How to Start a Successful Small Scale Poultry Farm Business
Updated: Sep 8
Turning a love for poultry into a viable small farm business takes strategic thinking and some realistic number crunching.
Large commercial chicken meat and eggs are produced almost entirely in the U.S. based on a contractual relationship with a big producer (like Tyson Foods). The contractor provides the chicks, pullets, feed and medication, and technical support while the farmer owns the debt of the infrastructure and equipment needed for the operation. These businesses are expensive to start (one chicken house typically costs $200,000 or more) plus are often placed strategically near other poultry operations.
Most small-scale farmers aren't positioned to enter the poultry market as a large-scale contractor, nor do they want to. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to start a profitable poultry operation that takes advantage of consumers growing interested in healthy, locally grown, pasture-raised poultry and eggs.
What steps should you take to get you started on a profitable, small-scale poultry business?
Check Your Local and State Regulations
Before you do anything else, check your local and state regulations regarding small-scale poultry farming.
Contact your state department of agriculture. Check limits on how many birds you can raise, required licenses and licensing costs. Keep in mind that there are stricter requirements if you plan to sell poultry meat, but there are very few USDA-approved slaughter facilities for poultry from small-scale farmers to take their birds to. Most states still allow direct marketing selling to consumers of limited amounts of processed poultry meat, still, you can't sell wholesale or to restaurants if your meat isn't processed in a USDA-approved facility.
There are some regional solutions for small-scale processing — like USDA-approved mobile slaughter facilities, funded by regional non-profits or farmer cooperatives. There are also grants and government programs that can help offset the costs of investing in small-scale processing facilities if you decide to build a facility. Check HERE for more information.
Producing eggs or even a business selling live chicks to other farmers or backyard poultry keepers is another option without the headache of slaughter and processing, but make sure to check on state and local rules for those operations as well.
Invest in Good Stock
Whether you plan to sell eggs, poultry meat or sell hatched birds to your community, choosing good stock to start your poultry farm can make or break the success of your business.
Select a breed (or breeds) well known to have the traits you plan to market. If you are planning to sell meat, you need a breed that quickly grows to a marketable weight. If you want to sell eggs, select a breed well known for high egg production. If you're hoping to sell chicks (or ducklings, goslings or poults) to local backyard poultry lovers, choose breeds known to be docile and beautiful.
Think about how you plan to manage your birds. Some breeds are better suited for pasture ranging while others perform best in confinement. Once you have settled on a breed, only purchase the highest quality starter stock from a reputable breeder. Those birds will be the foundation of your business, so better to pay more at the beginning for the highest quality, healthy birds than play catch-up with inferior, sickly birds that might have been cheaper to start with but won’t be in the long run.
Building the Right Infrastructure for Your Poultry Farm
Another critical component of any successful poultry farm is the proper infrastructure for your poultry business.
Poultry are highly vulnerable to predation, so if you plan to raise your birds on pasture, you will need to invest in poultry-proof fencing and even netting (for raptors). Adequate housing will include shelter from the weather and be manageable within your system. For instance, if you plan to sell eggs from pasture-raised hens, you will likely want to invest in a mobile chicken house with nesting boxes that the chickens can bed down in at night and lay their eggs, but you can still quickly move from one paddock to the next.
Don't forget to have areas for raising chicks (or ducklings, goslings or poults) as well!
Consider Your Feed Costs
Feed costs are the number one expense making poultry operations unprofitable for most small-scale poultry farmers.
Selecting good stock (which will more efficiently utilize the feed the take in) helps, but you will need to look at creative ways to keep feed costs manageable. If you are pasture-ranging your birds, that will offset costs. However, most pasture-ranged birds still need some supplemental feed. A few options for lowering feed costs include:
Buying in bulk. The more feed you can buy, the cheaper it is per pound. You may want to invest in a grain silo.
Buy (or grow) the ingredients and grind it yourself. You will need to research your birds' appropriate nutrient ratio and may need to add in supplements. For more details about making poultry feed, this LINK is a helpful resource.
Fodder feeding or fermenting (sprouting) grains are two other strategies poultry owners use to keep their feed costs under control, turning whole grains into more nutritious fodder and sprouted grains. However, both require extra steps and labor.
For much more detailed information on feeding strategies for poultry, check out this helpful resource.
Create a Market Base for Your Poultry Business
Finally, don't forget to think about who you will sell your poultry products to and how you will find your market.
Create a logo and social media presence for your farm business and start posting about what you are doing. Once you have product ready, think about where you will sell it. Farmers' markets are a great place for farmers just starting their businesses to capture market share. Or, you might want to set up an on-farm stand or approach local wholesale outlets, like restaurants, grocery stores or farm cooperatives that might be interested in your product.
A poultry CSA is a popular add-on with other more traditional CSA programs (like a vegetable and fruit CSA). You may be able to partner with another CSA farmer to offer your poultry products.
Good luck and we hope you have great success with your poultry business!
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.