Get started raising free-range poultry with this guide to foraging, mobile coops, predator protection, and more.
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.
If you are raising, or going to raise, poultry on pasture, pay attention to the composition of the plants they are grazing on. Poultry, including chickens, turkeys, ducks, and, to a limited extent, geese, will readily consume animal material — insects, grubs, and worms — when available, but the fact is that young, digestible plant material makes up a significant part of the diet on open range. Repeated observations, as well as examinations of the crops, gizzards, and intestinal tracts of the birds, has shown what a vital role vegetation plays in free-range poultry diets.
Yet, simply putting poultry into an overgrown pasture or out into a stubble field will not provide them with adequate nutrition. Unlike ruminants and horses, poultry cannot utilize or process large amounts of plant fiber and cellulose. Young plant growth, before heavy structural fibers develop, is the best forage for poultry. Younger plant growth is higher in protein, minerals, and vitamins than older growth. Young, tender grasses can also contain a surprising amount of sugar, which can be converted into energy by the growing birds.
Pasture or range for poultry should be kept short. Optimal for gallinaceous birds like chickens and turkeys is 2 to 4 inches of new growth. That is also a very suitable length for ducks and geese. Geese can handle grass up to 8 inches in length, providing it is young grass with not too much fiber or roughage. A mix of grasses, clovers, alfalfa, and broadleaf plants is a very nutritious pasture mix for most species of domestic fowl.
The main goal should be to provide the birds with a mix of young forages that give them a broad, diverse spectrum of necessary, digestible nutrients. While the birds may get lots of nutrition from good forages, they should also have grains or grain-based balanced feeds available. Layers should also have a supply of oyster shell available. Even on pasture, poultry need a certain level of concentrated feed. Just like you would have a tough time existing for very long on nothing but salad and watery green vegetables, poultry are the same.
Chickens and turkeys can be placed on green pasture at about 6 weeks of age. Geese and ducks can be started on pasture at about 5 to 6 weeks. Part of the determining factors, of course, will be weather and if the birds are suitably feathered to protect them from temperature variances. Young birds who are being naturally mothered can be placed sooner, provided there is a place for mama and the young offspring to keep dry and warm when needed.
If you live in a hot area, shade and adequate protection from the heat is just as important. Heat spells can be deadly to poultry on open range. Make sure that you provide enough shade and open-air circulation to allow cooling breezes to flow though the shaded area. Also important is a large supply of drinking water. It is best if the drinking water sources can be kept in the cool, shaded areas.
For many people, year-round pasturing of poultry is not possible. In many areas, pasturing is seasonal at best. Areas with cold and heavy snow are mostly limited to late spring, summer, and early fall pasturing. Some areas that have hot and dry summers may find pasturing impossible in the summer. In those climates, grasses and forage plants go dormant or die back in the dry heat of the summer. Irrigation becomes necessary for growth of green grass and other forages. A simple system of garden hoses and moveable sprinklers may be all you need to irrigate your poultry pastures. However, some people who live in these climates may be on a municipal water system. Often there are restrictions on the amount of water they may use in the summer, or the metered cost may be so great that it outweighs the benefits of raising poultry on pasture during these months. In areas with mild winters, winter may be the optimal time to place your birds on the range. If you want to pasture poultry in any area where it is necessary to make seasonal adjustments, simply prepare for them in whatever way you find necessary and operationally feasible. Take these adjustments into your overall plan as part of your road to success.
There are several viable methods for movable pasture pens, and none of these are new. Shelter frames may be made of wood, metal, or PVC pipe and are covered in poultry netting or wire mesh. Shelters can vary in size, but are often built with dimensions of 8 by 8 feet, 8 by 10 feet, 10 by 12 feet, or any other measurement a poultry farmer finds suitable and easy to move. Sometimes they are lifted up an inch or two and moved to new forage, and others are sometimes designed with wheels for easy rolling. The chickens or other fowl are enclosed and stand directly on the bare pasture forage. They normally have a covered area for shade or shelter and have a waterer that is attached or near the outside of the frame that can be easily accessed and refilled.
Such portable pens, especially those on wheels, having some sort of shelter attached, are known to many people as “chicken tractors.” Concentrated feed, such as mash or grain, can either be supplied on a free-feed basis, or may be fed only once or twice per day. Many growers let the birds feed on green forage all day, and then give them the grain or mash concentrates in the late afternoon, before dusk. Depending on how many chickens are placed in each pen, and the quality and volume of green forage, the pens may have to be moved daily, or may be left in place for two or three days.
Another method is to use “range houses,” or portable coops, and let the chickens out every day. These were the most common range structures used 100 years ago, and are still in use today. Some modern farmers have found they can make effective use of converted travel trailers, horse trailers, or even old mobile homes that are no longer in use. The prices for many of these older units can be very affordable. Just make sure your local zoning restrictions will allow you to use one of these converted units.
