Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Chicken Paddock Planting Plan

chicken coop in paddock area

Last spring’s Chicken Week seems a world away now as I look out onto giants mounds of fluffy snow. That week of posts introducing our first flock of chickens also discussed our plans and tips for chicken keeping. One of the central concepts in our plan is a paddock system. Chicken paddocks provide several benefits, including the reduction or elimination of expenses for commercial chicken-feed. In a nutshell, the paddock system works like this:

Multiple (i.e., four) fenced areas can be accessed from the coop. These areas are deliberately planted with vegetation that is healthy for chickens to self-harvest. The paddocks are also planted with an overstory (trees to roost in, especially for protection) and an underbrush (especially to hide from airborne predators). By planting perennial food, you further minimize the amount of work necessary on your part to feed the chickens (the plants come back every year). Paddocks are designed to be large enough so that chickens can forage there for an entire week without decimating the vegetation available. After a week, they move on to a new paddock. In a system with four paddocks, the first paddock will have three weeks to “recover” before the chickens are back to eat more.

Implementing our paddock system has been a slow process because it fell low on the priority list during warm weather. By the end of last summer (2013) we had created two paddocks to surround our coop. (The original plan called for four paddocks but we decided that two larger paddocks would be better.) This spring (2014) we’ll finally be ready to fill the paddocks with gobs of perennial, chicken-friendly food to give our girls plenty of yummy foraging material.

The Plan

chicken paddock plants

Click here for the complete site assessment, as well as details about what we're planting and why.
 
 

Chicken Paddocks Update #1

Back in April we brought you Chicken Week to celebrate our hen’s introduction to the wild backyard. At that time, I wrote a post about pastured poultry in paddocks. Here’s a quick summary:

There are many methods for raising chickens, including the typical coop and run. Of all the options (I discussed five in my original post) we decided to go with pastured poultry in paddocks. In this system, chickens rotate through several paddocks planted with food chickens can self-harvest because it has several benefits and/or addresses limitations of the other options.

The gist of using paddocks for chickens is that you provide multiple (i.e., four) fenced areas which the chickens can access from their coop. These areas are deliberately planted with vegetation that is healthy for chickens to self-harvest. The paddocks are also planted with an overstory (trees to roost in, especially for protection) and an underbrush (especially to hide from airborne predators). By planting perennial food, you further minimize the amount of work necessary on your part to feed the chickens (the plants come back every year). Paddocks are designed to be large enough so that chickens can hang out there for an entire week before moving on to the next paddock; There is enough vegetation in each paddock that they do not decimate the landscape before they leave. (To further protect the ground cover, you could make use of these grazing screens. These enable chickens to eat the top portions of ground cover but not to destroy the plants by uprooting them.) In a system with four paddocks, the first paddock will have three weeks to “recover” before the chickens are back to eat more. Poop doesn’t accumulate all in one place. The entire bug population is not destroyed in one day. Vegetation is not obliterated. And the only work you have to do is let the chickens out in the morning (each paddock is accessed from the coop via a different gate) and close up the coop at night. In conjunction with the deep liter method for bedding, maintenance becomes almost a non-issue.

I’m still sold on the value of paddocks for chickens. But alas, the realities of life (especially micro-farm life) meant that building paddocks fell to the bottom of the priority list… which meant that our chickens were free-ranging in the (fenced) backyard until recently.

I confess – having free-ranging chickens in the backyard wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The primary issue that needed to be addressed was keeping the chickens out of the garden – I accomplished this by putting up deer-netting stapled to 4’ garden stakes all along the Fenceline Garden. Since our underground fence is currently not working, this is also effective for keeping the dogs out. As an added bonus, the fabric is tiny enough that you can barely tell it’s there until you get close. (Why didn’t I think of that before installing an underground fence?) The other challenge was that the chickens pooped all over the inside of the lean-to shed which quickly became their favorite place to hangout. Oh, and they loved hanging out at the backdoor; more poop.

If it weren’t for all the poop, I might have considered moving on with allowing the girls to free-range in the backyard. Our bug population was pleasantly in-check and the woods were being eliminated in several places. What’s more, the dogs and chickens get along great so no extra fencing was needed to keep them safe. (In fact, the chickens are the ones who get a little bossy some times!)

But alas, the poop problem could only be addressed by containing the birds to a certain area of the yard. Lucky for us we have fabulous neighbors – one neighbor supplied us with fabric and posts from and old fence and another gave us top rail. Free. Fence. #win

So at the end of June, Ryan adjusted the location of our masterfully created coop and fenced that puppy in! Here’s what it looks like now…

Our experimental New Potatoes harvested from outside the garden fence.

Instead of four separate paddocks, we’re opting for just two. The dividing fences aren’t up yet so currently it’s just one chicken yard.

Our experimental New Potatoes harvested from outside the garden fence.

It’s time to get more vegetation planted in there because the girls are starting to make quick work of the grass! (Most of the brown you see is actually pine shavings that have fallen out of the coop.) You can see in this picture that there are chickens outside of the paddock as well. Since we’ve had so many bugs lately (due to gobs of rain) I thought I’d let them wander the backyard for a while.

