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Pasturing those meat birds

June 3, 2009

Since Joel Salatin wrote his book, Pastured Poultry Profits, pasturing poultry has become the norm among small farmers and homesteaders.  In my opinion, I think Salatin’s method delivers the best product and makes the most positive impact on the land.  The floorless field pen protects the birds from most predators, (bears sitting on the pens and cougars tearing off the wire are a different story) and places the bird’s droppings directly on the grass or garden bed where they will do the most good.  An added benefit is the labor saving of not having to clean the chicken house after the broilers are finished.  Fresh manure applied by the animal, during the growing season when the plants are able to utilize the nutrients really is the the most beneficial to all involved – humans, animals, and the earth.  But, remember there are many ways to raise poultry and this is just the way that works the best for our farmstead. 

Many people try this method and give up, it is too labor intensive, chickens get hurt, pen is too heavy, the list goes on and on.  Personally, I think farming, and dealing with livestock is harder than it looks to the casual observer who has an idea in their mind of “getting closer to their food.”  It is hard.  You don’t take vacations or have sick days.  The chores need tending to, each and every day, at the same time, during any kind of weather, whether you feel like it or not.  If you hire help, or worse yet, have volunteers helping, you can run into huge problems.  Animals know their caretakers and love their routines.  A little change, and an untrained pair of eyes and hands can wreak havoc.  “Oh, I didn’t feed the chickens because their feeders were full.”  That could mean the chickens had been out of water for some time.  Or a favorite, “I quit milking when the bucket was almost full.”   When milking you quit when the cow’s udder is empty, not when your container is full.   A novice won’t notice anything wrong with these things, and that is how we learn, by making mistakes.  I’m just saying, animals are a little less forgiving than vegetables.  Twelve hours without water may not hurt the carrots, but makes a big difference to a thirsty animal.

Another thing with these meat birds, is that people place expectations on them that cannot be met.

♣ They will not free range and forage for their food.  Despite their size at butchering, they are still babies.

♣  They will not have pretty feathers like a beautiful hen. 

♣  Meat birds may get at most 10% of their nutrition from grass and forbs.  And the grass needs to be fresh, not a larger area that they will not even explore.  They require a high protein feed to grow properly.

♣  As general rule, meat birds will not scratch through the cow manure, save those paddocks for your pastured layers.  I have yet to see an 8 week old pullet scratch through a cow pie either.  Remember it is age, not size.  However, I like to graze the grass in front of these pens with the cows, since the cows tearing action is easier on the grass than a mowing machine.  Chickens like short succulent grass.

♣  Most people want tender chicken meat.  The older a chicken gets the less tender the meat becomes.  It is as simple as that.   Of course, older meat birds will have more flavor, but that is a compromise everyone has to make.   Nothing beats an older hen for rich broth, or better yet a 6 month old cockerel. 

♣  Raising your own meat birds will not save you money if you are used to buying poultry at grocery store prices.  But at least you know where your meat came from, and how it was handled from day one.

♣  Pasturing your birds can be useful in a permaculture way.  Think of your feed purchase as actually a fertilizer/amendment purchase.  You can perk up a poor spot in a pasture with these pens, or you can build your chicken tractor the width of your garden beds and by deep bedding the pens, and moving every week or so, you can have new fertilized garden beds for the next year.

Now on to the pasturing part – how to move the pen and why it is important. 

In the video you will notice that the waterer is still swinging from the pen move.  But more importantly look at how the chickens are starting to graze immediately.  A few simple tricks will help insure that the chickens will graze.  These things are all detailed very well in Joel’s book, and I am always amazed how many people miss the finer points.  Many people who want to pasture poultry have come to our farm over the years, and they have read Joel’s book, and 9 times out of 10 they want to “outsmart” Joel and do it their way.  Look at the very last picture in this previous post to see what happens when you change this method a little. 

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Early morning, and time to move the pen for the day.  Note the feeders are empty and the grass is soiled and has received a large amount of manure.  In fact, expect to see the entire ground covered with manure.  I find most of the time this turns potential pastured poultry producers off, but I want to build my pasture up too, not just raise meat birds.  Think of these guys as fertilizer machines and they take on a whole new meaning.  But to keep the birds and the grass happy, the pen needs to be moved each day. 

