Here’s a compilation of what we've learned from various sources (and trial and error) about getting started raising hens on pasture for egg production (we've also picked up a great deal of information on raising chickens for meat, but that’s grist for another primer).
First: there is no one “right way” to raise chickens on pasture and many questions do not have one right answer. There are so many variables that you will have to fine-tune your methods and systems until you find what works well for you.
Basically all chickens need a continuous supply of fresh water to drink, a balanced ration of grains and supplements, a clean place to run around (preferably with nice tender grass and other plants and bugs to eat), a dry place to get out of the weather, and protection from predators. There are as many ways to meet these needs as there are farms.
Organic or ?
I’m all for organic farming and organic food, and we do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on our farm (except a can of wasp killer for dealing with yellow jackets under the deck, which lasts me 3 or 4 years), but we have chosen not to pursue organic certification. In our opinion organic regulations don’t go far enough. Organic eggs sold in stores may be trucked in hundreds of miles and laid by hens in huge warehouse barns with a single open window at one end.
We've chosen to raise our animals using locally grown and locally processed conventional feeds (supporting local farmers and local family ag businesses); blended with high quality natural supplements (thereby shipping just a small fraction of the food weight any distance); and to manage them in a way that improves our land, protects the environment, lets them be as chickeny as they can be, and is fun for us to do.
As direct marketers we build trust by communicating directly with our customers about our farming practices and the quality of our food, and no level of certification can replace that. Your market may make it worth being certified organic, in which case, go for it! Joel Salatin calls his grass- and locally-produced-grain-fed eggs and chickens “beyond organic;” Peter McDonald calls his “clean food.” Or you can go with the old standbys, “fresh” and “local."
Housing and pasture system
There are three basic ways to manage chickens on pasture: Ranged from a stationary house, ranged from a movable house, or kept inside movable open-bottom pasture pens. Many folks add an electrified perimeter fence of some sort for additional control of the chickens and the exclusion of four-footed predators. Each combination of housing and fencing has advantages and disadvantages, and some will work better than others in your particular situation.
We decided that movable houses (sometimes called egg-mobiles) and an easily movable, electrified mesh perimeter fence would work best for us. Right now we have two, 10’ by 10’ metal-framed, polyfabric-covered, wire-floored buildings on skids and are building one slightly larger cattle-panel, open-bottomed, lightweight hoophouse building on skids – each of which is big enough for about 100 hens and a rooster or two to roost in under spring/summer/fall conditions.
Chickens prefer to get up on a roost at night, rather than stand on the floor, so each house has rows of roosts made from 2” diameter saplings supported by triangular 2' by 4' frames (each bird needs about 1 foot of roosting space).
Each portable barn is surrounded with about 400 feet of electrified mesh poultry fencing (48" tall with openings 3½" wide – don’t buy the cheaper stuff with 7" openings, as even full-sized hens can easily squeeze through it) attached to a small electric fence charger (run off a 12-volt car battery that sits on a small cart to make it easier to move).
The electrified fence keeps the chickens from running amok--roosting on your front porch, eating tomatoes in the garden, hiding nests under the shrubs--and will stop just about any non-flying predator (local dogs are one of the worst). That leaves hawks and owls. Shutting the birds up at night will prevent owl problems, though some people find they don’t have any problem leaving the barn door open. Hawks hunt during the day and will sometimes go after even full grown chickens, so they are more of a problem. We keep the youngest chicks in movable, open-bottomed pasture pens to keep them safe. After that we rely on our two dogs to act as hawk repellents. Neither of them is particularly protective of the birds, but they coexist with the chickens and are just as happy to be in the chicken pasture with chickens to watch as they would be penned up by themselves. We hope to add a real guard dog to the farm soon, but in the meantime they seem to be doing the trick.
Just how much pasture space the birds need and how often you need to move them to new pasture depends on many things from the season, the weather, pasture quality, soil health (and how much nitrogen it can absorb), number and size of birds, etc. The only hard and fast rules are that you want to move the birds before the pasture starts getting torn up and to not put them onto land that has had chickens on it in the last 21 days (this helps prevent disease and parasite buildup problems; four-legged critters are fine). By mid-summer we will have 250 laying hens and our two acres of mature, low-quality pasture seems to be more than enough space to work with for that number.
We move our hens every three to four mornings, based on when we have labor available. Two of us can take the fencing down, move the egg-mobiles onto fresh grass (with the hens still inside), and put the fencing back up around a new section of pasture in about an hour, and we are getting quicker as we refine our technique and equipment. We spend about the same amount of time mowing the grass ahead of the chickens a few days before they get on it (you want young, tender shoots for them to eat and nothing taller than about 6").
Get up early and move your girls to new pasture before you let them out for the day and they will hop out ready to explore and to feast on the fresh smorgasbord you have provided.
What kind of chickens? Heritage breeds or hybrids?
No matter what anyone may tell you, there is no difference in the eggs found inside white, brown, or even blue/green eggshells – but if you plan to sell eggs don’t waste your breath trying to convince your customers of that. Find out what folks in your area like to buy and choose chickens that lay that color of egg.
There are more kinds of chickens out there than you can shake a stick at, and there is no one right choice for a pastured egg flock. If you have cold winters you may want to choose a heavier-bodied, well-feathered breed; if your summers are hot and humid a breed that fares well in those conditions is in order. If you will be marketing in an area where heritage breeds are all the rage, you’ll probably want to go that way; if you maximum egg production is your goal, a modern hybrid will probably give you the best percentage lay and won’t go broody on you (stop laying and try to sit on their eggs to hatch them).
Much as we love our Buff Orpington girls they are not as efficient nor as easy to manage as modern laying hens. From now on we will probably run mostly the brown and black sexlink hybrids (brown egg layers), which have proven to do well in a pasture system.
Hens start laying at around 20 weeks old and lay at their highest rate (almost an egg a day) for about a solid year after that (as long as you prevent them from going into molt when the days shorten in the winter). You can help keep your egg harvest more consistent by replacing half your flock every 6 months, in spring and fall, but you will always probably have more eggs in April than you do in December.
Karma Glos (of Kingbird Farm in Berkshire, N.Y., and author of Humane and Healthy Poultry Production: A Manual for Organic Growers and Remedies for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock) alternates colors of hen so that one color always starts to lay in the fall and the other always starts to lay in the spring. This way she can keep all the adult hens together and still easily sort out the older hens when it comes time to retire them. She finds that black layers are a bit more docile than red layers so she buys blacks to start laying in the fall and reds to start laying in the spring.
Retired hens can often be sold for a few dollars as backyard layers and will continue to lay eggs for quite a few years. Or they can be butchered as stewing hens (great flavor, but requiring a long, slow cooking time to tenderize them). Joel Salatin recommends roasting at a low temperature for a long time.
Chicks or started pullets?
There are two main ways to acquire laying hens: as day-old chicks or as started pullets (usually about 17 weeks old). With day-old chicks you can select any breed that strikes your fancy (and the chicks are cute as a button). Newly hatched chicks are easy to ship long distances (they don’t need food or water for two days as they live off the remains of the yolk), and you can control what feed and care they get – but you’ll need to buy or build brooding equipment, absorb any losses, and take care of them a couple of times a day for three months before you get any return. Started pullets are sturdy, allow you to eliminate the brooding period, and once you figure out the cost of feed (let alone the special equipment and your time) are probably less expensive (Keith Morgan calculated his cost to raise a hen from a day-old chick at $5.75 in 2002, compared to started pullets at $4.60). But your breed selection will be more limited, you may not have a local source, shipping is impractical, and you have no control over how they are raised.
We've done the chick route, ordering day-old chicks by mail, and for the most part raising them was pretty trouble-free. Now we are awaiting our first 100 started pullets to see how that method works for us.
What about roosters?
You don’t need a rooster to get eggs; hens lay just fine with no male supervision. And since there is no way to tell fresh fertilized eggs from unfertilized ones without a microscope, your customers won’t be able to tell either way. But most folks who raise pastured layers say you should probably have a couple roosters because they more than pay for their keep by making the girls easier to manage. Hens with no rooster will fixate on you as their potential mate (your gender is immaterial to them, you are just the biggest animal around) -- and whenever you try to walk through them to feed, water, or collect eggs they will squat submissively around you rather then getting out from under foot.
If you order day-old sexed female chicks you usually get a few males that slipped by the sexer, so you will be all set. If you order started pullets and you don’t have a supply of adult roosters already you may want to plan ahead and pick up a few male chicks to raise at about the same time your hens are hatching at the hatchery. While getting adult roosters for free is pretty easy (many homeowners tire of their backyard alarm clocks), bringing adult birds onto your farm (other than started pullets from a trusted operation) is a risky idea, as they may bring diseases with them--even if they look fine--so it is best to avoid it.
In areas of the country where soil temperatures don't fall below 50°F and where snow never sticks on the ground, you can keep chickens on pasture year-round. In colder areas you should plan on keeping your chickens and the majority of their manure contained in the winter. According to Joel Salatin, the soil organisms that take care of manure go dormant below 50°F, and any manure that arrives when the soil is dormant is at best wasted and at worst pollution waiting to happen.
Plan on wintering your hens in an enclosure that is large enough to give them room to move around in as well as roost (a portable pasture shelter can be smaller since the birds spend most of the day outside). It should let lots of natural light in and be well ventilated, but not drafty. Cold is less of a problem for chickens than drafts or dampness are. A number of farmers use large hoophouses as affordable winter barns, and have found them quite suitable.
Use plenty of dry bedding (hay, straw, wood chips) to soak up all the goodness of the chicken manure and bind it until spring. Keep adding layers of dry bedding as frequently as needed to keep the floor dry and the area smelling like chickens, not ammonia. Throwing scratch grain around will get the hens scratching, which will fluff up the bedding and keep it well mixed.
Hens will molt and stop laying when the days get short, so plan on providing some supplemental light if you want eggs all winter long. It doesn't take much light to do the trick: Keith Morgan uses just two, 60-watt bulbs, timer-controlled to come on at 5 a.m., in a large winter barn to keep his girls churning out eggs all winter long.
Jean Nick and her partner Tom Colbaugh raise pastured chickens for eggs and meat, and a variety of other animals and edible plants on their farm in eastern Pennsylvania, overlooking the Delaware River Valley.
This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147.