Seasonal changes in chicken pasture preferences

Pastured chickensThis year, we’ve grazed our
chickens in four very different pastures
and I’m starting to get a feel for what kind of structure chickens like
best.  When I say “structure”, I’m talking about the difference
grasses and forbs
“traditional” pasture),
annual weeds

(what springs up in an unmown field after a year or two), and
.  I had
hypothesized at the beginning of the year that the first
would be the least tasty since grasses are far from a chicken’s
favorite food and don’t host very much invertebrate life and that the
last would be their favorite.  I figured tall weeds would fall
somewhere in between.

Chicken forest pastureEarly spring observations
seemed to bear my hypothesis out.  When
placed on grassy pastures, the chickens gravitated to the few woodsy
areas where fallen leaves had built up and tender chickweed grew. 
the forest pasture, our flock went crazy, eating a huge variety of
tender wild plants and finding plenty of worms.  And when our
first set
of chicks of the year were allowed to run wherever they wanted, they
headed straight into the woods to graze.

Then summer hit and the
tables turned.  The grasses kept growing,
putting out tasty seeds and tender new leaves, while the plants in the
forest spurted up above the chickens’ heads and turned woody and
untasty.  I eventually had to stop rotating the chickens into the
forest pasture because they just weren’t getting anything out of it,
and I came to the same conclusion about the pasture full of tall
ragweed plants.

Meanwhile, Mark fenced
in a second forest pasture to keep the chickens
from overgrazing their two main pastures.  I didn’t expect much
when I opened up the new pasture since the other forest pasture had
turned into
the flock’s least favorite spot, but our chickens once again had a
enjoying Japanese Stiltgrass leaves and lots of herbaceous plants’
seeds.  All of the photos in this post are from that new forest
pasture during the flock’s second morning of grazing.

On the other hand, after one day on wooded pasture, the ground was
already starting to change from this:

Forest floor

…into this:

Chicken scratched ground

Clearly, part of the
issue with forest pastures is that the sparse
ground cover can’t stand up to much chicken scratching.  Since
capture so much of the light in a wooded pasture, the forest floor
tends to have less growth in reach of chicken beaks and the birds use
up what’s there very quickly.  I suspect that young to middle-aged
deciduous forest used as
pasture will support only half to a third as many chickens as a grassy
pasture and that chickens should be rotated out of it within three days
to maintain the health of the pasture.  The variety of plants and
invertebrates available in a forest pasture probably makes the chickens
healthier, but only if you can come up with two to five times as much
acreage as you would need in a more traditional pasture.

In contrast, even during
hot, dry summer lull in late August, our grassy pastures could handle
our flock for at least a week and then rebounded within two or three
weeks.  True, the chickens don’t enjoy grass as much as they
relish forest products, but traditional pastures have a huge plus —
the sod is resilient enough to stand up to abuse.  If you only
have a tiny bit of space, a traditional pasture is probably the way to

Stay tuned for my next
post in which I’ll detail what I envision as the perfect pasture for
our region.

Our chicken waterer helps draw the flock to
unused portions of the pasture by providing a second focal point.

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