An Alternative to Portable Pens for Pastured Poultry Production
When we began raising broilers at Seifer Farms in 1994, we didnít use a pastured poultry model. Sure, the birds were on the ground, but in stationary houses and pens. It didnít take long for us to realize the advantages of raising them on pasture in portable pens, not the least of which was not having to scrape pens and clean out houses.
Initially, we purchased discarded oil field drums that had been cut in half as a kind of "hoop" house for our stationary houses. When we completely switched to a pasture operation using portable pens, these five houses remained unused. Then I happened across a book that described portable houses in which the farmer raised 250 birds at a time, moving the houses every four days.
We had the houses, and since we were making the switch from conventional to sustainable farming, we had the large equipment such as tractors, a grinder mixer and a feed wagon to support such a conversion.
Here is an overview of our system: The drums we use have a floor space of approximately 12í x 16í. On each drum, we cut a door into one end and a made a ventilation hole in the roof. The door is hinged on the left. On the right is a gate that swings across the door opening and latches onto the open door. Because we graze cattle in the same pasture as our chickens, this prevents the cows from having access to the feed. Each house has a feeder inside that will hold about four days of feed. A large water trough and a shade are provided outside each house.
At three weeks of age, the baby chicks are moved from the brooder houses into the portable houses. It doesnít seem to matter what time of day you move the chicks into the portable houses as much as it does in the pens. The first day, they are given water inside the house and are kept inside with a wire gate. The solid door is shut and latched at night. The next day the water is moved outside, and the chicks are given access to the great outdoors. Generally, all of the chicks will have found their way back into the house by dusk.
On the fourth day, the babies should be nearly out of feed. We chase the birds outside of the house and shut the door. We hook a loader tractor to the front of the house, raise it up and drag it forward onto new grass. We then reposition the feeder, the shade and the water troughs, and fill each feeder, using either the grinder mixer or bucketing out of the feed wagon. Not all of the chicks are smart enough to find the house in its new position by dusk, so some will have to be herded to the door. This problem usually resolves itself by the next move.
We raise five batches of approximately 2,000 birds each summer. When we raised birds in smaller, portable pens, morning chores could take a couple of hours. One of the first advantages to the portable house system is that morning chores consist of simply opening the door, scooping additional feed out of the feeder into a pan on the floor, and filling the water troughs. One person is done in about half an hour. On moving day, chores take close to two hours. As in the pasture pens, additional water is provided at noon and in the evening.
Storms and cold donít seem to bother the chicks in the portable houses. However, heat is another matter. We have found that, no matter how hot it is inside the houses, the chicks prefer the shade of the house to the sunlight outside. With restricted air movement, the inside of those houses is similar to the inside of your car without air conditioning on a hot day Ė deadly to chicks. Providing access to shade outside will prevent overheating. We put the water troughs under the shade. This encourages the chicks to use the shade, limits access that the cattle have to the water, and protects the chicks from hawks.
Predator problems are further limited by locking the birds up at night. Our greatest predator problem is chicken hawks. This canít be prevented completely, and itís a trade-off we live with. I have visions of a badger or weasel burrowing under a house and destroying a whole batch of chickens, right before butchering day. So far, this hasnít happened.
Other materials could be used for the pasture houses. The portable hoop houses used in pastured hog production would work. Lightweight greenhouses might work as well. With proper management, just about any type of shelter that can be moved will work.
No matter what you use, the chicks need to be fed and watered properly, protected from heat, cold and predators, and provided a healthy environment. Experiment with new systems on a small scale. When you find something that works for you Ė go for it.