Pasture rotation problems

Optimal grazing window

Recovery period for a pastureI’ve been reading up on
intensive rotational pasture management, and in the process realized
that I planned my rotations completely wrong this past year. 
Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence
by Bill Murphy is an information-packed text detailing how to apply
Voisin management techniques to American pastures.  He explained
that you want to plan your rotation so that your pasture plants are
always growing at their fastest, which means giving your pasture less time
between grazing periods in the spring, then slowly extending the
recovery period as the grasses and clovers slow down in mid to late

A look at my pasture
rotation data from 2011 shows that I did just the opposite.  There
was so much greenery in the April pastures that I left our chickens in
each spot for two to three weeks, which resulted in recovery periods a
month long.  That method would have worked if I’d come along
behind the flock and mowed the pasture, but since I just ignored the
pasture during the recovery period, the grasses went to seed. 
Yes, our chickens enjoyed eating the grass seeds, but as you can tell
from the diagram at the top of this post, once grasses go to seed,
their growth slows considerably.  No wonder my pastures felt
terribly overgrazed throughout the summer — I told them to stop
growing in May!

Pasture gone to seedAlthough I’d already stacked
the deck against myself, I compounded my mistake with quick rotations
in the summer.  I didn’t feel good about leaving chickens in
troubled pastures very long, so I started rotating every five to seven
days.  The result was recovery periods too short for the pasture
plants to put out much growth, so bare spots developed…despite a
stocking density perhaps a tenth of what my pasture should be able to

I’ve got several ideas
for preventing these problems next year, including:

  • Setting aside one of the pastures to be mowed regularly for hay
    or garden mulch in the spring, then letting it reenter the chicken
    pasture rotation once we need the extra grazing area in the summer.
  • Raising all of our broilers in the spring to take advantage of
    the extra pasture growth.
  • Subdividing our existing pastures into smaller areas to allow
    longer recovery periods in the summer without letting chickens spend
    more than 6 days in each paddock

I’ve also realized that
I probably need to keep our chickens off pasture between
October/November and March/April to prevent degrading our pasture
quality.  That’s why we’ve gotten interested in making
free range work with our farm, and I’ve
also got some other winter ideas coming up.  Hopefully a more
scientific approach to pasture rotation will result in happier grass,
clover, and chickens in 2012.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to
do even if they have no pasture bugs to chase.  Pecking our
chicken nipples means the birds don’t pick on each other.

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