Free-Range/Pastured Poultry Comparison Demonstration with an Organic Feed Component

Final Report for FNC98-005

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $18,200.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This is a forty-acre farm raising organic vegetables such as watermelon, peas, okra, tomatoes, and a variety of greens. We previously raised beef cattle, but the pasture will now be used for poultry. We also raise ducks, goats, and geese. The farming operation is truly a small family farm enterprise with very limited income.

Sustainable practices have been used throughout our farming experience. Since 1995 we have used green manure plow down. We also spread animal manure in the fall. We use neither herbicides nor pesticides in our farming practices.

The main goals for the projects were to raise the best chickens we possibly could, to see if and how much of a difference there is in free-range, free-range organic, pastured poultry, and organic pastured poultry. Was it profitable and was it feasible to do this project on our own farm? Also to see if it was possible for the poultry project to stimulate our community, create jobs, and start businesses in our town!

The field days, classes, and conferences we attended before and during our project helped out a lot. The help we received from Merrill Marxman, Bob Curry, and Bob Gotkowski was greatly appreciated. We would like to acknowledge Willie Washington (contractor) for his help with construction, also Michael Moore (community member), Leslie Wright (Co-op member/producer), Pharis Newbern (Co-op member) and our Co-op members and the general public who participated in this endeavor.

We developed a system of separating the chickens into four groups. They spent three to four weeks in the brooder, four to five weeks on the pasture (some even longer). All four groups were fed a balanced feed formula. We knew from the beginning the organic feed cost more and found out that the organic birds grew slower, but made up for it later in both the pens and skids. Both skid and pen organic birds averages 2 ½ to 5 lbs. at six to eight weeks. The non-organic skid and pen birds averaged 3 to 4 lbs. at six to eight weeks. It took an average of 14 to 21 lbs. of feed per bird for both organic and non-organic. The one thing we found out for sure is that more studies are needed. And that either model will work depending on what feed you can get and what kind of customers you can locate in your region.

We have found that if you only want to raise a few chickens, it’s best to use a pen. For a larger number of chickens, it was best for us to use the skid. But at the same time, if you only have a small pasture to work with, stay with the pen.

The most important thing was to have strong chicks; a good dry, warm brooder, water and a balanced feed in front of them at all times. Marketing chickens should be done before they are purchased, or while they are still growing. Whichever marketing method you deem best.

We plan to follow our model to market our birds in as many ways as needed. We have found that the more people doing these types of chickens, the more people know about them and the better the market gets. Don’t try to do any project unless you have thought it out and you have plenty of help!

The following activities were completed in project year 1999:
A. Construction completed of 4 free-range skids and 4 pastured poultry pens.
B. Brooder house constructed for baby chicks.
C. Two small buildings constructed for processing chickens on the farm.
D. Predator secure fence built around pasture.
E. Approximately 2,000 baby chicks purchased, raised, processed at an Illinois licensed plant and marketed several different ways & into different markets.
F. Field day held on August 14, 1999 with over 100 people in attendance, which included both expert free-range/pastured poultry speakers, exhibits, free-range/pastured poultry demonstration and the gifting of a pastured poultry pen along with 100 chickens, & required feed.
G. Family involvement in carrying out on-farm demonstration which included both organically fed & non-organically fed chickens.

Year 2000 (extension)
A. Raised one run of chickens both free-range and pastured. Birds were fed organic and non-organic feed.
B. Birds raised were part of a Salmonella/Campylobacter study (along with 2 other Pembroke families that were funded by SARE & SIU-C-FAR). Preliminary report of that study was submitted to SARE (see below). Final analysis by SIU will be submitted along with final report for Seals/Hudson projects funded by SARE this year.

In all, I know that this project is a success because the community learned, the local agencies learned, and through all of the learning that there was, everyone went home with something new to do or to show others how it is done. The chickens will sell and if done correctly it’s not a hard job. Hopefully by next year, I will be growing as many chickens as my father, Roy Thurman Sr., did forty years ago.

General Comparison of Free-Range vs. Pastured and Organic vs. Non-organic
A. Free-Range vs. Pastured
1. Free-range more expensive due to fencing requirement, however the system will allow you to raise more birds.
2. Pastured pens require more labor due to moving the pens every day rather than 3-5 weeks with free-range skids.
3. Potential for predator problems much greater with free-range system.
4. No measurable difference in weight gain between two systems.
5. Pastured pen bird more tender due to less opportunity for exercise as compared to free-ranging bird.
6. More birds developing leg problems raised free-range
7. Less pathogens found in pastured pen birds as compared to free-range and confinement (see preliminary report that follows)

B. Organic vs. Non-Organic Fee Comparison
1. Organic feed much more expensive (.18/lb. compared to .10/lb)
2. Organic feed availability a problem
3. Weight gain initially slower with organic feed but overall gain about the same
4. Generally speaking, customer not willing to pay higher prices for organically fed birds, however, customer will pay a higher price for the pasture fed bird that is fed non-organic feed over the cost of store bought bird.
5. Feed usage inconclusive in pathogen study.
6. Total feed usage about the same for organic/non-organic

Final Analysis: The debate/comparison of free-range/pastured poultry will continue within the Pembroke Cooperative and the Community. Additional study will be done in 2001 concerning the pathogen study.
SUMMER 2000 (8/30/2000)

35 bird sample from following 5 groups:
1. Free-range organic
2. Free-range non-organic
3. Pastured organic
4. Pastured non-organic
5. Confinement house


Key for heading abbreviations:
SP = Salmonella Positive
CP = Campylobacter Positive
BC/G = Bacteria Count Per Gram

Group SP CP BC/G
1 6 = 17 % 2 = 6% 21/18
2 11 = 31% 2 = 6% 6/14
3 0 3 = 9% 28/16/31
4 1 = 3% 1 = 3% 4
5 12 = 34% 4 = 11% 140/130/210/480

Study funded/supported by SIU/C-FAR/SARE
Project completed on 3 farms in Pembroke Township, Kankakee County.


We invited the public during the building stage. We had a field day in which we invited the general public, neighbors and many public officials (over 100 other farmers, community members, agency representative, and youth attended).

Speakers were brought in to discuss their experiences with raising, processing, and marketing poultry. This led to several community members expressing an interest in beginning to raise free-range/pastured poultry in the spring of 2001.

We attended conference, luncheons, and pasture walks where we imparted our knowledge. We were speakers at a field day and went to many other events to talk about what we did and our future plans.

We were covered by the local press (Daily Journal, Taylor Publications), also others from Chicago and Joliet.

Through American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, which I am a member of, we plant to: keep in contact with other free-range poultry farmers, be willing to speak at future field days or conferences, and to participate in panel discussions in the future.

It’s a good program and more producers need to participate in it. For some projects, matching funds may be hard to generate, unless in-kind by itself would do.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.