Improving Pastured Broiler Operations for Chickens and Farmers: Automating Feed Systems on Mobile Pasture Coops and Sharing the Results

Final report for FNE22-012

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $24,837.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Haden Gooch DBA Mayday Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Haden Gooch
Haden Gooch DBA Mayday Farm
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Project Information


The purpose of the project was to develop a prototype for a rugged, self-built mobile pastured poultry coop with automated feed delivery and on-coop grain storage, test it with data collection over the course of a growing season, and document the process and plans to make it accessible and affordable for others to replicate. We consulted our technical advisor to outline the prototype, constructed and documented the construction of the prototype, tested the prototype and recorded data over two growing seasons, worked with a structural engineer to develop architectural design plans, and launched a website to host our educational materials. Based primarily on chore time our mortality numbers for comparison between the prototype and our previous mobile coops, we concluded that the prototypes produced healthier birds with less labor. We also collected qualitative data on feed access and related bird stress, determining that the feed access was more consistent and less stressful in the prototype. Our outreach plan was a core objective and method of the project. It included the website (, multi-part video series of the build out, free downloaded architectural plans, and access to forum pages through membership sign-up. We launched this package on multiple social media outlets and pastured poultry listservs, and receive views, questions, and feedback almost daily.

Project Objectives:

This project sought to:

  1. Design and build a prototype for a streamlined, automated mobile poultry coop
  2. Document the step-by-step building of the prototype
  3. Create an open-source community conversation to share plans, experience, raise questions, and provide a platform for other farmers to take the prototype and improve on it
  4. Compare the prototype performance against our old houses – document and demonstrate chore time, labor efficiencies, production changes (bird health, grow out rates, feed efficiency)

Our goal was to develop and share tactics to help make automating your pastured poultry operation possible and affordable, while also illustrating that automation can create impactful labor efficiencies and healthier birds. Our hope was to start a conversation about innovation in pastured poultry approaches that is accessible for a range of levels of growers.


Raising poultry on pasture presents a range of opportunities for the animal, land, and farmer. Birds have more freedom to roam, access to fresh air, and can supplement their diets with bugs. The farmer can control the distribution of manure and work pastured poultry into existing operations to increase fertility and manage pests. For farmers, pastured poultry offers an increased market value for their products.

While pastured poultry is gaining recognition and demand in the marketplace, it is still a niche industry dominated by small-scale producers. As such, there is opportunity for improving systems and efficiencies for farmers seeking to reach their local and regional markets with strong return on investment. The current problem is two-fold. First, the main approaches for housing birds on pasture available on the market now are either extremely labor intensive or offer minimal increased efficiencies relative to the capital cost. Secondly, the high-level innovation that is happening currently is being driven by large agribusiness, putting it largely out of reach for a majority of pastured poultry farmers.

Most pastured poultry farmers use one of two basic approaches for housing their birds on pasture. The chicken tractor first popularized by Joel Salatin or some version of a greenhouse made mobile. The chicken tractors must be picked up and moved by hand daily, fed and watered manually, and can typically house about 80-100 birds per tractor. They are better suited to homesteading than any sort of scaled production model. With increased demand for pastured poultry in recent years, several companies began supplying mobile hoop house kits targeted at pastured poultry growers. While these structures can be pulled with a truck or tractor and house more birds, thus offering labor savings, the kits are expensive and still require additional materials and time to build.

In the last two years, Perdue Farms acquired and began expanding PastureBird, a large, pasture-based chicken operation in California, and recently expanded into Georgia. They have begun to significantly expand their pasture-raised product line (see press release) and have put funds toward pasture structure innovation. PastureBird recently launched its first fully robotic, solar powered mobile pasture coops. A company named Ukko Robotics is working to bring their version of a robotic coop to market called the ROVA Barn, but its current base model price for a coop that can house up to 500 birds is $27,000. As indicated in a recent article in the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association’s bi-monthly journal, Grit, “there’s a technological push in the pastured poultry space,” but the biggest concern in his discussions with farmers is the price (Badger, 22).

