Streamlining chicken pasturing
This year's experiments with
chicken pastures were mostly a streamlining of the process that we
started to hammer into shape in 2011. In general, our trials this
year had to do with improving wild pastures vegetated with whatever
sprung up after we cut the plants too tall for chicken beaks.
I found that mowing
the pastures as high
as possible (which isn't very high with our mower) after the chickens
are rotated to the next pasture cuts back the weeds that the flock
ignored. That gives chicken-friendly plants more space to
grow. It seems to be necessary to come back through with clippers
once in the summer, too, to
hit weeds along the fenceline that outgrew the mower. I can tell that this
simple maintenance duo is going to have our sunnier pastures
grass-filled in just a couple of years.
The three pastures under
heavy tree canopies are going slower at the grassing up process, so I
decided to take the opportunity to improve what's currently pretty poor
soil. I planted
buckwheat in one this summer, then replaced it with oilseed
fall. The cover crops aren't thriving in this shade, but they are
producing some biomass. Hopefully we'll find time to take the
problematic trees down this winter and start replacing them with more
chicken-friendly bushes that are spaced far enough apart that they let
the grasses grow.
Meanwhile, I tried to convert
two other relatively barren pastures (also in the shade) over to
pasture plants that chickens enjoy. The trouble is that I
planted cover crops along with the grasses and clovers as a nurse crop,
and the former outcompeted the latter. I
did get some perennials to come up in one spot, but it was impossible to
keep the chickens off the tender growth this summer, and I think I
wiped my hard-won grass and clover out. I'm hopeful that the bare
ground left behind by the oilseed radishes will give me a good spot to
try again, but I'll have to commit to keeping the flock completely out
of that pasture until 2014.
The one thing we did
right was to (mostly) prevent
overgrazing of the pastures this year. It really
helped to figure out temporary
fencing (and the free
range escape hatches
I posted about yesterday) so that we weren't forced to keep chickens on
over-used ground simply because we had nowhere else to put them.
As usual, I also spent a
lot of time peering at our poultry to see what they were actually
eating on pasture. I learned that (despite what the books say) winter
cover crops of oats and field peas were ignored by our picky
flock, as were sweet
potatoes I tried to feed them whole and raw. On the other hand, winter
rye and mustards were pecked right up.
In a surprise
about-face, our chicks this year enjoyed both comfrey and oilseed
radishes (both of
which were on the no-good list for previous flocks). Cicadas and jewelweed
seeds were other new
I've got plenty of
experimentation ahead for improving our pastures, and an ebook in the
works to help others follow our lead without muddling through all of
our mistakes. Stay tuned to our chicken blog for a blow-by-blow, or wait
until next year's sum-up over here for more details.
Our chicken waterer never spills
on uneven ground, so it's a perfect fit for pastures.
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