We have 7-12 chickens living in a semi-movable coop and a ~350 sq ft run. The run and coop are moved 3-4 times a year and are part of a vegetable garden rotation. It takes a bit of effort to move, as we have to build "Fort Knox" because we are dealing with a large number of predators (wolves, raccoons, birds, etc).
As you can probably guess, this is a bit too much time and too many chickens on too little space... So at the end of the 3-4 months of chickens, the soil is bare and that doesn't look too good. It also rains 40 inches/year for 9-10 months of the year.
Ideally I would have more pasture, more frequent rotation, maybe some kind of rotational paddock system. But that is not possible at the moment.
So how can I mitigate the negative effects on the soil, the chickens, and my future crops?
I was thinking:
- light mulching when the grass is still good, heavier mulching as it gets worse; would that help?
- rotate the chickens within the 350 sq ft run; Would it be ridiculous to try to do that within such a small space? Or would it increase the lifetime of the run?
My best advice for the coop and run set of fowlers is to simulate the forest floor in your coop and run to improve the overworked soils there. Deep litter in both areas that has areas that are dry(as in under trees~can be done with tarping over a portion of the run), combined with open areas that are exposed to the sun and rain, layering of organic, carbonaceous materials in both places~coop and run~so that the nitrogen of their droppings is "eaten" as it composts.
In essence, you will have your chickens living on an ongoing compost pile that works much like the floor of a tropical forest. The beneficial bugs, worms and bacterias will inhibit the overgrowth of the less beneficial and more harmful pests and organisms that would otherwise live in barren, wet, contaminated soils of the typical chicken run/yard. Leave no area of soils bare and have at least 6-10 in. of organic "pack" underfoot. Provide good drainage, with no standing water, by keeping the pack of litter leveled off in all spaces. You can add twigs, half rotten chunks of wood, leaves, fibrous weeds, lawn clippings, wood shavings, etc.
The chickens will work the material from the dry side to the wet side and back, keeping it aerated...you can aid in that by tossing BOSS into areas that are forming moisture "caps"~areas of litter that are stuck together and molding~and let the chickens have a ball. Eventually the bottom layer of this litter pack will be just like well composted, rich soil...you can take some of this out now and again and use it on the garden but you don't ever want to remove it all or be tempted to "clean it out". The litter is well inoculated with all the wonderful nematodes that will keep it working and healthy and you don't want to lose that valuable soil culture by starting all over again from the beginning.
You can lace the whole thing with sweet lime or wood ash now and again to sweeten it up, lower the acidity and provide the correct pH for the organic life you are trying to support in that soil.
Your job will be to regulate it all, assessing the correct moisture content by feeling it...if it clumps when you squeeze it and stays clumped, it is too moist. If it won't clump at all, it is too dry...you can add more moist materials at that point like grasses, hay, etc. If too moist, add dryer content like wood chips, shavings, dry leaves, etc. If it smells bad, it needs aeration and more ventilation, more dry materials.
Soon you will be able to dig to the base and see good bug life living there and the soil underneath will be soft, spongy and will have an earthy smell...not one smell of chicken in sight. That kind of soil will cleanse itself, renew itself and will be able to filter the high levels of nitrogen down to the worm life below that feeds on those nutrients.
That's my $.02....many are using it and finding it worthy of being called a healthy alternative to rotating space that you simply do not have.
ETA: Don't forget to reserve one dry area and create a box full of fine clay, sand, soil for dusting. That dusting is one of the best ways to keep your flock free of external parasites...they need it and will self maintain if you only will provide it. The box should be deep and wide/long enough for several hens to dust at once...they enjoy this social time and grooming time together and it is an important aspect of their self sustaining health care. Some people use a baby's wading/swimming pool to contain the materials and they can be obtained easily or cheaply enough in most areas.
Location: PNW, British Columbia
posted 7 years ago
Thanks Jay, that sounds really good. Do you have any resources where I could read more or see examples of this system?
I sure don't! I told some gals over on BYC about it and they are trying it on for size. They live in small, suburban type settings with their chickens but still wanted a healthier way to keep them than in a barren coop/run system. They were looking for natural ways to improve their flock's health and immune systems, so I suggested doing deep litter in their runs and they haven't looked back since. They seem to have only positive reviews on the method.
I've always free ranged so don't have any hands on experience with keeping chickens in a static run in this manner but am treating my soil floored coop in much the same manner...deep litter using all manner of organic matter in the mix and letting the coop be like a self-cleaning oven. No smells, clean footing, clean eggs, no flies....can't beat it.
Companion Planting Guide by World Permaculture Association