Rotational grazing is a common practice in sustainable, large-acreage farming. The basic idea behind it is that, if farmers keep their animals moving to different grazing areas rather than permanently confined to a single paddock, they can maintain well-vegetated areas and healthier animals. Generally, this is done with succession of animals, each performing useful tasks in a carefully orchestrated sequence. Chickens are a common feature in rotational grazing because they’re good at spreading manure and managing pests.
Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, is perhaps the most famous practitioner and promoter of the practice. He has authored several articles, published nine books, and appeared in more than a dozen food industry documentaries, including Food, Inc., Revolution Food, and Permaculture Chickens. He rotates several species of domesticated animals, including cattle, pigs, turkeys, rabbits, and chickens, and his methodology is to allow for strategic and limited disturbance on a landscape to create a clean environment, healthy animals, and abundant vegetation. When animals are regularly moved from pasture to pasture, they consistently have new trough from which to feed, and the vegetation in the resting pastures has time to recover.
Chickens Can Be Raised on Pasture, Too
Though we tend to think of pasture for larger animals, such as cows and horses, and perhaps feel that chickens belong in fixed pens with stationary roosting boxes, this is not actually the case. Chickens are great foragers, and life on the range provides them with a much healthier diet than being confined in pens or, worse yet, cages and chicken houses. In the field, they can find bugs, grains, seeds, and plenty of greenery to munch on. Chickens will happily eat many plants we consider weeds, such as dock, amaranth, dandelions, pigweed, and kudzu. As with people, this varied diet helps the birds to be healthier, even though their egg production and weight might not be as high as with commercial production (think a modest 180 eggs per year per bird as opposed to 300).
And, Pasture-Raised Chickens Must Be Rotated
We all know that fixed chicken pens tend to quickly become dusty, desert-like places, stripped of all vegetation. But to presume that chickens in the yard would create the same environment isn’t necessarily correct. In fact, we can keep chickens, even in a small suburban yard, without turning it into a dusty chicken coop. The concept for this is just the same as Salatin’s: The disturbance the chickens are allowed to cause must be limited, so they have to be periodically moved to a new “paddock.” With that in mind, we could divvy up the backyard into grazing sections and move the birds from section to section. A general rule of thumb is 10 square feet of pasture per bird per week.
Choosing the Right Breed for Free Range
Another useful consideration for raising chickens on pasture is choosing the right type from the get-go. Chickens aren’t all the same. Some species are much more instinctual about foraging for themselves. For those wanting to pasture-raise their chickens, the right breed makes a big difference. Shawn McCarty, who practices suburban rotational grazing with his birds, says Austrolorp and Chanticleer have done exceptionally well with sustained, substantial egg production and life longevity. They’re also well-suited for the frigid winters where he lives. Other breeds, such as leghorn and Rhode Island reds, haven’t been great choices for him, but they’re often considered good foragers.
Designating Grazing Areas
There are actually a few options here when designating your grazing areas, all of which allow chickens to move freely in one space while keeping them out of the others. Different factors may make one of the following three options more appealing.
Fixed coop and pastures. For those who aren’t interested in using the backyard (or grazing area) for much else besides feeding chickens, a popular method is to build a stationary coop at the center of different grazing stations. In this case, different outlets from the coop will give the birds access to each paddock so that their grazing paddock can be regulated, while the coop is in the same location. The nice part of this system is that the birds can be rotated without having to move anything, and the coop can be located for human convenience. It’s as simple as opening a different gate each week to change the pasture.
Chicken tractors. Chicken tractors have become very popular lately. Essentially, they consist of a chicken coop and a small outdoor enclosure that can easily be moved around. This is trendy among garden growers because the “tractor” can be positioned so that chickens can clean up the remnants after crops have been harvested, and can prep spaces by clearing away weed seeds and potential pests before planting. There are tons of different designs for DIY chicken tractors. More than likely, the rotation schedule with a chicken tractor will require movement more frequently because the grazing space is fairly limited.
Movable fencing. Electric poultry netting is easy to move around so the chicken yard can be reimagined each time the grazing area changes. A positive aspect of the netting is that it only occupies the area where the chickens are, as opposed to fixed fencing, which permanently claims a space. Additionally, electric netting will deter predators. It’s also possible to adjust the shape of the fence to concentrate on an area — perhaps for an upcoming garden — or avoid certain areas, say around a newly planted fruit tree. The fencing can be rotated around a central chicken coop, or a movable coop could be wheeled around with it, providing the best of both of the above systems. The downside is that it requires electrical equipment, which can drive up the price and can potentially shock people, such as curious toddlers.
Growing the Right Greens
While chickens will nibble and peck at grass here and there, that’s not what they like to graze on, as they can’t properly digest it. What grazing chickens are really after are invertebrates, such as insects, spiders, and worms, as well as seeds, legumes, and plant shoots. It’s okay to have a grassy grazing area because grasses do provide soil stability, habitat for invertebrates, and, ultimately, seeds. However, the birds will benefit much more from a yard that has biodiversity, including a mix of “weeds” and possibly some seeded fodder, such as field peas, clover, and alfalfa. Of course, delivering a daily dose of kitchen scraps can add some excitement and nutrition as well.
Maintaining the ‘Paddock’
Once the right types of birds are chosen, the fencing has been installed, and the biodiverse buffet has been realized, it’s critical to understand that there needs to be a specific rotating scheme in order to keep the paddock – be that a small section of yard or a full-on field – healthy and green. Chickens work best with pasture that never gets shorter than 2 inches, but never grows taller than 8 inches. At less than 2 inches tall, grass and other plants tend to regrow more slowly, but when taller than 8 inches, they start to stiffen up and lose digestibility. It’s also beneficial to allow paddocks to mature and re-seed themselves at some point, as that’ll mean there’s no cost involved with planting the paddock next year.
And that’s a great start to pasture-raised chickens right in the backyard. Of course, the beauty of the whole thing is that grazing those chooks will mean they need less (or possibly no) feed and that their free labor gets the yard work done for you, with the bonus of eggs all the while each morning. Not a bad deal for a chicken shepherd.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he’s lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.