Our experimental New Potatoes harvested from outside the garden fence.

These timbers (attached to the house) will be trimmed back. Right now we still have many of the other timbers still sitting in the paddock. We don’t need them all, but the hens do like climbing on them. And every once in a while I turn one over so they can enjoy the bugs underneath.

Our experimental New Potatoes harvested from outside the garden fence.

You can see bits of kale and bok choy (from our neighbor!) laying on the ground that have not yet been eaten. If you enlarge the picture, you’ll also see the remains of some lettuce I planted for the chicks (it’s in the upper left corner of the paddock).

The day he put the fence in we kept singing:

Posts in the ground,

Posts in the ground,

Lookin’ pretty cool with yo posts in the ground

Looking Pretty Cool

The chickens love it in there and have made quick work of all the weeds. But you’ll notice, it’s just one little chicken yard – no paddocks. I got so used to the sight and idea of them grazing in our big back yard (they are excellent foragers!) that it pains me to think about dividing their little space up into four sections. I’m even a little skeptical about dividing it up into two sections, but that’s what we’ve decided to do for now. Sometime soon we’ll be putting up fences to make two separate sections for the chickens. We’ve laid it all out so that there will be access from the coop and so that the two external gates (we’re going to add a second) will open into separate paddocks.

Now all that’s left to do is plant some food in this bad boys…

I started by transplanting lettuce from the garden. It was too biter for human consumption, I but I thought the chickens would enjoy it. Sunday morning I went to feed them and discovered I was out of feed… by the time I got back from the store after church, they had enjoyed a mighty large salad! I’m still working on a plan for both perennial and annual plants to add to the paddocks. More on that soon! Meanwhile, just yesterday I received a random phone call from a neighbor who is disheartened by some of her (organic) vegetables going to waste and wants to know if she can bring a weekly delivery of too-wilty-for-humans veggies for the chickens. We have such great neighbors!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 

Pastured Poultry in Paddocks

Though the iconic mental picture most of us get when it comes to raising chickens is the standard coop and run, there are many methods for raising chickens. Here’s a quick overview of your options:

  1. Coop and Run. A dwelling for the chickens with an attached, enclosed cage allowing the birds some outdoor space.
  2. Chicken Tractor. A small but moveable pen which is rotated around a pasture, usually every week.
  3. Truly Free Range. Allowing birds to find their own food, water and shelter on your property.
  4. Pastured Poultry in Pens. Similar to a chicken tractor but much larger and moved more often (i.e., twice daily).
  5. Pastured Poultry in Paddocks. Chickens rotate through several paddocks planted with food chickens can self-harvest.

About the Options

coop and run showing no vegetation

Typical run. Look mom – no grass!

Each of these methods have their pros and cons. To be completely transparent, I’m not here to tell you about all the pluses of each option – if you want to know the pros, you’ll want to do some extra research.I’m here to talk to you about the option we’re using: Pastured poultry in paddocks. However, to adequately tell you why I believe #5 is the best option, I have to talk a bit about the challenges of the first four so you’ll understand how using paddocks addresses the limitations of those other options. Brace yourself – the negativity is about to get a little deep for a paragraph or two here.

The Coop and Run method is first. The problem here mostly be summed up on one word I repeatedly tell my seven-year-old not to say at the dinner table: Poop. In a Coop and Run system, lots and lots of poop piles up in one location. The result is a stinky mess and a flock that lives (walks, sits, eats, drinks) in pathogens from their own feces. (Doesn’t that sound appetizing?) Even when chickens have access to the outdoors (the Run) there’s still a messy accumulation of poop. Also, the chickens completely obliterate any green vegetation that used to exist in the pen. So in essence, these birds live in a poop hole and a mud pit. This is not good. #drops the mic

chicken tractor

Typical chicken tractor

With all of that accumulation of yuck, at some point you’re going to have to clean it up. Which means either a) you’re constantly cleaning up after chickens or b) you hardly ever clean up after chickens but they live in filth. And as Paul Wheaton points out, when you do clean the coop, all of that yuck is airborne for at least a little while.

Next let’s talk about Chicken Tractors. This is an improvement over the Coop and Run method because there is less accumulation of poo in one area. However, the tractor sizes tend to be on the small size (just because you can put birds in an area that small doesn’t mean you should). Also, the effectiveness of the method depends heavily on how often the tractor is moved. Here’s what Mr. Wheaton has to say about it:

“A few people will move a chicken tractor once or twice per day, such that the chickens will consume about 30% of what is growing in a spot before moving on.  This is an improvement over what most people will do which is to leave the chicken tractor in one spot until all vegetation is gone.  Or worse, beyond that point. Consider that in general, 40% of what grows on the ground is probably good for chickens to eat.  30% is slightly toxic and the rest is very toxic. If left in one spot for more than a few hours, the chickens end up eating their own poop that has fallen on their ‘food’.”

free range chickens in pear tree

Free-range chickens need a home

Our next option is truly free range chickens – as in no coop, no pen, no tractor, no nothing. The challenge here is that we’ve taken on the responsibility to care for these animals but left them vulnerable to predators and possibly lack of available food (depends on what your land is like). In addition, eggs will be laid all over the place and you’ll have no idea how old they are. Aaaand this romantic idea of letting chickens run free like they do in the wild will loose its appeal quickly when your patio furniture and car and lawn mower and dog house and back lawn and swing set and swimming pool are all slathered in chicken droppings.

