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Backyard Chicken Paddock questions

                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
Hi all,
I've been reading all of the chicken threads in the archives with lots of interest, but looking around our particular site, I'm still left with some questions that I'm hoping some experienced folks can help me with.

We're on a small backyard homestead (1/2 acre total, not all useable) in the PNW.  I'd like to bring in 3 chickens and 3 ducks in the spring for eggs, pest control, and compost.  The area I'd like to give them is an overgrown and weedy perennial flower garden with a few fruit and nut trees already established.  We'd like to turn this area into our wee orchard/food forest over time.

The area is about 330 sq ft of very uneven, sloping ground with small trees.  A tractor definitely won't work!  We have lots of raccoons here, but not too many other predators besides raptors.  I'm thinking of a small, predator-proof coop (partitioning the wet ducks from the dry chickens) for nesting and sleeping, and then I'm trying to figure out the best way to organize their foraging the rest of the time.  We are thinking of fencing off this portion of the garden, so that the birds aren't destroying the main veggie beds and the ducks aren't mucking up the small, artificial fish pond.  I'd like to do a 4ft fence around the perimeter (within the 7 ft deer fence that surrounds the property) of the area with no top, and I hope that the trees and shrubs will provide lots of cover during the day if necessary.

Questions: Is a small, predator-proof run a good idea to add to the coop for the critters to play in while we're out during the day or if we can't be home right at dusk to lock them up?  Or are they fine foraging on their own with or without us?  I'm at home part-time, DH is at work full-time.

Is 4 sq ' per bird in the coop overkill with this much forage/paddock space? 

Our winters get a little snow for a few days here and there, but mostly just wet.  Will they need winterized/ rainproof shelter?  Or will they continue to forage in the paddock year round in this climate?

Do I need to partition the area into different paddocks to rotate them through?  Or is 6-8 birds in 330ish sq ft low enough density that the impact will be minimal?  If so, will their impact be strong enough to keep weeds down?  Or just enough for them to forage happily?  Will their activity turn the whole zone into a sloppy mess in the winter?  Or again, is their impact fairly small?  If mess is the likely result, any suggestions for groundcover that might survive?  (I could mulch with straw in the winter and replant in the spring if necessary, I assume)

I will be digging up most of the perennial flowers (so overgrown!).  In one bindweed-strangled area, I am pulling out the bindweed and will be planting fall rye as a cover crop that can then be mowed in the spring to wack down the bindweed early.  My hope is that the chickens will take it from there.  In the rest of the area, I'm wondering what kind of groundcover to get established?  I will be planting berries on the outside perimeter of the fence, but I'm not sure whether to go with the rye everywhere and then plant some forage crops (ground cherries, strawberries, chickpeas, peas, etc etc) in the spring, or whether I could do a wildflower/clover mix to cover the whole shebang for less maintenance work.  Other suggestions? 

Lastly, I'm wondering about what I can leave of the perennial flowers.  I know the comfrey will be great, but there are 3 peonies that I know don't like to be moved.  Would they be safe?  Or would they be destroyed before they get big enough to withstand the birds?  Ditto with some of the potential people food crops I could plant: artichokes, rhubarb, etc.  These could go just outside the fence with the berries, if necessary.

So many questions!  Thanks so much for whatever help you can give!

                        


Joined: Sep 13, 2010
Posts: 148
Location: South Central Idaho
It's hard to keep a good coon down. You have one of the smartest predators on foot. Skunks are rather adept also. Rhubarb .. isn't it poisonous? Double check all of your plants.

Four square feet is good for the small breed chickens. Get all the same breed and do not mix. They will kill each other. For large laying hens I would try more sq. footage .. like six minimum especially if they are going to be getting in out of the rain and snow all the time. Do not get straight run .. buy all hens and perhaps one rooster if you want to raise a brood. Watch what breed you choose .. some of today's breeds are not broody.

Yes on the run and cover some of it with a roof so they can loaf out side and you don't have to clean a house out as much. Straw the house and run and cross hatch the top with baling string to keep swooping hawks out .. it doesn't take much. I use non climb 100 ft. rolls at about $100 a roll. We do stud pens to chickens with it .. posts at every eight feet for horses with a 2x6 at the top and bottom. For chickens you can go up to ten or twelve feet .. what ever you are comfortable with. Plan out slow and think .. the answers will come to you. We planned our house in 30 days .. the horse pens took four months .. tractor gates .. ride through gates .. people gates .. automatic waterer's .. wind breaks .. arena and lights .. where to put a 12 x 40 ft hay stack with a headache bar to lean stacks on .. we now hand stack .. too many eager kids without jobs and a tighter stack .. more fun .. stronger football players .. our last lad got behind and his professional rugby playing father from the Fuji Islands came over .. we are talking telephone pole size arms and legs .. throwing bales through the air long distances .. I was amazed.

