Limited resource farmers in the USA need profitable farm enterprise alternatives to survive on the farm. In this project, Heifer Project International (HPI) and numerous collaborators gave limited resource farmers the opportunity to test a relatively new farm enterprise that is both economically and environmentally sound. That enterprise is pastured poultry. Pastured poultry is an endeavor in which broiler chickens (in this case) are raised on pasture in pens that are moved across the pasture daily. The chickens receive sunlight, fresh grass and fresh air everyday and are usually processed on the farm. No antibiotics are required in the feed. The system is healthy for the livestock, builds the soil with manure from the chickens, and provides the farmer with a decent return from this value added product.
The objectives of this three-year project were:
1. Provide hands-on training in pastured poultry production to twenty-four farm families who are currently members of farmer organizations supported by Heifer Project International. We exceeded this objective; 213 families were trained.
2. Review and summarize federal and state laws regarding on-farm processing of poultry. This was done for the 13 southern states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
3. Provide training in food safety and legal issues for the same twenty-four families and to assist them in complying with the laws in their state. This was done for all 213 families.
4. Provide training in market development of farm products for the same farmers. This was done for all 213 families.
5. Help these 24 families conduct on-farm practical trials of pastured poultry and its integration with their other farm enterprises. This was done for 54 of the 213 families who participated in the comprehensive training sessions.
6. Include at least eight technical advisors (county extension agents or advisors from other local organizations) in the training program so they are prepared to support and encourage these families and others in the community. We exceeded this objective. We provided training to 39 technical advisors.
7. Develop and implement monitoring systems that will provide useful information (income generation, pasture management, farm labor management, quality of life implications, farmer observations and problems) about integrating pastured poultry into a farming system. This was done. The results will be published by NCAT/ATTRA in case-study booklet form in December 1999.
8. Provide follow-up guidance and assistance to the families as they diversify their own production and marketing. This was done throughout the life of the project, and it will be continued through HPI=s normal supportive work with local farmer groups.
9. Aid in the development of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), which will serve these farmers and others around the country by providing a forum to share information and ideas related to pastured poultry. In 1997 we established and incorporated APPPA as a non-profit, 501(c)(6), trade association. It now has almost 500 members in 45 US states, Antigua, Australia, and Canada.
A key component of this project was comprehensive training for farm families and extensionists in all aspects of the pastured poultry enterprise: production, processing and marketing. We conducted eight major training workshops: three in Kentucky; two in Virginia (at the Salatin Family=s Polyface Farm); and one each in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Two hundred and thirteen farm families and 39 technical advisors participated in these events. Participants built chicken pens, moved the pens, learned about brooding the chicks, butchered chickens, received instruction in food safety and legal issues, learned marketing techniques, and learned how to complete the required record books.
After completing training, the farmers who chose to continue in this program were given funds to do a small scale version of pastured poultry on their own farms. With the funds each farmer built a pen, and purchased 100 chicks, a feeder and a waterer. Upon receiving their checks, each farmer also signed a contract to “pass on the gift.” Passing on the gift is a Heifer Project tradition in which everyone who receives a gift of animals becomes a donor. In this case each farmer who received funds to start the poultry project was required to return to Heifer Project the purchase price of the chicks and to train another farmer in their area in the pastured poultry enterprise.
In signing the contract, the farmers also agreed to monitor their activities in record books provided to them. The record books included an expense and income log, a folder for receipts, a log to record total pounds of feed used, a daily calendar to record particular activities or occurrences, an information page on pasture management, a detailed labor summary, questions about the family=s values and how this project impacted the quality of life for themselves and their community, and a page on farmer observations and problems.
Fifty-four families chose to fully participate in and take advantage of this whole program. This significantly exceeded our original goal of 24 families.
The National Center for Agricultural Law Research and Information (NCALRI) prepared a legal review of federal and state laws concerning on-farm processing and marketing of poultry in all 13 states and the two territories in the Southern Region. This review will be expanded to include all 50 states as part of the second SARE-funded project we began in 1999: AEnhancing Feasibility for Range Poultry Expansion.@
As original collaborators, Kentucky State University and Southern University demonstrated Pastured Poultry throughout the term of this project, and provided numerous opportunities for farmers and extensionists to learn more about this enterprise.
