Harp Turkey Ranch

  (McCleary, Washington)
Where farming meets natural living
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Free Range vs Pasture Pens

We get alot of emails on how we raise our poultry here on the farm, so decided it would be a good topic to discuss on the blog.

 There is basically two different ways to raise your pastured poultry. We are going to discuss both ways.

 We raise all our poultry to the day range system and go by the European standards for the poultry as the US has none that fit the pastured poultry growers of America.

1) Free Range/Day Range:

This a non-confinement system that uses a perimeter fence to deter predators.   As defined, this means at least 150' between the skid house and the closest fence.   A variation of this system, known as Day Range,  uses an Electronet portable fence to keep the birds safe from dogs and coyotes during daylight hours.  Up to 300 birds are housed on an 8'x 18' wooden skid shelter that is towed to new pasture as needed.  Birds return to this shelter on their own each evening and are confined for predator protection.  During the day the birds are let out and the skid provides shelter from sun and rain when needed.  The large-scale access to pasture combined with the low stocking rate (400 chickens or 100 turkeys per acre) allows the birds plenty of area to exercise and deposit manure.  As a result, free-range birds develop excellent muscle tone.  Since the muscle is what we eat, this development is very important.  Combined with proper aging after slaughter meat quality is firm but smooth--second to none.

One of the first questions is about predation.  Because most predation occurs at night, when the birds are totally enclosed on the skid, there is normally no problem.  Hawks occasionally steal an inattentive bird, but this is rare.   Most birds are extremely wary of sky activity.

A real plus using the free-range system is the ability to "save" manure nutrients and make compost. We use our composted chicken/turkey manure to raise premium quality vegetables and fruits for our family and friends. People using the Pasture Pen system, have good fertility in the pasture, but are not able to save and transport the nutrients to other fields.   The free-range system is a large “farm-scale” system suitable for practitioners raising 500 - 20,000 chickens per year. 

 2) Pasture Pen/Chicken Tractor :

 Pasture Pen is a confinement system with a grass floor.  Using portable pens approximately 8 x 10 feet in size, this popular system is a big improvement over the broiler houses used by companies such as Tyson and Perdue, but  it is a confinement system just the same.  The pens, each containing about 80 chickens,  are moved by hand but  the lightweight construction means they can occasionally be blown over by the wind.  In hot climates, birds can suffer heat stroke on calm days.   The birds have a  limited space for exercise and manure that space heavily.  Therefore, the pens must be moved twice daily, a chore not always pleasant, especially after a heavy rain.  The birds benefit from sunlight, bugs and grubs,  and get minerals from the soil, but muscle tone is very different from birds allowed to free-range.  The Pasture Pen System does protect  against hawks, but is actually less protective at night against skunks, foxes, opossums and raccoons since it has no floor.  This system is very labor intensive involving daily movement of pens and delivery of feed and water,   but is well suited for those with limited space,  those desiring to raise less than 1000 birds per year or persons who  must work away from the farm during the day.

The Chicken Tractor was developed by Andy Lee and is a useful system for raising 50 or so birds for home use.  By placing these pens in the garden, soil is tilled and manure can be placed exactly where desired.  This is not a commercial sized system, and  is also a confinement system.  A recent refinement of the Chicken Tractor is the addition of a pop-hole door to allow the birds to range at least part of the day.

Farmers using both the "pastured poultry" and "chicken tractor" systems have reported leg problems with chickens.  While part of this problem can be eliminated by using the heavier strains of Cornish Cross chickens designed to be raised to roaster size, most leg problems are caused by the pens being pulled over the legs of the chickens when the birds are being moved to new pasture.  Neither of these two systems are suitable for turkey production.

Some farmers using the latter two systems advertise their chickens as “free-range”, but under European rules they would not qualify as the birds are too tightly confined.  Since, at the present time, there is no national standard for what "free-range" is in the U.S., I recommend that farmers follow the European standard that mandates stocking rates of 400 chickens or 100 turkeys per acre and that the birds truly are "free to range".

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