For three months, our
laying hens did great in their pasture. I moved them to a new
paddock once a week, then Mark
came along behind me to mow. That routine
prevented last year’s problem of the pasture going to seed during the
spring rush, but a new issue was on the horizon — lack of water.
We haven’t had a real rain
here in weeks, and our usually wet farm is bone dry. Rather than
rebounding after being grazed, pastures are starting to grow up in
smartweed and other plants chickens don’t like…if anything grows back
at all. Plus, without rain, the manure is building up on the soil
surface, which leads to flies. So I decided to revert to my
winter escape hatch and let
the hens out into the woods.
We saved a rooster from
our first round of broilers to join the laying hens, and I’m hoping
he’ll hold the flock together during their summer vacation. The
woods is just as dry as the pastures, of course, but there’s a lot more
space out there for the chickens to scratch through.
If you don’t have acres
of woodland handy to turn your chickens into, there are other
possibilities for summer escapes when the pastures are looking
over-grazed. We water our vegetable garden using sprinklers,
which means that the grassy aisles are just as green as can be.
In a pinch, we could separate our laying flock out into two or three
tractors and graze them on this lush ground. Alternatively, we
could fence off a compost/deep bedding area and keep the mulch thick
enough that it wouldn’t matter if the hens scratched it bare.
Another alternative is
simply to improve the quality of the pastures. I gathered most of
the compostables from last year’s pasture compost piles this spring to
feed the garden, but I missed one that had been scratched flat into the
soil. There, dandelions and clovers are happily growing, several
inches taller than the surrounding pasture. I’ve always read that
better pasture management means more forage, but it’s striking to see
the results of extra organic matter in person. Someday, I hope
all of our pastures look that lush, even several weeks into a drought.
hydrated, even if their pasture dries to a crisp.