As raising pastured chickens for meat is often seen as the “gateway” animal for pasture-based livestock farming, it’s very important to understand what it takes to profitably raise pastured chickens from the start.
Knowing how important pasture-based regenerative agriculture is and understanding the vital role that pastured chickens play, we decided to gather 16 of the leading pastured poultry experts and ask them this question:
What is the one piece of advice you have for someone first attempting to profitably raise pastured chickens for meat?
The insightful replies we received from these 16 experts were completely amazing and helped me understand the importance of the pastured chicken on a whole new level.
Richard Perkins – Ridgedale Permaculture
Richard is the highly regarded Director of Ridgedale Permaculture, a Swedish beyond-organic farm and educational hub. This is what he had to say…
Do your market research. Make good spreadsheets and plan conservatively as you build up experience. Try out different feed regimes, monitor diligently. Visualize the entire production from start to finish very carefully and have everything in place before the season. Get clear about regulation and study others operations and how they need to be adapted to your specific time, place and circumstance. Get up early and get out and observe. Keep tight records of everything. Remember there are always low cost ways to do everything if you have basic skills; we run one of Europe’s lowest cost on- farm slaughter facilities and share all the details of everything we’re up to in our book Making Small Farms Work. Now go back and make sure you did your market research!
Mark and Kate – Meadowdale Farm
Mark and Kate have ran Meadowdale Farm, a pasture-based livestock farm in Vermont, since 1999. This is what they had to say…
Backwards planning is vital:
1.) Know where you’re going to sell the finished product and dates restaurants need them.
2.) Get your slaughterhouse date reserved and get necessary permits and labeling requirements filled.
3.) Make sure your farm liability policy is up to date.
4.) Then select the date that you need your chicks to arrive to reach your desired market weight.
To make your poultry investment worthwhile look into the number of chickens you need to buy grain in bulk. This can save you hundreds of dollars! Build a chick brooder that is predator proof and climate controlled. Buying chicks and having them die is discouraging! If you’ll be pasturing poultry don’t skimp on cheap electrified netting. Determine what predators you’ll be up against in your area and plan ahead. Having an energy efficient way to feed and water your poultry on pasture is vital. Meat birds eat and drink a lot!
Remember to have fun and enjoy watching your birds build soil fertility! They’ll be the tastiest meat you’ve ever eaten and well work the effort.
Stacy Martin – MooPoo Ranch
Stacy is the owner and farmer of MooPoo Ranch, a farm in Central Wisconsin dedicated to pasture-based agriculture. This is what she had to say…
Don’t be limited by the standards commonly used to raise pastured chicken. You don’t have to feed your chickens a certain grain or mineral in a certain way. You don’t even have to feed grain at all, if you don’t want to. Utilize what you have available and what you feel good about, whether it’s food waste from local restaurants, animal carcasses from harvesting your other farm animals for meat, or some other resourceful source. Don’t feel pressured to do it the way so many professionals emphasize it should be done. Use your creativity and experiment with what you are interested in. If you do it someone else’s way, rather than your own, you won’t be happy with the experience. And that is what is most important.
Lauren Kiesz – Yellow Hutch Farm
Lauren is raising pastured poultry with her husband on Yellow Hutch Farm in Minnesota. This is what she had to say…
I think the most important thing to do when starting out is to surround yourself with a community of fellow farmers – in person and on social media – and share your questions, successes, and failures with each other. We searched for and joined Facebook groups of people engaged in the same type of farming that we are so that we can take advantage of their experiences and advice and then apply it to our farm. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when there are plenty of people willing to share their “wheel” ideas with you! After interacting with other group members over a period of time, we all become familiar with each other’s situation (location/enterprises/struggles/skills) and we can share questions, advice, and answers almost in real time. It’s like having a bunch of similarly-minded neighbors available to chat with whenever we need it! I think people that are just starting out might be reluctant to comment, interact, or even join the groups because they feel like they are “just a beginner.” But it is so valuable and so important to build community with other farmers, even if you are brand new to the game! No matter how long you’ve been on your farm, you can be a valuable resource for others too. Everyone has ideas to contribute, and ergo, you can always learn a little something from everyone else too.
Mike Badger – Badger’s Millside Farm
Mike Badger owns Badger’s Millside farm, works with the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), a non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating the success pasture-based poultry farming, and hosts the Pastured Poultry Talk podcast. This is what he had to say…
If I had to sum up all my work as a processor and as Executive Director for American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, marketing is the most commonly under-estimated business requirement.
