Raising chickens on pasture requires relatively
little in the way of start-up capital and the
daily chores are reasonably modest.
June 16, 2005: It all started innocently
enough: A little over a year ago I brought six baby chicks
home from the local farm store in a cardboard box and settled
them into a wire rabbit cage in the corner of my dining room.
This wasn’t quite as impulsive as it may sound, as I’d
been thinking seriously about getting a little backyard flock
for a number of years, and was all set to put together a “chicken
tractor” (a bottomless, portable cage – so named
by Andy Lee) for the girls to live in.
The five black, sexlink hens and the one straight-run Buff
Orpington chick (you have to buy a minimum of 6 chicks in
Pennsylvania and there were only 5 BSLs left in the bin) settled
in and began to poop, drink, eat, and grow – in roughly
that order. I’d had chickens as a kid, so the whole
deal was reasonably familiar to me – but my partner
Tom (a life-long city boy before he met me) was entranced!
The chicks grew, moved outside into a hastily-constructed
chicken-wire-and-lumber chicken tractor and within a few months
we had 5 large black hens and an even larger golden-brown
rooster (plus 12 guineas in a second tractor and 15 ducks
in a third…but that’s another story).
We intended to keep the hens inside their chicken tractor,
moving it every day to new grass, but they took to flying
out every time we opened the lid so I relented and framed
in a little door at one end so they could come and go during
the day and get shut up snug and safe at night. When they
started to lay we put an old melon crate full of straw in
one end and the hens started to churn out four or five a day
of the tastiest eggs ever. Tom was in love.
Then the plot thickened: One beautiful late summer day Tom
was holding and stroking one of his hen-girls, who was clucking
gently back at him. Looking out over our 11 acres of fields
and woods, he asked me, “So, couldn’t we raise
some more chickens, sell their eggs, and make some money?”
“Sure,” I said, “Why not?”
“Can you get me some information?” said Tom.
Now, I’ve been reading about chickens and small-scale
farming all my life, dreaming big dreams; I earn my living
finding information for people, and work at a company with
great Internet access and a library full of material related
to farming. “Could I get information…?”
He knew not what he asked. By that evening I’d downloaded
a huge stack of papers from ATTRA
(Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), APPPA
(the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association), and
some other sites; had dug out a pile of backyard-scale chicken
books and ordered copies of Joel Salatin’s Pastured
Poultry Profit$ and Andy Lee’s Day
Range Poultry. We were on our way.
Testing the waters
As we read through this mound of material we learned we were
not alone in our quest for good-tasting, locally raised eggs
and meat chickens and other farm products. Consumers are becoming
increasingly interested in food with good old-fashioned flavor,
produced on farms that respect the environment and handle
animals humanely. Good market, good money. Sounded good.
We also learned that we didn’t have to reinvent the
wheel to raise a few hens on pasture: Over the last 20 or
so years farmers have been developing pastured poultry systems
that combine the best of the old-fashioned methods with modern
technology and knowledge to raise healthy birds and nutritious,
great-tasting food. That sounded good too.
Even better, we learned that raising chickens on pasture
requires relatively little in the way of start-up capital
(practically nothing if you compare it to the cash required
for large buildings and machinery) and the daily chores are
reasonably modest. Chickens are small and easy to handle (so
they are a great way for newbies like ourselves to get into
livestock management) and the return on investment is pretty
fast: You can start eating and/or generating revenue with
eggs in as little as two months (from started pullets) or
about five to six months (from day-old chicks).
We decided to start with laying hens since
eggs are easy to harvest and easy to sell (and
in most, if not all, states you can sell eggs
with few or no legal hassles).
Our first foray into commercial pastured chickens was pretty
seat-of-the-pants: We decided to start with laying hens since
eggs are easy to harvest and easy to sell (in most, if not
all, states you can sell eggs with few or no legal hassles,
here in Pennsylvania we just need to have our name and address
on the cartons and cross out any grading or sizing information
on reused cartons). We liked the idea of not having to face
any slaughtering challenges (finding a processor, meeting
potentially more restrictive legal requirements, coming to
terms with doing in our little friends) for at least 18 months.
We thought 100 hens seemed like a nice round number, and between
the two us we figured we knew more than enough people who
said they'd be interested in buying good local eggs to sell
the 30 or so dozen a week we expected to collect. We decided
to order Buff Orpingtons because we loved our docile Buff
Orpington rooster, “Buttercup,” and the catalog
said they were good year-round layers and their large bodies
and heavy feathering made them winter-hardy.
