From Free Range to Pasture
We are converts from free-ranging chickens to pastured chickens.
When we started keeping laying hens two years ago, we had at most 16 birds at a time and they wandered about our property at will. Besides the scratching in mulch and digging up of some seedlings, we had little to complain about. We felt the nutrition of our eggs and the insect control offered by the hens were balanced by the digging, uprooting and occasional messing on the deck, and were satisfied with the arrangement.
This spring we sold the last of these chickens and started anew with 30 laying hens and a rooster. Like their predecessors, these birds we free to range far and wide, which they most certainly did. However, unlike the birds before them, our new flock had a taste for hostas. In an attempt to co-exist with free-ranging chickens that ravaged the hostas and scratched about in the gardens, we purchased roles of plastic poultry fencing and set them up around the gardens to keep the birds out. Eventually we came to see the ridiculousness of the arrangement when we ran out of poultry fencing… after erecting over 850 ft of fencing. And then the lightbulb moment came: why not fence the chickens rather than our gardens!
Other factors came into our decision to pen and pasture the chickens. For one, the birds did leave a lot of droppings strewn about the yard and walking in flip flops was risky and bare feet was insane. And then the birds, even though they had their wings clipped, were still getting enough lift to get over the permanent cedar fence around our raised beds and into the vegetable gardens. They also wandered into our neighbours yard and scratched about in her flower gardens. And the last straw was the rooster beginning to show aggressiveness and charging Dad, Grandpa and some little Harrolds.
From the door of the run we’ve stretched out electric poultry netting (we’ve yet to turn it on) that allows the birds access to the yard, field, and a hedgerow. To make sure the chickens are still eating lots of forage, we also toss in any weeds pulled from the gardens or around the yard. Roughly every one to two weeks we will re-arrange the perimeter of the pasture to give the birds new forage, especially access to the Lamb's Quarters that they favour.
On the plus side, the hostas are re-growing their leaves now that the chickens can no longer access their salad bar. We’re also finding more toads hopping around our yard. The little ones can run around in barefeet again and have the freedom to play without having to look out for the rooster, Sir John.
In the evenings we will sometimes let the birds out to forage in the fading daylight. With dimming light they do not range as far, yet still manage to find plenty of tasty morsels. As twilight sets in they make their way back to the safety of the coop for the night. This arrangement is working for now but Dad and I are looking to create a mobile chicken coop and put the chickens to work preparing or cleaning out gardens.