Make Pastured Poultry Pay
Sell a Premium Product…
The first rule of making poultry pay is to sell a premium product. The first step to ensuring a premium product is to give the birds access to pasture.
Poultry and eggs raised on pasture taste better than those raised in confinement. Why? It’s the diet.
You can see the difference. The darker, orange yolk of a hen on pasture has a more intense flavor. It also is higher in beta carotene, a vitamin A precursor, which gives the yolk its color. Research at Penn State and tests of free-range eggs reported to Mother Earth News show that those eggs are higher in vitamin A and E and Omega-3 fatty acids, while lower in cholesterol than store eggs.
Chickens will eat just about anything, and giving them access to a pasture "salad bar" in addition to their feed adds vitamins, minerals, protein and essential fats, all of which show up in their eggs or flesh.
Pasture is not only good for the chickens; chickens, managed correctly, are good for the pasture. Hens are brilliant at finding and eating small seeds, insects, and tender grass and leaves. Their manure leaves behind a healthy shot of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. The trick is to move the hens before the pasture has been pecked and scratched to death.
In any event, starting up a poultry business with portable housing on pasture is far cheaper than a standard commercial operation. Scaling up from a few to a few hundred chickens is well within a small business’ budget.
Chickens on pasture are a lot more pleasant to be around, too. It’s rare for problems like feather-picking or bullying to escalate into cannibalism when the victim has plenty of room to keep away from the aggressor. And while nervous breeds like Leghorns are never going to be friendly, their aloof demeanor on pasture is much easier to deal with than panicky flapping in an enclosed house!
Finally, pastured poultry fit in very well with grazing animals. Joel Salatin uses his hens to follow his grazing cattle. They break up the manure, eat the fly larvae, and spread the fertility around. He gets twice as much benefit from the same land.
For all the benefits of pasturing poultry, there are problems that need to be addressed as well.
Predators, large and small, can be a problem. Four-footed predators can be deterred by electric fencing, while Charles Ritch in Alabama has found that overhead strings that force hawks to swerve during an attack run give his birds enough warning to keep them safe. Wild birds like crows can be a nuisance, stealing eggs and feed. Parasites such as roost mites can weaken your hens, so prevention is the best medicine here.
In cold-winter areas, you’ll have several months where the hens can’t get at green plants. During that time, moving the hens to winter quarters with an open-front, covered yard bedded in straw is traditional. Make alfalfa or clover hay available, and they will get much of the benefit of pasture despite the season.
…At a Premium Price
Many people have a preference for pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and will pay a premium price for a premium product. If you are to stay in business, your price must cover your expenses, pay for replacement hens and equipment, and clear enough to pay you a wage good enough that you’re not tempted to find a job at Wal-Mart instead.
How much are expenses? For Norton Creek Farm, a dozen eggs costs roughly $1.50, including raising the pullets, feed, equipment, and carton. With a wholesale price of $3.20 (retail $4.00), the rest covers the labor involved in collecting, cleaning, packing, and selling the eggs. Like any business, it’s necessary to keep records of one’s income, expenses and labor.
A part-time poultry business is a fine sideline to other farm enterprises or a profitable part-time business for a kid or an at-home parent. Robert finds that collecting eggs twice a day gives him a much-needed break from office work.
Which Comes First?
For most of us, eggs are the logical first step. Selling eggs off the farm is a traditional way for someone with a few extra dozen to make a little money. Other methods are subscription (either picked up or delivered on a certain day), farm stands, CSAs, farmers markets and restaurant and store sales.
At each venue, your customer increasingly expects you to have eggs available all year. Since hens lay better in the spring, and the older hens will stop laying entirely in the fall, plan to add pullets so they start laying from July on. With the Corvallis Farmers Market running until Thanksgiving, it is worthwhile for Norton Creek Farm to start several batches of chicks from March to June, so they will start laying between July and October. After trying several varieties of heritage breeds, we’ve found that the best birds for us are the commercial Red Sex-Link (brown eggs) and Leghorn crosses (white eggs).
It may be that farm eggs in your area commonly sell for unreasonably low prices. These are usually not pastured eggs, and when you can show the real difference that comes from having hens on pasture, the customers who care for the best will become your customers.
Pasture-raised broilers can be quite profitable, but I wouldn’t recommend them as a first poultry project, as they are a bit tricky to raise, butchering will be slow and frustrating at first, and regulations for selling meat are more restrictive than eggs. Finding someone in my area who raised meat birds and helping with butchering taught me a lot.
How about other poultry? Turkey, duck, goose, quail and pheasant are specialized niches that may be worth trying, once you’re fully conversant with chickens.
Everybody’s seen a permanent chicken yard. No matter how large the yard, the area near the house is invariably overmanured, overgrazed, and bare of plants. This unfortunate situation is often what people think of as "free range." Instead, build your house so it can be moved away from the manure. As a bonus, you won’t have to shovel.
There are as many types of portable houses as there are people who build them, but they can be roughly split into the hand-movable and the machine-movable. The former are usually used for pasture pens in the style of Joel Salatin; moved daily, the chickens are on fresh grass each day and their manure is evenly spread over the field. Chickens in machine-movable houses use an area around the house as well as inside. When that area needs a rest, the house and its surrounding fence is moved to a fresh area.
Movable electric fencing gives you the flexibility to size the chickens’ area depending on the available pasture and number of chickens. When we move eight-week-old pullets out to pasture, we fence off part of the hens’ pasture with 20-inch garden netting (available from Premier or Kencove) to keep the hens away from the youngsters until they’ve had a week or so on pasture. It prevents hens from getting into the chicks’ new house and scaring the chicks into piles in the corner.
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