Pastured Poultry Great Starting Point for Beginner, Small Acreage Farmers
Eggs and entertainment - those are the reasons Greg Sazonov and his wife Robyn will tell you they initially got into raising pastured poultry for themselves and their two daughters back in 2003. Since those early days, their backyard hobby has grown into a small, but thriving 20-acre operation known as The Happy Rooster Farm nestled just outside the town of Floyd in the heart of Virginia's scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.
"We started with laying hens. Later on meat birds and other livestock were added," says Sazonov noting that pastured poultry was a great starting point for him and his family as beginning small-acreage farmers seeking to become more self-sufficient.
While Sazonov also raises cattle, pigs, and sheep, and most recently, added turkeys into his pastured livestock mix, as the name "Happy Rooster" implies, poultry remains a front and center part of his family's farming operation. The Happy Rooster flock complement is comprised of heritage breed birds, specifically Silver-Gray Dorking and Red Dorking, both breeds listed as "threatened" byThe Livestock Conservancy.
All of Sazonov's chickens, including laying hens, meat birds, and breeding chickens, are raised on pasture.
"It is more natural than raising them confined," says Sazonov. "We want them to be able to spread their manure and eat insects."
All of Sazonov's chickens, from layers to meat birds, are managed similarly, but he keeps the groups separated from each other, and only introduces roosters to layer groups when it's time to breed.
"Chickens don't need fancy, dancy digs," explains Sazonov. "They need fresh water, good food, and shelter just like any other animal."
Sazonov's chickens feast on a diet of non-GMO feed and the occasional leftover organic produce from a nearby grocery or the family's backyard garden. Additionally, he says, the birds graze on forages and weeds growing in the pasture. They particularly enjoy clover. He manages the pastures for a diversity of species noting it's important for overall soil health.
In general, Sazonov believes raising his chickens on pasture keeps them healthy and happy. He and his wife, who also happens to be a veterinarian, do their part to contribute to the betterment of the industry as a whole by participating in the National Poultry Improvement Plan. NPIP is a program developed to help eliminate Pullorum Disease, a malady caused by Salmonella pullorum which can cause upwards of 80% mortality in young pullets.
Sticking to his "keep it simple" rule, he uses inexpensive homemade "hoop coops" constructed of metal cattle panels and chicken wire stretched across a wooden frame to create hoophouse-like structures as shelters for his birds. Heavy-duty weatherproof tarps are used to cover the coop and protect chickens from the elements. A tractor is used when it comes time to move a coop.
"You can build one of these houses for around $200," Sazonov instructs. "Try to do what you can with what you have. Go to construction sites to see if they have scrap lumber you can use and don't be afraid to learn things on your own."
Sazonov recommends checking out Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) as one resource for detailed and technical information on how to raise pastured poultry.
"When I wanted to know how much perch space or floor space a bird should have in a coop or about predator control and things like that, AWA had the experts that could help us," says Sazonov.
Sazonov went on to become an AWA-certified producer and markets his pastured eggs and poultry products under their well-known and respected labeling program. Learn more about AWA and the resources they offer producers at www.animalwelfareapproved.org.
Along with AWA, Sazonov suggests utilizing other online resources like YouTube and Google, as well as reaching out the old-fashioned way to local extension and government agriculture agents to learn more about getting started raising poultry on pasture.
When it comes to pasture management, Sazonov assures, "Start with a good fencing system and a solid coop that you can protect them with and you'll be off to a good start."
However, Sazonov clarifies it's also important to rotate chickens to new areas in the pasture to keep both the birds and pasture healthy. In the summer, he moves his chickens at least once a week, determining when the timing is right by how much grass has been eaten and the amount of manure created.
"Obviously we don't want to kill the grass," says Sazonov. "But you have to understand we are not doing daily moves like the people with chicken tractors (also known as eggmobiles). We just have the hoop coops and a piece of electric netting that surrounds them."
That electric netting, Sazonov quips is the "bomb-diggity" allowing him to put up fence quickly and move it easily when he needs to.
The hoop coops begin by moving first within the netting. When that area of pasture is grazed and trampled down enough, Sazonov moves the entire netting to a new area and starts all over again. Using electric netting, like Gallagher's electrifiable poultry netting paired with a good fence energizer, Sazonov can easily contain his chickens as well as defend them against ground predators like opossums, skunks, and coyotes.
"I like the Gallagher brand," says Sazonov. "They have great fencing options and everything they make is high quality."
From Sazonov's experience, it's safe to say that pastured poultry is an excellent first livestock choice for beginner farmers, especially those inexperienced and with small acreage, and it has the potential to grow into a profitable and rewarding venture when done well.
Sazonov concurs, "We aren't looking to be big, we just want to help our family and other families eat local, good food."
To learn more about The Happy Rooster Farm follow them on Facebook.
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.