||There is no one “right way”
to raise chickens on pasture and many questions do not
have one right answer.
July 14, 2005: Here’s a compilation
of what we’ve learned from various sources (and trial
and error) about getting started raising hens on pasture for
egg production (we’ve also picked up a great deal of
information on raising chickens for meat, but that’s
grist for another primer).
First: there is no one “right way” to raise chickens
on pasture and many questions do not have one right answer.
There are so many variables that you will have to fine-tune
your methods and systems until you find what works well for
Basically all chickens need a continuous supply of fresh
water to drink, a balanced ration of grains and supplements,
a clean place to run around (preferably with nice tender grass
and other plants and bugs to eat), a dry place to get out
of the weather, and protection from predators. There are as
many ways to meet these needs as there are farms.
Organic or ?
I’m all for organic farming and organic food, and we
do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on our farm
(except a can of wasp killer for dealing with yellow jackets
under the deck, which lasts me 3 or 4 years), but we have
chosen not to pursue organic certification. In our opinion
organic regulations don’t go far enough. Organic eggs
sold in stores may be trucked in hundreds of miles and laid
by hens in huge warehouse barns with a single open window
at one end.
We’ve chosen to raise our animals using locally grown
and locally processed conventional feeds (supporting local
farmers and local family ag businesses); blended with high
quality natural supplements (thereby shipping just a small
fraction of the food weight any distance); and to manage them
in a way that improves our land, protects the environment,
lets them be as chickeny as they can be, and is fun for us
As direct marketers we build trust by communicating directly
with our customers about our farming practices and the quality
of our food, and no level of certification can replace that.
Your market may make it worth being certified organic, in
which case, go for it! Joel Salatin calls his grass- and locally-produced-grain-fed
eggs and chickens “beyond organic;” Peter McDonald
calls his “clean food.” Or you can go with the
old standbys, “fresh” and “local."
Housing and pasture system
There are three basic ways to manage chickens on pasture:
Ranged from a stationary house, ranged from a movable house,
or kept inside movable open-bottom pasture pens. Many folks
add an electrified perimeter fence of some sort for additional
control of the chickens and the exclusion of four-footed predators.
Each combination of housing and fencing has advantages and
disadvantages, and some will work better than others in your
We decided that movable houses (sometimes called egg-mobiles)
and an easily movable, electrified mesh perimeter fence would
work best for us. Right now we have two, 10’ by 10’
metal-framed, polyfabric-covered, wire-floored buildings on
skids and are building one slightly larger cattle-panel, open-bottomed,
lightweight hoophouse building on skids – each of which
is big enough for about 100 hens and a rooster or two to roost
in under spring/summer/fall conditions.
Chickens prefer to get up on a roost at night, rather than
stand on the floor, so each house has rows of roosts made
from 2” diameter saplings supported by triangular 2'
by 4' frames (each bird needs about 1 foot of roosting space).
Each portable barn is surrounded with about 400 feet of electrified
mesh poultry fencing (48" tall with openings 3½"
wide – don’t buy the cheaper stuff with 7"
openings, as even full-sized hens can easily squeeze through
it) attached to a small electric fence charger (run off a
12-volt car battery that sits on a small cart to make it easier
||The electrified fence keeps the chickens
from running amok--roosting on your front porch, eating
tomatoes in the garden, hiding nests under the shrubs--and
will stop just about any non-flying predator.
The electrified fence keeps the chickens from running amok--roosting
on your front porch, eating tomatoes in the garden, hiding
nests under the shrubs--and will stop just about any non-flying
predator (local dogs are one of the worst). That leaves hawks
and owls. Shutting the birds up at night will prevent owl
problems, though some people find they don’t have any
problem leaving the barn door open. Hawks hunt during the
day and will sometimes go after even full grown chickens,
so they are more of a problem. We keep the youngest chicks
in movable, open-bottomed pasture pens to keep them safe.
After that we rely on our two dogs to act as hawk repellants.
Neither of them is particularly protective of the birds, but
they coexist with the chickens and are just as happy to be
in the chicken pasture with chickens to watch as they would
be penned up by themselves. We hope to add a real guard dog
to the farm soon, but in the meantime they seem to be doing
Just how much pasture space the birds need and how often
you need to move them to new pasture depends on many things
from the season, the weather, pasture quality, soil health
(and how much nitrogen it can absorb), number and size of
birds, etc. The only hard and fast rules are that you want
to move the birds before the pasture starts getting torn up
and to not put them onto land that has had chickens on it
in the last 21 days (this helps prevent disease and parasite
buildup problems; four-legged critters are fine). By mid-summer
we will have 250 laying hens and our two acres of mature,
low-quality pasture seems to be more than enough space to
work with for that number.
We move our hens every three to four mornings, based on when
we have labor available. Two of us can take the fencing down,
move the egg-mobiles onto fresh grass (with the hens still
inside), and put the fencing back up around a new section
of pasture in about an hour, and we are getting quicker as
we refine our technique and equipment. We spend about the
same amount of time mowing the grass ahead of the chickens
a few days before they get on it (you want young, tender shoots
for them to eat and nothing taller than about 6").
Get up early and move your girls to new pasture before you
let them out for the day and they will hop out ready to explore
and to feast on the fresh smorgasbord you have provided.
What kind of chickens? Heritage breeds
No matter what anyone may tell you, there is no difference
in the eggs found inside white, brown, or even blue/green
eggshells – but if you plan to sell eggs don’t
waste your breath trying to convince your customers of that.
Find out what folks in your area like to buy and choose chickens
that lay that color of egg.
