Race Car Chickens
Broiler chickens are very different from egg layers. Joel Salatin calls them “Racecar birds” because they grow very fast, but a slight mistake can have dire consequences. The layers are pretty forgiving, but they take five months to lay their first egg, and then they lay for one-two years, 3-5 eggs a week. Broilers go from day-old chick to ready-to-cook in eight weeks. But simple mistakes like overlooking a clogged waterer or neglecting to prop up the chicken pens for ventilation on a hot day will cost a lot of time and money when a hundred birds die two days before slaughter.
How to Raise a Broiler
By now, most folks have heard of “Pastured Poultry.” This phrase, popularized by Joel Salatin and others, means that the birds were actually raised with their feet on the grass from the time they were old enough to stand the elements (about 2-3 weeks old) until harvest. That’s about 30-40 days on the grass. It’s not that long, but in that time, the chicken gains about five pounds. That means about 90% of its growth occurs on the pasture.
Following Joel’s model, our chickens are raised in movable pens, about ten feet by twelve feet, partly covered with aluminum and partly with poultry wire. These pens hold up to 90 chickens each. They get moved one pen-length every single day with a special pen dolly that rolls under the back end of the pen while the operator pulls on the front end. This way the pathogens and manure never build up, and the birds have fresh grass every morning.
What about Day-Range?
There is some debate over the best way to raise a pastured chicken. Many people have scrapped Joel Salatin’s model and tried a sort of “day-range” model, which is an attempt to reduce labor. The idea of day-range is that the chickens have a permanent or infrequently-moved house with some form of mobile paddock. Some growers will move the feeders around each day to get the chickens to migrate to different areas of the paddock. Others set up small paddocks of electrinet each day for the chickens to range in.
Many of these models seem to work from this standpoint: they significantly reduce production labor when compared to the pen model, and they produce a fat, low-stress chicken that has the nutrition and flavor of a pastured bird.
Issues with Day-Range
However, there are two major issues that the day-range models fail to recognize. The first issue is pathogens. The liver is the filter of an animal, and the more pathogens in an animal’s environment, the worse the liver looks. In Joel Salatin’s chicken livers, and I’ve seen thousands of them, at least nineteen out of twenty are perfectly colored and smooth. The few that aren’t are usually mildly discolored.
In the day range birds I’ve seen, most of the livers are spotted, with a much higher degree of discoloration. That doesn’t necessarily make them inedible, and it doesn’t mean the meat is compromised. It just means those livers were working overtime. That goes along with the higher pathogens and anaerobic (lacking oxygen) conditions of a fixed location. The reason this is so important is that it builds over time. While the day range system may work great the first year, and the second, the pathogens in the paddocks and houses can increase until things become hazardous. This can be addressed, but because it happens slowly, it’s easy to overlook or underestimate.
The second major issue is that of grass management. If all you want to do is raise a chicken on grass, day-range models might seem great. But the theme of sustainable agriculture is to take care of the land first—of the grass itself—and then the grass will take care of the animals. The day-range model creates shotgun patterns on the landscape: the center where the house was is completely killed, saturated with nitrogen from the manure; the surrounding area is burned with nitrogen, the areas beyond that are mildly fertilized, and the outer reaches are barely affected. That is not good grass management. It’s not really sustainable, either.
Benefits of the Pasture Pen Model
That is the beauty of the pasture pen model. It’s much more even coverage of the pasture. It keeps the birds in sanitary conditions all the time, provides them with truly fresh, untouched forage every day, keeps them in small groups (which reduces pecking-order stress), and best of all, it really builds the fertility of the soil, uniformly, for the whole field. And any given spot of pasture is fertilized by broiler chicken only one day per year, so the pasture gets 364 days of rest. That breaks the pathogen cycle, which guarantees healthy, sanitary, nutritious chicken year after year. That is why our growers raise pastured chicken.