Just wanted to share my experiences with chickens, having recently started. Hopefully it could be of help to people considering using chickens in their systems.
I got 10 chickens at 50 days, so they were relatively big; bigger than I expected, which was a relief.
The biggest revelation was that, contrary to what I imagined, chickens are not bulldozers with feathers. You get the idea watching videos and such that chickens are like dishwasher disposal units and you can run them anywhere and they'll dominate and turn horrible land into paradise. I was surprised to find out that they are much more selective about what they eat and 10 chickens don't go through a lot of material.
I had prepared mountains of stuff for them to scratch through and (surprise, surprise) they just wanted to lie around all day and eat the grain I fed them. I'm working to wean them off grain, but it's taking time.
I expected them to scratch the ground more, and I think they would except my damn heavy clay soil just isn't amenable to being scratched. And even if they did, there don't seem to be many worms or soil life in general for them to scratch through.
I'm getting in contact with breweries to get their spent grains, and also a co-op that has food waste.
Oh, another revelation: they are not huge fans of worms, yet. I thought that would be number 1 on their menu. They do like funghi and grasshoppers and ants and fruit-flies.
I worked pretty hard for the three months prior to their arrival to get everything in place. There were some adjustments after they arrived, but I think I have a system that is starting to work.
Inventory of what I prepared:
-Two connected 4x4 meter pens, both with compost-making elements.
-Hole in the wall of a 3x5 meter coop.
-Perch/roost made of black locust branches.
-2 120 liter barrels with chicken nipples and a spout for filling the water buckets.
-3 water buckets (coop, 2 pens)
-A 2x4 meter movable pen for chicken tractoring.
-A chicken-cycle to get to the movable pen. It's a cage with bicycle wheels.
-various shade producing elements (upturned cistern, umbrella, some cloth fencing)
-unused shelfing unit for laying
-A flow-through vermicomposting barrel for fly and fruit-fly attraction (food for chickens) and for compost amendment.
-A gravity feed tube.
-Tomato plantings along the side of the pens.
I had to re-fashion the perch element because it was looking unsafe and generally made a mess and it was hard to clean the coop.
For the most part it's going well. I was surprised by how easy it is. As long as they have feed, water, shelter, shade, and something to do... that's it.
I had 2 dogs and a cat growing up but I don't keep animals generally. Chickens beat dogs and cats, in my opinion. They entertain themselves and they seem to like me, as I'm the one who controls what they eat.
The greatest headache is opening and closing the (expletive) door. I have to make 730 trips to the (expletive) door every year. Since i don't live on site that means car, gas, getting up early on weekends, having to organize things when we go out on occasion. It's like having 10 babies, another thing I don't have. Unless I go high-tech, I really don't see a way out of the (expletive) door predicament. Supposedly there are predators, but the pressure is low to non-existent, but you never know.
So I'm pretty much finished with all the work needed to maintain them, a month after their arrival. I'll post some pics here soon.
Chickens are pretty stupid animals, so if you introduce a new food to them, you have to encourage them a bit. They may not know what to do with something large until they really get in to pecking at it. They may not scratch at a big pile of stuff unless there is something they are looking for. If I throw a handful of wild strawberries on a new pile of stuff, they will scratch through it looking for the strawberries. They will peck at things small enough to try. I gave them ginkgo fruits once, and they did try them. However, the second time they had learned their lesson, and said "get these stinky things out of here" and left them alone.
If stuff is shredded, i.e., put through a food processor or run over with a lawn mower, they will scratch through it and find all the tasty little bits they are looking for.
I just found a solution to the door problem. Supposedly there is a battery-run door opener and closer with a timer. That could potentially solve my problem.
There are a few snags I can see already, being that they come out when I'm there and they tend to stay inside if the door's open. They aren't really autonomous yet, and I think that would be key of any door opening/closing scheme. As the device seems rather simple, I'm looking into having one made.
For now, having humans around to be scared of, curious about and to be excited for the food they bring seems to be high on their list of things to do, and for now that's me.