There are more kinds of chickens out there than you can shake
a stick at, and there is no one right choice for a pastured
egg flock. If you have cold winters you may want to choose
a heavier-bodied, well-feathered breed; if your summers are
hot and humid a breed that fares well in those conditions
is in order. If you will be marketing in an area where heritage
breeds are all the rage, you’ll probably want to go
that way; if you maximum egg production is your goal, a modern
hybrid will probably give you the best percentage lay and
won’t go broody on you (stop laying and try to sit on
their eggs to hatch them).
||Much as we love our Buff Orpington
girls they are not as efficient nor as easy to manage
as modern laying hens.
Much as we love our Buff Orpington girls they are not as
efficient nor as easy to manage as modern laying hens. From
now on we will probably run mostly the brown and black sexlink
hybrids (brown egg layers), which have proven to do well in
a pasture system.
Hens start laying at around 20 weeks old and lay at their
highest rate (almost an egg a day) for about a solid year
after that (as long as you prevent them from going into molt
when the days shorten in the winter). You can help keep your
egg harvest more consistent by replacing half your flock every
6 months, in spring and fall, but you will always probably
have more eggs in April than you do in December.
Karma Glos (of Kingbird Farm in Berkshire,
N.Y., and author of Humane
and Healthy Poultry Production: A Manual for Organic Growers
for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock) alternates
colors of hen so that one color always starts to lay in the
fall and the other always starts to lay in the spring. This
way she can keep all the adult hens together and still easily
sort out the older hens when it comes time to retire them.
She finds that black layers are a bit more docile than red
layers so she buys blacks to start laying in the fall and
reds to start laying in the spring.
Retired hens can often be sold for a few dollars as backyard
layers and will continue to lay eggs for quite a few years.
Or they can be butchered as stewing hens (great flavor, but
requiring a long, slow cooking time to tenderize them). Joel
Salatin recommends roasting at a low temperature for a long
Chicks or started pullets?
There are two main ways to acquire laying hens: as day-old
chicks or as started pullets (usually about 17 weeks old).
With day-old chicks you can select any breed that strikes
your fancy (and the chicks are cute as a button). Newly hatched
chicks are easy to ship long distances (they don’t need
food or water for two days as they live off the remains of
the yolk), and you can control what feed and care they get
– but you’ll need to buy or build brooding equipment,
absorb any losses, and take care of them a couple of times
a day for three months before you get any return. Started
pullets are sturdy, allow you to eliminate the brooding period,
and once you figure out the cost of feed (let alone the special
equipment and your time) are probably less expensive (Keith
Morgan calculated his cost to raise a hen from a day-old chick
at $5.75 in 2002, compared to started pullets at $4.60). But
your breed selection will be more limited, you may not have
a local source, shipping is impractical, and you have no control
over how they are raised.
We’ve done the chick route, ordering day-old chicks
by mail, and for the most part raising them was pretty trouble-free.
Now we are awaiting our first 100 started pullets to see how
that method works for us. (Click
here for more on where Jean gets her pullets.)
What about roosters?
You don’t need a rooster to get eggs; hens lay just
fine with no male supervision. And since there is no way to
tell fresh fertilized eggs from unfertilized ones without
a microscope, your customers won’t be able to tell either
way. But most folks who raise pastured layers say you should
probably have a couple roosters because they more than pay
for their keep by making the girls easier to manage. Hens
with no rooster will fixate on you as their potential mate
(your gender is immaterial to them, you are just the biggest
animal around) -- and whenever you try to walk through them
to feed, water, or collect eggs they will squat submissively
around you rather then getting out from under foot.
If you order day-old sexed female chicks you usually get
a few males that slipped by the sexer, so you will be all
set. If you order started pullets and you don’t have
a supply of adult roosters already you may want to plan ahead
and pick up a few male chicks to raise at about the same time
your hens are hatching at the hatchery. While getting adult
roosters for free is pretty easy (many homeowners tire of
their backyard alarm clocks), bringing adult birds onto your
farm (other than started pullets from a trusted operation)
is a risky idea, as they may bring diseases with them--even
if they look fine--so it is best to avoid it.
In areas of the country where soil temperatures don't fall
below 50°F and where snow never sticks on the ground,
you can keep chickens on pasture year-round. In colder areas
you should plan on keeping your chickens and the majority
of their manure contained in the winter. According to Joel
Salatin, the soil organisms that take care of manure go dormant
below 50°F, and any manure that arrives when the soil
is dormant is at best wasted and at worst pollution waiting
||In colder areas you should plan on
keeping your chickens and the majority of their manure
contained in the winter. Any manure that arrives when
the soil is dormant is at best wasted and at worst pollution
waiting to happen.
Plan on wintering your hens in an enclosure that is large
enough to give them room to move around in as well as roost
(a portable pasture shelter can be smaller since the birds
spend most of the day outside). It should let lots of natural
light in and be well ventilated, but not drafty. Cold is less
of a problem for chickens than drafts or dampness are. A number
of farmers use large hoophouses as affordable winter barns,
and have found them quite suitable.
Use plenty of dry bedding (hay, straw, wood chips) to soak
up all the goodness of the chicken manure and bind it until
spring. Keep adding layers of dry bedding as frequently as
needed to keep the floor dry and the area smelling like chickens,
not ammonia. Throwing scratch grain around will get the hens
scratching, which will fluff up the bedding and keep it well
Hens will molt and stop laying when the days get short, so
plan on providing some supplemental light if you want eggs
all winter long. It doesn’t take much light to do the
trick: Keith Morgan uses just two, 60-watt bulbs, timer-controlled
to come on at 5 a.m., in a large winter barn to keep his girls
churning out eggs all winter long.
here for Part III: The
essentials--food and water. And, the payoff--getting those
eggs away from the chickens!