Lessons in Pastured Poultry from the West Coast

Everett Family Farm in Soquel, CA
Everett Family Farm in Soquel, CA

Recently, I had the opportunity to tour several pastured poultry operations near the NCAT Western regional office in Davis, California. Despite recent drought conditions, California is still a fantastic area to raise poultry in, and producers are coming up with creative and innovative ways to incorporate poultry as a part of their diversified farming operation.

My week started in the NCAT office located at the Glide Ranch in Northern California. The state received some much needed rain during my visit, which was a relief to farmers across the area. Despite the somewhat soggy conditions early in the week, I visited several farms of varying styles and sizes in the nearby Capay Valley region. Each farm had different methods of raising poultry, but all paid special attention to animal welfare and getting the birds onto pasture. Some incorporated their poultry with crops, vegetables or other livestock, with positive results across each area of production. For example, at Riverdog Farms, they raise freedom rangers in the rows between their almond trees. They move the pens daily so that the chickens have access to fresh grass and, also fertilize as they move down the rows. Special care is taken to remove the birds months before harvest to ensure food safety for the almond crop. For their flock of laying hens, they follow the “eggmobiles” with a rotation of different vegetables and have seen an increase in their production.

No farm is completely free of complications though. One farmer experienced high mortality rates in the brooder. NCAT Western program specialist, Pamela Wolfe, and I concluded that it was likely due to not implementing an “all in, all out” strategy when replacing chicks for the next flock of broilers. A brooding area needs time to rest in between flocks to prevent the buildup of pathogens from one flock to another. Producers should note that if your demand increases, there needs to be adequate space to rotate flocks in and out of separate brooders.

Say Hay Farms in Woodland, CA
Say Hay Farms in Woodland, CA

The second half of the week was spent on California’s Central Coast near Soquel and Santa Cruz. Historically known for its strawberries, this area is also seeing increasing demand in local, pastured poultry on top of the existing demand in the San Francisco Bay Area. I met with NCAT Western program specialist Ann Baier, to tour some more farms in the area. Chicken meat is in high demand, and local producers are currently scaling up to meet the demand. I visited several farms that had established their own, on-farm processing areas. Through constant experimentation and renovation, farmers looked to make their processing sanitary, efficient, and easy. Some of the producers had made equipment from scratch including, pluckers, scalders and chill tanks.

"Eggmobile" from Hain Ranch in Tres Pinos, CA
“Eggmobile” from Hain Ranch in Tres Pinos, CA

One of the biggest complications inherent to raising pastured poultry for eggs is housing. There is no “one size fits all” approach when constructing a pastured poultry house, but lots of room for creativity. There are concrete requirements that must be met (safety from predators or the elements, proper ventilation, nest boxes, etc) but most of the details are left to the producer based on their individual situation. One of the most successful designs in California, is a cotton trailer converted to “eggmobile”. Used cotton trailers are common in the southern part of the state, and can be easily converted into a moveable structure for housing poultry. Many farms I visited took this approach and said that it was an easy and cost effective way to make a highly functional, mobile poultry house. Some producers even install automatic doors on the houses to make them more secure in the evenings when the birds come in to roost. Overall, these coops were extremely comfortable for laying hens, easy to move and maintain.

California is a state that has a strong agricultural heritage. The local foods movement has been going strong in the area for quite a while, with no signs of slowing down. As the demand for local poultry increases, farmers are becoming more and more innovative in how they incorporate poultry as a part of a diversified farm. I hope that I can use what I have learned from this experience to help other producers here in the Midwest and around the country. I am currently working on a publication for pastured egg production that will be released later this year through ATTRA. Don’t forget to check out ATTRA.org for a variety of resources related to poultry and many other sustainable agriculture topics. You can also contact our help line at (800)-346-9140 to speak with a sustainable agriculture specialist.

I would like thank our NCAT Western Regional staff and all of the farms (listed below) that I toured for allowing me to ask questions and get a first-hand perspective on some of the most cutting edge practices in the world of pastured poultry!

Fiesta Farms in Watsonville, CA
Fiesta Farms in Watsonville, CA

Special thanks to

Say Hay Farms
Skylarke Ranch
Eatwell Farm
Fully Belly Farms
Pasture 42
Riverdog Farms
Hain Ranch Organics
Fiesta Farms
Lemonade Springs Farm
Fogline Farm
Everett Family Farm

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