Chickens on Pasture: A Better Model!

by brenda on February 1, 2012

This photo was taken inside of a commercial chicken house, where chickens are not allowed to live in the light. Yum, doesn’t this make you want to eat more chicken? *photo credit 

In Food, Inc., there was a quote about the average chicken farmer being about $500,000 in debt (from building two chicken houses) and only making a net income (off of everything on their farm) of about $18,000 per year. Further research shows that 25% of these farmers make nothing after all of their hard work. Wowie, zowie! That is no way for a farmer to live! There are alternatives to this method!

Our first year raising chickens, we built a brooder for less than $100 and a chicken tractor for about $500. We could have build it cheaper, if we were willing to use recycled wood or pressure treated wood. We chose to go with cedar, because these chicken tractors would be housing our food and sitting on the grass that our food eats from.

So total cost so far = $600. No debt. Just a $600 investment.

Our brooder and pen can house 100 chickens each. Each chick costs about $2, so that’s $200 for 100 birds.

The feed is the most expensive part of raising chickens. Ours costs around .50 per lb. It’s soy free, corn free and organic. Even after feeding our birds, our profit (not including our time, of course, and paying back our original investment of the brooder + pen) is about $10 per bird. There is a 1 to 3% mortality rate. So let’s say 97 birds at $10 per bird, that’s $970…After investing $600 on equipment. So the first year’s profit is $370–then we re-use that equipment over and over. Wa la! $970 profit per summer for only raising 100 birds.

The people who raise birds in chicken houses are raising 200,000 to 300,000 chickens in one house. Yuck. Imagine the smell!!

The pastured poultry model is scalable.Last year we raised 300 chickens, and we were *sold out,* with people asking for more. This year we plan to raise 1,000 birds. We will need to invest in some more equipment, but not much. If the profit on 100 birds is about $970, that makes the profit on 1,000 birds $9,700, minus the costs of the equipment that we purchase this year. Not bad for a “part time” job in open air in the warm summer!

If we wanted to make $18,000 per year like the average commercial chicken grower, we would not need to take out $500,000 in debt. Nope! We would grow about 2,250 chickens. (Any birds over 1,000 would need to be butchered off-farm at a certified facility, which would cost us $3 per bird, raising our cost of production). We would need to build more brooders and chicken tractors. That would probably cost about $8,000 more. So the first year, our net profit would only be $10,000 on raising 2,250 chickens. But the second year, we’d make $18,000, with no big debt and no stinky chicken houses.

If we wanted to save the $3 per bird expense of butchering and do it all ourselves, we could build a USDA certified processing facility. We visited a farm that had build one, and it cost them $20,000 to build. They used a bunch of recycled windows and made a very bright, open building with simple stainless steel counters, and the total materials and building cost was $20k. That’s a lot cheaper than $250,000 per chicken house! 🙂

Pastured chickens are healthier, because they live on grass and under the sun. They don’t live in confinement, eating each other’s poop. Disease does not spread rampantly among them. (If some of our chickens start getting sick in the brooder, we quickly separate them from the other birds, move them out to pasture and give them a little apple cider vinegar in their water, and they heal up nicely!!! With a smaller chicken population, we can stay on top of diseases and they do not spread to thousands of birds.). They aren’t fattened with corn at a faster rate than their organs can support. We don’t have to wear masks when we take care of our birds. They don’t smell like pretty little star jasmine flowers, but they aren’t outrageously smelly, either. We don’t feed them soy, which feeds estrogen-laden cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer. We never have to worry about that when we eat our home-grown chicken.

The cool things about buying whole, pastured chickens from local farmers:

  • They’re better for the environment, because their manure is going straight onto pasture, in amounts that are tolerable for the pasture (not contaminating). The amount of pastured chickens you raise depends on how much pasture you have. 😉 Commercial chicken growers spread 40% of the manure on their own fields as fertilizer, give some away, and then they have to pay to get rid of the rest–it is a hazardous waste.
  • They are better for the economy, because the consumer pays what the product is actually worth and does not rely on government subsidies to cover the cost for them. Our chickens are not subsidized by the government in any way. What you pay for our birds is really what they cost to raise. (A .79/lb chicken was raised on government subsidized corn and soy–so the consumer doesn’t see the true picture of how much the chicken actually costs to raise). They hire illegal immigrants to catch and process the birds and they pay them miniscule wages. (Are you opposed to companies hiring illegal immigrants and paying them pennies? Stop eating commercially grown chickens!).
  • You have to rely more on other meats, because chicken is actually an expensive meat to raise and purchase. As our country started eating more “white meat” and less beef and far less pork, we increased our heart attacks. Go figure. Eat chicken once per week or less, eat other meats (like beef, pork, seafood!) and get healthier! (Chicken used to be considered a treat–maybe a Sunday dinner meal, alternating with pot roast, every other week–people knew that chickens were more expensive and time-consuming to raise and process, and they savored it and did not over-use it).
  • If you buy a whole bird, you end up eating the white meat and the dark meat together. The dark meat is where the oxygen and nutrients are. Eating a boneless, skinless chicken breast makes me weak and shaky (my body can only tolerate them with butter, cheese, sour cream, or other fats on top!). If you eat the dark meat, you’ll be getting more iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. It has slightly higher levels of fat–which are *healthy* for you and necessary for brain function. Living on a strict diet of chicken breasts is not healthy for anyone. Buy a whole bird and make yourself eat some dark meat! 🙂
  •  When you have to spend more on the actual meat, you will start to become frugal and use every part–which means you’ll be cooking the bones in water over night (and maybe in fresh water for several nights in a row, to get as much broth as possible). Bone broth is a way to take in highly absorbable nutrients. The gelatin that forms in the broth is excellent for joint health. Most of America does not consume enough bone broth. This is one simple step you can take towards healthier living!
  • You’ll never eat sick chickens, when you buy them from a small farm who grows them on pasture. Diseases can be taken care of quickly, and diseased birds are spotted in the bunch. We have more issues with diseases when the birds are tiny and in a confined brooder. Like I said above, though, they quickly heal up with grass, sunshine and some apple cider vinegar. Chickens THRIVE on pasture! The chances of us having a sick bird, in the end, are not very likely. If we did have a sick bird, we would not butcher it and sell it to our customers! When you are raising 200,000 to 300,000 birds at a time, there is no way to make sure that every bird that goes to processing is disease free.
  • There is no middle man. The farmer who produces the food makes the income, not a big corporation. Tyson and Perdue make lots of money, it’s just that the people who they pay to actually *raise* their meat don’t make much at all.
  • You can know that your farmer, like you, is making an income that he or she can survive on. It is a real pity that the jobs that *pay* are at desks–and they typically aren’t producing anything that is necessary for our basic survival. The people who are growing the foods that sustain us are being paid miniscule wages, while people who invent software, video games, health insurance, and pharmaceuticals are making incomes that are crazy-beyond-your-imagination. I’m not saying that we should all be socialists or communists and make the same income. Nope! I’m just saying, pay people what their job is worth (in terms of human survival). What is your food worth to you?? Do you care if your farmer survives? Do you want to hear that your farmer has to live on food stamps because you don’t pay him enough to support his family? Just a thought!

