This article offers advice about grassland poultry farming and was produced by the Department of Animal Sciences, the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, the Florida University Institute of Food Sciences and Agriculture.
There are various important points for a small and medium-scale poultry farmers to consider when thinking about grassland poultry production as an alternative to traditional production.
This article provides information that will help to identify the features of alternative poultry production, explain the opportunities and challenges related to grassland-based production systems, provide an overview of the choice of breeds for laying hens and chickens, as well as how to assess the equipment, poultry netting and methods that will get the chickens off to a good start. A variety of poultry netting is available, including plastic chicken wire and galvanized hexagonal poultry wire.
Alternative poultry farming
The use of the word ‘alternative’ in this context is not accurate. Many types of poultry have been reared on grassland for centuries. Grassland poultry farming is a term that is used generally to describe a wide variety of farming systems where the birds have regular access to grass. The farming systems vary extensively from using seasonal sheds with permanent yards protected by poultry netting, to portable sheds that are regularly moved to new pasture.
Additionally, the birds could be allowed to roam freely on the grassland (figure 1), which is most commonly seen with laying flocks or those confined to portable sheds that are rotated around different pasture (figure 2). There are no parameters regarding the density rates of grassland poultry in the USA.
A series of pastoral systems can be classified as organic if the farmer chooses to follow the certification process that requires that the food, pasture and processor are certified as organic. In terms of organic farming, USDA’s National Organic Program requires that there has been access to fresh air and balanced organic food without chemical or synthetic products, and it prohibits the use of antibiotics (USDA NOP, 2006; Fanático, 2007).
There are farmers who follow organic standards for rearing their flocks but choose to not become certified as organic, and they do this for several different reasons.
The main disadvantage of organic farming is the elevated cost of providing a balanced diet and the lack of processing facilities offering services for organically certified farmers.
Opportunities for pastoral poultry farming
According to the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), there is a high demand for grassland reared poultry that is marketed directly to the consumer. An operation like that could be managed by just one person, the farmer could begin small and grow as he becomes more competent in producing and marketing meat and eggs. There is a
minimum capital investment involved when compared with poultry businesses.
However, poultry farmers can also attract customers with other products. Also, grassland poultry farming could be said to be a more sustainable system, as the nutrients from the poultry faecal matter are deposited directly on the ground. These deposits serve as a source of organic material and nutrients that can help to improve the fertility of the soil and its water retention, as well as increase the production of animal feed. This is especially beneficial in areas with low fertility and deep sandy soil.
Challenges of grassland poultry farming
The challenges of grassland poultry farming are the manpower, seasonality and processing involved. It is an operation that requires a great deal of manpower: the birds need to be fed, given water and moved around at least once if not twice a day. Poultry nets must also be installed to protect the brooding area.
Poultry meat production in northern Florida is practically seasonal with production and collection between February and June, and from August to December, in order to avoid temperature extremes.
Weather conditions will dictate how early or how late in the season the birds can be on the grassland, since stress from the weather can affect feed conversion and meat quality.
On the other hand, layer flocks can handle varying weather conditions if adequate shelter is provided for them, sealing the area off using poultry wire.
The threat of predators also presents challenges, especially for new farmers, as it takes time to develop effective predator control strategies to help minimise their losses. Poultry netting obviously goes a long way to protect the birds against such predators, a strong hexagonal chicken wire providing the best defence.
The biggest challenge is to find processing facilities which slaughter and handle the birds for small-scale farmers.
Poultry meat: choosing a breed
In contrast with layer hens, there are relatively few options for breeds for poultry meat. The options include hybrids crossed with Cornishs which are chosen for commercial production systems. Cornish Crosses are seen as rapid growth chickens. These broiler chickens grow to a marketable weight of 2.3 to 2.7 kg (5 to 6 lb) in between 7 and 8 weeks.
Since Cornish Cross chickens grow to a marketable weight at a young age, their meat tends to be more tender and juicy and doesn’t have the strong taste that thoroughbred chickens have (Chambers et al. 1989).
A growing trend in grassland poultry farming is to use dual-purpose thoroughbreds, helping to preserve the genetic information of domestic poultry in the United States. Thoroughbreds are breeds that are recognised by the American Poultry Association as dating from before the middle of the 20th century.
Thoroughbreds include striped silvery and dual purpose breeds such as New Hampshire, Buff Orpington (figure 3) and Barred Rocks (figure 4). The male dual purpose chickens are chosen for poultry meat production and females for egg production.
