Broad Leys Publishing
Land Management for Free-Range Layers
"The poultry-man who adopts free-range methods should move the houses frequently and keep the grass short." (Leonard Robinson, 1948)
The key to successful free-ranging is good land management. This applies to the nature of the land itself, the degree of shelter it offers, how it is fenced to deter predators and how pasture is managed and maintained. Traditional free-rangers have always known this, but some of the first large-scale commercial enterprises in the 1980s failed to appreciate it, thinking that the house was the only thing that mattered. They ended up with houses so large and badly designed that some birds never found their way out. Those that did stayed in the immediate vicinity of the building because no provision had been made for shelter in the pasture, and the area immediately around the houses became devoid of vegetation. Complaints from welfare organisations and consumers that this was not real free-ranging soon had its effect, and new standards were introduced to improve conditions. There is still some way to go, however, in convincing some producers that the grazing area matters.
(Drawing © Copyright. 2004. Katie Thear)
The nature of the land
It is no coincidence that the great free-range egg-producing areas of the past were in relatively mild areas blessed with free-draining soils. The Lancashire sands and Wiltshire chalks were ideal, providing land free from boggy areas, although in very hot summers there could sometimes be problems of grass scorching in particularly thin-soiled areas. The ideal is to have adequate drainage to prevent waterlogging, while ensuring that the bulk content and fertility of the soil are sufficient to retain and provide enough water and nutrients for a healthy growth of grass. The balance is not always easy to achieve, but it is better to start with a well-drained soil than a heavy one.
It is possible to improve drainage, but this can be an expensive option. Where the water table is naturally high, the only long-term solution may be to plough the whole area and excavate drainage ditches, as has been done in parts of the Fens. Such an exercise would not be cost-effective.
It is possible to install permanent drain pipes - and this should certainly be the case in the area around a permanent house - but it is expensive for the rest of the land, and may also be difficult to justify in terms of the likely returns. In waterlogged areas, where the water table is not normally high, the problem may be one of ‘panning’. This occurs when the top few inches of a soil have become so compacted that the surface pan holds the water, without allowing it to drain through. It is usually clay soils which are affected in this way, although lighter soils may become panned if overuse has led to excessive compaction. The solution here is to mole plough the area. The ‘mole’ in question is a tractor attachment which breaks up the hard surface and forms a series of tunnels in the subsoil. There are agricultural contractors ho will undertake this.
Once the area is ploughed, an application of lime in the autumn will help to flocculate the soil, the process by which tiny particles of clay clump together to make bigger particles, thus providing larger air spaces for more efficient drainage. The addition of nitrogen from a source such as calcified seaweed later in the season will increase the fertility while not creating a problem of leaching into the water courses. A new grass ley mixture can then be sown after the land has been harrowed and levelled. Once the grass has grown and established, it is ready to provide pasture for the birds.
Where waterlogging is only apparent in small areas, the easiest solution is to dig a hole and place clinker at the bottom to make a soakaway. The point has been made elsewhere in this book that, where fixed houses are used, there should be a protected verandah to provide extra shelter, as well as a shingle or slatted area by the pop-holes to prevent muddy conditions.
Some of the large free-range producers today are still not giving pasture rotation the importance it deserves. A common fallacy is the belief that a maximum of 1,000 birds per hectare is too light to cause damage to the turf, or to bring about a build-up of disease-causing organisms. The fact that commercial point of lay birds are inoculated against a wide range of diseases, and are kept for a shorter period of time than they were traditionally, does give them a degree of protection that flocks did not have in the past, but producers are wrong to rely entirely on these factors. Disease organisms can and do mutate, and the traditional practice of land rotation in order to break the life cycle of pests and thus bring about their demise is well proven. The physical structure of the pasture and topsoil can also be damaged by overuse. A problem that I recently detected in some large units is that of ‘mole-hilling’. Here the birds scratch away the turf in order to make dust baths. This is entirely natural behaviour on the part of the hens, but where they are kept in large numbers on the same area of land, the density of dust baths can become so great that the pasture develops undulations. This, in turn, damages the shorter growing grasses needed by the birds, while allowing coarser grasses to gain a foothold. Once pasture has degenerated to this condition, itshould be ploughed, rolled and harrowed ready for a new sowing, while the birds enjoy new ground.
