Integrating poultry and sheep on vegetable cropping land for increased economic return and enhanced fertility
Note to readers, attached is the complete annual report for FNE08-642
To create a semi-permanent pasture on fallow vegetable farm land and integrate meat-type chickens and sheep in a rotational grazing scheme while determining both the economic and environmental sustainability of such an enterprise. In addition, we will be looking at the pros and cons of bringing livestock to land where vegetables have traditionally been grown and the effects of “coupling”, or sharing land with another farm on a temporary basis and the result of such a concept.
Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds is a run as part-time diversified livestock enterprise with a one acre intensive market garden. In 2008 the farm grew over 700 meat-type chicken (2 breeds), 30 hogs, 4 sheep, over 300 egg layers, and managed a rabbit herd of 2 bucks and 15 does. The land used to manage all of the above exceeded 17 acres. Backyard Birds sells primarily direct to consumer through pre-order, direct from our self-serve “mini-store”, and through several retail stores. We pride ourselves in growing premium quality products while treating the land and our animals with respect and diligent attention to ensure all will thrive and grow in a healthy and sustainable manner.
Peter Lowy (me) was the principal in carrying out this project. Day to day chores and activities were carried out by me with assistance from my partner, Jennifer Hashley. Jennifer Hashley provided most of the outreach coordination, resource materials, and PowerPoint presentations. Stephen Herbert was the technical advisor and helped in the initial draft of the grant proposal and advised on establishing the pasture. No visits were made to the farm during the grant period – occasional emails were used for questions and advice and I traveled to meet Mr. Herbert at a talk he gave on pasture management. I met with our sheep advisor, Ellen Raja, a couple of times to discuss sheep management and we communicated via e-mail when necessary.
On March 11, 2008 I met for several hours with our sheep advisor, Ellen Raja. It was a lengthy conversation and practical visit with her sheep and I found myself looking forward to working with the sheep for this grant.
Shortly after receiving notification of the grant approval I arranged for renting land from Steve Verrill, the owner of the farm where we live and run our animals. It was anticipated that we would be able to use the field as outlined in the grant but Steve had last minute objections and thus we moved the field from “Upper Wheeler” field to the “White pond” field. This is a nearby 3.4 acre field in a very residential area 1 mile from the original field. This field is approximately 1100’x135’, is located in an area with homes on three sides. It has been very low in fertility and is a loamy-sand rather than the sandy loam, but this worked out well in the end. Greater detail and the impact of this change will be discussed later.
Forage seeds were purchased and our advisor, Stephen Herbert, provided some experimental seed blends for us to trial. In mid-April the White pond field was moldboard plowed and a Perfecta field cultivator was used to smooth the ground for seeding. Steve Verrill charged us $150 for this service. The plowing of this field occurred a few weeks later than we had planned.
On April 20th, the field pasture was sowed. Due to the later than anticipated sowing of the field it was decided that we would use several pasture blends and some faster growing forages to try and have at least a portion of the field ready for the animals early. We sowed a 25 foot wide section x 500’ with oats/red clover/white clover using 3 bushels of oats/acre and 6lbs of clover/acre. The 25’x600’ remainder of that portion of the field was sowed to quick growing annual rye. Both of these crops can be ready for grazing in less than 60 days under optimal conditions. This change was made in consultation with our advisor. The remainder of the field was sown with 50lbs/acre of several pasture blends primarily the All Weather Mixture from Agriculver seeds. This contained 36% tall fescue, 32% perennial ryegrass, 18% duo festulolium and 10% ladino clover.
