As I mentioned in my last posting one of the areas Chance and I have been hired to work on is slated for a Chicken Garden.The owners of the house would like an area where their hens can free range and forage through a garden of plants that are good eats for chickens.I am sure that all of you chicken owners know chickens will eat just about everything they come across including the things you would rather see them leave alone.Chickens getting into the garden is one of the biggest gripes out there so it is interesting to be working on a project that is the complete opposite.
The plants to grow is the easy part,we could plant an entire garden of veggies and the chickens would be happy.But veggies are annuals and we are working towards a mix of annuals and perennials to insure the garden will be long lasting and so there will always be something for the hens to eat.
I did some looking around and came up with some hopeful solutions.First I located Norris from
Discount Permacultures blog entry about his Chicken Fodder class.Like I said in my last posting I took this class last spring and found it to be informative and I will be using some of the things I learned for this garden project. I also found a company called Peaceful Valley that sells a seed mix for chicken fodder.Although the seed mix is mostly grasses I think we can incorporate it in.I am definitely going to plant some Comfrey, our girls love it and will mow it down if I don't cover it with some chicken wire.Comfrey is high in protein and when the hens are not free ranging this time of year (because of the garden) I will cut some leaves and chop it up and give to the girls with their feed. A couple of the sites I stopped by also mentioned Lambs Ears,these are a maybe because they tend to take things over.Taking over is not necessarily a bad thing since the chickens will mow it down but we shall see.I am still searching out other plants the chickens like and are beneficial to them.
The other thing I am working on is figuring out how to rotate the chickens through this garden.Pasture rotation is a common practice on farms and ranches where livestock free range. Rotating your animals through different pastures enables the just used pasture time to re-coop.Joel Salatin, has a great system for this,first he lets his cows graze a pasture and then he lets the chickens in that area once the cows have been moved to another pasture.This allows the hens to clean up after the cows and get some good eats in their bellies.There's more science to than that but I don't want to get all science nerdy on you.I know I have seen interviews with Salatin covering this topic.
Many chicken farmers use chicken tractors for this but the garden area is on a steep hillside so this won't work for this project.The best two choices to give the house owner are movable pens or permanently fenced areas within the garden.Either one is going to take some dedication and being able to keep a rotation schedule otherwise it's not going to last long.
Pasture rotation is not on most urban chicken owners radar.Like us most people just let their hens loose to free range their yards.It is easy and suits a city lot.But all of this reading and planning has me thinking about how to incorporate growing chicken fodder and the rotation of "pastures" into our city sized lot.
We are fortunate here at our house,we live on a double city lot,we have room to do all that we are doing.Although we are doing our best to fill every nook and cranny with growing food we do have some "dead zones" .These spots are just not useful for growing and are just there.We have a side of our yard that we currently use for storing our trailer and canoe.This space is right along the fence line and on the other side of the fence are the neighbors bedrooms,perfect for storage and not much else.And we have the area where at some point our Cobb Oven will be built,it is empty for now.I am starting to think both of these spots could become city sized pasture areas planted with some chicken fodder plants.With some portable fencing we could easily bring the hens into these areas for a few days at a time.This would be good for the chickens during the growing season.From February until October are hens are mostly cooped to keep them from eating the garden.Once in awhile we let them out just before their bedtime so they can range while we watch over them but the more free ranging they can do the better.Letting the hens out in the growing months is also getting harder and harder as more and more of the yard is used for food growing.
This may also work better for us since our back yard is terraced,like the slope at the garden project house it makes a chicken tractor obsolete.Along with the fact that the front is all garden beds now with no room to put a tractor.
So here is some food for thought.As we all dig up our yards and grow food on every square inch where does that leave the desire to let our hens free range? Free ranging makes for healthier birds; even though we all give them the left over green bits, it is not a substitute for living a more natural chicken life.By taking "unusable" areas and creating pasture areas in our yards that are planted with fodder we could close yet another gap in our gardens ecology.Just a thought,the chicken lover,gardener and science nerd in me thinks it is a great thing to ponder.