Our goal was to get our broilers on pasture at about 3 weeks of age, but the weather last week was gray, rainy and cold. We waited one more week and moved them into their new pen on a sunny Saturday. While broilers can handle rainy, cold weather, it isn’t a pleasant transition to their new lifestyle on pasture. To minimize stress and possible problems, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather when pasturing them for the first time.
Ryan built the broiler pen very similar to a Joel Salatin-style “chicken tractor” with a few modifications. Our pen is smaller than Salatin’s at about 8’ x 8’. This keeps it light and not difficult to move, while still being heavy enough to discourage predators. We also opted to cover half the pen with a tarp to block wind, rain and sun, rather than the aluminum roofing Salatin uses. We had trouble acquiring the aluminum roofing plus the tarp keeps the pen lighter. Ryan attached a large rope handle to the side of the pen for pulling it to a new patch of grass. The pen could probably house up to 50 chickens; we have 32 in the pen currently. The chickens stay in the pen day and night. Twice a day we move them to a fresh piece of grass. They are currently fertilizing my veggie garden plot.
Our broiler pen houses both our Jumbo Cornish Cross (JCC) and Red Broilers (RB). The RB would likely do just fine without the pen, however the JCC are not well-suited to free-ranging. They are easy for predators to spot and simply don’t do much moving. The shelter ensures their safety, comfort and close proximity to food and water.
We never removed the feeder during the night as is usually advised to prevent leg problems with the JCC. Only one out of our 16 JCC broilers was exhibiting leg problems at the time we moved them to the pasture. The chicken was still able to slowly shuffle itself around, but spent the majority of its time resting on its backside. This is a common problem for the extremely fast-growing broilers. We did nothing special with this particular chicken after noticing it was struggling, but we were very pleased to discover after two days of being on pasture, this chicken was standing and walking much more normally.
I think had we moved the broilers out at 3 weeks rather than four, that chicken would not have developed any leg issues at all. There is something about the green grass in the diet, the fresh air and moving back and forth from food to water to new patch of grass that encourages those legs to strengthen. I do want to note that all our other JCC have had no issues whatsoever. They run, jump and flap their wings just like other chickens but spend more time sitting. I read their daily exercise requirements entail walking 12 feet.
You’ll notice in the pictures that the JCC have very little feathers on their bodies and many only have feathers on their wings and tail. The feathers are being bred out of these birds to make processing them for market easier. This makes for an unattractive bird, but at commercial chicken farms, beauty is at the bottom of the priority list. I was concerned the lack of feathers may mean they would be more vulnerable to cold, however due to their size, they apparently tend to overheat. We haven’t had problems with either. At this point, nothing in our experience with the JCC would prevent us from ordering more for a second batch of broilers in June.
The RB, on the other hand, are handsome birds. They don’t pack the weight on as quickly as the JCC, to be sure. The last time I made a guestimate on their weights, the RB was probably half as heavy as the JCC, although there is some variance in size among them all. The RB simply can’t beat the JCC in terms of time to market, however the final test of taste and table quality has yet to be conducted. It is astonishing that in about 3 more weeks we’ll be ready to harvest our JCC and taste the first thing to be produced on our farm: fresh, natural chicken raised on green grass in fresh air and sunshine. How exciting!