Pasture Poultry: Considerations Before Pasturing Your Flock
Is Raising Pasture Chickens for You?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Full or part-time pasture poultry is an attractive option for the backyard flock owner. There’s something very quaint about looking out the window at a beautiful spread of birds making their way through the grass. Likewise, incorporating a natural diet and ecological cycle is packed full of benefits.
Before making the leap, flock keepers of all sizes should consider their circumstances and resources to ensure this is a good fit.
The main discussions about pastured birds fall into roughly two broad categories. These are the welfare of the animals and environmental impact. Both have drawbacks and benefits.
Successful pasture poultry ultimately depends on your birds and what resources you have to manage them.
Chickens, turkeys, and waterfowl can all co-exist with nature quite well. They can even improve your backyard, garden, or pasture for other animals, and your family. But as domesticated species, they require a degree of hands-on care and handling.
Any bird exposed to the outside environment will carry some worm load. The threshold for when the load impacts quality of life and productivity varies by individual.
Parasites in the environment depend on the region, climate, and seasonality. Pasture poultry tend to acquire them by eating host insects, manure, or grasses where larvae reside. How severe infestation is can change on a yearly or seasonal basis.
Clinical signs of a heavy parasite burden include poor growth, weight loss, decreased egg production, and sickly appearance.
Some of the most common worm species impacting poultry are roundworms, tapeworms, hairworms, and cecal worms. The only way to pinpoint which you’re dealing with is through a fecal analysis. After examining a sample, your vet can advise the best ways to treat and prevent further infection.
“Blanket deworming,” or treating all your birds with the same product on a seasonal or yearly basis, is not recommended without prior testing and recommendation. Repeated mass or inadequate dosage of the same product can lead to parasitic resistance.
Rotating pasture poultry to different sections and not overcrowding can go a long way to reduce the risk of excessive infestation.
Improve your land
Poultry manure is known for being extremely nitrogen-rich. This can drastically improve grass and pastures used for other animals.
If you have other animals like sheep, goats, cattle, or horses, you can use your birds and other livestock to reduce worms. Because worms are species-specific, chickens can eat worms for other animals and be unaffected — this goes vice versa. Pastured flocks are also known to reduce overall insect populations, including garden pests and harmful ticks.
Additionally, chickens especially love to scratch and uproot weeds and dense forages. Plants that are overgrown and unpalatable to other animals are no match for a pastured flock.
One of the biggest challenges to outside birds is the unforgiving elements. Some breeds, particularly heritage types, are more tolerant of differentiating environmental conditions. For example, commercial Cornish Cross broilers and Broad Breasted White turkeys become extremely heat intolerant at a certain weight. Certain breeds are also not as good at foraging and searching for food as others.
Housing needs depend on your climate. If you want to pasture in a hot, humid, or dry area, shade and shelter will need to be provided at all times. After the growing season, when insects go dormant or die off, you will also need a housing and feeding plan.
There are lots of housing setups to accommodate pastured birds and can be either permanent or mobile. Many large-scale pasture setups favor the mobile option (usually capable of being pulled behind a truck, tractor, or ATV), as this makes it extremely easy to rotate your flock as needed. But if your flock is smaller and you’ll be keeping them nearby, a permanent shelter may be preferable.
Many types of poultry housing can be homemade and done quite inexpensively. The internet is a phenomenal place to look for ideas and full instructions.
Besides creating a flock-friendly environment, there are some other special interests to be aware of. Your property may be suitable for a pastured setting, but you need to consider the logistics to care for and maintain your birds daily.
Avians are not unlike other farmed species such as ruminants or equines. While they will happily make grass part of their diet when given the opportunity, they cannot nutritionally utilize it in the way cows or horses can.
Instead, pastured birds are looking for insects and seeds. Depending on your region and how favorable the conditions are, you can get away with offering less feed or just supplementing.
What’s most important are the dietary guidelines — for example, laying hens need at least 16% crude protein and ample calcium. Market varieties need anywhere from 18% to 28% crude protein, depending on age and species.
These can be hard to pinpoint, so it is a good idea to provide a commercial feed. Outside birds will consume significantly less than if they were indoors. However, if you are in doubt about what you’re providing, seek out professional recommendations.
The list of poultry predators is quite extensive. The majority of your concerns are nocturnal animals, but that doesn’t mean your flock is safe in the daylight hours either. Even neighboring dogs or cats can pose a threat.
For these reasons, it’s recommended to keep your animals behind an electric fence if possible. Many of these are portable and simple to install, meaning you can move your flock from location to location. There are other deterrents and home remedies, even guardian dogs are an option, but most favor the electric.
If your housing is permanent or mobile, it must be either made predator-proof or secured behind a reliable fence.
Ultimately you need to find the best way to manage a pastured flock. This takes into account all the other aspects and puts them into one complete picture.
Besides predator-proof fencing and housing, you need to be aware of other practicalities such as bringing daily food and water, monitoring for health, egg collection, and other factors that may be less convenient than an indoor housed flock.
There is no one “best” way to pasture-raise birds. Everyone’s setup is a little different. If you are mindful of the basic logistics, you can confidently create your own best management style.
Are you considering pasture poultry? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.