A Pasture Walk on the Home Turf
by Guest Blogger, Dr. Joseph Heckman, Ph.D
Pasture walks are typically organized as a way for farmers to get together to share ideas about ways to improve grass-based farming systems. An informal walk across a pasture guided by a host farmer is a chance to make observations about what works well locally in terms of pasture plant species, rotational grazing systems, fencing, water supply, and livestock breeds.
Since raising chickens on the home lawn or pasture has become popular, it seemed appropriate to host a spring pasture walk for others interested in this way of producing or eating these very special pasture-raised eggs.
So on a Saturday evening, I recently hosted a pasture walk on our two acres we call River Birch Micro-Farm in Monroe, New Jersey. We invited members of the Weston A. Price Princeton Chapter as well as a following of students and friends attending my various agricultural lectures. Parents were invited to bring their children-–our farmers of the future. Altogether about 30 people joined the tour.
On the tour I explained how I began keeping a flock of chickens on our backyard barnyard in 2005, and how I have experimented over the years with feeding systems and various types of so called “chicken tractors”. This term refers to a type of pasture pen that can be easily moved daily to fresh areas of grass. While pasture poultry raisers have been very creative in designing many different types of chicken tractors, my own system has now evolved into a two compartment model.
As illustrated, my pasture pen is moved separately from the housing unit. I have a pasture pen with a wood frame and another made with PVC pipe. The PVC system is my favorite since it is very light and easy to move and bends to conform to land surface. The housing for the chickens is built upon a wagon to provide shelter, a place for egg laying, feeding, and night roosting.
I begin everyday by dragging the pasture pen over fresh grass. Next I back the wagon housing up to the pasture pen. A door is closed during the moving phase to keep the hens from jumping out during transit. When I am home, I move the pasture pen more frequently.
In an experiment I conducted several years ago, I found that my flock acquired about 11% of their feed by grazing on a mixed stand of spring grass and clover. A report is available here online (See page 43 of report): http://www.turf.rutgers.edu/research/abstracts/symposium2008.pdf
The main feed source for my flock is an organic soy-free layer feed from Countryside Natural. Because feed cost, especially shipping, is the main expense in keeping a flock of chickens, I supplement with some of my own grains. My hens are also treated to earthworms and bugs as I find them in my garden.
At River Brich Micro-Farm, I grow open pollinated organic corn and winter wheat in small fields in a corn-wheat-grass/clover pasture crop rotation. My flock of about 30 hens eats about four ears of hand harvested corn per day. To grow the corn, I mulch the field with a layer of grass clippings collected from neighboring lawns. The mulch provides good weed control and as it decomposes it fertilizes the corn and in the following year the residual soil fertility nourishes the wheat. Winter wheat seeded after corn harvest in September or early October, serves a dual purpose. My flock grazes the wheat grass plants down to what appears to be bare ground in the winter.
Surprisingly, the wheat plants quickly recover with the return of warmer spring temperatures and with the benefit of manure applied by the chickens. In late June, I start mowing down the mature wheat plants, as feed is needed, and move the pasture pen over the mowed crop and let the hens happily do the grain harvest.
In central New Jersey, I am able give my flock access to pasture nearly year around. A tarp is placed over the wagon housing in the winter to block wind. Only during times of exceptionally cold weather or when the ground is covered with deep snow do I move the wagon housing into the barn. During times when my hens are (sadly) confined to the barn, I bring them greens such as hand pulled wheat grass plants or kale or cabbage leaves from the garden. Chickens love eating these greens even if the leaves are frozen. In my experience, so long as you can provide a source of greens to the chickens, even in winter, they will continue to produce eggs with the dark yellow yokes. Consumption of winter wheat grass is especially effective in giving eggs yokes a deep, almost orange, color.
Our flock of about 30 layers at River Birch Micro-Farm produces about two dozen eggs per day. We enjoy eating the most fresh and local eggs imaginable. We have many willing buyers for our surplus eggs which help to offset the cost for feed. There are many good books on getting started with pastured chickens, a Backyard Poultry magazine and The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association.
River Birch Micro-Farm is a member of the Farm-to-Consumer-Legal-Defense-Fund.
Every pasture walk varies with the season and provides new opportunities for observation and ideas for keeping animals happy and healthy while producing delicious nutrient dense foods. While golf may be “a good walk spoiled” (Mark Twain), a good pasture walk may lead to better organic grass-based farming and food systems.
Dr. Joseph Heckman is a soil scientist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station. He grew up on an organic dairy farm, and has helped to organize the Rutgers Raw Milk Seminars. Heckman has written a number of articles on organic farming for Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal published by the Weston A. Price Foundation. See his recent blog post about his trip to India and Raw Milk Access Helps Family Choose Vacation Destination
Another article by Joseph Heckman is In Defense of Living Organic, published in That Natural Farmer.
Heading Photo Credit: Melanie Dandl
Embedded Photos by Catherine Alexander
Egg Comparison Photo by Joseph Heckman
Note from Kimberly: I know I will get some inquiries about the beautiful barn featured in these photos, according to Joseph, it came from Sand Creek Post and Beam.