Pastured Poultry in Paddocks5
Though the iconic mental picture most of us get when it comes to raising chickens is the standard coop and run, there are many methods for raising chickens. Here’s a quick overview of your options:
- Coop and Run. A dwelling for the chickens with an attached, enclosed cage allowing the birds some outdoor space.
- Chicken Tractor. A small but moveable pen which is rotated around a pasture, usually every week.
- Truly Free Range. Allowing birds to find their own food, water and shelter on your property.
- Pastured Poultry in Pens. Similar to a chicken tractor but much larger and moved more often (i.e., twice daily).
- Pastured Poultry in Paddocks. Chickens rotate through several paddocks planted with food chickens can self-harvest.
About the Options
Each of these methods have their pros and cons. To be completely transparent, I’m not here to tell you about all the pluses of each option – if you want to know the pros, you’ll want to do some extra research.I’m here to talk to you about the option we’re using: Pastured poultry in paddocks. However, to adequately tell you why I believe #5 is the best option, I have to talk a bit about the challenges of the first four so you’ll understand how using paddocks addresses the limitations of those other options. Brace yourself – the negativity is about to get a little deep for a paragraph or two here.
The Coop and Run method is first. The problem here mostly be summed up on one word I repeatedly tell my seven-year-old not to say at the dinner table: Poop. In a Coop and Run system, lots and lots of poop piles up in one location. The result is a stinky mess and a flock that lives (walks, sits, eats, drinks) in pathogens from their own feces. (Doesn’t that sound appetizing?) Even when chickens have access to the outdoors (the Run) there’s still a messy accumulation of poop. Also, the chickens completely obliterate any green vegetation that used to exist in the pen. So in essence, these birds live in a poop hole and a mud pit. This is not good. #drops the mic
With all of that accumulation of yuck, at some point you’re going to have to clean it up. Which means either a) you’re constantly cleaning up after chickens or b) you hardly ever clean up after chickens but they live in filth. And as Paul Wheaton points out, when you do clean the coop, all of that yuck is airborne for at least a little while.
Next let’s talk about Chicken Tractors. This is an improvement over the Coop and Run method because there is less accumulation of poo in one area. However, the tractor sizes tend to be on the small size (just because you can put birds in an area that small doesn’t mean you should). Also, the effectiveness of the method depends heavily on how often the tractor is moved. Here’s what Mr. Wheaton has to say about it:
“A few people will move a chicken tractor once or twice per day, such that the chickens will consume about 30% of what is growing in a spot before moving on. This is an improvement over what most people will do which is to leave the chicken tractor in one spot until all vegetation is gone. Or worse, beyond that point. Consider that in general, 40% of what grows on the ground is probably good for chickens to eat. 30% is slightly toxic and the rest is very toxic. If left in one spot for more than a few hours, the chickens end up eating their own poop that has fallen on their ‘food’.”
Our next option is truly free range chickens – as in no coop, no pen, no tractor, no nothing. The challenge here is that we’ve taken on the responsibility to care for these animals but left them vulnerable to predators and possibly lack of available food (depends on what your land is like). In addition, eggs will be laid all over the place and you’ll have no idea how old they are. Aaaand this romantic idea of letting chickens run free like they do in the wild will loose its appeal quickly when your patio furniture and car and lawn mower and dog house and back lawn and swing set and swimming pool are all slathered in chicken droppings.
Onward to Pastured Poultry in Pens. This is similar to a chicken tractor only the pen is larger and moved more often (2 times a day). Less waste accumulates in one spot, and (if you’re really on top of things) the chickens don’t decimate the ground cover before they move. The challenge here is that making it work requires you to move the pen twice day. I don’t even like to answer the phone twice a day, let alone move a big chicken pen around my yard.
Pastured Poultry in Paddocks
Now with all that negativity behind us (where did that sarcastic girl come from?!) let’s sweeten things up a bit! After much reading I have become convinced that using paddocks is the best way to raise chickens. For those of you who are chicken owners that may be a little hacked off at me for dissing your method of raising chickens, allow me to state that I am 10,000% aware that everything I am espousing is theoretical because I haven’t actually done it yet. I promise one year from now to make an honest, public assessment of whether or not paddocks are working and/or I have unfairly judged the preceding four methods. I hereby reserve your public right to throw virtual tomatoes at me if I’m wrong. But alas, although my opinion is merely theoretical at this point, I do think it is based on sound reasoning and experience/advice from experts. Here goes…
The gist of using paddocks for chickens is that you provide multiple (i.e., four) fenced areas which the chickens can access from their coop. These areas are deliberately planted with vegetation that is healthy for chickens to self-harvest. The paddocks are also planted with an overstory (trees to roost in, especially for protection) and an underbrush (especially to hide from airborne predators). By planting perennial food, you further minimize the amount of work necessary on your part to feed the chickens (the plants come back every year). Paddocks are designed to be large enough so that chickens can hang out there for an entire week before moving on to the next paddock; There is enough vegetation in each paddock that they do not decimate the landscape before they leave. (To further protect the ground cover, you could make use of these grazing screens. These enable chickens to eat the top portions of ground cover but not to destroy the plants by uprooting them.) In a system with four paddocks, the first paddock will have three weeks to “recover” before the chickens are back to eat more.
