How Chickens work with Cows to improve Soil

Using chickens to graze behind cows is a new way to improve soil fertility and pasture management. At the Permaculture Research Institute there’s a couple of neat looking chicken tractors standing in the center of the cow paddock. What exactly are they doing there?

According to Geoff Lawton who has two specialty built tractors that can be moved by one person. The chickens have a symbiotic relationship with the cows that also benefits the quality of the pasture.

“They scratch up the ground and break up the cow pats,” says Geoff, ” they break the pest cycles as well.”

But more importantly adding chickens into the mix means that the birds also add Nitrogen and Phosphorus and other trace elements that the cows cannot easily provide through their manure. These cycles of interaction help reverse cattle compaction of soil according to Geoff Lawton.

Mobile Chicken tractor that follows cows in the pasture

“The chickens are enhancing the pasture.” he said “One animal breaks the pest cycle of another. The second animal adds nutrient that the other animal can’t add.”

Together they improve the soil which improves the quality of the weeds and grasses of the pasture.

This seems to be a similar process used by maverick farmer Joel Salatin in the US with his “chickenmobiles.”

Joel says chickens will “fan out to nibble at the short grass they prefer and pick the grubs and fly larvae out of the cowpats—in the process spreading the manure and eliminating parasites.”

Geoff Lawton releasing his chickens to follow the cattle.

Salatin’s Polyface Farm fields have increased their organic matter from 1.5 percent to 8 percent of soil content over the past 50 years, sequestering carbon in the process.
Salatin also uses sheep to follow the chickens.

But over on Geoff Lawton’s farm we don’t see sheep but a mob of ducks and geese patrolling the same paddock further down the lush field away from the cows. Its a bucolic view of beauty and harmony – but not always.
There are foxes on the hunt for these same chickens at night and this doesn’t always make life easy. Geoff has had to weld steel mesh guards to the sides of the tractors to enable the mesh to act as a fence to stop the foxes from burrowing under the chicken tractors at night and killing the birds. But its all worth the effort if it means Permaculture students studying at the farm are able to learn first hand how pasture management techniques can build soil and increase fertility.

“You’re not truly sustainable unless you are in the business of building soil every year.” said Geoff.
Geoff will reveal his soil building techniques in the Permaculture Soils DVD coming soon.