Can You Really Raise Purely Pasture Fed Chickens?
I am going to repeat the title so it sinks in: Can you really raise purely pasture-fed Chickens? Pasture is a open farm field, with grass, clovers, flowers, bugs, and — in my version — some compost piles of spent veggies from the fields.
This is a question I am asking myself because I really don't know the answer. This is my first flock and I would think it should be possible — they are birds after all — but maybe no matter how much room they have, no matter how many greens and bugs are around, they will still need to be supplied some type of extra food, aka Chicken feed.
Beyond the cost of the food, I myself would rather have a completely naturally fed bird — egg and chicken. I want them to be able to live on the farm and be natural. I want to farm the land with them, co-farmers. Have them scratching up the ground, eating the pest bugs, pooing on the fields, and turning compost piles into rich dirt. I don't want to be the guy who buys them their Chicken Crack and has to haul in 50 lbs bags of grain every week.
A typical “free-range chicken" eats grain and lives in an enclosed outdoor yard with no grass on the ground, just dirt.
Chicken feed costs around $16 to $30 for a 50 pound bag. With organic versions prices on the higher end. Fifty birds eat about 50 lbs of food a week. That means you're spending on the low end $64 a month or $768 a year on food. When the birds start laying eggs, you should get around $5 to $6 a dozen, giving you $600 a month in cash so a $536 profit. Not bad but not great. That isn't counting the cost of labor to harvest the eggs and to take care of the chickens.
The big question is how do we enable the chickens to help us and to feed themselves. The standard answer is a mobile chicken house or chicken tractor as they are known in the farm world. A plywood box on wheels or sleds. There are many designs out there, but in my opinion they are all ugly. They’re cheap and functional, but I wouldn't want them on my farm.
This means I had to design my own. That seems to be my answer for everything on the farm. Why don't I just design and build it? I have a wood shop
At first I thought it wouldn't take more than a few weeks, but I was most definitely wrong. We ended up spending the last month building it. We completed 90% of it and decided to take it out to the field and move the chickens. They had outgrown their 10’x20' pen in the barn. They needed to get out into the field sooner than later.
We have another week of work to complete it. The roof design failed to keep the rains out, so that has to be redesigned, but it should be an easy fix. The outer skin needs to be weatherproofed and to do that, I have decided to either burn it or tar it.
There is a burning technique called charring, where you burn it a little and then boil in linseed oil. It is a very old method of preserving wood from Japan. Or I can use a pine tar, from Sweden that is also a very old technique which uses pine sap, from tree stumps, slowly cooked in a kiln. The sap is mixed with an ash to create a
black look similar to charring.
But let's get back to the pasture chickens. (I will do a separate post on the building of the chicken tractor.)
Can it be done? No chicken feed? So far, I have been feeding them. I buy an organic chicken food from a company in Sonoma. Plus some mealworms and seeds. I would like to stop and now that they are in the field, I feel like I can start cutting back on their food and encourage them to find their own food. It is going to be an experiment. I will watch them and see how they grow and how they look. I won't starve them, don't worry. But I just think you shouldn't have to feed them. Just makes sense to me.
I am already raising the sheep and pigs completely on pasture. They don't get any supplemental foods and they are doing great. The pigs are huge... getting fatter by the second and the sheep are growing normally. So, the chickens and ducks are next. I will keep you posted.
The building of the Chicken Tractor coming up next... sign up for the email list and never miss a post! Sign Up Form