Veterinarian/Assistant Specialist in Cooperative Extension
The growing trend in commercial organic free-range and pastured poultry production systems reflect a growing interest by the public in this segment of food production. However, these systems do have unique challenges. The following are some general observations and recommendations that can be applied for free-range and pastured poultry management with respect to three challenging areas based on our surveys and our interactions with this segment of commercial poultry production:
- Predator/Wildlife control
- Disease control
- Procurement of organic feed
Before we address these areas it is important to go over some basic definitions on the differences between commercial free-range and pastured poultry.
What is Free-Range?
In a general sense, free-range is a loose term for any system that does not use cages and provides access to an outdoor area that is fenced in and may also have some type of netting/fencing over it. Free-range chickens are housed in a stationary indoor space with nest boxes, perches and often unlimited access to the fenced and/or netted outdoor space.
What is Pastured Poultry
While free-range birds can be on pasture, having birds on pasture falls into the category of pastured poultry. Advantages to raising poultry on pasture include reductions in feed cost relative to free-range birds not on pasture and changes in the nutritional content and characteristics of eggs. Specifically, eggs from pasture-raised hens have been reported to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin E (all thought to be beneficial to human health). In addition, pasture can act as an “enrichment” for birds which can have a beneficial effect on flock behavior.
Note: While there are very specific definitions of organic production that are outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP), in the U.S. there are currently no federal definitions of either free-range or pastured poultry production although the USDA does stipulate that free-range birds have access to the outdoors. In addition, there is currently no consensus regarding stocking density inside and outside the coop. Independent welfare auditing groups have different standards which typically range from between 1.5-2 square feet per bird indoors and 2 to 4 square feet per bird outdoors.
In addition, if you use the fertilized land as cropland, it is very important to keep food safety in mind. According to the USDA’s NOP, touch crops, crops that are harvested from the ground (ie. carrots, lettuce), should not have raw manure applied on to them less than 120 days before harvest. In the case of no-touch crops, (i.e. crops that have no direct contact to the ground like fruit trees), they should not have manure applied on to them less than 90 days before harvest. The purpose of these recommended lag times is to avoid bacterial cross-contamination between raw manure and crops that will be used for human consumption.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by commercial free-range and pastured poultry producers is wildlife control. This is most likely even more challenging for organic producers since organic producers have limited bait options as outlined by the NOP. Regardless, anecdotal and survey-based observations indicate that predation is the number one cause for mortalities in commercial free-range and pastured poultry systems. Therefore, if your farm is in an area where predators such as coyotes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, and hawks are common you should consider the following preventative measures
- Using hardware cloth (less than or equal to ¼ inch wide) instead of chicken wire for fencing. Hardware cloth is thicker and more difficult for wildlife to break through.
- For permanent fencing, two to three feet of hardware cloth can be dug underneath the ground for extra protection. This makes it harder for predators to dig under your fence. In addition, apply gravel where the fence line meets the ground (6 inches deep and across).
Big picture with respect to fencing, remember that fences are only as strong as their weakest link. So for example, if you have a gate that has a gap between the bottom of the gate and the ground, you should realize that wildlife will find it and use it. While netting and fencing can help keep wildlife out, a combination of management practices is really needed to optimize predator and pest control. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for wildlife control.
In addition to fencing, provide multiple shade/coverage options including trees and man-made structures. In addition to providing shelter from aerial predators (i.e., hawks and owls) these types of cover encourage your birds to graze over more land.
While fencing and coverage are fundamental, other options to consider include.
- Devices that use reflective material such as wildlife repellent tape, scary eyes and terror balloons can scare other birds and some predators as well.
- Coyote/fox decoys can scare of wildlife such as waterfowl.
Note: Adaptation to the reflective material and decoys has been reported. Therefore, it is important to move them around regularly and maybe even take a break from using them periodically.
- Electronic bird repellents use bird sounds to scare off other problem birds. Usually, they come with some sort of random order mode to prevent adaptation to sounds. They were originally used for vineyards but have been helpful in other animal operations.
