Integrating Free Range Poultry with Ruminant and Agroforestry Production in a Systems Approach

Final Report for LS10-226

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $210,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Anne Fanatico
Appalachian State University
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Project Information


In ecological poultry production, using a pasture resource effectively can be key to sustainability.

Research showed that alternative feeding systems for poultry, including free-choice and choice, have advantages for poultry on pasture. Free-range poultry can also be integrated with grazing animals to provide access to extensive pasture and there may be benefits to both poultry and livestock in terms of pasture management, fertility, and possibly parasite management. The quality of forage is important for poultry; however, in this study, sericea lespedeza had no advantage in terms of parasite control for chickens. Artificial agroforestry structures in outdoor poultry areas increased the distance that poultry ranged from the poultry house in order to more evenly use the forage. When using mixed production herds, there is a concern about food safety. This research showed benefits of using the pasture resource and farm-raised feeds for free-range poultry production and integration with grazing animals. Outreach was conducted to make these results available to farming and scientific communities.

Project Objectives:

1. Determine impact of integrating poultry with ruminant grazing on animal and poultry performance
2. Determine impact of grazing poultry on high-protein forage and forage with condensed tannins on performance and parasite control
3. Determine impact of grazing poultry under shelter/shade/roosts and feeding tree fodder for agroforestry systems
4. Determine the nutrient content of poultry products due to integrating poultry with livestock production and agroforestry
5. Conduct on-farm verification trials to determine the impact of practices developed


In ecological poultry production, outdoor access provides ample space, fresh air and sunlight and the opportunity for birds to perform natural behaviors, such as scratching and flying. In many certification programs, such as certified organic or high welfare assurance, outdoor access is required.

High-quality forage on pasture can be an important source of nutrients for poultry, especially protein, vitamins, and phytochemicals. Free-range poultry are often integrated with other livestock on pasture and in agroforestry systems. In fact, extensive poultry production may only be economically viable when combined with grazing animals. It can be challenging to earn sufficient revenue from specialty poultry production to cover large land expenses and labor and earn a profit; however, free-range poultry is a complementary addition for a grazing animal enterprise.

 Feeding, forage and integration of species on pasture

Although forage can provide nutrients, poultry also need a concentrated source of feed, particularly energy feed because they do not ferment fiber like ruminant animals do. Free-choice feed and choice feeding are alternative feeding systems that allow birds to self-select nutrients, in contrast to fully-formulated diets. In free-choice feeding, feedstuffs are offered separately to birds, such as grains, protein concentrates, vitamin and mineral sources, so they can self-select a diet suited to their changing needs. Free-choice feeding may prove useful in production systems with outdoor access because nutrient needs change widely due to temperature fluctuations, bird activity, and nutrients available on pasture. Free-choice methods have had a historic use (“cafeteria feeding”) and can be useful for alternative producers, making use of farm-raised feeds to improve savings and increase nutrient cycling on the farm. In another alternative feeding method called choice, birds typically choose between two feeds: a protein concentrate and a grain (old-style “mash and grain” feeding) (Morrison, 1956).

 Forage for poultry needs to be high-quality and high in protein, such as chicory, soybean, and lespedeza forage. Since birds cannot ferment large quantities of fiber, the forage should be low in fiber.

 Integrating free-range poultry with grazing animals may have benefits for both species. Many producers integrate poultry with small ruminants for milking, meat, wool, or brush control. For example, goats are concentrate browsers and manage brush (Cheeke and Dierenfeld, 2010). Sheep are grazers and can help manage the pasture sward for poultry. Cattle are large grazers and handle extensive pasture areas. Multi-species grazing can help use the pasture resource more fully.


Control of parasites is a key issue in pastured poultry and livestock production, because in ecological production, synthetic veterinary drugs are not used routinely. Interestingly, some forages have condensed tannins that help control internal parasites in small ruminants (Burke, 2008) and they should be tested also for poultry.

 Pasture and agroforestry

Chickens may remain close to the poultry house even when provided extensive outdoor access; however, enrichment of outdoor areas can encourage birds to forage more actively obtaining nutrients, spreading manure, and reducing heavy use immediately around the poultry house. Woody perennials and trees have the potential to provide shade to birds and shelter from predators and to encourage foraging. Chickens are inhabitants of jungle clearings and seek shelter. Trees also have the potential to provide protein in the form of nuts and starch (i.e. acorns), although further processing is required.

 Agroforestry practices are important on livestock farms to develop the agroecosystem to a mature stage of development. Trees can provide shade to livestock and use nutrients from deep soil profiles.   There are many silvopastoral systems that integrate livestock pasture with trees, especially cattle and trees.

 Perennial forage and trees are both key components to successionally-developed agroecosystems. Disturbance takes place regularly in agriculture via harvest and repeated tillage, but in sustainable perennial systems, nutrients are cycled and energy is effectively captured from the sun (Gliessman, 2007).

 Product quality

There are growing markets from pasture-raised livestock products such as grassfed beef and lamb and free-range poultry. While it is important ecologically to integrate livestock species and there may even be nutritional and organoleptic benefits conferred to eggs and meat (Fanatico, 2003), food safety in mixed herds is a concern. Poultry have access to manure of multiple species and will pick through dung pats and food-borne pathogens can be transferred.

 Farming System details

Many producers raise free-range birds in small shelters that are moved frequently. Some shelters are floorless and confine birds at 2 ft2/bird or less—these are generally moved daily. Many systems have portable yards that are made from electronet fences and provide more space (up to 80 ft2/bird). See ATTRA publication (Fanatico, 2006) for descriptions of different free-range systems.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Joan Burke
  • Clay Colbert
  • Dr. Annie Donoghue
  • Jennifer Edwards
  • Dr. Anne Fanatico
  • Margo Hale
  • Will Lathrop
  • Dr. Jim Miller


Materials and methods:

To meet the objectives, a series of research trials was carried out at cooperating institutions and farms.