You will need separate housing sooner than later for broods .. keep the little ones away from the big ones for several months .. and a place to put the sick ones. If you can't separate the sick they could get killed while recovering. Chickens are brutal.

Plan on eating your hens the third year and plan on waiting eight months to get a chick up and laying. Good luck. My wife hates chickens and I am the opposite. But she has to feed them if I get sick or I'm out of town.


If you get too far from the stone age .. things go haywire.
                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
Thanks DustyTrails.  No breeding or roosters at this point, just a few girls for eggs and garden maintenance.

If I've got you right, go bigger in the coop/enclosed run so that they can get out of the weather when necessary.  I've been doing a little more reading about chicken density, and it sounds like I do still want to rotate paddock areas too--even 50-60 sq' /bird will not be sustainable over a few years.  Does that sound right in your experience?

Rhubarb is poisonous, but I was going to keep it outside the critter fence, because I understand from another thread that they can still be hard on young plants.

Anyone got any thoughts on PNW ground cover?  I'm not starting with lawn, so I have to come up with something to replace creeping buttercup (although I'm hoping the birds will help with that!)
Leila Rich
steward

Joined: May 24, 2010
Posts: 3913
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
    
  83
Keep in mind, whatever you plant within a chook's reach, and even most established plants, will be massacred.
I've never heard  a happy ending to the 'chooks in the garden' story: I'd definately keep them out. Ducks, not SO destructive.
Shelter MUST be weatherproof, but many breeds are able to handle (moderate) cold.
A 4 ft fence won't keep chooks in, even wing-clipped. More like 6?
                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
Thanks Pippimac.  There's so much conflicting info out there.  But I think I'm giving up on the permanent orchard home, as it sounds like chooks will moonscape even 100 sq ft each, even if it takes a couple of months instead of a few days.  I think we're leaning now towards a large, traditional coop and run in a separate area of the garden, and then fencing off the veggie patches so that the birds can free range for a few hours a day in the whole backyard.  Sad to give up on the paddock idea that Paul so convincingly outlines, but there are always compromises in the specific hand we're dealt, aren't there.

Anyone think a few Runner ducks would be ok in their own house in the orchard more permanently?  Thinking I could use their mini-pond that will get drained each day as irrigation for the emerging food forest...
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
pippimac wrote:
Keep in mind, whatever you plant within a chook's reach, and even most established plants, will be massacred.
I've never heard  a happy ending to the 'chooks in the garden' story: I'd definately keep them out. Ducks, not SO destructive.


My girlfriend's godmother keeps chickens free in a normal-sized urban backyard. The plants do beautifully well. She coops them up at night to protect them from predators, but they have the run of the vegetable and flower beds through the whole day.

She has a special talent, though, to the point that she can't express any strategy or method in words. I guess that makes sense: if you frame things in human language, you aren't thinking like a chicken any longer.

Definitely not the sort of result one can reasonably expect, but it is possible. I've seen it firsthand.


"the qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals, are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men.  They are manifestations of the laws of nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none." SCOTUS, Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kale Inoculant Co.
Leila Rich
steward

Joined: May 24, 2010
Posts: 3913
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
    
  83
Joel, your girlfriend's godmother's bona fide a chicken whisperer!  I'm glad to hear it can be done, I imagine you'd generally need to be around keeping an eye on them, which isn't often an option.
Rosie, don't give up on the paddock idea, it's a great way to raise chooks. I may have misread your post: IME chooks and gardens don't mix, but you can definately keep them in an orchard situation.
dividing the run a la Wheaten is ideal. It also means you'll have an opportunity to get groundcover established.
In my climate, I'd do a mix of tough seeding grasses that preferably stay around in winter and clover. Note my country of residence though!
A really good method of keeping things alive, whilst providing chook greens is to grow in decent sized 'cages'. The chooks can't tear it to pieces, but can reach through to peck the mature leaves.
                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
Thanks pippimac; I'll keep thinking about the orchard area.  I'm still puzzling about whether to give the orchard to the ducks and just let the chickens in occasionally, or whether to keep them both together.  1 house is more efficient, but they do have separate needs.