When conceptualizing this project, we saw the opportunity as the middle ground between labor intensive and expensive approaches currently available to small farmers and a fully robotic pasture coop that is entirely out of reach. There was—and is—room for improvement that is affordable, reduces labor stress, grows out better birds, fits more land applications, and is more accessible to farmers.

Our plan was to design a prototype for a fully mobile coop that can include grain storage, automatic feeding, and on-demand water. We sought to bring the plans and the prototype to other farmers to begin a conversation to test and improve on our ideas. We documented the development of the prototype, and ultimately shared our experience on social media channels, including building plans, materials, and lessons learned. We hope what we created leads to an open-source discussion with other farmers to build and improve on our efforts, ultimately leading to a lower cost, automated mobile coop that incorporates multiple strategies and addresses differences in skills, resources, and farm terrain.

A successful prototype and a network that can build and improve on it could help alleviate labor stress, improve productivity by enabling farmers to grow more birds with greater efficiency, increase income and return on farm infrastructure investment and improve the quality of life for farmers and their employees by streamlining labor burdens.  

Description of farm operation:

I began my farming career in my home state of Virginia, on a multi-species livestock farm that raised and slaughtered about 10,000 pastured broilers and meat ducks, 50 head of grass-fed cattle, 1,000 laying hens, and finished 30 forest-raised pigs a year. During my apprenticeship year, I learned the tenets of grass-based livestock management, rotational grazing, and a multi-species intensive management approach. In my second year, I took on the role of a farm manager, overseeing grazing planning and managing apprentices. It was during this time that I made my first foray into dairy farming, running a one-cow herdshare as my own side business. During this time, I learned two things – that I loved dairy farming and I wanted to pursue formal training in the sector. I joined Wolfe’s Neck Center as part of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship in 2017, with the ultimate goal of having my own multi-species livestock farm with dairy cows at the core. The DGA is a two-year, Department of Labor recognized apprenticeship program centered around grass-based dairying. I successfully completed the apprenticeship, graduating in 2019, and immediately began a one-year journeyperson position as small livestock manager in order to continue to develop my management skills.

I began my own operation in the spring of 2020, raising 7,500 pastured broiler chickens on rented land while maintaining a herdsman role at the Milkhouse Farm and Creamery. Building off a relationship that I built while at Wolfe’s Neck, I raised my birds on contract with Walden Local Meat Company, which contracts farmers to raise pastured meats that they sell across New England. With my partner, I officially launched Mayday Farm in the fall of 2020, when we began renting our current farm in Leeds, Maine. With financing from the Farm Service Agency, I purchased the farm in in May 2021. Mayday Farm is a pasture-based livestock farm. During our first full growing season at the farm, and we raised 15,000 pastured broiler chickens from May-October. In 2022, we raised 22,000 birds from April-November, primarily to meet our contract with Walden Local Meat. We raised a very small amount of birds to test the waters on our own direct market. Our 2023 season was similar to 2022 in terms of production numbers and timeline.

In addition to the poultry, we started the dairy side of the farm in January 2022, milking about 40 cows for Stonyfield Organic. Our cows are grazed seasonally using a rotational grazing, intensive management approach.

When we purchased the farm in 2021, we had to rebuild a farm and dairy that had been out of production since the late 1990s. Our goal is to create a mutually beneficial ecosystem. We farm full-time, with mostly seasonal labor assistance. Efficiency is key to the success of our operation. The farm is about 350 acres, with about 90 acres in open pasture. We strive to keep the chickens and cows in complementary grazing rotations. Our project, generously funded by SARE, was aimed at supporting these goals and our core values: implementing practices that prioritize the health of the animals, land, and people who work with us.

