Poultry in the pasture making a comeback

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When you see the term grazing, what usually comes to mind? Cattle? Sheep? Goats? Horses perhaps? But, what about chickens? I am not crazy, I swear.

This is the statement I made to my husband last year, after he decided he wanted to invest in a flock of chickens. I had no qualms with his dream; I had been silently praying since we got married in 2018, that he would eventually want to start a farm and raise livestock.

I even brought home a few turkeys this year and was met with a response of “Awesome!” instead of groans of misery. We are living the dream.

Turns out my husband’s dream was not an original idea. There are many individuals who thought quarantine was a great time to start raising poultry.

While there has been an increase in backyard poultry over the past 10 years, this spring’s quarantine gave a lot of people plenty of time to explore their options, which resulted in a dramatic increase of chicks and eggs sold. Hatcheries across the country had a hard time meeting the demand and sold out, according to Mark Pogwaite, president of the American Poultry Association.

Along with having more time to devote to the new hobby, raising backyard poultry allowed more people to be in control of their food source during the height of the panic. So, this spring we built what my neighbor calls “Turner Tower” because of the grandeur of our chicken coop. It is huge.

What we should have done, though, was take into consideration the number of potential chickens we wanted to have so we could build a fenced-in pen to fit that number in the event that we decide to grow our flock more than the six chickens we initially planned for.

I decided to hatch some eggs in the incubator this spring and record their progress for the Monroe ANR Facebook page. We put 30 eggs into the incubator, and by the end of April, we had 26 chicks. That was not the outcome I was expecting.

As a result, once 32 chickens were in the small space we had created, the lush grass turned to mud in the blink of an eye. The solution to the problem is my chickens need more space. Where can I find more space? How about the pasture?

Chicken litter

So, let us breakdown the benefits of having poultry in the pasture. Pasture ground provides feed for cattle and other species, and we ensure this by paying close attention to soil fertility. A good quality soil will result in better quality of feed.

Chicken litter, or chicken manure, can provide the pasture with needed nutrients and minerals. The composition of the manure will differ among birds slightly due to age and feed ration, but for the most part will contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Because of poultry manure’s high nitrogen content it has long been recognized as one of the most desirable manures, according to University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, and also serves as a soil amendment by adding organic matter that helps improve soil’s moisture and nutrient retention. One of the easiest ways to get that manure onto the field is not spreading it, but letting the chickens do the work for you.

Techniques used in rotational grazing with cattle, where we move them from paddock to paddock, can also be applied to chickens. I have seen coops that are on wheels and portable — just hook them up and go.

Rotating the chicken coop will allow you to be in control of where the natural fertilizer or chicken litter is distributed. To have a more concentrated area, you can make the fenced in area smaller.

If this is the route you go, make sure you move it more frequently, depending on the number of chickens, and keeping an eye on how trampled the grass is, so as not to create mudholes and completely ruin the grass stand in the process.

Pest management

Another benefit of having chickens in the pasture is pest management. Chickens are omnivores. They enjoy eating plants and insects.

Did you know that chickens have the capability to eat up to two pounds of insects a day? While two pounds does not sound like a lot, visualizing smaller insects such as ticks, I can only imagine how many that would be.

Not only do ticks pose health threats to us in the form of Lyme disease and other diseases, but they can also be harmful to livestock. Cattle can contract tick-borne diseases such as babesiosis and anaplasmosis, collectively known as “tick fever.” Severe outbreaks in tick fever can cause abortions in pregnant cattle.

To avoid such losses, it is our responsibility to implement management strategies and take the needed preventive measures.

Another insect that poultry can help manage is the brown marmorated stink bug. These pests are more harmful to vegetables than livestock but are nonetheless aggravating.

This year I had participated in the Integrated Pest Management program by trapping stink bugs. I placed a trap by the woods on the pasture edge, and I placed a trap closer to my vegetable garden which is in close proximity to my chicken coop.

I’d like to think that the chickens were doing their job, but it could be contributed to the fact that most studies have found that the density of stink bugs are found along the field edges at different study sites. The fields adjacent to wooded, crop and building habitats harbor higher densities of stink bugs than those adjacent to open habitats.

Predators

If you are considering owning poultry, it is important to keep in mind that they do have predators. Coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, weasels, foxes and other animals can pose a problem. In order to keep the poultry safe, enclosures should consist of sturdy fencing and overhead protection.

Predators can either climb over the top or dig their way under fences if they are not built correctly and well-fortified. As owners it is our responsibility to keep them safe from harm.

There are a few rewards for raising poultry, one of which is fresh eggs. Their manure is high in needed nitrogen and its free for us to utilize. It may not fulfill all our fertilizer needs, due to timing applications needed for crop growth but it is readily accessible. Poultry are also able to spend their entire day clearing our pasture of potential pests for our livestock.

While some breeds can be cute and fluffy and the desire to cuddle and kiss them is high, so is the possibility of spreading bacteria such as salmonella. It is important to keep in mind they are still a livestock species. So, go ahead and give them some praise for a hard day’s work, and then go wash your hands!

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