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The Green Book

Range Poultry Production Systems: Commonalities between systems

Range Poultry Production Systems: Commonalities between systems
by Anne Fannatico, ATTRA

Range poultry production offers potential niche markets for producers interested in boosting income and diversifying operations.

Common features of range poultry production systems include access to fresh pasture and the use of non-medicated, natural feeds. The specific production system used is only a small part of a larger picture that allows a producer to access niche markets.The conventional poultry industry is characterized by high density in houses, integrated companies, contract growing, and by-products and routine medication in feeds.There are many reasons why consumers may prefer range poultry products over conventional.

Distinctions that consumers make about range poultry production over conventional poultry include access to range for welfare or aesthetic reasons, or because they believe it is more environmentally sound for birds to gradually deposit manure on pasture instead of large litter applications.Other welfare issues such as alternatives to transportation of birds to processing facilities in cramped cages may be important.Consumers are also interested in natural feed ingredients, with no use of unappealing byproducts such as animal proteins and routine medication.Some want certified organic products or gourmet products, believing that range poultry delivers better nutrition and taste.Some consumers are motivated by nostalgia and look for that Sunday fried chicken they enjoyed on Grandma's farm.

Other distinctions made by consumers and retailers have to do more with processing than production. Some consumers are attracted to the concept of on-farm processing, while others demand government inspected processing.Philosophical or religious values can influence their preferred method of slaughter (stunning, kosher, halal, etc.) and the degree of bleed-out. Some buyers prefer manual evisceration to automatic. Many distinctions are possible with the chilling process. For example smaller chill tanks can be used and carcasses can spend less time in chill tanks.There may be less in-soak of chill water into the carcass.Chill water composition may be modified or air chill used as an alternative to water chilling.Processing may affect handling properties for professional chefs whose skin is in contact with a lot of poultry products.

Some consumers also make marketing distinctions.For example, they may prefer to buy direct from the farmer to support local food production. The reason that producers are interested in range poultry production is generally economic: they want to earn money.However, there may also be some indirect reasons such as improving pasture fertility, increasing farm diversity through a low-capital enterprise, family work ethic, community involvement, including youth, and improving lifestyle they may simply want to raise chickens and have this product available to themselves, family and friends.

In addition to the specific production system, all range poultry producers have to consider labor, housing, feed, record-keeping, processing, regulations, stock, marketing (usually word-of-mouth), pricing, quality of life issues, resources, networking, cooperative work, and information gathering.Range poultry producers who are expanding their businesses also have to think about feasibility/business planning, a market plan, financing, labeling, access to government-inspected processing facilities, transportation, etc.

Range poultry production systems:
Many of these systems are integrated with cattle, sheep, or goats, which is especially helpful in keeping the forage at a manageable level for the chickens. Birds forage on plants, insects, and worms but concentrate feed is important for commercial production and to properly balance nutrients. For producers just starting out, mortality can be high at first due to a learning curve for brooding and production on pasture.Weather extremes and predation can be problematic.The breed most commonly used is cornish cross which generally reach a market weight of about 4 lbs. by 8 weeks and have the plump breast and white pin feathers expected by most consumers.However, potential exists for other breeds especially for increasing foraging ability and reducing leg problems.

Pastured poultry
In the pastured poultry system, batches of 50-90 birds are kept in lightweight floorless field pens, which are moved daily to fresh pasture. Dimensions are generally 10' x 12' x 2'. This system was developed by Joel Salatin of Swoope, Virginia, and popularized by his book Pastured Poultry Profits.The book and video can be ordered from the Stockman Grass Farmer. Salatin calculates that access to pasture reduces concentrate feed costs by 30%.

The pens are moved by hand by putting a specially designed dolly on one end and lifting the pen with a handle on the other end.The pens, weighing about 200 lbs., can be dragged in this way.

There are many modifications on the field pen in terms of size, design, and construction material.PVC pipe has been used to lighten it; some producers are using rebar. A peaked or hooped roof can keep goats off, help heat to escape, and prevent rainwater from pooling on a tarp cover.

The pastured poultry model can also be adapted for egg production by adding nestboxes.Plastic milk crates are often used for their lightness.

This pen design is especially useful for producers who want to try out a batch or two of chickens.No tractor or horse is needed to move the pens; however, it can be heavy for some people to move.No fencing is required since the birds are confined in the field pen.

"Free-range" refers to operations using portable housing that is regularly moved through a pasture.

The free-range system for broilers was popularized by Creola, Ohio, farmer Herman Beck-Chenoweth in his book Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing (available from Back Forty Books) and his newsletter Free-Range Forum.Long portable houses (skids), which house about 200 broilers each, are towed by tractor every few weeks to new locations in the pasture.The wooden skids are enclosed with chicken wire with litter covered floors, tarp-covered gable roofs, and doors on both ends.Broilers roam freely during the day and range about 100 feet away from the skids. The only fencing required is a strong perimeter fence to keep out neighborhood dogs. Birds are confined in the skid at night.Predation at night is not a problem if the chicken wire is tightly attached to the skid.

Some free-range operations have automatic watering systems in the field and specially constructed feeders to protect feed from the weather.

In order to use this free-range model, you need a tractor, draft horse, or a strong pick-up to move the skid.You also have to plan on opening and closing the skid doors in the morning and at night.

When layers are used in this type of system, it is often called an eggmobile. Joel Salatin has also been instrumental in popularizing a system in which a layer house is mounted on a trailer hitch and moved through pasture after his cattle rotation.He finds that significant acreage is needed in order to move the birds far enough each time so they do not return to the previous spot or identify a favorite spot such as a garden.When following the cattle, layers may help with fly and parasite control by picking apart dung pats, which harbor larvae.Salatin finds that this system can reduce concentrate feed by 70% for layers.He also stresses that since the birds are able to forage so many high-protein insects that feed can be provided cafeteria-style.If the birds can choose their own feed ingredients, they may eat less of the expensive protein supplements.Also grains can be fed whole, a cost saver for organic production.

