Pasture poultry is a niche market that capitalizes on consumer demand for natural, humane and environmentally sound production practices. Consumers demanding this type of product are generally willing to pay more since many consider it to be healthier and tastier. Pasture poultry production can be an attractive enterprise to small farmers and acreage owners due to: its low capital investment and labor input, ability to start small and grow, strong demand, and potential extra income.
Being raised primarily on pasture characterizes a pasture or "free range" poultry production system. In a pasture poultry system the birds supplement the grain fed by foraging for up to 20 percent of their intake. In this system the birds are moved frequently to fresh pastures.
Many management alternatives are available to pasture poultry producers and include, portable housing and pasture pens. Portable housing would be small coops surrounded by pasture that allow birds to day range and forage on as much grass as they desire. Pasture pens would include keeping birds in "chicken tractors", low, wide, bottomless cages that are moved to a new spot of fresh pasture at least once a day. These cages are commonly 10' by 12' by 2' and are moved by sliding along the ground. When grown commercially, each pen houses 75 to 100, three to four week old meat chickens. At eight to fourteen weeks the chickens are processed and sold.
Pasture poultry can be part of an integrated animal production system. This type of system focuses not just on the product produced, but also the services provided by the animals. For example poultry may provide: fertilization, tillage, and insect and weed control. Commonly in this type of system various species of domestic animals are raised together to complement each other. This type of system benefits animal health; by breaking disease cycles that can occur when the same species occupies the same site all of the time.
Before beginning a pasture poultry enterprise one should consider a number of factors. First, do I have a customer base to sell the product to? Two methods of marketing include farmer's markets or direct sales. Second, do I have the time and dedication? Even at the small scale, the operator is tied down by the need to feed, water, and move cages daily. Finally, do I have the facilities to process the number of birds produced? According to the Nebraska State Department of Agriculture, "Poultry normally is processed under USDA inspection. However, there is an exemption that allows individuals to process poultry they have raised and sell them through commercial channels." Contact the State Department of Agriculture for further information regarding processing and inspection.
One resource to assist one in getting started is, The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (http://attra.ncat.org). They have publications addressing all aspects of pasture poultry production.