Fort Valley State University in Georgia and Florida A&M University joined this initiative in 1997 and actively demonstrated Pastured Poultry during 1998. Both of these institutions hosted Pastured Poultry training workshops in January 1999.
The results to date have been very encouraging. Through the four growing seasons completed (1996-1999), 213 limited-resource farmers have received training and 54 of them tested pastured poultry on their own farms with assistance from this SARE grant. Most have been very pleased with the results of their work and several have expanded their operations or plan to in the future. In most cases, farmers are finding a good market for the chickens and see pastured poultry as a viable component of their farms.
In addition to the farmers who actually received SARE funds to try the enterprise, many other farmers have received just the training portion of the program and some have gone on to start enterprises on their own. In addition to the formal training sessions provided by this project, the participants and collaborators have made numerous presentations at agricultural conferences, workshops and field days throughout the South and around the country. Pastured Poultry is now on the agenda of nearly every educational event focused on sustainable agriculture.
Our outreach to farm families in other parts of the country also continues to grow. The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) was organized in January 1997 under the guidance of a Steering Committee of nine producers, and it was incorporated later that year. Since then, APPPA has published 10 issues of its quarterly newsletter, AAPPPA Grit!@, and grown to almost 500 dues-paying members.
Likewise, the demand for ATTRA=s services related to Pastured Poultry has surged. In 1996-99, requests for their general publication on Sustainable Chicken Production averaged four times higher than in 1995. They also received more than three times as many specific questions about poultry in these years, compared to the number received in 1995.
Pastured poultry is a sustainable livestock production system that complements other farm enterprises very well. It is good for the people, the land and the livestock. It encourages local food economies and puts more of the food dollar into the hands of farmers. It builds bridges between producers and consumers. It has the potential to keep many more family farmers on their farms.
The specific objectives of this project were as follows:
1. provide hands-on training in pastured poultry production to 24 farm families who are currently members of farmer organizations that are supported by Heifer Project International. Training will include information generated on the success, impact and problems that ten other farmers have already experienced in pastured poultry production.
2. review and summarize federal and state laws regarding on-farm processing of poultry;
3. provide training in food safety and legal issues for the same 24 families and assist them in complying with the laws in their state;
4. provide training in market development of farm products for the same farmers;
5. help these 24 families conduct on-farm practical trials of pastured poultry production and its integration with their other farm enterprises;
6. include at least eight technical advisors (county extension agents or advisors from other local organizations) in the training program so they are prepared to support and encourage these families and others in the community;
7. develop and implement monitoring systems that will provide useful information (income generation, pasture management, farm labor management, quality of life implications, farmer observations, and problems) about integrating pastured poultry into a farming system;
8. provide follow-up guidance and assistance to the families as they diversify their own production and marketing; and
9. aid in the development of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), which will serve these farmers and others around the country by providing a forum to share information and ideas related to pastured poultry.
Healthy, productive, and self-supporting small farms can be an extremely valuable asset to this country. Currently most owner-operators of small farms do not support their families entirely from their farm income. Many would like to find ways to increase their farm profitability so they would not have to rely on off-farm income to survive. The difficulty of supporting a family through traditional farm enterprises has led to the well-known decline in the number of owner-operated, self supporting, small farms in this country in recent decades. The task of supporting a family on the farm is even more difficult for farmers who have very few resources to begin with. This project addresses the challenge of making small farms profitable so that limited resource families can truly support themselves through their own farm enterprises.
Joel and Teresa Salatin and family have worked many years to make their farm self-supporting. They have applied their own creativity, energy, and perceptiveness to build a system of inter-related and complementary agriculture enterprises which support their family. Their accomplishments with pastured poultry, a mobile hen house, grass-fed beef, portable shade for cattle, pasture improvement, on-farm processing, and direct marketing are becoming well known as they make presentations and contribute frequently to many farm publications. The Salatin family’s comprehensive model of pastured poultry production, on-farm processing and relationship marketing will be used in this project.
The declining numbers of Americans involved in production agriculture, the decay of small towns and rural communities, the challenges of making small farms profitable, the concentration of agricultural production and the many public concerns about large, confinement livestock operations are well documented. The pastured poultry model developed by the Salatin family offers a positive response to these issues which plague conventional American agriculture. The model is well documented in Joel Salatin’s book and professionally produced videotape (1)(2).
