Saturday, October 8, 2016

Planning for winter: chickens in the garden

Plucky and Tiny at the front; Cookie, Red, Lavender and Rock at the back
Our usual rotational system for chickens in the garden changes during winter.  The main vegetable harvest, the frost kill of annual flowers, and herbaceous perennial die back opens up new areas of the garden for our birds.  And on the flip side, the lawn becomes less available and for shorter periods, otherwise they might destroy the grass entirely.  Sometimes in winter we even just let them free range over the entire back property for up to a few weeks at a time (though they invariably end up hanging out on the patio next to our back door). 

Weeding, fertilizing and pest control

Things can grow here in winter, albeit very slowly;  too much chicken pressure can overwhelm.  I can use this to my advantage:  where there are weeds or other unwanted plants, I can leave the chickens to scratch, peck and manure until the ground's bare.  With my good sized flock, they can accomplish this over winter easily.  I have a few areas of excess weeds, waiting for the attention of my industrious helpers this winter, and it's certainly something they do naturally and well.

I also hope to concentrate their efforts in areas of excess slugs.  Hopefully my chickens can scratch up and eat/expose/otherwise kill any overwintering pests, and knock back the population enough to give my spring plants a good start.  It's too much to ask to eradicate them entirely, but so long as I can get my plants started well, I can live with slugs.

As well as fresh manure straight from the bird, I like to pile the autumns's manured straw bedding from the coop straight onto the beds, and let it sit until spring.  The chickens help me spread it around (scratching up piles of organic material is their favorite pastime);  it feeds the soil and encourages worms (free feed!).

Egg production, feed, and reducing flock size

Hens are known to lay less in winter than in summer, because of lower light levels.  Some people leave a light on in the coop to encourage more egg production.  We don't do this:  mainly cause we're cheap and lazy, but also to let the hens rest a little.  We have to accept there will be fewer eggs, and slightly higher feed costs because of lack of grass, bugs and weeds to eat.

To cut down on feed costs I may get creative with their food.  And reduce the flock numbers by eating cockerels (probably at the end of this month);  in subsequent winters we may also eat older non-rescue hens (our oldest non-rescue hens are currently 18 months).  Additionally, every winter we have lost at least one rescue hen to old age.  At the moment we have six rescue hens, and though they all look healthy now, I wouldn't be surprised to lose any of them;  most of our rescue deaths have been quick and sudden.

Verboten

There will be one bed of standing vegetables which will be entirely off limits to the flock during winter: the brassica bed.  I'm growing cabbage, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts--for human consumption only.

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