Perennials vs. annuals in chicken pastures

Over-grazed pastureIn the last year, I’ve been
experimenting with crops that I can grow in the chicken pasture to give
the chickens extra food.  After rotating chickens to a new
pasture, I’ve seeded bare patches with buckwheat, beans, wheat, field
peas, oats, clover, ground cherries, lettuce, amaranth, sunflowers, and
pearl millet, and have discovered a couple of flaws in this plan:

  • Planting annuals slows down the
    .  Our chickens get the most free food from pasture
    during their first week on fresh ground, but it generally takes at
    least a month or two after planting before I feel that crops are tall
    enough to allow chickens back into an empty pasture.  That tends
    to slow rotation down significantly, leading to overgrazed pastures
    like the one shown above.
  • Chickens don’t like cultivated food as much
    as wild food
    .  Over and over, I’ve turned chickens into
    pastures with mature annual crops…and the chickens have walked right
    past the cultivated food to eat chickweed or grass seed heads. 
    Clearly, I’m not as good at guessing what chickens like to eat as
    nature is.
  • Seeds scattered on bare ground are eaten by
    wild birds
    .  Although I don’t have this problem in the
    garden, the pastures have a small enough human presence that I have to
    bury seeds if I want them to come up.  Since the areas chickens
    scratch bare still have roots holding them together, this is tough to
    do without tilling.

Chicken in grassOn the other hand, the forest pasture (and the forest beyond the
pasture) hold nearly endless appeal for the chickens due to the
complexity of the environment.  Leafy areas under shrubs are great
for worm-hunting, a different weed always seems to be sending up tiny
fruits that the chickens relish, and there tend to be lots of flying
and crawling insects in a diverse environment.

As a result, I’m
changing gears and starting to plant perennials in the chicken
Timber bamboo shootespecially trees and shrubs
that will add complexity to the pastures’ ecological structure. 
I’ve discovered that it’s pretty easy to keep the adult chickens out of
newly planted and mulched areas by making a quick and dirty fence out
of four fence posts and a length of plastic trellis (although our
tweens did squeeze into one of these areas and demolished two young
grapevines.)  In a year or so, I’ll open up the fences and let the
chickens enjoy the leafy areas beneath grapevines, timber bamboo,
mulberries, and almonds.  As an advocate of permaculture and
(especially) forest gardening, I
should have guessed that pasture structure would be more important to
chickens than pasture contents.

Our chicken waterer works perfectly in pastures
since it never spills on uneven terrain.

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