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Pastured poultry study addresses broad range of issues (Research Brief #46)

Posted December 1999

Farmers wishing to capitalize on the trend of increased consumption of white meat can consider raising chickens. But for many, a conventional commercial chicken operation’s high capital investment, large scale, and limited market access are unsuitable.

Enter the pastured poultry model, where growing chickens are kept in large, floorless pens that are moved across pasture to continually provide them with fresh forage. Joel Salatin, innovator and pastured poultry farmer from Virginia, developed the model, which in the course of the 1990s has been adopted by farmers across the U.S.

It has important potential implications for the social dimensions of farming, human nutrition and food safety, and marketing and processing. Given increasing farmer interest, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) secured a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to study social, nutritional, and marketing and processing dimensions of pastured poultry. The effort involves substantial cooperation on the part of pastured poultry producers and a diverse group of university scientists.

Steve Stevenson, CIAS associate director, says, “Wisconsin farmers hope that pastured poultry can evolve into an alternative commodity system with positive impacts for farms, rural business development, and consumer nutrition.” But this multidimensional aspect of pastured poultry enterprises is what makes it so challenging to study within the discipline-focused realm of university research.

Farmers using this model need information on poultry slaughtering and processing facilities, as well as on the nutritional qualities of meat from pasturing systems. Those considering getting into pastured poultry want information on labor requirements, start-up costs, and profitability. Producers and scientists are working on a study that covers all these topics, and how they connect.

“CIAS studies agricultural systems issues that are by definition complex and multifaceted,” says Stevenson, “and constructs flexible, responsive research programs that cross typical university departmental boundaries.” Involving practitioners like farmers, processors, and extension faculty helps keep the research relevant for farmers.

Five diversified farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota are providing the data for the study. Diane Kaufmann, a pastured poultry farmer from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, is one of the producers participating in the study. “I see the pastured poultry model as a farming method that requires low investment, with labor that can be provided by almost anyone, and provides a healthy life for the bird and the person who consumes it,” she says.

Social dimensions

The study is examining the economic and labor dimensions of farm diversification offered by a pastured poultry enterprise. Other enterprises on the five study farms include beef, raspberries, and milking sheep. Pastured poultry can complement other farm enterprises by using labor when it is not needed by the other enterprises, by using land or facilities that are already available, and by tapping into existing markets and marketing skills.

The research team is also collecting information about the start-up capital requirements for pastured poultry, as well as profitability. Mineral Point, Wisconsin, pastured poultry farmer and study participant Bill Moore says, “From a business perspective, pastured poultry is attractive because it doesn’t require a large building investment.” To be a successful addition to a farm, a pastured poultry operation must not be a drain on the finances of farmers of modest means.

Pastured poultry provides size flexibility to meet profit goals. The economic analysis is examining whole-farm and enterprise-specific profitability. “Pastured poultry enterprises can be scaled to meet a family’s labor and economic goals. A family can use its pastured poultry proceeds to pay property taxes or for a vacation,” observes John Mower, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, farmer and study participant.

How much and what kind of labor is required for pastured poultry operations? Of course, it depends on the farm and the size of the operation. On the quantitative side, the five farming families keep daily records of the labor they provide during one summer month. The researchers use this data to examine total labor hours required for the whole farm, the pastured poultry enterprise, and particular pastured poultry tasks.

The researchers are comparing the amounts of labor provided by various family members, in different seasons, and for on-farm and off-farm work. They are also gathering qualitative labor information through interviews with the families, and reporting on perceptions of the rewards and challenges in operating a diversified farm.

Human nutrition and food safety

“I want to find out if it’s true that the meat from pastured poultry is more nutritious than that in the store and, if so, make that part of my marketing strategy,” says Mower. Farmers who raise pastured poultry and their customers say it tastes better than conventionally produced chicken and think the meat from animals raised in a grass-based system is more healthy.

But so far, research has not been able to back up those taste and nutritional claims. A panel is conducting taste and texture tests, and the research team is measuring levels of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol comparing pasture-raised chickens, university-raised chickens, and supermarket chickens. This information will provide a basis for understanding the nutritional and food quality properties of pastured poultry.

Food safety is an important issue that touches not only nutrition but also marketing. Several food scares have made many consumers mistrust the conventional processing system. “I think that people see their hometown meat locker as safer and better than the vast unknown of the anonymous, industrial food system,” Kaufmann says.

To examine this food safety issue, the researchers are examining the microbiological quality of chicken carcasses from each of the three sources during the second year. In addition to carcass testing, the processing facilities and equipment on one on-farm processing facility and the University facility are being tested for microbiological activity.

Marketing and processing

Study farmers report that marketing possibilities for pastured poultry are plentiful because many consumers are looking for sources of chicken other than large-scale commercial operations. A survey of pastured poultry customers will help identify the reasons behind their chicken buying choice. Because most pastured poultry producers have other enterprises, they tend to be familiar with marketing. “Demand is strong,” Mower says, “and I only advertise by word of mouth.”

The biggest marketing obstacle is finding licensed facilities to butcher, clean, cut, and wrap the birds, or being able to do on farm processing on a large scale. “It’s pretty obvious that chicken processing for small-scale producers is a problem, but we need to address where we can go from here,” researcher Kathryn Pereira says.

So the research team decided to focus its marketing research on processing facilities, surveying the number, type, and capacities of existing poultry processing facilities. They are following up with an look at several processors, including one on-farm operation in Minnesota.

Under Wisconsin regulations, birds must be processed in a state-inspected plant if the producer intends to sell more than 1,000 per year or if any birds will be sold to special outlets like restaurants. State-inspected poultry processors are limited in number and in geographical distribution. Producers also find a varying degree in the quality of the processing provided at existing plants. “Processing is the major issue,” says Moore. “The regulatory limit for farm-processed chickens and the lack of processing facilities create a huge bottleneck and prevent pastured poultry operators from being able to expand.”

“I am hoping that the study will demonstrate the safety of farm-processed poultry and on-farm poultry sales, in order to help farmers raise the current Wisconsin regulatory limit of 1,000 birds per farm. The limit puts a damper on how much of a contribution to farm profitability pastured poultry can make,” says Kaufmann.

Another solution to processing woes would be increasing the number and distribution of state-licensed processing plants. The study will look at what factors make processing facilities successful in the hopes of attracting new plants.

For those wishing to sell across state lines, a federally inspected processing plant is required. There are no federally inspected chicken processing plants for small-scale producers in Wisconsin, but there is one in Minnesota.

Interdisciplinary results

The research is being conducted with an eye toward the profitability of poultry processing operations. The research team is addressing current state and federal regulations regarding processing poultry, how these affect small processors or on-farm processors, and what these regulations mean to farm profitability.

The results should also prove helpful to new and potential pastured poultry producers, providing information on how much money and time they can expect to invest in this enterprise. It will also help them think through challenges they will face in marketing and processing their chickens. Future Research Briefs will cover nutritional, economic, and processing research results.

This research will complement a SARE-funded pastured poultry project underway in the southern U.S. That study has pointed to areas needing further study, including processing requirements.

Another outcome will be the development of new collaborations between farmers, industry representatives, extension faculty, and researchers. Farmer-responsive research depends on such collaborations, and the relationships formed for this project will not only be useful for further pastured poultry research, but also serve as a model for farmer-industry-researcher partnerships.

Published as Research Brief #46
December, 1999