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

Streamlining chicken pasturing

Chickens eating oilseed radishes

Mowing a pastureThis 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.

Planting buckwheat in a pastureThe 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 radishes this 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.

New pasture plantsMeanwhile, 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.
Chick on pasture
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 Chickens eating comfreywere 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.

Jewelweed seed

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 hits.

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.

This post is part of our 2012 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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