My wife, Elaine, and I began raising chickens in 2010 and now have two typical-sized runs in our backyard.
They’re also typical in appearance, meaning our two flocks have basically eaten or scratched up every green, leafy, living thing inside their enclosures.
As time has passed, we have also become more concerned about how the heavy nutrient load (chicken poop) affects the overall health of the soil.
Chicken manure is higher in phosphorous and nitrogen than the waste of many other creatures and, of course, is quite acidic as well.
Flies are a problem throughout the warm weather period. And over the years, we’ve had three chickens stricken by fly strike with Don, our 4-year-old rooster, afflicted twice. What could we do to improve the soil’s health and combat, at least a little, the flies?
A Rotational Realization
Finally, a possible solution dawned on us: rotational grazing, which began in Europe centuries ago. In this system, farmers rotate livestock—usually beef or dairy cattle—from paddock to paddock. Animals stay in each enclosure for several weeks.
After the cattle graze in the first paddock, the farmer moves his animals to the second one and so on. This practice allows the previous enclosure to undergo a period of rest, with grass revitalizing itself and manure enriching the soil structure.
We thought rotational grazing possibly could work on a much smaller scale within our two chicken runs.
So Elaine and I purchased some hard-plastic, green garden fencing and stakes and partitioned off about one-quarter of one of the runs. Chickens, of course, relish clover, so that is the plant we chose to seed our paddock.
Four weeks after our first seeding, we marveled at a lush stand of clover. The entire time the “pasture” was growing, our fowl often walked the fence line, looking for ways to enter.
The day we removed the fencing, the chooks spent much of the day grazing in their newfound clover patch. Meanwhile, the same day we opened the new patch, we fenced in an adjacent quadrant of the run, raked it free of gravel and other debris, and planted more clover.
All in all, our rotational grazing system has offered pros and cons concerning our chicken rearing, with much more of the former than of the latter.
The biggest positive is that, for the 10 days to a fortnight that it takes for our chickens to level the clover, they have the benefit of this food without being exposed to predators. We live in a rural area where I have identified 13 wild creatures that will attack chickens. In short, a free-ranged chicken is soon a dead one on our country road. Our birds thus have the ability to “free-range” while inside the run.
Second, the paddock system is a great way to introduce chicks to a more diverse diet. Of course, our young birds mostly consume the nutrient-filled chick feed that we purchase from feed-supply stores. But it’s nice to watch them explore green vegetation and occasionally come across insects that have likewise been attracted to the clover.
A third positive is that the soil within a paddock has a chance to rest and revitalize for a while. I prepare the ground for planting with a hoe and rake, often adding some lime as well to the acidic soil.
Of course, some negatives do exist. But they pale in comparison to the good things that rotational grazing brings.
The primary negative is that mature birds and chicks will try to enter into paddocks. We’ve watched hens mount the gangplank leading to the coop and fly into a paddock several yards away.
Our hens have been much less successful at vertically helicoptering into the air from the base of a paddock and passing over into the enclosure. In fact, only one has succeeded at this gambit.
To prevent birds from using a ramp as a takeoff point, we now create paddocks to the sides and rear end of the henhouse or at the far end of the front of the henhouse.
Conversely, chicks have been quite good at finding openings along the bottom of the plastic fencing where they can squeeze into the paddock. One hapless chick did so in the middle of a hot day this past July, and its anguished chirping—and the alarm notes of the mother hen—convinced us to sprint to the run.
So now we don’t create paddocks until the newborns are 3 weeks old or so and are too large to enter within.
Points to Consider
Finally, two observations of ours are worth sharing.
- First, keep two paddocks growing at the same time. Seed them with clover, or some other plant, several weeks apart. That way, your chickens will always have access to fresh, green food of some kind.
Of course, your run may be too small, or you may possess too many chickens, to concentrate them in such a small area. But if these factors are in your favor, consider this approach.
- Second, in the wintertime, clover grows much slower than it does during the warm weather period. So there may be times during that season when rotational grazing may be impractical.
But all in all, rotational grazing within a chicken run is a superb way to improve the health of your chickens and your run’s soil.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.