An Introduction to Pastured Poultry


In recent years, more and more people have begun to consider animal welfare and the story of the food that they are eating. An increasing number of people are beginning to take an interest in where their food has come from. Chicken and egg production have been at the centre of this revolution, as more and more consumers now want to choose eggs that come from more ethical and sustainable sources. Pastured poultry production is now becoming a very important industry in Australia and around the rest of the world. It is also a hugely accessible industry for those who are keen to start working in the agricultural or horticultural sector. This article aims to provide a brief introduction to the pastured poultry industry, and information about how to start a pastured poultry business. Although the term “pastured poultry” can refer to both chickens and turkeys, this introductory article will primarily focus on pastured chickens.

What is Pastured Poultry?


Pastured poultry farming is a sustainable farming technique of raising animals in a largely outdoors environment, such as an agricultural pasture. This sharply contrasts with “aggressive” farming techniques such as battery farming or caged egg production. Pastured techniques are being developed as a way of reducing the prevalence of “factory” farms which favour maximum production levels over the wellbeing of the animals, the quality of the products and the land on which the farm is based. Although this is a more traditional method of farming, techniques are constantly being reviewed to help to make production more efficient and sustainable, without diluting the core values of raising poultry on pasture.

Pastured raising techniques are considered to be better for the health and well-being of the birds, which can give rise to improvements in the quality of the produce. These birds have access to fresh air, sunshine and far more space than that which is available to indoor birds. In general, pastured birds consume more Vitamin A and Omega-3 fatty acids than their non-pastured counterparts, and this is known to reduce the level of cholesterol which is present in their eggs. These birds have more freedom to move about, which means that they are able to get as much exercise as they want. As well as reducing the likelihood that the birds will manifest anti-social traits such as scratching and aggressive pecking, freedom to exercise also helps to lower the fat content of the meat which is produced. For a healthier choice, consumers are recommended to choose pastured eggs over eggs which have been produced by indoor birds.

When done right, pastured production can also improve the quality of the land which is being farmed. Chicken manure is full of rich vital nutrients which help to improve the fertility of the soil. Grazing chickens also feed on pests, flies and parasites which inhabit the pasture. If you choose to integrate pastured poultry into an existing farm setting, such as a cattle farm, this can be an ideal way to control cow flies and parasites which could otherwise reduce cattle production levels. If you already have a farm and practice sustainable livestock practices, adding pastured poultry is a low investment, high return strategy which can actually help you to improve your other strands of production as well.

If you choose to, it is also possible to raise pastured birds without additional hormones or antibiotics. This is much harder to achieve in an indoor environment, where disease is more likely to take hold quickly, and where birds are unable to exhibit their natural feeding patterns and behaviours. More and more consumers are now looking for meat, fruit and vegetables which have been raised without the input of any chemical produce at all. This is fuelled by concerns that we are ultimately affected by all of the chemicals and medicines which we put in to the food chain. If you can ensure that no chemicals are used in the rearing of your chickens, then organic production is an option for people who are considering pastured poultry.

Chickens are a great animal to start working with, because they are small, there is a low start-up cost and there is a quick return on investment. Their size means that it is possible to keep a large number of animals in a smaller amount of space, without impacting on their welfare. This is to say, if you only had a small pasture available to use, you would be able to keep more chickens than you would be able to keep cows, pigs or sheep. Chickens also consume less per head, although the amount that a flock can consume will surprise some new poultry farmers! The low start-up cost is also appealing for many of those who wish to go into farming. If you wish to grow a larger business, it is possible to start off with pastured poultry and then grow your business to include other types of livestock. Lastly, good quality poultry will normally start to produce high quality eggs relatively soon after you start working with them. Alternatively, chickens which are being farmed for meat can be ready for sale within 2 – 3 months. This means that you can start to get a return on investment quite soon after you get your chickens. A quick return on investment can mean a far shorter period of insecurity for you when you start your business up and it means that you should be able to pay back any loans as soon as possible if you have borrowed money to start your business.

Where to Begin with Pastured Poultry Farming


If you want to build up a successful poultry farming business, then you must have a success based mind-set right from the beginning. Before you commit to buying any of the necessary equipment, you should take the time to do your research so that you can set yourself up in the best possible position. It would be wise to spend some time considering the local market, so that you can see whether there is a demand for your product. On one hand, the market may already be saturated, at which point you may find it hard to sell your product without a new unique selling point. On the other hand, it can also be hard to crack the market if you are the first seller of your kind, as you will have introduce the concept of pastured poultry products to the market yourself. Both are possible if you have a good head for business. Most small pastured poultry producers will begin by introducing their product to the local market first, before considering expansion. If there are no other sellers in your area, direct selling can work really well to raise the profile of your product. Raising awareness of the providence of your product as a pastured product should help to improve your profile.

