Saturday, 18 April 2015

Clucker Tucker: Pasture in the pen!

If you read the right books you will hear over and over that the best things to feed your animals is what they have been adapted to eat. Cows should be eating grass not grain, dogs should be eating meat not grain and chickens should be eating a bit of everything including a bit of grain! Chickens are omnivores; that means that they eat vegetable matter (leaves, grasses, grains) as well as animal bits in the form of bugs, lizards, frogs and other garden critters (and cat food when they can get at it!)

In my last post I noted that chickens are very fond of trying out any plant in your garden or digging it up to get at the juicy earthworms that reside there. Its hard to keep chickens out of the garden but they do need their greens. I had heard about pasturing chickens but wasn't sure that he-what-enjoys-his-lawn would say if I started planting out the lawn with all sorts of chicken goodies!

I wasn't sure how I was going to stop them from digging it up either - and then I had an idea - I would bring the pasture to the chickens!

Here's what I did...

I bought a piece of galvanised mesh from the local steel suppliers for $35. They cut in half, longways for me (so that it would fit in the back of the hatchback) and so I got two chicken pasture protectors for the price of one.

I put a series of bricks around the edges to raise it off the ground and then put some reasonable dirt into the area to grow my "clucker tucker" on. Since I have photographed this, I have put the bricks end on rather than face down like in the photo and I have put them along each side with no gaps. The answer to the question, "Can the chickens get their heads through the gaps in the bricks?" is YES! And they can scratch a fair way under the mesh through the gaps in the side. Close up the side gaps and put the mesh up high.

When I first made this (and photographed it) I had the bricks in the middle face down. They need to be there to stop the weight of five chickens at once pushing the mesh onto the ground and then the chickens just devastating the plot. But they need to be end on so there is enough height as well. If I did this again, I'd also get smaller mesh holes as I think they will soon be sticking their necks all the way in and ripping out the wee seedlings when they grow.

After I had put in some decent dirt, I watered the patch and then put in whatever seeds I could find. Wheat and sunflower were the first to go in. Then I found a packet of "Finch Treat" a mixed seed for finches that was lying around. So they got sprinkled on as well.

I have two pens so I put a pasture in each. In these photos I hadn't filled in the gaps in the bricks nor turned them on end. That took a day or so until I realised the chooks had no trouble getting the seed out through the holes in the side!

I put both "pastures" on the side of the pens, slightly out of the way so that anybody throwing food in there wasn't likely to throw it into the pasture. It also leaves room in the sun for dust bathing and stops them digging under the fence.

 For the first few days the chookies pretty much ignored it after I put the bricks closer together and raised the height of it a few inches. They couldn't get at any more seeds and weren't up to walking on the top yet.

A week later: Now that the seed is growing you can see how far in they could reach between the bricks. They have eaten or disturbed all the seed that was near the edges. The wheat and sunflowers are the first ones to sprout.

I would have though that the chooks would have nipped the tops off this young wheat especially as it is through the top of the wire now - but so far they haven't been game to walk on the top of it.

I'm sure that any day soon the lure of young green shoots is going to tempt the chickens on to the mesh and we shall see if I have got it up high enough or not. Its a bit of a work in progress...

Another advantage that I didn't see straight away is that it will become a "bug sanctuary". The bugs will be able to live, hide and reproduce under the mesh without getting eaten - until they over populate or miscalculate the speed of the chicken - so this chook pasture area will increase the flora and fauna biodiversity of their pens!

I figure that if we feed the chickens the seeds, the plant is probably a good one for them to eat. My goal is to have a fair diversity of plants growing under mesh in these pens so as to give the chookies the greatest variety of greens to pick from.

I was reading this article on the Green Harvest seed website about growing forage for chickens and was impressed with the amount of greens that chickens are known to like.

"Bok choy, buckwheat, barrel medic, forage chicory, clover, cocksfoot, linseed, lucerne, millet, forage plantain, silverbeet, subclover and sunflower. Most have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten." - From the Green Harvest website.

I'm also reasoning that they will have access to greens each day even if I don't manage to let them out in the afternoons for some reason or we go away for a few days - although bored chookies will probably figure out how to devastate the area under the mesh after a day or two of being cooped up! Even though I can bring food scraps home from work as a weekly treat for the chooks, I think this is also a good way to reduce your feed costs for the chickens and to increase the variety of foods that they eat. And if they are eating direct from the growing plant, it cant get any fresher than that!

I'm also wondering if it will make the pens (feel?) cooler in the heat of the summer as the area under mesh wont dry out so quickly with its green covering.... Although I realise I will have to water it every single day in our unrelenting Brisbane summers.

Greens are good for chooks and increase the golden-ness of the yolk due to the chlorophyll in the green leaves. The greater variety of green the chooks get, the more access to vitamins and minerals they are going to have, it follows, the healthier and less susceptible to disease they will be.

Some Clucker Tucker links to check out: 

This is a great article about chooks in the garden with another list of the greens that they like and are good for them by Ecobotanica.

Organic Motion has Salad Bar ideas for your chickens culinary delight!

And this Back Yard Poultry forum thread has lots of innovative ideas for smaller clucker tucker pastures!

If you do something similar - link to us in the comment section. We'd love to see how you feed your chooks!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for growing your own chook food! 
Frugal-ness: 4/5 as it has a high initial outlay for the steel but being galvanised, it should be a long term investment.
Time cost: About 15 minutes each pen
Skill level: Mainly chicken wrangling skills and some basic gardening knowledge.
Fun-ness: Awesome fun for you and the chooks when it starts to work!

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