Poop doesn’t accumulate all in one place. The entire bug population is not destroyed in one day. Vegetation is not obliterated. And the only work you have to do is let the chickens out in the morning (each paddock is accessed from the coop via a different gate) and close up the coop at night. This is good. #Drops the mic
This method is not without its own challenges. First is cost. You have to be able to setup fenced areas with multiple gates and purchase seeds/bulbs/trees, etc. to plant in each paddock. Second is the issue we began this article with: Poop in the Coop. (Sounds like a poorly named 80’s group, doesn’t it??) Using the paddock method should dramatically reduce the amount of waste in the coop since the chickens do not spend all of their time there. But for the waste that will end up in your coop, you can utilize the deep liter method. Click here for a great article on how and why to use this method, but in a nutshell, you use a large amount of bedding and as the chickens scratch in it, the bedding and feces naturally compost and reduce pathogens. For those of you who are more visual, here’s a video.
Saving Money on Feed
Our farm exists to help our family live more sustainably (as well as to share information about and products of that sustainable lifestyle with our community.) When we first started talking about getting chickens, one of my first thoughts had to do with commercial feed. Relying on Tractor Supply Company to feed my chickens is not sustainable. While I’ve heard some people say that chickens can survive just on table scraps, I’ve also heard that a well-rounded diet is needed for chickens to lay good eggs and stay healthy. My journey to figure out how to provide my own chicken feed is what lead me to discover this concept of planting food designed for chicken consumption into paddocks. I love the idea for all of the reasons I mentioned above, but also for its cost-saving potential. Since we live in Michigan, I anticipate needing to buy feed for our girls during the winter months. And since I’m just now learning how to design a paddock system, I think it will be a year or two before I get it just right (and before my perennial plants are flourishing). But at least in theory, the potential is here for us to be able to grow all of our chickens’ food right in our backyard. Even if we can’t manage to feed our birds exclusively on a self-harvesting diet, there’s no doubt that a paddock system will have some positive influence on our feed-budget.
Our Paddock System
Our system will consist of four paddocks. The goal is to allow the chickens to spend one week grazing in each paddock. I had a hard time finding a concrete number for how much pasture/grazing space we needed for our flock of six. The most conclusive info I found came from the Avian Aqua Miser website and – based on research from a book called Raising Poultry on Pasture (a complication of wisdom from growers who have loads of experience) the recommendation is 10 square feet per bird, per week for meat birds. Using this as our guideline, that means that our flock of six egg-layers will need at least 60 square feet per paddock. With our planned layout (see below) the girls will have two paddocks with 104 square feet and two paddocks with 84 square feet – theoretically, more than enough.
Now, there are several factors which impact how beneficial that square footage really is. (I hate ending sentences in prepositions…) In our situation, I feel that quality of the pasture, size of the pasture and rotation frequency are the most important factors. Honestly, I’m a little skeptical about the 10 square feet per bird, per week figure. I’m guessing we’re going to need more than that to really make this work. Meanwhile, my goal is to cram our paddocks full of as much chicken-friendly, nutritious and varied perennial food as possible with additions of a few easy annuals (like sunflowers). Realistically, we probably won’t see the full effect of using paddocks until next year when all of the perennials come back. While I confess that I’m still working out exact placement of all these items, here’s what I plan to plant this year:
- A plum tree (for fruit, shade and roosting, especially to get away from ground predators)
- Hostas (chicken-resistant ground cover for hiding from overheard predators)
- Variegated Japanese Sedge (chicken-resistant plant for evergreen ground cover)
- Blackberries or Raspberries (food and cover for hiding from overhead predators)
- Jerusalem Artichokes (also known as sunchokes, chickens enjoy the roots and leaves)
- Siberian Pea Shrub (nitrogen fixing and produces edible pods)
- Kale (biennial… I’ll have to plant every two years)
- Nasturtiums (edible flowers and leaves; climbs the fence so as long as the flowers last, the neighbors will have a pretty view)
- Sunflowers (seeds are great food source for chickens)
I’m also considering adding peas, beans and summer squash to the paddock area. One tip I read is that if you don’t want you chickens to eat certain things out of your vegetable garden, you should not provide the chickens with an appetite for those things by feeding them in the first place. The summer squash idea is more because they are so prolific and – if this summer is like the previous summers – I’m bound to have a squash bug or two. (On second thought, maybe if they never eat squash, I can send them into the main garden after squash bugs exclusively! Hmm…)
At this point I’m still debating about what kind of ground cover to use. Many of the options I’ve read about can become invasive so I want to be careful before I plant. In the wooded portion of our yard we have a berry-yielding ground cover (not sure what it is… looks like small, wild strawberries). I may let them forage in that area when the berries are ripe to see if they enjoy them or not. If so, perhaps I’ll transplant some to the paddock area (which is just inside the fenced area of our backyard, for convenience).
The wooded section of our yard also has several mulberry trees which are said to provide excellent forage for chickens. Unfortunately, the trees are all along the property line and not in suitable places for locating our paddocks. Also one of our neighbors has an apple tree that they do not tend, which means fallen fruit every year. Other neighbors have walnuts that fall annually. I’m not above (with permission, of course!) gathering fallen fruit for the chickees. For more thoughts on crops to plant for your chickens, click here.
Well folks, that’s my rookie assessment of the paddock system for raising poultry. Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Tips? I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say. #Hands over the mic