What stories do you have to tell about how chickens interact with vegetation in pulses over time? Do you rotate chickens in and out of vegetation that you are developing for other purposes? When do you put them in, when do you pull them out. What do you do before or after you bring chickens through. How does this optimize the year round forage for the chickens as well as the desired effect on the vegetation?
Nice write ups Paul, I will be learning from you on this topic. My place is more wild than tame right now so I am not sure birds would live through my monthly absences. We do have a small local group of sage chickens that wander around though.
Very interesting write-ups on your chicken forages etc. I do not have much experience with forages yet. We did let our 16 hens into our garden beds to scratch the soil and mulch, and pick out any bugs or weed seeds, but there was little to no forage greens in there, just the residues from last summers garden. It only took them a day or two to clean up a 6'x40' space. For now we have them on a new sunken bed, where they are actively shredding leaves and straw and mixing the mulch stuff to create new soil.
We plan to use 4'x8' chicken tractors to let the girls clean up the grass in the paths before it gets too long (my girls love it when I toss in grass clippings or clumps as I prepare new garden beds). I understand that it takes more work to keep moving them, but we want to try it and let them find their own forage.
We are also preparing a chicken moat around 2 sides of a small food forest. We are planting it with serviceberries, Nanking cherries, chokecherries, and other shrubs to give shade and forage to the birds when the other forage areas are not available due to crops, etc. I know we will need to protect the young shrubs until they get large enough to resist the chicken predation.
Last year we used the tractors to rotate the chickens around the area we are developing into the food forest, letting them eat the grass and weeds and help prepare the soil for planting this year. The dropped scratch grains they missed grew into a nice cover crop that helped build up a layer of topsoil on top of the pure sand we started with.
Great thinking, the permutations are endless with chickens rotated with plants.
Here are a couple scenarios that have proven to work well for me over the years-
Each year I raise a batch of about 100 meat chickens, which will be arriving next week (late April)-
First, they are raised for about three weeks in my greenhouse. The plants in the greenhouse are all a month or two old, just large enough that the chicks do not trample them. Kale, chard, tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce are the vegetables. At about three weeks, the chickens begin to trample and damage the plants, so it is time to move on. I move the chicks out to the garden house. I can then add a new round of plants to the greenhouse, more palatable things that the chicks would destroy like peppers and basil.
Second round is the chicks, now three weeks old, in the garden. At this time (mid-May), there are garlic, onions, spinach, peas, raddish, and carrots growing in the garden. The chicks are small enough still, and there are a large enough amount of plants, that the damage to my crops is minimal. There is sill a lot of bare ground in the garden at this time, so mostly the chicks peck and scratch at the bare areas that are about to be planted during my primary garden planting in late May. I give the chicks about two weeks to work over the garden, then once again, i begin to notice damage to my plants, and I need to plant new tender plants, so i move the chicks once again. They sleep at night in the garden chicken house, which has a wire floor so I can gather all their manure that drops through at night when they are roosting. This is their home from 3 weeks of age to harvest at 6 months. This way they are safe from predators at night, and I can collect their nightime manure for use in the garden.
Third round, I close the doors from the chicken house to the garden, and open up the doors on the other side so the chickens range out into the orchard. This is where the chickens will spend the entire summer, except for occasional pulses back through the garden if there are bug issues I want to knock back a bit. The chickens do great in the orchard, cant harm anything. They minimize the bugs beneath my fruittrees, keep the cultivated soil around the tree bases loose and weed free. To encourage this, I feed the chickens their grain around the bases of the 60 or so fruit trees, changing each day the tree beneath which I scatter their grain. They aerate the soil, cultivate the emerging weeds. Additionally, I mow the lanes between the trees and rake the grass around the tree bases, which the chikens then dig through and poop on, building mini compost piles under each tree as the season progreesses.
Fourth round, in October, after the first frosts and the bulk of the garden is harvested, I let the chickens back into the garden for a week or two, to clean up all the dropped vegetables and remaining bugs. Any plants still in the ground are large and dont suffer much damage. The chickens get one last round of fattening on the spoils of the garden, and then it is chicken harvest time, about 6 months from their hatch date.