Flock density regulations
The European Union free-range regulations require only that the land be ‘mainly covered with vegetation’, without specifying the type or condition of plants. The Freedom Food directive is more demanding and specific:
This is all right as far as it goes, but there is nothing which states that ground must be used in rotation. The use of the phrase ‘or other disease control measures’ is too vague and open to abuse, such as a permanent reliance on chemical methods of control.
The organic standards of the Soil Association are as follows:
Land which is to support free-ranging chickens adequately must be sheltered. This does not refer to the obvious need for a house, but to factors such as the availability of trees, walls, windbreaks, shelters and hedges. The chicken originated in subtropical forests where trees provided cover and protection from wind, rain, sun and predators. It is out of its natural environment in a wide open field, and tends to stay near the house. Consequently, the grass immediately around the house soon deteriorates, while that further afield is barely touched. Although EU regulations demand that the stocking density does not exceed 1,000 birds to the hectare, the actual density in the limited area the birds tend to frequent is usually far higher than this, unless they are given positive encouragement to range further afield.
The Scottish Agricultural Colleges have conducted a survey to investigate the distribution of land usage and the number of birds going out onto range. By plotting the location of birds at one-hourly intervals, they discovered that 55 per cent stayed in the area around the house, thereby using 8 per cent of the total area available. The mean distance of birds from the house was 8.3 m out of a possible 80 m..
Weather is obviously a factor which influences chickens in using the range, with warm, dry conditions being more conducive to ranging than wet, windy ones. Hot sun is not particularly liked, but warm, relatively shaded conditions are ideal, reminding them of their jungle origins. However, the shelter/security factor is not one that should be neglected. My own observations are that chickens will range much further afield if there are plenty of trees on the site. Keeping chickens in an orchard proved to be the ideal, with a far more uniform distribution over the whole site than when I had them in an open field. If a site is properly fenced against foxes, the provision of trees is an excellent inducement to the chickens to range over the whole protected site. Trees also provide much-needed shelter from wind, although any which are too near the perimeter fence may need to be cut back if they are likely to provide a launching pad for chickens to flutter over.
Trees are not the only form of shelter, of course. Wattle hurdles, hedges, banks, straw bales and stone walls all provide protection from the wind, as well as the feeling of security which is so necessary for chickens if they are to forage all over the available ground. It is interesting to note that a free-range unit which was set up in an old three-acre walled garden experienced no problems in getting the chickens to range all over the site. There were several trees, and the high stone walls gave an overall feeling of enclosure.
Moveable shelters with outside drinkers are recommended for use in hot weather. Such shelters need not be elaborate or expensive constructions, merely something that will provide shade from the hot sun and help to keep the water supply relatively cool. Registration with Freedom Food requires an overhead cover shelter for winter and summer conditions, as well as to reduce fear reactions from overhead predators.
On a small scale, a simple temporary shade shelter is easily made by banging some posts into the ground, placing wire netting on the top and covering it with black plastic weighted down with turf or a few leafy branches.
Traditional wisdom has always valued the adage, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ As far as the free-range enterprise is concerned, good fences also make good sense! Without them, the depredations of the fox would make a mockery of any effort to keep poultry. In addition, wandering dogs, feral cats, mink, badgers, even polecats in some areas, may prove hazardous to chickens.
Fencing is also required to control the birds’ access to pasture, so it is appropriate to regard fencing in two ways: external or perimeter fencing to keep out predators, and internal or pasture control fencing to restrict the movement of chickens to certain areas.
