Rotational grazing — rotating animals across pastures — is a common practice in large-scale sustainable farming. Put simply, it means subdividing a pasture area into smaller paddocks with fencing, and moving the grazing animals from one paddock to another on a specific timeline. The idea is to create a strategic disturbance for limited periods of time.
On large diversified farms, multi-species rotational grazing sees the animals moved in succession: for example, first cattle, then sheep, followed by poultry, and maybe pigs at the end. Rotating animals in this way is beneficial for both animal and pasture health: pasture paddocks get to rest and regenerate when the animals are in other paddocks, and the animals always get access to diverse, fresh, good-quality forage plants.
But what does rotational grazing look like in the urban or suburban backyard, and with a single species — in our case, chickens?
We don’t have acres and acres of pasture. What we do have on our 1/3 acre is a vegetable garden, young food forest areas with perennials, and some grassy areas. Still, we’ve found ways to move our chickens through the landscape in ways that help to optimize their health, and integrate them into our garden management system. I’m sharing some of what we’ve learned in case it’s useful to others.
managing chickens in the urban garden
Chickens are great foragers (though some breeds have a stronger foraging instinct than others). Access to diverse landscapes with plenty of greens, bugs, grains and seeds provides them with a healthy, varied diet. And the eggs we harvest are much more nutritious as a result: pastured chicken eggs have twice the vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as compared to eggs from commercial chicken operations.
The ground in the chicken run quickly becomes dusty, compacted, and devoid of any greenery, which is also a sign that chickens shouldn’t be kept confined to the same area for too long. They are so happy when they get to explore new ground, to kick and scratch good garden soil and take some dirt baths in it.
At the same time, chickens can be destructive if left to their own devices in a vegetable garden. Like any gardener, I’ve had moments of heartbreak when a less-than-perfect fencing setup allowed the chickens to rip apart carefully tended young seedlings.
In a nutshell: you want some combination of free range and smart fencing.
For rotating our chickens around in the garden, we create designated fenced-in “paddocks” in the specific spot where we need their scratching, pest control and fertilization services. We have two primary ways for doing so: 1) a chicken tractor and 2) movable fencing.
A chicken tractor is any simple outdoor enclosure that’s lightweight enough to be moved around. We built ours out of 2 x 4’s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, but there are tons of designs out there for building a chicken tractor that works for you.
The chicken tractor is particularly handy for getting to narrow spots. Here the chickens are foraging and doing weed control in between rows of young currant bushes. Bringing the chickens through here every couple of weeks is all we’ve needed to keep the weeds from taking over.
Whenever we want to let the chickens forage on a larger area, or clean up a particular garden bed after it’s been harvested, we use 3-foot wire fencing to create a “paddock” in any shape we want. Some people use electric poultry netting. On hot summer days, we use shade cloth over the fenced-in area to help keep the chickens cool — as well as to discourage the most mischievous of them from trying to fly out.
No-TILL Garden bed prep sequence
My favorite way to integrate the chickens into our no-till garden is recruiting them to do the cleanup after a particular bed is harvested. This is roughly the sequence:
- Harvest food + pull out any large stalks or vines that chickens are not likely to eat.
- Create a fenced perimeter around the bed and bring in chickens (yes, I carry them one by one from the chicken run) to forage and scratch
- Move chickens to another area and rake off any remaining plant debris
- Aerate the soil with a pitchfork or a broadfork
- Spread a 1″ layer of compost
- Plant next crop or cover crop
One caveat: our setup is not perfect. My preference would have been to have fully free-range chickens with access to all areas of the garden (except the annual vegetable beds, which they would quickly rip through). Alas, we don’t have a perimeter fence, and all of our neighbors have large dogs, so it hasn’t been possible. So we always need to have some kind of protection around the chickens.