Is price premium worth the added cost for producers?

By JOHN SCHMITZ

For the Capital Press

Pasturing chickens can add a cash premium to eggs and broiler sales. But is the extra expense worth it?

It appears so, but the extra bucks can be minuscule for small producers.

"Return (on pastured birds) is at least double that of commercial birds," said Oregon State University Extension poultry specialist Jim Hermes. "(For broilers,) they're generally as high as $3 to $4 range (direct market retail) on a per-pound basis, where commercial birds are probably closer to $1.20, $1.30."

Eggs from pastured layers bring the producer as much as $4 a dozen when sold directly to consumers, compared to $1.50.

That said, raising pastured chickens is more costly, too -- two to three times more than in commercial operations, Hermes said. Producers make a little bit more, but most pasture farms are small operations, and the total added income is not that large.

"As long as (the operation) is part of a diversified farm, it can make a pretty good impact," Hermes said.

There's a big difference between free-range poultry and pastured poultry, he said.

To qualify for free-range status, which only requires birds be "given access" to the outdoors, all a producer has to do is cut a door in his chicken house.

Pastured poultry must live entirely outdoors and have access to fresh pasture at all times.

Because their digestive systems are not meant to process cellulose, pastured chickens obtain very little nutrition from grasses and other forages, Hermes said. Instead, they dine on insects, worms and seeds. Supplemental feeding is required.

There are producers who intensively graze their birds using movable pens that move them from spot to spot on short-term rotations, but these are mainly farmers growing chickens for broilers, Hermes said.

If left in the same spot for long, chickens can be hard on pasture, Hermes said. Not only are their droppings very high in nitrogen, they also can do damage to vegetative root systems as they scratch around looking for food.

Since tall grass can encumber chickens, some producers run cattle ahead of the chickens, Hermes said. "The cattle will knock the grass down to an inch or two."

While insects and seeds could provide all the chicken's nutritional needs if it were foraging in the wild, pasturing is another matter, especially during the summer and fall when non-irrigated pastures die back and insects and seed are hard to find.

When it comes to seeds, weed seeds provide more nutrition, Hermes said. "They tend to be a little hardier than grasses." Many operators actually plant weeds with large seed heads.

Organic chicken feed costs roughly twice as much as conventional feed.

There are disadvantages to growing broilers on pasture, too, Hermes said. "They tend to grow slower, mainly because of cooler temperatures that divert nutrients in feed from meat production to heat energy production." Pastured birds overall also tend to have "a little bit higher mortality," because they come in contact with more disease organisms, fluctuating temperatures and predators.

Hermes said that small independent grocery stores are the best customers for pastured eggs.

To sell eggs wholesale, producers need an egg handler's permit from ODA. Farmers' markets are considered a form of direct sales and no permits are required.

Hermes said that pastured poultry is the fastest growing organic commodity, especially since chicks do not have to be produced by certified organic parents. "Chicks have to be organic from day two of age."

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