Introducing Poultry to Your Farm

by Katie Navarra

        Considering new products to bring more customers to your farm? Interested in reducing the need for chemicals to control weeds and insects? Free-range or pastured poultry may be the solution for you.

        Vegetable or crop farmers can benefit from improved soil health. As birds dig and scratch the soil for insects and weed seeds, they leave behind organic manure. The natural soil amendment can even adjust the soil's pH level over time.

        "Birds eat weed seeds, which provides a terrific supplement to the bird's daily ration," said Richard Brzozowski, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. "Ducks, guinea hens, chickens [and other poultry] also eat ticks, insects and grubs."

        Unlike other livestock, the birds are not negatively affected by internal parasites. Instead, poultry find nutritional value in the otherwise pesky creatures. "Our cattle move every day to fresh grass," noted Dan Gibson, co-owner of Grazin' Angus Acres in Ghent, N.Y.

        Three days after the cows relocate to a new pasture, the chickens take over. "Just as the fly larvae are about to emerge from the deposited patties, we move the egg-mobiles in. The laying hens get some organic grain in the morning, and then they are expected to work for a living, scratching the patties to eat the larvae," he explained.

        The animals work together to control the fly population, distribute manure evenly across the land and provide organic fertilizer. "And as a wonderful side benefit, we get great-tasting eggs with bright orange yolks, since the chickens are always out on grass," added Gibson.

        Planning for poultry
        Like any new venture, introducing poultry to your farm requires careful planning. First, consider your goal. Are you interested in laying hens or meat birds? Production goals and geographic location will help determine which species is the best fit for your farm.

        Next, consider the investment needed to get started. Poultry is one of the least expensive start-up ventures. Initial investments include purchasing the chicks, supplies (including feed and bedding), medications, fencing, housing for the birds and labor.

        Joel Salatin, a proponent of pastured poultry and author of "Pastured Poultry Profit$," estimates that profits can total up to $25,000 over six months with the use of 20 acres. However, it is critical to evaluate the investment required before making any purchases.

        Online resources are available to help you budget for the new enterprise. Check out these free budgeting tools to get started:
        Work with local cooperative extension agents to learn about the birds' nutritional needs and what type of setup is required for small chicks. As the birds mature, housing becomes a key consideration.

        Birds are susceptible to weather-related stress and easily fall prey to predators, including foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, owls and hawks. To reduce loss, provide protection for the birds and keep them away from wooded areas where predators lurk.

        The birds can be set up in one of several housing situations.

        Pastured poultry pens are floorless mobile pens that are moved daily on skids or dollies to avoid soil compaction. The shelters are inexpensive to build or buy. A 10-by-12-by-2-foot pen comfortably houses 75 to 100 birds. The pens work well for first-time poultry owners and provide the birds with protection from predators. However, the pens can be difficult to move and do not provide protection from the weather.

        Day-range shelters incorporate movable shelters that are protected by portable electric netting. During the day, the birds are let out of the shelter to roam the area within the electric netting, and at night they return to the shelter. This type of shelter is more expensive than a poultry pen, but can house more birds and provides greater protection from the weather. While the shelter can remain in one place longer than a poultry pen, it is important to move the shelter weekly to avoid damage to the soil.

        Egg-mobiles are specifically designed for 100 to 200 laying hens. Built on wheels, egg-mobiles can be mounted to a trailer hitch for easy relocation every few days. The mobile shelters make for easy egg collection, but require sufficient land for the regular rotation of 100-plus birds.

        Chicken tractors are mostly used in small-scale gardens to increase soil fertility and to provide weed and pest control. The tractors are 4-by-10-foot pens that hold 20 broilers or 10 layers. The pens can be used for single-day use before relocation to a new site, or several runs can be attached to each pen for easy rotation.

        Free-range birds in the truest sense are allowed to roam the farm or garden at will. The birds are turned out each morning and return to a semipermanent shelter that locks out predators. Perimeter fencing can be helpful in containing the birds to large areas on the farm and discourages birds from wandering onto neighboring properties or into the woods.

        Preparing for processing
        For broilers, the end goal is to process the birds and sell the meat. Well before it's time to process the birds, it's imperative to consider how they will be processed. Commercial processing plants typically do not accept small quantities for processing.

        Where you sell the meat is a factor in determining where and how the birds can be processed. Meat destined for grocery stores or restaurants will likely need to be processed by a government-approved facility.
        Farms that sell directly to the public may be able to slaughter the birds on the farm under an exemption. Regulations will vary by state and by the number of birds on the farm. For guidance, contact officials within your state department of agriculture or health prior to processing. The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network ( can also provide assistance.

        Tips for getting started
        Bringing poultry to your farm is an inexpensive, family-friendly way to introduce livestock to your crop farm or expand your livestock operation to include greater diversity. These tips will help you get started.
  • Consider your goals
  • Decide which species best suit your goals
  • Learn the nutritional requirements for the species you select
  • Create a budget
  • Decide on housing
  • Consider how the birds will be processed
        Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.

        Photos 1 and 2 by Katie Navarra.
        Photos 3 and 5 by PublicDomainPictures/
        Photo 4 by JamesDeMers/