Predators are a never-ending threat, no matter where you are. Predators can include coyotes, foxes, wolves, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, opossums, neighbors’ dogs, or any other animal that will kill for food or sport. Even bears and mountain lions can be a danger, if you live in an area where they exist. As raptor populations resurge, hawks and eagles are once again becoming a predatory issue in many areas of North America. On the flip side, one grower in Florida said alligators were one of the predators that he had to constantly deal with.
However, one of the most common, and worst offenders people often deal with are neighborhood dogs. Domestic dogs probably do more damage to poultry than any other predator.
Range-farming poultry can be labor-intensive. Constantly watching for and being on-guard against predators is one of the added chores. Houses and pens must be sturdy enough to withstand attacks. Many growers string portable electric netting or thin electric wire on posts, around the exterior of the pasture, where the range pens are kept. Many years ago, pastures were fenced with “hog” or “pasture wire.” If you choose to use this type of fencing, openings no larger than 2 by 4 inches are best, as larger openings may allow predators to squeeze through. Even so, many predators can, and will, climb fencing.
Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese can all be raised in a pasture setting. Geese can survive exclusively on the green forage material after about 6 weeks of age. Concentrated feed is then fed to them prior to fattening in the fall. There are numerous methods used to house and fence poultry. One of the most important things, however, is that a poultry keeper who wants to utilize pasture be aware of the nutritional composition of the green feeds available. Utilized correctly, green forage is a very low-cost feed to the poultry producer. It is a valuable asset that far too many poultry keepers undervalue. Just like any other asset on your farm, take care of it and value it. Make use of it wisely, and it will return a nice reward to you.
While green plants cannot constitute the sole diet for pastured poultry (geese are one exception), it is important that the vegetation they do consume have a high level of digestible nutrients. If it does not, there is little reason to make pasturing part of the diet. Common plants found in a pasture or open-growth area contain more nutritional value than most people realize. Let’s take a quick look at some of these.
• Amaranth or pigweed. This ubiquitous plant is everywhere. There are too many species to list here, but it is one of the most nutritious and palatable plants for a poultry pasture. If you have these in your poultry pasture, be glad. On a dry-weight basis, the leaves contain 13 percent protein, and a little over 1.5 percent calcium. Amaranth is also high in carbohydrates, starches, and dietary minerals. Amaranth is relished by most poultry species. The poultry will also eat the seeds that drop from the plant. The seeds from most species of amaranth meet or exceed the nutritional levels of most grains.
• Young, green grass. According to Feeding Poultry, by G.F. Heuser, most grasses contain “significant amounts of carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, niacin, biotin, and choline. The mineral content is also favorable.” Heuser goes on to state that some young grasses may contain up to 30 percent protein on a dry weight basis. Young grasses are high in overall carbohydrates and sugars, too.
• Dandelions. Dandelion plants are nutritionally similar to young alfalfa plants. They have about the same protein level, and the plant is very high in total digestible nutrients.
• Alfalfa. Leaves and young shoots palatable to poultry contain about 20 percent protein, or a little more, on a dry-weight basis. Alfalfa is also known to have lots of other nutrients.
• Kudzu. Few people outside of the South will be dealing with this imported, rapidly growing legume that takes over anything in its way. Planted by the WPA during the Great Depression, it was originally used to stop soil erosion and provide nutrition for grazing animals. If you have this vining mass on your property, take heart in the fact that the young leaves are very high in protein, as well as calcium. If you cut it, the poultry will feed on the new leaves as it regrows. Besides being nutritious, it is highly palatable to poultry. The constant feeding on the new leaves, as well as the constant pecking at the new growth on the “crowns” at the soil surface, will by no means eradicate it, but will reportedly help control the regrowth.
• Various clover species. Common species include red clover, white Dutch clover, and that much-hated weed, bur clover. Clover leaves contain 20 to 28 percent protein on a dry-weight basis. Calcium levels are about 1.5 percent. It is higher in phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals than most grasses.
There are hundreds more we could list. These few examples show the nutritional value contained in some of the more common pasture plants. Additional web searches can help you identify nutritional levels of the plants found in your particular pasture areas. Young leaves and shoots contain the highest levels, and are the most palatable to poultry. A balanced mix can provide a surprising amount of nutrition for poultry.
Doug Ottinger writes from northwest Minnesota, in the ‘Land of the Frozen Chosen.’ He has 40-plus years’ experience keeping and raising various kinds of poultry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture, with an emphasis in poultry genetics and breeding. He has experience in commercial as well as small-scale production.
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