Modern pastured poultry draws heavily on bygone experience but rather than being locked in the past utilizes modern thinking, technology and equipment to cut the work load and create a sustainable and profitable system.
There is a great deal of information both good and bad on poultry in modern and old sources. We can draw useful information from both but if the small scale farmer is serious about making money from poultry, be it the main enterprise, or a profitable side line, then he or she will have to look to what the leaders in the fields are doing. The undoubted experts are Joel Salatin and Andy Lee, both Americans from the state of Virginia. Don't let this put you off as both of their methodologies have been tried most successfully in Australia.
Joel has been to Australia and those who heard him talk at the Holistic Conference in Orange in 1999, or who have read his books will know that this small farmer has taken the pastured poultry model to a new level of sophistication and sustainabilty. Andy Lee has also published on poultry but none of his latest work on the commercial level is yet in print. Lee and Salatin agree on much but have some differences of approach which make for an interesting dialogue. The discussions on poultry can be followed by email at Day Range@ egroups.com and Pasture Poultry @ egroups.com Let me also highly recommend the American Pasture Poultry Association newsletter and our own Free Range Farmers Association whose web site is at freerangefarmers.com.au. In New South Wales the Free Range Egg Producers Association can be reached on (02) 4572 3315, In Queensland the Free Range Poultry Association of Queensland are on (07) 4696 7501.
You will all be familiar with the elaborate hen house in an enclosed yard with six foot high fencing to keep the birds in and the predators out. This fixed poultry housing is at the root of many of the problems people experience with hens. The earth around this poultry penthouse is often totally bare with not a blade of grass or any other sort of vegetation in sight. If the chook yard has been there for any length of time there will also be a very distinct unpleasant odour and the soil will be so heavily overfertilised that it will be ages before it can support vegetation. These are certainly not "free range" hen houses . In spite of this there are, to this day, those who continue to promote this system as the model for those who would make money from free range poultry. The best of the fixed house models use deep litter in the house and in some cases in the yard. This is a much better option but is rather labour intensive in that all the deep litter needs to moved. This system is sometimes called the "barn egg" model.
In sharp contrast is the pastured poultry model. A profitable free range egg operation consists of the following:- good vigorous pasture, a mobile shed and happy, busy hens enclosed by portable, flexible electric netting fences. These keep the birds safe from predators while confining their foraging to a defined cell which is never allowed to be overgrazed. The sheds are built with mesh floors so that all the droppings from the roosting hens drop straight onto the pasture. The shed is moved daily so there is no build-up of manure and no labour requirement to move manure or litter build-up. Some pasture houses have a removeable tray floor to comply with local shire regulations. This removable tray collects the night droppings which can then be removed and spread on other pasture areas .With this type of set up the house is moved less frequently.
On a free range meat operation it is particularly important that young birds be introduced to good nutritious pasture using one or two possible containment models. The Salatin model uses portable bottomless pens (pasture pens) in which the birds are contained. Waterers and feeders are fixed to the roof of the pens and move with the birds. Pens are moved once daily onto fresh grass when the young birds first go outside and the moves are increased to twice daily as slaughter date approaches. These birds reach maturity in 7-9 weeks. The pen protects the birds from both terrestrial and aerial predators and ensures that they graze down the pasture within its confines.
The Lee or Day Range system grew out of the pasture pen model. A flexible electric netting fence encloses an area of pasture and a mini barn or shelter. The birds are allowed to range freely within the fence which protects them from predators and keeps them from wandering too far. They return to the barn for sleeping and protection from the elements (rain or hot sun). The mini barn needs moving far less often than the pasture pens and the birds get considerably more exercise. The one disadvantage of the system is that it offers no protection from aerial predation.
In the most successful operations a herbivore is incorporated into the system which is now variously called stacking, layering or polyculture. Herbivores are grazed on pasture but only allowed to reduce the forage to about 4 inches or 100 mm high. They are then moved to the next cell.
Chickens are then moved onto the grass which is at optimal height for them. They clean up any parasite eggs and pulverise the herbivore manure which, when combined with chicken droppings, is the ideal pasture fertiliser. To use that dreadful modern phrase a "win-win situation".
Both the egg and meat bird models, and stacking are all being successfully implemented in Australia and the returns to the farmer can be measured in financial, and ecological terms. The demand for good eggs and grass raised meat birds is limitless. The call for the produce is based on the customer's ready ability to detect the superior taste of both meat and eggs and the growing awareness in the community that these methods deliver goods
which are superior nutritionally and far safer and better medically. Customers are also aware that these methods address animal welfare concerns.
For the farmer the benefits are in having products which are easy to market and can be grown on land which is steadily improving in fertility without the cost or bother of fertilisation. As an aside it is interesting that in much of the old farming literature it was universally recognised that if one started with poor land the easiest and cheapest way to improve it was to run free range chickens. This is particularly true in Australia where the majority of our soils are low in phosphate and much money has been spent on chemical fertiliser.
If you are looking for a profitable enterprise that will add to your farming diversity, can be stacked with other grazing animals, will help to control pasture parasites, adds rather than depletes fertility at small cost, improves pasture quality and can be put in place at minimal expenditure, then chickens may well provide the answer.