Thursday, September 16, 2010

WI Farmers Explore Feeding Strategies for Pasture-Raised Poultry

Melissa, Linnea, Jason, and Annabelle Fischbach (left to right) with the Day-Range system. Photo by Beth Probst.

Three farmers in the Mason, WI concerned about health and safety of big barn chickens have created a how-to manual and a research bulletin that share information about feeding strategies for pasture-raised poultry.

Pasture Perfect, LLC is a partnership of three farms in the Mason, WI area - Great Oak, Wild Hollow, and Vranes farms. All three farms of Pasture Perfect Poultry started raising chickens for their own families due to concerns about the health and safety of big barn chickens. Each started selling to their neighbors and then to their neighbor’s neighbors.

After operating independently, in 2008, they entered into a formal partnership to cooperatively market and process chickens and turkeys under the Pasture Perfect Poultry brand. Each farm is currently raising 600-800 poultry per year with nearly 1,600 processed on the farms using a processing trailer built and owned by Pasture Perfect. The poultry are direct marketed to customers in Ashland and Bayfield County, WI. In addition to poultry, each farm is engaged in other farming practices including pastured lamb, pork, vegetables, eggs, fruit, and/or hazelnuts.

The birds are raised with a day-range pastured poultry system. The Day-Range system consists of a mobile pen, or “hoopie” located within an electrified-fenced area. The system can maximize access to pasture, allow for freedom of movement, and reduce labor costs. All three operations had experience raising chickens using the Day-Range system and were natural problem solvers. They wanted to conduct on-farm research to determine the effectiveness of feeding strategies for maximizing forage intake and feed conversion of pasture raised broiler chickens in a day-range system.

In 2008, they submitted a proposal to the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) Farmer Rancher Grant program, and were selected for funding.

“SARE has a history of funding innovative projects, particularly for exploring alternative poultry production systems,” said Melissa Fishbach of Pasture Perfect Poultry. “We thought our project could answer a basic poultry production question while also serving as a model for other poultry research.”

It was hypothesized that feeding the chickens their entire daily ration once per day would allow the chickens to exhibit their natural foraging behavior and, therefore, potentially increase their weight gain and feed utilization efficiency. Furthermore, the once per day feeding system could potentially reduce labor costs by requiring only one visit of the chickens each day.

Based on the results of this Day-Range research, it appears that feeding the total daily ration between 11AM and 2PM is a viable option and may even result in better feed utilization and higher finish weights. According to Fishbach, over the 4 week pasture grow-out period the once-a-day feeding would equate to up to about 28 hours saved. Multiplied by an hourly wage of $12 per hour, feeding once per day could save up to $336 per batch of birds. Although the results were not consistent across all four batches tested, Fishbach indicated that the once-per-day feeding could impact the performance of the birds. A 0.5 average weight increase was observed at one of the batches, which equated to an extra $1.40 of revenue per bird, assuming a retail price of $2.85 per pound.

“In addition to the economic, environmental, and social impacts, our project demonstrates very real economic benefits. Perhaps, more importantly, the research protocol outlined in our project will allow poultry producers to refine the pastured poultry production system and assist in decision making.” said Fishbach. “We hope other pastured-poultry projects will utilize our how-to-manual to design their own experiments. We also hope the publications we developed will inspire other producers to document their production systems in similar detail.”

Two educational pieces were created as a result of the project, a Research Bulletin produced by Jason Fischbach of Bayfield County UW-Extension in cooperation with Pasture Perfect, and a How-To Manual produced by Pasture Perfect.

Both are available online, or in print by contacting the NCR-SARE office:
Read more about Pasture Perfect’s SARE project online at, or contact the NCR-SARE office for more information.

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