Can "Big-Ag" even do Pastured Chicken?
May 2, 2019
There has been some talk recently among the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) members about "Big Ag" getting into the pasture-raised chicken business. If you dig a little deeper into what they are doing, that claim quickly breaks down. First, we'll take a look at what pasture-raised poultry is, and then we can discuss why theirs isn't.
What Pasture-raised is...
Chicken raised on a system where they have continuous access to pasture and are moved to fresh pasture on a regular basis. If the chickens aren't moved on a regular basis the grass is quickly eaten/destroyed and the manure piles up. Without movement, it simply can't be a pasture-based model. Fresh grass, bugs, exercise, and daylight add to the taste and nutrition. Constantly being moved away from their manure, enables producers to raise birds without the use of antibiotics.
We house our chickens in movable bottomless shelters to proved cover, protection from predators, and access to pasture. We target a stocking density of 2 sq. ft per bird and the shelters are moved to new pasture at least twice per day. This gives each bird at least 4 sq ft of grass per day. There is also the concern of pasture recovery to factor in. Recovery deals with both the regrowth of grass as well as the composting and sanitation of chicken manure. In our system, the manure is utilized as a beneficial fertilizer for the pasture instead of a bio-hazard waste product. We are currently only running a batch over a particular section of pasture once per year. Some larger established pasture-based systems are successfully using recovery times as short as 90 days.
What Pasture-raised isn't...
The "Big-Ag" company mentioned above is planning to produce up to 700,000 chickens per week in stationary houses with "access" to pasture. A stationary chicken house simply cannot produce a pasture-raised chicken. Chickens will only range so far from their house. Meat birds, especially, won't travel far from their primary food and water source. Even if you had one of these 25,000 bird chicken houses sitting in the middle of a vast pasture, the grass inside and immediately surrounding the house would be gone in just a day or two. Afterward, none of the birds would have access to pasture or even anything green for that matter. Not to mention, you probably can't imagine the amount of manure that is produced inside that building. What's left of the surrounding "pasture" could not possibly metabolize the amount of manure left outside.
Food for thought...
To use our model, they would require over 93,500 acres to produce the 700,000 chickens per week they are expecting. Even under the absolute best circumstances and taking a completely bare-bones approach, it would require over 8,500 acres. Truly pasture-raised poultry is much more suited for the small and medium-sized farms which are capable and willing to do the work required to actually move their flocks on a daily basis. The only way this is achieved is with smaller portable shelters. "Big-Ag" simply can't do this with its 25,000 bird mega-production houses. Without movement, there is no pasture!