 The research was mainly conducted at the USDA ARS Poultry Production and Product Safety Research Unit (PPPSRU) alternative poultry production facility in Fayetteville, AR, the ARS Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center (DBSFRC) in Booneville, AR, the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau, OK, and farmer-cooperators Little Portion and Dancing Springs near Fayetteville, AR. Anne Fanatico, a specialist in small poultry flocks at Appalachian State University, oversaw the project under the direction of Annie Donoghue, an ARS research leader with over 20 years of experience in poultry research.

 The PPPSRU is housed at the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas. The alternative poultry research facility is a fixed poultry house with a large grassy yard, subdivided with electric net fencing into 10 yards for rotation or research. The house is naturally ventilated and has windows; feed and water are provided both indoors and outdoors. This facility is the only ARS certified organic poultry unit dedicated to small- and mid-size poultry operation research. Jon Moyle also conducted research on sericea lespedeza at this site.

 The DBSFRC is over 2,000 ac and is dedicated to increasing the sustainability of small farms. The center conducts livestock research as well as incorporating agroforestry onto small farms. Joan Burke has extensive research experience with small ruminant and organic livestock production systems, particularly with parasite control strategies. Louisiana State University parasitologist James Miller and Burke are experienced working with natural parasite controls for small ruminants.

 The PPPSRU and DBSFRC together developed a portable pastured poultry research facility comprised of 12 small portable pens (3 x 8 ft). The pens were comprised of a small hoop house portion (3 x 3 ft) with a litter-covered floor and an attached run. The runs were floorless so birds could access pasture. Floorless pens are often called “pastured poultry pens.” The pens were moved daily to fresh pasture.

 The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a non-profit educational foundation. The Stewardship Farm and Ranch in Poteau, OK has commercial agricultural operations, including Pineywoods cattle, meat goats, pastured poultry, and 4 acres of organic horticulture. Staff is experienced in management-intensive grazing, breed conservation, and organic agriculture.

 Farmer-cooperator Little Portion has a monastery farm in Berryville, AR with goats, pastured pigs and layers, and horticultural activities. Goats and pastured pigs open new areas to extend pastures. Clay Colbert operates the farm and market products. Little Portion was representative of a medium-scale operation.  Dancing Springs is a small, 20-acre farm in Fayetteville, AR operated by Jennifer and Geoff Edwards and family with a peach orchard, blueberries, dairy goats, rabbits, and pastured layers and broilers.  The farm uses several poultry production systems, including small portable shelters and daily-move pens.  Farm products are direct-marketed to local restaurants and consumers.  Dancing Springs was representative of a small-scale operation.

The Sustainable Development Department (SD) at Appalachian State University uses a 150-ac largely wooded parcel near Boone, NC for teaching and research. The farm includes vegetable and fruit production, field crops for livestock feed, and has 30 ac of pasture that integrates grassfed beef cattle and pastured pigs and chickens. The SD Farm also has a pastured poultry research facility with 12 pens.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) operates ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. NCAT’s Southeast Regional Office is located in Fayetteville, AR and is directed by Margo Hale. ATTRA maintains over 300 publications on sustainable agriculture topics on its website ( It also operates a toll-free telephone service for specific inquiries from users and mails publications in hard copy to those without internet service. ATTRA has a unique ability to reach sustainable agriculture producers across the country including those who do not have internet access. The quarterly newsletter ATTRAnews has a national circulation of 25,585 in hard copy with an additional 9,380 in electronic form. NCAT also has website devoted to particular topics including a Sustainable Poultry Website

For project work and coordination, the team set up an electronic workspace to share text, files, photos, etc.   The workspace included a web conference tool with audio and video capability, as well as a console to share powerpoints, a whiteboard for design, desktop sharing, etc. Project participants used web cameras and headsets with integrated microphones for audio quality. The team first held a video conference in 2010.   The workspace was under ASULearn and required a guest account with Appalachian State University to access.

Research results and discussion:

Determine impact of integrating poultry with ruminant grazing on animal and poultry performance

Study 1. Free choice Feeding of Free-range Chickens

Specialty poultry production is growing, including free-range, organic, and small flocks. Feed is a high cost, particularly for organic and small-scale producers. Free-choice feeding, where feed ingredients are provided in separate containers, may offer cost savings, including the use of on-farm ingredients, reduction in feed transportation, and milling costs. A study was conducted to determine the impact of free-choice feeding on performance in free-range meat chickens. Pens of slow-growing chickens (20 birds per pen) were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: fully formulated diet (FF; control) or free-choice (FC) diet. There were 5 replications of these treatments. Birds were raised in floor pens in a naturally ventilated house; popholes provided access to grassy yards during the day. During the starter period (weeks 0-3), formulated feed was provided to both treatments. During the grower period (weeks 4-6), FC treatment also received formulated feed along with free-choice ingredients for training, and during the finisher period (weeks 7-12), FC only received free-choice ingredients. Birds were commercially processed at 83 days. The formulated diet was a commercial product with an average of 20.75% crude protein (1.04% total sulfur amino acids); while the free-choice diet chosen by birds at 11 weeks was 13.2% crude protein (0.70% total sulfur amino acids).   Final live weights did not differ between treatments (P > 0.05); however, ready-to-cook yield and breast yields were higher in the birds from the FF treatment (P < 0.05). These higher yields are most likely due to amino acid supplements in the formulated feed.   The diet chosen by FC birds at end of finisher period was less expensive than the formulated diet ($0.07/kg vs. $0.08/kg). These data indicate that while free-choice feeding of free-range chickens resulted in a 1.4% lower breast yield than formulated feeding, FC feed cost was lower.   The USDA National Organic Program is planning to ban synthetic methionine, and when that occurs, there may be no difference in yield among birds from formulated and free-choice diets.