Poultry production in which the birds have access to forage was a very common practice in the past and it was believed that the best results in raising poultry were only achieved with a plentiful supply of green feed (3)(4). Supplements of green feed have been shown to reduce feed requirements and lower mortality (5), though there are some reports that feed requirements can actually increase with birds that are ranging (6). Today, the term most commonly used in referring to chickens raised outside with access to growing forage is “range chickens” or “free range chickens,” but there are actually several different production models in operation (7)(8)(9).
Market potential exists for poultry products raised in alternative production models (10). This market has developed in response to concern about production and processing methods used by most of the commercial poultry industry (11).
Limited on-farm processing of poultry, which is one component of the Salatin pastured poultry model, is provided for in federal law in The Poultry Products Inspection Act (Section 15). State and local laws vary and must be investigated case by case.
This project was designed to enable limited resource farmers to conduct on-farm practical trials of pastured poultry production in combination with other farm enterprises. The Salatins have seen their model duplicated by relatively prosperous farmers but they also believe it is particularly well suited to limited resource farmers. It can be started on a very small scale and requires little capital investment to test. It has the potential to bring families closer together because it can involve women and children more than most other livestock ventures. A family can thoroughly explore its suitability for their situation by building only one or two small pens and raising from 50 to 200 birds during one summer. Those who wish to pursue the model may expand their enterprises at a pace appropriate to their circumstances and personal motivation.
Other potential benefits from this model include:
1. enhancement of environmental quality–no pollution of air or surface water from disposal of vast quantities of poultry litter;
2. increasing soil fertility and forage production–manure falls directly on growing forage providing fertility and increased forage production to pastures usually not fertilized by limited resource farmers;
3. multiple land use–ruminants such as cattle, goats or sheep are grazed in conjunction with poultry;
4. new marketing techniques–farmers who have often marketed only through conventional channels will be motivated to try direct approaches such as relationship marketing. If successful these approaches could be used with other farm enterprises.
5. local food production for local consumption–most customers of these farmers will be from nearby towns and cities, helping to provide a greater source of local food production while improving the lot of limited-resource farmers;
6. positive consumer-producer relationships and value added products–consumers looking for alternatives to large scale poultry production and processing will learn about food production and develop relationships with farmers providing the value added product they seek; and
7. enhancement of the quality of life for farm families–this model provides an opportunity for profitable self-employment on the farm for the whole family.
This project was implemented through collaboration among several private, non-profit development organizations, land grant universities and extension services, The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) through the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas) program, private farmers, and the Salatin family. Farm families with limited resources were selected from existing community groups (partner organizations with Heifer Project International [HPI]) which are working to improve the economic and nutritional status of their members. HPI is currently working with 50 such groups in the United States and Canada, the majority of which are in the southern region of the United States. Most of these organizations are grassroots groups of farmers that have worked hard to become partners with Heifer Project. They are well organized and are committed to improving the quality of life for farmers in their communities.
Family selection from the farmer groups was based on willingness to put in the work required, ability to provide feed for the birds raised, and level of enthusiasm for direct marketing of farm products. HPI Field Representatives worked in close cooperation with leaders of the community groups to select farmer participants. Selected families were given hands-on training in the Salatin’s family-scale diversified livestock production and marketing system. They were helped to try out the Salatin model of pastured poultry production on their own farms, integrating it with other farm enterprises (such as cattle and goat production).
Five members of Heifer Project International’s USA/Canada Projects Team, the Salatins, and representatives from the other primary collaborators jointly prepared the detailed training and follow-up plan. This three-year plan included training sessions for the first eight family participants, HPI’s USA/Canada Project Team and local technical advisors at the Salatin’s farm; group training sessions in the participants’ local communities; on-farm follow up and visits by HPI’s USA/Canada Project Team and technical advisors; and farmer to farmer training. (The project design called for the first set of eight farmers to help the second set of eight farmers build their pen and decide how to manage the system, and for the second set to help the third group of farmer participants.) In addition there was thorough documentation of each farm family’s enterprise development and presentation of the results to others in the participants’ local communities. All training was highly participatory, predominantly hands-on and experiential with a small amount of classroom instruction.
This project was implemented essentially as planned. Strong interest in pastured poultry as a highly appropriate and valuable enterprise for limited-resource farmers enabled us to reach even more farm families and extensionists than originally planned. We significantly exceeded our objective in terms of the number of families who were helped to thoroughly test this enterprise on their own farms.