While the above recommendations can be used in free-range or pastured poultry operations the use of portable electric fences are often used in pastured systems to outline the borders of a new pasture specific to where the mobile coop has been moved. The goal here is to fence off an area of approximately 5 square feet per bird and to mitigate wildlife intrusion. Keep in mind that this kind of fence is less than ideal in that it doesn’t keep all wildlife out but it can help keep larger predators out of the grazing area.
One of the challenges of free-range and pastured poultry production from a disease perspective is interaction with wildlife which can be reservoirs for multiple infectious diseases. Different diseases may be more common in different parts of the country but diseases that are considered ubiquitous among poultry include the virus that causes Marek’s Disease, the bacteria Salmonella and the protozoal parasite coccidia.
First and foremost the best way to mitigate infectious diseases in your flock is via proper management and biosecurity. The balancing act of free-range and pastured poultry production with respect to controlling disease is how do we follow the husbandry and management approaches consistent with organic free-range and pastured poultry production while also mitigating disease transmission.
Big picture focus on reducing the potential for contact between wildlife and your flock (see the wildlife and predator control section above). Additional areas of focus should be on making sure there is minimal harborage for wildlife near your flock. This is especially important for the control of rodents which are notorious for disease transmission.
Vaccination is an option for organic poultry producers and are highly recommended for the control of Marek’s Disease. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccination options for Salmonella and coccidia.
Poultry feed typically accounts for up to 70 percent of the operating costs of poultry feed. This can even be more expensive if you purchase organic poultry feed. Due to the expense of purchasing organic poultry feed and if you produce your own grain, producing your own feed via the purchase of a mill should be considered. However, it is highly recommended to work with a poultry nutritionist at least initially to produce a balanced ration and avoid any nutritional deficiencies since producing your own feed can be extremely challenging to do correctly especially when trying to measure nutritional quality and consistency of farm-grown feeds and to optimize micronutrients and specific amino acids like methionine which are important for egg production.
You can consult the most recent Nutritional Requirements for Poultry by the National Research Council at http://www.nap.edu/openbook .php?isbn=0309048923 in order identify recommendations for a balance ration.
So what should I feed my chicken?
The short answer like everything in biology is “that depends.” Here are some general guidelines for layer feed.
Chick Starter (0-6 weeks): Just hatched chicks need a high energy carbohydrate rich diet usually in the form of corn in commercially available diets. The available protein needs to be highly digestible protein (usually soybeans) and should have a protein content of approximately 20 percent.
Note: organic producers can’t use medicated feed with an approved Coccidiastat to mitigate the effects of the protozoal parasite coccidian. This makes management and vaccination the only options for organic poultry producers with respect to the control of coccidia.
Pullets (i.e. female hens who have not started laying eggs) (6-18 weeks): In general as the chicks get larger they need less protein but more energy. A grower or pullet ration has a lower protein level than a chick starter to ensure your chickens don’t grow too fast.
Laying hens (18 weeks plus): Switch to a laying feed which has increased calcium and vitamin D. The calcium to phosphorus ratio should be 2:1 and the calcium should increase from 2.5 percent to 5.0 percent. Interestingly, the requirement for calcium is not constant throughout the day. Shell formation typically occurs around 12AM, so if your hens have thin egg shells which is somewhat common in older laying hens because egg shells get weaker as the chickens get older, supplement oyster shell which is high in calcium at night.
Molt: As laying birds age and sunlight decreases birds will often undergo a molting period where their reproductive tracts basically “take a break.” When they naturally molt in this fashion they stop egg production while their reproductive tract is regenerating. Therefore, since they are no longer laying eggs, their dietary needs are different with respect to energy, protein and calcium. Not all birds molt. Briefly molting depends on genetics and the amount of ambient light. Therefore, it is important to understand if your flock is molting or not to determine if you need to provide a molting ration.
Commercial free-range and pastured poultry farming are becoming more common for several reasons including consumer demand. For farmers it is important to realize that no husbandry system is perfect. Every system has weaknesses and challenges. The more we learn about every system the more we can mix and match to make an optimal environment for our flock.