Poultry can easily damage pasture. If not managed correctly, nutrient loading, bare soil and erosion can occur. Unfortunately, not all pastured poultry producers are actually managing their pastures.
“One of the commonly overlooked items in pastured poultry is proper pasture management,” Mike Badger, executive director of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) and farmer at Badger’s Millside Farm in Pennsylvania, said in a recent Pastured Poultry Talk podcast. “We raise pastured poultry, but we see a lot of people kind of stretching that definition.”
New producers, as well as those attempting to market their poultry as pastured without really undertaking pasture management planning, often find their birds on bare soil, not on lush, green pastures. Common issues include not rotating as often as needed — or at all — and not planning for the carrying capacity of the land.
“Those (are) things that really call into question what that pasture is, and how we should be stewards of the land,” he said. “Not repeating the mistakes of the past… you know, those mistakes that took the poultry off pasture in the first place and put them inside,” is integral to today’s pastured poultry movement.
Terrell Spencer, farmer at Across the Creek Farm, in Arkansas, and President of APPPA, raises 10,000 broilers per year in mobile coops on pasture, and day ranges laying hens using mobile egg housing. Day ranged chickens, whether layers or broilers, even when surrounded by electric netting, are commonly targets of hawks and other avian predators.
“Aerial predators are always an issue in those day range set ups,” Badger said. Providing some type of enclosed housing, while keeping the birds on fresh pasture, drastically eliminates predatory losses.
Spencer is planning to raise 250 laying hens in a “prairie schooner” type large hoop house, measuring 40 feet by 20 feet. This hoop coop will be moved once per day to maintain fresh grass for the birds. He has an idea to attach nesting boxes to a winch, so they can be raised up both for egg collection and for predator protection.
When used for broilers, these large hoop coop structures hold 400-500 birds, which is what they process per week, Spencer said. Some birds won’t move, and some are eager to move ahead to fresh pasture. Moves are done slowly and carefully to avoid injury to birds.
The entire house can be moved in about 30 minutes, but finding the right equipment to do the job has been troublesome. He does not want to use a truck on his pastures, potentially causing damage. A small tractor with a bucket loader and a winch has been working, but safety is a concern.
Spencer also uses smaller hoop houses for broilers, which measure 10 feet by 12 feet, and are over six feet tall. They are readily accessible for monitoring, feeding and watering, and can be moved by one person. The bottoms are made of chicken wire, and the hoop houses are covered with a tarp.
Currently, Across the Creek Farm has 30 of these rotating along a 70-acre field. Each house holds 60-70 broilers depending upon pasture conditions. One person moves them daily, over a three-hour time span.
Problems commonly arise when stationary housing is used in a pastured poultry system. Letting birds outside in a field, without actually rotating them to maintain grass coverage and control nutrient load, causes degradation to the soil. Even if birds are moved after every flock, issues tend to occur because the housing cannot move, so there is a limit to how much rest a paddock can get.
“You get that kind of hybrid confinement model,” Spencer said.
When exposed to bare dirt, chickens are highly susceptible to coccidiosis, avian influenza, Marek’s disease and other poultry illnesses, Spencer said. Pasture offers protection since it is dust particles that can spread the microorganisms responsible for these diseases.
Stationary housing for pastured poultry is “a harder system to make work,” Badger said. “It’s very difficult at any meaningful size.”
Chickens have about a 2:1 feed efficiency, Spencer said, so one-half of what they eat is excreted as waste product. In most fields, it is phosphorous which accumulates readily. Phosphorous molecules are “sticky,” and fill up spots in the soil particles. Potassium is hard to keep in the soil, and while nitrogen can be a problem in some cases, it is not the main concern.
“You can build soil really fast with poultry, and you can destroy it really fast with poultry. It’s all dependent on management,” Badger said.
Pastures through which poultry rotate benefit from having ruminants graze them as well. Ruminants help to harvest the excess nutrients left behind by the poultry. Another method to utilize excess nutrients and use the pastures for another crop is to grow hay on it.
The grasses take up nutrients as they grow, and cutting the hay removes excess nutrients from the pasture. In addition, the hay crop can be sold or utilized for other purposes on the farm, adding income or decreasing off-farm inputs.
While soils with good organic matter content, and a good stand of grass “can withstand a lot of pressure,” but “it’s easy to run afoul when your putting these birds” on thinner soils, Badger said.
Proper stocking density for pasture conditions is essential. According to Badger, simply cutting his stocking density in half, and moving his chicken tractor twice per day instead of once, allowed him to utilize pasture that became readily degraded with more density and less movement.
Spencer agrees that overstocking is a problem. With too many birds on the land, you can’t continue to build soil tilth, he said. Soil without a lot of organic matter “doesn’t have a lot of resiliency,” and birds will quickly degrade it.
Pasturing laying hens can cause issues with soil health if rotations aren’t properly managed, Spencer said. If birds aren’t let out of the egg mobile, for whatever reason, or if the egg mobile isn’t moved frequently enough, concentrated areas of chicken manure can occur. Waste drops through slats on the floors, and given the right conditions, can become problematic, burning the fields, which can take years to correct.
Layers tend to dig in the dirt, forming small divots, causing soil to become uneven. They “moonscape,” and are “almost as destructive as pigs,” when not intensively managed on pasture.
The key to pastured poultry is to have birds on grass, and to manage the system so soils are enhanced. Badger and Spencer both emphasized that whether broilers or layers, pastured poultry is not chickens on dirt.