This should separate the poultry farm from the outside world. There is no easy or cheap way of doing this and it is one of the most substantial costs facing anyone thinking of starting a free-range poultry farm.
A determined fox can scale a fence, although to go back over it carrying his prey may prove too much for him. However, that is a hollow victory for the poultry-keeper if the fox has already killed several birds. The vixen, hunting for her young ones in early spring, will often kill many birds, biting off their heads, then making off with one, leaving the other corpses behind. A 2 m high perimeter wire mesh fence of will provide adequate protection, as long as there is a further overhang of 30 cm placed at an angle of 45° to the vertical. The overhang should project outwards to repel boarders. Some poultry keepers claim that to have the top strained and projecting outwards is unnecessary, and that merely having a 30 cm section, loose and unstrained at the top, will dissuade a predator because it will not provide sufficient support for scrambling up it.
Wire mesh netting with 50 mm holes in the mesh will deter foxes. Mink can still climb a fence and wriggle through holes of this size. However, they are more likely to be a problem in areas close to rivers. In such situations, trapping may need to be considered, and the Ministry of Agriculture should be consulted for advice on suitable traps and procedures. In some areas it is possible to borrow traps from the authorities.
The bottom of the wire mesh needs to be dug well into the ground to prevent predators from pushing their way underneath. The provision of an electrified wire will give added security to the fence, in this respect, if it is placed 25 cm above the ground and 25 cm out from the mesh. Placing a second wire near the top, or just above the fence, 10 cm out from the mesh, will make the barrier virtually invulnerable.
A high-power mains fencer unit is recommended for a permanent fence of this kind, because it needs less maintenance than a battery-operated one. Wiring should never be connected directly to the mains supply and the advice of a specialist should be sought before installing such a system. There are many suppliers of electric fencing who are experienced in the needs of poultry keepers, and who supply fences which conform to the British Standards Safety Requirements.
If an existing fence is electrified, the cost is about half that per metre of installing a new one.
Pasture control fencing
This is to control the access of birds to certain areas of pasture, rather than to keep out predators. It does not need to be particularly high - 90 cm is usually sufficient - but it should be easily moveable and re-erected as required. Electrified netting is ideal for this purpose; it is also suitable for incorporation in a permanent perimeter fence. It is essentially a series of lightweight plastic fencing posts with metal spikes which are tapped into the ground. These are non-conducting and are purely for support, with one being placed every 3 m or so. The netting is normally made up of eight horizontal lines of heavy gauge polythene/stainless steel electroplastic twine, with non-conducting polythene verticals and bottom horizontal strand. The gauge of the fencing is important, with smaller holes at the bottom, increasing in size to the top. This ensures that the chickens, particularly young pullets, do not become entangled if they should happen to touch the netting. The fence is tensioned with straining post guys and pegs, and powered from a mains- or battery-operated unit. The latter is normally a 12 volt rechargeable car battery.
No system is without its problems, and the chief ones here are shorting and failure of the power supply. Shorting can occur if the grass gets too long where the fence is positioned, so it is important to keep that area mown. A battery-powered unit should be regularly checked in case it needs recharging. A neon tester or electric voltmeter for checking the state of electrification is highly recommended.
When the fence is moved, the posts are pulled up, the net is rolled up and the fence re-erected on the new site. A problem which may arise at this time is tangling of the netting. It is much easier for two people to move the fence and to ensure that it is evenly rolled. To avoid tangling, it is possible to use a system of netting that is coiled around an applicator that is then wheeled along to the appropriate site.
Some large producers also use a strand of electric wire inside the house if there is a problem with floor-laid eggs. This is an abhorrent practice that puts the convenience of the producer before the welfare of the birds. It is one thing to have an electric fence outside in the field, for the protection of the chickens; it is quite another to put it in the place that they normally associate with security. It can cause extreme stress. A good management system of regular inspection and attention to lighting and floor and litter conditions will produce a minimum of floor-laid eggs.
