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Backyard Poultry Farming Explained by Soil Scientist

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Pasture Walk at River Birch Micro-Farm in New Jersey

A Pasture Walk on the Home Turf

by Guest Blogger, Dr. Joseph Heckman, Ph.D

Pasture walks are typically organized as a way for farmers to get together to share ideas about ways to improve grass-based farming systems. An informal walk across a pasture guided by a host farmer is a chance to make observations about what works well locally in terms of pasture plant species, rotational grazing systems, fencing, water supply, and livestock breeds.

Since raising chickens on the home lawn or pasture has become popular, it seemed appropriate to host a spring pasture walk for others interested in this way of producing or eating these very special pasture-raised eggs.

So on a Saturday evening, I recently hosted a pasture walk on our two acres we call River Birch Micro-Farm in Monroe, New Jersey. We invited members of the Weston A. Price Princeton Chapter as well as a following of students and friends attending my various agricultural lectures. Parents were invited to bring their children-–our farmers of the future. Altogether about 30 people joined the tour.

pasture-pen

Innovative Pasture Pen Houses Backyard Chickens

pvc-pasture-pen

PVC is Good Material for Building a Light and Flexible Pasture Pen

On the tour I explained how I began keeping a flock of chickens on our backyard barnyard in 2005, and how I have experimented over the years with feeding systems and various types of so called “chicken tractors”. This term refers to a type of pasture pen that can be easily moved daily to fresh areas of grass. While pasture poultry raisers have been very creative in designing many different types of chicken tractors, my own system has now evolved into a two compartment model.

As illustrated, my pasture pen is moved separately from the housing unit. I have a pasture pen with a wood frame and another made with PVC pipe. The PVC system is my favorite since it is very light and easy to move and bends to conform to land surface. The housing for the chickens is built upon a wagon to provide shelter, a place for egg laying, feeding, and night roosting.

moving-pasture-pen

Lightweight Pen is Easily Moved by One Person

I begin everyday by dragging the pasture pen over fresh grass. Next I back the wagon housing up to the pasture pen. A door is closed during the moving phase to keep the hens from jumping out during transit. When I am home, I move the pasture pen more frequently.

In an experiment I conducted several years ago, I found that my flock acquired about 11% of their feed by grazing on a mixed stand of spring grass and clover. A report is available here online (See page 43 of report): http://www.turf.rutgers.edu/research/abstracts/symposium2008.pdf

The main feed source for my flock is an organic soy-free layer feed from Countryside Natural. Because feed cost, especially shipping, is the main expense in keeping a flock of chickens, I supplement with some of my own grains. My hens are also treated to earthworms and bugs as I find them in my garden.

At River Brich Micro-Farm, I grow open pollinated organic corn and winter wheat in small fields in a corn-wheat-grass/clover pasture crop rotation. My flock of about 30 hens eats about four ears of hand harvested corn per day. To grow the corn, I mulch the field with a layer of grass clippings collected from neighboring lawns. The mulch provides good weed control and as it decomposes it fertilizes the corn and in the following year the residual soil fertility nourishes the wheat. Winter wheat seeded after corn harvest in September or early October, serves a dual purpose. My flock grazes the wheat grass plants down to what appears to be bare ground in the winter.

wheat-barn

Wheat is a Useful Feed Crop in the Rotation.

Surprisingly, the wheat plants quickly recover with the return of warmer spring temperatures and with the benefit of manure applied by the chickens. In late June, I start mowing down the mature wheat plants, as feed is needed, and move the pasture pen over the mowed crop and let the hens happily do the grain harvest.

egg-comparison

Comparison: Pasture Raised Egg (top) Conventional Egg (bottom)

In central New Jersey, I am able give my flock access to pasture nearly year around. A tarp is placed over the wagon housing in the winter to block wind. Only during times of exceptionally cold weather or when the ground is covered with deep snow do I move the wagon housing into the barn. During times when my hens are (sadly) confined to the barn, I bring them greens such as hand pulled wheat grass plants or kale or cabbage leaves from the garden. Chickens love eating these greens even if the leaves are frozen. In my experience, so long as you can provide a source of greens to the chickens, even in winter, they will continue to produce eggs with the dark yellow yokes. Consumption of winter wheat grass is especially effective in giving eggs yokes a deep, almost orange, color.

