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Raising chickens on pasture is a wonderful way to produce healthy birds—and healthy meat and eggs. Proper pasture management is critical to the health of your birds, as well as the health of the land. Here are a few points to consider as you build your flock’s pasture management plan.
1. Lack Of Plant Diversity
Pasture for grazing livestock isn’t simply an ocean of grass—it is a miniature jungle teeming with plant varieties housing multitudes of insects. The diversity in plant species is important for both the health of the pasture and the health of the birds and ultimately ties into any of the other problems you may encounter. For best results, manage your pasture with at least one variety of legume (think clovers), one broadleaf plant (think “weeds” like plantain, dandelion and dock), one grass and one grain. Chickens will consume some of the plants and not others. For instance, chickens aren’t ruminants, like cows, so they are unable to digest grasses, but the grasses offer home for many insects, such as the grasshoppers chickens love, and they help keep the soil in place.
2. Soil Erosion
Soil erosion can be thwarted with some preventative measures, such as planting grasses along with other varieties of forage, as mentioned above. It’s also avoided by properly rotating pastures that chickens graze on. When forage plants are low and space is cramped, a handful of chickens can decimate a green area in no time flat, so it’s important to move them to greener pastures as the land gets tired—the soil and plants will eventually need a break from all the pecking and scratching.
Even as chickens scratch and peck a pasture to the ground, some plants grow taller and higher than the chickens themselves. If the field lies unmanaged or if there are not enough birds in a given pasture to keep the forage low to the ground, the tall grasses offer cover for a number of chicken predators. Coyotes and foxes are particularly adept at preying on birds in this manner. Manage your pastures accordingly by caring for the taller grasses, by regularly checking electric fencing and pasture perimeters, and by mowing as needed.
4. Loss Of Grazing Quality
In addition to offering dangerous cover to lurking predators, taller plants tend to produce leaves higher in carbon, which are less digestible to chickens. By regularly mowing or weeding certain cultivars, new green shoots continue to appear throughout the season, always offering fresh forage. It’s important to note here that this changes based on the variety of plant you sow: First and foremost, it’s important to know the needs, growing conditions and life cycles of the grasses, legumes, grains and broadleaf plants you sow.
The Key To Pastured Poultry Management
Part of pasture management is allowing a space to rest. Remember, pastures are living, breathing organisms that offer home to a wide variety of insects, which must continue to populate the area for optimum health of the pasture and of your chickens. Rotating pastures is a key management practice, and with rotating pastures comes management of the resting space. What will you do with a pasture as it rests? Are you planting cover crops? Are you rotating in different animals, such as cows? Answering these questions will help determine what varieties of grasses and grains you plant and how you care for the pasture when not in use.