The records kept by the participating farmers in the first year have been compiled by Anne Fanatico of NCAT/ATTRA. A summary of their production figures will be case study booklet which will be published in December 1999.
An evaluation of each year’s activities was conducted annually in November. The information gathered in this evaluation process helped us plan for the next year’s activities.
Educational & Outreach Activities
“AAPPPA Grit!” is the quarterly newsletter of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA). Ten issues have been printed to date, and this publication will continue.
A case study booklet about the experiences of farmers who participated in this project will be published by NCAT/ATTRA in December 1999. Copies of this booklet will be sent to the Southern SARE and USDA Sustainable Agriculture programs.
The legal review covering all 50 states will be published when it is completed.
Numerous smaller articles and press releases were listed in our earlier annual reports.
Interest in Pastured Poultry has grown dramatically during the last four years. Almost every educational event related to sustainable agriculture includes something about grass-based livestock production, and that includes Pastured Poultry. Our annual report for 1997 listed 35 training events, field days, and presentations at conferences made by our collaborators in the southern region in that year alone; and the volume of that activity has increased since then.
Rather than try to list all of these events which took place from May of 1996 through December 1999, here are a few examples of the education and outreach activities which occurred in 1999. Most of these are in the Southern Region, but some are not. HPI is assisting limited-resource farmers with Pastured Poultry throughout the country.
1. February 6 – Jim McNitt, PP training session for 10 farmers and one extension agent, Opelousas, LA.
2. March 17 – PP presentation, RC&D Grazing Workshop, Fultonville, NY, 25 people.
3. March 26 – Agricultural Marketing Outreach Workshop, Memphis, TN. Jim McNitt of Southern University chaired two sessions in which Steve Muntz (HPI’s Appalachian Program Manager) presented “Production, Processing and Marketing of Poultry and Poultry Products.” Forty people attended these sessions.
4. March 31 – PP presentation, RC&D Grazing Workshop, Acra, NY, 20 people.
5. April 1 – PP presentation, RC&D Grazing Workshop, Ghent, NY, 18 people.
6. April 10 – PP Field Day at David Garfrerick’s farm, Alpine, AL. Ten people attended: eight farmers and two Tuskegee University faculty.
7. April 10 – Pastured Poultry Expo, Norwich, NY. 100 people attended this event organized by the Northeast Pastured Poultry Association (NEPPA) in partnership with the South Central NY and Hudson Mohawk RC&D Councils.
8. April 17 – Jim McNitt, presentation to 12 farmers, Louisiana Organic Growers Association meeting, Eunice, LA.
9. May – NEPPA/RC&D representatives met with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension 4H Program Staff, Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties, to provide information and education on PP. 30 people attended.
10. May 15 – Pen building workshop, 10 people, Hudson Mohawk RC&D, NY.
11. June 12 – PP Processing Training, Appleland farm, Castleton, NY. 20 people.
12. June 17 – Mid-Atlantic Pastured Poultry Expansion Meeting, Buena Vista, VA. 14 farmers and two technical advisors.
13. August 6 – Promised Land Network Field Day, Nazareth, TX. Eleven people.
14. August 8 – PP Processing Training, Cobleskill, NY, 10 people. NEPPA facilitated 19 processing days in NY this year. In all of these, farmers were passing on the gift of training to new members.
15. August 14 – Alison Meares Cohen (HPI’s Chicago Program Manager) and Roger and Carol Stuart from Florida participated in a PP Field Day sponsored by the Kankakee County Farm Service Agency. Twenty farmers and their families, and four extension workers participated.
16. August 21 – PP training for eight farmers and three extension personnel, Southern University Poultry Farm, Baton Rouge, LA.
17. September 25 – Informal chicken processing training at Muntz Farm in Kentucky. Three farmers and their daughters spend the day learning how to process Pastured Poultry. Similar unrecorded events are happening frequently in HPI’s project areas.
18. October 14 – Steve Muntz, “Opportunities in the Evolving Range/Pastured Poultry Industry,” Second National Small Farmers Conference, St. Louis, MO. Forty people attended.
19. October 30 – Kathy Colverson (HPI’s Southeast Program Manager) had a booth and gave PP presentation to 50 people at the Florida Small Farmer’s Conference, Brooksville, FL. Over 1100 people attended the conference.