A manuscript describing this study was published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research. See Publication List and Information Product. Research was presented at the Poultry Science Association Annual Meeting 2010.

Study 2. Choice Feeding of Organic Meat Chickens

Specialty poultry production is growing, including free-range, organic, and small flocks; however, feed is a high cost.   Choice feeding, using a high-protein feed with mineral and vitamin supplements provided separately from a grain feed, may allow birds raised in relatively open housing with largely uncontrolled environmental conditions to more precisely meet their nutritional requirements by self-selection compared to a fully-formulated diet. Choice feeding may also allow producers to use feed grains produced on their own farms in order to reduce transportation and milling. A study was conducted to determine the impact of choice feeding on performance in organic meat chickens. Pens of medium-growing chickens (20 birds per pen) were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: fully formulated diet (FF) or choice (C) diet. There were 4 replications of these treatments. Birds were raised in floor pens in a naturally ventilated house; popholes provided access to grassy yards during the day. During the starter period (0-27 d), the C treatment received formulated feed as well as high-protein feed and grain, but during the grower/finisher period (28-64 d), only high-protein feed and grain. Birds were commercially processed at 64 days. The organic formulated diet had 21% CP, while the choice diet selected by birds from 28-34 d had 13.2% CP and the choice diet at 57-64 d was 12% CP. Performance data were subjected to a t-test. There was no difference between treatments in terms of weight gain during the grower/finisher period, but overall weight gain was higher for FF birds (P<0.05). However, feed intake was higher and feed efficiency was inferior for FF birds compared to C (P<0.05). Although carcass weights and breast fillet weights were heavier in FF birds, there was no difference in yields (carcass, breast, wing, or leg) between treatments (P>0.05). The Choice diet was less expensive than the Fully Formulated diet ($0.58/kg based on the diet selected the last week of production vs. $0.66/kg). These data indicate that while FF birds gained more weight than C, feed efficiency was poor and the opportunity for organic chickens to self-select feeds may be more efficient and save costs.

Research was presented at the Poultry Science Association Annual Meeting 2011 and a manuscript is under development.

Study 3. Forages for Free-range Chickens

A trial was conducted to investigate various forages for pastured poultry.  Six-week-old meat birds were used. The birds were randomly assigned to one of 4 forage treatments (6-7 birds per pen). The treatments were 1) Lespedeza, 2) Soybean, 3) Chicory, and 4) Mixed grass. Pastured poultry pens were placed in these forage areas and moved daily. There were 3 replications of these treatments. Variables analyzed included performance (weight gain, feed intake, feed efficiency, mortality). Feed and birds were weighed when 6-week old birds are placed on treatments and at the end of the trial at 10 weeks of age. Cloacal swabs were taken from 9 birds per treatment (3 birds per replication) at 6 weeks and 10 weeks of age for Salmonella spp and Campylobacter jejuni. At the end of the trial, birds were donated to a local 4-H group to be auctioned for fund-raising. The means of the weight gains per chick for the 4 weeks of growth were: lespedeza (930g), grass (880g), soybean (780g), and chicory (720g). Salmonella was not detected. Lespedeza has less stem than chicory and possibly less fiber.

Study 4. Impact of Integrating Free-range Meat Chickens with Lamb

A trial was set up to determine the impact of grazing lambs with pastured poultry on meat chicken performance and parasite infection level of lambs. Chicks were brooded at PPPSRU and then placed on pasture at DBSFRC at 2 weeks during summer months. Naked Neck chickens, a slow-growing commercial hybrid that grows to 4.5 lb liveweight in 10 weeks, were raised. Birds (10 per pen) were housed in the “pastured poultry pens”. The pens were moved daily to fresh pasture. Pens have bird doorways or “popholes” that can allow them out of the pens daily into a larger area enclosed by an electrified net fence. Fully formulated feed was provided in the hut area, while water and grit were provided in the run. Only natural light was used. The birds were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: 1) pastured poultry with lambs (Lamb) and 2) pastured poultry with no lambs (No Lamb). Pastured poultry pens in Lamb Treatment were placed in a one-acre paddock that was subdivided into 7 sub-paddocks. Lambs were moved daily to the next sub-paddock and after 7 days, returned to the beginning spot. Pastured poultry pens followed the lamb rotations by one day. This pasture was tall fescue (endophyte-infected), Bermuda, vetch (gone by July), soybean, and chicory. Pastured poultry pens in No Lamb Treatment were placed in a neighboring pasture (tall fescue and lespedeza), where there were no lambs. There were four replications of these treatments.   Variables for analysis included performance (weight gain, feed intake, feed efficiency, mortality, microbial status, temperature in hut and in the run). Unfortunately, the trial had to be canceled before completion because the lambs were not parasitized enough for a meaningful evaluation. Birds were kept in pastured pens and preliminary data collected until 6 weeks of age when they were used for a poultry forage trial (described above). It was also problematic to allow the birds out of the pens into a larger fenced area, because of the number of portable net fences required.

