Perdue’s Solar Powered Chicken Coop Rolls on Wheels
About a quarter of a century ago, American farmer Joel Salatin pioneered a portable chicken coop that allowed chickens to graze on new pastures every day. At the time, most chickens were crowded into artificially lit sheds for 20,000 to 30,000 birds. Salatin’s chicken coop hinted at a more sustainable way of raising chickens, but it could only hold 80 birds and had to be pulled by hand, limiting the range of its impact.
Today, one of the largest pasture chicken producers in the United States has developed an automated mobile chicken coop that can accommodate up to 6,000 chickens. Called ARC (for automatic range coop), it looks like a semi-cylindrical tent without a floor that rests on 32 wheels inspired by those of a Martian rover. The whole structure is powered by solar panels, also on wheels, and can be moved at the touch of a button.
ARC has been in the works for six years, but the initiative received a boost and funding in 2020, when Pasturebird was acquired by Perdue Farms, the fourth-largest U.S. chicken producer. The first chickens raised in ARC are about to land on your supermarket shelves this summer at a higher price than industrial chicken but lower than its organic counterpart.
For years, Perdue was synonymous with cheap chicken. Today, the company is betting that automating a sustainable farming practice can help it meet increased demand for sustainably raised meat.
The poultry industry measures its success by the number of pounds of meat a chicken can produce, and the more birds a farm has, the more profitable it is. This means that chickens are often pressed into horribly cramped conditions where heating and ventilation systems are controlled by computers and the floor is littered with excrement as the sheds are only cleaned once every two to three weeks. Pasture-raised chickens may be spared some of this trauma, but flocks are prone to predators and disease from wild animals.
The main advantage of a structure like the ARC is that it puts a roof over the chickens’ heads while letting them roam a little more than usual. “Animals were never meant to sit still and live where they poop,” says Paul Grieve, co-founder and CEO of Pasturebird. “We see nature as the real designer and we try to replicate farming systems.”
Grieve says a mobile chicken coop can also help improve the quality of fields where chickens graze, as chicken poo is collected and used to fertilize crops.
“People forget that plants feed animals and animals feed plants, and we have so horribly broken the cycle and gone back to a crazy man-made system where you hear about senseless fertilizer shortages” , he said. “We have 9 billion chickens a year which produce some of the best fertilizer in the world; the problem is that it is stuck inside their homes and not being reincorporated into the cultivated field.
It all started in 2012, when Grieve started an 80-bird chicken coop in her parents’ backyard. He was inspired by Salatin’s portable chicken coop, but he describes it as an “extremely labor-intensive manual process”, so customers had to pay a significant premium for pasture-raised chicken.
“My mother couldn’t have afforded this type of chicken,” he says. “So how do we take the same principles but apply scale and industrial design to really change the way chickens are raised around the world?”
The star of the ARC system is its powered wheels, which Grieve says are designed to handle challenges similar to those a rover faces on the rugged, hilly terrain of Mars. The wheels can rotate 360 degrees and roll in any direction. Without this feature, the chicken coop would have to be moved manually.
The entire structure moves at a pace that mimics the natural rhythm of chickens: every 24 hours, it rolls about 50 feet in seven minutes. A rubber flap runs along the bottom edge of the tent, so when the coop rolls to a new location, the edges don’t bump into the chickens inside. It also means that the coop can hover over any chickens that may have died during the day (so no dead birds are left in the coop for more than 24 hours). In the industry this is called a “kill check” and is done by a farmer who needs to spot them in a sea of chickens, sometimes as many as 24,000.
In partnership with independent farmers, Grieve wants to place the coops on cultivated land such as corn, peanut or cotton fields. The chickens would come after the crops were harvested and fertilize the soil for the next round of crops. Pasturebird would give farmers an ARC system; the farmers raised the chickens and in return received fertilized land.
“They get paid to keep chickens,” Grieve says. To date, Pasturebird has deployed between 10 and 20 automated chicken coops, including on a hay farm in Georgia.
The result for consumers, Grieve says, is more nutrient-dense meat. According to a 2013 study, pasture-raised chicken is higher in vitamins A and E, as well as iron and omega-3s.
An open question is whether a mobile chicken coop results in a significantly better quality of life for the animals. At 7,500 square feet for 6,000 chickens, the ARC has just over 1 square foot per chicken. And like The Guardian reported, most production of “cruelty-free meat” is a myth.
But one thing is certain: The demand is there. “For 50 years [people] asked for cheap chicken,” says Grieve. “Over the last 10 years you have started to see a real shift towards looking for better treated animals, in a way that is better for the environment and human health.”