Working Girls

If you're not interested in dirt, this might not be the blog post for you. But if you are, you might be interested in our fine-tuned chicken tractoring process.

First, our fall-planted cover crop is winter rye:


This is probably a much tougher cover crop than we needed in our raised beds, which don't face much of an erosion threat. I chose it mainly because we planted it pretty late and it was sure to germinate even in colder temperatures. Next year we will probably choose something with a much lighter root system so it will be easier to turn. 

With the snow we've had, there are some intermediate steps about shoveling off beds to let the sun melt the rest of the snow and dry out the soil so the chickens aren't mired in mud, but in general the next step is to get the chickens on the rye grass in their portable run:


Our chicken tractor is about four feet wide by eight feet long, and with four chickens in it for the day, we've discovered it takes them about two days to work through that patch of rye grass. On the first day they eat the grass down to the ground (which you can see if you enlarge the photo above). On the second day they do a lot more scratching and eat the rest of the green tips and some of the roots.

On day three, you can move the chickens to a new spot and work on turning the soil:


Here's a spot that I took a shovel to to turn the remaining rye grass over, leaving the roots exposed to dry out and kill whatever the chickens left behind. This is much easier work after the chickens have scratched a lot of it up. This can sit to let the rye grass decompose for a week or two, if you've got the time.

We don't have that kind of time for our early plantings coming up, so we get the chickens back on the turned soil for one more day of work:


Here they have gathered around me to beg for food. This final step isn't their favorite, because there's not much rye grass left to eat after we turn it. But as they search, they do a lot of scratching (and pooping, which is ultimately good for the dirt as well). When they get back to the hen house at night, they act like they haven't eaten for days. Complainers.

After that last pass, you end up with beds that look like this:


Pretty finely tilled soil here! It's loose and ready to go, and with not too much (human) elbow grease involved. I imagine that, because we are rushing this process a bit, we'll still be weeding out some rye grass this spring. Ideally, we would have three weeks of decomposing time after we turn the soil and before we plant, but we are behind schedule with our late winter snows. The beds that get later plantings in May will have a lot more time to settle.

But for the next few week, we're really pushing ourselves and our chickens to get ready for the peas and broccoli!

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