Our flock of about 30 layers at River Birch Micro-Farm produces about two dozen eggs per day. We enjoy eating the most fresh and local eggs imaginable. We have many willing buyers for our surplus eggs which help to offset the cost for feed. There are many good books on getting started with pastured chickens, a Backyard Poultry magazine and The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association.

River Birch Micro-Farm is a member of the Farm-to-Consumer-Legal-Defense-Fund.

Every pasture walk varies with the season and provides new opportunities for observation and ideas for keeping animals happy and healthy while producing delicious nutrient dense foods. While golf may be “a good walk spoiled” (Mark Twain), a good pasture walk may lead to better organic grass-based farming and food systems.

Joseph-Heckman

Dr. Joseph Heckman

Dr. Joseph Heckman is a soil scientist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station. He grew up on an organic dairy farm, and has helped to organize the Rutgers Raw Milk Seminars. Heckman has written a number of articles on organic farming for Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal published by the Weston A. Price Foundation. See his recent blog post about his trip to India and Raw Milk Access Helps Family Choose Vacation Destination

Another article by Joseph Heckman is In Defense of Living Organic, published in That Natural Farmer.

Heading Photo Credit: Melanie Dandl
Embedded Photos by Catherine Alexander
Egg Comparison Photo by Joseph Heckman

Note from Kimberly: I know I will get some inquiries about the beautiful barn featured in these photos, according to Joseph, it came from Sand Creek Post and Beam.

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Comments

  1. Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Robin´s last blog ..Five Simple Ways to Live a Healthier Life =-.

  2. What are your thoughts on raising chickens without feed at all? Feasible?
    .-= matt´s last blog ..Don’t make it simple, make it challenging =-.

  3. Rita Monnin says:

    Very interesting Joseph. Too bad we couldn’t be there.
    Steve and Rita

  4. Sylvia Onusic says:

    Thanks Joe and Kim for such a great story. It is truly inspiring. We have been following Joel Salatin rotating his chickens and are glad to see your take on it. The eggs look so nutritious (Vitamins D, A, K, E, high in B12, choline, selenium) and high quality protein, and are probably incredibly tasty unlike conventionally raised eggs from confined sick chickens. I would like to have a breakfast with some of your eggs Joe.

    And the secret is that most of the nutrition is contained in the yolk, but nature puts nutrients in the white part which supplement the yolk. So egg beaters?? no way. Pasturized eggs? No way. You are wasting your money. Just buy some quality eggs and enjoy them, yolk and whites, EVERY DAY!

    According to “Food and Evolution,” pg 230, eggs rate the highest quality protein score of 100 (wheat flour which scores 44) of all protein sources compared, including an excellent amount of methionine. It also has the highest biological value of all protein sources, is highest in protein retained by the body, and has the highest protein efficiency ratio compared to all other protein foods.

    That’s probably why traditionally in many cultures, one of the first foods we feed our babies are egg yolks.

    I am obviously a fan!
    Sylvia

  5. My books, How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, http://poultrybookstore.com, focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks. Joel Salatin is doing great work, but he is still raising industrial Cornish Rock crosses for meat. Check out the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities for information about heritage breeds. They are the best choice for small flocks.

  6. Sylvia–it is sure great having a PhD as an avid contributor to this blog. What great nutritional info you offer here!

    Christine, would love a guest blog from you about heritage chicken breeds! See my contact page.

    Kimberly
    .-= Kimberly Hartke´s last blog ..Buttermilk Baked Chicken Recipe with Side Dishes =-.

  7. I really liked your blog, I love news like this site that people voted on the team of people to choose the greatest team twitter and compete for prizes http://www.twitorcida.com.br

  8. The chicken certainly is look healthier with the looks of the eggs. But sure is a lot of job to do.

    Daniel

    Chicken coop plans

  9. This pasture pen is a great idea, I will have to look into building one.

  10. pls Send info by Email

  11. send info by Mail

  12. I am planning to grow corn too but our soil from Perth needs some mulch too. I will try to find the same mulch that you collected so I can start planting now.

  13. Healthy chicken that is! I would always go for antibiotic-free and organic chicken and egg. I know that it would cost me more but I’m willing to pay more if it would mean healthy food for my family.

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