Saturday, April 28, 2012

Liberate Your Flock!

VIP ARTICLE

Liberate Your Flock!
by Harvey Ussery

Liberate your Flock!

The all too common version of "letting the chickens outdoors" is the static chicken run. Starting as a grassy sward, within a couple of weeks it is bare of every last blade of green, looking like the surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops. The chickens are bored; the soil becomes toxic with manure; the droppings are breeding grounds for flies and vectors for disease and parasites, and run off as water pollution in the next rain.

If this sketch describes your flock's out-of-doors "playground," be assured that none of us "flocksters"-not one-has to be satisfied with this dreary model. Maybe it's time for the Great Liberation.

Some flocksters are able to free-range their flocks entirely during the day, a strategy that may work for you as well assuming you shut them securely inside the coop at night, when most wild predators are active. Other flocksters find that predation pressures even during the day-and remember that your neighbor's dog can be the most serious daytime predator of all-make complete day ranging a losing proposition. In such cases, giving the flock plenty of space to roam on pasture inside electric net fencing allows them the most natural lifestyle possible while protecting from predators.

Electronet does not protect from aerial predators, of course. I find that keeping the flock enclosed for the night until I get out to feed in the morning prevents most aerial hits, both from owls (active at night) and hawks (who often attack in the first hour of daylight). Guardian dogs are extremely effective at deterring predators both in the air and on the ground.

Pasturing the flock gives them access to their three basic "food groups": live plants such as clovers and grasses; wild seeds and fruits such as berries; and animal foods such as earthworms, slugs and snails, and insects. These self-foraged live foods are superior to anything you can offer your flock from a bag-and save on feed bills.

Our chickens can become an important part of pasture management: As we rotate them over the pasture-to prevent damage to the sod from their scratching and to prevent build-up of parasites or pathogens-they help control weeds by eating seeds, reduce the need for mowing by grazing, and help keep insect populations in balance-all while fertilizing the sward with their droppings.

"Micro-flocks" of just a few birds can be rotated over pasture in predator-proof mobile shelters, part covered for shade and protection from rain, part open to sunlight. And if you don't have pasture for your birds, you might "pasture" them on your lawn instead.

A protective barrier that keeps predators outside can also keep the chickens inside doing useful work for you. I often use tiller chickens to till in cover crops or to kill established pasture sod in preparation for new garden ground, confining them to their work either inside an electronet or, in the garden, inside a small mobile shelter or "chicken tractor."

And by the way, if you simply do not have any pasture to give your birds, even a lawn, do not despair. Cover that bare run with as thick a layer of organic debris as you can, turning it in effect into a giant compost heap. It will absorb the droppings, preventing runoff pollution; will keep the flock endlessly entertained as they scratch through it; will generate high-quality natural foods (crickets, pill bugs, grubs, even Vitamins K and B12 as microbial byproducts)-and in the end will be converted by your shredder-composter chickens into high-grade compost for the garden.

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~Harvey Ussery is the author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock(Chelsea Green, 2011-available in the Premier bookstore), which offers an integrated poultry husbandry based on imitation of nature for production of safer, more wholesome poultry at any scale. He maintains an informative website, www.themodernhomestead.us, featuring numerous articles on poultry and other home food production and sustainability issues.



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