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Seriously Raising Chickens

 
Simon Johnson
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Here is an article I wrote up on my blog for my permie friends to enjoy about raising chickens paddock shift style. Let me know what you think.




How would you like to raise chickens in such a way that doesn't require you to clean out their stinky, poop filled coop? How about drastically reducing your feed bill and possibly eliminate it all together? Or how about not having to worry about regular chicken health problems like mites and the like? If those reasons don't sound good enough for you, how about the possibility of being able to leave the chickens for a week at a time and them not dying? Now that sounds sweet to me!

But everyone I know who has chickens has to deal with all of those problems. Well, it's time everyone raising chickens started doing it the permaculture way; that is, with excellent design! Good design can greatly reduce the labour, time, and money involved in raising chickens (along with most things ). So let's have a look at how we can apply good design to raising chickens.

The main idea is generally referred to as the paddock shift system, whereby the chickens are rotated through a number of different fenced off areas called paddocks. In these paddocks a diversity of plants are planted for the chickens to eat. The chickens also have a movable shelter where they sleep, or different shelters in each paddock. Let's examine why rotating chickens through a number of different paddocks is (as far as I know of right now) the best way to raise them.

We will start off with the shelter. The standard way to start raising chickens is to fence off an area, build a coop and let them live in there. You end up building the coop in such a way that no critters can get in, which generally means there is hardly any ventilation. Every morning you come out to let the birds out of the coop and every night you come back to close the coop up. It doesn't take long for that coop to start filling up with poop and smelling really bad with the lack of ventilation. You only have to go out there twice a day and the smell is bad, imagine how the chickens feel having to spend every night in there smelling their own feces. Not only does it smell bad, but it is also unhealthy for the birds to not have fresh, clean air to breath. Eventually you decide there is too much poop in the coop and you now have to clean it. This job sucks a lot!

Don't do this!



Let's apply some good design to the chicken shelter and see what we can come up with. First things first, manually cleaning the accumulated poop needs to be eliminated. In order for this to happen, you need to make the coop movable and without a floor. Being without a floor in the coop allows the chickens to poop directly onto the ground where the coop is. Being movable allows you to move the coop to a new, poop free location, while just leaving the previously accumulated poop in place on the ground where the coop used to be. No more poop to clean up. Jackpot!

Now for the ventilation issue. Chickens need fresh air. Without fresh air, their living quarters get humidity and smell issues, which lead to other health related problems. By designing the coop to be movable and have no floor, you get a real head start on the ventilation issue. The key things to make sure you don't have too much ventilation are, a good roof to keep the precipitation off the birds and some walls to keep the main prevailing winds off them. Other than that, make the coop super drafty. As long as they can stay dry, out of the main cold winds, and well fed, the chickens will be fine; even in the cold Ontario winters.

Here is the movable coop I built. You can see in the second picture there is no floor and it is small enough to be carried around by two people.





Once a nice little movable coop has been built, you will want to accompany that with a movable area for your chickens to forage from. Keeping chickens penned up in the same area for extended periods of time leads to an area devoid of any greenery and insects for the chickens to eat. as well as an over fertilization of that area from all the pooping that goes on there. That is a serious waste of precious nitrogen rich fertilizer that could be put to a better use of fertilizing the green forage the chickens are eating. If there are no insects or greenery to eat, then you must supply all the chicken's feed, which costs and is of questionable quality. So moving the birds is better.

To start things off and get the birds moving around in a controlled manner, a movable electric net fence (shown in the above picture) is a great way to start. This allows you to fence the chickens in a particular area with their coop for a period of time and then move both the fence and the coop after about thirty percent of the vegetation is consumed in the fenced off area. This gives the chickens constant access to fresh greenery and insects to eat, thereby reducing the feed bill you have to pay. After the chickens have left a particular area, there is a major boost in the regrowth of fresh vegetation from the added chicken poop fertilizer. So when the chickens eventually make it back to this spot in the future, it is extra lush.

This is all well and good, the chickens are no longer pooping in the same place all the time, you don't have to clean poop, and the feed bill is slightly reduced by having the chickens eating some grass and insects. But it can get way better. You still have to go out on a regular basis to water the chickens and make sure they have adequate supplemental feed, which you are still paying a pretty penny for. That fence and coop also needs to be moved by you. So we need to shift the design into a space where water is provided, chicken forage is greatly increased and the fence doesn't need to be moved.

