Free-Range, Pastured Poultry,
Chicken Tractor–What’s The
By Herman Beck-Chenoweth
To confine or not to confine, that is the question. Today, there are three leading systems for producing poultry outdoors on pasture. There are significant differences between the systems but sometimes the systems are confused with each other. Here is a short course in range (short-grass pasture) poultry nomenclature.
Free-Range is a non-confinement system that uses a perimeter fence to deter predators. As defined, this means at least 150′ between the skid house and the closest fence. A variation of this system, known as DayRange, uses an Electronet portable fence to keep the birds safe from dogs and coyotes during daylight hours. Up to 300 birds are housed on an 8′x 18′ wooden skid shelter that is towed to new pasture once every week or so as needed. Birds return to this shelter on their own each evening and are confined for predator protection. During the day the birds are let out and the skid provides shelter from sun and rain when needed. The large-scale access to pasture combined with the low stocking rate (400 chickens or 100 turkeys per acre) allows the birds plenty of area to exercise and deposit manure. As a result, free-range birds develop excellent muscle tone. Since the muscle is what we eat, this development is very important. Combined with proper aging after slaughter meat quality is firm but smooth: second to none.
The free-range system uses bulk feeders and float-valve waterers connected to plastic pasture waterlines. This cuts chore time dramatically as water is never hand carried to the flock and feeders are usually sized to need refilling once per week. Daily chores involve opening the skid houses in the morning, checking to see that the systems are operating properly and the birds are healthy, and closing them up a dusk.
One of the first questions to come from prospective producers is about predation. Because most predation occurs at night, when the birds are totally enclosed on the skid, which has a sturdy wood floor and 1″ poultry mesh sides, there is normally no problem. Hawks occasionally steal an inattentive bird, but this is rare. Most birds are extremely wary of sky activity. I have seen birds run to the skid when a 737 passed over at 10,000 feet.
Dogs and coyotes are another matter. A good perimeter fence solves most of the problems, but if there are severe dog or coyote problems in your area you may wish to investigate electric polywire fence (four wires on step-in posts keep most predators at bay) or Premier’s electric Poultry Netting.
A real plus for the diversified farmer using the free-range system is the ability to “save” manure nutrients and make compost right on the skid itself. At Locust Grove Farm we use our composted chicken manure to raise premium quality vegetables for sale to our restaurant clients. We feel that in a typical year we save over $5000.00 on fertilizer using this method. Producers using the Salatin system, described next, have good fertility in the pasture, but are not able to save and transport the nutrients to other fields. The free-range system is a large “farm-scale” system suitable for practitioners raising 500 – 20,000 chickens per year. The book Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing by Herman Beck-Chenoweth (Available in hard copy or download from http://shop.b40gs.com/Herman-Beck-Chenoweth_c23.htm ) also has a variation of this system designed for turkey production.
Pastured Poultry, as researched and taught by Virginia farmer, Joel Salatin, is a confinement system with a grass floor. Using portable pens approximately 8 x 10 feet in size, this popular system is a big improvement over the
broiler houses used by companies such as Tyson and Perdue, but it is a confinement system just the same. The
pens, each containing about 80 chickens, are moved by hand but the lightweight construction means they can occasionally be blown over by the wind. In hot climates, birds can suffer heat stroke on calm days. The birds have a limited space for exercise and manure that space heavily. Therefore, the pens must be moved twice daily, a chore not always pleasant, especially after a heavy rain. The birds benefit from sunlight, bugs and grubs, and get minerals from the soil, but muscle tone is very different from birds allowed to free-range. The Pastured Poultry System does protect against hawks, but is actually less protective at night against skunks, foxes, opossums and raccoons since it has no floor. The Salatin system is very labor intensive involving daily movement of pens and delivery of feed and water, but is well suited for those with limited space, those desiring to raise less than 1000 birds per year or persons who must work away from the farm during the day.
A third system, the Chicken Tractor was developed by Andy Lee and is a useful system for raising 50 or so birds for home use. By placing these pens in the garden, soil is tilled and manure can be placed exactly where desired. This is not a commercial sized system, and is also a confinement system. A recent refinement of the Chicken Tractor is the addition of a pop-hole door to allow the birds to range at least part of the day.
Producers using both the “pastured poultry” and “chicken tractor” systems have reported leg problems with chickens. While part of this problem can be eliminated by using the heavier strains of Cornish Cross chickens designed to be raised to roaster size, most leg problems are caused by the pens being pulled over the legs of the chickens when the birds are being moved to new pasture. Neither of these two systems are suitable for turkey production.
Some farmers using the latter two systems advertise their chickens as “free-range”, but under European rules they would not qualify as the birds are too tightly confined. Since, at the present time, there is no national standard for what “free-range” is in the U.S., I recommend that farmers follow the European standard that mandates stocking rates of 400 chickens or 100 turkeys per acre and that the birds truly are “free to range”. Whichever of these systems you choose, to make a living wage you will need to ask at least $2.00 per pound dressed weight.
Right now consumers are way ahead of farmers in demanding “grass-fed” poultry. I get calls and e-mails every week from individuals and restaurants (even international companies) looking for range poultry suppliers. If you are looking for a consistent income producing livestock enterprise for your farm, one that easily integrates with cattle, sheep or vegetable production, consider adding poultry to your operation.
Note: Books detailing these systems are available from www.Back40Books.com
Also visit: http://back40forums.com/index.php?board=35.0 for more great posts about free-range or pastured poultry production and marketing.
© 2014 Herman Beck-Chenoweth