Chicken Changes: Mobile meat birds for soil health study

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2024: $19,988.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2026
Grant Recipient: McGarva Ranch Pasture Division
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Ross & Kelly McGarva
McGarva Ranch Pasture Division


  • Agronomic: cotton, wheat
  • Animals: poultry


  • Crop Production: cover crops, nutrient management

    Proposal summary:

    The purpose of this project is to address issues and deficiencies at the soil and at the community level by adding alternative animals to our production system. This project and request focus on the chicken component because we have found the demand for locally grown purely pasture raised chicken to be very strong and unmet. We’ll address the needs of the soil first, which were desperate.
    Soil biology and organic matter on this historic commodity wheat, sorghum, cotton production site were so poor as to be nearly immeasurable. All fertility needs had been chemically applied for 60 or more years previously. With the goal of establishing perennial and diverse pastures we had to address the soil health first. Now in year three and with weather conditions finally supporting our efforts the additional nitrogen producers (chickens) will begin to supply the needs of crops now growing to heal the soils.
    We acquired the property and project location in 2020. Our initial soil tests and guidance from a local soil specialist determined our path(s). Livestock had to be added as quickly as possible. We began with sheep that are managed in tight rotations. Sheep were chosen over beef or goats initially for the initial phase as their hoof impact is less severe and the soils were still quite fragile. Cover cropping also began immediately. We then added laying hens for the fertility needed particularly in the newly planted tree rows. We added pigs and goats that have helped to open up the previously unmanaged forested areas to sunlight and create additional cashflow. We currently have 260 hens in two mobile egg units but the supply of eggs is still inadequate. This project will enable us to add meat breed chickens into the rotation that have a 45-60 day turnover from brooding to harvest. It has been our experience, and multispecies operations have proven (see attached study) to provide more soil health benefits and provide greater flexibility in marketing which translates to producer resiliency. Our original intention was to focus solely on sheep as we have strong markets and more experience with ruminant production however, we have developed three extraordinary wholesale customers that desperately need access to what was initially for us a bi-product; eggs. We will now be able to provide them meat birds as well. Our operation benefits from the field fertility and pest management of the chickens while the egg and meat sales add significant and reliable cash flow for the enterprise.

    At the community level we have discovered a huge need for locally grown crops and we work together with other producers to supply hyperlocal needs. We are located approximately 1 ½ hours from both Dallas/Fort Worth metro and Austin Tx. The small rural community of Evant is growing as the suburbs of these cities expand. The pressures on a

    marginal food system increase. What we know: Multi-species grazing and cover cropping work to heal soil and increase farm income. What we want to know: What combination of cover crops and grazing meat birds will produce the most meat, increase soil fertility, and overall health, at the least cost.
    While we are already aware of the benefits of multi-species grazing and the potential of diversifying income streams we would like to experiment with specific cover crops and determine how each effects meat bird production, soil health and overall profitability. We propose to create plots that highlight three classifications of cover crop: brassicas, legumes, and

    cereal grains. Each plot will have a base seeding of Green Cover biological primer mix but then at planting the primer will be augmented with the test classification seeds. Example: Seeding rate of biological primer on our soils is approximately 100/lbs per acre. Each plot will have 80lbs/per acre of biological primer and 20lbs per acre of one of the three test

    We have prototyped a mobile unit that is inexpensive and easily put into operation. We will add an additional unit that will allow us to take groups of 250 meat birds at a time through to harvest.
    The nose of each goose-neck trailer is used for feed and supply storage which makes them stand alone units which can be moved anywhere on the property. Buried water lines can be accessed from any location providing fresh water at all times.
    With the 250+ chickens we currently have in production we have seen amazing cover crop and tree response following the mobile unit rotation.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Soil Test baselines
    Plot Plan image

    We have decades of experience in managed grazing of multi-species and have witnessed, on very diverse operations, the benefits of controlled use and rest periods.  Establishing the perennial pastures needed to support this grazing model has been our endeavor for the last three years and we are now in a position to increase grazing animal numbers.  Chickens can harvest forage as effectively as ruminants however, the number of feet in a flock of 200+ birds can create negative impact if rotations do not happen very frequently.  Our mobile unit design is easy to relocate and our moves are usually between 100- 300 yards every other day.  We have experimented with duration effects and have found in drier weather we can stay in one location for up to 4 days.  In extremely wet weather the equipment required to move the mobile units can do harm to the pasture so we increase the perimeter size of the chicken enclosure and wait for better conditions to relocate.

    Managed correctly a 200+ bird unit can effectively graze and fertilize 7-12 acres per month, producing income generating
    products while displacing chemical input costs.

    For the purposes of this project we will keep each flock of separate and they will graze specific cover crops to help us determine the most effective combination of cover crop for meat production and soil health.

    As the Plot Plan illustrates; we will begin grazing Plot A and Plot B with the existing flocks we have while brooding two
    additional flocks for Plot C and Plot D.  Each Plot will have specific cover crop species and data will be collected on
    beginning (untreated) soil health, end-of-rotation soil health, meat production numbers specific to each plot and overall

    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.