It was anticipated that a Brillion cultipacker would be used, but the machine was not operating properly. We arranged to borrow a standard 8’grain drill but the drill turned out to be a John Deere 1500 no-till drill. There was no choice at this point, but to use this drill, despite it not being entirely appropriate for our use. The PTO driven action of the drill wheels combined with the weight of the drill caused ridges in the dry soil and made sowing the seeds rather difficult. The drill worked in the end but caused the pasture to be uneven with some undulating ridges across the narrow width of the field. The field being rather narrow with little head-land prevented us from seeding the field in a cross-hatch fashion. Instead, we seeded in rows eight inches apart (as the drill was set-up to do so) and made multiple passes to attempt to reduce the width between rows to four inches. This was done to increase pasture density – the outcome was mixed.
No-till drills are not meant for use on bare ground. The ground was powdery and dry due to no rain in the past ten days but we felt we needed to get the ground sowed so we went ahead with the seeding. The sowing of the cover crop was unusually long – 4 hours – due to the high levels of dust from the dry soil, frequent blockages of the seed tubes, and other issues. One week after sowing, a severe rain storm occurred dropping 1.7 inches of rain in two days. Some seeds were dislodged, but the heavy rain helped to pack the soil and stimulate germination. Seed emergence occurred two days after the April 28/29th rain storm.
The change from the original four acre field to this slightly smaller field as discussed earlier was out of our control. With this unexpected change came a new challenge and one not anticipated in this grant. This new field not only had different soils, but it located in a very suburban neighborhood with lots of foot traffic on the sidewalk adjacent to the field. This field also had a history of some neighbors being upset at the farm when crops were sprayed or other farming activities were occurring which were loud or otherwise intrusive to quiet suburban living. This is one reason the field was to be used for this grant, because it was known as a troublesome field to the farm as far as public relations were concerned.
Part of the purpose of this grant was to look at how a livestock farm can work (“couple”) with a vegetable farm so both can prosper. It is felt that working through issues and being flexible is vital if one hopes for a successful outcome. Thus, before the start of the grant activities and before the animals were to arrive at the field – it was decided that we should knock on neighborhood doors and provide an overview of what was to occur on this field for the season, attached. Most of the neighbors appeared uninterested either way, some were intrigued, but overall the whole effort was uneventful. So we thought. Results of this aspect of the grant will be discussed in the next section.
We grew three batches of Cornish-cross and Red Bro broilers for our three distribution days. Each batch consisted of 150 high-yielding Cornish cross hybrids and 75 slower growing Red Broilers. Birds were purchased from Myers Poultry located in Pennsylvania. The birds arrived on 6/2, 7/14, 8/11 and were grown for 54 days before being processed on-farm. The birds were raised for three weeks in a 10’x20’ chicken coop which also opened up to a 30’x40’ “training” pasture. The chickens also have access to a very small paddock after they are one week old. We feel it improves their health and performance later in their development. The birds are fed a free-choice ration of 19% protein organic feed crumbles, grit, and fresh water. At three weeks of age the birds are moved to pasture and placed in two 10’x14’ hoop-coop type shelters on wooden runners similar in construction to the sheep shelter. The shelters are placed approximately 5-10 feet apart with no fence separating them. We place half of the birds in each shelter and find the birds naturally adjust their occupancy rate with each shelter maintaining more or less equal numbers of birds through their grow-out. Each shelter contains two bell-type waterers attached to five-gallon water buckets, three tube feeders, and tray feeder with grit.
The sheep and first round of chickens were both moved to pasture on June 25th. The sheep were purchased from a local farm on June 25th. We had a difficult time finding appropriate stock and in the end purchased four Rambouillet sheep – two ewes and two lambs. The sheep were already trained to electric wire. The original idea of having hair sheep which don’t need shearing became moot when it was decided that the sheep would be harvested at the end of the season. In addition, hair-type sheep, specifically the Katahdin we were most interested in were too expensive (over $200 per head) to warrant for this grant. We originally intended to use seven or eight sheep but due to the slightly smaller field, drier soils (and fear of less forage), and the later planting date in establishing the pasture, we decided to reduce the flock size to decrease the chance of having too little forage. We paid $125 for each animal.
