How to Raise Chickens On Pasture

This time of year, folks want to know about raising chickens on pasture.  With that in mind, we wanted to reach out to our On Pasture Community again because we know that you’ve got a wealth of experience to share. Grant, who asked about starting a ranch from scratch, really appreciated all the ideas you shared. We’ll be sharing  some of them as On Pasture articles, because they are so useful for anyone starting a ranch. (Here’s the first, from new On Pasture author, Dan Nosal. Thanks, Dan!) Based on that success, we knew you would be the right crew to help all the folks with chicken questions, too.

Here are some things maybe you can answer from your experience:

ChickenLaysEggWhat’s the best advice you have for starting new poultry, especially on pasture?

What do you feed your meat chicks? What do you expect it to cost?

What do you feed your layers and what do you expect it to cost?

Are there breeds you prefer?

What do you do to ensure a profit with meat or eggs?

Poultry Housing – what do you like best and why?

If you have a book, website or other resource to suggest, I’m sure your fellow producers would find that helpful. In the meantime, we’ve accumulated all the On Pasture articles published so far at our “How to Raise Chickens Library” page. We’ll add to this page as we add more poultry articles. If you’re new to On Pasture, you might want to sign up for our weekly Tuesday emails so you can see new information as it comes in.

So help your fellow poultry farmers and ranchers out. Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. You can also send them to as as an email, and then, just like we’re doing with the “How to Start a Ranch From Scratch” emails, we’ll accumulate them and then, with your permission, share them as future On Pasture articles.

Thanks for reading and being a part of the On Pasture Community. Here’s to hearing from you, and here’s to spring!

Kathy and Rachel

5 thoughts on “How to Raise Chickens On Pasture

  1. A note about feed for pastured meat birds from my experience: we started off feeding a “broiler grower”, something in the 21-22% range for protein. Last year (after we got a small grain silo and could switch from bagged to bulk feed), I tried feeding them an 18% “poultry grower” (marketed for pullets, not fast growing meat birds). We didn’t see any decline in weights, they did just as well. The reason being, I think, that while it is difficult to meet a chickens energy needs on pasture/forage, they can get a fair bit of protein from plants (especially legumes) and of course whatever “bugs” they can find. And since lower protein % feeds are less expensive, it helped cut costs.

  2. FYI: I ordered pullet chicks with some people I work with. Ours are in a chicken tractor, moved everyday over the winter’s growth of weeds and volunteer grasses (South Louisiana= no hard freeze this year) with free choice “18% Chick Grower”. Our Pullets started turning into hens about a month ago. We are getting almost 70% egg production right now. Friends who ordered chicks with us, same hatchery, same breed, have theirs in a “chicken yard” and they have not seen an egg yet. We got first egg at 18 1/2 weeks! Nature vs. Nurture? Get quality chicks from an established hatchery and raise them well. They WILL return the favor.

  3. My biggest piece of advice, like any business, is to look in to the details first. How many eggs will people buy? How much time do you have for gathering, cleaning, candling, packaging, and selling the eggs. Everyday. How much will people pay for your eggs?

    For me, selling at $5 per dozen is pretty much break even.

    Hens have a high impact on pasture and need to be moved frequently. I consider their impact to be 2nd only to pigs.

    Make sure their housing is easy to move, we built ours on hay wagon running gear and move it daily (in summer) with a small lawn tractor. We use electric poultry netting to keep the birds in and protect them from predators. This work well, but moving them and setting the net takes 20 minutes at least. Again, every day.

    Pigs and hens are a great combination. This past winter our hen house was above the pigs house. A little extra heat, no wasted feed, and everybody was close which made winter chores easier.

  4. The bible (for me) is Humane and Healthy Poultry Production by Karma Glos of Kingbird Farm, published by Chelsea Green.

    After fifteen years of raising chickens we’ve never — knock wood- had any problems.

    For On Pasture devotees I would say the main thing to remember is to treat birds the way you do cattle! Just because chickens are so much smaller and possibly not as smart they still need all the same kinds of care and attention. From good housing and nutrition to spending time with the flock as we are continually advised to do with grazing animals, all these same kind of efforts will be rewarded with easy to manage, productive, healthy and happy birds.

