Improving soil with cover crops and chickens

Puny buckwheat

The photo above shows the
new tree alley in our starplate pasture, where I’m focusing on soil
building this year.  I grew a rye cover crop there over the winter,
left the chickens in the pasture for two full weeks in May, then tossed down buckwheat and sunflower seeds.  My goal at the time was to do back-to-back buckwheat plantings
the way I do in the vegetable garden to build organic matter fast in
summer-fallow areas, but one look at the blooming buckwheat changed my
mind.  Clearly, this soil is still very poor, since the cover crop
is blooming at a third to a half of the height it does in my vegetable

Cockerel on pasture

I haven’t done a soil
test in the starplate pasture, but my eye-balling of the earth while
digging swales suggests that it’s got a good texture and is
well-drained.  In the vegetable garden, I’d add a couple of inches
of horse manure to an area like this and would be able to plant into it
right away, but I never have enough horse manure to “waste” it on a
pasture.  The solution?  Chickens, of course.  I’ll turn
our young flock back into this tree alley for another week or two,
letting them eat what they can and add plenty of manure to the soil,
then will plant another round of buckwheat and see how the cover crop
grows.  My goal is to have the tree alley in good condition by this
winter when the time comes to plant out my
spring-grafted apple trees, and I’m willing to force our flock to graze on subpar pasture in the interim if necessary to reach that goal.

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