The sheep were placed in a 6’x9’ open floored shelter for their first day. The shelter had been previously built as a smaller movable pastured poultry coop but we found it to fit this purpose well (though by the end of the season the sheep damaged it significantly by accidentally ramming different parts of it several times). The coop was constructed on wood runners, with chicken wire on the sides and front/rear, PVC hoops were made for a simple hoop-type roof, and a there was a small doorway. The structure was covered with a silver reflective tarp. A water trough was located inside the shelter on a corner brace and a mineral feeder was attached to the shelter wall. This shelter worked adequately for shade from the sun and nighttime protection from predators. The sheep were locked up each night in the shelter, coaxed by a very small handful of grain, and let out early each morning. The shelter had a rope pull attached to the base and was light and easy to drag forward to new ground. The sheep were contained in the paddock by an electrified net fence purchased from Premier 1 Fence Company.
The paddocks we created were 84’ wide (the length of one small roll of electrified net fencing) and several hundred feet long. Typically we used an 84’ roll of fence at the end of the paddocks and then two 164’ rolls of fence on either side totaling 328’ on each side. The sheep were further enclosed with two 84’ wide fences and typically contained within 24’x84’ (2016 sq ft) of pasture per day. The mobile chicken coops were located behind where the sheep were to graze and separated from the sheep by an 84’ section of electric net fence. The fences were charged with Intellishock 42B charger, 12v deep cycle battery, and a 10 watt solar panel to maintain charge. 3000 volts was minimum desirable voltage but this was difficult to achieve due to the many fences involved. Each day the fence(s) were moved down the pasture allowing the sheep access to a new strip width of approximately 8-14’ of fresh pasture(this is known as “strip grazing”. Moving the sheep in this fashion was extremely easy. Each evening the sheep were given a handful of grain to coax them back into the shelter. In approximately three months we fed the sheep a total of 50lbs of grain.
(missing figure of movement through field)
The pasture filled in slowly after the initial seeding on April 20th. Weed competition, bare spots and gaps, low fertility, and the ridges in the pasture caused by the no-till drill were all issues of concern. The field was monitored for growth continually. On June 12th the field was mowed (1 hr) with a 6’ Bush Hog rotary mower, to even out the growth and to reduce the height of the Ragweed and Lambsquarter. The oats/clover section grew strongly and by late June the oats and rye were over eight inches tall, clover was up but less than two inches. There were areas where the seed drill spacing was uneven due to poor germination in the sandy soil and significant bare spots (greater than 8”x8”) could be found throughout the field. Significant weeds competed strongly with the pasture blend, specifically Ragweed and Lambsquarter. This posed a concern as to whether it was palatable for the sheep and if so, how nutritious it would be. After research, it was found that both ragweed and Lambsquarter are quite high in protein and can be excellent forage if consumed in the vegetative state.
The entire field or sections of the field were mowed as needed throughout the season. Six hours were spent in total mowing the field. Mowing occurred in part because sections of the pasture grew rapidly, beyond the ability of the animals to consume it. Some mowing occurred to keep the weeds in check and to prevent seed heads from forming. The sheep actually did an excellent job of eating the weeds but only when they contained significant amounts of vegetative green and growing leaves. The stalk left behind after the sheep consumed the leaves needed to be mowed as they were taller than the chickens and were difficult for them to walk through/over. Grazing heights were allowed to vary from 6”-15” to observe behavior. It was determined that even with strong grazing by both the sheep and the chickens, the areas they passed through still needed a quick clipping to even out the growth. This was a quick clipping and very fast as compared to what a normal mowing might be. Could travel 2-3x as fast. Best to have a flail mower as rotary mower leaves windrows of organic matter which matt on the crop/soil and retard growth of pasture.
