Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pastured Poultry

Neal burying a chicken that didn't make it into the coop at night
(opossum or racoon attack)

With about 35 chickens eating 1/4 pound of feed each per day, we go through a 50 pound bag of feed in just 6 days. Those bags are $23 each. So we are paying $3.83 per day for our chickens just on feed alone. Our flock lays between 12-15 eggs/day. If we chose to sell our eggs, we would need to charge at least $4/dozen. This does not factor in electricity (for the fence and for the lights to keep our hens producing in the winter), straw for the bedding, cost of purchasing the birds themselves ($4-5 each for grown hens), or construction materials. It also does not pay us for the time spent letting the chickens in/out of the coop, collecting/cleaning the eggs, and feeding/watering. My hope is to significantly reduce the cost of feed at least during spring/summer/and fall.

Here are some things we learned from Permaculturist, Paul Wheaton who runs the blog

    "The jungle comes complete with polyculture foods all year long. Greens, bugs, fruits, grains and more. Mostly fresh. Something we cannot do all year because we have winter. Most chicken feeds eliminate three out of four of these - leaving only grain. And that grain is dried grain - not fresh. Since we have learned that grain alone makes for a sickly chicken, "chicken feed" also contains dried legumes and a vitamin/mineral mix that contains the vitamins and minerals that we are aware of that we think chickens need. I see people build massive, elaborate stuff for raising chickens that deprive them of fresh foods or bugs even in the summer. Or natural sunlight. Or have them standing in their own poop all day. Or, worse, the chickens are killed by predators."

    Here's a list of the typical ways to raise chickens and Paul Wheaton's thoughts on each:

    • factory- Poor ratings on vegetation, bug access, natural habitat, poop cleaning, work, confinement, and food cost factors. This is the typical way grocery store eggs are produced, unless specifically specified otherwise.
    • coop and run- Same factors rate from poor to moderate depending on size of run and level of vegetation. This is how our chickens are raised in the city. They get access to our kitchen scraps most days though.
    • chicken tractor- Same factors rated poorly except for poop cleaning. This seems like a lot of daily work to me.
    • truly free range- Moderate to good ratings on everything except poop cleaning (the chickens will poop in unfortunate places-- like the porch, yuck) and work (they may wipe out your gardens, dog food, mulch, etc creating extra chores for you) We might consider this, but we live quite close to the highway and I'm not convinced the chickens are sufficiently scared of the asphalt.
    • pastured poultry pens- Poor to moderate rating on all factors except poop cleaning (perfect score there). Have to move the whole pen twice a day and only cuts feed bill by 20%. Seems like more work than our current system.
    • pastured poultry paddocks- Possibility for perfect scores on all factors if done right. This is the model for which we are striving. No current plans to create a moveable chicken coop, though it would cut down on straw usage and also poop cleaning.

    "... there are four temporary paddocks and a draggable (portable) micro-coop. The chickens spend 7 to 10 days in a paddock. Each area rests from the chickens at least 28 days. Each paddock is loaded with people food and chicken food. When the time comes to move the chickens, set up the new paddock and then create an opening between the two paddocks. Drag the micro-coop to the new paddock and the chickens will run to the fresh forage. Close the new paddock and take down the old paddock."

Here is what we learned from Paul Wheaton about growing your own chicken feed and having the hens harvest it themselves: 
  • You can pay someone to grow grains for you to feed the chickens (expensive) or you could grow the grains yourself and dry them for use later (labor intensive) or you can plant perennials and self-seeding annuals that the chickens can forage themselves. We have started doing this but so far we are keeping the chickens out of our freshly mulched plantings. They seem to LOVE digging under piles of leaves for worms... so they will have to wait to reach the newly planted stuff.
  • There are many examples of foods that both people and hens enjoy eating. Some that we may try are: amaranth, comfrey, purslane (did so well during the drought this year!), sunflowers, and swiss chard (this did so well in the city during the heat/drought).
  • Paul suggests harvesting a crop and then letting the chickens forage what you don't take/ what falls on the ground. We think this will work especially well with the fruits. We'll take the ones that we like and leave them the seconds/thirds.... they can also have the ones with the bugs.
Our situation is a bit different than Paul's in that we have a stationary chicken coop instead of a mobile one. However, we have already started trying out paddock rotations with 2 lengths of electric fencing. We've found that the chickens spend more time outside when their paddock includes the big maple or evergreen tree. Also, when we rotate the pen every week or so, only closest area of grass to the coop gets eaten/scratched down to dirt. Eventually, we will let the chickens forage around our permaculture guilds (after the plants have established themselves). So far, if both of us help, it takes about an hour to move the whole fence. This is mostly because we'll get the fence moved halfway and then decide to change the layout again. Hehe... so some room for improvement in decreasing that time. We will let you know how it goes as our system matures.

Pen Rotation #1
A few chickens are brave enough to forage the weed pile
Pen Rotation #1
Allows access to small evergreen and large maple tree
Some plantings out of reach of the chickens

This is how our pastured poultry pen is working right now:

This is how we want it to look in a year or two:


  1. What are the sizes of your 5 paddocks for your 35 chickens? We are raising only 6 chicks and, in searching for advice and ideas, came across the shifting paddocks with a micro-coop as outlined in the Paul Wheaton article. I don't have a feel for the area required for the number of chickens per square foot per week. I like your idea of a stationary coop with 5 paddock runs.

    1. The sizes can vary somewhat depending upon which paddock it is. Included in the variation is the location of some of our perennials and the grounding rod for our electric fence. The netting fence that we use is about 150' long. So for paddock 1 which is closest to the grounding rod and doesn't have any perennials really far way we use one fence. By the time we get to paddock 5 we end up using 2 rolls of fencing and usually have a bit too much.
      We now only have 10 chickens which we find to be a more manageable number. We shift the paddocks about once a week later in summer and sometimes we will wait 2 weeks now because everything is growing so quickly. When we had the 35 chickens weekly rotation was definitely necessary. Now the chickens seem to not cause as much damage. One other thing we have noticed is that they like to have something to hide under like a big tree or shelter. Good luck with your chickens.