How does the rotational grazing of poultry on cover crop land on a vegetable farm affect soil health and economic success?
Learning is always an evolution that bumps along over time. Through the work of doing a project, learning progresses over time. We realized early in the project that on our massive vegetable farm, raising chickens, alone, would be a major job. So we scaled back the project to chickens only and not sheep. Our first task was to find the right structure for raising the chickens. We needed something large to handle the volume of chickens but it also had to be portable for the rotational grazing. We had already tried a cattle trailer the year before but it was too small. We thought of a school bus but we learned they were hard to find and quite expensive. Before the chickens arrived, we stumbled upon the idea of discarded mobile home trailers. They are big and portable. We painted the first one green in hopes it would blend in with the field better.
At three weeks of age, the grazing began. Our goal was to find which cover crops were a perfect match for chickens. We planted white Dutch clover, oats and berseem clover, yellow blossom sweet clover, and millet.
On these various cover crops, our experiment continued. We had four batches of chickens throughout the summer. The first had five hundred Cornish Cross. The second was seven hundred Cornish Cross. The next batch was one thousand Freedom Ranger chickens. We heard they were better grazers and quite a delicacy. The last batch we started in September was two thousand Cornish Cross.
Care of the chickens took considerable time. We fed them twice a day and they drank very much water. The biggest job was getting them in at night. This summer, we were in the midst of building a vegetable packing shed. As the shed was being built, we realized it made perfect sense to add a separate chicken processing section to the shed. So we got the kill cones, scalder, plucker, cutting tables, and chill tanks. We also added a large, walk in freezer. Butchering the chickens was also a monumental task, but we developed a good system.
We learned an incredible amount from doing this project. One goal that evolved was to see what cover crops seemed most suited for chickens. The chickens were eager to tell us their answer by their actions! White Dutch clover was a huge success. It stayed short so it was the right height. It was always tender. Chickens would graze like cattle as they progressed across the field to feed on clover. Their little heads would bob up and down as they snapped the clover leaves off to eat. They also liked millet. Even when it was ripe, they ate the seeds. We could see this when they butchered them and saw their crops full of millet seed. Clovers such as berseem and yellow blossom sweet clover, got tall so quickly that they lost their accessibility to be eaten by chickens. They also lost their tenderness as they got older.
We initially got webbed electric netting to keep the chickens in. It turned out it wasn’t needed. The chickens didn’t stray too far from the trailer. We did learn that when the clover was good, the trailer houses needed to be moved every three days so they would always have fresh clover. We also learned that wire webbed netting around the trailer really helped so chickens wouldn’t hide under the trailer when we were trying to get them in at night. A corral of wire netting along the ramp and out a ways really helped to funnel them to the ramp when we were getting them in.
Trailer houses are very heavy and jacking them up to move them is not safe. So we bought a three point hitch attachment that made the moving job very easy. With that device, I could just lower the three point hitch below the trailer hitch and then lift it up and be ready to move the trailer safely to the new location.
The chickens swallowed up a lot of time. It would be much easier to raise them in a confinement setting. But the chickens had a much more natural setting and thrived on rotational grazing. Our customers also enjoyed seeing them outside.
With all that we learned about the logistics of raising pasture-fed chickens last year, we can get back to focus on the original question. How does this affect soil health? The key will be to move the trailers often so the plants are not killed by too much chicken fertilizer. We have the soil sample taken this winter so we will have next year’s sample that will show if there has been a change. We will also experiment with how much feed can be left out to maximize grazing. I know the current suggestion is 30 percent pasture and 70 percent feed. We will also have a better handle on the economics of pasture fed chickens. Since our shed wasn’t ready for processing on time, our first batches of chickens became older than normal. We will be pasture-feeding turkeys this year in a hay field of clover and grasses. We will learn the profitability of turkeys as well.
This past year, we had countless visitors to the farm. Many spent time with the chickens. Although we have sold at stands since 1978, we began a CSA model last year and had 452 members. While attending harvest events, they spent much time with the chickens. Next year, we plan to have 1200 members so there will be even more visitors to the farm.
This past winter, I spoke at the MN Fruit and Vegetable Growers conference and plan to next year as well.