There is a lot of interest in raising pastured poultry, and for good reason. The number one input/cost into raising poultry is purchased feed. If forages can replace even 5% of your purchased feed, that 5% of the purchased feed you don’t have to buy will save you significantly. Forage has the potential to replace up to 10% of purchased feed. Other benefits of “grazing” poultry include: the eggs are nutritionally far superior when compared to conventionally raised birds (more folic acid, more vitamin B12, half the cholesterol, more omega-3s, more vitamin A and vitamin E), the meat has less fat and more vitamin A as well. When it comes to breed selection, much of the decision comes down to yours or your family’s personal preferences. Are there other reasons that you are raising poultry rather than shopping at the grocery store for your chicken (ie. intrinsic values, food security, preserving a heritage breed, etc.)? The chicken you get at the grocery store and at most restaurants is 99% from Cornish Cross. Cornish Cross birds have been specifically breed only for meat production. They are a very fast growing bird that has lots of breast meat and will be ready for butcher in 7 to 9 weeks from when they are hatched. Because they grow so fast, they tend not to be the most effective or efficient “grazers” especially as they get closer to the 7 weeks of age versus some of the heritage breeds. A Cornish Cross bird’s immune system is compromised as a result of the fast rate of growth, which is why some growers use antibiotics in their feed for a duration of the birds life. Most heritage breeds (aka Mottled Java, Ohio Buckeye, Chantecler, Rhode Island Red, etc.) were developed to be dual purpose breeds (meat and egg laying). There are heritage breeds like the Leghorn that were bred for egg production. Heritage birds on average will have a smaller amount of breast meat and more dark meat than the Cornish Cross. The carcasses on a heritage bird will be long while a Cornish Cross carcass is short and wide, so to the uninformed consumer it looks very different. On average, it will take a heritage bird almost twice the time to be ready for butcher as the Cornish Cross, but I and many others would argue that with the older age you develop more flavorful meat in a heritage bird. A quick internet search will give you all kinds of housing ideas for pastured poultry. There are some pretty creative ideas out there. The most common is a hoop like structure that is on wheels or that can be dragged. Some people use electric poultry netting that they move around the pasture. But if you have any owls, eagles or hawks in the area, I don’t recommend doing this unless you are around watching them during the day and can lock them indoors during the night. There is nothing more frustrating than losing a bunch of birds to a hungry bird of prey just days before you plan to harvest them. There are many books written specifically on raising pastured poultry that have helpful information, but keep in mind our short growing season and cold climate. Many of the information is from authors raising pastured poultry in other states (Arkansas, Virginia, New Mexico, etc.) that have much different climates than Montana. Some key things to keep in mind include:
- Provide protection from predators even if you haven’t seen any coyotes or owls on your property before, because once you have poultry on your property they will magically appear…everyone loves chicken,
- Protect from the wind, rain and hot sun,
- Provide plenty of cold water (automatic waterers are ideal and will save on labor),
- Provide a good quality complete, balanced feed for the birds at all times even if they have plenty of grass, forbs and insects to consume,
- Keep the poultry moving so they don’t over graze,
- Take time to watch your birds because they will tell you what they need or don’t need. Another challenge we face in raising poultry in Montana is the limited access to poultry processors, which means you pretty much have to process your own birds yourself unless you have a neighbor or friend who has all the processing equipment. You can process them yourself with minimal investment if you are willing.
There are certain state laws that you must adhere to if you wish to market your eggs or meat, contact the Montana Department of Livestock, 444-9431, for more information on the law specifics. For more information on raising and processing poultry give your local Extension Office a call.