The ratio of chickens to area is key, I have about a 10,000 foot square garden with 100 chickens, and the orchard is another 1 acre. These proportions seem about perfect. Timinig is also crucial, as things get damaged in a hurry if you leave the chickens in too long.
My layer hens, between 30-60, are a seperate system-
They spend the winter indoors in a deep bedding house, with tree limb roosts overhead and a deep sawdust floor. This way I gather 100% of their manure for future use in the garden. It gets pre-mixed with the carbon from the sawdust, so when i shovel out the henhouse, the bedding just need to be moistened and innoculated, and the compost pile is on its way.
In the spring, I let them into the cow barn, where they cleanup the bits of leftover alfalfa hay, and eat what they will from the manure. They still sleep in the henhouse, so I get about half of their manure. But their cleanup value in the cattle barn is worth the loss of manure.
In the summer, they go back into their deep bedding house, and get fed tons of green material and vegetables from the garden. There is too much in the garden for them to damage at this time of year, and if I leave them in the cattle barn too long they begin to find places to hideout and lay their eggs. So too much freedom makes for an unruly situation.
In the fall, after the meat chickens are harvested, and the garden is cleared and tilled, I let the hens out into the garden for a few months. They peck and scratch the tilled garden soil. They eat tons of remaining weed seeds and soil bugs. Their manure directly adds to next year's fertility in the garden. All assets, no damage.
The scale can be modified based on your needs, smaller or larger. The system can certainly be tweaked to meet your needs as welll. This plan has evolved over the past five plus years, and finally is at a place that I really like. I have two structures, the hen house and the garden chicken house. I keep my laying hens and my meat birds totally seperate. I collect 70-80% of their manure for compost. The chickens are my cleanup crew around the farm at different times of the year.
Permaculture at its finest- animals and plants helping one another under the stewardship of the farmer. A beautiful cycle of life.
Adam. Forgive my ignorance, but are there any animals you shouldn't use for manure (their droppings that is)? I don't know why, but I had it in my head that bird droppings should be avoided. Obviously from your experience there are misgivings with my line of thought. Are there any sanitation concerns?
Also, I was curious what kind of yield you get from your laying hens. I love your setup! Thanks
Chicken manure makes an excellent fertilizer, in my experience, if it is properly composted with a large amount of added carbon. For the large buildups of manure generated in the hen house and chicken house, I use a lot of sawdust, and then innoculate with Biodynamic compost preps. The manure then breaks down the sawdust and creates good compost in three to four months, better if you wait longer.
For the small amount of chicken manure that is directly deposited in the garden or greenhouse, I find that simply cultivating the soil shallowly to incorporate the manure bits is adequate. Occasionally, there is a speck of chicken poop on a lettuce leaf, but this is organic farming, and the produce gets washed thoroughly before raw consumption. The shallow cultivation, which is occuring anyways for weed control, exposes the small amounts of manure to the soil organisms which then break it down very rapidly.
Certainly, applying large amounts of raw poultry manure to the surface of your garden would be a poor idea. Both for sanitary reasons, and more importantly for soil health. It also matters a lot if it is during the acitve growing season, when soil microbes are very alive and metabolize any manure that is shallowly buried very rapidly. Applying any amount of raw manure to cold soil would be a bad idea.
As for egg yields, our system is a very 'natural' one, so no lights or heater in winter. As such, in our climate, the hens lay well from March to November, probably 5 eggs per hen per week. In the winter, they slow down considerably and then stop laying alltogether for a few months. To get maximum egg production, I have found that keeping the hens in a very stable, consistant environment works best. Unfortunately, this would not exacltly be a permaculture setup. Changes in foraging habitat, diet, temperature, light, all cause a decrease in prodution. In our system, we value the work that the hens do for us, along with their eggs and manure, and dont expect them to perform like robots year round.
Hope this clarifies, any more questions feel free to ask-