The daily routine to care for the animals included moving fencing, letting animals out of shelters, moving shelters (equivalent to one length of the coop to provide fresh pasture beneath the coop), refilling feed and water and several minutes of observation. On average these chores lasted 10-12 minutes each morning. The birds were fed Natures Best organic grower crumbles, 19% protein unlimited free-choice. The evening chores included an additional 8 minutes of locking the sheep in their shelter and rounding up the chickens to ensure they were all inside the shelter. The model of day ranging which we use (allowing the birds to range beyond the confines of the shelter) entails more labor in chasing after birds (occasionally) but we feel there is great benefit. Manure is more dispersed, the birds are able to exercise and consume more forage, and there is greater visual appeal.
Additional chores on the weekends include refilling the water tank reservoir located in the field, moving the wagon forward which holds the tank, and on average every two weeks repositioning all the fencing forward.
Birds were collected the evening before processing at 54 days of age. They were loaded 9-12 per crate separated by breed and moved to our processing area on the farm that same evening. Birds were processed on-farm early the next morning using a Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU) which as been on trials in our state. With a crew of customer volunteers we process and package the birds at a rate of 35-40 per hour.
The outcome of raising livestock in this suburban-located field turned out to be the biggest surprise of this project. The field which was known as a troublesome field due to many neighborhood complaints, turned out to be easily managed and popular with local residents. A front page story in the local newspaper helped lend recognition and respect for the work being done and the animals being raised. Many neighbors went out of their way to speak with us to lend praise and appreciation and to say such things as “what a great thing to see animals on the land and to be growing local food right here!” Folks were interested in learning more about what we were doing and came over while chores were carried out to just chat. In addition, neighbors met neighbors for the first time, watched the chickens run, and occasionally a neighbor lent a hand in carrying out chores. In addition, we found the sheep to be a rather entertaining addition to the enterprise.
A second result not previously thought about was the impact the sheep had on the pasture when they first arrived. The severe impact in the shelter area where they slept for the night was severe due to the pasture not being strongly established enough. The first two weeks were the most damaging, often killing any and all forage that was growing in that 6’x9’ shelter footprint. As the plants and their roots took stronger hold (approximately 80 days from seeding) there was minimal if any impact in the shelter footprint, so long as the shelter was moved every day. The sheep shelter needs to be positioned to the side of the chicken shelters so when the chickens run over this same ground the shelter footprints do not overlap and further degrade the growing forage. Some farms may not use a shelter so this may not pose a problem.
The sheep definitely responded positively/negatively toward how much forage was available to them and if fresh forage was made available each day. Each morning the sheep seemed to be watching to if the fence was moved back thus providing access to fresh pasture. On these occasions when the sheep were allowed out of the shelter, they came bounding out and went straight for the new forage. As this was observed it was decided to occasionally provide larger sections of the paddock at a time with less new strips to see if there was a difference in behavior. If no new pasture was introduced to the sheep for several days (which was done intentionally in this scenario) the sheep would become visibly bored, would wander, and would begin to challenge the electric net fence by sticking their head through the fence, or otherwise try and gain access to tender new grass on the other side. When this practice was reversed back to the strip grazing, with a fresh strip of forage daily, there was much less likelihood of the sheep becoming bored and challenging the fence.
We decided to use the Poultry Net fence from Premier1 Fence Company. We anticipated this fence to work well with both the poultry and the sheep because of its many strands of wire and small spacing between horizontal and vertical wires. But we were unable to maintain a high enough charge to attain the 3000volt minimum recommendation on most days. So for several weeks we did not charge the fence at all. We felt somewhat comfortable doing this because both the birds and the sheep were locked up in their pens in the evening. We did not incur any losses from predators but the sheep did become more aggressive in challenging the fence. They would occasionally force their head through the fence to graze on the other side and would become entangled shortly after and panic. Two fence lengths were slightly damaged due to this. We then decided to use the net fencing which was made for sheep, to at least fence off the section between the sheep and the chickens. This section we were able to charge at over 5000 volts and provided enough of deterrence to the sheep to prevent them from challenging any of the fence lines.
