Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: Permaculture Chicken - Pasture Basics by Anna Hess

The cover of the e-book.  Reproduced with permission from the author.  Get the book here.
The title says 'Pasture Basics,' and that's pretty much what this book is.  It's short and has lots of pictures, but it gives the basics of setting up a pasture for chickens.  I would have liked to see some more of the information promised in future volumes included here, but I am definitely more impatient than most, especially when it comes to information about chickens.  It would also be nice to have a few more in-line references to some of the studies she mentions and a cumulative list of references at the end. (Anna recommends several good books for further reading, but you'll have to write them down as you read.  Or, see the list below with links.) There.  The only shortcomings are out of the way, so we can get to the fun parts!

Overall, it's a great resource for readers aspiring to set up a homestead-scale free-range chicken operation.  Anna does a great job combining personal experience with outside research in this nice narrative of what goes into a good chicken pasture.  Anna briefly takes you through her early experiments with traditional 'coop and run' chicken systems, chicken tractors, and rotational pastures to motivate why she settled on a rotating pasture system as the model for her homestead.  I don't want to give too much away, but in essence, this arrangement maximizes the multi-functionality of the chickens--healthy meat and eggs, pest control, fertilizing, lawn mowing, and no-till soil preparation--while letting them 'express their chickenness' (to borrow Joel Salatin's phrase) and simultaneously reducing their feed bill.

Simple schematic of the chicken management systems Anna has mentions in the book.  The bulk of the book is about the one on the right, since that's what has worked best for them.  Click graphic for larger version.

A hybrid chicken tractor/coop (troop?) can work well on relatively flat land and provides excellent protection from predators.   Mobile fencing can be used to provide a dynamic paddock pasture system outside the enclosed area.  Photo credit: Dad and Mom for top and bottom panel, respectively.

Anna covers considerations for sizing your pasture for your flock size and climate, locating your coop and paddocks, the variety of helpful pasture crops and why they're good (sample list at the end of this post), how to rotate through your paddocks (with seasonal variations), common mistakes that reduce the productivity of the pasture, how to maintain the pasture, and how to convert other types of land into a chicken pasture, with an emphasis on cover crops that have worked well for them.  How they have dealt with seasonal variation is one of the best values of this book, since pasture productivity can vary widely over the course of the year, and 'emergency release valves,' as Anna calls them, outside of the normal paddock rotation scheme are likely to be necessary, especially in winter.  Note, however, that Anna lives far enough south (in Virginia) that she can allow her chickens access to pasture pretty much year-round--if you have snow on the ground for most of the winter, you'll need to make additional arrangements.

Graphic of what pastured chickens have to eat over the course of the year.  Local results will vary; this is just a schematic (not to scale).  Also, forest pastures aren't covered in depth in the book, so that line in the top panel is representative mostly of when nuts fall from the trees and not a particular grazing pattern.  The relative fraction of diet from pasture will also vary a lot based on the specific system--for example, Anna's chickens top out at 30% of their diet from pasture, while Joel Salatin's chickens, which get a lot of protein from bugs in cow pies, forage up to 67% of their food.

One thing to note here is that Anna has built up her system without complementary livestock, so their rotational schedule might require more maintenance (in some respects) than a system with cows, sheep or goats, and their chicken feed bill is probably not reduced quite as much as it could be.  For example, Anna uses a lawnmower to keep unused paddocks in check during the spring when the pasture grows faster than the chickens can keep up with it.  Anna also notes near the end of the book that her chickens forage for up to 30% of their feed (but more typically 10-20%, or even slightly less for broilers), while Joel Salatin's chickens, which follow a herd of cows through his fields as 'pasture sanitation,' can forage up to 67% of their feed.  Anna doesn't seem too keen on the pasture sanitation route since they don't have a lot of open pasture room on their homestead, but I'm not sure I agree that other animals wouldn't be net beneficial.  Sure, Salatin's operation is much bigger, but it can be scaled down to one or two cows and a small flock of chickens on less than five acres of pasture.  In any case, the important point is that there are lots of ways to pasture your poultry and the fraction of feed the chickens find for themselves will vary depending on your specific situation, but almost everyone should be able to see some reduction in their feed bill.

In summary, I'd like to reiterate that this book is a great resource for anyone looking to create a poultry pasture, and I highly recommend it.  I also suggest following Anna's blog, The Walden Effect, to find out when the next volumes in the series will come out, and to follow further discussion of the books in this series.

Additional reading mentioned in the book:
Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman's Chicken Tractor
Harvey Ussery's The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
Carol Ekarius' Small-Scale Livestock Farming
Bill Murphy's Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence
Steve Solomon's The Intelligent Gardener
Gene Logsdon's All Flesh Is Grass
Anna's Weekend Homesteader
Anna's Homegrown Humus
Anna's Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook

Other related books:
Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens

Chicken pasture plants mentioned in the book:
Perennial Ryegrass
Creeping Bent
Crested Dog's Tail
Kentucky Bluegrass
Italian Ryegrass
Reed Canarygrass
Smooth Bromegrass
Big Bluestem
Little Bluestem
Side-oats Grama
Eastern Gamagrass
Ladino Clover
Red Clover
White Clover
Sorgum Sudangrass
Pearl Millet

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