A dual purpose chicken is not going to provide as large a network as a poultry meat bird, neither is it going to lay as many eggs as a laying hen (ALBC, 2009). These birds tend to grow slowly, eat more food and take up to 12 weeks to get to a market weight.
Thoroughbreds are also considered as having a stronger taste because of the age at which they are slaughtered and processed (Le Bihan-Duval, 2003; Fanatico, 2007).
Selecting a breed will depend on the personal preferences of the farmer and in some cases, market preferences and consumer demand.
Selecting layer hens
Commercial hatcheries offer a wide variety of choice when it comes to layer hens. A common misconception is that hybrids are man-made breeds. In actual fact, hybrids are a cross between known breeds whose offspring grow more quickly, provide greater uniformity across the flock and greater egg production. This is sometimes referred to as hybrid strength.
Some examples of hybrids include the red features associated with the sex, and the farming of Leghorn red and white hens. Once again, personal preference and the market are going to be the factors which dictate the choice of breed.
Thoroughbreds are also an option for laying poultry farms. The advantage of using this breeds is that it preserves genetic diversity. Some breeds in this category include the New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red (figure 5), Buff Orpington, Menorca and Ancona.
Additionally, thoroughbreds have adapted to changing weather conditions and are natural and efficient foragers. Using this type of bird in a grassland farming system can also be used as a marketing tool.
Some farmers prefer to choose a breed based on their desired color of eggs. The golden rule for layers of brown and white eggs is the color of
their earlobes, which in many cases match the color of the eggs they are going to lay.
White Leghorns are among the most well-known and greatest producers of white eggs, while the Rhode Island Reds are the second best known and greatest producers of large brown eggs. If you prefer a more unusual egg shell color, the Araucana and Ameracana breeds will give you the desired results. For more information, table 1 displays the characteristics of the main chicken breeds.
Starting poultry farming
In a grassland farming system, the newly born chicks do not go directly onto the pasture area. For the first two weeks, a closed structure is required to provide them with a constant temperature, food and water supply. This type of closed structure if commonly known as the brooding area or coop, and requires a good quality poultry wire around its perimeter.
For poultry meat chickens, the chicks stay in the brooding area for approximately three weeks or until they are sufficiently feathered to be able to survive the weather conditions.
On the other hand, chicks who will later become layer hens, need to stay in the brooding area for around six weeks.
The first two weeks will determine their survival, growth and health throughout their time in the grazing flock.
The brooding area should meet the following requirements:
- Allow for 0.04 m2 (0.5 foot2) per bird
- Have a heat source (infrared lamps are recommended, have two in case one breaks down).
- 7.6 cm (3 inches) of dry bedding, such as wood chip/shavings, hay or straw. Try to avoid using slippery materials like newspaper.
- 1 litre (a quart) of water per 25 birds.
- Clean troughs/feeders. The trough should be placed near the heat source but not directly underneath it.
- Some form of ventilation. Chickens need to be protected against drafts, so adequate ventilation is vital during the rearing period (DeCubellis, 2007).
For the first week, the temperature in the brooding area must be kept at 35°C (95°F). After the first week, the temperature must be lowered by
2.7°C (5°F) each week for the following two to three weeks, after which time the birds are usually ready to go out onto the pasture.
The temperature in the brooding area can be reduced by raising the heat source. It is very important to provide fresh water and ad libitum food (as needed) on a daily basis, which is vital for their growth and health once they go out onto the pasture. Care must be taken to ensure that the food and water do not get too hot as this can cause the chickens no to eat and drink what they need to.
On the day they chicks are going to be introduced to the brooding area, it needs to be switched on 24 hours before the chicks arrive so that you can rectify any problems beforehand. You must also make sure that the incubator facility sends the chicks the same day to avoid losses and ensure that they begin eating and drinking (figure 6).
Once the chicks have been placed in the brooding area, each bird must be shown where the water source is by wetting its beak in it.
Consumers in the United States are becoming more and more interested in products which they can see have been produced naturally or organically, which offer high nutritional value, a good flavor, where the birds have good well-being and where information is available about how the food is produced. This interest has led to specialised markets for birds reared from alternative systems such as free-range or organic (Fanatico, 2007).
In Florida, grassland poultry farmers can supply the growing demand of these consumers. However, lack of processing facilities is the main challenge which farmers have to overcome, either by constructing their own facilities, converting existing ones or by collaborating with others to
gain access to mobile processing units. Materials needed would include a good quality poultry netting system.
To see examples of farming systems, educational videos and scientific presentations online, go on a virtual grassland chicken farming day by clicking here.