Evaluating Pasture-Based Poultry Systems: Potential Contribution to Farm Diversification, Human Nutrition, and Marketing Alternatives

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $89,348.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $109,800.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
George Stevenson
UW-Madison, Center for Integrated Ag. Systems

Annual Reports


  • Animals: poultry


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, manure management, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, agricultural finance, market study, whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life


    According to Allan Nation, the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, pastured poultry is an agricultural production model “…which is capable of producing an income from a small acreage equal or superior to that of most off farm jobs…(and) is capable of producing a very high quality of life…" (Salatin, iv). The greatest marketing tool of pastured poultry is the claim that it is a high quality product. This project, "Evaluating Pasture Based Poultry Systems: Potential Contributions to Farm Diversification, Human Nutrition, and Marketing Alternatives", was designed to study these claims.

    The project joined university scientists with farmers and other agri-professionals in a participatory research approach to evaluate the important socio-economic and human nutrition dimensions associated with pastured poultry systems on small and medium. Only half of the processors interviewed were satisfied with their businesses and sure that they could continue operating with few changes into the future diversified farms. Five farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota were used as case studies. The project was the beginning of ongoing work that will provide important scientific data for informing and setting standards for pastured poultry enterprises in the United States.

    The first objective of the project was to evaluate if grass-based poultry systems had the capacity to significantly contribute to the beneficial diversification of the farm economics and quality of life. The economic analysis focused on the profitability and capital requirements of the pastured poultry enterprise. The results showed that returns and costs were highly variable and that total net returns were relatively small. The net return per bird ranged from $1.33- $7.05. The median net return per bird was $3.73 and the mean was $3.87. The quality of life analysis had both a quantitative and qualitative component. During the summers of 1998 and 1999 farmers kept labor logs for a month long quantitative analysis. Labor hours per bird ranged from 0.168 to 1.06 hours per bird. The median was 0.294 and the mean was 0.419 labor hours per bird. Individual farmer interviews on quality of life issues were also conducted during the summers of 1998 and 1999 to begin a qualitative analysis.

    In order to evaluate the important human nutrition claims associated with pastured-poultry emphasis was placed on fat, cholesterol, texture, flavor, and microbiological analyses. Data was collected from chickens raised in the summers of 1997 and 1998. Nutritional analysis showed that there is no significant difference between the nutrition of a pastured poultry bird and a conventionally raised bird. Taste testing to compare birds raised using different production systems also showed no significant difference. Microbial analysis on processing facilities conducted during 1999 showed that on farm processing methods are as sanitary as a USDA inspected bird.

    The third objective was to investigate the marketing opportunities and challenges for pastured poultry products. Emphasis was placed on the processing and regulatory components of the marketing infrastructure. During1997-98 the laws surrounding on-farm slaughter and sale of poultry in WI and MN were clarified and a complete list of processors available for small-scale poultry processing in WI and MN was made. In Wisconsin, there is a shortage of small-scale processors. Interviews with small-scale processors during the summer of 2000 revealed that these processors often struggled with their businesses and were not sure that they could continue operating without making significant changes. Finally, during the summer of 1999 a pastured poultry consumer survey was conducted. Most consumers buy pastured poultry because they believe that it tastes better.

    Potential contributions of the project include: analysis of the viability of pastured poultry for small diversified farms; appraisal of the impacts of state and federal regulations on small-scale poultry processors; comparative evaluation of the human nutritional content of meat from differing poultry production systems; and the provision of preliminary scientific data for developing standards for an emerging pastured poultry industry in the U.S.

    Project objectives:

    1. Evaluate the capacity of grass-based poultry systems to significantly contribute to the beneficial diversification of small and midsize farms. Emphasis will be placed on economic and quality of life issues.

    2. Evaluate important human nutrition-related claims associated with the products of pastured poultry systems. Emphasis will be placed on fat, cholesterol, texture, flavor, and microbiological analysis.

    3. Investigate marketing opportunities and challenges for pastured poultry system products. Emphasis will be placed on the processing and regulatory components of the marketing infrastructure.

    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.