Study 5. Impact of Integrating Free-range Layer Chickens with Lamb

Fayoumi and Hamburg pullets were raised to 19 weeks at PPPSRU. Fayoumi were selected due to their heat tolerance. At the DBSFRC, the birds were placed in 3 x 8 ft “pastured poultry pens,” pens with a small hut with an attached run. The run was floorless so birds could access pasture. The birds (n = 10 per hut; n = 2 huts per pasture) were placed in a one acre pasture with weaned lambs (n = 10/pasture), and there were two pasture replicates with birds (and two without). The pens were moved daily to fresh pasture. Feed was provided in the hut area, while water and grit were provided in the run. Due to the extreme heat and drought in Arkansas during the summer of 2011, the layers and lambs were kept on the pasture for one week and then were removed for welfare reasons.

Study 6. Impact of Integrating Free-range Layer Chickens with Cattle

The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture raised heritage breeds Dominique and Golden Laced Wyandotte chicks in a fixed house to 18 weeks for transfer to portable houses as layers. The portable houses were 7 x 3 ft hoophouses designed to follow the cattle in rotationally grazed paddocks. Staff at the Kerr Center were not successful at getting the pullets to adapt to their new portable housing, and due to high heat in summer 2011, the birds did not work out as layers.   Kerr Center observed that mob-grazed cattle are often moved so frequently (even daily) that it may become a burden to move a pastured layer house as frequently.

Kerr Center tried a second batch in 2012. They raised heritage breeds, Delaware and Wyndotte, to integrate with cattle production. Due to two previous years of low rainfall, results regarding the potential of poultry to reduce cattle parasites were not conclusive. During periods of drought, parasites are less active in the forage sward and cattle less likely to ingest them. In addition, hay had to be fed during the drought, which reduced ingestion of parasites. Although the Kerr Center maintains a strong interest in integrating poultry with livestock and horticultural activities, due to short-staffing, there are no immediate plans to raise poultry.

Determine impact of grazing poultry on high-protein forage and forage with condensed tannins on performance and parasite control

Study 7. Palatability of Tannin-rich Sericea Lespedeza fed to Broilers

As parasites become resistant to available medications new methods of control are needed. New drugs take a long time to develop in addition to being expensive; therefore, there is increasing interest in finding and using natural alternatives. Additionally, natural remedies are needed for the organic sector as man-made drugs are not allowed and birds with outdoor access are likely to encounter parasites. Sericea Lespedeza (SL, Lespedeza cuneata) is a common perennial deciduous legume found in pastures across the southern US that has been shown to be effective at controlling parasitic nematodes in small ruminants due to its condensed tannins content. Diets that are high in condensed tannins are often unpalatable to poultry; however, growers report that it appears that chickens maintained on pastures will consume SL. These reports and the amount of consumption have not been verified.Therefore before determining its potential in controlling parasites in poultry, a preliminary study confirmed that birds on pasture consumed SL (92% of birds examined had SL in crops) and in a subsequent study SL was added to a standard broiler feed to determine the palatability of SL at various concentrations. Diets were diluted with 0% (C), 5% (SL5), 10% (SL10) or 20% (SL20) SL (dry weight), and fed from hatch until harvest at six weeks of age. Male broilers (n=80) were divided into eight groups and fed one of the four diets in replicate. All birds consumed the feed regardless of the treatment, the birds on 5% SL performing as well as the control. Dilution of the diet with SL had negative effects of body weights at levels higher than 5%. Body weights were 2,002g, 1,959g, 1,721g, and 1,521g respectively (P<0.05). At the conclusion of the trial birds fed 20% had digestive organs that were a larger percent of body weight than birds receiving no SL. Feed conversion was higher in SL20 (2.31) than in C (1.63). Palatability did not appear to be a problem in feeding SL to chickens as all treatment groups consumed a similar amount of feed, and therefore follow-up studies will evaluate the effects of SL on parasite control.

A manuscript describing this study was published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research. See Publication List and Information Product. Research was presented at the International Poultry Science Annual Meeting 2012.

Study 8. Impact of Tannin-rich Sericea Lespedeza on Broiler Parasites

Additional research was conducted to determine the efficacy of sericea lespedeza in chicks infected with two species of Eimeria spp. The objective of this study was to find out whether sericea lespedeza has any activity against Eimeria species, the cause of coccidiosis in chickens, when included in the diet. Chicks were infected with oocysts of two species of Eimeria known to cause malabsorption of nutrients during the acute phase of infection. These species are E. acervulina which parasitizes the duodenum and E. maxima which parasitizes the mid-intestine. Both are widespread pathogens of chickens. The experiment was designed to determine whether sericea lespedeza has any effect upon the ability of E. acervulina and E. maxima to multiply in the gut. There was no effect of sericea lespedeza on birds infected with E. acervulina or with E. maxima based on oocysts produced per gram of feces and oocysts produced per bird. Feed intake, conversion and body weight were not different among all treatment groups. Note: The feed level used in this study was much lower than that used for lambs, which comprised at least 25-50% of the diet when there was a reduction in fecal oocyst counts. In addition, follow-up work has determined that tannin concentration in the SL pellets is heat sensitive and therefore the process of pelleting for the above study may have resulted in a less than effective dose.

