Fencing is key

There are many benefits from grazing multiple species, but almost an equal number of challenges. The first is fencing. Keeping pastured poultry in pens means there is not (much) need for a good fence around the entire pasture. The pens serve as the fence. You will need a good fence if you are raising larger livestock. Sheep and goats need a hot electric fence, with at least three well-spaced strands. More is better.

Cattle are easier to fence but do not offer the weed control benefits of small ruminants unless they are taught (see www.livestockforlandscapes.org). Woven wire works well for sheep and goats; barbed wire does not. Existing fences can be modified to work for any animal, and if the existing fence is good, no modifications may be needed. It is helpful to show your fence to someone who raises the livestock you want to raise and get their assessment of any changes needed.

Cattle and sheep and goats may all 'play' with poultry pens. Having livestock in the pasture with the pens may add difficulty to chore time since the larger livestock are curious and will often get in the way as you service the pens. Some producers like to keep bulk feed handy in the pasture with the poultry pens. That would be risky if larger livestock is present because they may break in to the feed and overeat, with fatal consequences.

For all these reasons, it may be best to graze the ruminants in the pasture ahead of the poultry and follow with the poultry. The ruminants will graze the pasture down, removing tall forage so the pens are easier to move and poultry can graze the shorter, more tender forage.

Poultry will also scratch through manure pats, exposing internal parasite larvae to the drying effects of sunlight and heat and consuming some of them. Poultry will fertilize the pasture so that regrowth will be more nutritious for the ruminants when they return to graze. In this way, the ruminants prepare the pasture for the poultry and the poultry improve the pasture for the ruminants.

Free-range chickens are even easier to manage. Remember to protect their feed from the ruminants. Chickens will clean up any spilled feed and scratch through old hay piles, lessening waste on the farm.

Grazing multiple species of animals on your farm will help you control weed and grass growth, increase fertility on your pastures, and offer more products to improve your income.

September 2012

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