Final report for FNC21-1275
We are on 100 acres. We pasture-raise Shetland sheep, custom-grazed dairy heifers, and roughly 3000 laying hens. All of these animals are moved every day, at least once. Yes, before this grant we were rotationally grazing, planting prairie, developing pollinator habitat, and planting trees for nine years.
This project focuses on solving the problem of excessive labor needed within the pastured poultry industry. The majority of pastured poultry producers use portable electric netting for terrestrial predator control. This requires regularly moving several sections of heavy fencing by hand. This process is time consuming and physically demanding. My plan is to design and build a fencing system that is attached to the poultry coop and mounted on lightweight plastic pipe. The fence will slide along with the coop as the coop moves forward on pasture. This system will eliminate the time currently spent picking up and resetting lengths of fencing. It will also completely eliminate the physical demands associated with moving poultry netting.
1- Design and build a pastured poultry fence system that eliminates all strenuous fence-moving labor for farmers.
2- Identify necessary modifications for the three major types of pastured poultry (Laying hens, broilers, turkeys).
3- Document data associated with labor in terms of time and physical strain.
4- Distribute findings and construction details to pastured poultry industry through articles, a written manual, forum discussion, and social media.
- - Producer
With the fence system built, each farm will begin moving their respective flocks every morning to fresh pasture. Each farm will start and end at different times of the year, based on the needs of their species. Because the farms and the poultry species all have different characteristics, there will be various obstacles to manage on each farm and for each species. Every obstacle will be documented and discussed with Michael as the principal investigator and then the system will be tweaked and modified. All of the farmers will, by at least the end of the season, be able to move flocks daily to completely fresh pasture with one person in a matter of minutes. We will continue this process until we confidently feel that the entire system is well-refined. Michael will document all of the modifications and take the final list into consideration when developing the manual that will be available to the general public.
The participating farmers will document on a daily basis how much time it takes to move their flock. They will also fill out a self-reporting survey about their stress levels once per week. This documentation is designed to give us measurable results from the project.
An anticipated challenge that we will pay close attention to includes making wide and sharp turns. Michael will be sure to be at each farm during at least one turning move to observe the response of the fence and the flock. Because farms across the country are all different, we hope to tackle the primary issues that could arise when using the fence system.
Please see our Hen-Pen Manual-Working Edition for results. More detail regarding results is also highlighted in the lessons learned and recommendations section of this report.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Update: I started writing a weekly newsletter to egg farmers. I've been sharing free information about the fence system and other production hacks.
There is one other farmers I've been mentoring independently who will likely build this system in the coming season.
I have offered 4 on-farm tours/demonstrations. One was directed specifically to beginning farmers through Glacierland RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development). Approximately 45 farmers, 10 agriculture professionals, and 10 members of local conservation groups were present. I gave a full demonstration of the fencing system by moving the entire system, explaining how it works, and offering detailed answers to any questions about the construction. This was very well received and I have had many of the farmers ask for a manual, of which I'm nearing completion.
The second tour was more general, offered to anyone interested in the farm. Renewing the Countryside helped host this. Several farmers came to this one, too. There was less interest in the details of the fencing system, but it was interesting to see consumers broaden their perspective on what it takes to manage a 3,000-hen flock.
The last two tours were by request. A total of about 12 people came out for these. They were interested in specifics about the dimensions and construction of the system. These were short and informal, but informative.
There are two articles highlighting our farm and its innovations coming out within the next couple months. While these will not contain specific information about the fencing system, we hope they will highlight our innovative nature and draw attention to our social media and website.
The mentorships have been very informal. I've been working with two farmers over the phone to help them refine their systems for greater production and flock health. I've encouraged them both to work toward using my system of fencing.
Update for final report:
I spent two days with dairy and beef farmers at an awards banquet for Outstanding Young Farmer of Wisconsin. Our farm was highlighted for our innovations, which gave me the opportunity to discuss in a group setting, and one-on-one, possible ways to incorporate poultry onto a farm for greater sustainability and profitability. These 18 farmers were leaders in their industry and several expressed interest in adding an egg enterprise to their farm operation. I will continue to communicate with them about this. There were roughly 50 additional people at the presentation.
I started a farmer-to-farmer newsletter in which I explain techniques for raising hens. This group already has 225 weekly readers. I recently finished a five part series about the fencing system.
I continued to bring tours onto the farm to see the projects. I reached at least 40 more farmers this season and around 30 people from the public.
Levi hosts tours on his farm on a regular basis. He estimates that he reaches at least 150 people each year. Levi's audience extends down to Chicago.
