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Profits Possible From Pastured Poultry, Study Shows

Wisconsin’s pasturelands – long the larder of black-and-white dairy cows – can also support grazing poultry. Properly managed and marketed, pastured poultry can turn a profit for farm owners, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study has shown.

The benefits of a pastured poultry operation include low capital investment and the potential to start small and expand over time, according to Steve Stevenson, a researcher with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the UW-Madison. One person can run a small operation, and kids can help. In addition to building soil fertility and providing sustainably produced meat, the poultry operation can attract customers for other farm products.

CIAS researchers studied pastured poultry operations on five farms (four in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota). The farmers had three to 10 years of pastured poultry experience, and most produced fewer than 1,000 birds per year.

Farmers charged an average of $1.90 per pound for their chickens, selling them from the farm, at farmers markets, and to restaurants. The average net return per bird for all farms was $2.43, ranging from $7.05 to a $2.82 loss. Varying levels of managerial experience, wide differences in feed costs, and one case of chick loss in a brooder fire accounted for much of this variation, Stevenson says. The goal of the operation – profits from the chickens, or attracting customers or building soil fertility – also influenced the returns, Stevenson says.

On these farms, a typical pastured poultry pen housed 75 to 100 meat chickens, placed in the pen at 3 to 4 weeks of age and butchered at 8 to 14 weeks. The floorless pens, roofed with plywood and measuring 10 feet by 12 feet by 2 feet, were slid to fresh pasture daily. The birds also received water and a grain ration.

Using data from the farms they studied, the researchers developed models for a 1,000-bird supplementary enterprise and a 5,000 bird primary enterprise.

The 1,000 bird operation showed an annual net return to labor and management of just over $5,000 after five years of operation and building management skills. The four-month production period required 20 to 22 hours of labor per week, and the researchers estimated that an efficient farmer could earn $10 to $15 per hour.

The 5,000-bird model showed annual net returns to labor and management of more than $18,000 in its tenth year. The six-month production period required 35 to 42 hours of labor per week, and the researchers estimated that an efficient farmer could earn $12 to $18 per hour.

There”s a learning curve for the pastured poultry operators. One experienced farmer spent just 10 minutes per chicken from chick to processed bird; a less experienced operator worked for more than an hour per chicken. Feeding and watering birds and moving pens accounted for most of the work. Most farmers reported using some family help or hired labor.

Processing poses the biggest obstacle to pastured poultry, farmers in the study reported. They were concerned about both the availability of licensed processors and the quality of processing.

In Wisconsin, farmers are allowed to slaughter and sell up to 1,000 chickens per year on the farm. To sell more than 1,000 birds per year, or to sell to restaurants, producers must have the birds butchered at a Type 29 state-inspected plant; there are only two such plants in Wisconsin. Farmers in this study paid $2.75 per bird for processing at Type 29 plants, and costs are expected to increase. Stevenson notes that Illinois recently raised its on-farm processing limit to 5,000 birds; a similar increase in Wisconsin would improve the processing economics for farmers.

The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems is also conducting a study of U.S. pastured poultry farmers who produce from 5,000 to 25,000 birds per year. While some of the characteristics of these larger farming enterprises are similar to the smaller operations, Stevenson strong advises beginners in pastured poultry to start small and to be aware that larger operations pose significantly different production, processing, and marketing challenges.

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences researchers Gerry Campbell (Agricultural and Applied Economics), Steve Ingham and Joyce Reyes (Food Science), and Kathryn Pereira and Rick Klemme (CIAS) participated in this study. The project was funded by a grant from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

For more information on the study, please contact Steve Stevenson, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, 1450 Linden Drive, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, (608) 262-5202.