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Expert says grazing poultry is not a bird-brained idea

GRAZING GURU Bert Dening says putting chickens or pigs on pasture 
has many benefits but strong management is needed

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Grazing is for the birds — or should be, says an Alberta Agriculture official.

It’s not just cows and sheep that benefit from chowing down on pasture, business development officer Bert Dening told attendees at a recent Alberta Farm Fresh Producers conference.

Poultry need some grain and other nutrients in their diet, but chickens can get about 20 per cent of their nutrient needs from grass, and turkeys about 50 per cent, he said.

Along with lowering feed costs, grazing poultry can improve nutrient cycling and land quality, reduce insect numbers, lower labour and machinery costs, and improve the taste of poultry meat, he said. In fact, Dening prefers the term “management-intensive grazing” as it suggests animals, plants, soil, land and people should be considered as parts of a whole system.

But livestock producers must be careful not to overgraze, he said. If less than 50 per cent of the leaf area is grazed, there will be very little effect on the roots. But plants that have been grazed severely will take longer to grow back while lightly grazed plants will produce more roots and more top growth.

“The amount of substance you have on top is directly related to the root system,” he said. “If you manage a pasture correctly, you will have a really healthy root system underneath and you’ll have more drought tolerance.”

However, as yield increases, quality may go down.

“It’s a catch-22, because you want a healthy plant, but once a plant reaches maturity it might not be terribly palatable for some grazers, like chickens,” Dening said.

The best time to graze depends on the species and the type of crop.

“If the plant is growing fast, like in May and June, you graze fast and you graze lightly,” he said. In the middle of summer or fall, animals can be allowed to graze more and stay on pasture for a longer period.

Poultry grazing can be done by using “chicken tractors” or special structures, such as pens on skids. Dening recommends using chickens to graze a pasture after cattle have been on it.

Pigs can also be grazed, but tend to root and dig holes, so they are best on bushland or land that needs to be dug up. Mature pigs can get more nutrients from grass than younger pigs. Dening said the best way to create a grazing program is by planning, monitoring and learning.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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