The moral of my story is, buy pastured chickens, or raise your own! They are healthier for you, the farmer, the environment and the economy! Eat meat from farms, not factories! 🙂

How often do you consume chicken? Where do you buy it?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa C February 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm

What a great post. I love that you share all that math with us. It’s terrible that we become so used to paying subsidized prices that we don’t even know the real cost of things. I thought my raw milk was expensive…then I found out that grocery stores take a loss on milk just to get people into their stores. It really devalues food and those who produce it.

We eat one chicken a week right now, for just my husband, little boy and me, and I’ve been feeling like it’s too much chicken, especially compared to how much beef, pork and fish we eat. It’s hard because I love to eat a lot when I roast it, then at least one breast gets saved for soup that will be another 2 or so meals for us. So that’s a lot of days with chicken. But I like having the broth. We’ll figure it out I guess.

I have a question about backyard chickens. I get my eggs from my parents. They get pastured part of the day during the summer, but winter time they are more “free range” in a pen where they quickly eat up the grass till it’s just dirt (my parents have to be out with them when they pasture or wild animals come and eat them). They get feed and also vegetables from a market that are no longer fresh enough to sell (but not moldy or anything). Does this sound okay?

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Brenda February 1, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Lisa,
Thanks for your comment! I think that the eggs sound fine. Eggs from birds on green pasture are *best* but if green pasture isn’t available, at least free-ranging birds who eat organically and can search for bugs will do.

If they need to protect the chickens from predators, there are a couple of guard animals that work well, also. Geese can protect chickens from airborne predators. For land-bound animals, they can get a Great Pyreneees puppy and let it grow up with the chickens. It should not be a pet (nobody pets it or babies it), but it grows up learning to protect those birds. I hope this help!

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Lisa C February 7, 2012 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the info!

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Sujata February 3, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Great Post Brenda! My husband and I are thinking of getting some egg laying chickens and I have a question about use of commerical feed for pastured chickens. Is it really necessary to supplement feed for chickens that are pastured? What about your chickens – are there strictly pastured or do you supplement table scraps and/or feed seasonally? As you can imagine, most of the “conventional” books that I’m reading talk about commercial feedwhich does not excite me!

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Rachel July 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm

So I’m guessing you have not had a run in with a weasel? In our first year of trying to produce pastured broiler chickens using a chicken tractor method, we’ve lost 65% of the birds to predation. We gave up on the tractors (tried three styles, each one had complete coverage with welded wire and chicken wire, my husband even put 1 foot high strips of zinc all the way around to try to prevent the grabbing through the wire) and let the remaining birds loose. The weasel can slip through a 1″ crack, he also will grab a bird that is sleeping next to the wire and chew their feet off. We’ve spent about a It got too depressing to come out every morning to dead and mutilated broilers. The egg chickens and geese are so far fine. Any advice on containing the birds, yet keeping predators out and away? We haven’t been able to find a LGD, and I’m not willing to have dogs that chase stock (and they all do). Do you have an LGD? Does it really work like people say?

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Linda Spiker September 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

The post on my blog that I linked to you in is finally up! I have two more in the works. Thanks for a great article on pastured chicken. I hope the posts send traffic your way:)

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Tina Brewer Struemph September 18, 2013 at 7:43 am

This is a great article! I married into cow farming (my husbands dad). My father in law is a full time farmer and my husband is part time. I’m a city gal but after 17 years of marriage I got about 26 layers, 2 ducks and a turkey last March. I LOVE THEM!!!! I provide eggs for the people in my family and now want to do more! I have the land to do it now I just have to do it… I have the pastures so why not??!!

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