There are as many ways to raise broilers on pasture as there are to cook the finished product. No matter which system is selected, bird health and well-being should be the priority.
The red house was constructed with cattle panels, concrete mesh and rubber roofing that could be rolled up or down. Although the house proved to be good housing for broilers, the heavy rubber roofing made it difficult to move.
Photos by Sally Colby.
Understanding the origin of modern poultry is useful when it comes to designing housing. The red junglefowl, which thrives in southern and southeastern Asia, is accepted as the most common ancestor of all modern poultry. In its natural habitat, the junglefowl forages the forest floor for seeds and insects throughout the day, and then flies a short distance upward to perch for the night. Today's pasture-raised layers and broilers do best in housing that affords protection from the sun during the day and allows perching at night.
Alex Smith, a Dickinson College graduate, conducted research at the college's farm in Carlisle, Pa., aimed at examining pasture-based housing, broiler health and feeding. Smith doesn't have formal training in poultry management, so his observations come strictly from a practical management standpoint. He also admits he's still on the quest to build the perfect house, but said he learned a lot from the two structures he designed and built for pastured broilers.
The first house was a somewhat traditional pastured poultry pen in which birds were enclosed and moved at least once a day for access to fresh pasture. A poultry ration and water were available to birds to supplement the pasture.
"The big thing is moving it," said Smith, adding that the first house was relatively light and easy to move. "I put all the sides down, then used a rope to move it. One thing I learned from the design of this house is that the wheels [on the inside of the house] were catching feet. There are also some corners inside where chickens can get stuck. When I'm ready to move it, I try to get a good vantage point so I can see all of the inside and make sure birds aren't getting stuck in the back."
Smith says that although he liked the structure, it seemed too sealed up. The second house (the red house) is more open, but also heavier. It is also designed so birds can leave and graze an area enclosed with electric netting.
"I like this house more, but it's harder to move due to weight," Smith said of the red house. "The rubber roofing is good insulation, and it keeps the birds warm, but the roofing alone weighs about 100 pounds." One of the daily chores required with this house was rolling back the rubber roof cover. He noted that rolling it would be easier if the roof was constructed on sliders or perhaps hinged.
The red house was made with a frame of galvanized cattle panels lined with concrete mesh. Although the mesh will rust, it is less costly and easier to work with than smaller-spaced galvanized panels. The cattle panels are still necessary for the frame because the mesh alone won't support the rubber roofing or suspended feeders and waterers. Smith said one improvement he'd make is a taller door. He found that it was difficult to get into the house when necessary. However, he likes the drop-down door design because it also serves as a ramp for the birds to go in and out.
Small wheels on a heavy house make it difficult to move.
Several weeks prior to slaughter, Smith used temporary ElectroNet fencing around the red house to allow the birds more space to walk around and forage. To minimize the number of times he'd have to move the temporary fence, Smith arranged it in a diamond pattern, which allowed several pulls of the house before having to move the fence. He noted that since the birds were secured at night, there were no issues with predators in either design.
Daily observation and occasional examination of individual birds for signs of illness is important in disease prevention. Excessive dandruff can indicate insufficient fat in the ration.
When starting broilers in cooler weather, it's important to put birds out when temperatures will be warm for several consecutive days. This allows birds to acclimate and develop resilience to the cold. Most farmers choose to limit raising broilers from early spring through mid to late fall; others have been successful raising broilers through winter. Some farmers who raise birds through the winter utilize an idle greenhouse with temperature control, but it's important to use shade cloth so refracted winter sunlight doesn't excite the birds.
Dr. Susan Beal, a veterinarian who works with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, says that she writes one prescription that applies to raising livestock of any kind.
"No matter what kind of housing you select for broilers, it's important to keep a close watch on bird health," she said. "Each species is different when it comes to displaying early signs of illness. Spend time with the animals. If you know your birds, and you know the flock dynamic, you'll see that some are holding back. Or maybe not all of them are coming to the water and feed, and it isn't because you don't have enough feeder space. Maybe the most aggressive animal is lagging behind. They start to change appearance; the look in their eyes is different. One of the really important things is to notice which birds are bright and which ones are lagging. That's the thing that's going to start to tip them over."
Beal assesses bird health by examining the skin and feathers. "When there's a lot of dandruff, that's one of the subtle things that you can see early that will save you down the road," she said. "With cooler temps, fat is being used for energy. Soy-free feed has a slight disadvantage; use it in warmer temperatures so birds aren't struggling to stay warm at night or on cool days."
Another observation that can pay off is checking legs to see if they are maintaining an oily or waxy appearance. "Dryness can be subtle," said Beal, "but it may make a group of birds decline." Dietary fat should be 7 or 8 percent, and as high as 9 percent in fall. Feed can be topdressed with almost any vegetable oil except coconut oil, which birds cannot process efficiently. Lard works well, especially in the form of suet packs that are used for wild birds.
Beal points out that because birds are omnivores and not natural grazers, it's important to keep them on shorter grass. "Poultry tend to prefer a high-legume pasture and like less height for forage," she said. "Some species will work together, so consider a leader/follower set up for multispecies grazing." Beal noted that as birds get older and start to climb over one another, their toenails can pierce the skin of other birds, leaving entry points for bacteria. Other birds will pick at the sores, compounding the problem.
When it comes to placing feeders, Beal recommends that the height is level with the average bird's back. "There's less spilling, so it cuts down the feed bill," she said. "Remember that the heaviest manure and urine buildup will be at the feeder, so that's where enteritis, clostridial diseases and coccidiosis will be."
The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.