So we called up Murray
McMurray Hatchery and ordered 100 day-old hen chicks to
arrive the first week of September. (That was the first week
they were available, and we figured that would give the birds
enough time to get pretty big before the cold weather set
in.) We set up a circle of cardboard on the floor of the garage,
put in a big electric brooder hood a friend had found in his
barn (which blessedly still worked, once we figured out how
to work the temperature control), and we were in the chicken
When the hens got too big for the brooder we moved them outside
into a spare chicken tractor for a few weeks, and then, for
the winter, into a homemade, plastic-covered hoop house in
my vegetable garden (I’d used a similar hoophouse to
grow greens through the winter, so I knew I could put one
up by myself for cheap). We fed them locally ground rations
(we are lucky enough to have a family-owned feedmill nearby)
made from locally grown grain and no antibiotics or other
medications. And we figured we’d figure things out as
they went along – which we pretty much did, with only
a few learning curve fatalities.
Getting in deeper
In hindsight, though, a bit more planning and preparation
would have been better. So as we started to look at expanding
our egg operation (demand has turned out to be far greater
than the 20 dozen we are collecting from the 65 Buff Orpington
hens that survived our early learning curve mistakes), and
maybe get into the meat business as well, we decided we needed
to get the most up-to-date information in the rapidly evolving
pastured poultry field.
Our first foray into commercial pastured
chickens was pretty seat-of-the-pants.
First we attended a one-day seminar put on by Joel Salatin
(the East Coast's guru for direct marketing of grassfed eggs
and meat) and PASA (the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable
Agriculture), which was a terrific and inspiring overview
(and Joel is a hoot to listen to) but a bit short on details
(just too little time and too many ideas).
Then we heard about a conference put on by the Northeastern
Pastured Poultry Association, the Central New York Resource
Conservation & Development Project, Cornell, APPPA, and
a number of other sponsors in Syracuse, N.Y., on April 9-10,
2005. It turned out to be the perfect way to learn about the
latest innovations from people who are already successful
in the pastured poultry business!
Over two jam-packed days we learned a huge amount from other
pastured poultry folks and some wonderful industry professionals.
Here are just a few of the sessions Tom and/or I attended:
Dr. Benjamin Lucio, a poultry disease
specialist at Cornell University, gave us a sobering overview
of all the nasty things chickens can get. The good news
is that if you move your birds regularly to fresh pasture
the soil microorganisms and sunshine (the best disinfectant
around) will keep most diseases from building up to outbreak
levels. Most problems that pastured producers see are due
to stress or trauma. Keep your chickens dry, content, and
safe from predators and you’ll avoid most problems.
Jeff Mattock, a livestock nutrition expert
with the Fertrell Company in Bainbridge, Pa., talked about
feeding laying hens, broilers (meat chickens), and turkeys.
(I'll cover his advice on feeding laying hens and hen chicks
in Part III.)
Jim McLaughlin of Cornerstone Farm Ventures,
in Norwich, N.Y., and past APPPA president offered a “Pastured
Poultry 101” seminar full of basic know-how and tips
for success. Jim raises chickens on pasture himself and
has helped many farmers in New York and beyond start successful
pastured poultry operations.
Leon Moyer of Moyer’s Chicks, in
Quakertown, Pa., discussed how poultry breeds are developed,
some specific breeds, and how to select chickens for pastured
Keith Morgan of Windhaven Farm in Sauquoit,
N.Y., talked about raising layers on pasture and how their
egg operation dovetails nicely with their sheep dairy.
Peter McDonald, of Pasture Pride in Romulus,
N.Y., described how broilers and turkeys fit into his multi-species
Brian Moyer of Green Haven Farm in Fleetwood,
Pa., described how he markets his fresh chickens and other
farm products and discussed relationship marketing techniques.
Dave Mattocks of Fertrell discussed soil
health and showed a fascinating Japanese video of soil microorganisims
cavorting under the microscope. Dave stressed that soil
is not an inert substrate that just holds plants upright
(as synthetic fertilizer manufacturers would like you to
believe) but a living, breathing ecosystem that needs to
be cared for and fed. Feed your soil lots of organic matter,
keep poisons off it, and your plants (and the critters that
eat them) will thrive.
Karma Glos of Kingbird Farm in Berkshire,
N.Y., and author of Humane
and Healthy Poultry Production: A Manual for Organic Growers
(available through www.NOFA.org)
for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock (free
gave a presentation about keeping your birds healthy. Give
birds sunshine and natural light, fresh air (cold is ok,
but drafts aren’t), plenty of room, interesting activities
like things to scratch at (especially in winter when they
are off the pasture), contact with soil, clean water, whole-grain
food, grit, oyster shell, and a dusting box of wood ashes
with a little diatomaceous earth and chances are your chickens
will be healthy and able to fight off anything that comes
along. A few minutes of your undivided attention each day
will usually alert you to changes in behavior and help you
head off problems before they get severe. Glos also recommends
culling any bird that is acting ill immediately (she treats
her whole flock for problems, but not individual birds)
and never bringing an adult bird onto the farm.
here for Part II: More
details on certification, housing, choosing breeds, chicks
or pullets, and roosters.
Or here for Part III: The
essentials--food and water. And, the payoff--getting those
eggs away from the chickens!