This year we’ve been running an on-farm research project, and I’m excited to share results. Just to set expectations: no, this isn’t the kind of research with clipboards, double blind controls, and all the rigor necessary for peer review. This is informal, but it still has great value. We’ve learned new things. In fact, I think we’ve reached a new kind of breakthrough for pasture plant growth productivity. I’m excited!
As you probably know, our chicken flocks are constantly on the move across our pastures. They get onto fresh grass, and then they graze it, trample on it, and drop their manure all over it. Once they’ve had their fill, we herd them along to the next patch, and so day-by-day they make their way across our fields in an orderly progression. The acts of grazing, trampling, and manuring the fields each have specific benefits for the pasture plants and soils, leading to increased plant growth, increased photosynthesis, increased soil biological activity, and increased soil profile depth. Chickens are great for our pastures. But I’ve always wondered if we could do more with them.
I’ve noticed in past years that a kernel of corn occasionally escapes the chickens and sprouts up a few weeks after they’ve moved on. The corn quickly outruns the surrounding perennial grasses and forbs. These kernels land on the ground, where they happen to be trampled down, and then manure covers them over. Because the seed is pressed into contact with the soil and fertilized by the manure, it is able to shoot upward as a vigorous plant.
Building a Chicken Powered Planter
This started me wondering whether I could use my chickens as a no-till seed drill. If you aren’t familiar with no-till drills, these are expensive planting machines towed behind tractors. They use some kind of miniature wedge or disc to open up a tiny furrow in the ground. A seed tube precisely meters single seeds into this slot at some pre-set spacing. Then there follows a set of rollers to close the furrow and to press the seed into contact with the soil. I was curious whether I could harness the power of poultry to do something similar, and to use the birds to plant cover crops into my pastures without using any tractors or machinery. So this spring I bought sacks of Certified Organic seed and began my testing.
I’ve been broadcasting various seeds, singly or in mixtures, out into the pasture just as the chickens enter the fresh grass. AJ and I usually work together in the evening to move the chickens, so while AJ is checking the water lines and the feeders, I grab a five gallon bucket and scatter handfuls of seed just in front of the pasture shelter. To keep things close to a normalized basis, I spread one small handful for every fifty square feet. Next year I’ll probably play with different seeding rates, just to understand more about what might be the effect of heavier or lighter plantings.
Successes and Failures
We tried an array of six plants in this year’s testing, including: Japanese millet, Wapsie Valley corn, daikon radishes, Barkant turnips, Guyanoga oats, and annual ryegrass. There are other plants still on my list to try next year, but I wanted to keep the seed varieties limited this season. Over the coming years I hope to keep playing around with species and varieties. There’s plenty of room for further tweaking of seed type and seed mixes.
Of all the plants I tested, I found that the radishes, turnips, and oats were the most productive, and they work well together as a mix. Annual ryegrass seems to be the least capable of growing in this environment. Those the small seeds are suited for planting new grass on bare ground, but they can’t get the jump on a well-established perennial pasture and so they are just smothered. Millet and corn both grow, but they are limited by planting season. They really don’t get out of the ground until the soil is warm, and the plants brown out and die once the nights fall down into the 30’s. With the variability in our weather, I don’t feel like these two are the right seeds for us except for planting during the month of June. Before June they were simply too slow to grow, and after June too much of their growth occurred during the waning portion of the summer. Perhaps in warmer climates with extended growing season millet and corn would work better.
Paying the Chicken Tax
One worry that almost held me back from trying this experiment was the belief that the chickens would eat all the seeds. And, they did eat the seeds. Chickens are very good at scavenging seeds and eating grains, after all that’s one of the special skills their wild ancestor the Asian Junglefowl possesses, and probably this ability was one of the reasons why humans found them so readily suited to domestication. So for all the seeds I broadcast, I paid a chicken tax. Some of the seeds went to the birds, and I think I’ll always have to accept some losses.
There are two factors regulating the amount of seed lost to the flock. The first relates to the size of the seed. So corn, being big and bright golden-yellow, is the most obvious target. I estimate that they pecked up ninety percent of the corn kernels. I’d suspect that other large seeds, such as beans, peas, squash, and sunflowers would suffer a similar fate. Being smaller, the oats, turnips, radish, and millet seeds had better success evading the beady eyes and questing beaks, but whatever we threw down the birds were sure to eat some of it. The second factor leading to successful seeding ties to the length of the grass. In the early spring with ankle-high grass the seeds didn’t have anywhere to hide. As we progressed later into the season, moving the chickens through thick, tall swards of grass diminished the likelihood of finding even so tempting a morsel as a corn kernel.
What’s the purpose?
Maybe I should have lead off with the question of why I’ve done all this. What purpose does all of this planting activity serve? After all, I’ve written before about the remarkable regrowth of the perennial pasture plants after the chickens pass through a field.
Candidly I’ll admit one reason I’ve been experimenting is just because I’m curious about what might be possible. I look back and realize that my “new” design for chicken shelters is already eight years old… It is easy to slip into a repetitive groove, to farm the same way year after year, and to lose sight of all of the possibilities that surround me. So I’m on the lookout for opportunities to learn about the ways this land, these animals, and these people can interact. In the rut of daily chores, it is too easy to forget that we’re farming in the middle of an immeasurably rich and complex system, and that we are surrounded by possibilities we haven’t yet imagined.
Apart from my inclination to experiment for the pure joy of learning, another reason for doing this connects to my presupposition that more biological activity is always better. Contrast this with the anti-biology leanings in conventional agriculture. Pass by a corn field sprayed down with pesticides so that there’s just corn and nothing else. Or a commercial crop of kale, planted in laser straight rows in uninterrupted acres of plastic weed barrier. Or a beef mega feedlot with miles of packed dirt corrals and cattle stretched to the vanishing point. These agricultural systems reduce production to a single commodity, and exclude every other form of life from the land. There’s no room for weeds, no shelter for birds, no food for pollinators. So much of farming is about killing anything in competition with our commodity. But my vision for farming is always leaned in a different direction, toward more life, more complexity, more abundance.
I’ve found that planting these fast-growing seeds into the pastures allows us to grow more forage. It also helps to cycle our nutrients rapidly, so there’s less chance of losing nutrients to runoff or soil leaching. Plants like the turnips and radishes are especially intriguing because they operate so noticeably both aboveground and belowground, pushing upward in lush leafy growth and downward with a thick tap root. I suspect that the tap root will be effective in opening up more pore space in the soil.
Even as these annual plants grow, I’ve noticed that our perennials remain vibrant. The annuals act as nurse crops for the perennials, and after the cattle graze the annuals the underlying pasture plants quickly bounce back. This tells me that we’re increasing the total amount of photosynthesis on the farm. We’re building our topsoil. We’re harnessing a little more of the power of the sun-plant-soil dynamic. And all it takes is a bucket of seeds and a flock of willing chickens.
Want to learn more? I’m scheduled to write a more practically-oriented story about this work in a farming magazine. Once that’s published, I’ll link to it here.