Once you have researched the market, you will be able to come up with a budget and a financial plan for your business. Although you may be keen to get down to the agricultural side of running a pastured poultry farm, it is very important that you carry out appropriate financial planning steps, so that you can carefully control incoming and outgoing cash. It is important that you also consider a loss value as part of your plant. It is likely that you will lose some birds to disease or predators every year, so you should consider this when you are working out your expected return on investments.  Understanding your budget correctly will help you to understand the constraints acting upon your planned business venture.

What You Will Need


LAND
Once you have decided that pastured poultry is the right choice for you, you will need to beginning to gather the necessary equipment together. You will need to identify a suitable area of land for your flock to graze on. The size of the land that you will need will depend on how many chickens you want to keep. Regulations about the land type and size that you need will depend on the agricultural regulations of the areas where you are planning on raising and selling your produce. If you intend to grow in one area and sell in another, then it is important that you familiarize yourself with pastured poultry regulations in both places, as these can both have an effect on the way that you keep your birds. Most people will be able to start up a small to medium sized pastured poultry farm with just a few spare acres of land.

The land should be suitable for growing simple plant life such as weeds, legumes and grasses, as these will appeal to your birds. Most of these plants will grow with minimal stimulation and should be able to grow in harsher climates. It is advisable to choose a pasture with good drainage, because a waterlogged area could be harmful to your birds.

Most pastured poultry growers will have two or three (or more) areas of land on which to graze their chickens. These areas of land may not be solely dedicated to their chickens, although they can be. Rotating the chickens between pastures will give each pasture the opportunity to recover before it is grazed again. The chicken manure which has been left on the pasture after each grazing session should encourage the plant life to grow back in the pasture with ease.

HOUSING
You will also need to consider where your birds will spend the night. Most pastured birds are free to enjoy their days roaming around their designated pasture, but they spend the night under a roof. This helps to protect them from predators and from the elements. As well as being important from an animal welfare perspective, giving your birds a comfortable place to rest can help to improve the quality of your products. This is particularly true if you are raising laying birds, because stress reduces production levels. Pastured poultry producers normally choose between one of three main options: a single, large static building; multiple smaller shelters; or a mobile chicken trailer. The choice which is best for you will probably depend on the resources that you have available and your aims/objectives as a chicken farmer.
Large static buildings are better suited for people who intend to operate a bigger business. These buildings may include automated features to allow the birds in and out during certain hours so that they are only able to roam freely during specific periods. A well-made static building is often considered to be the best choice for protecting your birds against potential predators. However, static buildings tend to require a much higher initial investment cost and some buildings may require you to get planning permission before you erect them. Static buildings can also make it a little bit harder to rotate your grazing land properly. To properly rotate your grazing areas you may need to divide the outside area into runs, and then rotate your flock between these runs so that the grazing land has enough time to recover.

Multiple small temporary buildings in be a good choice if you only want to operate with a small flock, or to have chicken housing in each of your pastures.  These buildings tend to have a lower initial investment cost, but may not be as secure. They can be a good choice if you don’t want to keep all of your birds in the same building. Some advocates suggest that using multiple small buildings is a good way of reducing the risks which are associated with diseases spreading through a flock.

The last major option is to use a chicken trailer (or caravan), such as those offered by Transcoop. These mobile chicken houses are a great choice for people who are just starting up a pastured poultry business. They can be moved from pasture to pasture which is an important consideration if you plan on using pasture rotation techniques as part of your agricultural plan. These trailers will normally include perches for sleeping and laying areas to enable your chickens to have a comfortable (and central) place to lay their eggs. This can also help to make egg collection much easier. There are a range of different mobile coop styles available, from the most basic styles which only include standard features, through to more high-tech coop which include features which are designed to make your life and the lives of your chickens easier.

ANIMALS
Another thing that you will have to take the time to consider will be the breed of chicken that you choose to raise. Different breeds have different benefits, so you will need to think how these benefits could affect your business. Whilst some breeds are known as better laying hens, others are considered to be better birds for meat production. Meat birds are genetically better at gaining weight, so you will have to spend less on getting your chickens to saleable size. These breeds also produce a more flavoursome meat. Laying breeds are known for the regularity with which each bird produces eggs, and for laying for longer than traditional breeds. Eggs should be larger and better quality. Some breeds are known for being both egg layers and meat producers; however it is possible that these birds will have lost other positive animal traits such as disease resistance, due to selective breeding habits. Think carefully about what you intend to produce before you purchase any livestock. Consult your business plan when choosing your breed.

There are also differences between the habitats that each breed will thrive in. For example, some birds struggle in the Australian heat, whereas others do not seem to be particularly affected by the climate as long as they are given adequate shade and water. If you choose the wrong breed, your animals will not make as much money for you as they should be able to.