A field is often regarded as a permanent and unchanging entity. In one sense this is correct, but if the grass is regarded as a crop, it is obvious that it is temporary and must be managed properly on a seasonal basis. As referred to earlier, chickens cannot be allowed to range on the same piece of land indefinitely; otherwise the grass will deteriorate, there will be a gradual increase in the incidence of pests and parasites, and the flock will succumb to health problems.
ADAS recommends that chickens should generally be moved to a new area of vegetation every 4 to 6 weeks, if a system of paddock grazing is used. With a moveable house this poses no great problem; it is simply a matter of transporting it by hand or tractor, depending on its size, and re-erecting the pasture control fence of electric netting around the new area. Where only a small number of birds are kept in a house with combined run, it may be more appropriate to move it every day or every few days. If the flock is ranging in numbers well below the official limit and has a considerable expanse of pasture at its disposal, it may not be necessary to move it as frequently. For example, a house may have a field on either side of it, with these two areas being used alternately. It is a question of relative scale, stock density and common sense, but with a commercial unit, the ADAS recommendation is a good general guide.
Where fixed houses are used, the birds’ access to new grazing is more difficult to arrange, but a portable electric netting fence is an effective means of controlling the flock’s ranging once it is outside.
After a flock has been moved to a new area, the old pasture should be raked if there are any patches of compacted droppings, and then ‘topped’ to cut down taller grasses which may be producing seed heads. An alternative is to graze sheep, cattle or goats on the site; they will do all the necessary topping.
Some free-range units rent out such land to farming neighbours who require extra grazing, while others graze sheep at the same time as the birds.
On a large scale, topping can be done with the traditional farm equipment of tractor and cutting bar. A ride-on garden tractor with the blades set at maximum height is also effective. For small areas, an ordinary hand lawn mower with the blades set high will do the job.
Mention has already been made of the need to keep grass short near electric fencing. Regular mowing is the only way to ensure this and a ride-on or hand garden mower is effective in keeping a strip close to the fence clear of tall growth. Grass strimmers have also been used to good effect. Remember to switch off the electric fence before mowing around it!
It may also be necessary to mow the area of pasture currently occupied by the birds, if it is growing more quickly than their foraging action can keep pace with. Tall grasses are not eaten by the birds and rank growth, particularly if wet with rain or dew, is a positive disincentive to them. Those which do brave such conditions get their legs and bottom feathers wet, making eggs which are subsequently laid wet and dirty.
Once birds have vacated a site, and if other livestock is not being grazed on it, it is a good idea to dust with lime, particularly if the ground tends to be on the heavy or acidic side. There is some dispute among poultry experts whether this practice helps to deter disease-causing organisms and clear up parasitic infection of the ground. Traditional wisdom has always encouraged it - and what is certainly true is that heavy clay soils are less likely to compact and puddle if treated with lime. A reduction in the number of waterlogged areas will also reduce the incidence of snails which act as intermediate hosts to parasitic flukes and the coccidiosis causing organisms. Liming is a practice I always follow to good effect with my own pasture rotation management.
If an area of pasture has deteriorated badly, it may be appropriate to plough it up, harrow it and then reseed it with a new ley mixture. Once it is ploughed, test the soil to determine its pH level of relative acidity or alkalinity and apply lime if necessary. Leave it to weather for a time, then harrow it to break down the clods of earth ready for seeding. All these activities can be carried out by a specialist contractor, if you are not in a position to do it yourself. Special ley mixtures for free-ranging poultry are available from some specialist seed suppliers. These mixtures are made up of shorter perennial grasses which are more suitable for poultry than the longer grasses which are usually found in other leys. As a general rule, 50 gm per square metre, or 500 kg per hectare, of seed will be required. A new ley pasture will not generally require feeding in its first year. In the second year, it can be given some nitrogen fertiliser such as environmentally acceptable calcified seaweed.
© 2004. Katie Thear.
From FREE-RANGE POULTRY, published by Broad Leys Publishing Ltd
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