We are aching here for the snow to go away. After a near record-breaking year we still have 6-8 inches of snow on our pasture and it’s driving me nuts! I want to be outside building coops, putting up fencing, and starting to plant!
I want to go out and see the pasture, see how it’s set up and what I can do with it. After doing a painful amount of reading and researching I have decided to plant a permculture pasture in the hopes that my chickens could feed themselves during the warmer months. This is a heated discussion online. Lots of people say it can’t be done – I just think this is a weird view to take. I mean what did chickens do before people had bagged grains to feed them?? I mean chickens were domesticated 10,500 years ago. Bagged feed has only been part of the equation in the US since the 1900’s. What were chickens doing before that?! To add to this puzzle there are feral chickens all over the US, lost souls who roam ownerless and usually thrive. What are they eating?
I started my search with a book about pastured meat chickens written in the 1990’s. The author was thrilled his Cornish crosses experienced a 5-20% reduction in grain consumption after he rigged a large portable tractor-like thing and moved them twice a day over cow pasture where they ate grass and maggot-filled cow poop. As lovely as that is there’s three problems with this that I find. 1) Cornish crosses are sluggish abominations of the chicken world. A 5% reduction in grain costs is pathetic and demonstrates just how bad they are at foraging and being chickens. 2) Cow pastures are better than living inside an industry building but these tend to be monocultures only growing one or two types of plants which I don’t think is any better than making people live on bowl after bowl of iceberg lettuce. 3) The grass that is grown for cows is not nearly as palatable to chickens as it is to cows! Chickens like newly sprouted green of all kinds as well as flowers, seeds, bugs, and all sorts of other things.
Next I found someone who successfully raised laying hens, a fair number, by letting them scratch through compost year-round. The compost was warm enough to keep snow off and the chickens mostly ate scraps and bugs they found in it. This is great but that was A LOT of compost, dozens of heaping piles of it plowed there by tractor. I don’t think this is my answer…
And then I came across rotation pastures. The idea is you plant 4-6 pastures per small flock and you rotate them every week or so that the pasture has a chance to recover from the chickens eating it and you won’t end up with any bare ground. Rotation pastures are part of my answer but now I needed chicken-friendly plants. Fortunately for me our bald pastures are in need of a cover crop to repair the damage done by overstocking and cover crops (otherwise known as weeds) seem to be on the hot list of chicken friendly plants. So it looks like I will be planting the pasture with various clovers, alfalfa, chickweed, henbit, dandelions, comfrey, wild strawberries, various grasses, as well as some other things off my list. I am thinking of planting the perimeter of these pastures with berry bushes and leaving at least one fruit tree in the middle of each. Fruit trees take three years to bear fruit but hey, that’s a lot of apples and whatnot once they do! Outside of the pastures I will be dedicating some land to planting sunflowers, millet, and pumpkins, and raising meal worms and other bugs, to help feed them through the winter when foraging is more or less impossible. It’ll take a few years to get this system to work optimally but I dream big. Besides I think with this improved diet and space the chickens will be healthier and produce healthier chicks, eggs, and meat.