Sam and Prue Pincott running Holbrook Paddock Eggs were challenged by some bountiful winter weather in 2016 that offered both opportunities and management difficulties. Here’s how they approached it.

How was the winter for the chickens with so much water? 
Whilst the wet winter was amazing for our land base, it certainly created some challenges for our enterprises. The actual wet conditions didn’t upset the chooks too much, (they actually like it as the worms come to the top and there are plenty of insects about). It became more of a logistical challenge in getting our collecting vehicle to the portable sheds each morning, along with being able to move the sheds and getting feed into the them. As a result the sheds didn’t get moved as often as normal, for some sheds we had to hand bucket feed from an old sheep feeder into their hoppers and we ended up buying a side by side ATV that we could safely drive to each group without getting bogged. Initially production held well, however our wastage of dirty eggs was slightly higher than normal. We also decided to remove all the agistment cattle to prevent any pugging.

With all that rain the grass must have been very long – great for long legged animals but not for chooks – how did you manage that? 
With such soil moisture and no cattle, (and improved soil health from 3.5yrs of chook manure across the paddocks) the grass growth was amazing. The growth was so incredible that it actually was to the detriment of the chickens. The long strands of grass can cause “gizzard impaction”, creating a blockage in the hens’ gizzard, resulting in either reduced production or death.

What happened?
Our mortality rates certainly increased as a result of the gizzard impaction and our production levels decreased. With the grass so long, it got to the point that a percentage of the hens started laying their eggs in the grass and not in the nest boxes. But on the pasture side of things the farm looked incredible with a diverse range of species in abundance and more perennial grasses (phalaris) appearing.

How did you help the chickens?
Apple cider vinegar is already added to the drinking water to help prevent gizzard impaction. In addition we started putting out tubs of gravel in an attempt to get small stones into the crop of the bird that can then rub together assisting in breaking the grass down. This was successfull to a point. By the time the adgistment cattle returned there was no way we could get the grass down in front of the chooks in a timely manner. We then made the decision (through help of other Holistic Management group 8Families members) that we would cut an area of the farm for hay, removing a bulk of grass and creating a short, open area for the chooks to be moved to. 

Would you have grazed differently knowing what you know now?
YES, but still working out how! We made the right decision to remove the cattle when the paddocks were so wet, however we were 2 weeks too slow bringing them back. More to the point I think we need to look at other animals/tools to use in order to manage such seasons. The improvement to our soil has been very evident this year, so I am expecting this to be an ongoing issue. We need to work out a way to provide a shorter grass environment for the chooks to be on, whilst not overgrazing and reducing our soil cover. 

Advice for others?
We all know every season is different - we need to be prepared to react quicker. Keep looking outside the box for new tools to use. Be open to all options - I prolonged the decision to cut hay for a couple of weeks as it was a practise I didn’t want to use (for the land sake) but it was the right decision for the business. Keep asking the questions - someone will have the answers (I hope!!).