In terms of farm resources dedicated to the project, the key piece of specialized equipment that has helped in the building of the prototype has been my welder. We have also depended on our loader tractor quite a bit to assist with construction.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Matt DeGrandpre - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

In line with our objectives, we carried out the following methods and measurements:

  1. With the help of our technical adviser, we drafted design plans for the construction and fabrication of a pasture coop that remained mobile while supporting grain storage and streamlined feeding. This included troubleshooting how to address feeder height for different age chickens, terrain, type of feeders and feed delivery, strength of house bracing and feed support, and how to power automatic feeders. These were all problems we had previously encountered while trialing some feed automation systems in the past.
  2. Constructed the prototype based on our draft plans. Documented each step of the building process, shared materials and sources, discussed what we did ourselves versus what we hired out for help, documented our man hour estimates and shared a video series to highlight  the tools and skills needed to implement the plans. Hired an architectural designer to turn our plans into 3D CAD plans and made them accessible in a free .pdf download. The plans, videos and resources are hosted on our website so any farmer can access the full plans and details.
  3. Implemented an outreach plan to share our detailed plans, process, lessons learned, and trouble-shooting with other pastured poultry farmers in the American Pasture Poultry Producers Association community, through our own website, and on social media. All videos have been uploaded to YouTube, are linked on Instagram and Facebook, and posted to APPA listservs.
  4. Compared our newly developed prototype against our old houses by implementing daily record keeping practices to track chore time, feed conversion, and bird mortality. We weighed four birds from each house (two males, two females) to get an average weight per week for each house. We used this data to compare feed efficiency, bird health (in quantitative terms, number of deaths per house), and yield opportunities between the houses (which houses grew the biggest birds with the least mortality and converted feed to weight most efficiently). We also recorded qualitative observations of the birds in each house, particularly in regard to bird health ( i.e. leg and respiratory), manure distribution, feed access. 

Our approach to analysis did not follow a proper statistical method. Our project method was meant to explore ways that we could change the approach to raising poultry on pasture by innovating and improving the current landscape. The measurements were not perfect and the our most helpful conclusions were qualitatively driven. Our objective was to create a new method, share it and start a conversation.

In the end, our main point of divergence from our original plan was the time it took to complete the project. Due to supply chain delays we encountered early in the original project period, were generously approved for multiple no-cost extensions, drawing our project timeline out to March 2024. We stretched our data analysis over the course of two pasture seasons. We took additional time to work with a structural engineer to create more detailed design plans, and ended up splitting the design videos into a series. Overall, our methods and approach have remained the same, and we worked toward the same four objectives. We feel fortunate that the SARE team was understanding of these challenges and allowed us to extend our grant period to give us the time we needed to properly analyze and share our results. 

Research results and discussion:

Below is an overview of our results process:

We successfully constructed our prototype for a mobile pasture coop that can support grain storage and feed automation. In the course of our project, we continued to experience supply chain delays on some key materials, pushing back the completion of some aspects of the prototype. We had originally planned to build the entire frame of the prototype using steel. Given supply delays and increasing costs, we decided to build the end walls of the mobile coop out of wood instead of steel. To ensure the frame remained strong, we used thicker steel for the bottom runner of the end wall supporting the wood framing. In the end, we were happy with this change, as we do not think it sacrificed any strength or integrity in the prototype. One of our stated goals was to make the coop construction more affordable and approachable to other farmers. We felt that using wood for the end walls was a good compromise to meet that goal, as well as provide options for different types of materials to try. As such, we included different options in our architectural designs as well as materials. We also successfully designed a new bracing system for the hoop house. In prior attempts at building our own mobile hoop houses, we had struggled with bracing the hoops across the width of the house – it was necessary to reduce the bottom runners from splaying out when under pressure, but caused headaches with moving and collecting birds. With the time and resources made possible by our SARE funding, we were able to try a new bracing system that removed the need for old method of bracing the runners across the width. We go into detail about the bracing system and its advantages in our video series, but the key success was removing bracing across the width of the house, which made loading birds in and out of the houses much easier and more efficient.

