There is a continuously growing interest in the consumer market for grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free meat, whether it be chicken, beef, rabbit, or even venison. Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop are here with The New Livestock Farmer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) to discuss how farmers can most effectively tap into this daunting venture. They speak from experience about regulations and logistics, about the requirements of raising various animals, plus processing the meat and selling it. This detailed guide spans the market and will prove useful for everyone: consumer, backyard hobbyist, and full-time farmer.
There are three common models for outdoor poultry production that are widely used on pastured poultry farms. While these models fall into distinct categories, there is often a lot of variation and overlap within them. There is no production rulebook, and we encourage you to adapt a model to make it work better on your farm or for your lifestyle. In no particular order these systems are: portable bottomless shelter with no free range access (aka chicken tractor); semi-portable day range shelter; and a stationary shelter with free range access. All three production models have their pros and cons, which we will discuss to enable you to better understand which method will work best on your farm.
Portable Bottomless Shelter
The portable shelter that is used in this model is often referred to as a chicken tractor or a field pen. A chicken tractor is a small, lightweight, and bottomless poultry shelter that will usually house between fifty and one hundred broilers that don’t leave the shelter. Chicken tractors are moved once or twice a day using human, ATV, or truck power, in order to provide fresh forage and clean ground for the birds. Chicken tractors can be operated with or without electric fencing. Surrounding the shelters with electric netting adds another layer of protection in areas with high predation. Some farmers use electric fencing to keep a guard dog close to the pens, but the fencing doesn’t have to be in the form of netting and can be whatever configuration will confine the dog.
Chicks are most often brooded for the first 2 to 4 weeks in a more secure shelter that is easy to service. The birds are then crated and delivered to the field pens where they spend the rest of their short lives. The young birds can be stocked at higher densities at first and then dispersed to more shelters as they grow larger in order to reduce the density.
The risk of predation is relatively low if the shelters are secure, although clever nocturnal predators will kill the birds through the wire if they can, or get under them if there are gaps.
The shelters are lightweight and can generally be moved by hand. No tractor or other type of expensive farm equipment is necessary if they are built to be lightweight. Some farmers use a modified dolly to facilitate easier movement of lighter shelters or an ATV or truck if heavier. Shelters can easily be moved to other parts of the farm or even other farms, since they are so portable.
Chickens are confined, which can make management easier. Chasing chickens can be kept to a minimum. You don’t have to worry about chickens sleeping outside or finding their way into your vegetable garden.
The manure load is spread very evenly on the pasture where the shelters are moved. The pastures respond well to the short-duration, intense impact from the confined birds.
The pastures are grazed more evenly by the birds, so you can prevent both overgrazing and undergrazing. You can use the birds to revive tired pastures.
Groups of birds stay together; they don’t mingle with other age groups, which would require sorting at harvest time, and could allow some birds to avoid successive harvests and get way too big.
This model allows farmers an easy entry into broiler production with very low-cost infrastructure. The shelters themselves can be made from scrounged materials or can be built from purchased materials for less than 200 dollars each. They can also easily be repurposed into other farm uses should you change direction in the future. We turned ours into laying hen shelter materials after using them for broilers for a couple years.
Portable field shelters don’t require bedding. Supplying bedding to the birds requires labor and expense. The chicken tractor relies on regular moves to fresh ground, not bedding, to keep the birds off of their manure.
This model requires many individual shelters, each with its own utilities (drinkers and feeders). Shelter costs on a per bird basis can be high.
The shelters — especially the low “Salatin-style” ones — are single-purpose, and will often sit empty during the off-season. Shelters made of PVC often become junk after one or two seasons and should be avoided.
It might require two moves per day to keep birds off heavily manured ground. While the extra move will increase the amount of forage consumed by the birds, it will also add quite a bit of labor. Failure to move the birds as often as necessary can lead to foot sores, breast blisters, and coccidiosis.
The birds are not as protected from severe weather events and heat. In very hot regions the birds can overheat under a low tin roof. The shelters are floorless, so flood events can be devastating on poorly drained land. Tarps can protect from rain, but they fall apart in the sun. Strong winds can destroy lightweight shelters.
Chicken tractors require a very well–maintained pasture. Chicken tractors can be difficult to move over rough ground or hilly terrain and through tall grass.
Feed and water logistics can be difficult. Chores are once or twice a day and include moving the pen, feeding, and watering. Feed must be carried to each pen by hand and watering logistics can be difficult to streamline. Large range feeders that can be filled once a week can’t be utilized in this system.
Chickens will only eat grass for a short period of time when the shelter is first moved; they will quickly trample and soil the remaining grass, making it unpalatable to them. They will then lose interest in the forage until the next move.
It takes a few pasture moves for the young birds to get trained, and they can get crushed by the trailing edge of the shelter while learning the ropes. This is especially true when the grass is too long.
Young chickens can escape, either while the pen is moved or from gaps created by uneven ground along the bottom of the shelter. Rounding up the escapees can be time-consuming and frustrating. Birds that escape while you aren’t around may fall prey to aerial predators.
Shelters can be difficult to move if they are too heavy. Difficult-to-move shelters often equate to shelters that aren’t moved frequently enough. The shelters need to be lightweight, with a lot of their strength in the form of bracing to withstand the abuse of being dragged over the pasture. If you can’t build a lightweight and strong structure yourself, find someone to help you and set yourself up for success. A shelter that is easy to move, yet strong, is the cornerstone of this system.
Semi-Portable Day Range Shelter
Day ranging allows broilers access to pasture, usually with an electric netting perimeter fence. The shelter or mini-barn is more substantial and larger than a chicken tractor and is moveable, but not by hand. A tractor, truck, or ATV (or even a team of draft horses) is used to pull the shelter to a new location between batches or a couple of times during the grow-out of a single batch, as pasture conditions dictate. The chickens use the shelter for sleeping and to get out of bad weather, but are free to come and go throughout the day. Farmers that have high predator pressure will choose to close the birds in at night and then reopen the houses in the morning.