Determine impact of grazing poultry under shelter/shade/roosts and feeding tree fodder for agroforestry systems

Study 9. Effect of Simulated Agroforestry Structures on Performance and Behavior of Organic Meat Chickens

Chickens provided with access to outdoor areas often do not fully use the range area. Enrichments such as artificial structures may provide shelter and increase range use, especially for young birds such as meat chickens. A study was conducted to determine whether providing constructed enrichments that simulated agroforestry structures would increase range use. Slow-growing Delaware meat chickens were raised in floor pens (n = 17/pen) in a naturally ventilated house; a pophole in each pen allowed daily access to an outdoor area covered with vegetation (3.1 x 30.5 m). Feed and water were provided indoors and 15.2 m from the house. The birds were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: No range enrichment (control; NON) and Enrichment (ENR). There were 4 replications per treatment. The ENR treatment included roosts made of plastic pipe or screened shelters 7.6 m and 22.9 m from the house and overhead shade panels 15.2 m from the house. The number of birds in four quadrants of the range was counted every 7 min three times daily (0900-0945 h, 1300-1345 h, and 1600-1645 h) when the birds were 7 and 10 wk of age. There was no difference in weight gain between treatments (P < 0.05).   On average, only 12% of birds used the range at any given time. Age and time of day impacted the number of birds that went outside, with more birds outside during the morning observation (P < 0.05).   Overall, most birds using the range (85%) were observed in the quadrant nearest the house (0 – 7.6 m). However, in the ENR treatment more birds (14%) were observed in the third quadrant (15.2 – 22.9 m from the house) than in the NON treatment (4%).   The location (inside vs. outside) impacted behavior, with more sitting inside and more foraging outside. In addition, behavior analysis showed that birds in the ENR treatment foraged more (P < 0.0001). This indicates that adding constructed enrichments to the range encouraged meat chickens to use the range more fully.

Research was presented at the Poultry Science Symposium on Alternative Systems for Poultry – Health, Welfare and Productivity, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK 2011. A manuscript is under preparation.

After the agroforestry simulation trial described above, the 12-week-old Delaware birds were transferred to farmer cooperator Little Portion for testing in wooded areas. Delaware are a duo-purpose bird and Little Portion used them as hardy layers.

In addition, at PPPSRU, half of the poultry yards were planted with a native woody perennial, beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) in 2011, in order to gather preliminary data contrasting the use of woody perennials to constructions that simulate agroforestry. Beautyberry provides not only shade and shelter to the birds but also a roosting space and as berries mature, mast and foliage. These native plants have survived dry summer conditions with no intervention.

Determine the quality and nutrient content of poultry products due to integrating poultry with livestock production and agroforestry

Study 10. Impact of Integrating Free-range Poultry with Cattle and Swine on the Microbial Status of Eggs

Small farmers often raise free-range poultry for specialty markets in an extensive production system with other livestock. Poultry may provide benefits to cattle and pasture fertilization while swine provide the ability to clear areas and increase product diversity. While combining multiple species in grazing systems has benefits, food safety concerns may arise with interspecies access to manure. A preliminary experiment was conducted at a university farm to determine the impact of integrating free-range poultry with cattle and swine on egg pathogens. Two free-range standard-breed layer flocks were studied: 1) Pastured chickens (Control, C) and 2) Pastured chickens integrated with livestock (Integrated, I). For C, a 7-hen flock of laying chickens was kept in a 58-m2 grassy yard enclosed by portable fencing. In the I treatment, a 7-hen flock shared a 0.25 ha pasture with 2 pigs and 3 heifers. Stocking density was extensive to allow chickens access to livestock fecal material. Both C and I chickens had access to small portable houses with nestboxes. All livestock had appropriate feeds, shade, and water. Feces (2 samples from cattle, swine, and I chicken, and 1 sample from C chickens) and eggs (20 each treatment) were collected at week 20 and tested for Salmonella and Campylobacter. Ten C and I egg shells were aseptically separated from contents and crushed with membranes; these and 2 pooled albumen 2 yolk samples were tested. Fecal, egg shell rinses, and egg content samples were evaluated for Salmonella (25 g of sample was placed in 225 mL 1% BPW, incubated 24 h at 37 C, transferred to TT and RV broth for 24 h at 37 C, then plated onto BGS and XLT4 and incubated 24 h at 37 C). For Campylobacter, fecal and eggshell rinse samples were direct plated onto CCDA and incubated 48 h at 42 C in a microaerophilic environment. One of 2 fecal samples from both I chicken and cattle were positive for Salmonella; none was detected in egg shells or contents. No Campylobacter was detected. These findings indicate that system-level research is needed to evaluate safety of food products in integrated livestock production.

This trial was conducted as part of a SSARE Young Scholar Enhancement grant. Appropriate Technology student Tyler Higgins at Appalachian State University became interested in sustainable agriculture and had the opportunity to start an integrated project at the university farm.

In the trial testing sericea lespedeza forage, none of the birds tested positive for Salmonella spp. while only one bird from tested positive for Campylobacter spp. See the manuscript for more details.

Objective 5: Conduct on-farm verification trials to determine the impact of practices developed

There are many different ways to integrate free range poultry into grazing livestock operations on small farms. Below are methods used by project farmer-collaborators.

Little Portion (Berryville AR)

Little Portion integrated goats, pigs, and poultry together. They raised up to 120 feeder pigs per year. The pasture area was a fescue/bermuda mix. The pigs were a Hampshire cross purchased from area breeders. The pigs had small portable huts, supplemental feed, and forage on pasture. They were controlled with two strands of temporary electric fencing. They were regularly rotated to a new paddock. There were no ruminant animals in the system but interestingly, Little Portionn found the pigs grazed the forage much like ruminants when initially introduced to the pasture area. Pigs ate tall grass before starting to root. Pasture areas that pigs denuded, particularly under trees, were re-seeded with rye. A portable corral made of steel gates and chain served to load them on a portable chute and onto a trailer for transport to the processor. Pigs were slaughtered at a USDA approved plant in nearby Missouri. A layer rotation (200 layer-flock) followed the pig rotation with a portable layer house. Yards were set up in wooded areas for layer chickens and protected with electronet fencing. Hawks preyed on white-feathered chickens in the woods, so Little Portion converted the flock to brown-feathered Bovan Browns. (They also tried the Delawares as a heritage breed but preferred Bovan hybrids.) During winter, layer chickens were housed in a large greenhouse structure.