Our farm was highlighted in a well-written article Perennial Pasture and Pollinators: Three Brothers Farm transforms a landscape,in Kinute.com a respected online conservation journal. The article also highlighted our fence system. I am unsure of the audience reach of this journal.
Local newspapers (and a few television stations) have done stories on our farm recently. While it's mainly due to the recent egg price increase, it has driven traffic to our website.
Our outreach will continue. In just a few weeks, I'm presenting my SARE project at the Marbleseed Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin and am speaking on a pastured poultry panel. I have also been invited to attend a roundtable discussion to answer poultry questions for other farmers at that conference.
The construction manual is completed and available on our website. It is 29 pages with pictures and details about building the fence system. Several people have purchased the manual and have begun farming with the system on their farms. They have said that it's changed their farm lives.
My intention is to continue developing my newsletter to over 1,000 readers this year. I have also started writing a book about "starting and growing a pasture-raised egg enterprise." In this book, I am detailing all of our farm's innovations in order to help other farmers get ahead of the initial struggles that come along with starting a farming enterprise.
I've learned quite a bit from this grant so far. It is not complete, and I anticipate learning quite a bit more. However, so far, I've learned about some very specific components of the fencing system I've designed. The prototypes I had built prior to the grant included many elements that this grant has proven to be unnecessary as long as higher quality materials are used. For example, the entire frame of the sliding fence is able to swerve as it is dragged because the new corners are built with simplified, high quality materials. This has encouraged me to strip the design down to be even simpler. I've been able to reduce the quantity of the bracing and the wooden mounts. This has led to easier construction, slightly lower costs, and a higher quality system. I will continue to root out anything that does not add value to this system.
Others have been able to see the system in operation. While there's no replacement for actually building, using, and tinkering with this system, it has certainly encouraged fellow farmers to think outside the box about labor inputs on their farms. Some of the farmers will definitely use my exact system while others have made suggestions about how it might need modification for their farms. Either way, it has served as a starting point for other farmers to accept that they can improve their poultry operation.
We have overcome the obstacle of excessive labor demands on our farm with laying hens. We have saved a nearly 8 hours of physical work per week. The egg enterprise has become way less demanding, encouraging us to grow our business. The time we saved was immediately invested into improving the winter housing for the hens (which led to an automated feeding system).
The results from my weekly self-reporting survey are encouraging. I documented my physical and emotional stress before using the fence system wit the laying hens. The documented time frame was between entering the pasture and leaving the pasture, with the primary task of moving the fence, the coop, and the flock with their feed and water.
On a scale from 1-10 (1 being low stress, 10 being extremely high stress), my physical stress averaged 7.35 when moving fence by hand.
My emotional stress averaged 8.90 during the same task. After using the fence system, my physical stress averaged 1.7 and my emotional stress averaged 2.2.
The primary stressors while using the fence system included repairing an inadequately built frame and tinkering with the system as I refined it over the course of the project. I can see how the results might be mildly skewed toward lower stress because when the system was working effortlessly, I was, as the designer, ecstatic.
The other factor we documented was time spent moving flocks. When moving fence by hand, I spent 75 minutes each day to move the fence, the coop, the flock, and their feed and water. With the fence system, I spent an average of 24 minutes per day moving everything. Interestingly, in the final 90 days of the 2022 grazing season (after working with the system for a long time), the average time was 17 minutes. I credit this to feeling comfortable with the tractor, understanding what to watch for, and simply developing certain habits while moving the coops.
The turkey enterprise also has interesting findings. Prior to using the fence system, farmer physical stress levels during turkey moves averaged 7.6. After installing the fence system, the physical stress levels dropped to an average of 2.8. Emotional stress levels prior to the fence system averaged 8.0. After using the fence system, the emotional stress levels averaged 3.2. Most of the emotional stress was due to the turkeys rushing the fence when they saw that feed was coming. Eventually, Levi changed his routine to distract the turkeys by putting turkey feed inside the fencing right away instead of driving up to the access door first.
Prior to installing the fence system, the average time spent moving turkeys and their fencing each day was 55 minutes. After installing the system, the average time to move the flock was 21 minutes.
The most interesting part of the turkey trial was that the farm was able to double their stocking rate of turkeys without building any new infrastructure. Turkeys don't seek shade as diligently as hens and broilers, which means they take advantage of the "yard" of the fencing more. Because the turkeys were so spread out, they were able to stock 150 turkeys per coop instead of 75. This also means they saved the work of splitting up the flock into two coops part way through the season. People do this because turkeys grow to be so large. Because the fence system turns the coop into a mobile day range coop, that step becomes unnecessary.
