Poultry-keeping is going full circle as the many benefits of traditional methods, such as ‘folding’ poultry on grassland and in stubble fields after harvest, are once again appreciated, says Jeremy Hobson
Folding poultry on pasture,
Long thought to be the domain of the farmer’s wife, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that chicken-keeping was considered a profitable agricultural concern. John Grimbaldeston, author of The Farmer and The Hen: A Lancashire Love Story, and part-time curator of the Fylde Country Life Museum at Fleetwood, says that his research shows that it wasn’t until around then that experts began to suggest “hens could be combined with other products: about 100 per acre on pasture used for grazing stock; 200 per acre on orchards” and that “fruit and hens were believed to be a profitable combination…”.
In his book, British Poultry Husbandry – Its Evolution and History, published in 1930, Sir Edward Brown commented on the financial practicalities of poultry
— in particular chickens — around the farm and noted that: “No other crop or stock need be displaced, and they can be kept on pasture, arable land or orchard; they can also obtain much of their food themselves, and houses and other equipment can be basic … [and] returns are good for very little output.”
It was common practice at the time. Poultry were either given total free range or were ‘folded’ on
grassland and in stubble fields after harvest. There were many reasons for this. Just a couple are that, in the latter scenario, feed costs were cut due to the birds ‘gleaning’ corn left after harvest. Also the fields were manured naturally by the birds. Other benefits were that housing didn’t require cleaning quite so often due to the fact that the birds were moved to pastures new on a daily basis. There was a valid school of thought that birds selfmedicated by eating herbs as they pecked about, too.
FRESH AIR, FRESH PASTURE
Although the benefits of keeping commercial poultry in such systems were undeniable, immediately before and after World War II farming experienced many changes. The more traditional ways of doing many things were swept aside in favour of modern alternatives. However, although semi-intensive and intensive methods of egg production, first introduced in the 1930s, were well established by the 1950s, many producers were loathe to forego the traditional methods completely and continued to keep birds in relatively free range conditions.
Recognising the importance of fresh air and fresh pasture, those responsible for the eggs that went into the making of the bedtime drink Ovaltine went out of their way to provide their laying hens with the best facilities — not only in outside runs, but also in the horseshoeshaped complex at their factory at Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. Nowadays the offices of Renewable Energy Systems (RES), the original Arts & Craftsstyle edifice, was designed in such a way that the horseshoe-shaped part — which housed breeding stock — would catch as much sun and natural light as possible.
As Lucinda Lambton remarked in her book, Palaces for Pigs (English Heritage 2011): “There had been nothing like it before; the architectural detailing was superb… they [the chickens] had the bonus of ‘sun parlours’ — large cages protruding from the building — in which the White Leghorns, with plenty of space to strut, could enjoy ‘clement weather’.”
WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND
After a period whereby much commercial poultrykeeping was done indoors or at least semi-intensively as at Kings Langley, there has been a definite return to the type of poultry and chicken rearing described by John Grimbaldeston and favoured by the farmers of Edward Brown’s day.
David Bland, a commercial poultry expert, consultant and advisor who is now in his 80s, has witnessed the full circle of poultry management techniques during the time he has been involved with the industry — certainly as far as the fold system is concerned.
“As poultry farming and the breeding of different pure breeds are now gaining popularity, so the demand for fold units has continued to increase,” he says. “Poultry are also an extra asset to keen gardeners who like the organic manure the birds produce, as well as the valuable assistance they give in killing various garden pests as they scratch and weed each section of the vegetable bed as it becomes vacant, normally during the autumn and winter months.”
The latter has become increasingly realised and many small-scale chickenkeepers have returned to what in America are known as ‘chicken tractors’, whereby birds are kept in moveable coops and runs. Once the birds have fertilised the soil, the ground is then either used to grow vegetables, or the land is kept as improved pasture. In this one can see certain similarities to the Balfour System (see box, right).
Keeping poultry on pasture shared in harmony with other livestock has long proved to be mutually beneficial. As David Bland points out: “In the past, it has been found that dairy cows produce more milk off grass where folds have been recently, and that this grass also makes the best quality hay.”
It is a method to which farmers and smallholders
are returning. In some cases, rather than open fields, free range organic poultry producers are adopting a method known as an agroforestry system. Undoubtedly birds enjoy the cover of tall vegetation and so, by mixing trees and shrubs with other crops, they are able to provide a perfect habitat for freerange poultry, as well as ensuring that any crops grown after the poultry have been moved on benefit from their valuable manure. It is also thought that the flock will have fewer respiratory problems.
Lewis Wescott, vet and knowledgeable poultry enthusiast, says: “It makes total sense in that increased ventilation from outdoor living helps enormously in stopping respiratory infections due to there being no build up of ammonia, as may be the case in an intensive unit. Also, when birds are regularly rotated between paddocks, they are far less likely to be prone to external and internal parasites.”
Nevertheless, Lewis strikes a cautionary note: “It has to be said that mites can harbour in trees and the birds are obviously more vulnerable to predators.”
The agroforestry system is a positive move commercially as far as both chicken welfare and the consumer are concerned. In the UK, Sainsbury’s partnered with the Woodland Trust to provide trees for its poultry farmers’ outdoor units and it claims the environment created for its Free Range Whole Chicken, SO Organic is “enriched with hedgerows and trees to… encourage natural behaviours”.
In Italy Antonio Bachatoni is experimenting with chickens on his
seven-acre olive and wild asparagus orchard, while Luigi Emiliani keeps freerange chickens in an area of mixed woodland. He also grazes meat-producing geese in a neighbouring vineyard, but warns “young vines require protectors to prevent geese from eating the bark”, although that isn’t a problem “once the stems become larger”.
Polyface Farms, owned and run by the Salatin family in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, USA, combines raising cattle with keeping poultry on the same land. According to Joel Salatin, they use mobgrazing, whereby cattle are moved through one-acre, electric-fenced paddocks on a daily and rotational basis after which poultry are brought onto the same paddocks in order to scratch and peck about in “the fly egg-laden manure”.
Joel describes a system in which the birds’ movable roosting and mobile laying houses are shifted every four days. He is of the opinion that doing so not only provides the birds with up to 15% of their feed intake and nutrition straight from the land (the remainder is given in the form of grain), but that their scratching and pecking helps to spread the cattle manure evenly.
SIMPLY THE BEST
With a variety of naturally occurring foodstuffs available as part of their daily intake, it’s no wonder that producers of pasture, or agroforestry-based geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys believe that the system is the ideal way to ensure succulent flavour and texture in their table birds.
As far as the general farmer is concerned, John Grimbaldeston points out that historically “in times of economic recession, milk, fruit and eggs provided a regular and almost instant income through the year, unlike stock rearing, which tied up capital until the animals were sold”.
Where poultry-keeping can be incorporated with other livestock, vegetable and/or crop-growing for mutual benefit, then the methods in use a century ago must surely provide food for thought as well as eggs and meat for the table, irrespective of whether the producer is a commercial farmer or a smallholder simply wanting the best for their livestock and their land.
Hens and mobile poultry units with cattle in the background at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia
Chickens in an ark that is regularly moved onto fresh grass
White Orpingtons in 1910 free ranging and enjoying a woodland environment