Chickens are an incredible addition to any homestead. They are relatively easy to care for, which makes them a great choice for beginners to animal husbandry, and they can give us so much in the form of eggs and meat. A typical way of keeping chickens is in a coop with one or two runs that are fenced in. While this is an acceptable means of keeping chickens, provided that the chickens are kept in a clean coop with plenty to eat in their run, the chickens are not doing as much work for you as they might be. The same is true for free range chickens. They are free to do as they like, but without some guidance, the chickens will choose their favorite areas and potentially over graze their favorite plants. This eventually leads to a pasture that is devoid of the chickens preferred vegetation.
What we can do instead, is use our chickens to improve the fertility and increase the diversity of our pastures, and through good management, we can actually use our chickens to establish a pasture that will help to feed them. The basic idea is that moving animals quickly through a small pasture in a controlled manner will create a disturbance in the soil. This occurs naturally through the chickens scratching the soil, eating vegetation, and trampling their droppings and other vegetation into the soil. I have a small tractor that I keep 8 chickens in. The tractor is about 8 ft. x 8 ft. so the chickens have a good amount of space. I keep them in one spot for a day or two and then I move them to the next spot, and I let the area that I just moved them from rest for about a month. Moving them this way increases the fertility of the land that they are moved on, and creates an opportunity for me to broadcast seeds of my choosing into the disturbed area. The alternative to tractoring is a paddock shift method. This method breaks a pasture into smaller sections called paddocks. The chickens are rotated through the paddocks and seeds are cast behind the chickens. The time spent in each paddock will be determined by the size of your flock, the size of the paddock, and the current quality of your pasture. but by the time the chickens are put back into the paddock that they started in, all of the vegetation should be regrown.
As I move the birds from one place to the next, every area is given about a month to rest, which is plenty of time for the seeds to take root and produce vegetation. My plan is to spread the seeds of plants that the chickens will eat. This helps give the birds more of the nutrients they need, and it cuts down on my feed bills. It is also of note that seeds germinate up to 60% better when the seeds are covered with something like hay or straw.
Below is a list of some of the plants that can be used for a chicken pasture:
- Red Clover
- Strawberry Clover
- Ladino Clover
- Dutch White Clover
- Perennial Ryegrass
All of these perennials can be found here.
- Black Oil Sunflower
- Dock (Sorrel)
- Annual Ryegrass
Many of these options can be found here. I am sure there are more options that I have forgotten, but there are many varieties for you to experiment with and see which plants your birds prefer. Not all seeds will sprout at the same time, with large mixes there can be many different conditions needed for germination. You may be discouraged when your red clover does not sprout in the fall, but you may be surprised next year when you suddenly find it popping up all over the place. As the pasture becomes more fertile and more diverse, eventually you will need to contribute less seed until hopefully even the annual crops reseed themselves to the point that they are essentially perennials.