When you want to profitably raise pastured chickens for meat, the first realization is that you are a marketer first. Pastured poultry is a direct-marketed product/business, and it doesn’t matter how much or how well you can farm if you can’t find people to buy your meat. That’s what marketing does; it’s finds people who may become buyers. Marketing makes sales easier.
Many people produce chicken the way they want to eat it or think about the world. Our niche is pasture-raised, which is daily rotations on fresh grass for meat birds. The more specialized you make your product, the smaller your pool of buyers becomes. In pastured poultry, that specialization comes with the choices you make, such as heritage, non-gmo, non-soy feed, non-corn feed, feed without wheat, chickens without grain, chickens that dress at 7 pounds., etc.
At some point you’ll realize your market may be different than what you want or expect. How you respond to that difference determines whether you are a pastured poultry farm, offer small quantities of pastured poultry as a value-added product line, or stop selling poultry all together.
Dave and Ginger Shields – Pastured Life Farm
Dave and Ginger have been raising pastured poultry on Pastured Life Farm since 2007. This is what they had to say…
As relatively tenured pastured farmers we have the opportunity to meet with many new area farmers that are interested in getting started with their pastured poultry enterprises. The visits are always the same, they are very enthusiastic and energetic and are ready to go in head first. However, we always encourage a slow approach especially when processing your own chickens. There really is such a thing as farm muscles and both the physical and mental endurance required to keep up. Nothing breaks our hearts more than seeing energetic beginners get beat up and burnt out in the first 6 months of starting up their new ventures. Raising the chickens is the easy part, where the rubber meets the pavement is processing, packaging and selling your birds. Start small with a batch of just 25 or 50 and see how it goes. Give some away to family and friends and see how they react. Let the natural demand for your product grow your production and not the other way around.
Pastured Poultry is exciting and the desire even after all the years (nearly 10 years) we have done this ourselves is to produce more than we should. By resisting the urge to grow too fast you allow your physical and mental faculties to grow with your business. I remember processing our first 25 birds was an all day affair and absolutely exhausting. Now we can process several hundred in just a couple hours and still have the rest of the day to work on projects. It has taken time to get to this point and giving yourself time to grow is extremely important for a long term operation.
Dru Peters – Sunnyside Farm
Along with her husband, Dru Peters has years of experience raising pasture-based livestock on Sunnyside Farm. This is what she had to say…
1. Find a good feed supplier.
2. Mobile pens that can be moved by you, beware of those designed by growers who have teams of teenagers moving them.
3. Get geese and dogs for protection.
4. Fence your property.
The team at Primal Pastures has been raising pastured poultry for Southern California since 2012. This is what their team had to say…
Make sure you can tap into a market that is willing to buy your chicken and be sure to see how much it costs to raise and feed your chicken and still be profitable for you. Do the math to find out exactly what it is that you need to not only break even but profit from.
Daniel O’Brien – Chicken Caravan
Daniel is the founder of Chicken Caravan, an Australian company that specializes in the manufacturing of high-quality moveable chicken sheds for pastured egg farming. This is what he had to say…
If you spend 8 weeks growing the meat chickens up ready for processing and you take them to your processor and they package them up ready for sale and then you try and compete on price with the shops you will fail. You need to know your costs, put a good profit margin on it and tell your customers the price and do not apologize for the price. If you want to be sustainable you need to be profitable. Tell your story about your farm and why you do what you do and tell the story of how you grow the chickens and people will be happy to pay the price because after hearing your story they know your chicken is different.
Rebekah and Adam Lieberg – Lazy Chickadee Farm
Rebekah and Adam are raising quality pastured poultry for the state of Oregon on Lazy Chickadee Farm. This is what they had to say…
We think our biggest piece of advice at this point for others looking into raising pastured chickens is to understand the pasture part of the equation as much as the chicken part. There are a lot of recurring questions we’ve been asking ourselves about the pasture component: What is it composed of and how well do the chickens utilize it? What time of day is best to put them on fresh pasture to maximize forage intake? What is the optimal pasture height to balance forage quality with manure deposition (i.e., if the pasture is too high, manure is deposited on folded over pasture rather than directly onto the ground where it assimilates faster and the birds may have to be moved more frequently for hygiene purposes, but if the pasture is too low there won’t be as many of the flowering heads and seed pods that the chickens love that are the result of more mature grasses and forbs)? How to balance irrigation with mowing (either mechanized or with grazing animals ahead of the chickens) throughout the season? These are just a few of many questions about pasture that we have been faced with as we’ve gotten started on this. We are able to glean some answers from research and talking to other farmers, but each site is unique so we are also learning a lot through observation of our pasture and our chickens!