Obviously this is much more difficult to accomplish than taking the leap from standard fenced in coop and run to movable fence and coop with no floor. But like most things in permaculture, there is an initial investment of time, energy, and money to give an awesome gift to your future self, who will be laughing at those future folks who didn't want to make the investment. It pays to do things right, and in this case, doing it right will lead to an incredibly indestructible, integrated chicken/food forest forage system. If set up properly you could spend less than five minutes of work each week letting the chickens from one paddock to the next. That's it!

In order for this to happen though, you will need a permanent fencing setup. I suggest planting hedgerows of tight, spiky, edible plants outlining the paddocks. This is probably the most permanent setup which fulfills multiple functions. First it acts as an impenetrable barrier, keeping your chickens in and unwanted predators out. Secondly it is a living system which can fix nitrogen in the ground, provide shelter/shade, and produce edible forage for the chickens. Being a living system means it will evolve and get better with time, instead of degrading and needing of replacement, like nonliving systems do.

It should grow into something along the lines of this. A dense wall of greenery.



Before, after, or during (it depends ) planting your hedgerow, you will want to begin transforming the actual paddock areas to a forager's feast of fresh greens, fruits, seeds, and insects. To do this you will want to follow similar methods I outlined in my articles on guilds and polyculture. When choosing what to plant, you will want to keep in mind how useful the plants are relative to raising chickens. It isn't necessary that all plants are edible for chickens though. By adding plants that you enjoy eating as well, you can reap some of the benefits that come with shifting chickens between paddocks and harvest what you want to eat before letting the chickens in to the next paddock.

The more things you have in each paddock for chickens to eat, the less money you have to spend on supplemental feed. A high plant diversity also leads to healthier chickens, as they now have the ability to pick and choose what they would like to eat and when. It also makes for excellent insect habitat, which might be a chickens favourite food. Maybe they don't feel well one day and by instinct they get the urge to take a few nibbles of some plant that they wouldn't normally eat, but it just happens to cure what ails them. A healthy bird makes healthy meat and eggs, which in turn makes for a healthy you! Just what we want.

Something along these lines.



With a high plant diversity, in a relatively mature system, there is the opportunity to make shelters that are even more portable than the original movable shelter. Using the trees and shrubbery as most of the cover, you could fashion up some pretty crude shelters to just keep them dry and give them a place to lay some eggs. They could be ultra portable and you could have one or more per paddock, making your job even easier. Many chickens like to roost in dense trees and shrubs over night out of reach from predators.

While on the subject of predators, they won't hardly be problem with the excellent hedgerow fencing you installed, the dense foliage and by continuously moving the chickens between paddocks, the predators will be even less likely to get them. If you live in an area with serious predator pressure, then I recommend getting a livestock guardian dog or two. These dogs will risk it all to keep your chickens alive and just by having a dog presence will deter most predators anyway.

The chicken's shelter and food have been looked after now, so let's see what we can do about their water situation. Ideally you could have a stream running through your property which you could divert water from to run through each of your paddocks, giving the birds access to clean running water all the time. Since most people don't have a stream running through their property, we'll have to come up with an alternative. With enough land and good design, I think you should be able to build a water harvesting system which will have at least one pond that continuously overflows. This overflow can be directed through pipes to supply each paddock with clean, running water. In lieu of a stream and excellent water harvesting system that flows, I am thinking a water storage tank that harvests clean roof water and is piped with gravity feed to each paddock. Or each paddock has a storage tank with water harvesting hardware to fill it. This part has a pretty big 'it depends' variable with it, but the idea is to make it so you can go as long as possible without refilling water and to have that water stay clean by moving.

I think that about covers it. To summarize, you want a system where your chickens regularly move to fresh greenery and have a coop that requires no cleaning and has lots of ventilation. The more vegetation you make available to them, the less you have to pay for feed. To make a super sweet system, plant hedge row fencing and turn the paddocks into a chicken food forest. To learn more head over to Paul Wheaton's site and read his chicken article. After that come out to the forums at permies.com and keep the learning going.
 
Su Ba
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Lots of ideas and things to consider, Simon. But this set up doesn't fit nicely on my own homestead.

1- predators. My number one predator is the I'o, the Hawaiian hawk. It's on the endangered list so there's no steps that I can take to kill or harass it. If my hens are not protected in the morning, I will often lose one every day if the female hawks have young. Thus my hens are in roofed pens until mid-afternoon, when predation is lower. And I maintain several sacrificial roosters to help alert the hens when a hawk comes by, though many times I've seen a hawk swoop over without even the roosters seeing it until too late. I lose at least a rooster a month.

2- pressure from feral pigs and dogs makes hedgerows not workable, nor electric net fences. A feral pig can burst right through. I have a hard enough time keeping them out with heavy gauge field fence and two strands of barbed wire at ground level. And rock walls have to be 4 foot high to keep them from jumping over. I've had pigs dismantle dry stack rock walls.

