Poultry Rotational Grazing

What are the challenges and benefits?


Matt Prine

7/18/20237 min read

Rotational Grazing in Poultry

What are the benefits? What are the challenges?

For the past few years, we have been employing a technique called rotational grazing for our chickens and turkeys. We have found numerous benefits in our pastured poultry operation, which I unpack in this post. However, rotational grazing also comes with its challenges - some of them significant. In this article, we will explore the challenges and benefits of rotational grazing specifically for pastured poultry. So that we set the stage, I want to first define what I mean when I say "rotational grazing."

Rotational Grazing defined:

Webster's Dictionary defines it this way: "the shifting of livestock to different units of a pasture or range in regular sequence to permit the recovery and growth of the pasture plants after grazing." To accomplish this at Freedom Poultry, we divide our pastureland into smaller sections or paddocks rather than giving the birds free reign of the entire pasture. Then we systematically move birds from paddock to paddock, on a consistent schedule.

Benefits of Rotational Grazing for Pastured Poultry:

Improved Forage Utilization:

Rotational grazing has helped us to optimize the impact of our pastures by allowing poultry to graze fresh ground while giving previously grazed areas time to rest and regenerate. It is wild to see how quickly a flock of chickens or turkeys can decimate a plot of ground. When we rotate the poultry regularly, we ensure that the birds have access to high-quality plant matter which maximizes their nutrient intake and reducing feed costs - which is HuGE right now with the price of feed being almost $1/lb. One other thing that we have noticed is that this also helps prevent selective grazing. Poultry are much like humans - they tend to gravitate towards a few things that they really like. If allowed to, they will completely consume one plant species and leave another almost untouched. This is problematic, because it will lead to imbalanced nutrition and reduced pasture diversity.

Enhanced Animal Welfare:

Obviously, improving the forage utilization is good for overall animal health, but rotational grazing also provides chickens with the opportunity to live out more natural and instinctual behavior. Freely roaming, the birds will forage for insects and plants, and exhibit natural behaviors such as scratching and dust bathing improves the well-being and mental stimulation of the poultry. Most people don't think about the emotional well-being of poultry - but this is a concern that needs to be addresses. When poultry are stressed, there can be a lot of adverse outcomes like feather plucking, lowered production (eggs and meat), and increased disease. Additionally, rotational grazing reduces stocking densities, allowing chickens to have more space and minimizing competition for resources. This is one of the things that we pride ourselves on the most at Freedom Poultry - our birds have plenty of space!

Parasite and Disease Control:

I mentioned this briefly on the last point, but rotational grazing can aid in parasite and disease control. By moving poultry to fresh pasture, we disrupt the lifecycle of parasites, effectively "short circuiting" their ability to decimate our flocks. This also reduces the buildup of infectious agents in the environment - which can come from manure accumulation. The exposure to sunlight, fresh air, and new forage also helps reduce the risk of disease transmission and promotes healthier birds. What this means is that we do not need to rely on chemical treatments and medications to keep our birds healthy, which contributes to a more sustainable poultry operation.

Soil Health and Nutrient Cycling:

One of the struggles with poultry farming can be manure buildup. Rotational grazing virtually eliminates this issue - because the birds are not in one place long enough to build up much manure. This benefits soil health and nutrient cycling. Poultry manure serves as a valuable source of organic matter and nutrients for the pasture - but it is also a very "hot" fertilizer. People who use chicken manure for fertilizer must first compost it to keep it from chemically burning your plants. When we rotate the poultry, we ensure that manure is spread evenly across the land. This means that the manure never builds to dangerous levels for your plants, thus promoting better nutrient cycling - getting the nutrients back into the plants. Additionally, this helps by reducing the risk of nutrient runoff. When it rains, if the manure is spread evenly throughout the pasture, it is absorbed evenly into the ground - and not simply washed away. This practice enhances soil fertility, improves water infiltration, and contributes to the overall health and resilience of the pasture ecosystem. It is AMAZING to see how good the grass will look several weeks after the birds have been rotated.

Environmental Sustainability:

Speaking of good looking grass... Rotational grazing does more than just make your pasture look nice; it supports environmental sustainability in several ways. First, it reduces soil erosion by maintaining ground cover - remember, as you rotate birds, they do not strip the ground of vegetation. Second, it promotes biodiversity by allowing forage plants to thrive and supporting a variety of insect species. Third, rotational grazing helps sequester carbon in the soil, which the plants can use to grow more vigorously.

