Poultry are not true grazing animals, not being equipped with rumens or a hindgut developed for fermentation like that of horses. However, they will consume some grass in their diet, particularly when growing. The exact amount of forage consumed will vary by species, with geese and turkeys deriving a considerably higher amount of their dietary needs from forage than chickens.
Furthermore, poultry play an important role in pasture ecology because of their willingness to consume insects and parasites.
Chickens are extremely busy and inquisitive foragers, spending a good part of the day scratching, pecking, and tearing into anything that piques their curiosity. The exception to this is hybrid broilers, which tend to spend a great deal of time resting, particularly in hot weather. Be aware of this tendency, as some broilers will even prefer to lay around in the shade rather than get up and drink water, leaving them vulnerable to dehydration.
Geese, on the other hand, display behavior more like the grazing of larger animals. They are gregarious, moving through pastures in orderly flocks and typically surrounding a desired patch of forage in a circle.
Ducks can spend many happy hours waddling around on pasture grazing. However, they also benefit from access to water to bathe and play in for peak health.
Turkeys are particularly omnivorous in their behavior. They will eagerly seek out anything from grass to weeds to berries to insects. When night comes, they will fly up into any trees that the pasture offers to roost in, safely out of the reach of predators.
Most pastured poultry will require at least some supplemental feed, being foraging omnivores designed for diverse diets. In fact, pastured poultry actually consume relatively more feed than their indoor counterparts due to their higher activity levels and the amount of energy spent keeping warm.
The most nutritious forages for poultry are those that are young and tender. Maintaining the forage height at about 4 to 8 inches will provide the greatest benefit to your poultry. Poultry cannot eat tough, stemmy grasses, typically those that have been allowed 30 days or more to regrow. Geese, in particular, benefit from quality grass, rarely consuming broadleafed weeds. The exception to this rule is turkeys, which can consume many weeds (including ragweed) and are more tolerant of tougher stems.
A good mix of legumes, particularly tender clover, in the pasture will provide an additional nutrient boost to the poultry, which will transfer to the eggs.
The grazing systems in use with poultry are different than those used with other types of livestock:
- Yarding. A stationary house is constructed, and the poultry are released into one of several attached paddocks during the day. Virtually no labor requirements. Greatest risk for pasture destruction and disease buildup.
- Poultry tractor. Involves housing the poultry full-time in suitably sized floorless pens or hoop houses. Typically used for broilers. Very inexpensive, keeps the pasture in prime condition, and gives the birds access to fresh pasture regularly. Requires daily or twice-daily moving, provides minimal predator protection, and somewhat difficult to adapt to layers (although it can be done).
- Day range. Poultry are released into an enclosed pen to forage during the day and housed at night. Both the pen and the house are moved at regular intervals. Provides excellent predator protection. One of the more expensive setups; also increases risk of pasture damage compared to poultry tractors due to the longer interval between moves.
- Free range. Poultry are allowed to roam at will, although they are usually trained to put themselves to bed at night in a mobile house. Typically used for laying hens. Little labor required, and provides almost unlimited scaling. Poultry are highly vulnerable to predators.
Poultry are extremely susceptible to predator attacks, so the system design will need to take this challenge into consideration. Electrified netting is an excellent option. Some farmers have also enjoyed success with livestock guardian animals. For added protection, grazing poultry in pastures relatively close to human dwellings is recommended.
Housing is a must for chickens. They must be locked safely up at night for protection from predators, but they also need shelter from wind and rain. Laying hens will need a private place in which to lay eggs. However, the more elaborate the housing, the harder it will be to move. Smaller operations can use a simple, lightweight coop or poultry tractor that can be moved by one to two people. Larger farms may need to consider housing that can be pulled by an ATV or a tractor.
One design factor that applies only to waterfowl is the need for a source of water to play in. Swimming and bathing are essential for peak health for waterfowl. However, this need can be met fairly simply. Some ingenious backyard coops feature a built-in swimming pool for ducks. Alternatively, you can provide a child’s swimming pool or a roomy rubber livestock water tub for this purpose.
Genetics are all-important when choosing poultry for a pasture-based system. Commercial breeds, strains, and hybrids rarely perform satisfactorily on pasture, being developed to grow in high-input systems. For instance, the Cornish cross broiler is highly vulnerable to predators and heat stress on pasture; plus, its heavy body and susceptibility to leg problems make it a less-than-ideal grazing animal. That is not to say that Cornish crosses can’t be raised on pasture, just that they will not thrive as much as more traditional breeds or newer hybrids developed for the pastured poultry market.
Poultry, especially chickens and ducks, must be moved frequently, as they can be rather hard on pastures. Scratching and dust-bathing will destroy the grass over time and lead to soil erosion. Likewise, ducks enjoy playing in their water and will convert the surrounding area into a mud lot if allowed. Out of all the standard poultry options, turkeys are probably the least damaging to pastures.
Another phenomenon commonly seen on pastures where poultry are not rotated often enough is called “fowl-sick” land. In this scenario, parasites and diseases build up to the point where poultry can no longer be sustainably kept on the pasture. Again, rotation is the solution.
Poultry manure is particularly high in nitrogen and can burn growing plants. Ducks, in particular, produce manure in large quantities. Moving the poultry regularly will prevent nitrogen toxicity and avoid subsequent weed and plant pest problems. Extra precautions may be required for large-scale production in winter, as soil microbes will largely be dormant and therefore unable to process manure for several months, leading to runoff and waterway contamination. Moving the poultry off pasture to housing for the winter is one possible solution. Using large amounts of high-carbon bedding to lock up the nutrients can also help.
In a multispecies rotation, poultry usually come behind the other grazing animals. For one thing, the larger animals will utilize the forage more efficiently and graze it down to a height that poultry can handle. For another thing, the poultry will evenly disperse the manure of the other animals and consume any insect pests following in their wake. Another option is to allow your poultry to mingle freely with your other livestock. Just be sure to keep curious animals from consuming your poultry feed!