Best chicken pasture

Weedy chicken pastureI posted previously that our
chickens changed their pasture preferences as the year progressed
.  So you shouldn’t be
surprised to learn that I think the perfect pasture system would have
seasonal components.  As I suggested in my post about
, I need to
start thinking about three separate seasons and either make each
pasture a mixture of plants for all three seasons or use different
pastures at different times of the year. 

Spring, summer, and fall pasture

The best spring, early
summer, and fall pasture would probably be a traditional perennial
mixture of grasses, clovers, and low weedy forbs (like plantain). 
(This is assuming you live far enough north that your pastures aren’t
dominated by warm season grasses, in which case your seasonal
progression will be totally different from mine.)  To maintain
low, tender growth that chickens enjoy in this type of traditional
pasture, we’ll have to either bushhog/mow the pasture occasionally to
keep tall weeds from taking over or add another grazer that will eat
woodier growth.  I’m pondering
goats and sheep
we may have too much on our plate to make that a reality anytime soon.

Miniature sheepIn southwest Virginia, we
need at least a few trees or shrubs in the summer pasture to keep the
chickens from overheating, but these should be useful trees that
produce fruits that the chickens enjoy rather than random trees that
only provide some fallen leaves to attract worms to the soil
surface.  Everbearing mulberries are the traditional choice — we
have three planted, but these will, of course, take years to produce
much fruit.  In the meantime, I suspect that some fruiting shrubs
would be a good option and perhaps I’ll transplant some of our extra
everbearing raspberries into the chicken pasture in the fall.  So,
the optimal pasture during spring, summer, and fall would look like
— useful
trees over a low grassy sward.

August pasture

In the heat of
midsummer, cool season grasses stop growing, so we need to start
thinking about extra pasture plants to feed the flock during this
season.  I was going to try to establish some Bermuda Grass in a
pasture or two since warm season grasses enjoy the heat, but I got
sticker shock when I checked out the seed prices at the local feed
Stockpiled pastureInstead, I’m pondering two
different options — either leaving a couple of cool season grass
pastures fallow during the early summer so that they stockpile extra
growth for the chickens to pick through in August, or planting tender
annuals like forage sorghum in a couple of spots for August

A third possibility is
to irrigate your pastures so they keep growing.  Although this
concept seems very wasteful at first glimpse, I’ve noticed that the
pastures directly downhill from our vegetable garden (watered weekly)
received enough runoff to stay much greener than other areas during our
August drought.  Perhaps you can drain your graywater into a
summer pasture or find some other way of irrigating without actually
running sprinklers on your summer pasture?

Of course, the positive
part about midsummer is that even though the pastures tend to get a bit
overgrazed, I’m giving the chickens garden scraps right and left, so
the flock stays healthy.  I could probably get away with no
special summer pasture as long as we don’t raise too many broilers.

Winter pasture

Chickens on ryeMore troublesome is
winter.  Once the really cold weather hits and all of the grasses
stop growing, the flock either needs a lot more space or they need some
sort of designated winter forage.  Again, stockpiling summer
growth is one option; although ruminants like cows get more out of this
rotation scheme than chickens do, at least your chickens won’t end up
scratching the pasture down to mud.  Another option is to plant
annuals — here I’m considering oats, rye, and Austrian winter peas,
all of which can be grazed much later in the season and earlier in the
spring than perennial grasses.  If you want to look far into the
future, a few persimmon trees can provide winter fruit.

The final winter option
is to do what homesteaders of old did — cull relentlessly and go into
winter with only your best breeding stock.  Since we’ve been
raising a lot of broilers this year, we’ll naturally be minimizing our
flock for winter, going from a summer high of nineteen birds in one set
of pastures to a winter low of around nine to twelve birds.

Still more to learn

As you can tell, I’ve
changed my pasturing ideas drastically after a year and a quarter of
experimentation, so I suspect this vision will morph several more times
before it works well.  Please take my ideas with a grain of salt
and use them as the basis of your own experimentation.  If you’ve
already figured out seasonal chicken pasturing, I hope you’ll take a
minute to comment and tell me what you’ve learned works well or poorly.

Having one large chicken waterer in each pasture makes it
easy to rotate pastures without extra work.

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