    The greatest difference in necessary management techniques is addressing the threat of predation. Here again I’ve responded with practices similar to running larger animals. As sheep farmers traditionally bring a llama into the field to discourage coyotes so I always have a bunch of roosters AND keep some big, aggressive domestic geese ranging with our chickens. A gander will easily frighten many predators. You do have to offer the geese their own housing! Contrary to common wisdom I also raise turkeys in the same houses as our chickens. Heritage breed turkeys have a more finely tuned, better preserved instinct for self preservation. The turkeys are often the first birds to sound the alarm when hawks are circling. Starting with day old chicks also helps. Bringing adult birds into an unfamiliar situation puts them at a disadvantage with respect to the resident enemy population. If young birds grow up in an environment filled with raptors, for example, they quickly learn to seek cover when necessary. Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of good, solid housing. Done right the first time — completely lined with wire mesh covering the floor and up several feet on side walls — we even throw some pink board for insulation next to the metal inside a wood ‘sandwich’ and finish with a nice, tight door– housing will last for decades and birds will survive season after season. Its worth it — rats will spend an entire winter attempting to gnaw through even the heaviest wood flooring! Alternatively, repurposing an existing building that offers rafter height roosting will work too but still doesn’t help much with raccoons who will rip the hearts out of a chicken and leave the dismembered body behind to remind you that you’ve failed in your animal husbandry!

    I’m not a fan of chicken tractors or any kind of permanent enclosure. They don’t sufficiently support natural behaviors or flock health in my view. With rotational grazing practices for large animals, parking mobile coops in various pastures seems to do the same job. We pull the coops in for winter so we can plug in heat lamps and water heaters and ease the chore load for a few months.

    Like Salatin recommends we only clean out the coops once or twice a year — the compost is wonderful and we capitalize on the radiant heat all winter. During the year we just scrape the roosting rails once a week, cover dirty bedding with something fresh — wood chips, grass clippings, mulch hay, leaves, whatever is cheap and available — and constantly change the water and wash waterers with vinegar whenever they feel slimy or show signs of algae growth.

    I got started in Vermont so we began with Dominiques and I’ve stuck with the breed. The are wonderfully cold hardy, good layers and seldom if ever go broody. They lay through the winter without artificial light at a tolerably diminished rate. I feed organic, soy free feed from Green Mountain. Its spendy but in nearly twenty years we’ve never had a health crisis. I segregate any bird that shows a lack of condition. I dose up her water with molasses and apple cider vinegar and offer endless treats from the garden and the dinner table. Some die, some recover. In winter I load up the feeders — go for hanging whenever possible as it reduces mess and waste — so there is always plenty to eat. I conserve on feed expense by with- holding store bought feed in the summer when the pastures offer plenty of nutrition. I think this encourages foraging but I do keep feed in the coop at night. This will NOT work if your birds have ANY conventional broiler genetics. Those creatures never lift their heads out of the feed trough no matter what the ‘free rangers’ claim! We just order more heritage birds if we plan to slaughter for meat. These days it seems the poulet rouge mentality is finally catching on in the US. A pastured bird will never make conventional broiler weight but after three months you have something that is mighty tasty. I sell a 4lb. chicken for $18.

    Birds really require very little work. Open the door in the morning, check the food and water (take food away if it’s high summer), collect eggs at some point during the day and close the door right after sun down. If you spend a little time when they are young and train them to come to your call — I yell “snack!!” and offer something special like rotten tomatoes from the garden or a bunch of downed apples (but store bought scratch feed works too) and everyone comes running — you can even put them to bed before sunset and make it to a pot luck or a movie in town without worrying the birds will all be eaten when you get home late.

    What else? I do offer chick grit — never mixed with food as you can’t monitor consumption properly that way — until the birds are ranging and then it’s totally unnecessary. I follow Karma Glos’ recipe for adding organic apple cider vinegar and organic molasses to the water for the first few weeks. We also never wash OR refrigerate our eggs even though they are probably all fertile. Here in the ‘burbs we get a premium price and I think my customers feel more ‘with-it’ because they have dirty eggs sitting on their kitchen counters. The flavor and color of our eggs is simply miraculous! Once a week I deliver to restaurants and charge them 50% more per dozen. I order the boxes off Amazon (oddly the cheapest source I could find) and hand write our farm name on each one (okay, that is a drag!). I ask my on-farm customers to return their empty cartons which works out well. I have an honesty box in the garage by the road — leave your money and take your eggs — no sweat! In winter I put the eggs in an insulated cooler with a hot water bottle. One of these days I will rig up a box with a light bulb and a thermostat.

    Good luck!

  5. I have raised about every breed of layer on pasture and Black Australorps have been superior for egg production for me when free ranged. Some other breeds can produce many eggs but will tend to hide their eggs, have extended molt periods, or be finicky with egg production on a forage diet. The Black Australorps seem to know where their eggs belong and reliably produce an egg every day. They are brown egg layers, so be aware of that, but that is what most customers looking for free range eggs want anyway.

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