20. November – NEPPA/RC&D representatives met with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension 4H Program Staff, Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties, to provide information and education on PP. 30 people attended.
21. November 1 – Rigoberto Delgado (HPI’s Southwest Program Manager), presentation to 34 people at the Council for the Development of the Colonias in the Diocese of Las Cruces, NM. Also two presentations the same day to the Sustainable Rural Development Program of the Luna Vocational Technical Institute.
22. November 5 – Rigoberto Delgado, presentation to 13 farmers, Columbus, NM.
23. November 6 – NEPPA Booth at Regional Farm and Food Projects annual meeting, NY.
24. November 10 – Rigoberto Delgado, presentation to seven farmers and three others, Redford, TX.
25. November 14 – Steve Muntz served on two panels at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, High Point, NC: “Specialty Markets for Livestock Products” and “Processing Livestock Products.” Thirty-five attended.
26. November 18 – Presentation by Steve Muntz at Kentucky State University’s regular “Third Thursday Field Day.”
27. December 11 – APPPA members will make three presentations at the Acres U.S.A. Conference, Minneapolis, MN.
28. December 12 – APPPA’s first annual general membership meeting, Minneapolis, MN. Business meeting and educational presentations for members.
HPI and APPPA also planned, conducted, and paid for a special four-day gathering of Pastured Poultry producers in August, 1999. This Pastured Peepers Symposium focused on the production of hatching eggs and chicks from parent stock raised on pasture. This exciting event is part of an ongoing effort to produce broiler chicks which are healthier and better suited to life on pasture than the chicks currently available from the conventional broiler industry. Thirty-one APPPA members from 16 states attended. A complete report of the event is included below as Appendix One.
Our educational program evaluation plan results are as follows:
- Requests for case studies – none – these will not be available until the case study booklet is completed later this year.
Requests to NCAT/ATTRA for information about pastured poultry. Requests to ATTRA for technical information about Pastured Poultry increased dramatically during the years of this project:
In 1996 there were 261 requests for ATTRA’s general Sustainable Chicken Production publication, and 36 specific questions about poultry.
In 1997 there were 388 requests for ATTRA’s general Sustainable Chicken Production publication, and 119 specific questions about poultry.
In 1998 there were 393 requests for ATTRA’s general Sustainable Chicken Production publication, and 152 specific questions about poultry.
In 1999 (thru 11/30), there were 325 requests for ATTRA’s general Sustainable Chicken Production publication, and 75 specific questions about poultry (fewer fewer questions because more information
was added to the general publication)
- Membership of APPPA. Since its beginning in 1997, APPPA membership has grown to 473 members as of 11/30/99. The members live in 45 of the 50 US states. Thirteen members are from outside the US: one from Antigua, two from Australia, and 10 from Canada. See Appendix Two.
Attendance at field days. The attendance at field days has been good. See the actual participant numbers in the section above.
Sufficient customers for all farmers. Most of the farmers have been able to find sufficient customers for their chickens.
Through this project, 213 limited resource farmers have received intensive training and at least 54 of them have tested pastured poultry on their own farms. Most have been very pleased with the results of their work and several have expanded their operations or plan to in the future. In most cases, the participating farmers are finding a good market for the chickens and see pastured poultry as a viable component of their farm.
In addition to the farmers who actually received SARE funds to try the enterprise, many other farmers have received just the training portion of the program. Some of these folks have started Pastured Poultry enterprises on their own.
Perhaps the most significant long-term impact of this project is the deeper understanding of sustainable agriculture and holistic management gained by many farmers who undertake Pastured Poultry enterprises. The Pastured Poultry model is complex, comprehensive, and designed to mesh with other farm activities. Implementing it properly requires careful consideration of many other related factors and activities on the farm.
Another highly significant result for Pastured Poultry producers is the strengthening of their relationships with their customers. Relationship marketing is critical to economic success, and it also results in many opportunities to educate customers about food quality and many other agricultural issues.
As expected, one of the biggest challenges has been the on-farm processing component of the enterprise. Although the legal survey of federal and state laws done by the National Center for Agriculture Law Research and Information suggested that on-farm processing was perfectly legal for limited numbers of poultry, some producers have found state and county officials who are strongly opposed to small-scale, on-farm processing.