Popular meat breeds include; Cornish Cross, Delaware and Java, whilst Leghorns, Plymouth Rock and Minora and known to be better laying breeds. Ancona birds are also famous for their brightly coloured eggs which prove visually appealing to a lot of consumers. Some of the best dual purpose breeds for pastured poultry farming are Australorp, New Hampshire and White Wyandotte birds.

You are advised to pick one breed and stick with it, rather than raising a mixed flock. Each breed will have its own unique needs, and mixing multiple breeds will make it more difficult for you to meet the needs of every individual bird. Uniformity amongst your flock will also help you to solidify your branding when you are selling your products.

Lastly, it can be less expensive for you to purchase your animals if you buy stock in bulk. Many traders offer buyers economies of scale, whereby the more of a product that you purchase, the smaller that the cost per unit will be. If you dilute your stock by buying multiple breeds, you are unlikely to be able to get the same economic benefits.

In addition to choosing what type of chickens you would like to raise on your pastured poultry farm, you will also need to decide whether to purchase live chicks or whether to raise the birds from eggs. If you are inexperienced, then it may be a better idea to purchase live young chickens. However, if you hatch and raise your birds from eggs, you are more likely to be able to make accurate claims about the provenance of your produce. For example, you will have a more accurate knowledge about what the birds have been fed on throughout their lives, and whether any inorganic substances have been used to treat the birds. If you want to claim that your animals are organic or that they have not been fed GM produce, it is important that you are able to verify this claim throughout the bird’s life.

Nutrition


Whilst your birds will be able to enjoy the grasses, weeds and insects that naturally occur in your pastures, you will normally need to supplement their diet with extra chicken feed. This will allow them to get the extra nutrition which is required for regular egg production or to allow the chicken to put on mass more quickly. Around 20% of their diet should be protein based to allow for adequate growth. Specialist chicken feed is available from livestock suppliers, who will be able to advise you about the most appropriate food for the specific needs of your chickens. If you are intending to raise organic birds, it is important that you select additional feeds carefully, because these feeds can sometimes contain medication which may affect the organic status of your birds. If you are unsure, then you should talk to the grain supplier.

Although some farmers give their birds 24 hours per day access to additional feeds in the hope that this will help the birds to gain mass quickly, pastured experts actually believe that birds are healthier and may continue to produce for longer if their supply of additional feed is curtailed during the night. Overfeeding can lead to heart and leg problems for the birds and this can reduce the quality of the produce.

If you notice a decline in egg quality or unusual marks, blemishes or shape of egg, then it is possible that your chickens are malnourished. It is often possible to diagnose problems by looking at the shells of your chicken’s eggs. Serious concerns should be raised with a trained veterinary expert. Identifying problems early can prevent serious problems from occurring later down the line.

Protecting Your Flock


One of the primary concerns for pastured poultry farmers is the risk of stock loss, either from chickens escaping or from predators gaining access to your grazing area. Even the presence of predators on the perimeter of your land can cause your flock to feel stressed, and this stress can lower the quality of their output.

A strong chicken wire fence is an inexpensive way to keep your flock contained. If you want to, you can also put up additional electric fences away from the flock to help to keep predators away from the fence. You are advised to make sure that your fence is secured to the ground at the bottom to reduce the risk of predators squeezing under the fence or members of your flock squeezing out. It is worth checking the fence regularly to make sure that no holes have appeared. Pastured chickens like to scratch at the ground and “bathe” in dirt, especially when the ground is quite dry. This behaviour is perfectly natural but it can cause gaps to appear under the perimeter if it is not kept in check. If you are not careful, your flock could end up disappearing one-by-one!

Many pastured poultry owners choose to use a trained livestock animal to protect their flocks. These loyal animals are specially trained to live with your animals and protect them from predators. Maremma sheepdogs are a really popular choice for dogs to work with chickens. Careful training will teach these dogs about their responsibilities in relation to your animals and they will learn not to antagonise your birds, even if the birds antagonise them. Once your animals have become accustomed to having a livestock guardian dog around, they will not be phased by it at all. Maremma dogs are known for their imposing size, although most owners consider them to be gentle giants. Their bark is visible presence and their bark is often enough to deter any predators from approaching your flock. Warning barks directed at predators will also help to give your flock the notification that they need to alert them that a predator is present.

The Pastured Poultry movement is revolutionising the way chickens are farmed not only in Australia but throughout the World.  Like any business though it should not be undertaken withouth the proper research and planning.  If you have any questions relating to the Production of Pastured Poultry, please contact TransCoop as we would be more than happy to help kickstart your Pastured Poultry Business.

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