The day range shelter can be floored or floorless. Farmers that use the chicken manure for their crop production will prefer a floored model with lots of bedding that makes it easier to harvest the manure. The mix of bedding and manure is ready to compost as is. A floored shelter will have an advantage for brooding and for use during wet weather to keep the birds off wet ground. The mini-barn is moved much less often than a chicken tractor, but the electric netting can be moved around it in order to provide fresh green pasture. Pasture right around the shelter will usually become denuded and heavily used while the outer reaches of the fenced-in areas are less used. They are not as good for controlled pasture renovation as the bottomless shelters.
The shelters can have less square feet per bird than a chicken tractor, since the birds are allowed outside access during the day.
Chickens can forage for a larger percentage of their feed depending on the amount and quality of the pasture.
Birds are fairly well protected from severe weather events. Day range shelters are usually built a bit stronger and can withstand higher winds, rains, and other weather events. Birds can also choose to go in or out to moderate their body temperatures during heat.
Day ranging requires a less maintained pasture because you don’t have to move pens by hand on a daily basis. Grass can be longer without causing as much grief.
Feed and water logistics are easier than with a chicken tractor. You can use larger feeders that only need to be filled once or twice a week, or you can use daily fill trough feeders that are easy to service out on the pasture. Pasture impact can be spread by moving the feeders daily or between fillings. You can get away with using fewer drinkers and they can be located centrally, reducing the need for feeder lines to each individual field pen.
It might be possible to brood and grow the broilers in the same shelter. In addition, the shelters can be used for other purposes outside of the broiler growing season, since they are essentially just small barns.
Chickens will apply manure to the pasture less evenly. There will be an uneven impact in and around the shelter. With or without a floored shelter, you will most likely need to supply some bedding to keep the birds from spending too much time on their manure.
It can be difficult to get some birds inside at night, but generally they want to go inside as the sun goes down. Birds sleeping unprotected at night on the pasture can be killed by great horned and other large owls, and everything else that hunts nocturnally. Confining the chickens to the shelter for the first few days helps bond the birds to the shelter and makes it more likely that they will go inside to sleep at night.
Birds are more susceptible to daytime predation from raptors and dogs. The freedom that the birds have in this system comes with a higher likelihood that they will get attacked by hawks. Dogs can crash through their netting and have a field day.
Shelters have to be opened in the morning and closed at night if there is a high likelihood of predation. This might seem trivial, but it locks you into a routine that has to be performed at the same time twice each day, unless you install an automatic door that opens and closes on a schedule.
It’s harder to integrate this model with other livestock in the same field because it is easy for other livestock to get inside and wreak havoc or eat the chicken feed. For example, you could not raise sheep, goats, or pigs in the same pasture at the same time as a day range model: They will gorge themselves on the chicken feed. Georgia farmer Will Harris has had success running cattle in the same pasture as his broilers by using a single strand of poly wire to exclude the cattle from the broilers and their feed.
Free Range Stationary Shelter
This system is characterized by the use of a stationary building to shelter the birds and pasture access directly adjacent to the building. The chicken–rearing building could be a retrofitted barn or hoophouse, or any outbuilding that can serve as a brooding area and grow-out shelter. It requires several subdivided pastures in order to keep the birds on fresh ground with growing vegetation, and in most cases the building will have pop-out doors in several locations to provide access to the multiple pastures.
Pasture fences can be permanent chicken wire fence or temporary electric netting, or most likely a combination of both. The easiest method for raising large numbers of birds year-round might be to permanently fence the perimeter and then use electric netting to subdivide the paddocks. The most challenging parts are managing the manure, nutrient, and pathogen buildup, and maintaining good vegetative cover.
It is usually easy to provide utilities and perform most daily chores. The stationary shelter might already have water and electricity or these can be installed. Automating the water system is easy.
Housing is very safe from predation, with the exception of rats that might thrive in this system and cause losses in the brooder or steal a lot of feed. Rats could be the biggest bugaboo in this system.
The shelter can be a retrofitted barn or hoophouse, or any existing outbuilding. It need not be fancy. Unless you are using it for year-round production, it does not have to be insulated or completely weatherproof.
The birds can be brooded in the same building that they are grown in, which removes the tedious chore of catching and crating the chicks to move them to their grow-out shelter.
Birds are well protected from severe weather events.
Feed logistics are easy and can be fully automated if desired, with a feed tank right outside the barn. Feed can also be provided in large capacity feeders. However, it’s critical to keep the feed area clean and to trap for rats.
Stationary shelters require large amounts of bedding and bedding management. Because of the quantity of bedding and the fact that most of the chicken manure is deposited in the barn, these shelters might require machinery for bedding removal.
The outdoor pasture provided for the chickens might get destroyed after one batch of broilers, which would require a long rest to regrow. It is difficult to maintain the pasture in a green and growing state in this system, and it will often require irrigation. The impact within individual paddocks will be uneven. Nutrient accumulation is highest next to the building, leading to potential runoff, salt accumulation, and pathogen buildup. It might be hard to call this system “pasture-raised” as the pasture can quickly become degraded. Rotation is key.
Diseases and parasites are more likely to build up, which will require sanitation and rest between batches of birds. Chicken mites can also become severe in stationary buildings.
Broilers might fall prey to raptors, rats, or small mammalian predators like raccoons, but usually the barn is located in an area with more human traffic than the middle of a pasture. The increased human presence helps to deter predators.
Reprinted with permission from The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising and Selling Ethical Meat by Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015. Buy this book from our store:The New Livestock Farmer.