While there are some GREAT benefits to rotational grazing, there are also some challenges...

Challenges of Rotational Grazing for Pastured Poultry:

Cost of Fencing:

I am not going to mislead you here... this is one of the biggest (and most expensive) challenges to rotational grazing. It will be impossible to rotationally graze your birds without proper infrastructure and fencing. There are a couple of things to think about when fencing off each of these paddocks. The fences must be able to contain your birds AND deter predators. The best way we have found to accomplish this is through electric fencing - which can be costly and sometimes a bit finicky. We have used two different electric fence systems: PremierOne Poultry Net systems and Timeless Fence System. I will do another post eventually about the benefits of PremierOne vs. Timeless Fence System, but for now, I will say that PremierOne is more portable (although a royal pain to move) and the Timeless Fence is more permanent. Not only do you need the fence itself, you will need the energizer. Whichever way you decide to go, the initial investment will be significant.

Planning and Design:

Effective rotational grazing demands careful planning and design. You have to assess your pasture to be able to find the best layout for each of the paddocks - keeping in mind ease of moving animal from one paddock to the next. You must also consider stocking densities. You don't want to create paddocks that are too small for the number of birds that you plan to graze. To do this, you need to create a grazing plan that you stick to faithfully, allowing sufficient rest and regrowth to maintain pasture health. This can be an arduous process and is a bit more of an art than a science - especially if your climate is a bit unpredictable like ours. We will go months without rain, so rotation may need to happen more often to reduce grazing stress on an already stressed pasture. I will be honest - we are still trying to zero in on the best timing of when to rotate. As it stands now, we move birds approximately once per week.

Water Availability:

This is one of the more challenging things you face when rotationally grazing your birds... Water is CRUCIAL to keep your birds alive! You would be amazed at how quickly chickens and turkeys can perish without water. There are a couple of ways that you can handle this... You can install permanent watering systems/troughs or you can use portable ones. I will tell you that portable water systems are tough - because moving water is tough. It is heavy and unless you have heavy equipment, you are going to be hauling buckets by hand, and this is labor intensive. I know because I have done it. If you install permanent water systems, it makes watering easier, however you are somewhat limited by where you place the troughs. This isn't a problem if you don't change your paddock arrangements, but if you do want to change them, you might be stuck with a trough where you don't want it. Whatever you decide to do, inspect it EVERY DAY! I have been lulled into complacency with automatic watering systems that eventually failed. Just because it is automatic doesn't mean it wont break.

Moving Birds:

You may have heard the old expression "herding cats." Well, I think that herding birds come with a similar level of difficulty for a couple of reasons. You have to treat them with care, because they are a bit fragile AND they don't typically want to go where you want them to go. This means that as you move them, you need to be careful not to injure them or stress them out too badly. This is why paddock arrangement is so important. If you can, you want to create "gates" that you can simply open and allow the birds to move into the next paddock with gentle prodding. If paddocks are not adjacent, then you end up transporting them to their new location using cages - and this is both labor intensive AND hard on the birds. While this is a challenge and time consuming, this also affords you the opportunity to inspect your flock a bit more closely. As you move them, look at each bird and make sure they look like they are getting enough to eat, that they aren't injured, and that they do not have any evidence of parasitic infection - like a dirty vent from watery stool.

Forage Management:

I mentioned forage utilization in the benefits, but managing that forage is also a challenge. We must balance the forage growth and poultry consumption while rotationally grazing. I mentioned this earlier in the article, but you must not allow the birds to deplete a single species of plant but you must also keep them there long enough to graze down the plants and gain the most nutritional bang for your buck. Underutilized forage results in wasted resources and time, while overgrazing can lead to reduced plant regrowth and long-term pasture degradation. I already mentioned this, but monitoring forage availability, implementing appropriate rest periods, and adjusting stocking densities are essential to maintain a healthy forage ecosystem. This is something that you will have to experiment with and consider for your specific application.

So - should you rotationally graze your poultry???

Rotational grazing offers significant benefits for pastured poultry farming, including improved forage utilization, enhanced animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. While there are certainly plenty of challenges (infrastructure, planning, management, etc), I believe that the benefits of rotational grazing outweigh the challenges. If you have the space and are able to implement adequate fencing, design effective grazing plans, and ensure reliable access to clean/fresh water, then you should be able to rotationally graze your birds.

From what I can see from our experience is that rotational grazing not only enhances the productivity and profitability of our farm but it also supports our regenerative farming method AND provides chickens and turkeys the opportunity to live the best possible life they can.