On another note, I think I've found the answer to my chicken density question: the Earth Care Manual says: "120-180 chickens per hectare is the recommended density for an established orchard, though smaller numbers can still be beneficial".  By my calculations, that's about 600 sq ft per chicken minimum!  So a rotation is definitely in order for me. 

Any thoughts on ground covers for ducks?  Again, inheriting no grass and I'd rather work on some fruit tree guilds in the orchard...

Thanks!
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
Rosie wrote:
Any thoughts on ground covers for ducks?  Again, inheriting no grass and I'd rather work on some fruit tree guilds in the orchard...


Nastertium comes up fairly frequently, and seems like a good option if you don't want grass.

If you happen to have some Himalayan blackberry, you might see how chickens handle it before working too hard to cut it back.
jacque greenleaf
volunteer

Joined: Jan 21, 2009
Posts: 464
Location: Burton, WA (USDA zone 8, Sunset zone 5) - old hippie heaven
For ground covers, check out your favorite seed company. Peaceful Valley, for one, sells a seed mix that is targeted to increasing the Omega-3 content of hen's eggs.
                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
Well, living in the PNW, I defintely "happen" to have a little himalayan blackberry here and there.   I will keep cutting the brambles for now, but I won't dig up the root as I had planned.  Nasturtiums sound good too; I had been looking at them for the guild.

And thanks for the tip about the Omega-3 mix; I will definitely see if anyone around here carries such a thing. 

I'm thinking I'll plant a thick mat of crimson clover this year as a basic broadcast groundcover, and then add a few bulbs, alpine strawberries, lupins, nasturtiums, etc.  There will be berries just outside the fence of the area which the birds can also nibble at through the fence.  If I plant daffodils for the guild, and they are poisonous to the critters, will they naturally avoid them?  Or should I go for a non-toxic bulb instead?  I was thinking of some camas, for instance.

Thanks!
                


Joined: Jun 23, 2009
Posts: 4
I'm in PNW too though I'm new to the area and to poultry keeping, so I don't have long term knowledge to share, just this last summers worth.
We have four chickens and four indian runners.  The runners have been free ranging so far as they don't seem to wreck anything and stay close (natural yard do to living on acre of cleared space carved into the woods) and they like to be in close proximity to their kiddy pool.
Love love love the ducks...  they eat bugs and slugs all day long the only thing they have eaten in the garden is some beat tops (so far).  They waddle around in comity chatting all day long then have crazy pool parties. The plant they eat the most of though is comfrey as little ducks they loved eating the small purple flowers as they grew older they ate the leaves..  doesn't make a huge part of their diet but they do like it.  We have buttercups in the grass that they have eaten with no visible side effects though I have read they are supposed to be poisonous. They also seem to like clover leaves. Besides the commercial duck feed they mostly eat what they find under the grass and the grass and other plants that are mixed in the lawn.  They wiggle their little beaks under the turf and eat I'm assuming bugs, roots, young green shoots.  So far the only thing I would say that they do that could be called damage is making little holes in the ground in wet spots and being hugely messy... splattering wet everywhere and soggy droppings.  Still trying to come up with housing over the wet winter here.

The chickens on the other hand while being fun, eating unused food and kitchen scraps, and laying eggs have...  un-mulched all my fruit trees, steal strawberries, and ripped apart the veggi garden after I planted it and do again every opportunity they have to get in there...  The ducks are penned in the garden at night as there is a tall fence surrounding it and besides the aforementioned beat greens haven't touched the plants. The raised beds are too high for them to enter.

The other info I might pass on...  We have four black ducks they have received very little attention from the many birds of prey in the area...  Our chickens -we started with 7, three being white leghorn roosters who are gone now- had regular fly-bys from eagles and hawks every day.  Now that we are down to 4 a big dark brown rooster, two white hens with black speckling, and a buff hen...  I don't see the bird of prey so much.  They certainly haven't roosted in trees around our yard like they used to.  The ducks also seem smarter in hiding from air attacks if they have trees to hide under they will use them.  They will spot the tiniest bird flying overhead too.

Sorry this is so long.  Good Luck.
                            


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
TeeBuck, that wasn't too long at all.  I love hearing people's stories and experiences, especially when they are so similar.  That gave me lots to work with.  I keep reading folks who say that ducks are easier, hardier, etc, but there's so little info out there on them compared to the massive amounts about chickens.  I can see from your experience that I will enjoy them. 
 
 
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