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

My chicken-pasturing journey

Feeding wild chicksAlthough I've been experimenting with the best way to pasture chickens for about a decade, the real root of my journey began in childhood.  The photo to the left shows my sister feeding some of the chickens that ran wild in our suburban neighborhood, foraging for a living in backyards and in a small wooded lot.

A few people tossed out bird seed for our neighborhood flock from time to time, but the fowl primarily made their own way in the world, roosting in trees, raising their chicks in secluded bramble patches, and hunting through the leaves for dinner.  I figured if these feral chickens could make a living in the city, surely I could replicate their success in a more controlled fashion on my own homestead.

Not counting the wild chickens that roamed our street when I was a child, I began my chicken-keeping career roughly a decade ago Chicken hopping out of coopwith the traditional coop-and-run combo that most old-school chicken-keepers favor.  As you can see in the photo to the right, the run quickly turned into a bare, muddy mess.  In retrospect, I wonder if my flock was any better off than factory-farmed hens, who at least don't have to deal with cold, wet feet.  Lesson learned: you can't pasture a lot of chickens in a small space with no rotation and expect any greenery to remain.

Chicken tractor

After Mark and I moved to our homestead, I read Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman's Chicken Tractor and decided the authors had come up with a brilliant solution to the puzzle of pastured poultry.  Our homemade tractors allowed us to pull the flock to a new patch of lawn every day, ensuring the hens didn't spend long on muddy ground and that they always had something green to enjoy.

Chicken tractor in winterBut the chicken tractor system also turned out to be imperfect for our homestead.  When we decided to scale up past a few laying hens to raise our own meat birds, we learned that roosters and small tractors don't mix, and that big tractors are heavy and hard to move by hand.  Meanwhile, we were becoming discontented with chicken tractors during the winter, not because the chickens couldn't take the cold in an exposed tractor, but because our lawn doesn't grow during the winter months.  So our chickens eventually ended up with the cold, muddy feet I was trying to avoid.

Our next experiment involved rotational chicken pastures, a modified version of which we still use today.  The first year, I raised broilers and a broody hen in the pastures and kept our main laying flock in tractors.  After the meat birds went into the freezer, I added the rest of the layers to the pasture and was struck by the difference in comb color between our broody hen (who had been on pasture all summer) and the tractored layers of the same age.  The truly-pastured Barren chicken runbroody hen had a brilliant red comb, a sure sign of good health, while our tractored hens looked drab in comparison—the rotational pasture had proven its worth.

But, of course, I still had a steep learning curve ahead of me.  The photo to the left shows my first rotational pasture after a summer of hard chicken scratching.  Yes, it did turn into a moonscape nearly as bad as my non-rotational chicken run.  I had a lot left to learn about maintaining a quality rotational-pasture system, a topic that fills the bulk of Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

Chickens on pastureAs you can tell, I made a lot of mistakes on my way to chicken self-sufficiency, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not entirely there yet.  Building any kind of permaculture system is a process of trial and error as you create a cultivated ecosystem that matches your climate and growing area.  But hopefully my experiences will jumpstart your own chicken-pasturing experiments so you reach your goal as quickly as possible.

This post is excerpted from Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, available for 99 cents on Amazon.

This post is part of our Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics 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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Here's a better chicken tractor solution for small flocks 6-feet or 12-feet long - affordable cheers roy

Comment by roynilson Mon Oct 28 15:01:36 2013

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