Keystones, Gateways, and Flock Effect: Assessing Pastured Poultry from a Holistic View

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by David Schafer

What cattleman in his right mind would want to raise chickens? Why complicate life with time-consuming, small scale, side enterprises? Here are three reasons, laid out within the Savory holistic framework, that compel every land steward, big and small, high rainfall and desert, to consider raising pastured poultry.

Keystone Species – the ecological precedent

Just as every great grassland has its keystone ruminant – Bison, Wildebeest, Caribou, Yak, it also has its keystone ground bird, North America’s being the Prairie Chicken. The Prairie Chicken, actually a grouse, numbered in the millions prior to the great Caucasian invasion. Like the Bison, they succumbed to aggressive hunting and relentless habitat loss. Prairie biologists consider the Prairie Chicken a keystone species for their integral part in maintaining a healthy prairie ecosystem.

It is intuitive to holistic grazing practitioners who already understand the replication of the bison/predator effect to grasp that pastured poultry mimic the ground bird/predator effect. Stacking a pastured poultry enterprise on top of planned grazing magnifies the land-healing results with an additional keystone species’ influence. Diversity is natural; diversity is healthy; diversity builds community, including a thriving soil community.

Gateway to Marketing

In classic Holistic instruction the land manager is taught to assess his Solar Production Chain, that is how efficient is 1. Solar Conversion (the efficiency of turning sunlight into nutritious plants), 2. Product Conversion (how efficiently plant material is converted to animal), and 3. Marketing (the maximizing of dollars from animals harvesting the plants). Each of these will be the weak link in the chain at some point.

When the weak link in the Production Chain inevitably becomes marketing, pastured poultry can open doors. Years of customer requests and Joel Salatin’s energetic promise, “If you want to sell beef, start with chicken!” finally persuaded me. I jumped in with a few other cattlemen neighbors and never looked back. After adding chicken, my total meat sales doubled every year for four years. Pastured poultry, being more affordable and with a big “I get the difference!” factor to the consumer, can be your new customer’s entry point, your gateway to selling the rotated pasture concept and all the red meats.

Daily shifted Prairie Schooners like these from the Arkansas Grassfed Growers Coop shelter 500 broilers for five weeks. Photo courtesy AGGC

Flock Effect

There is a marvelous ‘herd effect’ from pastured poultry, the ‘flock effect.’ What happens within the top quarter inch of soil under a properly managed pastured poultry operation is magical. The ‘scratch and peck,’ an ultra lightweight version of the ‘hoof and tooth,’ un-caps the soil and prepares a perfect seed bed for the smoother, higher succession grass seeds. Because of the chickens’ supplemental feed and their selection of high protein bugs and plant parts, the beautifully prepared seedbed is also ideally fertilized. The equivalent of 40 lbs of Nitrogen/A green up the pasture in the wake of a Prairie Schooner on pasture.

And if flies are a problem for your livestock, what better natural fly control than a flock of pasture-based laying hens following your herd? Spaced three days behind the cattle to allow fly eggs to mature into tasty little larvae, it is the perfect natural insecticide program. Forget the eggs, says Joel Salatin, the decreased fly population irritating the cattle would make it worthwhile with roosters!

Laying hen or fly larvae exterminator? Photo by Aimee Sands, Propane Kitchen

Additional benefits to broilers on pasture include an amazing seven-week ROI, unparalleled child-friendliness, and the best eating/nutrition chicken on your table. (You probably can’t get chicken like that nearby and you are already a Grassfed meat connoisseur – and snob!)

If the scale and opportunity seem small, consider that there are American pastured poultry producers raising over 100,000 birds per year, netting several dollars per bird. Consider Americans consume over 9 billion chickens per year, 40 million per day. Consider, too, the possible future of the conventional American poultry industry. From the unhappy, unhealthy contract grower supply chain, to the fecal-contaminated, disease-incubating mega houses they are forced to use, through the blazing fast, industrial processing factory that spits out a chlorinated, injected, hydrated product lacking taste, texture, nutritional value, and public health safety, it is morbidly ill. The factory model poultry industry lives in constant negativity and fear. Fear of grower rebellion, housing disease, waterway pollution, consumer poisoning, government recall, and litigation. In nature, that much stress produces rapid and major change.

A recent breakthrough in inexpensive modular processing facilities (Plant in a Box), fills the void of locally inspected poultry processing, giving producers access to all markets. And just as pastured poultry can be a marketing gateway for red meats, these processing facilities, inexpensive and adaptable to red meats, can be a gateway to affordable, accessible local red meat processing.

This Plant in a Box, a processing room within a shipping container, is capable of processing 500-1000 birds per day under inspection.

Whether to add diversity and speed land restoration, obtain access to greater markets, or as an easy entrée into inspected processing, it behooves any land steward to consider the possible place of pastured poultry in his management toolbox.

David Schafer is the founder of Featherman Equipment which supports pastured poultry production.

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