During the first few installments of our Chicken Care series, I talked about how we came to the paddock system, how to choose the right number of birds, and how to feed your birds for cheap or free. Today, I will talk about creating a paddock system that works for you and what it means to have a deep mulch run.
When I say paddock system, I mean a group of pens that are segregated from each other with the intent that the chickens will have access to each paddock only at certain times of the year. I suggest that at the very least you have two separate paddocks. A good number to have is three or four.
Our system currently consists of three paddocks, and we have plans to expand that to four or five by summer. The first paddock consists of a coop and run area. The run area is what I call a deep mulch run, and the chickens will always have access to this area. I’ll discuss what I mean by deep mulch a little later in the article, so keep reading.
The second paddock is our garden. The chickens will only have access to this area immediately after the harvest and only for 1-2 months; they clean up any insects and things that need to be taken care of. They scratch and fertilize as they go. I also make sure to dump any kitchen scraps into my garden beds so that the chickens will focus their scratching and fertilizing right where I want them to.
The third paddock encloses a wild blackberry patch. It was probably not the most well thought-out plan, just because the chickens love the security of the brambles and often lay their eggs in there rather than in the nesting boxes, but it has worked out all right.
The fourth and fifth paddocks will have fruit trees, which we planted over the last two years, hardy berry bushes, and other such things. The idea is that each paddock will serve a double purpose: we will be growing forage for our flock and our humans at the same time. The thing to keep in mind is that tender plants should be protected if they are included in your paddocks. That can look as simple as turning a five-gallon bucket upside down on top of your artichokes, which is what we did this year. Hardy plants, like rhubarb and most fruit trees once they are old enough, will work out really well.
1. Chicken Access to the Coop and Paddocks: Will your coop be movable, or will it be central to all of your paddocks? How will you move your hens from one to the other?
2. Human Access to Each Section: You are going to need to access your pens or paddocks, the coop, and the run for maintenance, harvest, and sometimes in order to catch a stubborn hen for mite dusting. Make sure you can get in there!
3. Predator Protection: What kind of predators are in your area? This will determine what kind of protection you’ll need. For example, if you have owls or hawks, you may need to have some sort of netting over your coop and runs. That will probably mean you’ll have to keep your paddocks small enough to make that netting economical.
4. Forage and Feeding: Chickens have to eat, and if they don’t eat enough they will end up eating each other. I’m not kidding! You’ll need to have plenty of space for them to forage if you plan on having them forage for themselves. Chickens can be hard on a piece of land. You can easily avoid cannibalism in your flock by keeping your chickens rotating through the paddocks regularly and by feeding them plenty of food when forage is hard to find or otherwise exhausted.
5. Timing: How long does it take ten hens to deforest a piece of land ten feet square? That sounds like the beginning to a bad joke, but I tell you what, it’s a serious question. Chickens will pick every little green thing that they can reach, so you’ll want to make sure you keep in mind the amount of time your birds will spend in each paddock and plan appropriately.
One of the most noticeable features of chickens is that they scratch. In Washington state, or any other similarly wet climate, this means that your chicken run will be turned from grass to mud in no time flat.
It doesn’t matter if you run your birds in a chicken tractor or if you let your birds free-range. It doesn’t matter if you only have one chicken in a huge lawn! Your chicken’s favorite scratching areas will soon be mud. The plain and simple fact is that mud will abound where ever the chickens roam.
The good news is, there is a way to manage that. Some folks choose to have a concrete chicken run. This might work for you if you live in a city and need to hose down your run occasionally, but I think there is a better way. That way is to deep mulch your run.
Take straw or hay or any other kind of mulch and lay it thick in the run. I’m talking 1-2 feet deep. The birds will scratch and poop and scratch in it all day long. If any spot gets especially thin, or if you get a lot of mud along one side, you can rake it from another spot or add more hay/straw/grass clippings/etc.
The best part about this is that once a year or so you can rake this all into one big pile, let it compost for the next year, and lay a fresh layer of mulch down. Then, after a year of resting, you have wonderful compost for your plants. I hear garlic really loves chicken poop. This deep mulch compost has the potential to grow some pretty awesome garlic.
The thing I like most about the paddocks is that it provides a circular system for the chickens and gardens to interact without us having to deal with mass destruction. Not to mention that having the mulch/manure/compost is a great way to feed your garden without breaking the bank. Plus, in a well designed system, the poop is where it is supposed to be without as much back-breaking work to get it there!
My dad always told me to Keep It Simple Stupid/Silly/some other S word that you prefer! When you are designing you paddock system, just keep it simple. Complicated designs often require more work, and they are harder to alter or adapt when things aren’t working. You need to stay flexible, especially when you are first starting out with chickens, and even when you’ve had chickens for awhile. You need to observe what is working and what is not and then change the things that are not. Keeping things simple always makes adaptations so much easier!
There’s no one way to have chickens, and this is what works for us. What do you do for your chickens? Leave us a comment below.
That’s it for part 4!
Stay tuned for more on the following:
Designing Roosts, Coops, and Nesting Boxes
Having Dust Baths, Grit and Other Necessities.
Keeping Them Watered
Using Chickens to Till and Fertilize
By Lindsay Hodge
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