The goal of this two-year project was to evaluate the effectiveness of controlling weeds in organic asparagus with the use of chickens and a cover crop barrier. We established two 5000 sq-ft asparagus plantings with a 10 foot tilled weed barrier surrounding each one. After the asparagus harvest was complete and the plants had ferned out, we allowed a flock of laying hens to range freely in one half of each plot. By counting weeds on both sides of each plot, before and after the chickens did their work, we were able to determine their effectiveness.
Our results show that using weeder chickens reduces the amount of labor required to control weeds in organic asparagus. Although the hens did not completely eliminate the weeds, they kept them down to a manageable level. We also found that our 10-ft weed barrier was very effective at keeping quack grass from working its way into the asparagus. We intend to continue using weeder chickens and weed barriers in our asparagus plantings. We also plan to try the same practice in a new planting of summer raspberries this year.
This project will evaluate the effectiveness of controlling weeds in organic asparagus with the use of chickens and a cover crop barrier. Organic asparagus is a high-value crop that grows well in the Northeast, but weed control is a significant challenge, particularly because asparagus is a perennial crop. We propose to evaluate a two-pronged approach: first, after the asparagus harvest season is over, we will allow laying hens to range freely in the asparagus patch by using a “chicken tractor” (a portable chicken pen) and a moveable fence. Our experience with this technique on a small scale leads us to believe that the chickens will do a good job of controlling both grasses and broadleaf weeds. The second experimental technique is to establish a “weed barrier”, a tilled buffer zone 10 feet wide around the perimeter of the asparagus patch. This buffer zone will be planted to a cover crop (oats or winter rye) every fall to help keep perennial weeds (such as quack grass, Agropyron repens) from working their way into the asparagus from the surrounding sod.
We will gather data on weed intensity and on the growth and yield of the asparagus, in the experimental planting and a control planting. We will also compare the use of two types of organic mulch (straw and waste hay), determine guidelines for the recommended number of chickens per acre, compare insect pressure between the two plots, and evaluate different methods for incorporating the winter rye cover crop in the spring.
We will share our results with other farmers through an article in the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener and by giving talks at the Maine Department of Agriculture Trade Show and at an event sponsored by the UNH Cooperative Extension Service.