How to Raise Poultry on Pasture

Get started raising free-range poultry with this guide to foraging, mobile coops, predator protection, and more.

| January/February 2018

There seems to be a widespread belief that poultry raised on pasture — call them open-range, free-range, or insert another buzzword — run around and meet all their protein and nutritional needs by eating only bugs and plant seeds. I often see this notion perpetuated in written text. Very little is said about the actual green plants and forage that the birds eat. In most cases, these plants and forage make up a surprisingly large part of the open-range poultry diet.

Within the first half of the 20th century, it was a given that open-range and pasturing would be a part of most poultry diets in farm settings. College and university textbooks on poultry management, from the 1920s through the mid-1950s, took this into account. Research on the nutritional aspects of pasturing poultry was conducted by many agriculture and land-grant colleges. Concentrated feeds, such as grains and prepared feed mixes, were, of course, the core of the diet. However, mixed pastures of grasses, broadleaf weeds, and legumes like clover were also considered an integral part of the poultry nutrition program. Because of this, many textbooks on poultry nutrition, of that era, had tables that listed the nutritional values of many pasture or forage plants. Clovers, various green grasses, alfalfa, dandelion, dock, amaranth, pigweed, and even that curse to the Southern states — kudzu — were all listed as nutritional and palatable options for poultry diets.

Years ago, poultry was partly raised on open range and green feed, as a way of preserving concentrated feeds like grain and mash mixes. Grain, whether you raised it or bought it, was of economic importance. If you had to buy extra grain, it meant spending more money. If you raised the grain, you had to decide whether you were going to sell it for a cash price, or feed it to the chickens and hope that it would boost production enough to make it worthwhile. Making the right decision in this area might mean the difference in whether your children had decent winter shoes and coats to wear the following season.

Today, with prepared feeds readily available, there is no promise that the simple act of putting poultry on range, or pasture, will save money or improve production. There are many reasons to make pasturing part of your poultry plan, though. Flock well-being and healthier end-products, including an increase in omega-3s, are two advantages. Several studies have found that meat from birds on open range tends to have more favorable fatty-acid composition than birds raised in enclosed systems. Eggs from chickens raised on green feeds often have deeper yellow or orange yolks indicating higher nutrient levels. Lastly, you actually might be able to save some feed costs.

Some current producers of pastured meat birds say they can save up to one-third on feed costs. An increase in the number of eggs laid by a modern laying flock on pasture is not likely, though. As much as we would like to make this happen, high-protein, nutritionally balanced feeds available today combined with modern laying strains make current commercial egg production numbers hard to beat.

Today, a good commercial laying hen can lay 300 or more eggs per year. In the 1920s, the average farm hen laid about 90 eggs per year. In a number of studies from that era, hens raised on a mix of nutritionally balanced pasture and grain products were able to produce as many as 180 eggs per year. This was partially due to the nutritional value received from the green plant material. A modern flock of commercial laying hens, producing only 180 eggs per bird, per year, would be unacceptable to most producers today. However, 180 eggs per bird was considered an astronomical production number 90 years ago.

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