Another real challenge for Pastured Poultry producers is increasing their processing capacity. The small-scale equipment provided to the farmers in the project is adequate for processing the limited numbers of chickens raised by beginning producers, but it quickly becomes very inadequate for those farmers who want to quickly expand their enterprises.
Heifer Project International is continuing to work on these issues. With Southern SARE support we are working with other collaborators and officials from Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi to design mobile processing units (MPUs) which can meet federal inspection requirements. Our intent is that these MPUs would also have increased processing capacity and be easily situated at different farms. We are also working on an expansion of the legal review to include all 50 states.
Our original objectives did not change. All of them were met, and in several cases, significantly surpassed.
The most significant problems we faced involved the state regulations covering on-farm processing and marketing. They are not consistent from state to state, and are often quite restrictive and not helpful to family-scale operations. Farm families who want to make Pastured Poultry a significant enterprise must make sure they understand the regulations of their state and locality, and find a way to operate in compliance with them. We will continue and expand our work on this subject through assistance from the Southern SARE program in a new project begun in 1999 (Enhancing Feasibility for Range Poultry Expansion).
The Southern SARE Program has not hindered our progress in any way. On the contrary, Southern SARE has been very helpful to our outreach and education efforts by providing substantial publicity about this project. We were also very pleased to make a presentation of our work at the SARE 10th Anniversary Celebration Conference in Austin, Texas, in March 1998.
On behalf of all the farm families (and their fortunate customers) who have benefited from learning more about Pastured Poultry, we sincerely thank the Southern SARE Program staff for your assistance and support throughout this project. We look forward to continuing our valuable, beneficial relationship with you.
We have enjoyed excellent cooperation with all of our collaborators on this project. Our thorough, participatory advance planning yielded clarity of purpose and responsibilities for everyone involved in this effort. Recognizing the great potential of Pastured Poultry for limited-resource farmers, everyone has worked hard to accomplish their own portion of this project; and as a result, we have significantly surpassed our original objectives.
Tuskegee University was one of our original collaborators. Unfortunately, however, they were unable to participate fully because of the unexpected illness of their primary faculty person connected with this project. In spite of this, we are pleased that we accomplished most of what we originally anticipated in Alabama.
Areas needing additional study
1. Salatin, Joel. Pastured Poultry Profits–Net $25,000 in Six Months on 20 Acres. Polyface, Inc., Swoope, Virginia. 1993.
2. Salatin, Joel. “Pastured Poultry Profits–Net $25,000 in Six Months on 20 Acres” (video – 1 hour). Polyface, Inc., Swoope, Virginia. Five Star Video Productions (800-868-5262). 1993.
3. Salatin, Joel. “Pastured Poultry Captures New Orleans’ Chefs,” The Stockman GrassFarmer, December, 1994, p. 1.
4. “Is Your Food Safe?,” CBS 48 Hours (television recording), February 9, 1994.
5. Ayers, Anne C. “Sustainable Chicken Production–Information Package,” ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), Fayetteville, Arkansas. 1994. p. 5.
6. Hoffman, Edmund. “Poultry Pasture,” University of Delaware Agricultural Experiment Station. Bulletin No. 254. 1945. 27 p.
7. “Poultry Keeping,” Farmer’s Cyclopedia. Doubleday, Page & Company 1916, I, p. 578.
8. Schaible, P.J. Feed Formulation in Poultry: Feeds and Nutrition. The AVI Publishing Co., Inc, Westport, Connecticut. 1970. p. 424-463.
9. Elson, H.A. “Trends in Management Systems,” World Poultry Science Journal. 1988. Vol. 44. p. 64-65.
10. Lee, Andy. Chicken Tractor. Good Earth Publications. Shelburne, Vermont. 1992.
11. Mollison, Bill. “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia. p. 429-432.
Thirty-one Pastured Poultry producers (PPPs) from 16 states gathered in Virginia in August 1999 to learn the current state of the art of producing hatching eggs and broiler chicks from parent stock raised on pasture. This first-ever Pastured Peepers Symposium was organized by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), and made possible by financial support from Heifer Project International (HPI).