3- manure. This is an important source of fertilizer for my homestead. I purposely collect manured pen litter to compost, then use for fertilizer for gardens and orchards. Selling eggs barely is a break even business, so the manure makes keeping chickens profitable for me. Saves me $$ in fertilizer. By the way, I collect manure frequently to prevent nitrogen loss. Thus no manure build up, no mess, no smell.

4- feed is a considerable expense if purchased. Thus I've developed my own system of using garden waste, foraged waste, farm grown feed, and grass clippings to feed the hens in the mornings. Afternoons they can forage. With the hens needing plenty of protein and calcium to keep up egg production, I supply that rather then assuming they could find enough on their own. Egg production is important to me, so mediocre production due to mediocre feed supply won't cut it on my homestead.

5- water. Periodic drought is a common condition here. So dreams of running streams are just that, dreams. There is often not enough water. And during droughts, water is too precious to simply allow to run onto the ground. Thus we use a water nipple set into a 5 gallon bucket. This keeps the water clean and not much gets wasted. Plus mosquitos can't lay their eggs since the bucket is lidded.

I really wish that paddocks, free range foraging, and chicken tractors would work here. It would mean less work for me. But I've tried all three and they had significant drawbacks......dead chickens and poor egg production. Keeping chickens on my homestead is not for the lazy, but my system works for me.

Thankfully I don't need a formal coop because I don't have cold winters or snow to deal with. So my chicken pen is 6 foot high chain link fence with a simple tarp roof.
 
Zach Muller
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Simon raising chickens doesn't have to be serious, you can have fun while doing it!😉
Seriously though This is a well written article and I really like the lush looking photos.

Being in an urban environment means I have to have a solid coop for when agents of sadness are lurking around my property, but on the other hand I am isolated inside the city between a major highway, and a major street so many of my local natural predators don't come around. I have had some hawk attacks surprisingly, but there is enough cover that none of the chickens have been taken.
Even in a small urban space I am essentially doing a paddock shift, but with a semi stationary coop. Being stationary is not a problem since I use deep woodchips and leaves as the floor ( which become fertility for the forest garden once the coop has moved).

I love the idea of fully mobile chickens always out in their paddocks living it up, but for me I needed a few special features being in the city.

- need to have control of if and when the chickens are let out into paddocks
- need to be able to easily grab rooster to put him in his separate sleeping quarters ( for noise reduction in the morning)
- need nesting boxes in a controlled space suitable for broody hens Doing there thing

My current hybrid paddock system is what I have come up with thus far.

On another note, there are other stationary coop designs that can work beautifully, roosts over a fish pond is a classic permaculture example. A design that I first setup when I moved here a year ago was a bottomless coop setup over a swale. Chickens poop in swale, rain comes and disburses the poop, very clean and easy.




 
Simon Johnson
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Thanks for the reply Su! Your location and situation are quite different from mine, so it depends really comes into play here, but I have a couple thoughts on some of your points if I may.

Su Ba wrote:
1- predators. My number one predator is the I'o, the Hawaiian hawk. It's on the endangered list so there's no steps that I can take to kill or harass it. If my hens are not protected in the morning, I will often lose one every day if the female hawks have young. Thus my hens are in roofed pens until mid-afternoon, when predation is lower. And I maintain several sacrificial roosters to help alert the hens when a hawk comes by, though many times I've seen a hawk swoop over without even the roosters seeing it until too late. I lose at least a rooster a month.


That is some serious hawk pressure! In my opinion, I would say planting trees and shrubs would really help with the hawk pressure. It seems to me that obstructing their flight and providing dense underbrush for chickens to hide in would make quite the difference. Of course it takes time to grow trees and shrubs to a point where this will be effective.

Su Ba wrote:
2- pressure from feral pigs and dogs makes hedgerows not workable, nor electric net fences. A feral pig can burst right through. I have a hard enough time keeping them out with heavy gauge field fence and two strands of barbed wire at ground level. And rock walls have to be 4 foot high to keep them from jumping over. I've had pigs dismantle dry stack rock walls.


Wow, those are some tough pigs you have to deal with. I still think a properly dense hedge row would keep them out though. If you had a 3-4 foot thick wall of very densely planted woody, spiky species, I have a hard time seeing a pig smash through. I am thinking black locust, osage orange, hawthorn, honey locust, etc. Things of this nature, pruned appropriately, should make it very difficult for anything to get through.

