First, a little context…
There are lots of production systems for raising poultry. There are many ways to classify these system, including (but not limited to): demand for inputs (such as technology, fuel, feed, expertise) from beyond the farm system; resilience with respect to flux in the environment or availability of inputs; how well the system is integrated into, and supports, associated ecological and social systems; profitability in financial terms, as well as with respect to other forms of capital. You might think of them as sort of a continuum from large-scale, industrial farming to birds running wild in the bush (“free range”). However, we do not plan to offer a complete picture of the diversity of poultry production systems here, just a discussion of our own. For a better developed taxonomy of poultry management systems, as well as a polemic on the author’s favorite system (which happens to be paddock shift), see Paul Wheaton’s Raising Chickens 2.0 essay.
So how do we manage our birds?
We manage a day-range, paddock shift system.
What does this mean?
During the day, our birds stay out on pasture where they forage for their food, including grasses and other pasture plants, seeds, bugs and whatever else they can catch (first and foremost, ducks prefer to eat critters like bugs and slugs, plants are a second choice). Rather than turning the flock loose to roam over the entire area, the pasture is sub-divided into paddocks. In each paddock, we provide them shade and water for drinking and bathing. The flock spends between 7 and 14 days in a paddock. By then, the plants in the paddock are pretty well grazed down or trampled, and the paddock is well manured. So it is time to move the flock to another paddock. This gives the birds access to fresh greenery and invertebrate prey. It also gives the paddock a chance to recover and to benefit from all that manure before the birds visit again. In refined paddock shift systems, productivity of both birds and pasture plants is maximized. Ideally, labor is minimized. This is our first year raising waterfowl, so we’re still working on it. We tweak how we time paddock movements, layout our paddocks, manage pasture vegetation to improve plant diversity and flock nutrition, and stuff like that. There are plenty of variables to observe and manage.
“Day-range” refers to where the birds spend the night. In day range systems like our, the birds spend the night in a stationary duck house. Every morning, we turn them out and they follow a fenced-in corridor down to the paddock, where they are closed in for the day. Late in the afternoon, we let them back up to the coop. Our birds putter around the poultry yard around the duck house until nightfall. They all then file inside for bedtime. After dark, we give them a final check and close them in for the night. This system is very secure. Should a predator penetrate the electro-net fencing at night, they would still have to get into the duck house to do any damage. It also keeps a lot of our labor demands close to the house (and kids). We don’t need to travel far to clean the duck house, collect eggs and perform other duck chores. The system does however, demand a lot of fencing (i.e. expensive to establish) and it limits how we can lay out our paddocks.
This can all be contrasted with mobile housing systems, like the “Eggmobile” mobile coop system popularized by Joel Salatin, in which the duck house would move along with the paddocks. A mobile duck house would allow more flexibility in paddock layout, and would eliminate the need for a morning and evening commute for the birds. But it would change how we work and where on the farm we are working, which can be tricky to coordinate with wrangling small children. We’re looking into it.
So as of today, that’s how we’re doing it. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but it’s working pretty well for both us and the birds. We just need to keep experimenting and fine-tuning the system here and there…