Onward to Pastured Poultry in Pens. This is similar to a chicken tractor only the pen is larger and moved more often (2 times a day). Less waste accumulates in one spot, and (if you’re really on top of things) the chickens don’t decimate the ground cover before they move. The challenge here is that making it work requires you to move the pen twice day. I don’t even like to answer the phone twice a day, let alone move a big chicken pen around my yard.

Pastured Poultry in Paddocks

Now with all that negativity behind us (where did that sarcastic girl come from?!) let’s sweeten things up a bit! After much reading I have become convinced that using paddocks is the best way to raise chickens.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including the reasons paddocks are superior and tips on using them effectively.

 
 

Chicken Week (Psst! We Have Chickens!)

Guess what? We have chickens!

chicken close up 1

We are the proud owners of six ISA Red egg-laying hens who are six weeks old as of today! If all goes well, they’ll be supplying us with fresh, brown eggs by the end of the summer. We selected ISA Reds because they are docile, quiet and good egg layers. Those traits make them a good fit for our suburban setting and our need for a family-friendly flock. Our girls came from Tractor Supply Company on Shaver Road in Portage. Here’s a tip I learned from one of the TSC employees: If you show up the day before the next batch of chicks are scheduled to come in, they’ll sell you the week-old chicks at a discounted rate to make room for the newbies. So you spend less AND TSC nurses your chicks through the first week where some chicks tend not to make it. The chicks were origianly $2.99 and I paid $1.00 for each of them. Winner winner chicken… well… *ahem*.

DSC03632

When I was growing up, my aunt raised chickens and turkeys (Hi Aunt Bonny!) so I have a general idea of how to chase care for them. But as an adult, I have to admit I was (am?) a wee bit clueless about what goes into raising healthy birds. I’ve heard that chickens are super easy to care for so I set out to learn how and why. I started my search for chicken knowledge on the good ol’ world wide web. I found lots of helpful info at www.backyardchickens.comAbout.com’s Small Farm pages and a few other blogs which I’ve saved to our Chickens board on Pinterest.

But by far the most helpful information I found came from the forums at www.permies.com. (If you’re interested in sustainable living, the information – and support – in these forums will make you drool. Grab a napkin and go check it out!) This website was created by Paul Wheaton (dubbed the Duke of Permaculture) and provides an avenue for him to share his knowledge on the subject as well for others to contribute. In this ongoing forum post, Paul describes five ways to raise chickens (coop and run, chicken tractor, truly free range, pastured poultry in pens and pastured poultry in paddocks) and then provides compelling arguments for why pastured poultry in paddocks is THE way to go. This info helped me think outside the box regarding how to raise our chickens in a manner that is healthiest for them and ultimately for us. I’m working on putting my own this-farm-is-in-the-suburbs-and-needs-to-look-nice-without-costing-a-lot spin on it. More on that later this week…

 

In addition to information and inspiration from Paul Wheaton (and other permies), I also received great practical and design advice from the book Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom. To be honest, I’m a sucker for packaging, and it was originally the beautiful front cover that compelled me to check this book out. The whole thing is full of brilliant coffee-table-worthy photos but thankfully the book itself is worth as much as the pictures. This book provides a practical overview of how to raise chicks to become healthy chickens along with detailed advice on how to design your yard to meet your chicken’s needs without sacrificing style or function. I’m glad it’s in my micro-farm library!

 

Now that I’ve gathered all of this great info on chicken-keeping, I’m no expert, but I am a well-armed newbie! In celebration of our girls’ first week living outdoors, I hereby dub this week “Chicken Week” at Arcadia Farms and plan to share all of my new-found poultry insight with you. If you’ve been thinking about raising backyard chickens but have wondered what it will really entail, come back for more throughout the week as I share with you both what I’ve learned from experts and what I’ve experienced in real life. I’ll be talking about:

  • Why we decided to raise backyard chickens (and why you should consider it too)
  • Which birds make good urban or suburban chickens
  • How to care for baby chicks
  • Designing a chicken-friendly garden/yard in the suburbs
  • Reducing (or eliminating!) the cost of chicken feed
  • Building a chicken coop (ours cost $0!)

Also on our Facebook page we’re running a contest this week where you get to help us name one of our hens. Stop by and vote for your favorite name (or make a suggestion of your own) and then please stop by Friday to see who wins!

I can’t wait to share Chicken Week with you!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 
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