Getting started with rotational chicken pastures
If you're starting from
scratch with pasturing chickens the way we were this year, you'll
probably be asking a slew of questions. Your first decision will
be between chicken
tractors and day range --- we chose the latter so I'll focus on
rotational pastures in this post. Here are some of the questions
I wish I'd known the answers to twelve months ago.
kind of fencing should I use?
Your second decision is
between permanent and temporary pastures. The
former are harder to build in the short run and are more expensive per
square foot, but are easier to use in the long run. If you're
raising 50 or fewer chickens in your backyard, I'd recommend permanent
For happy chickens who
don't live in a predator hotspot, a roll of
five foot chicken wire strung between t-posts about 15 feet apart with
a few old boards or logs tacking down the bottom will be
my theory on what you should do if your chickens try to escape. A well-trained
dog is our solution
If you'd prefer
temporary fencing, the traditional choice is electrified netting.
I wrote about why
electrified netting is often a poor choice for the backyard and what I
use instead here.
does a permanent, rotational grazing system look like for chickens?
A chicken coop sits at
the center, surrounded by several small pastures (often called
paddocks.) The chickens spend the night in the coop (and go
inside whenever they want to lay an egg), then exit through a small pophole into the pasture of your
choice. When you want to move the chickens to a new pasture, it's
as simple as closing the old pophole while the chickens
are all sound asleep and then opening a pophole into the next pasture.
One of my favorite parts
of this system is how easy it is to move chickens to a new patch of
ground. I've seen several temporary fencing or chicken tractoring
systems where people get lazy and let the chickens sit on the same
patch of ground far too long because it's just a pain in the butt to
move them. You won't have that problem here.
much space do I need to devote to chicken pastures?
poultry producers will tell you that broilers need 10 square feet of
pasture per bird per week (or a total of 40 square feet for the four
weeks the birds typically live on pasture.) You should consider
that the bare minimum required for breeds that don't forage much, with
the chickens housed in tractors that are moved daily so that the flock
can't scratch the ground bare.
In my permanent,
rotational pastures with keen foragers, I see pasture degradation when
I have fewer than 270 square feet per bird during the summer. I
suspect I'd need at least twice that much space to keep the ground from
turning into mud in the winter.
Keep in mind that the
amount of space your chickens need will depend on a variety of factors, including climate, season,
chicken breed and age, and pasture quality. If in doubt, give
your chickens as much space as you can --- the more they can roam, the
more they will supplement storebought feed with insects caught on the
wing. You can tell that your flock doesn't have enough space when
bare spots turn up amid the grass, you can see poop on the ground, and
the pasture starts to smell and fill with flies.
many pastures do I need?
What you're really
asking here is --- how long should I leave my chickens in one paddock
and how long should I let that paddock sit fallow before I move
chickens back into it? The answer will depend on whether you're
just raising broilers when pasture plants are growing fast or are
keeping laying hens year round. Your type and quality of pasture
plants will also affect the answer.
Once again, it's helpful to
look at the bare minimum, which is four pastures for summer use or six
pastures for year round use. If you size each pasture so that
your flock eats the tender growth in about a week, you'll be able to
rotate the chickens through three other pastures before turning them back into
the first one in a four pasture system. Three weeks off is
sufficient for plants to rebound as long as they
weren't overgrazed, the pasture got enough rain, and it's not too cold
or hot for growth. Click
here to read more about pasture rotation.
the best shape for a pasture?
The perfect chicken
pasture is square, but you'll often have to work around obstructions
and use a wiggly or rectangular shape. If you can help it, don't
make your pasture more than twice as long as it is wide or chickens
will tend to hang out near the coop and not explore the far
reaches. A sharp bend in the pasture will have the same
effect. You can counteract this behavior to some extend by
locating a compost pile or chicken waterer at the far end of the
pasture location matter?
Yes. In the
winter, chickens will do best if their pasture is in the sunniest
possible location, beyond the shade of hills, buildings, or evergreen
trees. In the summer, the reverse is true --- chickens like some
sunny spots but will enjoy hanging out in shaded corners and under
bushes. You can either build separate pastures for winter and
summer or can create the best of both worlds by using deciduous trees
to shade certain parts of your summer pasture while letting in the
the best type of pasture?
enjoy succulent, young growth, which means that tall
plants like ragweed are the worst choice for your pasture. The
best types of groundcover for year-round growth tend to be perennial
grasses and legumes like bluegrass, clover, etc. You may want
to plant paddocks of annual
grains and legumes to extend the pasture season into the cold
weather. Trees and shrubs can be useful additions if they produce
fruits that chickens enjoy, but there's a tradeoff since the perennials
will also shade out the undergrowth even when the trees aren't bearing.
one time of the year best for raising broilers?
Once you get a feel for the
peak production times for your individual pasture, you'll know when it
can handle an influx of extra birds. In regions like ours where
pastures are dominated by cool season grasses, those peak periods occur
in mid spring to mid summer and again in early fall. Putting one
set of broilers on pasture in May and pasturing another in September
would use our pastures to best effect.
include other animals in my pastures?
Salatin's model uses
grazing animals like cows, sheep, or goats to keep the tall weeds down
and the chicken-friendly plants growing as fast as possible. Miniature
livestock are an
option for the backyard, but an alternative is to simply mow your
pasture a few times a year.
use chicken pastures to keep deer out of the garden?
Chicken moats are a permaculture concept
that utilize linear chicken pastures on the perimeter of a garden to
deter deer. Even though the deer can jump over a five foot fence,
they don't like to be confined and will hesitate to jump two in
succession. Our deer moats have worked very well...too bad they
don't completely encircle our tender garden plants.
I'm sure I'll have
another long list of mistakes to shun next year, but that's the fun of
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