Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Raise Chickens on Pasture

Like most others who raise chickens on pasture, when we first started farming in 2000, we followed Joel Salatin’s method of raising chickens on pasture. The Salatin method of using 10 foot by 12 foot movable pens sounded great, and the description of the chickens getting a fresh salad bar of grass each day and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine were great selling points. But it was not long into that first year that we realized that putting 75 chickens into a 10 foot by 12 foot pen with no floor was not as great or humane as we had been led to believe that it was.

The problems with the Salatin “pull pen” method
Instead of our chickens being in a large commercial confinement chicken house, they were in a small confinement chicken pen. They had much less space to move around than in a big commercial chicken house. It was confinement chicken raising on pasture. Confinement was the very thing we wanted to avoid. The birds only had about an hour after the pen was moved when they could eat fresh green grass. Within an hour, most of the grass became contaminated with chicken manure from the chickens stepping in their wet droppings and walking around on the grass. For the rest of the day the chickens had to lay in their own filth. By the time the pen was moved the next morning there was a mat of manure covering the ground. Not a very humane situation.

Because the chickens were in such tight confinement, they got very little exercise. Therefore, when the pens were moved they did not like to walk very much and it was easy to trap a chicken’s leg under the back of the pen and cripple it. It would then have to be put down because it could not walk properly. That was especially likely to occur when the pens had to be turned around at the end of the pasture.

This was our “pull pen” patterned after the Salatin method our first year of raising broilers. The rope in the front was used to pull the pen forward one pen length to a new clean section of grass – hence the name “pull pen”.

On an ideal warm sunny day, like the one in the picture above, the pull pen looked great sitting in the green pasture. But in the spring and fall when we had cold nights in the 40’s or 50’s and it rained, it was not a very humane situation. The poor chickens had to be on the cold wet ground 24/7. There was no place for them to get off the damp ground. We tried putting down some hay in the pens, but it took a lot of hay and the hay quickly got wet also. We have heard of chickens dying during a rain storm because their pen was in a low spot or a place in the pasture where the water ran through the pen.

On the flip side, when it was hot, the pen turned into an “easy bake oven”. We lost chickens because of heat stress. The pens were too far out in the pasture to run electric for fans.

The pull pens also required a lot more labor than what we had thought they would. So we looked for a better method.

Day Range Method
The next year we tried the Day Range method of raising broiler chickens. The shelter was stationary and had a slatted wood floor to keep the chickens up off the ground. The feed and water were outside on the pasture. We set up an electric fence on one side of the shelter and the chickens had full access to the grass in that paddock. That solved a lot of the problems with the Salatin pull pen method. The grass stayed much cleaner and there was much more fresh clean grass for the chickens to eat. The chickens got a lot more exercise and because of the exercise, it took a week longer for them to get to market weight. They had a floor that kept them up off of the damp cold ground and the higher roof of the shelter allowed the heat to rise away from the birds better on hot days. A number of our customers commented that the chicken meat had a better flavor and texture.

Our Day Range shelter in our early years of raising chickens on pasture.

The Day Range method had its problems too. The raised slatted floor created a breeding ground for flies and we produced an abundance of flies. Sigh!! Chickens wake up just before dawn, which is about 5:00 am in the summer. By the time we opened up their shelter at 7:00 or 8:00 am they were starved and would dash out to the feeders, fill up and then go back into the shelter to rest. They did not eat as much of the pasture as we wanted them to. The mixture of feed and manure around the feeders killed the grass and made bare spots that would last for several months. The bare spots became a problem after a number of batches of chickens had been run through the shelter. I did not feel like I was being a good steward of the soil and the pasture because the grass was being destroyed rather than being built up.

We continued to modify things in the Day Range method over the next number of years until we developed the method that we use now which we call the Jehovah-Jireh Method.

The Jehovah-Jireh Method – Let Them Run
“Jehovah-Jireh” means “The Lord will provide”. Over and over, we ask God to teach us how to farm and to give us answers to our problems. The method that we now use is one of those answers. We feel it is a much better and more humane method of raising chickens on pasture than anything else that we have seen or tried.

The shelters are large, airy, and stationary. The sides are open on all four sides. The roof has an 11 foot high peak that allows the heat in the summer to rise and escape away from the chickens. We also installed fogger nozzles on the shelters to provide a cooling mist on those really hot days. In the early spring and late fall, if it is cold and windy, we close up one end and a side of the shelter to provide a windbreak.

The floor is a bedding pack of wood chips. When the wood chips become contaminated with manure, we rototill the manure into the bedding pack and bring up drier bedding. Periodically we also add more wood chips to keep the bedding dry. It solved our fly problem. The manure and wood chips in the lower layers of the bedding pack decompose into compost which we apply to our gardens.

The feed and water are kept inside the shelters. Now, when the chickens wake up at 5:00am, they can have their breakfast right away. Then when the doors on the shelter are opened a little later in the morning, they are more ready to roam around and eat grass and look for bugs. The grass in the broiler pasture has been steadily improving in quality and is now the best pasture on the farm. We can see that difference in quality when we put the cows in that pasture. They always give more milk. The chickens now have access to a lot of fresh clean grass, even at the end of the summer.

The broiler chicken shelters in our current setup.

The broiler chickens on fresh, clean pasture.

We continue our quest to have the best, most humane, environmentally sensitive method of raising chickens that we can. At the same time, we also are continuing our quest to produce the most nutritious meats and eggs that we can for your health and ours.

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