Preventing over-grazed chicken pastures

Chick on pastureAt first, chicks have nearly
no impact on a pasture.  They seem to be eating constantly, but
they’re just so tiny that the plants grow back faster than the tiny
birds can consume the greenery.

But as chicks morph into
miniature chickens around week four to six, they suddenly start eating
much faster (and scratching up the ground to boot).  Last year, I
wasn’t prepared for our broilers’ suddenly voracious appetites, and let
our pastures get overgrazed, but this year I vowed to do better. 
So far, it’s working.

Everyone’s homestead is
different, so my techniques won’t necessarily work for you, but here
are some tricks that have made our grazing lives easier:

  • Temporary chicken pastureStart broilers early
    Since our chicks hatched at the beginning of March, the pasture plants
    are currently at peak growth at the same time the chicks start to
    double down on the greenery.
  • Pay attention to the pasture
    It really helped to put the chicks right outside our kitchen window,
    because I could tell when their forays
    into the forest garden
    began to have a negative impact on the
    perennials.  Be sure to rotate chickens to a new pasture before
    the ground is really stressed.
  • Pasture lawnHave plenty of room to rotate
    .  We’re using temporary
    fencing material
    , so it only took fifteen minutes to move the
    chicks’ pasture from around the peach tree to encompass a big patch of
    clover-filled “lawn”.  We’ve got quite a lot of these lawn patches
    between fruit trees and berries, so I hope we won’t run out of fresh
    ground before the time comes to put the broilers in the freezer. 
    (Movable coops make utilizing bits and pieces of space like this much
    more feasible.)
  • Mow pasture areas.  Chicks,
    especially, will only eat greenery if it’s very tender and young, so
    treat their pasture like a lawn.  It should be mowed about a week
    or two before you turn your birds into the space, and again right after
    you rotate the flock out.
  • Alert chickRaise fewer birds at a time
    If you buy chicks from a hatchery, you’re forced to bring home 25 or
    more at a time, but incubating
    your own eggs
    lets you keep the number of voracious beaks
    down.  Assuming you don’t mind the limited selection, picking up
    chicks at the feed store gives you the same flexibility.
  • Plan an emergency release valve
    If it looks like your chickens are going to turn their pasture into a
    moonscape, don’t simply throw up your hands and let them do it. 
    Plan ahead and have an area to turn the chicks into where they can’t do
    much harm.  Our release valve is let the adult hens forage
    in the woods
    (assuming we finish fencing off the garden), but yours
    might be a heavily mulched run or a patch of ground you want to have
    eaten bare to turn into a garden next year.

We still have plenty of
time to make mistakes since our first set of broilers is only six weeks
old and they’ll soon be joined by another batch.  Here’s hoping we
manage to keep over-grazing to a minimum and have even tastier meat
this year.

Adding a chicken waterer at the far end of a
permanent pasture helps spread your flock’s foraging more evenly across
the space.

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