Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rotating Chicken Paddocks - What a Relief!

Chicken Yard Design Mistakes

#1: Sheet Mulching the Lawn

I've made several mistakes in my design for this property. That topic deserves an entire post of its own; for now I'll focus on perhaps my biggest two mistakes. When we moved in five years ago, we started with a big lawn in the front and back yards, which I promptly sheet-mulched to death, with a "take no prisoners" attitude towards grass. We introduced six chickens into the backyard in the first summer, letting them free range through the whole area. When I created our food forest design in the fall, I laid out the back yard as trees and tall shrubs, with the chickens running amok through the understory of the entire area, cleaning up fallen fruit and keeping pest insects under control. I had vague plans to fill in under the trees and shrubs with herbaceous perennials providing chicken fodder or some human use.

Great in theory, but we didn't really understand just how much destruction the little chicken monsters unleash on the ground layer vegetation! We had expected them to peck at things and eat some of the leaves, but we underestimated how many fresh greens they like to eat, and how quickly they can decimate their favorite foods. And we didn't account at all for the constant scratching, here, there, and everywhere, especially around newly planted starts with their loosened soil.

Since I wiped out the lawn, we've never been able to reestablish a solid ground layer of herbaceous plantings, except within a few protected cage enclosures. We have had some success with a few perennials such as the vigorous running Fuki (Petasites japonicus) pictured at right, but nowhere near full coverage. I now wish I had left the grass and weeds in the backyard as pasture, sheet-mulching in specific spots as needed for the trees and shrubs and patches of other perennial herbaceous plantings.

Compare our back yard chicken area (photo on left) with our front yard perennial vegetable garden (photo on right). You have to look a little closely at the backyard photo to see past all the nice looking tree and shrub growth, but note the absence of ground vegetation. Meanwhile, the front yard has solid dense growth except in the paths:

#2: Single Free Range Area

In retrospect, even if I hadn't made the mistake of eliminating the lawn, the 3000 square foot backyard free range area probably wouldn't support six chickens full time free-ranging. In my defense, I hadn't yet come across Paul Wheaton's excellent article on chicken raising before I designed the back yard. He makes a strong case for rotating chickens for one week at a time through each of four or more paddocks, giving the other paddocks at least three weeks to recover between chicken assaults. Had I designed for this from the start, I probably would have put the chicken coop in the center of the area, with a small run with gates opening into each of the four quadrants of the yard. I would have established 50+ gallons of rainwater catchment next to the coop, to provide automatic drinking water for much of the year. I would have laid out the paddocks and paths to maximize ease of human movement.

Not knowing of the rotating paddock concept, I placed the chicken coop at the far south end of the yard, against the north wall of the neighbors' garage, to utilize the heavily shaded space. The coop has a single door which allows the chickens access to the entire back yard to destroy everything everywhere, every day, at will. I placed our rainwater harvesting bathtubs at the opposite, northern end of the backyard, to serve as watering troughs. I laid out the trees and shrubs in a manner not conducive to division of the yard into quadrants.

Correcting the Problem

Even after I read Paul's article, I remained stuck with the original design, because I could not figure out how to set up four paddocks given the existing design limitations. (We also embarked on our major house renovation about that time, which sucked up most of our time over the last year and a half.) But I finally had a break-through epiphany a couple of weeks ago: if I settled for just three paddocks, I could retrofit them into the yard fairly easily!

New Fencing


So I spent a few days last week adding two permanent fences (I don't want an ongoing maintenance chore maneuvering fencing around trees and shrubs), running north-south down the center of the yard, plus an east-west fence along the bathtubs to keep the path along the house wall free of chickens. Tulsi likes this to keep the area as human hang-out area without chicken poop. I like this so humans can use this primary access route without having to deal with gates, many of which I added elsewhere to facilitate human access into and between the paddocks. (The "I"-shaped notations mark gates.) I divided the area into three roughly equal ~16' x ~60' paddocks (~900 square feet) running from the property line at the south end to the bath tubs at the north end. The east and center paddocks have direct access to the bath tubs for the chickens to use as drinking water. We'll have to maintain a watering dish in the west paddock.

In the future, we could add a fourth paddock by running another north-south fence on the other side of the main path center-right in the design scan. We would open up the path against the house, and fence off the side yard of the house, creating ~700 square feet of paddock. It would interfere with free flow between our house and our neighbors', and reduce the desirability of the side yard as a human hang-out area, so we haven't moved ahead with implementing this, just keeping it in mind as an option.

I made a small "courtyard" around the coop, which gives us flexibility in allowing free range time. I hate to keep the chickens enclosed in such a small run, but we may have to do so to control their impact on the paddocks. Since I could only make three paddocks, instead of the recommended four or more, we may even keep them in the courtyard for a full week at a time to substitute for the fourth paddock. And we may use the courtyard as a "sacrificial zone" in the winter, when the paddocks can tolerate even less chicken activity before plants get damaged.

The courtyard layout ensures permanent access to the dry area under the woodshed (labeled "chicken house" in the somewhat out-of-date design scan - the "chicken coop" written in pencil marks the actual chicken coop). No matter which gate I open to let the chickens into one of the paddocks, they can still use the woodshed cover for shelter from the rain and, most importantly, for their dust baths.

The courtyard has already proven itself useful in one more way. I can lure the chickens into it with bread or other food, then close all the gates and easily catch them to put them into their house before dark falls. This allows us to close them up early if we won't be home at dusk after they go in on their own.


