Maybe your pasture
grew up in annual weeds, which you lopped off to
leave bare ground.
Maybe the chickens made that bare ground for you
by scratching up the grass in over-grazed pastures. Or perhaps you’re
trying to turn high perennial weeds into something your chickens will
way, if you’re going into winter without plenty of good pasture for
your chickens, you can fill in the gap by planting annual forage
Most of the plants you’d use
as winter cover crops in your garden can work as
forage crops, but they have varying utility for chickens. For
grazing as late into the winter as possible, you’ll want to choose rye,
although this grain might be less tasty to your flock than the more
cold sensitive wheat and barley. Wheat is problematic in our area
since you have to plant
it late to escape Hessian fly damage, which doesn’t give the
plants long enough to produce much leaf matter for your chickens.
Barley leaves are perhaps the easiest to digest of the winter grains,
but barley plants aren’t as winter hardy, so you can’t graze them as
close or as often.
If you don’t graze wheat,
barley, or rye too hard, the plants will survive the winter and will
produce some grain in the spring. Although I thought this was a
good idea last year, I discovered that growing grains in your pasture
isn’t the best use of limited space — chickens don’t get much out of
the plants once they start to shoot up and flower, so you’ll basically
be putting your pasture out of commission for the spring and
summer. Instead of dealing with killing winter hardy grains
before they become unpalatable to your flock, you might choose to plant
oats if you live in zone 6 or colder — oats will winterkill in our
climate, leaving a nice mulch that I can rake back and plant a
perennial pasture grass or summer annual into in the spring.
It’s also worth looking
beyond the grasses to plants that might be more nutritious to your
chickens. Austrian winter peas are a cold hardy variety of field
peas that can be mixed in with your winter grains to give your chickens
more protein. The cold sensitivity of Austrian winter peas lies
midway between oats and barley, so factor that into your plans for late
winter grazing and early spring killing. While you’re at it, why
not plant a few patches of leafy greens like mustard? Chickens
enjoy most tender vegetables that people eat, so it’s worth
experimenting with whatever grows well in the winter in your climate.
After the soil
preparation shown in the photos above, I’ve had pretty good luck
tossing seeds of all of these plants
directly on top of bare soil and scattering a very light mulch of straw
on top. You can plant most or all of these crops between the
beginning of August
and mid September in zone 6, but keep in mind that the earlier you
plant, the more time your crops will have to get established and resist
winter’s cold (and chicken feet.) The most winter hardy forage
crops, like rye, can actually be planted after your first frost, but
you might not get to graze late planted rye until spring.
Plan your pasture rotation so
that you can get your chickens to work up the ground right before
planting, then keep the flock out of the forage plot until your crops
are six to eight inches tall. Once the forage has grown that
much, let your chickens eat the greenery down to two to three inches
and then rest the pasture again until it is six to eight inches
tall. As winter cold hits, you’ll need to give the pasture longer
between each bout of grazing, and you may eventually decide to just let
the flock stay in and kill what’s left so that you don’t have to deal
with it in the spring.
I’m just experimenting
with planting annual winter forage for our flock, so I’d love to hear
from anyone who has already tried it. My hope is that my pastures
of oats, rye, Austrian winter peas, oilseed radish, mustard, and
chicory will give the flock a winter pick-me-up and help prevent the
bare, muddy ground we ended up with last winter. I’ll keep you
posted on how the chickens respond once the forage crops are tall
enough to try out.
pasture for winter, consider heated
options, explained in depth in our do it yourself instructions.