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Day range vs. chicken tractors

Chickens on pastureOne intriguing chapter in Raising Poultry on Pasture reported on a side by side comparison of the two main ways of raising poultry on pasture --- the chicken tractor versus day range.  The chicken tractor system was popularized by Joel Salatin and consists of keeping chickens in portable chicken coop/run combos that are moved to a new patch of ground every day.  Andy Lee is the father of the day range model, which traditionally houses chickens in normal coops but rotates the birds through pastures radiating out from the coop like daisy petals, usually taking advantage of electrified poultry netting to make paddocks that can hold the birds for a few days or weeks at a time.

Chicken eating chickweedKip Glass chose to raise half of his broilers in chicken tractors and half on day range and kept careful notes of the weight gain of the birds and the time spent tending to his flocks.  In terms of management time, both systems clocked in together, although chicken tractor care takes a few minutes every day while rotating day range paddocks and cleaning out the deep bedding takes a bit more time a bit less often.  Manure management was very different for the two systems since the day range birds concentrated over half of their feces in the deep bedding of their coop while the tractored birds spread their manure more evenly over the pasture --- which system is better in this regard will depend on your land management goals.

When it comes to the bottom line, most large-scale chicken producers are probably interested in how efficiently the broilers put on weight, and here the tractored birds won 50% of the time, the day range birds 25% of the time, and the two systems tied 25% of the time.  The tendency of tractored birds to weigh more in Glass's study is probably due to the location of the feed troughs --- right in front of their noses for the tractored birds versus out Chickens on snowin the sun for the day range birds.  I suspect that moving the feed trough inside for the day range birds might have evened out those differences.

For smaller chicken keepers like us, the bottom line is less important than the health of the birds, so I was interested to see that Kip Glass noted some health differences between the two systems.  His day range birds were cleaner and drier since they had the shelter of the coop to fall back on, which made the chickens healthier.  We've noticed the same effect when we changed our flock over from tractors to pasture --- our 99 cent pasture ebookbirds can now decide whether they want to brave the snow or mud or whether they'd rather spend the day napping in the coop.  Everyone who comes to visit remarks on how happy our chickens appear in our day range setup, and I have to say that I agree.

Our chicken waterer rounds out our birds' comfort with clean water.


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Hi there...

Enjoyed this article and it really had the wheels turning, got me considering switching methods to day ranging. Last year we raised birds ala the Salatin method, with a modified 10' x 11' pen of our own design, but otherwise Salatin's chicken tractor model.

It seems to me in considering this article and these two approaches, that we are talking apples and oranges to a degree. I have not tried the day ranging, but have been doing the mental gymnastics, as I said. I can envision some of the problems of the traditional fixed coop flock that are totally eliminated through the use of the chicken tractor would still be issues in day ranging, if to a lesser degree. For instance, would not the lazy meat birds still trample ground, defecate, and graze unevenly, with the impetus being on the areas closer to the coop? If you are leaving them for longer periods, would this not then become a potentially serious pasture management issue? Would this not then work towards eliminating the benefits of "mob grazing" (moving daily or even twice daily based on the state of the grass) that the Salatin model is about?

I think if you see yourself as a grass farmer, the chicken tractor is still the way to go - providing for even grazing and fertilization of the ground. Chickens should not have issues with mud, wet and snow using this method, as this method is intended only to be used on pasture and during the warm season, the birds being slaughtered long before snow becomes a threat. As for mud, well, they're on grass. If it's getting muddy, you've got them on too low a pasture or have not moved them enough.

I agree that having a coop is more cozy for the chickens, but the chicken tractor moveable-pen method is to my mind to be viewed as temporary housing for very short-lived meat birds. We tried it last season - the grass looked great after several passes and we didn't lose a single bird to predators nor weather, both of which occur here in abundance.

Just my two cents worth, not meant as criticism, just reflection. Sounds to me like the day ranging method is a way to improve upon tradtional methods of keeping chickens without eliminating the more serious issues entirely, with more potential perhaps in managing layers. Please correct me on any wrong assumptions here! Really enjoying this page and will be placing an order for some product.

Thanks -

  1. Wright, Alberta
Comment by Jon Wright Tuesday evening, April 9th, 2013

Jon --- I appreciate your thoughtful comment! I agree that Salatin's tractors make a lot of sense if you have large areas of pasture available and are growing Cornish Cross broilers. Our system isn't very suitable for tractors, not just because of our laying hens (and rooster), but also because we raise heirloom breeds for broilers, and those are much more active than Cornish Cross.

Even though my goal is to improve the land, I don't think it's fair not to ensure the animals are as happy as possible in the process. I figure we're not just grass farmers, but also caretakers for chickens, etc. I'm not sure day range is the best option for everybody, but it seems to work best here.

Comment by anna at lunch time on Wednesday, April 10th, 2013






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