One of the cool things about living for twenty-plus years on the same piece of land is being able to see the long term results of our actions. Like the 150 foot hedge that we planted along the busy road fifteen years ago. It’s twenty feet tall now, ten feet wide and impenetrable. And beautiful in the fall.
Or our “winter field”. The winter field got its name because it is the only field that stays dry enough that we can have the horses on it a little bit in mid winter when everywhere else is too muddy. To protect both the land and their feet, our ponies spend much of the wet season in their roomy barnyard paddock, on top of some serious drainage (4 feet of rocks, gravel, then hog fuel).
When we first moved to our muddy valley, a couple horses had been left too long on the winter field, nibbling it down to bare earth. After the horses left, we did nothing (no money, no time and three small kids) and by the next spring, much to our relief, it had greened right up with a mix of grass, clover and plenty of weeds. A couple years later we started putting our own horses on it. They ate down the grass each year, but not the weeds, because horses are picky. We tried to encourage the grass, because more free grass means less outlay on hay to feed hungry horses. We did our best to avoid overgrazing and kept the weeds sort of under control by mowing, hand pulling and, one expensive year, even plowing the whole bloody thing, fertilizing and reseeding. We tried the same approach in the northwest field. Sadly, a couple years later, both fields looked just the same; grass, clover and plenty of weeds.
More years went by, and then in 2012, we got six chicks and built their coop next to the winter field. By 2013 we had lots of chickens (that’s another story), who happily free ranged in the afternoons year round, nibbling greens and enjoying bugs, scratching things up a bit but not too much, leaving their droppings behind.
Life continued, and here we are another eight years later, with the winter field transformed! Especially the area nearest the coops which looks amazing. The thick emerald grass is trimmed slightly tall and fairly even by the flock’s sharp beaks, and completely weed free. It looks like the ‘after’ picture of a weed n feed commercial, except for the chicken poops nestled here and there. Ten feet away, the grass is still lush, with scattered bits of clover. Ten feet more, the grass / clover mix is more pronounced and there is a weed or two. About forty feet away from the coops, where the birds don’t hang out as much, it looks more like the before-chicken winter field.
It has to be our free range poultry who have made this dramatic difference, nothing else has changed! It appears that given the right set of circumstances, chickens are superb groundskeepers.
Regenerative agriculture is having a moment right now, and I totally get why. One regenerative ag strategy involves running livestock lightly on the land where they can forage their own feed, fertilize with their droppings, and disturb the soil moderately with their activities, improving fertility and production. Our winter field, before and after introducing chickens, is an accidental testament to this idea. It’s quite remarkable.
Around here, as we experiment with more regenerative approaches (my new raspberry patch is ‘no till’ and RG uses lots of the techniques), the health of the soil and the plants and animals that it nurtures just keeps improving.
If I had the time and energy, I would have chicken tractors, staffed by feathery groundskeepers, set up at forty feet intervals all over, and let the place really go to the birds.