A lot of us live in climates that are mild enough that “winter pasture” is a valid concept. If you can manage to keep a green range going all winter, you can achieve that grass-fed goodness year-round. So what kind of winter pasture works best?
Cool-season grasses for free-range chickens. Traditionally, cool-season grasses have worked very well, with cereal grains (oat, wheat, and barley) providing good, reliable, palatable, rugged, nutritious cool-season ground cover. Here in Western Oregon, it’s not too late to plant such things. A lot of people live in warmer climates than I do, and they’ll have even better luck.
The problem with these annual grasses is that they die in the summertime, so you’ll want to sow something else by the time the cool-season annuals start to give up the ghost. This is where a grass-legume mixture shines, since clovers do very well in the season where cool-season annuals don’t.
Perennial grasses for free-range chickens. I haven’t seen any perennial grasses that leap out of the ground after a fall sowing the way wheat and oats do, but of course they don’t turn up their toes and die as soon as summer arrives, which is a bonus.
Permanent pasture for free-range chickens. Having a pasture ecosystem with a maximum amount of biodiviversity, that is tuned to your local micro-climate, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? This is what happens on permanent pasture, where you never plow, and just accept whatever grows. All you do is mow (and re-seed bare spots). Start with whatever will create a good ground cover quickly, and allow other species to creep in. You’ll soon have a mix of multiple grasses and legumes. That’s what I do.
Grass height for free-range chickens. chickens are fairly low-slung. Tall grass restricts their movements, provides concealment for predators, and gives them opportunities to lay eggs where you’ll never find them. There was some research done on the topic of grass height, way back when (don’t have the reference handy, sorry), and cutting the pasture at two inches worked best. Six inches was too high.
It’s not edible if it’s not green. Chickens will happily eat bright green pasture plants, but when the green starts to fade and the plants go woody, they lose interest.
A lot of this information came from Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser. If you want to do anything more demanding than feeding your chickens out of a sack, you need this book. Over 600 pages of information and wisdom about poultry nutrition, including a chapter on green feed and pasturing. Written in the Fifties, when people still knew about such things, but when modern nutrition had been figured out, too. Highly recommended.