PPPs have long recognized that the broiler chicks most commonly used by the conventional poultry industry are not very well suited for the way we want to raise them on pasture. They have been bred to grow fast, and they do! So fast, in fact, that weak legs and hearts are common, they do not forage very well, and they are very susceptible to heat stress. All they want to do is eat, rest, and eat again. While this lazy couch-potato attitude toward life may be appropriate for a bird raised in confinement where there is not much else to do but eat and rest, it prevents these birds from enjoying life to the fullest when they are raised on pasture.
For pasture-based poultry production we definitely want a bird which will grow fast, but we don’t want one whose heart cannot keep up with its body’s growth rate. We want birds that are healthy, hardy, vigorous, and able to walk and forage well. We want birds that will thrive on pasture, and produce a top-quality meat carcass at the same time.
A few years ago the Salatin family and several other PPPs in Virginia began to wonder if some of the same positive benefits of raising poultry on green grass could be found in chicks whose parents were raised and kept on pasture. Compared to confinement rearing, they reasoned, we get healthier broilers on pasture, and better quality eggs with darker orange yolks from hens on pasture, so we just might get healthier chicks, too, if we raise their parents on pasture. Thus began the effort to produce and compare Pastured Peepers to the conventional industry chicks we’ve all been using.
The number of Pastured Peepers produced has grown from a very small beginning just three years ago. Most of the PPPs who have tried them have been favorably impressed by their vigor and survivability, but it is still too early to tell if they are significantly better than the conventional industry chicks. And there is still a great deal to learn about this aspect of Pastured Poultry production. Timothy Shell (a member of APPPA’s Board of Directors) and his wife Naomi of Mt. Solon, VA, are the current leaders in this field. Their 200-hen flock produced over 12,000 chicks in the 1999 season. The Shells were the primary hosts of our 1999 Pastured Peepers Symposium, as we focused on learning as much as possible from their experience. Our hope is that more PPPs around the country will raise some Pastured Peepers so we can expand our collective knowledge much faster and share this with each other through APPPA.
We are grateful to the Shells for being our hosts, for sharing their knowledge, and for continuing the spirit of sharing and cooperation we appreciate so much in APPPA. During our sojourn in Virginia we also spent an afternoon at Good Earth Farm with Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman, and one day at Polyface Farm with Joel and Teresa Salatin and family. We owe many thanks to them as well.
We all know that many things in life are more difficult and more complex than raising chickens. We also know, however, that raising chickens (just like any other enterprise) does have its own particular complexities and specialized knowledge. In this Symposium we learned of several important aspects of Pastured Peeper production which must be given special consideration and which are significantly different than raising broilers on pasture.
One of the most basic differences is the challenge of managing and controlling the grazing of a large group of adult birds in a manner consistent with our pasturing philosophy. Many people who wanted to produce eggs have added nest boxes to standard pasture pens and learned that this system requires a lot of labor compared to the relatively small number of hens in each pen. Portable hen houses (“eggmobiles”) for day ranging hens have worked well for some folks, but not so well for others who have smaller acreage and don’t really want the hens roosting on their front porch or roaming uncontrolled through their garden.
Thus, we were thrilled to see the FeatherNet system of layer management now in use at both the Shell Farm and at Polyface Farm. This system uses poultry electronet to free range laying hens around a portable hoophouse which provides shelter for the nest boxes and provides a place for the birds to sleep at night and get out of bad weather when necessary. Enough electronet is used to create a pen large enough to accommodate the birds for three days. Then the fencing, hoophouse, birds and all are moved to a fresh spot of grass every three days. This system dramatically reduces the labor required for a large number of birds, while enabling the farm family to truly control and manage the grazing of their birds. The most common style of electronet available today comes from Premier Fence Systems in Iowa. You may order a copy of their catalog by calling 800-282-6631. Or you may email them (email@example.com).
A second major difference is the restricted feeding program which is required for breeding stock. If these birds were fed free-choice (like the broilers) they would simply be too fat and overweight for good production. Both egg production and hatchability are adversely affected by obesity in replacement pullets and hens. And when I say restricted feeding, I mean RESTRICTED! Most of us could hardly believe that the birds would do well on the small amount of feed which was recommended. It makes sense when you think about it, but this requires a big mental adjustment for broiler producers: instead of producing a bird with a four-pound carcass at eight weeks of age, you now want a bird that is only slightly larger than that at 24 weeks of age! This much slower growth rate translates to a huge difference in the amount of feed consumed by the birds each day.