We have now seen our prototype through two full growing seasons. Our main data points, as outlined previously, focused on collecting information on grow out rates and mortality. In the first growing season (2022), we were able to identify and collect clear qualitative data that illustrated that automated feeding improved growth and living conditions for the birds. In our old houses that did not have automated feeding, we were still feeding five-gallon buckets of feed into feeders by hand. In those houses, by the time we came back to do chores again the next day, the feeders would be completely empty and the birds would show obvious signs of stress and aggression during feeding, often climbing on top of each other to reach the feed. For our prototype houses, the birds maintained constant access to feed, and we observed anywhere from 15 percent on the low end to 50 percent on the high end (usually right after moving the houses forward) of all the birds in the house around feeders at any given time. In the hand fed houses, the entire house would rush the feeders at chore time. In order to reduce the feeding stress in the manually fed houses, we would have needed to add feeders (not possible given square footage) or feed multiple times a day, adding additional labor strain. Not only did the prototype reduce labor, but it also reduced feed competition and stress for the birds. The most significant impacts were: labor efficiency, more stabilized and predictable weight gain, and less mortality when compared to our older houses. Unlike conventional poultry houses, where growers can tightly control climate and feed consumption, there is a lot that the farmer cannot control on pasture. Our prototype allowed us to manage and monitor feed consumption better than we had ever been able to before. Our mortality rates in the prototype houses, particularly in the 2023 growing season, were markedly better during the time each batch was on pasture. We averaged about 6.5 percent mortality on pasture during the 2023 growing season when we had two prototype houses in operation, our most successful year from a mortality perspective since 2020. 

A key observation that we could not clearly measure was what we believe to be a decline in the genetic population of broiler chick stock. Since the outbreak of avian flu in 2022, we have had increased difficulty securing chicks and have observed a higher rate of genetic disorders commonly associated with the Cornish Cross breed, namely leg issues. We believe this variable impacted our overall grow out rates during the 2023 season particularly. While we had anticipated hitting five-pound averages for our finished birds throughout the season, we did not come close to that target. So, while we believe the prototype house created a healthier overall environment for the birds, at least during our project period, we could not directly tie that to increased bird weight or revenue. 

The biggest impact of we saw during the prototype implementation phase was reduced labor and increased efficiency in chore time. The automated feeding element reduced daily chore time by about 80 percent and demanded less physical stress on the farmer. Due to structural improvements in the frame of the prototype houses, it was also possible (if not ideal), for one person to complete all chores, including moving the houses forward and feeding, without the process taking all day. 

The objective we were most excited about was sharing our process and plans with the broader pastured poultry community. When we started growing birds on pasture, there were very few resources geared toward innovating for labor efficiency. There is not much crossover between the conventional and pastured poultry worlds, but we really felt strongly that we could learn from the years of innovation in growing chickens. Our automated feed lines built on the type of auger and feed pans that conventional growers typically use. Our objective was to jumpstart a conversation and shake up standard ideas about raising birds on pasture. We also wanted to make it all accessible and useful to a wide audience. With the support of SARE, we were able to work with an architectural designer to create detailed and clear plans that anyone can access and download to build their own mobile coop. We completed the architectural renderings in the summer of 2023. We compiled all the video footage and editing the content into a multi-part series over the winter of 2023-2024. The video series provides step by step and visual guides to the entire build out process, including the type of materials we used to outfit the entire coop. We finalized the website hosting page in February 2024, which houses the design plans, video series, and multiple discussion forums.

The plans and videos are currently available on our website,, where we also created a membership community for forums and conversation. 


Research conclusions:

Based on our collected data and anecdotal observations, we are very happy with the overall performance of prototype and think it can be a replicable option for other farmers to use and improve on. While we did not achieve the increased revenue or bird weights to the level that we anticipated, we were able to capture data on improved overall health and feed access. Overall mortality declined, we were able to provide more constant and consistent feed access to the birds, and overall feed conversion in the prototype houses was better.

As we trialed in the 2023 season, a key difference this season was that we had no additional farm labor, meaning we had the opportunity to really test the labor efficiency goals we initially set out for the project. With the prototype, we were even able to have one person move chickens alone when absolutely necessary, something that was not possible before.

We feel really good about the information we have been able to share with other farmers. The plans are incredibly detailed and useful, and we think will spark good questions and conversation from other pastured poultry growers. Since launching the video series and forums on our website, we have had multiple conversations initiated on the forum pages, have gained 47 members to the website membership page, and have over 1,600 YouTube followers. We have even had a handful of local poultry farmers come to tour the prototypes.

