Profitable Poultry on Pasture

Broilers and layers follow beef cattle in this rotation
Michael Traupman

SWOOPE, Va.–Joel Salatin's pastures are for the birds. Ninety-five of his 550 acres are devoted largely to ranging chickens that help him net about $25,000 working only six months a year. Last year, Salatin produced more than 6,000 broilers and 3,000 dozen eggs–with pasture as the main feed source.

Joel Salatin moves his broilers to new pasture simply by pulling their crates into fresh grass:
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"Consumption of grain decreases as consumption of grass increases. It all keeps the expense side of production down," says Salatin. " A chicken will only consume so much grass. After all, a chicken is not a cow. But....the freshness of the forage has everything to do with consumption. When we move them, they will eat more forage and more bugs and less grains." Pasturing has cut Salatin's feed expenses up to an estimated 60 percent on layers and 30 percent on broilers. Also, the broilers reach market weight two weeks earlier than normal.

While Salatin knows that his chickens prefer to graze on pastures with a legume, preferably clover, he is convinced that they do so well on pasture because they are moved often and are constantly getting fresh grass and manure to graze over. "The key is extremely frequent freshness. Animals have to have their beds changed–their linens cleaned and beds cleaned just like people. They eat much more if they, just like you and I, get fresh food and drink," he says.

Beef-Poultry Rotation
On Salatin's Polyface Farm, 50 head of beef graze pasture first. Controlled by portable electric fences, the cattle leave a trail of manure and 4 to 5 inches of grass stubble in their wake.

"The cows have to graze ahead... and get the forage down to poultry levels" Salatin explains. Chickens are attracted to the lush regrowth stimulated by the grazing cattle. "One to 2 inches of grass residue is ideal. Four to 5 inches works fine, but 6 to 7 inches is difficult. Long grass also isn't as clean. The broilers mash it over and their manure will not make contact with the soil surface."

Four days after the cattle chow down on the grass, the chickens are put on that pasture to clean up after them. Salatin says both his layers and broilers love to pick through fresh manure for insects, including emerging fly maggots, and undigested food particles, both helpful sources of protein. "The chickens sanitize the field, eating the parasites," adds Salatin.

Chickens pasture a field only once in two years. After pasture is grazed by the chickens, hay is cut twice and stored for cattle feed in winter. Salatin now has nearly four years' worth of hay in storage.

Pasturing In Pens
The American layer breeds are extremely aggressive. .'They scratch. .. and move. They'll graze all year and they'll go out in all kinds of weather. About the only thing that keeps them in the house is snow," Salatin says.

In contrast, he says, "The broilers... are very lethargic. They are bred like a race car to eat a lot of feed and gain a lot of weight really fast. For them, the free-range concept doesn't work. They don't free-range. They stay around the feeder. You have to force them onto the pasture so they range. "

The dissimilar grazing characteristics of the birds force Salatin to use two very different kinds of portable houses.

Cornish cross broilers spend all of their time in 10- x 12-foot pens that Salatin moves daily. Each wooden and aluminum pen is 2 feet high and holds 100 birds. One end of each pen is enclosed with an aluminum sheet and is always faced west into prevailing winds to minimize health problems in cold, wet weather. The other sides are wrapped in poultry netting to provide plenty of fresh air and sunlight. Salatin only raises broilers from April 1 to Oct.1.

Pens include a removable feed trough and gravity-fed waterer. To save time, Salatin stores a pre-mixed ration of ground corn, soybean meal, meat and bone meal with a probiotic in old fuel tanks in the field. He places the pens in a V-shaped pattern. "By running the pens with a V formation, I don't have to keep access clear," he adds. "I don't need to make room for feeding and watering."

On one acre, Salatin is able to graze roughly 500 birds. He raises seven batches of broilers per season. Salatin moves the birds to fresh pasture every morning by sliding a 2-wheeled dolly under the pen and pulling it only a few feet. The chickens merely have to walk with the pen. "It only takes 1.5 minutes to move them and 1.5 to service," says Salatin.

A Rolling Henhouse
Free-ranging layers venture up to 30 yards from their portable pens, which Salatin calls eggmobiles. "The eggmobile would be worth it even if they didn't lay eggs," Salatin adds. "The beauty of this is, because the house is just a bed for them– the lunch counter and gymnasium are outside –you can cram them in pretty well in that house. They sleep in there. That's all they do. At night when they sleep, I don't even think half the floor is covered."

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An eggmobile is simply a portable 12- x 20-foot wooden henhouse that holds 230 birds humanely. It has a lean- to roof that slants from 6 feet to 2 feet in height. The floor is wire mesh in summer and hay-covered plywood in the winter. Although there is a big door on each end, Salatin says you don't have to walk inside to care for the chickens or gather eggs. Laying boxes built around sides can easily be opened from the outside for egg removal.

More Grass, Less Grain
Salatin says he began to save money on grain when he realized his hens were not consuming the grain he was putting out. "I was mixing feed here and putting it in the eggmobile. Yet they were pretty much keeping off the grain. I thought maybe the recipe was off," he recalls. "So, I thought I'd let them tell me what they wanted."

Salatin arranged the feed in separate feed boxes, delivering it to the chickens cafeteria-style with a container each for wheat, barley and bone meal. The chickens made a clear choice. "Basically they were eating whole corn," says Salatin. "They eat only what they want. They get their protein from the grass, especially in the summer. What they need are carbohydrates. And those are the calories they get entirely in corn."

Salatin says he doesn't mind substituting inexpensive corn for much more costly feed, since the chickens are getting their necessary nutrients from the field. "Protein is expensive. Corn is relatively cheap. They are consuming the cheap part of the feed-seven cents a pound compared to 11 to 12 cents a pound."

In the summer months especially, his layers consume only seven pounds of feed per 100 chickens per day, costing roughly 77 cents per 100 birds. On other farms, Salatin says confined chickens will consume up to 30 pounds per 100 per day, for a cost of $2.10 per 100 birds. "That's significant savings," he adds.

Using a system he loosely modeled after Booker T. Whatley's Clientele Membership Club, Salatin sells roughly 6,000 broilers a year at $1.20 per pound, live weight, to more than 300 families each year. The average bird weighs about 4 to 4.6 pounds. Having slightly more than $2 in expenses for each bird, Salatin nets $2.80 a bird.

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, May/June 1990, p. 20, 23.

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