Little Portion had an egg grading facility and increased flock size. They sold meat and eggs to restaurants, retailers, and individuals. However, Little Portion has now ceased livestock operations due to a lack of manpower.

“From the production side I thought what we were doing worked very well.  At the end we were rotating egg layers with finishing hogs on pasture and in the woods. The pasture and woods responding beautifully.  Pasture that had moss growing in daylight and weeds transformed to lush grasses.  I am very pleased with the forage growth compared to some years ago.  It is remarkably better.  The scrub and undergrowth in the forest was cleaned out by the hogs.  Later, grasses appeared which fed chickens and a later rotation of hogs.” -Clay Colbert, Farm Manager


Dancing Springs (Fayetteville AR)

Dancing Springs maintained a mixture of goats, horses, broiler chickens, and layer chickens, as well as blueberries. They have tried many variations of production systems and currently prefer a contained pastured poultry pen (10 x 12’) placed in areas with goats. While birds may not have access to a large yard, the birds are safe from predators (dogs have been problematic), cannot fly out of a yard, and electricity is not required for fences. The farm is home to a large family with young children and electrified fencing is a concern. The farm maintains other poultry housing: fixed strawbale house, 16 x 5’ house on a trailer (heavy), and a small house on a trailer for flexibility and future operations. Broilers will continue to be raised in warm seasons in a small hoophouse on skids. Blueberries have suffered from droughts.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach was conducted for the scientific and education communities, and small farm practitioners.

  • Research was presented at annual meetings (2010, 2011, 2014) of the Poultry Science Association where typically 800 scientists, students, and industry leaders attend. Research was published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research.
  • “Train the trainer” outreach was conducted which is likely to be far-reaching. It was comprised of a pastured poultry webinar for University of Maine Cooperative Extension and included extension agents and other educators from the Northeast.
  • Several publications were prepared for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension service on winterization for poultry flocks and also summer heat. This information reaches producers directly.
  • Two presentations were given at the Organic Growers School held each year in Asheville, NC, which is heavily attended by organic and small farm growers.
  • A national webinar on pastured poultry production for eExtension for Small and Backyard Flocks Community of Practice was largely attended by farmers.
  • A presentation on feeding pastured poultry from the farm was given at the Small Flock Field Days held by North Carolina Cooperative Extension for producers.
  • Publications prepared by the National Center for Appropriate Technology for the ATTRA program are particularly far-reaching due to a high-profile website.
  • Pastured Poultry Forages: The publication covers historical use of forages, nutrients in forage, factors affecting forage intake, utilizing native and established forages vs. seeding, insects and other live protein, sprouting (indoor forage), feeding methods on pasture including free-choice, impact of forage-feeding on pastured poultry meat and eggs.
  • Pastured Poultry: Egg Production: This publication covers raising pullets on pasture for egg production and maintaining egg layers. It includes a discussion of the impact of supplemental lighting to even out egg production through the year, while allowing a natural molt.


  • The Sustainable Development Department at Appalachian State University has incorporated these integrated livestock systems practices onto a 150-acre university farm and instructs 70 students per year in Applied Farming Systems (SD3125). Many of these students are beginning farmers or will work with farmers and food systems in the future.


  •  2010    Pastured Poultry Panel, Independent Small Animal Meat Processors Association, November 6, 2010, Marion, NC (15 farmers)
  • 2010    Poultry Science Association Annual Meeting in Denver, CO, July 11-14, 2010, “Free-choice Feeding of Free-Range Broilers”
  • 2011    Poultry Science Association Annual Meeting in St. Louis, MO, July 18-20, 2011, “Choice Feeding of Organic Meat Chickens.”
  • 2011    “Pastured Poultry Nutrition” and “Matching Poultry Genetics to Production System,” Organic Growers School, March 5-6, 2011, Asheville, NC. (20 farmers)
  • 2011 “Effect of Simulated Agroforestry Structures on Performance and Behavior of Organic Meat Chickens” 30th Poultry Science Symposium on Alternative Systems for Poultry – Health, Welfare and Productivity, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK from 7 – 9 September 7-9, 2011.
  • 2011 “Pasture-Based Meat Bird Production,” Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Annual Conference, Durham, NC, November 12, 2011. (20 farmers)
  • 2012    “Palatability of tannin-rich Sericea Lespedeza fed to broilers” International Poultry Science Program Jan.24-26, 2011 Atlanta, GA
  • 2012 “Sensory Attributes of Pastured Poultry.” American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Annual Meeting. Nov. 10, 2012. Carey, NC (20 farmers)
  • 2013 “Producing Poultry Meat on Pasture.” eXtension webinar. March 28, 2013. (see Past Webinars) (50 farmers)
  • 2013    “Feeding pastured poultry from local or farm-raised ingredients,” Small-Scale Egg Production in a Range Setting Field Day, Sep. 18, 2013, Piedmont Research Station, Salisbury, NC (25 farmers)
  • 2013    “Specialty Poultry Production: Free-range and Organic “ (webinar), Applied Poultry Science Training, Oct. 24, 2013, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Falmouth, ME
  • 2014 “Impact of Integrating Free-range Poultry with Cattle and Swine on the Microbial Status of Eggs.” Poultry Science Association annual meeting July 14-17, 2014. Corpus Christi, TX Poul. Sci.