Maggie Ray – Winding Creek Farm
Maggie and her husband raise pastured livestock in Illinois on Winding Creek Farm. This is what she had to say…
My advice is to learn as much as you possibly can from groups, social media, websites, and books. After that, find a good hatchery, and most of all HAVE FUN!
Matt and Julia Knudsen – WileyJo Farms
From pastured poultry to heirloom apple trees to a small flock of Jacob sheep, Matt and Julia have seen it all on WileyJo Farms. This is what they had to say…
Stress-free birds means stress-free farmers. We have raised Cornish Cross chickens for meat for the past seven years. In our experience, if they become stressed, we have a problems. If it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, or too cramped, they get stressed and become unhealthy really fast. If we give them plenty of space to roam, fresh grass, sunlight and shade, then we end up with healthy birds and a much more pleasant experience for us.
Also, if you want to raise good food, you have to start with good food. We use a wonderful poultry grower feed blend from Mosaic Farms in Philomath, Oregon. They locally source and freshly mill the feed for our birds. Their blend allows us to use the same feed from start to finish and we have fantastic, consistent results every time!
Abby and Jake – Apple Creek Farm
Abby and Jake have managed Apple Creek Farm since 2014 and provide Maine with a variety of pasture-based goods. Here is what they had to say…
My first piece of advice is to expect some losses, from shipping stress, brooder conditions or in the field because everyone loves chicken! Start out by being really prepared, get your brooder set-up, draft free and check the temperature to be sure it will be warm enough. When your chicks arrive open the box and warm them up with a hair dryer. You’ll see them start to get lively! Then, dip their beaks in water (we add a splash of Apple Cider Vinegar) before they go into the brooder. Good luck! Once you have pasture raised chicken you’ll never go back!
Daniel and Morgan Griffith – Timshel Permaculture
Serving Central Virginia with nutrient-dense pasture-based livestock, Daniel and Morgan are farming naturally at Timshel Permaculture. This is what they had to say…
Raising chickens on pasture profitably is a hot topic and is a practice that is not easy. The main issue with profitability is cost, not revenue. There are a multitude of families around the US looking for holistically raised and nutrient-dense pastured poultry. That being said, there are much less families able to pay over $5.00/lb for it. Thus is the issue: all chickens needs some supplemental feeds and most grass farmers are limited to using only non-GMO feeds, due to the high price of Organic feeds. At Timshel Permaculture Farm, we believe that regenerating the land and soil to restore ecological health and biodiversity is just as important as promoting and fostering human health. Humanity cannot live, nor can we live well, if we destroy our ecological resources. Therefore, we believe that, although non-GMO practices are admirable, any use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides on the land generally or our food specifically is absolutely against our mission to regenerate the land; nourish the soul; and heal the body. Thus, our success is found by identifying niche markets that are able to purchase organic, soy-free, and Certified Naturally Grown chicken at a higher price. It’s really all about marketing. You have to convince the purchaser that anything less would be the promotion of ecological devastation and not actually “healthy” for their body. You have to convince them that buying chicken from you makes a difference to their body, their family, and to their world as a whole. To put it simply, the real key is marketing.
Jacob – Green Fire Farm
A sixth generation farmer serving Southern Wisconsin with pasture-based livestock, Jacob is regenerating his land with Green Fire Farm. This is what he had to say…
I think the biggest part when starting out is to do a full accounting of costs and profit margins and charge for that price. Market your product not on price, but on it’s story. After you sell those, at a smaller scale, then you can try to scale up and reach some scale efficiencies which makes the end product more marketable to more customers, and ultimately more profitable.
Kevin Benoit and Marisa Suarez – Open Hearth Farm
Kevin and Marisa are raising tasty, pasture-based foods for the state of Virginia on Open Hearth Farm. This is what they had to say…
1.) If you can buy feed by the ton and store indoors or in 55 gallon food grade barrels. It goes a long way to cut down on costs.
2.) Once you figure out what breed of chicken you plan to raise, we suggest giving a lot of thought to what weight you want your chickens to dress out to. Too big and it can get too pricey for people and tough to cook. Too small and you run the risk of not making enough to be profitable.
Wow! Huge thanks to everyone who contributed to this inspiring and amazing collaboration. Please share if you feel it was helpful. And don’t be shy! Comment below and let us know if you have any great advice on raising pastured chickens for profit.