An Experiment in Forest Pasture
December 13, 2011
A perennial challenge for many homesteaders is the task of achieving a mid-sized flock of healthy, free range chickens while keeping the chickens out of the garden. It's in the chicken's nature to scratch and turn over surface soil in their efforts to find bugs and seeds that look ripe for the eating. This tendency, however, can uproot a bed of newly planted veggie starts in seconds, and even expose the roots of young fruit trees.
One solution is to fence in the garden space with chicken wire or other fencing that will actually keep chickens out. This works well enough for folks with a well contained garden or growing space. Since our approach is more an attempt to transform a hillside into a dryland forest garden, the space is rather large to make chicken proof. And in making it chicken proof, we also make it guinea and duck proof‒and we want these birds to be able to access this area as they reduce pest populations without doing as much damage.
Hens in their new home
Another solution is the mobile chicken tractor made popular by Joel Salatin. This solution takes advantage of the natural and healthful relationship between such animals as cows, sheep and goats and guineas, chickens and ducks. In a mobile tractor, the chickens are contained in a structure that is moved frequently over a surface that ideally has been recently grazed. This strategy enables the chickens to peck through the manure for bugs as well as aerate the soil. We have tried a version of this‒a large trampoline converted into chicken housing, and moved it every couple of days. While this worked well enough for a period of time, our hilly, tree-filled landscape, and droughty climate is just not conducive to consistent rotation‒meaning we run out of new ground within a few weeks.
A third solution is to fence in the chickens in a stationary location. A challenge here can be that chickens, if contained in small areas, turn most ground to barren soil rather quickly, reducing the dietary benefits of ranging freely. Additionally, chickens can be rather difficult to contain. They have wings‒so they can fly. They like to dig, so eventually they can find their way under fencing, and they are small enough that they can find their way through a lot of fencing. Some solutions here are to clip wings and/or use a type of electric fencing designed for chickens. Neither of these sounded particularly appealing and the latter, considering the size we wanted, would not have been the most economical.
A view of the forest pasture (note the basketball hoop in case the chickens get bored)
So, we have decided to experiment with what you might call forest pasture. The idea is to create a large enough space within which the chickens are free to range, peck and scratch to their hearts content. The space that we are able to dedicate to this task is forest, primarily Doug Fir and Ponderosa Pine, with a few Oregon Oak, hence the name forest pasture. The fenced-in space is attached to the structure where the chickens can roost and nest, hide from predators and be sheltered from the weather.
This past year, Andrew and pretty much everyone who stepped foot on site built what has been currently termed Chick-Run‒the chicken housing that uses a side of a 40 foot long shipping container and metal hoops to form its basic structure. The eastern side of chick-run opens up into a large area fenced in with 330 feet of deer fencing. The fencing is 8 foot high and attached to and stabilized by a combination of long T posts and conveniently located trees.
The deer fencing attached to trees and T posts
The chickens moved in earlier this fall and it seems the general consensus is that they approve. The fenced in space alone, not including the building, is over 8,000 sq feet. So far, we have had no chicken-escapees‒ which is in part a a testament to their contentedness. The space is large enough for the chickens to achieve flight‒I saw one hen fly from one end to the other seemingly to demonstrate that winged creatures are indeed superior to us humans. But there has been no evidence that the chickens are trying to fly over the fence, or root under. The fence appears to be functioning as a surface that accumulates needles and leaves, making it more difficult for the chickens to find their way under. They have certainly begun to aerate and turn over the forest floor in search of food, and the more vibrant yellow of the egg yolks suggests access to these forest floor critters is improving their nutritional intake. Before inviting in the chickens, we brought in a few nearby stumps and old logs with the thought that these contain yummy edibles for the birds.
A stump for bugs
The space does appear to be large enough to calm some of the common social distresses amongst chickens. For example, there are 15 birds housed there, 4 of which are males. And while there are momentary bouts of cockiness, there have been no notable fights between roosters. And pecking of back and neck feathers has not been a problem since they moved in.
Roosters enjoying a leisurely roam
So we will see how the experiment in forest pasture evolves‒what the chickens will do to the forest floor given time; how they respond socially if there are more hens added; whether egg predation is greater and a host of other relevant concerns. But so far we are off to a promising start.
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71