Sunday, October 31, 2010

How much space does it take to produce pastured eggs?

Multi-species rotational grazing on my farm.

In the discussion about TLC Ranch eggs / closing its doors, I made a comment about the amount of space required to pasture hens.  the context was "why do they need 48 acres of land (and the related expenses of that land) for just 2,000 hens? 

Here's my entire comment:

"Rebecca states in her interview that she had 2,000 laying hens at the end.
Giving each hen a 1/2 square foot of grass per day that's 1,000 square feet a day. An acre is 43600 square feet, which means that each acre gives you 43 days of rotation for all 2,000 hens. So I'll revise my estimate of land needs for the hens to 3 acres giving a 4 month rest after grazing"
Kelsey, a reader on my blog, reads that and makes this comment [edited for length, but you can read the whole thing in the comments section of that other post]: 
"... know that 1/2 square foot per chicken is unacceptable. For comparison - taking into account a healthy adult male's height and weight - imagine living your entire life in a 25 square foot room with 10 or 15 other people. Imagine eating, sleeping, breathing, defecating, establishing social orders and relationships (yes, chickens do that), with less than 3 square feet of space in which to position yourself. Imagine the toll it would take on your mental and physical health."
What I said, and what I meant, was to provide each chicken with 1/2 square foot of NEW GRASS per day, but that is not the entire size of the chicken pen.  Land is one of your biggest expenses, and in general, anything you can do to use your land more efficiently (to reduce your land expense if nothing else) is good, in my opinion.   So you can allow the chickens any amount of trailing space you want,  depending on how much vegetation you have and what your soil conditions are.
 The basic concept is Managed Intensive Grazing.  The goal is to completely consume the forage on the exposed part.  Tasty vegetation is eaten.  Not so tasty vegetation is shredded and trampled -- weed control.  manure is deposited, and a long regrowth period is allowed to restore the vegetation for the next cycle. 

The amount of exposure, the amount of time for regrowth, the number of animals (stocking level) and the amount of manure that can be tolerated will all vary by location.

So in this case you're exposing fresh, new pasture every day, and rotating out consumed, fertilized, weeded pasture.  By maintaining the pen you can efficiently use all of your land and precisely control how often it is grazed -- for parasite control, for instance.  You can use more land if you'd like, or less.  In this particular case I was optimizing for the least amount of land because that was one of the primary complaints related to the closure of this farm -- land cost.

So I'll stand by my basic math:  3 acres for 2,000 hens would do it if you're on a good pasture.  Heck, lets double that -- 6 acres!  

I wish I could say that I came up with this; I didn't.  It's done with chicken tractors, popularized by Joel Salatin, and most recently I found a video of a farm operation in Canada that is both profitable and pasture based, which you'll find here.   Special thanks to Kevin Kossowan for his video series "From Local farms".


Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I would have to say from my personal experience with laying hens (800 hens)as a small commercial enterprise in Western Oregon that 10 acres was about right to practice MiG (Management-intensive Grazing)to keep the hens producing at a acceptable rate and not impact the land too much with manure etc. We moved the birds every 3rd day, any longer than that the impact was too high on the land and the forage was stale. We used 4 162' poultry nets for the enclosure, like Salatin. You also have to take into consideration the replacements and any other poultry you have on your farm cannot use this acreage either in the same season. Crowding and mixing young stock in too small of spaces or livestock in the wrong order is the quickest way to expensive problems and it works for a little while providing a false sense of security. It does not work in the long run.

Bruce King said...

at 80 hens an acre even the entire acreage wouldn't have handled the 5,000 birds they had last year, and they had pigs, lambs and beef on that same acreage; and Rebecca also described a situation where half the land flooded half the year and the other half dried up the other half of the year (including the well serving the parcel), so my impression was that they had 24 usuable acres at any given time. Maybe more in the shoulder seasons.

Rebecca T. said...

Bruce- I will try this again. What you are recommending is not feasible for many reasons. First off, you are assuming year-round access and year-round grass production. Don't know many climates or soils that will support that. Secondly, you are forgetting what chickens like to do to each other- these are laying hens, not Cornish Cross broilers that just like to sit and eat all day. Laying hens peck each other and the density you are recommending will cause severe pecking, which results in feather loss, bleeding, and decreased immunity. That will all lead to egg production decline, which is not acceptable for a commercial producer. What you are suggesting is the space that caged layers in this country get- around 67-86 square inches per hen. Do you know that "free-range" standards in the EU require 43 square feet per hen and the Soil Association (the biggest organic certifier in the UK) recommends on the order of 150-200 hens per acre in a rotationallly grazed system?
In our farming situation, with half of our land under water for 6 months a year, we have to have double the amount of pasture needed. Plus, when you rotate in pigs who like to turn up all the grass, you need even more acreage in order to have the hens on actual green, growing vegetation. So your assumptions might work on paper, but not in a real, biological environment in which you have many different factors at play.

Kelsey said...

Thanks for explaining, and for providing the links and video. Very interesting! However, after going through the math myself, I think I am missing something. What exactly does it mean to have 43 days of rotation? Do you divide the 3 (or 6) acres into 43 sections and on day 1, keep the all of the chickens on section 1, day 2, section 2, and so on, and so forth, for 43 days, and then on the 44th day, go back to section 1? Or am I getting it completely wrong?

I keep coming up with one chicken having 1/2 square foot in which to exist on a daily basis, which doesn't seem to line up with what I see in pictures of your farm.

Another question - I am trying to find a turkey for Thanksgiving - do you have any left for ordering?

Rebecca T. said...

Bruce- both of your examples are for meat birds, not layers. Can you find me an example of a working model with healthy animals and healthy pastures, no nutrient overloading, excellent egg production, and only providing 1/2 square feet per hen? Most good farmers don't make recommendations about production practices unless they have both experimented with it for years and done thorough research on the subject. Still waiting for you to do both of those things.

Bruce King said...

Rebecca, the sunworks video, at 12:03 in the video, shows their laying hen houses, which are moved in the same sort of rotation as their meat chickens and turkeys.

The key element of their operation that I liked was that they used completely enclosed pens -- no issues about the birds hopping the fence and getting into other areas, giving very precise grazing control.

While criticism is fine, presumably you're basin that on your own experience. I'd like you to take a few minutes and describe your egg operation? How many acres for those 5,000 hens? what sort of fencing did you use? Were they all on a single parcel, and did any other animals share their pasture?

With respect to reccomendations; in this case i'm not reccomending. I'm pointing out several examples of farms that produce substantially the same organically-fed and humanely-treated products you do that are active and profitable. i'm presuming that you followed every one of the standards you mentioned to the letter -- and it killed you.

Bruce King said...

Kelsey; the birds are on a patch of ground for a day, or two, or three, and then moved. That patch of ground won't see the birds again for at least a month-- in my example, for 43 days.

Make the pen as large as you want it. Lets say that you give each bird 10 square feet. Or a hundred. When you move the wall, you expose another 1/2 square foot for each chicken. They all rush over there and start working on the grass. The chickens will spend most of their time on the new ground.

while they're doing that, you're moving the back wall of the enclosure up, and that land then has a month or two to regrow and regenerate its vegetation. In a month or two, you'll be back over that same spot.

The point is to carefully and efficiently use your areage to minimize the cost of that acreage you have to support.