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Chicken pasture size and rotation

Chicken eating cloverTo get the most food-value out of your pasture, you not only need to raise chicken breeds that forage aggressively, you also have to plan your pasture size and rotation well.  I looked everywhere last year to figure out how big a pasture needs to be to provide a large component of a chicken's dietary needs, and drew a complete blank.  Finally, this winter, I stumbled across the figure of 10 square feet of pasture per bird per week (with frequent rotations) in Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success.  Granted, the type of operation outlined in the book uses pasture more as a source of vitamins and minerals than as the flock's primary food, but I thought their area estimate would give me an idea of the bare minimum amount of land needed to graze our birds.

I've talked Mark into building me five new pastures this year to join our current two pastures from last year.  Our old pastures are small and shady in the winter, so I plan to mostly use them to grow some grains and legumes to supplement the chickens' winter feed, though I will graze the chickens there for a short time in the fall.  Three of the new pastures will be in the sunniest part of the yard for winter and spring grazing, while two more will be on the hillside above the original pastures for summer shade.  I estimate that the total square footage from all seven pastures will be about 4250 square feet (a tenth of an acre), which (I hope) will be enough to keep our chickens healthy all year.

Chicken pastureOptimal rotation frequency is another big question mark.  Last year, I kept the chickens in their pastures way too long, mostly because I wanted them to scratch the ground bare so I could use those paddocks to plant grain in.  For most of our pastures this year, though, I want to keep the pastures vegetated at all times for optimal chicken health.  When rotationally grazing with ruminants (like cows and sheep), the goal is to make your livestock eat everything to the ground in a short period of time (mob grazing), then move the animals to another section of the pasture for a while to let the plants grow back.  This will give you lots of tender growth rather than leaving you with a pasture denuded of the good stuff and with lots of plants your livestock don't want to eat, which is what you get if you leave your livestock in a pasture continuously.

Mob grazing works great for cows, but I'm not sure yet whether it's the best plan with chickens.  Although chickens do nibble on leaf matter from time to time, a healthy chicken is mostly eating invertebrates, fruits, and seeds, so I should really be managing our pasture to promote creepy crawlies, not grass.  Tomorrow, I'll write about what I'm planting in the pastures to keep the chickens fed, but for now I'll just say that I don't really have a clue yet whether I should be rotating the chickens quickly, thus keeping the browse low and tender, or infrequently, thus attracting more grasshoppers.  I'll just have to keep an eye on the flock and pasture conditions and make it up as I go along.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Chicken Pasture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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My understanding is that you let the ruminants graze for a few days or whatever, move them, let the vegetation come back a bit, then let the chickens in. That way the chickens also get the larva in the ruminant poop before the larva grow up to be flying bugs. Of course, this is remembering a quick-moving lecture from over a year ago, so perhaps I've got parts of it wrong.
Comment by trashmaster46 Thu Mar 24 21:39:47 2011
You're totally right --- this is Joel Salatin's method. We're trying to come up with a good pasture system for chickens without the cattle because we don't have large, cleared pastures (and aren't really interested in dealing with such large livestock.) Without the cows, you don't get all of those fun insects in the cow pies, so you have to tweak the system a lot.
Comment by anna Fri Mar 25 08:32:14 2011

We don't have as much space as you do, but what about rotating 2 spaces at a time. Rotate into one, and as it gets long in the tooth open up the second pasture. I have 2 'pastures' (I'm a city guy), but I have an older area I keep open as I rotate the chicks to my garden beds. They not only keep the new areas clean, but patrol the old area too. The old area looks like a moon scape to me, but they seem to keep finding stuff. If I had the space to keep 5 pastures I would rotate the chicks through 2 pastures of garden area at a time, with the coop in the center.

Well, thats my goal at least. Keep up the good work Cheers Shane

Comment by Shane Mon Mar 28 00:50:50 2011
I'm not sure I entirely understand the point of rotating into two pastures at once --- to give the chickens a larger space, perhaps, so you can leave them there longer? The goal of rotational pastures is just the opposite --- you want small pastures so you can make your chickens eat more evenly, rather than just picking out their favorite plants, then you rotate them away from the pasture for as long as possible so that the favorite plants will have time to regrow rather than being eradicated from the cycle.
Comment by anna Mon Mar 28 07:51:27 2011

I am reading your blog with keen interest. You seem to have a lot of the answers to questions I am asking.

We just purchased a house that has an area that is a long-forsaken dog run. It is covered and fenced already. Just need to adapt the shelter for chickens. The run is very shady and has nothing of value growing in it. In fact it is mostly dirt and fallen leaves. We just hacked down a bunch of volunteer trees growing up through the fencing. What can I plant that will grow in shade? The tree is deciduous, so in winter the area will get more sun. After I get this pasture going, I am going to work on adding more like you propose. :D

Comment by Lesley Mon Jul 9 12:47:55 2012

Lesley --- That's a good question, but there's no single right answer for every region. I can point you in the right direction to start your research, though.

All Flesh is Grass is a good starter book for folks with a small space trying to wrap their mind around pasture.

My chicken blog is where I've posted much more about this topic than over here, especially under the forest pasture and pasture rotation tags.

Now, back to specifics, a few things I'd especially suggest you look into. Do you live in a region where cool season or warm season grasses dominate? Do you really want to plant something and wait a year for it to get established enough that chickens won't wreck it, or would you rather just mow the current weeds every time they get a bit tall and let the natural grasses and forbs establish in a shorter time period? Or, given your shade situation, would you be better off with a run completely mulched with leaves and not try to grow anything? Do you want to try to make the pasture more chicken friendly (since chickens aren't set up to digest much grass) by adding fruit-bearing perennials?

I'm actually working on an ebook on this topic, so if you stay tuned, I'll probably have something more coherent for you by the end of the winter. :-)

Comment by anna Mon Jul 9 19:09:31 2012

Anna, Thanks for the reply and links. I'll check those out.

I am in North Central Texas, so fairly mild winters and brutal summers. Although, winter can see quite a bit of below freezing temps, and we often get a couple days of ice. Those are mixed with many days of 40s and 50s.

I am open to any ideas. I have read about creating a wire-covered patch in the chicken yard so that the chickens can't scratch the plants to death. So, I may try something like that - even if I just put wire mounted on 2x4s around the perimeter, then plant in the dirt.

I have been reading more since my first post. I could plant chard, asian greens and some other things. I've even read chickens will eat hostas.

I am open to planting perennials as well, including small fruiting shrubs. Nothing big, though.

Comment by Lesley Mon Jul 9 20:44:52 2012
Lesley --- Sounds like you're definitely in the realm of warm season grasses! Unfortunately, I don't have any experience with that kind of area, so I'd recommend you start out by talking to your local extension agent. He or she will have very mainstream suggestions, so take them with a grain of salt, but they will give you a starting off point. Good luck!
Comment by anna Tue Jul 10 09:25:19 2012