I hear many times that chickens get hurt while the chicken tractor is being moved.  I have a hard time understanding this.  If you watch your chickens and move at their pace rarely will you run over more than a toe or two.  If that happens look at how you are doing this manuever.  Are your kids maybe a little too helpful?  Or is your dog right there at the front causing the chickens to move to the back of the pen?  Or maybe it is you, birds are prey animals and if you act like a predator they will respond with their instinctual behavior and want to get as far from you as possible.  Another problem may be that the pen is built too heavy to move by hand, and you are using an ATV or tractor, which will scare the birds to the back. 

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To move the pen, I have to remove the reel feeders so they don’t obstruct the chickens movement forward.  Also I am taking the feeders out for 1/2 hour or so, so the chickens will graze.  If I fill the feeders and put them right back in after the pen move, the chickens will choose the feed over grass.  This part is important – the chickens don’t have to graze all day, just when the grass is the freshest, i.e. before it is covered with poop.  Think of it like this, you don’t have to eat your daily salad one bite at a time throughout the day to get the benefits of the fresh greens.  And the benefits are long lasting, just like the free choice kelp my cows are ingesting today will help them ward off pinkeye in August. 

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The pens have a rope in front for pulling, and we use a dolly as an axle for the back.

When I took the feeders out, the chickens retreated to the back of the pen, and when I go to the back and insert the dolly, they move to the front.  Perfect for moving now, the chickens are mostly in the front half of the pen and will stay there and walk along as I move the pen slowly forward to fresh grass. 

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Insert the dolly and lay it down, it will travel along behind as you pull the pen forward. 

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The chickens are all in the front anticipating fresh ground. 

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Just lean back and pull.  The pen will move ahead slowly, and the chickens will move with it.  The back edge of the pen may bump a few stragglers, but if you are pulling this by hand it will just be gently nudging them forward.  Listen and watch, this is a good time to see if anybody is getting sick or has been injured in some way. 

The water bucket is almost empty so it doesn’t really add to the weight.   

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 This shows one day of chicken impact, perfect for enhanced grass growth.   The dirt area is where a mole hill was, the damage was not from the chicks.

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 When I am done, I remove the dolly and maybe just store it at the back of the pen with the feet inserted. 

My early morning routine with the broilers takes about 15 minutes.  But that includes walking 200 yards to the pen, feeding the bucket calf on the way, and opening the perches for the laying hens and walking back to the house.  Actual broiler chores consist of removing feeders, moving the pen, and filling the water bucket.  5 minutes maybe?  I do go back after I milk and feed the broilers, which maybe takes 5 more minutes.  Not too bad for chores.  The feed is there and watering is done with a hose, or when the pen is too far away from the hose bibb, I store the water nearby in some sort of container.  When we were selling these birds, we had multiple pens and by the time we were done moving all the pens, enough time had elapsed that we could go back and start at the first pen and fill feeders and water buckets. 

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The swallows eagerly await the broilers – gnats love to gather on the fresh manure and the swallows have a hey day, most days it isn’t unusual to see several gathered on the dolly handle waiting for me to move the pen.

Today I also have a post over a Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op about some common farm and garden weeds.

Tomorrow, more details about the chicken waterer, and the feeders.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2009 10:51 am

    Lordy woman, preparing this post was a lot of work let alone taking care of those chicks! I think I love those chicks by the way. I logged onto a different computer so I could watch the video with sound, and of course I had to replay it. I don’t know what it is about me and chickens. Perhaps I raised them in a prior life? 🙂 I think they look terrific, even with their feather pattern, and when I read the post prior to this one and saw the pen, I wondered if it was the movable one I had read about. Of course, you know I’m a city girl and you’ve been very kind about that, but I think this type of system just makes good sense. It keeps the wee beasties relatively safe, is good for the soil, and makes for efficient care from all perspectives. Personally, I think the work load of a farmer/homesteader is pretty darn intense. You are always in “on” mode. My biggest problem in my own lifestyle is always looking toward the finish line. When I was planting my garden, I kept thinking about how much I had yet to do both in planting and in the house and errands to be run, etc.. I had a stern talking with myself to just slow down and try to enjoy what I was doing and not always be thinking about what’s left to do. I get obsessed with efficiency. *sigh* Don’t want to pass along my neurotic tendencies to my young ones. I want them to enjoy today as well as prepare for tomorrow. Guess I need to follow my own advice. Anyway, I’m rambling … not very efficiently … love your chicks. PS: We finished homeschool on Monday! Woowho! I’m assuming Ruthless will wrap up her school year soon, too, if not already. Enjoy the sun!