We had plenty of old fencing of various sorts, so I built everything from materials on hand. I loosely anchored most of the wire fencing with vertical bamboo poles interweaved through the mesh, then jammed into the soil as far as I could get them. I built one straight section of fence from bamboo, with many ~4-5' vertical pieces closely spaced, and a few long horizontal pieces to tie them together.

For the gates, I buried solid posts made of black locust limbs cut from our hedgerow (inherently rot resistant) and in a few spots, scrap pressure treated 4x4s for the below-ground part, sistered to untreated scrap 4x4s for the above-ground portion. I constructed the gates from lath screwed together to sandwich chicken wire. After I figured out the first gate, I put together the rest fairly quickly and easily.



I've spent the past few days transplanting excess leafy green plants from the front yard into the back yard. I've tested the chickens with new greens to see whether they'll eat them when I hold the leaves for them. Mostly I want to get a solid carpet of greens so the chickens don't eat more than about 30% of the vegetation during each week they spend in a paddock. I'm also planting some seed crops. And if the chickens don't eat some plants at all, the flower activity will feed and bring insects into the back yard. Uneaten plants may even host caterpillars or other insects for the chickens to eat.

Overstocked chickens push plant imbalances into further disequilibrium. That is, they preferentially eat their favorite plants, ignoring their least favorite plants until they've exhausted their first choices. So over time they'll kill off their best fodder, leaving only the substandard fodder. (Overstocked cattle and other animals create the same problem.) So I'll need to keep a close eye on things and make sure I have enough of the best plants, or protect them as needed.

New Plants

  • French sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - they love this stuff--I probably need 14 or more plants per paddock, but I only have available 9 per paddock right now.
  • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - we have some of this small running sorrel in the front yard. We rarely harvest it since the larger french sorrel gives us a more convenient harvest, so I'll move some to the back and see whether it stands up to the chickens.
  • Dandelions - in years past, they didn't seem to eat dandelions very much, but now they love them! I've planted about 30 per paddock so far, mostly in paths, and will probably add more.
  • Fennel - the chickens love the calorie crop seeds. I'll probably want at least 6 plants per paddock.
  • Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) - they seemed to really like the sample leaves, and this plant spreads rapidly so could stand up well to abuse. If the chickens don't eat it enough to keep it in check, we can harvest the roots for food. I planted about 12 clumps or root cuttings per paddock.
  • Clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) - seemed to really like the leaves. I don't know whether the plants will grow vigorously enough to do well. We have a lot of extra potted starts so I figured I'd try out 2 in each paddock.
  • Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) - they ate the sample I brought them, but probably won't eat a whole lot of this very bitter leaf. They may eat the flowers and flower buds, or the seeds. I planted 3 per paddock.
  • Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) - Same as for turkish rocket.
  • Wood avens (Geum urbanum) - Not very excited about the leaves, but they ate some of the sample. I planted about 5 per paddock.

Existing Plants

We had actually fenced the chickens out of a 500 square foot area closest to the house during our house construction, and we kept them fenced out for the last year to give it a chance to revegetate. Now we're letting them back into that area as part of the new paddocks, and they're now eating established:
  • Kale - number one favored plant, followed closely by french sorrel. Eat it to bare stems.
  • Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) - eat it to the ground.
  • Popweed / Bittercress (Lepidium something) - eat it to the ground.
  • Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) - eat it to the ground.
  • Spearmint (Mentha spicata) - not their first choice, but they do eat it in smaller quantities along with the rest of the greens, eventually eating it to the ground.
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) - Bizarrely, they aren't touching this stuff! In years past they ate all the comfrey to the ground, severely weakening or even killing many plants. I don't understand why they don't like it now, but hopefully they'll start eating it later in the season.


Emma said...

My chooks like the seeds of wood avens more than the leaves. Like yours, they're currently going nuts for the sorrel and anything in the brassica family. But they're also eating more comfrey than they have previously. We also have 3 new hens who are happy to eat Good King Henry, which has never been a favourite of any of the others!

Norris said...

I just added a paragraph in the post above beginning with "In the future, we could add a fourth paddock..."

Emma, thanks for your comment. Very exciting to hear they eat wood avens seeds; I'll move some more back there since we have an awful lot up front, and they make a good ground cover. And interesting about the new hens eating Good King Henry; ours have enjoyed the seeds in past years but not really eaten the leaves. Strange, the shifting preferences of old and new hens!

Nat West said...

Norris, FYI throughout the dry summer, my four chickens need over 55 gals of water. Never more than two barrels though.

Have you considered reintroducing grass to the paddocks? I'm sure you could find a lot of free sod that people have dug up to make gardens. Some of it can be had rolled and ready. In my own retrospect, I wish I had rolled out sod in my own backyard. The dwarf low-maintenance grass seeds and other plants have never filled in so much to allow unrestricted chicken grazing.

Norris said...

Hey Nat!

I had considered reintroducing grass, but always got hung up on how to get enough of it to keep the chickens from just devouring the little clumps I could transplafrom the front yard. Obviously I never thought of searching out free sod, since now that you mention it, there are several posts for such on craigslist. I'm going to fill at least the paths with sod, and probably a lot of other blank areas as well. Seems hard to have too much grass, since if the chickens don't eat the greens, they'll get to eat the calorie-dense seeds. Thanks so much for the suggestion!