  • Clark, D., Moyle, J.R., Bramwell, K., Tabler, T. 2013. Winterization suggestions for the poultry farm. Avian Advice Extension Publication, University of Arkansas.
  • Clark, D., Moyle, J.R. 2013. Dealing with summer heat in free range poultry. Avian Advice Extension Publication, University of Arkansas.
  • Donoghue, D.J., Reyes-Herrera, I., Venkitanarayanan, K., Fanatico, A.C., and Donoghue, A.M. 2011. Organic Poultry Production: Developing Natural Solutions to Reducing Pathogens and Maintaining Gut Health. The Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference. Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG), Chattanooga, TN. (abstract)
  • Ellis, Kevin. 2014. Pastured Poultry: Egg Production. ATTRA publication, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Fayetteville, AR. (In formatting)
  • Fanatico, A.C., V. B. Brewer, C. M. Owens-Hanning , D. J. Donoghue , and A. M. Donoghue. 2013. Free-choice Feeding of Free-range Meat Chickens. 2013 J. Appl. Poult. Res. 22 :750–758 10.3382/japr.2012-00687
  • Fanatico, A.C., V. B. Brewer, C. M. Owens-Hanning, and A. M. Donoghue.   2010. Free-Choice Feeding of Free-Range Meat Chickens. Poultry Science (abstract)
  • Fanatico, A.C., V. B. Brewer, C. M. Owens, and A. M. Donoghue. 2011. Choice feeding of organic meat chickens. Poultry Science. (abstract)
  • Fanatico, A.C., J.A. Mench, G.S. Archer, Y. Liang, V. B. Brewer, Owens, C.M., and A. M. Donoghue. 2011. Effect of Simulated Agroforestry Structures on Performance and Behavior of Organic Meat Chickens. World Poultry Science Association. (abstract)
  • Fanatico, A.C. and D.P. Smith. 2014. Impact of Integrating Free-range Poultry with Cattle and Swine on the Microbial Status of Eggs. Poul. Sci. Vol. 93 E-suppl (accepted abstract)
  • Moyle, J. R., J. M. Burke, A. Fanatico, K. Arsi, I. Reyes-Herrera, D. J. Donoghue, A. Woo-Ming and A. M. Donoghue. 2011. Palatability of Tannin-rich Sericea Lespedeza fed to broilers. Poultry Science (abstract).
  • Moyle, J.R., Burke, J.M., Fanatico, A., Mosjidis, J.A., Spencer, T., Arsi, K., Reyes-Herrera, I., Woo-Ming, A., Donoghue, D.J., and Donoghue, A.M. 2012. Palatability of tannin-rich sericea lespedeza fed to broilers. J Applied Poult. Sci. 21:891-896.
  • Spencer, T. 2013. Pastured Poultry Forages. ATTRA publication, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Fayetteville, AR.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:


 Integrating free range poultry with extensive livestock grazing and agroforestry holds potential to increase ecological sustainability. Farms can more effectively cycle nutrients, capture solar energy, and build on mutualistic relationships.

 Alternative feeding systems are particularly useful for poultry in order to make maximum use of nutrients on pasture and farm-raised feeds. Free-choice and choice feeding systems can be more efficient than fully-formulated feeds for free-range poultry.

 Forages are the primary source of nutrients for ruminant animals, but can also provide some nutrients for monogastrics. Perennial forages help prevent soil erosion and do not require frequent tillage. (Frequent tillage causes a large disturbance that keep agricultural systems in an early stage of succession.) In contrast, the use of perennial forages and crops allows mutualistic relationships such as natural pest control to develop (Gliessman, 2007). Livestock are key in sustainable agriculture systems to help cycle nutrients and to enable effective capture and flow of solar energy through the system. When woody perennials such as shrubs and trees are also incorporated into an agroecosystem, the system can evolve to a more mature ecosystem and become more resilient in the face of climate change, water shortage, new diseases, etc (Gliessman, 2007). Weather extremes played a role in the current project where the work period was extended for one year due to heat/droughts and some modifications of research protocols made.

 Increasing diversity on the farm is a key principle of sustainable agriculture, allowing for beneficial interactions, better resource use efficiency and microhabitat differentiation, better nutrient cycling with animals and enabling energy flow. Diverse systems provide additional resiliance to disturbances such as drought (Gliesman, 2007).


While ecological efficiency is important to steward natural resources and land, producers also need to steward their financial resources. Diversity in agroecosytems provides reduction of market risk for farmers. However, it is important that as enterprises are added to a farm that the quality of life not decline due to the management and labor required by multiple enterprises.


Consumers need access to high quality food and they want choices such as sustainably-produced and high levels of nutrients. Providing extensive high-quality pasture for poultry may have potential to increase nutrient content of products, such as increased vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids in eggs and chicken meat. Karsten et al. (2010) found more vitamins in eggs from hens raised on legume forage than grass forage. However, food safety in mixed production herds is a concern.

 Systems research is challenging but needed for holistic management in agriculture. In the future, as food systems and farming practices change, these practices researched in this project will help provide healthy food without degrading environmental resources or people.


Economic Analysis

Enterprise budgets for combined brood cows/free-range poultry or stocker cattle/free-range poultry are not readily available. Farmers interested in sustainable agriculture generally refer to separate grassfed beef budgets and pastured poultry budgets (Fanatico, 2002) and put them together. There is generally not enough revenue from free-range poultry production to justify extensive land charges; therefore integrating poultry with grazing animals can reduce costs.

 On a small-scale, beef or dairy cattle producers often consider adding a free-range poultry operation. Cattle production requires significant expenditures compared to free-range poultry.

