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Leader-Follower Grazing, Chicken Tractors and Pasture Dynamics

 
Daniel Bowman
Posts: 74
Location: Sandy Mush, NC
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Hi, I am not sure if "chickens" is the best forum for this post, as it is more to do with a question of introducing chickens into a 10 acre pasture management situation and looking at the holistic interactions between components in the system. (Feel free to move it wherever it would get the best responses)

We are considering following our small "flerd" (of 12-20 Cormo sheep and 3-5 Dexter cows) with a row of 6-18 Salatin-style broiler chicken tractors. Each tractor would house 40-60 broilers, so this will be a significant amount of soil disturbance and inputs, especially N (200-300lb/acre).

Salatin explains that chickens prefer a 2-3" sward length and that their scratching lightly tills the soil and breaks up thatch. This produces a strong regrowth effect that he calls "salad bar", which he then quickly re-grazes with cows at the 8-10" sward length. This practice seems to be informed by the "Management-Intensive-Grazing" school and I have concerns about doing this, drawing from Greg Judy's New Reformation (where he abandoned the MiG principles in favor of Allan Savory-style build up of OM via trampling and letting pasture go to seed).

Our pasture is fairly steep with minimal Organic Matter and we just acquired the neighbor's pasture, which is also quite steep and mostly sour grass and other weeds from their mostly un-managed over-grazing practices with sheep. We are letting this new land cycle through the winter before introducing our animals, in hopes they do not inherit a heavy parasite load from the previous flock. The weed to grass ratio is impressive, with hardly a clover in sight.

I think this new pasture could benefit significantly from the chicken disturbance, but I wonder about the long-term effects of the practice. We have lately been following Greg Judy's example and try to trample and leave as much material as possible. This is working, somewhat, for building OM and overall soil health. We also now feed hay by unrolling a full round bale and only letting them eat about half before moving paddocks and repeating with another bale.

In my assessment, Salatin's approach is far too intensive. Judging from the Google satellite view, his pastures do look pretty stripped and tired (isn't modern surveillance technology great for verifying argricultural claims?). All that N input doesn't seem too different from synthetic fertilizer. Over the long-term, I imagine the chickens will significantly reduce OM and CEC and lead to shallower root systems and thus greater vulnerability to drought.

To counteract or at least reduce these effects, we would limit all re-grazing to a maximum of 2-3 times per year and the chickens would come through only once or maybe twice in spots. This allows the pastures to reseed and a lot of OM would build up before the chickens got to it. The tractors would mostly see trampled and matted, long grasses. Salatin would say this is less than ideal for the chickens, but I am more concerned about the pasture itself.

Do my basic assumptions on the interactions between animal-plant-soil seem correct? Any suggestions or experiences folks have would be great!

Thanks,
Daniel
 
Angela Aragon
Posts: 30
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Gabe Brown works on the following 5 tenets to building and maintaining soil health: minimal soil disturbance (no till), keep armor on the soil, maintain living roots in the soil as long as possible, seed multiple species cover crops, and animal cycling over paddocks.

When Gabe speaks about seeding multiple species cover crops, he advises that you first determine what your primary concerns are for each paddock (e.g. holding water, breaking up hard ground, increasing organic matter, etc.) and design your cover crop mix accordingly. Your primary concern appears to be building fertile soil by increasing organic matter. Although I do not know him personally, my sense is that this is not Joel Salatin's main concern. He already has built good soil and is more concerned with sustaining it with his practices. He is doing what works for him and it is hard to argue with his long-term success.

Others go about this in different manners, at least on the surface, but the underlying principles are strikingly similar. geoff lawton leans toward composting and has a large operation devoted to it on Zaytuna Farm. Gabe Brown does not lean in the same direction as Geoff on composting. Instead, he uses a "composting in place" strategy. The land itself is his compost pile and vermicomposting operation. Both have successful farms. Salatin has a successful farm. Others here have successful farms and gardens.

You are in the process of establishing your preferences for how to build a sustainable operation on your farm. Next, you will put these into practice on a trial and error basis. This is exactly what all of these well-known guys did. Gabe Brown made a statement at one of his presentations that really rang true for me. He said that each year he and his son partly measure their success by if they have failed at something, emphasizing that if they do not fail they are not trying enough new things.
 
Daniel Bowman
Posts: 74
Location: Sandy Mush, NC
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Hmm.. ok, so you are telling me to experiment and see? Thanks... I am! But maybe there is someone with more hands-on experience that can inform my attempts?

Regarding your other points on the relativism of "success", I respectfully disagree. It is important to be clear about what determines our criteria for success and not just "to each their own". I would argue for criteria based in improving land fertility, species diversity, community resilience and a culture of resistance to the systems that are destroying this planet. If we aren't meeting that criteria of success, we all lose! In any case, that is my "version" of success and I think it is essentially true for everyone, whether or not they choose to believe it (the whole point of truth is that it isn't relative). But I digress..

Easy way to determine the extent to which Salatin is successful or at least living up to his various claims is simply to look at the aerial imagery of his farm and see that desertification and soil compaction should be a serious concern of his. But I only really care about Salatin in so far as it is important to take seriously and evaluate his example before attempting a similar venture under false pretenses. I think there is a lot of potential in his idea, but I think he is doing it wrong.

Gabe Brown, on the other hand, appears to be doing quite well with his 5,000 acre ranch.. but my situation is a lot more modest than that and he wouldn't be able to turn around his JD drill box in my "field" of corn, let alone reseed the pasture without rolling. His "principles" are fine, but a little generic. The devil is in the details, after all, and developing a practice that works every day and accounts for one's own situation.

