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Grasses and legumes for intensive pastures

Kentucky bluegrassWhen I started my adventures with chicken pasturing, I tried to micromanage the pasture, adding in plants that I knew chickens liked to eat.  In stark contrast, Joel Salatin believes that the most important characteristic of chicken pastures is a very short sward and that the individual species aren't as important.  The list below introduces a few of the common pasture grasses and legumes that seem to combine both characteristics --- easy digestibility and the ability to survive close grazing or mowing.

Kentucky bluegrass is ideal for intensive rotational grazing because it can handle close grazing and some mismanagement.  The species wants to produce most of its growth in the spring and then slow down in midsummer, but with good management, Bill Murphy attests that you can get much more uniform yields.  Kentucky bluegrass shouldn't be confused with Canada bluegrass, which provides less and lower quality forage for livestock, but which does better in poor soil.

Perennial ryegrass is an ideal pasture grass if you live in zone 5 or warmer and can provide high nitrogen and moist growing conditions.  The leaves contain a lot of Perennial ryegrassnonstructural carbohydrates, which means they're very digestible and might be a good choice for chickens. 

Orchardgrass can handle moderate soil fertility and low moisture, but it tends to get tall and inedible quickly if not grazed carefully.  If you have orchardgrass, you'll need to graze early and often since chickens can't digest tough leaves.

Timothy has a lot of advantages, being very palatable, persistent, easy to establish, and tolerant of poor drainage.  However, the grass can't handle drought and has a low yield.  Timothy is a taller grass than the others mentioned here, but can tolerate close grazing.

White clover is the primary legume in management intensive pastures since it survives close grazing and grows quickly.  When mixing grasses with white clover, you need to graze or mow the grasses closely in the spring so that they don't shade out the legumes.

White cloverRed clover is more deep-rooted and can withstand drought, but is also more upright, so can't deal with close grazing.  Alfalfa is even more deep-rooted, but can't handle frequent grazing, requiring a 25 to 30 day recovery period even in the spring.

Gene Logsdon's All Flesh is Grass is sitting on my shelf waiting to provide my continued pasture education.  A quick flip through the book suggests that it will give additional information on good pasture species, so I'll write more on that topic later this fall.  In the  meantime, I'm inclined to believe that Joel Salatin and Bill Murphy know what they're talking about ---  even young, tender fescue leaves are probably more tasty to chickens than old bluegrass leaves from plants gone to seed.

Our chicken waterer is the other component in a healthy chicken diet, providing clean drinking water.



This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Is that KY 21 or KY 31 fescue?
Comment by Errol Fri Oct 28 13:45:05 2011
I'm just talking about the species level, not varieties of each species. My understanding is that there are quite a few modern varieties of each species --- even new varieties of white clover that are supposed to be able to fix a lot more nitrogen than older varieties! So, to answer your question --- both, and probably other varieties of fescue as well.
Comment by anna Fri Oct 28 16:50:38 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime