Pastured Poultry Paddocks

Once the coop was designed and built we were on to thinking about the outdoor set-up for our new flock.  Although free-range was appealing in terms of chicken nutrition/feed costs and quality of life, we were concerned about the many potential predators and also wanted more control over where (and on what) our chickens roamed.  I was investigating different types of chicken runs when I learned about chicken tractors and discovered the pastured poultry methods developed by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.  At first I was disheartened to think our coop design had been a big mistake and that we should have gone with something small and mobile.  Then I heard Jack Spirko interview permaculturalist Paul Wheaton on the Survival Podcast and knew his paddock shift system was exactly what we were looking for.  Paul’s article explains the idea in detail and gives an overview and comparison of other systems. 

The basic idea is to create four or more fenced areas (or use portable fencing) and rotate the flock so that each area gets at least 28 days of rest before reuse .  This allows the plant life to benefit from the grazing and fertilization and rebound becoming increasingly lush over time (intensive rotational grazing.) 

Our paddock set-up has a permanent access run with four rotating paddocks.  Each has some shade provided by nearby trees.  So far it seems to be working well.  We’ve been shifting the same day each week, which only gives 21 days of rest, so we probably need to adjust that for optimal results, it’s just harder to keep track of a 9/10-day rotation.  It’s really nice to have fresh forage for them and to know they’re not going to be swiped up by a wandering neighbor dog. 

One predator issue remains in the hawk we often see inspecting the yard.  We’ve considered using netting or even strands of wire and have thought about some type of shelter item that could be moved from paddock to paddock.  I would prefer to see some type of evergreen shrubbery or other tall plant (like the peony bushes growing along the access run where they like to hang out) rather that additional structures, but it would take time for most plants to be big enough to make much of a difference.  Ideally we’d have all kinds of established trees and plants that provide additional food inputs  incorporated into the design.  One of our hens ended up being a rooster, and he’s been taking his watch-dog, protective role very seriously, so maybe that will make enough of a difference safety-wise. 

Anybody else trying a paddock shift system?  Any hawk safety suggestions from the veteran chicken farmers out there?



Filed under Chickens, Homesteading

23 responses to “Pastured Poultry Paddocks

  1. Paula`

    This looks like a great system. I’m thinking of doing a rotational forage thing, but instead of keeping the hens out of the garden, I’m going to encourage them to go and eat the stuff I plant, specifically, stuff I”m planting for them to eat. I could easily plant a melon patch and just let them split on purpose, turn the chickens loose, and let them eat. Same in winter with lettuce, whatever.

    Your most important feature that I see in your design is the access. “Herding” chickens is futile! They go where they want and it’s never where you want! Good luck.

    • Mendy

      Hi Paula, I’m thinking the same thing with providing garden inputs for our flock. We put our coop by the garden so we could let them in as desired, but haven’t given them access since we planted. We were planning to let them into the garden after we were done harvesting and were hoping to try some cold season crops under low tunnels for both us and the birds. I was thinking we might also section off an area for some type of winter wheat (or other crop) that they could enjoy in late winter. What else do you grow just for the chickens? Do you give them regular access and if so, do you have trouble with them eating things you don’t want them to eat? I’ve been tempted to let them in while I supervised, but wondered if I’d have trouble with them flying over at will and causing too much damage…

  2. I have had chickens for over 50 years and have never had a problem with a hawk. Hawks (here is Washington State) are not big enough to carry off a chicken. BUT! I have
    have had problems with Bald Eagles flying right into the chicken yard and killing my favorite hen! My solution was stringing some 1/2 inch wide electric fence tape back and forth across the top of the yard. This not only kept the eagle out but my clever escapee chickens in! I do let them out of the yard daily to forage when I am out and about to keep them out of the flower beds and veggie garden. Even though it is fenced they manage to find a way in.
    I had never heard of this rotating pastured system until today, but I have been trying to come up with something similar myself! You have given me food for thought.

    • Mendy

      Bald Eagles, Oh my! My favorite hen tends to be an escape artist, I’ll have to look into the electric fence tape, thanks!

  3. I’m not really a veteran, but I have had hawk problems with my chickens this year, too. One day my chickens were out in their run and I was gone a good part of the middle of the day, and I when I came back one chicken was missing with absolutely no trace. My best guess was a hawk. I knew they were going to be an issue, so when building the run I had strung wire back and forth a trillion times across the top, but that didn’t seem to work. So I bought some of that black poly fencing (it looks like hardware cloth, but it’s plastic) and basically rolled it out on top of the existing wires, which support it. It’s attached in a few places, but mostly just laying on top of the wires- it looks a lot better than using chicken wire, and the two rolls I bought to cover (most of) my 30×30 run cost under $20. The little bits it didn’t cover I used some scraps of hardware cloth and chicken wire I had left. Hope that helps, and I love the poultry paddock idea- wish I would have heard of it before I built my run, but since I have plans to expand anyway I may be able to work my existing run into a rotational system… I did get up the guts to free range my chickens for a few hours tonight, but it was a little nerve wracking!

