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Annual winter forage for chickens

Planting oats in pasture

Overgrown pastureMaybe your pasture grew up in annual weeds, which you lopped off to leave bare ground.  Maybe the chickens made that bare ground for you by scratching up the grass in over-grazed pastures.  Or perhaps you're trying to turn high perennial weeds into something your chickens will enjoy.  Either way, if you're going into winter without plenty of good pasture for your chickens, you can fill in the gap by planting annual forage crops. 

Chickens scratch up groundMost of the plants you'd use as winter cover crops in your garden can work as forage crops, but they have varying utility for chickens.  For grazing as late into the winter as possible, you'll want to choose rye, although this grain might be less tasty to your flock than the more cold sensitive wheat and barley.  Wheat is problematic in our area since you have to plant it late to escape Hessian fly damage, which doesn't give the plants long enough to produce much leaf matter for your chickens.  Barley leaves are perhaps the easiest to digest of the winter grains, but barley plants aren't as winter hardy, so you can't graze them as close or as often.

Rake pastureIf you don't graze wheat, barley, or rye too hard, the plants will survive the winter and will produce some grain in the spring.  Although I thought this was a good idea last year, I discovered that growing grains in your pasture isn't the best use of limited space --- chickens don't get much out of the plants once they start to shoot up and flower, so you'll basically be putting your pasture out of commission for the spring and summer.  Instead of dealing with killing winter hardy grains before they become unpalatable to your flock, you might choose to plant oats if you live in zone 6 or colder --- Austrian winter peasoats will winterkill in our climate, leaving a nice mulch that I can rake back and plant a perennial pasture grass or summer annual into in the spring.

It's also worth looking beyond the grasses to plants that might be more nutritious to your chickens.  Austrian winter peas are a cold hardy variety of field peas that can be mixed in with your winter grains to give your chickens more protein.  The cold sensitivity of Austrian winter peas lies midway between oats and barley, so factor that into your plans for late winter grazing and early spring killing.  While you're at it, why not plant a few patches of leafy greens like mustard?  Chickens enjoy most tender vegetables that people eat, so it's worth experimenting with whatever grows well in the winter in your climate.

After the soil preparation shown in the photos above, I've had pretty good luck tossing Watered oatsseeds of all of these plants directly on top of bare soil and scattering a very light mulch of straw on top.  You can plant most or all of these crops between the beginning of August and mid September in zone 6, but keep in mind that the earlier you plant, the more time your crops will have to get established and resist winter's cold (and chicken feet.)  The most winter hardy forage crops, like rye, can actually be planted after your first frost, but you might not get to graze late planted rye until spring.

Chicken scratching up bare groundPlan your pasture rotation so that you can get your chickens to work up the ground right before planting, then keep the flock out of the forage plot until your crops are six to eight inches tall.  Once the forage has grown that much, let your chickens eat the greenery down to two to three inches and then rest the pasture again until it is six to eight inches tall.  As winter cold hits, you'll need to give the pasture longer between each bout of grazing, and you may eventually decide to just let the flock stay in and kill what's left so that you don't have to deal with it in the spring.

I'm just experimenting with planting annual winter forage for our flock, so I'd love to hear from anyone who has already tried it.  My hope is that my pastures of oats, rye, Austrian winter peas, oilseed radish, mustard, and chicory will give the flock a winter pick-me-up and help prevent the bare, muddy ground we ended up with last winter.  I'll keep you Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!posted on how the chickens respond once the forage crops are tall enough to try out.

While you're preparing your pasture for winter, consider heated chicken waterer options, explained in depth in our do it yourself instructions.

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interesting post. I have enjoyed reading of your chicken raising experiment.

I was a bit confused about how you prepare the soil for sowing these cover crops though. On never used before soil, are you saying you let the chickens come in and scratch at the ground until bare and then just sow seeds and throw straw on top?

Comment by Jalen late Tuesday evening, October 4th, 2011
This pasture was a bit of a mistake, so I wouldn't exactly recommend following my lead. I let ragweed grow up in the pasture and also left chickens in it too long. The result was that the only living plant matter was ragweed, so when I cut down the weeds, the ground was virtually bare. Since ragweed is an annual and I didn't let it set seed, I had mostly weed-free bare ground to work with and could just sow directly on top of it.
Comment by anna at noon on Sunday, October 9th, 2011
I live in Western North Carolina and have a flock of 32 (will be 20) this fall egg layers. They currently live forage in or orchard being rotated ever couple weeks, but during the winter we have to move them to one location so they don't destroy everything in the orchard. I am preparing the area that they will overwinter in now. I'm thinking of planting red clover, tillage radish (that I can pull up for them to eat) and rye. I think the seed one the rye will have time to mature before we put them there in November. And the radish they will devour the tops and I will try and dig up roots. and the clover hopefully will survive enough to regrow next year. Any thoughts on this mix.
Comment by Juniepr Odell at lunch time on Thursday, July 18th, 2013
Juniper --- We let our birds out into the woods in the winter, which seems like a great compromise (but obviously won't be possible for many people). I've planted winter forage for them before, and they do eat some of it, but the area often turns into a muddy mess. If you have to keep them penned up for the winter, you might consider a mulched yard as an addition or alternative to the planted area so they can at least be scratching through leaves and/or straw in search of worms once the greenery gives out.
Comment by anna at lunch time on Monday, July 22nd, 2013

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