The pasturing of poultry is becoming a popular management method for many small flock producers, and even some moderately sized commercial farms. When pasturing chickens, the birds are allowed to roam in large areas that have various grasses or other forage plants. This is similar to systems commonly used for cattle and sheep. In fact, many producers will have their poultry flocks follow a cattle herd; the grazing cattle will keep the grasses short enough so that the smaller chickens can more easily move around.
Many pastured poultry enthusiasts like the fact the birds are able to graze in the grass just like the cattle and sheep. However, it must be realized that poultry have a different digestive system and cannot digest the grass. Cattle and Sheep are ruminants, animals whose digestion system has a significant amount of fermentation to break down plant cellulose, the woody parts of plants. The rumen portion of their digestive tract contains countless numbers of bacteria, protozoa and fungi that produce the proper enzymes so that the animals can utilize the cellulose as a source of nutrition. Poultry don’t have this capability. So, while poultry managed in pasture systems appear to be eating grass, and they do eat some, they get almost no nutrition from the grass itself. These foraging chickens are looking for seeds and insects that are found in the pastures.
During the spring and early summer, insects are plentiful and provide an excellent feed source for chickens. And once the grasses, weeds and other forage plants in the pasture produce seeds the birds will readily consume them to obtain their nutrition. However, late in the summer the seeds are gone and insect numbers decline so the available nutrients for poultry are significantly reduced.
Therefore, it is important for producers of poultry in pasture systems to provide a year round supply of a prepared feed. Unlike cattle and sheep, poultry require a balanced diet on a daily basis to thrive and remain productive. The birds should have feed available at all times. When the insect population of the pasture is high and when seeds are plentiful, the birds’ consumption of prepared feed will decrease so some savings will be realized during spring and early summer. In the fall and winter, when pastures are nearly void of insects and seeds, the chickens will turn to the feed as their sole nutrition source.
So, remember to keep feed available to your pastured poultry at all times so their nutrition will always be at an adequate level for maintenance, growth and production.