A larger-scale range production system is the semi-intensive system.It is not yet widely used in the U.S. but is popular in Europe on a commercial basis.However, David Wilson of Louisville, Kentucky tried out the system on a commercial scale in the U.S.A permanent house is used and the birds are allowed access to range.The range can be rotated by allowing access through different door (popholes).It is important to rotate the yards--otherwise, a classic dirt chicken yard.

Wilson contracted with growers who had older chicken houses, some built in the 50s, on their farms.Flock size depended on the square footage of the particular house.Stocking density was 1 square foot per bird in the houses (industry averages are about 0.5 to 0.7 square feet) and 22 square feet per bird on the range.The total range space was usually a couple of acres around the house.It could be problematic setting out the range area since the houses were built without regard to range.Wilson did not have the opportunity to improve the range, but he believes that with legume plantings, ranges could provide a substantial portion of the broilers' diet.Wilson believes an ideal set-up would be 4500 birds in a 4500 square foot house.Flocks are intentionally kept small and stocking density low to reduce stress.Disease was not a problem for Wilson.

The broiler operation was year-round, but the birds did not go outdoors when the temperature dropped below 401F, making a 90-day window in Kentucky in which the birds stayed indoors. During this time, stocking density was reduced and alfalfa was added to the feed. The birds were allowed to range at 4 weeks of age during the summer and 5 weeks during the fall.

Wilson used a French meat breed called La Belle Rouge which has been developed for range production. If a producer used conventional Cornish cross birds in this production model, the birds could possibly be reluctant to range outside.However, raising the birds in a house with a high level of natural lighting and using a small house with multiple exits may encourage young Cornish cross birds to venture outside. If they are still reluctant to leave the house, placing a range feeder outside may encourage them. Another alternative is to use breeds that are more conducive to foraging; however, the market conformation of the breed is important since most consumers expect birds to have plump breasts and white pin feathers.

Due to opportunities for automation, labor requirements for this system can be much lower than the previous systems.

Permaculture integrates natural systems with human needs for food, shelter, fiber, etc.

The chicken tractor system was popularized by Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman of Buena Vista, VA, in their book The Chicken Tractor (available through Good Earth Publications)and integrates poultry with vegetable production.It is a floorless pen, usually 4'x10', enclosed with chicken wire and a covered top as protection against the weather.Twenty broilers are kept in this size pen. The pen is moved daily on fallow beds. You may need twice the garden space to use this system, but this allows the land to be treated every other year. Your land will become very fertile, doubling garden yields or better.

The chickens weed, till, and fertilize the beds.They also help in insect control. In addition to a concentrate ration, kitchen and garden wastes are thrown in the pens as feed.

In addition to rotating the pen daily to a fresh spot, there are other ways to use the chicken tractor in a garden.Or the pen can stay stationary, and fresh straw bedding is added daily to create a raised garden bed.This is especially useful in areas with poor soil. Or something in between these two systems: the pen stays on the garden bed longer than one day, but less than one month. This puts a sheet-mulch on top of the beds to kill grass and weeds and add fertility.

There are many other permaculture systems for range chicken production.

Yard and coop
Yard and coop is the familiar chicken coop: a fixed house and fixed yard. Allowing the chickens to roam the farm at will, while shutting them up at night to protect against predators, is a low-input system; however, disadvantages include loss to predators and droppings in undesired places. A fixed yard can become unsanitary. This system is generally not practical for commercial production.

Housing options
Some producers use innovative housing in conjunction with their range systems, especially during the winter, such as loose-litter hoophouses. The Chicken Tractor describes how to build a straw bale house as winter protection for layers. There has been continued interest in incorporating poultry into greenhouses. In Europe, open-ended houses with covered straw yards for layers are an intermediate system between wholly outdoor and wholly indoor. Aviaries and percheries are also used.

A "composting chicken house" provides an alternative for manure management in buildings where manure and litter accumulate.
Please send comments to Anne Fanatico at ATTRA, P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72701; 1-800-346-9140; email: , especially if you can add further reasons about your choice of production system.

Stockman Grass Farmer

P.O. Box 2300
Ridgeland, MS 39158 


Back Forty Books
26328 Locust Grove Road 

Creola, OH 45622 


Good Earth Publications
1702 Mountain View Road 

Buena Vista, VA 24416 


The USDA definition for free-range livestock is free access to the out-of-doors for a significant portion of their lives; however, there are no specific requirement to ensure that the birds will actually venture outside and actively forage on high-quality pasture.

In contrast, the European Community has very detailed trading standards regulation. They precisely define what is meant by free-range, semi-intensive, deep litter, and perchery for egg labeling in terms of stocking density and acreage required, degree of vegetation, housing, etc.

Consumer confusion about standards and terms can be a significant marketing bottleneck for range poultry. Also, consumers are also confused about organic certification and producers worry about dilution of organic standards.In addition to defined production and processing standards, we need terms with which a consumer can identify.For example, pastured poultry may make people think of pasteurized; range may bring to mind a dry, non-vegetative environment; country eggs may not evoke a pasture component; field-grazed may not be sufficiently descriptive, etc. According to some producers, free-range is the word used most commonly in media and that with which consumers most often identify. Perhaps APPPA could provide a certifying service in the future for range poultry systems and processing standards.

ATTRA (1-800-346-9140)