Free Range Pasture Poultry Chickens

Pastured Poultry: How Much Land You Really Need

June 22, 2020
(last update June 22, 2020 )

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

Joel Salatin style “pastured poultry” is an increasingly popular method used by farmers and homesteaders who raise healthy organic chickens. This method allows chickens to forage the land naturally. But how much land does a pastured poultry flock actually need?

Pastured poultry requires about 1 acre per 500 birds, although some sources recommend no more than 50 birds per acre. The primary limitation on stock rates is excess manure becoming toxic to the soil.

Based on my research, there are several things to keep in mind when choosing how many chickens you can keep on your land. Adding too many will decrease the productivity of the soil for some time. That’s why I’ll summarize what you need to know below.

How Many Chickens per Acre

Pastured poultry was first described by Joel Salatin in his seminal book Pastured Poultry Profits, which is still the must have book for anyone interested in raising chickens using this method. The genius of this technique is that chickens are allowed to forage grassy pastures in a mobile bottomless coop called a chicken “tractor”. According to Salatin, this grazing reduces feed required by 30%, as well as naturally spreading chicken manure fertilizing the grass.

In Pastured Poultry Profits, Salatin recommends keeping 500 birds per acre. This is part of a fairly intensive system of raising meet birds per profit. Presumably, this same number would also work for egg laying hens as well.

Later on in the book, Salatin also acknowledges that potential down side of having so many birds per acre, which is the excessive amount of nitrogen the bird droppings would supply to the soil. By his own estimates, each pen would of 80–70 birds would put down about 300 pounds / acre of nitrogen, too much for the field to stay healthy long term, in many farms’ opinions. However, Salatin counters this argument by concluding that healthy, actively growing grass can handle that much.

Salatin recommends a management system, where he follows the chickens with a herd of cows that graze on the grass after it has had a chance to grow and absorb to the chicken fertilization. The idea that the cows cut the grass, and keep it in an active growing state that is capable of handling the high nitrogen load.

Joel Salatin has been a commercially successful poultry farmer for decades. If you are interested in replicating his method to produce meet for your family, or to sell poultry for profit, you should pick up a copy of Pastured Poultry Profits since I have covered only a tiny part of his system here.

Notes from Poultry Breading and Management

Professor James Dryden of Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) wrote Poultry Breeding and Management (amazon) in 1916, and it has been considered a poultry classic ever since. This book pre-dates industrial agricultural methods, and may be the most scientifically grounded book for the pastured poultry farmer.

This book discusses their observations of the effects of excessive poultry stocking rates

A light, porous soil has a greater capacity for fowls than a heavy soil or a damp soil. At the Oregon Station on clay soil it was found that the day droppings from 200 laying hens on an acre in four years made the soil too rich for the successful growth of cereal crops where cropping the ground was done every other year. The night droppings were put onto other land. If the soil contains too much manure for the crops it is safe to assume that it is not in the best condition for poultry. Sooner or later it is bound to show not only a failure of grain crops but failure of poultry crops.

The conclusion of this work is that 50 chickens per acres is the optimum number, although he suggests that up to 100 chickens per acre is possible if the night droppings are disposed somewhere else.

How Much Space do “Free Range” Chickens Need

In the United States, the USDA defined “free range” as:

Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

There is no space requirement to label meat free range.

The Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certifying body requires at least 2 sqft per bird for free range birds that they certify. They also have additional criteria for the free range certification.

Will Chickens Survive Only On Grass?

No, even pastured poultry chickens need feed to keep them going. While proponents of the pastured poultry system suggest that allowing chickens access to grass, bugs, and other forage can decrease the need for feed by about a third. However, a study at Cambridge suggests grass can account for at most 5% of the bird’s dietary intake (pdf), an thus would not be a very significant addition to their diet.

Typically, pastured poultry are estimated to eat about 7 pounds of feed per day per 100 birds depending on the breed and living conditions. However, some farmers report supplying up to 20 pounds of feed per chicken per day. As usual, actual feed usage depends on a number of factors including the quality of management and skill of the farmer.

Is Pastured Poultry Cheaper to Produce?

In terms of pounds of meat per total cost, in most cases pastured poultry will not be as efficient as standard commercial methods.

However, if you consider that pastured poultry produces what is usually considered to be a higher quality product; that pastured poultry can be layered with other livestock like cattle; and that pastured poultry has other benefits including insect pest reduction and increasing the fertility of the pasture; then pastured poultry might be considered to provide superior benefit.

According to Salatin, the grain necessary to feed 500 chickens could be grown on as little as 1 acre using standard commercial farming methods. This would mean, pastured poultry would require about 6 acres for 500 birds, including pasture and feed grain. On the other hand, intensive poultry production would be less than 2 acres for both.

However, land used for pasture need not be high quality commercial grain producing crop land. And, so in the end the use of 5 acres largely for pasture might be less expensive than about 2 acres for growing grain.

How much feed do pastured chickens need?

Pastured chickens eat about 7 pounds of feed per 100 birds per day. However, this number can vary based on environmental conditions, breed, quality of forage, etc. And, some farmers report feeding up to 20 pounds of feed per 100 birds per day.

Can chickens live off grass?

No. While chickens can supplement their diet with grass, they still require grain or other feed to make the bulk of their diet. Cambridge reports scientific research estimating chickens can eat grass for up to 5% of their diet.

How many acres do you need for free range chickens?

USDA has no space requirement for a “free range” labeled poultry product. Humane farming advocates suggest at least 2 square feet per bird. Pastured poultry farmers, which feeds birds partially from forage, has been known to operate 500 birds per acre. But, some sources recommend no more than 50–100 birds per acre.

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