The Shells have followed the feeding guide table contained in the “Hubbard Classic Breeder Management Guide,” published by the Research and Development Department of Hubbard Farms in New Hampshire (phone: 603-756-3311). Hubbard Farms and several other poultry companies have their management guides posted on the worldwide web. A listing of some of those can be found at this site prepared by the Virginia Extension Service (http://www.apsc.vt.edu/Faculty/Clauer/resource/breeder).
We also observed that the physical act of feeding the birds requires some creative thinking in this restricted feeding regime. It is extremely difficult to walk among the ravenous birds if you’re carrying their next meal in a bucket. You are almost certain to injure some of them because of their frenzied crowding around your feet. Tim Shell has solved this problem with lightweight feeder troughs made from PVC pipe which he is able to slide under the electronet fencing. This allows him to pull the empty troughs outside the fencing, fill them there without the birds getting in his way, and then pull them quickly back inside the fencing where the birds swarm over them to begin their meal. It is also vital to have enough trough space for all the birds to eat at once, because all the feed will be consumed in about 15 minutes! If they cannot all get to the feed at the same time, some of the birds will not get their share.
The poultry company management guides also contain useful information about the best male to female ratio for maximum egg fertility. The Hubbard guide recommends eight to nine males per 100 females from the beginning of egg laying through peak production, and gradually reducing to seven or eight good males per 100 females by the end of the laying period. This ratio is important to maintain: too few males will result in infertile eggs, too many roosters will increase the physical stress on the females (even to the point of injuring them).
One suggestion which might help the hens maintain the feather covering on their backs and be more comfortable throughout the breeding period is to clip the tips of the toes of the males when they are only a few days old. Without toenails, the roosters would do a lot less damage to the hens. Some producers will not want to do this to their rooster chicks, and I understand that, but it is also pretty unpleasant when hens are severely scratched (and sometimes seriously wounded) by the roosters mounting them. Too many roosters can be a real problem.
Another critical aspect of this enterprise is egg handling. It is absolutely essential to manage your flock so the hens can lay their clean eggs in clean nests and you can keep them clean until they go into the incubator. No floor eggs or dirty eggs should be used for hatching. Egg cleanliness has a dramatic effect on hatchability.
Hatching eggs should also be selected for uniformity of size. Eggs with shell defects or double yolks should not be used for hatching. More detailed recommendations for egg handling can be found in the poultry company management guides.
During the Symposium we visited the local hatchery which does custom incubation and hatching for the Shell Family. There we learned about the many technicalities involved in this aspect of producing healthy chicks: cleanliness, temperature and humidity control throughout incubation, frequent egg turning, and adjusting the temperature and humidity during the final stages of hatching. I was amazed to learn how critical the final hatching stage is: everything can be fine up to that point, and then healthy embryos can die in the last day if the humidity in the hatcher is wrong. While some PPPs will want to acquire an incubator and hatch their own eggs, I believe it is highly advisable to find an experienced hatchery to handle the incubation and hatching of our pasture-produced eggs. I am sure they would do a better job of that than I would. It would take me a long time to learn the things they already know, so I would gladly pay a reasonable price for this service. (This year the Shells paid their custom hatchery eight cents per egg set.)
What does the future hold for Pastured Peepers? I think they have a lot of potential to strengthen Pastured Poultry enterprises by providing chicks more suitable for the pastured production model. We have to really prove that, however, by producing many more of them and seeing how they actually perform in different parts of the country. There is still a great deal to learn about how to better manage breeder and layer flocks on pasture. I’m sure that lots of innovation is still possible in the design of fencing, shelters, feeders and nest boxes for Pastured Poultry systems.
We also have an immense amount to learn about the genetics of our birds, and which breeds and strains can perform best on pasture. This subject area holds a great deal of promise as well. The Pastured Peeper field is wide open for creative minds and energetic farm families who want to be part of healthy, wholesome agriculture in North America.
In addition to everything we learned about Pastured Peepers, we also learned a tremendous amount from the other Symposium participants about Pastured Poultry production and marketing in general in their part of the country. It was really uplifting to meet everyone and realize what a strong foundation of Pastured Poultry producers is growing throughout the country. This truly was a memorable and powerful gathering of the pioneers of Pastured Poultry. As one participant remarked, “This was a great learning experience. I’m very proud to be an APPPA member.”
Well, so am I!