The physical impact of birds on pasture early on was also a bit strong but for the 2nd batch of birds, impact was negligible. Soil test at the end of the season showed elevated nutrient levels in the trial area (area where chickens/sheep grazed intensively) vs. the control area. As mentioned above this was most obvious in the lush growth of the pasture towards the end of the season. Areas where the animals were grazed showed 2-3x the growth and the plants were clearly healthy, lush, and robust (see photos).
(parts per million) Control Trial area
Nitrogen 2 12
Phosphorus 12 15
Potassium 87 165
Calcium 281 453
Magnesium 20 44
CEC 6.2 .7
Organic Matter,3.7 3.9
This nutrient contribution was/is significant and appears to be very promising early results from this trial. Further testing will determine if the nutrients remained in the soil/plant tissues over the winter so as to contribute to higher levels of fertility in future years of pasture growth and subsequent vegetable crops.
The effort to attain some forage early by planting the oats/clover and annual ryegrass resulted in mixed success. The oats did supply some early forage but in general it was not worth the effort. As the oats reached maturity they were mowed off and this allowed the clovers some light and reduced their competition. By the end of the season (October) the clovers were lush and green. The ryegrass also grew well but by the time the animals made it down to the far end of the field the grass had become more lignified despite mowing and trying to keep it in vegetative growth. Towards the end of the season the ryegrass died off and left little vegetation behind. In hindsight it would have been better to sow clover with the ryegrass or just the pasture blend we used for the rest of the field.
Rainfall was sporadic with more than three week periods, of almost no rain followed by two months of more than double normal rainfall. The trial field consisted of loamy sand soils with excellent drainage. While there were several weeks with no rain, this occurred after the pasture had already become established enough to whether this dry period. When it did rain, and had this field been poorly drained, there would have been severe complications with this project in terms of animal health and pasture degradation. This is something to consider when pasturing animals. While maintaining adequate forage growth was always a concern, equally so was that the animals were not standing in water during these very wet periods.
The change in fields was addressed in an earlier section.
(precipitation history figure missing)
Calculating profitability was more difficult than anticipated. There are some labor demands which are varied and difficult to track. For instance it was difficult to ascertain how much labor and mowing time was saved by having the sheep graze ahead of the chickens. Mowing was still necessary, but it was faster due to less vegetation from the sheep. Balancing and maintaining optimal stock density with pasture growth remains a challenge. Mowing/clipping remains a viable option to control pasture growth when needed. Unfortunately, at such a small scale, removing that excess growth for hay is not an option due to lack of scale and equipment.
The two ewes dressed out 90lb and 75lb hanging weight and the lambs dressed out at 53lb and 55lbs. We sold the cuts direct to consumer with prices ranging from $8.50 lb to $14lb. Each animal yielded a little over $325 in total income. We may have been able to charge more for the meat, demand was high and quantity was low. The quality of the meat was extremely high with excellent mild flavor and tenderness. Demand remains strong for lamb in this region.
Fencing and other equipment costs are not included in chart below, as they are included in the poultry budget. These expenses would be for a shelter, fencing, charger and battery, feeders, or any other items lasting more than one season.
Sheep Budget (capital costs not included)
Sheep ($125 per head) $500.00
feed, minerals 35.00
unpaid labor (10 min/avg/day x 110 days=18.3 hours $183.30
Total Expenses $983.30
Total Income $1,339.91
Net after expenses $356.61
Labor requirement was very low. Sheep consume very little water, less than a gallon of water per animal in most circumstances. Running such few sheep also resulted in lower labor demands. They do not need supplemental feed, so there is no labor for hauling/handling feed. Moving the sheep is simple, easy, and straightforward. Personally, I enjoyed the diversity of working with the sheep vs. just with poultry and found them to be popular with the public and scenic to view.