  4. Mendy, I’ve heard of the paddock system, but I haven’t tried it. You’ve really got me thinking on it again. It’s so green there, it’s easy to see how your pasture would grow right back. Unlike here where it would have to be irrigated; something that I’ll have to figure out. Anyway, great post; and I love the graphic and photos to demonstrate your system.

  5. John

    Hi mendy,

    I heard the same podcasts you mentioned above and want to do something similar this year. What kind of portable fencing do you use? Is it electric?

    • Mendy

      Hi John, Our paddocks are actually permanent (welded wire on the perimeter, chicken wire in between the paddocks, no electric at this point.) Although some would argue it doesn’t provide as much flexibility in adjusting to the vegetation, it has been a very easy system that has worked well for us. (We’d keep at most 2 dozen chickens with our coop size.) Every 9-10 days, we open one paddock and close another, no netting to rearrange. Nature’s Harmony Farm recommends Kencove. Not sure what brand Chicken Thistle Farm uses, but their system sounds very similar to ours (with permanent coop surrounded by shifting paddocks) but they do use the portable fencing. They’re doing some great chicken-related podcasts right now.

      • John

        Thanks mendy….after I sent my original message, I read your post again and realized it was not portable. Looks like a great system. Thanks for the additional information!!

  6. Susan

    Anyone have a link to suburban chicken info? We may have a change in laws next year to allow family coops of up to six hens (no roosters allowed). I would love to have a couple of laying hens as well as raise a few for meat.

  7. Thank you for this lovely post. I was curious as to how large are each of your paddocks?
    And are the paddocks still holding up well–green, etc..?

    • Mendy

      Hi Rose, The paddocks are about 20×30. We had a pretty dry summer here, so they weren’t as lush as I would like, but still grass-covered. I would like to have done more work overseeding with perennial grasses this fall and probably will try to get to that in the spring. I would also like to add some type of shrubbery to each section to provide more predator protection as hawks seem to be our biggest problem. We are certainly putting more of a test on the paddocks now since our flock size has doubled (from 10 to 20.) As our flock was working out the pecking order and coming to a new equilibrium, some of the younger birds found relief by sliding under the interior fencing to paddocks out of rotation to get away from the older girls. So, our management wasn’t ideal this summer since the paddocks didn’t get rested very well. But even with all of this, they still have grass. I’d say it’s a good system, and a great system if managed well.

  8. troy childers

    Newby question. What dimension is your hardware cloth fencing, and did you use something like cedar posts for the permanent fence? Thank you.

    • Mendy

      Hi Troy, We used locust posts. They probably won’t last as long as cedar, but they were free (thanks, Grandpa!) and the ones around our garden are still lookng good after 5 years… The exterior fence is 5 feet tall with 2×4″ openings (When our Buff had chicks last spring they sometimes got separated from her because they could fit through.) The interior fence is chicken wire, just because it’s more affordable and doesn’t have to keep out predators. Of course the only things our chicken yard would keep out would probably be dogs. The lighter-weight birds can fly up on the posts and get out. Maybe that wouldn’t be an issue with metal stakes or if the fence were higher (still debating about wing clipping.) I have some additional thoughts and recommendations, but will add them to the end of the post above. Thanks for visiting the site and best wishes for your new flock!

  9. LuAnne

    We live on 5 acres and we’ve been contemplating whether or not to get some chickens. I’m a pet sitter and I’ve fed, watered, and collected eggs for one of my clients so that makes me the chicken guru of our family. 🙂 I know I wouldn’t want to have the system (or lack of) that my clients have…it’s just a coop with a run that has no grass at all. We can’t do free range because there are lots of stray dogs running around, as well as hawks. In my research, I’ve read a lot about the paddock systems but haven’t seen much in the way of actual plans or designs. Is there a website that might actually show drawings or detailed photos of paddock systems? We’d prefer to have a permanent system rather than moving the coop around. Any info you can provide to this newbie would be greatly appreciated!

  10. Julie Dumond

    So far our eight girls run around loose but seem to climb too much on my porch and patio—and I do not want to enclose my sitting areas around hte house with chicken wire…Our intention is to possible put our coop on wheels with the fencing around it and move it…We have at least 5 to 15 acres which they can eat all they want…and I am finally realizing I don’t need to put feed out during the day- they can get their grain in the coop…when they go in….also- I throw out veggies and fruit all the time to them- but stay away from things that they can’t have…They really like it when I leave a bit of watermelon on the rind and set it out for them…and I am always turning over downed wood that is deteriorate for they do love their bugs…

  11. ECM

    What kind of greens or ground cover is best to plant in each of these paddocks?

    • Mendy

      We’re still learning about this, and I hope to give a paddock update soon. Maybe it depends on what does well in your area. I like to include clover, but I’m sure that there are lots of good options.

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