About a quarter-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 crammed in artificially lit sheds for 20,000 to 30,000 birds. Salatin’s coop hinted at a more sustainable way to raise chickens, but it could hold only 80 birds, and it had to be pulled by hand, limiting the scope of its impact.
Now one of the largest producers of pastured chicken in the U.S. has developed an automated mobile coop that can house up to 6,000 chickens. Dubbed the ARC (for automated range coop), it resembles a semicylindrical floorless tent that sits on 32 wheels inspired by those of a Mars rover. The entire structure is powered by solar panels, also on wheels, and can be moved with the push of a button.
The ARC has been in the making for six years, but the initiative got a boost—and funding—in 2020, when Pasturebird was acquired by Perdue Farms, the fourth-biggest U.S. chicken producer. The first ARC-raised chickens are about to land on your supermarket shelves this summer at a price point that is higher than that of industrial chicken but lower than its organic counterpart.
For years, Perdue was synonymous with low-cost chicken. Now the company is betting that automating the farming practice can help it meet increased demand for sustainably raised meat.
The poultry industry measures its success by how many pounds of meat a chicken can produce, and the more birds a farm has, the more profitable it is. That means chickens are often squeezed into horrifically cramped conditions where heating and ventilating systems are controlled by computers and the floor is littered with feces because the sheds are cleaned only once every two to three weeks. Pasture-raised chickens may be spared some of that trauma, but flocks are prone to predators and disease from wild animals.
The key benefit of a structure like ARC is that it puts a roof over the chickens’ heads while letting them roam a little more than usual. “Animals were never intended to stay stationary and live where they poop,” says Paul Greive, Pasturebird’s cofounder and CEO. “We’re looking at nature as the real designer and we’re trying to replicate this within agricultural systems.”
Greive says that a floorless mobile coop can also help improve the quality of the fields where the chickens graze, because the chicken’s poop can be used to fertilize the crops.
“People forget that plants feed animals, and animals feed plants, and we’ve broken the cycle so horribly and we’ve gone back to a crazy man-made system where you’re hearing about insane fertilizer shortages,” he says. “We have 9 billion chickens a year that are producing some of the best fertilizer in the world; the problem is it’s stuck inside their houses and not incorporated back on the crop field.”
It all started in 2012, when Greive launched an 80-bird chicken coop in his parents’ backyard. He was inspired by Salatin’s portable 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 mom couldn’t have afforded that 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 grown worldwide?”
The star of the ARC system is its motorized wheels, which Greive says are designed to face similar challenges to those a rover faces on Mars’s rough and undulating terrain. The wheels can rotate a full 360 degrees and drive in any direction. Without this feature, the coop would have to be wheeled manually.
The entire structure moves at a pace that mimics the natural pace of chickens: Every 24 hours, it rolls about 50 feet over the course of seven minutes. A rubber flap runs along the bottom edge of the tent, so when the coop rolls away to a new location the edges don’t butt up against the chickens inside. This also means that the coop can hover over any chickens that may have died during the day (so no dead birds lie in the coop for longer than 24 hours). In the industry, this is known as a “dead check” and is performed by a farmer who needs to spot them in a sea of chickens, sometimes as many as 24,000.
Partnering with independent farmers, Greive wants to place the chicken coops on cultivated land like corn, peanut, or cotton fields. The chickens would come in after the crops are harvested and fertilize the soil for the next round of crops. Pasturebird would give farmers an ARC system; the farmers would raise the chickens and get fertilized land in return.
“They get paid for babysitting chickens,” Greive says. To date, Pasturebird has deployed between 10 and 20 automated coops, including on a hay farm in Georgia.
The upshot for consumers, Greive 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-3.
An open question is whether a mobile coop results in a significantly better quality of life for the animals. At 7,500 square feet for 6,000 chickens, the ARC has a little more than 1 square foot per chicken. And as The Guardian has reported, most “humane meat” production is a myth.
But one thing is certain: The demand is there. “For 50 years [people] asked for cheap chicken,” Greive says. “In the last 10 years, you’ve started to see a real shift towards looking for animals that are treated better, in a way that’s better for the environment and human health.”