Waccamaw Pork & Poultry

Poultry, Pork & Produce

Pastured Poultry

For the past sixty years, producers in the United States have used confinement housing for poultry for the production of meat and eggs. While this has lead to extremely low prices, the impact on nutrition & health, animal welfare, and the environment has been massive. When these factors are included, the true cost of confinement housing is just to high to bear.

Our poultry is raised on our pastures. This increases our pasture fertility, boosts meat and egg nutrition with healthy omega3 fatty acids, and provides a more humane environment. The pictures below speak for themselves.

One of the pioneers of the pastured poultry industry is Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface farm in Virginia and the author of Pastured Poultry Profits as well as other other books on sustainable agriculture. I took my family to the Polyface "Field Day" during the summer of 2011 where we were able to see first-hand how he manages his pastured poultry.

One thing that stood out to me is that the laying hens and the broilers are in completely different types of housing and management. The layers are in a large structure they call the "feathernet". It houses around 1000 layers and is moved around the pasture on skids. Temporary electric net fencing surrounds the structure creating a 1/4 acre paddock. Salatin uses the feathernet to sanitize his pastures. He first grazes the grass down with his cattle then follows 3-4 days later with the laying hens which he moves twice a week. This is in tune with pest and parasite life cycles so that the chickens are essentially replacing chemical pesticides and worm medications. Salatin claims this is so beneficial that he would continue this operation even if the birds laid no eggs. During the winter, the birds are housed in permanent hoop houses on deep bedding which are in turn used as greenhouses during the growing season.

The broilers are in much smaller pens (10' x 12') that resemble cages. These are made light enough so that they can be moved by hand since they are shifted around the pastures once or sometimes twice a day. At any given time, dozens of these pens can be seen mowing the pastures at Polyface Farms. Because the broilers are processed around eight weeks of age, they only operate six months out of the year. There are no broilers on Polyface Farms during the winter.


While these models work for Polyface Farms, I wanted something different. Polyface Farms uses different systems for layers and broilers because they use different types of chickens. The laying hens rotate year-to-year between Rhode Island reds, australorps, and barred rocks. While described as dual purpose breeds, Polyface raises these birds just for egg production so they only purchase pullet chicks. What happens to the 50% of chicks that are hatched as males? Hatcheries dispose of unwanted males by tossing them into a high-speed grinder by the thousands. For meat birds Polyface uses cornish cross broilers, the same used in confinement operations. I tried raising a batch of these birds in a Salatin style pen. They gained a ton of weight fast, but it wasn't by eating forage. In fact, they barely ate any grass at all. I even saw one chicken pass up eating a cricket. They just sit around, barely moving, just waiting for you to come fill up the feeder again. Since these are hybrids, you can't save some as breeders and hatch your own broilers. Polyface is dependent on commercial hatcheries to supply all of the layer pullets and broiler chicks.

I wanted to raise a true dual purpose chicken that would produce eggs, meat and breeding stock from the same pen. I took the feathernet concept, married it with a hoop-style greenhouse, and surrounded this with a electric net poultry fence. This new structure was small enough to be easily moved around my pastures during the growing season and functions as a stationary greenhouse during the winter. Vents on each end provide ample air flow and I can attach shad cloth over the top during the summer months. In winter I can cover the vents with plastic and cover the ground with wood chips. This deep bedding provides warmth and when I move the shelter in the spring it leaves behind a great spot to plant my spring garden. The rear of the shelter is attached via a hinge, that way I can unlock it when I move it and leave the bedding behind. Below are some pictures just after we built it.

During the first season of use we raised 100 white rock cockerels as broilers/roasters and 100 barred rock pullets for laying hens. Both breeds worked well in these roles. I sold the meat birds live to local Hispanics, who usually will not buy white birds due to experiences with confinement poultry houses. I raised these within sight of the road and I had people knocking on my door and willing to pay a premium for chicken raised in this manner. The layers produced a basket of eggs a day, almost more than we could market and consume at first. The entire operation was guarded by one very feisty goose.

Once the layers had some age on them and were nearing the end of useful production I brought in a rooster, culled down to the very best hens, and hatched out my own replacements. The rooster was a Jersey Giant with two copies of the blue gene, known as a splash. This ensured that all of his offspring would be blue. The barred hens produced barred cockerels and solid colored pullets. These new chickens were "blue sex-links". These were a great success. The males grew large but did it slowly, allowing them to fully utilize as much forage as possible. The hens were calm, laid big brown eggs, and had better longevity than their mothers. I sold quite a few of these chicks and still receive inquires for them occasionally.

In order to fully utilize the traits of these new birds, I developed a unique production plan. I could hatch weekly batches of blue sex-links then brood the chicks for two to three weeks, depending on the weather, until they were ready to go outside. I would caponize the cockerels, a simple surgical procedure to castrate the males. I would then sell the birds as a type of "meat & eggs" combo. They could be put outdoors the day they are purchased, negating the need for a brooder. The hens would lay big brown eggs for several years. The capons could be processed whenever you wanted since they would never get tough like roosters. There would be no crowing, no getting flogged by roosters, no stress or damage to hens from breeding, and no surprise chicken embryo in your omelet. Since the males and females are different colors, you can be sure you don't accidentally harvest one of the hens. Of course, when their laying days are over these hens make great chicken 'n pastry. (or chicken and dumplings if you're a yankee)

As great as the blue sex-links turned out to be, they didn't meet my main goal. I can't breed blue sex-links to make more blue sex-links, I would have to buy barred rock pullets and keep a breeding group of blue Jersey giants. What I really need is a breed of chicken that is dual purpose, autosexing, and could be used to make blue-sex links when needed. Well, that doesn't exist. There is an autosexing breed that would almost work, but they are based on leghorns and are to small to be dual purpose. So I am currently in the process of creating my own breed with those same color genetics, but based on orphington and java stock.