The best discoveries and break-throughs are techniques that have scalability and are easily adaptable. Despite his claims in the lengthy presentation I just watched, I don't think Gabe Brown is speaking to my situation. But, after all, he was speaking to corn farmers and ranchers.
 
Ray South
Posts: 56
Location: Northern Tablelands, NSW, Australia
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We have recently started moving a small flock of 14 sheep through our pastures (40 acres total) using holistic planned grazing principles. We are preparing to introduce a small flock of chickens to follow the sheep. I have reservations about the benefits and am concerned about the extra N from the birds. The sheep already add their dung and urine so I wonder whether we really need to be adding more. Time will tell I suppose.
 
Daniel Bowman
Posts: 74
Location: Sandy Mush, NC
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I am developing a hybrid poultry grazing model that attempts to incorporate aspects of the Salatin tractor model and the coop + free-range electronet paddock layout. It is inspired by the ideas presented by Forrest Pritchard in this article-- http://smithmeadows.com/farm/mob-grazing-with-chickens/ His system adapts a "hub" or "wagon wheel" model to work on pasture and with some subtle details that make it more functional and resistant to hawks and other aerial predators.

Two arguments in favor of Salatin-style tractors and against free range is that the latter is too vulnerable to hawk predation (it might work for a year or two, but once they discover your chickens it's all over!) and also creates a less significant mob grazing effect. Pritchard solved these issues by utilizing a "free range" system that is very densely stocked and evenly grazed, but that is not vulnerable to hawks. He does this by laying out rotational grazing alleys in very narrow strips of electronet. Hawks get freaked out by the tight fencing and will not try and land in the lanes.

This system is obviously a compromise on the real "free range" experience that a larger open paddock would create, but the chickens are still better off not being being cooped up in 2ft tall tractors. Also, since a tractor covered with chicken wire or (more likely if you have much predator load) hardware cloth tends to block out larger insects, such as grasshoppers, tractor chickens suffer reduced foraging ability. But, on the other hand, Salatin points out that too much space leads to "too much movement" that just burns calories and causes a reduced feed to weight gain ratio on broilers. I think that Pritchard's system offers an excellent compromise in this regard.

A final point to consider is that, not only is electronet a very good 24/7 deterrent to predators, but it keeps a wider buffer between predators and the chickens than a tractor or coop alone. Possums and raccoons are great at reaching through chicken wire and the birds, especially on hilly terrain, will tend to bunch up against the wall making them that much easier to grab. Electronet prevents this concern and also allows for the design of much more functional coops that can have larger wheels with better balancing, without a concern for predator entry. I have always hated dragging around clumsy and poorly balanced chicken tractors and having to ensure that you don't set it down on any dips or ruts that would allow predators to slip underneath. So, not having to rely on a tractor pen as the main line of defense is a real plus.

That said, I do find fault with Pritchard's design for a couple reasons. Firstly, I dislike a coop that remains stationary for more than a night. He ends up having to add bedding and has a "sacrificial zone" after a few weeks where the pile of deep litter has smothered the grass. Also, chickens drop the majority of their manure at night, so not moving their sleeping quarters daily defeats a major motivating factor for keeping them on pasture (spreading the manure evenly). My second major modification to his system is that my land pasture is mostly on a hillside and I want the chicken lanes to always run on contour, across the slope. Accommodating these concerns has led me to the following design, which takes the advancements of Pritchard over Salatin, but then adds back in some Salatin--

The following layout will accommodate around 1,000 birds. You could scale up to this from 40 birds or go up to about 1,200 before it would be full maxed out. At 1,000 it is a somewhat lower stocking density than Salatin uses in the same area. My reasoning for choosing this size area has to do with my already established grazing system. In the growing season, I move our sheep and cows every 3 days or so in 50'x100' paddock cells, so I wanted to design a chicken rotation that could mate with the current move schedule. Following the chickens immediately after the ruminants is both the most convenient arrangement for me (shares the same perimeter fencing) and the best practice for the pasture (pasture gets the maximum amount of rest and minimal "shock" from re-grazing) and animal health (the sooner they scratch through the manure, the fewer fly larvae will be able to hatch).

Since my current grazing setup is 50'x100' cells, the chicken lanes are designed to comfortably use my same 100ft and 50ft lengths of electronet. I know for sure I won't set this up in perfectly straight and square lines, so I imagine the lanes varying somewhat between 6-8ft wide. There are six chicken lanes and the ends of the whole area are capped with a single length of 50ft netting (reused from the sheep and cows). This means that each grazing strip for the chickens is approx 700 sq ft and will keep about 180 birds for 3 days. I need six of these strips at a time to fill the 50'x100' area and keep pace with the rotations.

The chickens will have three mobile "coops" per grazing strip, for a total of 18 "coops" in the whole system (at maximum capacity). Each "coop" is 6ft wide x 10ft long x 2ft tall (60 square feet of ground space). These look similar to a tractor pen, but with pass-through chicken doors on either side that stay open. They are only intended for sleeping and daytime shelter during inclement weather and when the chickens need to be cooped up for processing, etc. I will weld them from steel tube stock to be sturdy but lightweight and attach permanent, relatively larger wheels to them for easy moving.

Since the perimeter fence will already be established from the previous livestock, this system will "only" require setting up 5 sections of 100' fence every few days, plus the time to move the 18 coops every day. It takes me about 10-15 minutes per fence section, which when added to the time to refill water and feed troughs and roll the dozen coops forward, the whole operation should add approximately 3 hours of additional farm labor, spread out over the 3 days in each paddock cell. That really is not so bad for 1,000 pastured chickens in an intensively managed free range setup! I hope to test out this system in the spring with a single run and will see how it goes in real life. Any suggestions on modifications or potential problems would be appreciated.
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