Broiler production data is attached. It was calculated using the Washington State University Web Tools for Poultry Growers http://nwdirect.wsu.edu/barriers/tools.htm This is an easy to use tool which calculates profitability for broiler production. In summary we processed 711 chickens with average dressed weight of 3.82lbs at 54 days. This is below our average dress weight from seasons past. We did encounter some coccidiosis which contributed to the lower average weight. Feed costs were very high at .48 cents per lb. Included in our budget calculation were items such as liability insurance ($150), advertising ($150), rent for the field and mower rental ($550 total), accounting ($200). Fencing purchases made for this grant were also included, $1211, for 5 fences and a 42b solar charger with battery.
Total revenue, broilers $14,465.39
Total expenses, broilers $11,974.66
Total net revenue, broilers $2,490.73
Total net revenue, sheep $356.61
Total Net $2,847.34
Next steps would be to further refine stocking density and improve the pasture stand to eliminate weeds – perhaps by using a no-till drill to increase forage density, or by seeding clover during before the spring thaw. The challenge of establishing a pasture for a short time period is significant in time, money and worry. Perhaps working with a farm that is willing to allow 2-3 year pasturing of a field would be a more workable timeframe. The pasture stand became much more established in August which is very late for this type of operation. If the pasture could be used for two full seasons this would provide a greater value to the livestock farmer. Perhaps if it is known that the field will be used the next season for pasture, a stand could somehow begin to be established in the fall.
We will continue this practice for the 2009 season to examine the fertility impact on the pasture. Running the sheep with the chickens was somewhat profitable and definitely enjoyable for both the farmer and the community.
We will try and alter the fencing configuration to prevent the sheep from becoming entangled and to reduce the need for moving the perimeter fencing as often.
On May 25th we conducted a 4 hour on-farm tour on raising egg-laying chickens and meat-type birds. This course was part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) hands-on practical skills workshop series. Over thirty-five enthusiastic farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders attended this workshop where we discussed the rearing of poultry on pasture. This workshop was all encompassing and included a tour of our brooders, equipment, and movable pens. All aspects of rearing poultry were covered including hatchery selection, breeds, feed selection and water systems, health and well being, innovative coop designs and rational for writing the SARE grant.
In early July we hosted a farm-tour for the Eastern Mass CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). Twenty-five aspiring farmers toured our farm operation and we discussed in detail the objectives, goals, and practices for the SARE grant. Copies of the grant were supplied to those who were interested. This was a farm tour not a class or instructional how-to course.
On August 3, 2008 NOFA Summer Conference a two hour workshop was taught on small-scale diversified livestock. A PowerPoint presentation was made with over one-hundred slides explicitly detailing our farming methods and practices, similar to the 1st workshop listed above. Over forty people attended this workshop.
At the 2008 NOFA winter conference we taught a workshop on raising pastured poultry. Over thirty-five folks attended this class in which we covered all aspects of raising organic, pasture-raised poultry. Discussion of the SARE grant was part of the class.
The project goal was to create a semi-permanent pasture on fallow vegetable farm land and integrate meat-type chickens and sheep in a rotational grazing scheme while determining both the economic and environmental sustainability of such an enterprise.
A new pasture was established on fallow vegetable land in the spring of 2008. Broiler-type chickens and four sheep were introduced to the field sixty-five days later and raised in movable pens surrounded by portable electric net fencing. Project concluded in mid-October with all chickens and the four sheep being harvested and sold. The pasture condition was monitored, soil tests were performed, labor and other inputs were calculated and results were tabulated.
Overall profitability was attained in both the chicken and sheep operations. Introduction of the sheep while not highly profitable provided other intangible benefits not considered earlier. Community involvement and approval became a significant benefit of this project. Farmer satisfaction was increased due to community support and work with multi-species grazing. Soil fertility appears to have increased significantly – further testing and observation needs to done to further verify the lasting effects.
Dept. of Plant, Soil Insect Sciences, Bowditch Hall
University of Massachusetts
Amherst , MA 01002
Office Phone: 4135452250