Natural Life Magazine

The Multi-Function Backyard Chicken
by Jeff Johnston

backyard chickensOne of the principles of Permaculture design is that each element of a farm or garden should have more than one function; for example, a well designed roof can provide you with clean water, give you power and heat your water, or it can provide you with food while giving your shelter. You may be surprised to learn that your backyard chickens also fulfill this principle.

Most people’s ideas about chickens’ usefulness are usually limited to eggs and meat, and perhaps to using their composted manure in the garden. The other functions that chickens can perform almost make them valuable enough to the typical smallholder or farmer without their direct contribution to the food basket.

Chickens eat bugs in all three stages – adult, larval (caterpillar), and egg – not to mention slugs. They also eat seeds, including weed seeds. Let your chickens loose in your garden in autumn after you’ve harvested everything you don’t want pecked to the ground. The chickens will gobble up every weed seed, pupa and slug they can find, cleaning up your garden for next spring. You can also let them out in early spring when weed seeds are starting to sprout and bugs are becoming active. Using them in the fall and spring should reduce your weeding and bug-hunting throughout the growing season.

If you have an orchard, let your chickens loose at the end of the season. They’ll eat the diseased windfall fruit, reducing next year’s problems, and they’ll find any bug pests wintering over in the grass. Use 60 to 100 chickens per acre in your orchard.

You can also use chickens to reduce fly populations that affect your cattle or dairy cows. If you pasture your herd using intensive rotational grazing, bring the birds in three to four days after the cows have been in each paddock. The chickens will tear apart the manure to reach fly eggs and pupae. In the process, they’ll spread the manure around the field, which benefits from more even fertilization. Your cattle will have fewer flies and fly parasites bothering them, which will reduce their stress levels, reduce parasite treatment costs, and likely increase meat or milk production.

If you raise mostly layers, move them around in a portable chicken coop, which can be built using scrap materials. The birds make quick work of the fly eggs each day, forage on the grass, and then return to their coop at night. If you raise broilers, you can move them around in “chicken tractors” – ten foot by ten foot cages with no bottoms, light enough to be moved by one person using a two-wheeled dolly. Each tractor can hold up to 50 birds. A good rotation design will ensure that no part of the pasture receives too much fresh chicken manure, thus reducing “nutrient” management problems, including the need to compost large amounts of manure.

If you raise your chickens more conventionally, using a permanent coop, consider attaching a greenhouse to it. A south-facing greenhouse will warm the coop during winter days, and the heat from the chickens will moderate the greenhouse temperature during the cold nights. Also, the carbon dioxide produced by the chickens will be used by the plants in the greenhouse, and insects will be eaten by the birds. Remember to use an air filter to reduce the feather dust in the air.

Chickens can also be used to “rototill” a strip of land where you want to put a new garden. Fence in the area you wanted tilled, then throw down some grain. The chickens will scratch at the soil to reach the seed, and in the process, they’ll loosen the top layer of soil.

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Chickens in Your Backyard

Chicken feed costs can quickly add up if you have a lot of birds; as well, many feeds are medicated. Evidence is also mounting that some feeds, including pet foods, contain diseased animals and even pets. (For more information on this topic, read Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food by Ann N. Martin of London, Ontario.) To reduce your reliance on feeds, you can create a self-feeding forage system for your chickens. Along the south or west wall of your coop, fence off a large area. I recommend that you also plant a dense hedgerow so that you can eventually remove the fence for use elsewhere. Subdivide the area into several smaller sections, with a run from the coop door past each section.

Plant a different crop inside each section, including amaranth, comfrey, mulberry, and carragana (Siberian pea shrub). You can experiment with other crops to determine which ones your chickens love. If you use the taller, late-maturing shrubs and grains, grow shorter crops in those sections as well. Ensure that you have enough sections (or large enough sections) that your chickens don’t destroy all the plants growing there.

Every day or two, open the door into one of the sections, then open the door from the coop to the run leading to the sections. The chickens will enter and peck away at the comfrey leaves, the amaranth seed, or the mulberry fruit for as long as you let them. Don’t forget to toss in any slugs and bugs you find during your gardening. Allow the plants in each section time to regenerate before letting your birds back in.

I said earlier that the other benefits of keeping chickens almost make them valuable enough without their eggs and meat. The real bonus comes from the price premium you’ll receive for your products because your chickens are raised free-range. Not only will you have saved money on inputs (feed and medication) and time (less weeding and bug-hunting), people will pay you extra for the privilege – and pleasure – of eating eggs with dark yellow yolks and chicken breasts that taste like chicken used to taste fifty or more years ago.

For more information, look for Chicken Tractor: The Gardener's Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andy Lee, published by Good Earth Publications, Shelburne, Vermont.

Jeff Johnston is a past president of Canadian Organic Growers and a Permaculture design course graduate. He has worked on conventional and organic farms, and gardens organically.


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