  2. sweezie permalink
    June 3, 2009 12:02 pm

    You provide the best information I have come across. Concise, thoughtful and written with a sense of humor! I only raise a few meat birds at a time, but use my own version of the moving tractor. It works very well, is easy on the birds and me, and the end results are terrific. Thanks for all of your work via your blog — it’s a wonderful resource!

    Susan in NY

  3. June 3, 2009 1:28 pm

    Great post, Nita.

    When you’re done with your series of posts on the broilers, do you think you’d have time to post about your egg laying setup? I would love to see that.

  4. June 3, 2009 1:40 pm

    I agree with the way you do the poultry, we have done it that way and it worked. The hardest part was moving them around but we did it!

  5. June 3, 2009 7:42 pm

    Once again you have educated us in such a wonderful manner. What strikes me the most is that you have so much respect for your chickens and all of your animals.

    Your mind is like a computer gathering information about your animals, noting conditions and causes and prevention.

    I enjoy reading your post and although I do not have laying chickens anymore,I learn so much.

  6. June 4, 2009 5:21 am

    Thank you for this post! Meat birds is something that my husband and I are considering for next year. I am trying to obtain as much information as possible, which i Normally do however its never all of the information lol.

    Lisa

  7. June 4, 2009 6:56 am

    We use a chicken tractor also, but since I downsized to just 16 birds (egg layers) I have started to let the girls have the run of the yard. They do a good job keeping the bugs and grasshoppers at bay and digging the worms out of the corrals.

    I only let them out of their roomy house and run when I am home, as I had a hawk swoop down and get one one day, that was a bit trumatic to me and all the hens. Whew!

    When Terry brings in the hay swather they LOVE to hope into the swather part and pick up all the ‘new bugs’ that remain on the left over hay.

    I must say, I do enjoy the girls, now Roo he is a differnt story.

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com/

  8. June 4, 2009 4:20 pm

    Hey Nita … just checking on you… unusual severe weather warning just issued for your neck of the woods. Hope you guys are safe over there … including all the newbie critters. We are getting blown away here with bits of hail and enormous rain drops … not raining yet just huge drops. I can hear all the emergency sirens. Our power just came back on. Reminds me of the tornado skies we used to get in Indiana. On the bright side, it will get most of the Spring pollen off the trees and the rain will wash it away. My irritated eyes and sinuses will appreciate the relief. No need to post this … just sending good care wishes your way.

  9. June 20, 2009 7:59 am

    Awesome post!! I am doing the same thing with chickens for the first year ever after having read Joel Salatin’s book. I finally got them out in the pen today (3.5 weeks old) and they refuse to move/eat/do anything 😦

    I was getting quite concerned and then saw your post and feel a bit better now. Joel writes about 20% of their food coming from grass and having them scratch the ground (and their own manure) — I see these ones doing neither and am worried.

    Will try your technique about keeping the food away for 30 minutes after moving the pen in the morning.

    One thing I could not understand from the book (the pictures are tough to see) is how exactly to build the dolly. I noticed you’ve got one that looks perfect — could I ask how you managed? I struggled all week trying to make wheels that would flip down on a hinge with no success.

    You can see my attempted efforts here: http://newlyplanted.blogspot.com/2009/06/weekend-update.html .. I’ve got White Rocks in an 8×8 pen. They’re definitely putting down a lot of manure already for day one and I’m wondering if I should be moving the pen twice a day too. So much to learn 🙂

    • June 20, 2009 8:45 am

      I’ll try to get a picture of the dolly so you can see the axle area. Thanks for the comment and good luck!

      • June 20, 2009 8:59 am

        I’ll gladly buy something from your Amazon wish list if you can describe in detail how to make one 🙂 Your blog has so much good information; would love to contribute however I can…

  10. June 21, 2009 12:49 pm

    After a lot of searching, I found (what I think is) a simpler alternative. In case anyone stumbles across this post like I did, this might be of help: http://newlyplanted.blogspot.com/2009/06/wheel-problem-solved-i-think.html

  11. June 22, 2009 6:39 am

    I suspect that my biggest advantage will be that I am way too ignorant to try to one-up the experts like Salatin. I just want to carefully follow their advice, LOL!

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