The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Getting started with rotational chicken pastures

Chickens on pasture

Chicken pasture fencingIf 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.

What 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 fences.

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 Rotational chicken pasturesbottom will be sufficient.  Here's my theory on what you should do if your chickens try to escape.  A well-trained dog is our solution to predation.

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.

What 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 Popholepophole 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.

How much space do I need to devote to chicken pastures?
Mainstream pastured 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. 

Australorp pulletKeep 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.

How 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 Chicken waterer attracts chickens to end of pasturebefore 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.

What's 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.

Chickens in the snowDoes 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 winter sun.

What's the best type of pasture?
Chickens 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.

Is one time of the year best for raising broilers?
Chicken in grassOnce 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.

Should I include other animals in my pastures?
Joel Salatin's model uses grazing animals like cows, sheep, or goats to keep the tall weeds down Chicken moatand 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.

Can I 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 pasturing!

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Excellent information. I'm leaning towards rotational pastures, but I'm not quite there yet.

Once your garden plants are established, are you able to let the chickens into the garden without them doing damage to the crops? The reason I ask is we have a horrible time with Mexican bean beetles. This is after the bean plants are full grown and starting to produce beans. Would I be able to let them in to eat the beetles? Or would they destroy the bean plants as well?

Comment by Greg S Tue Oct 4 14:15:40 2011

With the sole exception of the six week old broilers I've currently let have free run of the yard, I've never had any luck with chickens in the garden. Perhaps if I planted a traditional garden --- everything goes in at the frost free date and you pick off and on for the next two months and let it die out by mid summer. But my garden always has seedlings coming up (which chickens love to scratch up), and there's always something delicious for them to peck at (tomatoes, strawberries, etc.) The worst, though, is the way they scratch the mulch off my beds.

And I'm afraid they won't help with your Mexican bean beetle infestation. We had a bad case this year too, and at first I picked the beetles for the chickens, but they wouldn't eat them! I think that yellow gunk inside must taste bad.

Comment by anna Tue Oct 4 18:48:06 2011

That's the answer I was expecting. I figure that yellow stuff that comes out if you grab them is a defense mechanism.

As for pulling up the seedlings, I do have seedlings going in all the time, but I have all raised beds that I can block off. I would just put a fence around each bed I didn't want them in.

Comment by Greg S. Wed Oct 5 09:07:05 2011
I was trying to remember how you got Lucy. Having a well-trained dog has been a really important component of your farm -- but I don't remember you training her. Or did you? Senior moment? Refresh my memory?
Comment by Heather Wed Oct 5 09:41:11 2011

Heather --- We got Lucy from our mechanic's daughter, who had to keep her tied since she didn't play well with her other dogs. She was out of control when we got her --- I could barely hold onto her leash as we walked her back to the trailer.

I wrote a lunchtime series about how to train a farm dog detailing how we turned her into the excellent member of the family she is today. (Just this morning, she met one of our 6.5 year old chicks nose to nose and then cordially sat down to watch it eat its breakfast.)

Lucy really does pull her weight and more on the farm. Yes, she doesn't keep the deer away and very occasionally jumps in the garden, but she keeps the chickens and cats safe, chases away the band of feral dogs that roam in the woods nearby, and alerts us on the rare occasions that someone comes up our driveway. She's worth her weight in gold!

Comment by anna Wed Oct 5 15:26:17 2011

Hi Anna, I know this is an old post, but it's one that's stuck in my mind for a long time. I've always wanted to do something similar, but could never quite get the logistics to work out in my yard.

Instead of paddocks, I've seen people rotate chickens in a tractor over garden beds, and tried it briefly, but it was too much work, too hard to move the tractor, and I soon gave up. I liked Linda Woodrow's "chook dome" mandala garden system too, but it needed too much space and flat ground, and didn't give enough protection to the chickens (we get a lot of dogs and foxes).

My other problem is birds and possums eating everything I try to grow. I have a few friends in the area with caged gardens, which seemed a drastic but effective solution to that problem.

Then I hit upon the idea of dividing the cage up into bays, and rotating the chickens through those bays like the mandala system. It was a lot of effort to set up, but it's working really well so far. I've documented it here if you're interested:

I'd love to hear any feedback you can offer!

I do have the benefit of being able to grow year-round in my climate, we get no snow or frosts - not everyone has that luxury!

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Mon Aug 13 10:06:37 2018
Darren --- Your blog post showed up on my RSS feed last week and I was really impressed by the lush garden you've developed with your system. I really appreciate you sharing and recommend anyone reading this go and check it out!
Comment by anna Mon Aug 13 16:09:38 2018

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