Sample costs for a grassfed cow/calf and finishing enterprises:

  • Sample fixed costs: land charge, breeding stock, permanent fencing, corral and squeeze chute facilities, waterlines, water tanks, temporary electric fencing and chargers, scale, livestock trailer
  • Sample overhead costs: truck, tractor
  • Sample operating costs: labor, supplemental feed, mineral feeds, vaccines and medication, pasture seed, possible fertilizer

Sample costs to add a free-range poultry enterprise to grassfed beef enterprise:

  • Sample fixed costs: portable houses or pens, stock, electronet fencing, feeders, waterers, crates, processing equipment (or access to processing services)
  • Sample overhead costs: truck, tractor (can be further spread out over more enterprises)
  • Sample operating costs: labor, feed, vaccines and medication

Cattle pasture fertilizer costs may be reduced with the addition of poultry due to the nutrients in their manure.

 The cost of poultry feed is generally the most expensive cost of production, and if the enterprise is certified organic, the feed cost can be prohibitive. Raising feed on the farm, particularly for organic production, can reduce feed costs and increase nutrient cycling. Small-scale free-range poultry is considered low capital to enter; however, it is generally high labor, especially if houses or shelters need to be moved frequently. Welfare standards require that birds be checked on twice per day (AWA, 2014). Poultry processing is particularly high labor.

Integrating livestock may take different forms:

 Management needs increase with multiple enterprises and may tax management ability.

  • Beef producers often add poultry, which requires that they learn fundamental knowledge about poultry production, housing, and skills.
  • Poultry producers generally add sheep or goats which requires significant fencing, predator control, and parasite management

Farmer Adoption

As part of research of sustainable farming practices, farmer adoption of promising practices is key. In the current project, over 150 farmers were reached directly by presentations and many more will be reached indirectly. There are many practical considerations for successful adoption:

 Alternative feeding:

It is important to raise farm-raised feed as much as possible to cycle nutrients and reduce costs; alternative feeding systems can be helpful. Free choice feeding may be more suited to small- or medium-scale production rather than large-scale, because the number of feeders needed makes automation difficult. It is also useful for poultry production in developing countries where formulated feeds and premixes may be limited.

 Integration of species:

It is generally easier for small poultry producers to add sheep and goats instead of adding cattle due to the expense and handling facilities needed for large animals. Goats have a particularly important role on small farm for brush and noxious weed control since synthetic herbicides are not routinely used. Sheep help manage the pasture sward. However, sheep and goats require substantial fencing for containment and protection. They also are susceptible to internal parasite infection. Goat feces are excreted in pellet form so there may be no advantage of the harrowing action of feces by poultry. Anecdotal reports from small producers indicate that poultry do not eat or break up small ruminant manure pellets sufficiently to destroy harbor for internal parasites, even when the ruminants are grain-fed.

 Cattle, on the other hand, can manage extensive pasture swards and can generally be managed with only two strands of temporary electric fence. Cattle feces have a high moisture content and the harrowing action of birds spreading out dung pats may have an advantage to reduce cattle parasites. Cattle are not as susceptible to internal parasites as sheep and goats are, but cattle suffer from face flies and horn flies and integration with poultry has potential to help.

 When integrating cattle and free-range poultry, pasture management decisions are generally made based on the cattle since they need to use pasture efficiently. While poultry production generally has a positive impact on pasture forage, it depends on the production system. Some systems (i.e. portable pens) may confine birds at a high stocking density and may concentrate so much nutrient or bird scratching in a small area that the forage does not recover readily. In addition, if a portable poultry house or feeder is allowed to remain on pasture for over a week, it may kill the patch of forage underneath the structure and leave a gap on pasture that needs to be re-seeded to prevent weed establishment.

 Parasite Management:

While forage plants with high condensed tannin content may be helpful for ruminants for internal parasite control, they are less likely to be helpful for poultry because the high fiber content limits what birds can ingest. Rotational grazing practices can also help manage parasites and maintain high quality of pastures. Producers should maintain a diverse, perennial mixtures of grasses and legume as much as possible and encourage year-round grazing with warm and cool-season forages.

 Agroforestry practices:

Agroforestry practices are important to learn. The outdoor area for poultry and livestock can be enriched with shade and shelter that simulate agroforestry practices. This encourages birds to use the area more instead of staying by the house. If trees cannot be planted, artificial structures can be used.

 Product quality

Good Agricultural practices (GAP) and on-farm food safety practices should be used.


There are many additional practical considerations and management details need to incorporate free-range poultry with grazing animals and agroforestry. Many practical details are discussed in the ATTRA publications Pastured Poultry: Egg Production and Pastured Poultry Forages. For example, when integrating poultry with cattle, the housing and water system and other equipment must be highly mobile, especially if ground is hilly and steep.

 An important long-term goal for farmers is to reduce the amount of external inputs, particularly in the form of expensive feed for poultry and use perennial forage resource as much as possible.

In the future purchase of expensive corn and soybean from off-farm can be reduced. Farmer adoption is tied to economic benefits.


Areas needing additional study

  • Continued research on how poultry can obtain nutrients from pasture forage and woody perennials. Energy sources must be concentrated so generally cereal grains, pulses, or roots/tubers must be raised; however, tree crops such as acorns can also provide starch. Protein is generally contained in the cell contents instead of cell wall and therefore accessible to poultry. Methods that encourage birds to obtain protein from foraging are of interest due to self-harvest.
  • Continued research on how to use poultry to control external parasites in cattle. Face flies and horn flies are problematic in humid areas. Specifically, determine the correct ratio of poultry to cattle to provide parasite control under various management systems.
  • Continued research on how to control pathogens to maintain food safety in mixed production herds.

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.