To us, this indicates that there is both a need and an audience for sharing ideas and improvements in pastured poultry, as well as a desire to innovate. Labor in farming in general is a real make or break data point, and our prototype illustrated one route to ease that burden.  


Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

12 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
2 Tours
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Field and answer questions via the online forum hosted on, as well as via direct message on Instagram and Facebook.

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
2 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

In the course of designing and constructing the prototype, we consulted with our technical advisor as well as a handful of other experts regarding the design. We worked with a structural engineer, two metal fabricators, several service providers in the conventional and pastured poultry industry, and peer farmers. We created shareable architectural designs (drafted and finalized by a structural engineer in 2023), a website (, and a YouTube video series of the construction of the prototype. We had five peer farmers come to tour the prototype during and after construction. We held one pasture walk to demonstrate the mobile coops and prototype in action. Following the launch of our website and video series, our outreach potential and impact has been exponentially greater.

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

The key area in which users of the prototype reported changes was in understanding the importance of labor efficiency and easing repetitive motions on the farmer. Users also saw the positive results of the prototype on overall bird health and happiness. For the limited number of farmers exposed to the prototype thus far, they reported being excited at the prospect of being able to reference the architectural designs to build their own mobile coop instead of relying on the build kits already on the market. We anticipate gathering considerably more data on learning outcomes as farmers continue to interact the educational tools that we launched.

Project Outcomes

2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$5,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

In overall scope, the main project outcome was an increased confidence in the ability to innovate and streamline pastured poultry growing in a way that increases labor efficiency and bird health without breaking the bank.

Perhaps the most evident change in practice was the reduction in the amount of manual labor and repetitive heavy lifting (feed buckets) that the prototype enabled. We feel that the labor efficiency driven by the automated feed system was one of the biggest highlights of the project.

In addition, through qualitative observation and analysis of our data sets, we feel that the prototype grew out overall healthier birds in the same amount of time and feed inputs as our old methods. We observed and recorded a decrease in feed waste and less competition between birds for feed access.

Going through the process of developing the prototype and finalizing the tools outline in our proposal has been incredibly informative. A lot of what we have learned has shifted our view of the economy and efficiency of raising pastured poultry. We were so pleased with the results of the prototype in 2022 that we built a second for the 2023 season. Because SARE so generously supported the first prototype, we used the process and lessons learned as the foundation for our educational tools and a jumping off point for designing additional mobile coops.

We were incredibly excited to finalize and launch the package of educational tools free of charge. We continue to field questions, join conversations, and receive feedback on the resources almost daily.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Over the course of the project, our greatest challenge was dealing with the continued delays and increased prices caused by supply chain disruptions in a lot of the raw materials needed for the construction of the prototype. While we consider the prototype as a success, we were frustrated that we could not meet our original timeline, although we understand now that it may have been unrealistic. In the end, over the course of the extended timeline, we were able to meet all of our original objectives.

As we continue to field questions and take part in larger conversations, we would like to explore different options for grain storage that require less space across the width of the building and less steel, different pan feeding systems, solar power, and increased storage capacity. We really feel like these conversations will be the most valuable result of the project, as the technology currently available to increase labor and production efficiency is so limited and expensive in the current pastured poultry landscape. There is a lot of room for further innovation, and we hope our project can be a jumping off point for the community.

Outside of pastured poultry, we feel strongly about the concept of open source information-sharing between farmers, research institutions, and related stakeholders. Especially for small farms, the margins are extremely thin and labor is increasingly hard to come by. Our prototype is just one approach to addressing the broader need for innovation and efficiency in pasture operations. Having used the prototype over two seasons, we can now envision a broader use for it - i.e. pastured pigs, mobile shade and feeding for young dairy heifers, etc. An area to build on might be broadening an open source platform for small farmers across enterprises for sharing plans, ideas, materials, things that have worked or failed, grassroots organizing and advocacy strategies.  

Information Products

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.