The broiler trial was the most frustrating, but had some interesting results. Typically, broilers leave the brooder after 21 days and go into the pasture coop. Because of the size of the bird, this led to 21-day-old broilers escaping under the fence frame. After this happened multiple times, Levi locked the broilers into the coop, negating the purpose of the fence. However, after 10 more days, he felt the broilers were large enough to not get under the frame. He let them into the fenced-in "yard" and it worked quite well. He found that having a fenced-in yard on the back of the coop (as the fencing system was designed) facilitated moving the broilers with only one person instead of otherwise using two people. Typically, one person drives the tractor slowly and the other person encourages (spooks) the birds forward with a broom or paddle. The fencing system eliminates the need for the second person because the broilers can lag behind as they'll still be in the yard and can make their way back to the coop at their leisure. We did not compare end weights of the broilers, but I'd be interested to see whether lower stress levels on the birds would lead to greater feed-to-meat conversion.
Levi expressed that he could increase the number of broilers per coop to 1000, but decided not to for unrelated reasons.
Prior to using the fence system, the physical stress averaged 3.0. After installing the fence system, the physical stress averaged 3.2. Note that this is the first time the average physical stress increased. Primarily, we can attribute this to the initial challenges with bird size.
Prior to using the fence system, the emotional stress averaged 2.8. After installing the fence system, the emotional stress averaged 2.8. There was no change and it remained low.
Prior to using the fence system, the time spent moving the broilers was 7 minutes, After installing the fence system, there was no change: 7 minutes.
We can conclude that the fence system did not have a great impact on physical stress, emotional stress, or time. The primary advantage of using this system, it seems, would be the elimination of a second person and the potential to add broilers to the coop.
The advantages and disadvantages of this system are different for the different types of species being raised, as shown in the research results about stress and time. A disadvantage beyond the data is that it offers less flexibility as far as where the fence can be placed. For example, the coop, plus the front portion of the fence, totals 40 feet in width. That limits the gates and other physical bottlenecks the coop can pass through. A farm's larger permanent fencing system must be designed with this system as a consideration. A disadvantage we've experienced with the laying hens is a slight increase in mortality and a heavier impact on the pasture. I believe this is a product of my own enthusiasm. I thought we'd be able to increase the stocking rate per coop on our farm because of the ease of the daily move to fresh pasture. We had two coops with 900 hens each and two coops with 500 hens each. The mortality and negative pasture impact was primarily associated with the 900-bird coops. This coming season, we plan to place about 675 birds in each coop and monitor both factors. This is a disadvantage that each farm will have to negotiate on their own, based on breed of hen and forage quality. Update to that: I had four coops of 675 birds this past season. The change did lead to lower mortality and an improved pasture sward. However, similar to the issue with turkeys rushing the fence, if we didn't feed the flocks at the same time each day, hens would rush the fence and get out, then go into a different coop. This would lead to varying stocking rates per coop, which caused some frustrations.
If asked for more information, I encourage farmers to experiment. The best thing that has come out of this project is the liberating feeling that I can experiment and trailblaze my own way to meet my needs. So, I encourage people to think innovatively. If they are asking specifically about my project, I recommend getting the manual from our website, as others have. It's too complex to detail the information vocally. That's why the manual is so useful. I put in many hours beyond the scope of the SARE project to refine the system on my farm and to write the manual. For that reason, I encourage people to take full advantage of my trials and keep a copy for themselves. To get someone started on the path toward this type of system, I'd recommend seeing it in person and considering the layout of their pastures. Few farmers have gateways big enough to let a 40-feet wide piece of equipment through. But, fence posts can be moved (we moved ours) and it would absolutely be worthwhile to adjust bottlenecks to suit the demands of the fence system. I would also make sure a farmer has a heavy enough tractor to pull the coop and the fencing. We "upgraded" our pulling tractor to be able to pull without strain. Lastly, I would make sure that anyone using this system can commit to a "daily move" model. Otherwise, problems will arise with flock health and pasture health.
"We have personally gained an extra 10 hours per week by reducing labor while increasing our production. I will never go back to moving fence by hand" - Egg farmer, Southeast Wisconsin
"We nearly doubled our broiler business without building anymore coops, which is amazing, considering the cost of materials." - Broiler Farmer, Southern Wisconsin.
We would love to streamline the rest of the chores associated with pastured poultry - especially egg collection and feed distribution. Both of these tasks have been economized in conventional agriculture, so we know it's possible. We need financial backing to modify conventional systems to be used in daily-move pasture farming, making it readily available to any growing farm.