Su Ba wrote:
4- feed is a considerable expense if purchased. Thus I've developed my own system of using garden waste, foraged waste, farm grown feed, and grass clippings to feed the hens in the mornings. Afternoons they can forage. With the hens needing plenty of protein and calcium to keep up egg production, I supply that rather then assuming they could find enough on their own. Egg production is important to me, so mediocre production due to mediocre feed supply won't cut it on my homestead.


I would say that what you are doing here is an excellent addition to a paddock shift system as well. Not only would the chickens eat the scraps, but anything not consumed would just decompose in place and add more fertility to the area. No need to make compost piles of your kitchen/garden scraps when there are chickens around who would love to eat them up.

Su Ba wrote:
5- water. Periodic drought is a common condition here. So dreams of running streams are just that, dreams. There is often not enough water. And during droughts, water is too precious to simply allow to run onto the ground. Thus we use a water nipple set into a 5 gallon bucket. This keeps the water clean and not much gets wasted. Plus mosquitos can't lay their eggs since the bucket is lidded.


Your water supply also sounds like a great way to water chickens in the paddock shift scenario when the other more desirable options are not available.

All the best with your chickens!
 
Simon Johnson
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Thanks for feed back Zach! I'm glad you enjoyed my article. Just a couple thoughts on some of your points.

Zach Muller wrote:Simon raising chickens doesn't have to be serious, you can have fun while doing it!😉


I would say you can have the best of both worlds! Doing it seriously makes it more fun because your work load is constantly reduced over time

Zach Muller wrote:
Being in an urban environment means I have to have a solid coop for when agents of sadness are lurking around my property, but on the other hand I am isolated inside the city between a major highway, and a major street so many of my local natural predators don't come around. I have had some hawk attacks surprisingly, but there is enough cover that none of the chickens have been taken.
Even in a small urban space I am essentially doing a paddock shift, but with a semi stationary coop. Being stationary is not a problem since I use deep woodchips and leaves as the floor ( which become fertility for the forest garden once the coop has moved).


Oh that darn department of making you sad... A movable coop can be built solid enough to make the agents happy when they stop by, and it seems you do move your coop sometimes. I would see about eliminating the floor of your coop and moving it more frequently. You could do something where the coop still has a door so you can lock the chickens up in there when necessary, but just no floor and no clean up.

Zach Muller wrote:
I love the idea of fully mobile chickens always out in their paddocks living it up, but for me I needed a few special features being in the city.

- need to have control of if and when the chickens are let out into paddocks


I would think having a movable coop you can still lock them up in would take care of this. Let them out when it works, and lock them up when it doesn't. Moving the coop between paddocks could determine which area they had access to.

Zach Muller wrote:
- need to be able to easily grab rooster to put him in his separate sleeping quarters ( for noise reduction in the morning)


If all the chickens returned to the coop in the evening, it seems you should be able to grab the rooster at that time and move him to where you want. Maybe he has his own bottomless coop to sleep in that is a little more sound proof.

Zach Muller wrote:
- need nesting boxes in a controlled space suitable for broody hens Doing there thing


Adding nesting boxes to the movable coop seems to me like it could solve this problem. Maybe not though. The chickens might prefer to nest in some other place.

Zach Muller wrote:
My current hybrid paddock system is what I have come up with thus far.

On another note, there are other stationary coop designs that can work beautifully, roosts over a fish pond is a classic permaculture example. A design that I first setup when I moved here a year ago was a bottomless coop setup over a swale. Chickens poop in swale, rain comes and disburses the poop, very clean and easy.


A hybrid paddock system is better than no paddock system I would say (I guess it depends ) There are many good coop designs, but I would like to see them be movable and have no bottom. This should greatly reduces the build up of pathogens harmful to the chickens in any one place.

It's all just my two cents though. Keep up the good work and keep innovating!
 
Zach Muller
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I would think having a movable coop you can still lock them up in would take care of this. Let them out when it works, and lock them up when it doesn't. Moving the coop between paddocks could determine which area they had access to.



This is true and I would definitely explore this as an option. Right now I have my paddocks separated by a small chain link gate, which prevents my new coop from moving through. Rather than drag something around so much anyway, the coop is in the larger paddock close to the gate so I can just let them out and herd them through the gate. Works so far, but its a new system and it is winter.






Adding nesting boxes to the movable coop seems to me like it could solve this problem. Maybe not though. The chickens might prefer to nest in some other place.


True, I think that would work for me, once my hens go broody, they are pretty much dead set on it, even after being moved.


When I read your article something hit me in the brain and I reached for Bill Mollisons book Introduction to Permaculture. There is an element of poultry forage systems that he mentions that I think is incredibly cool and beneficial.

In section 6.3 titled "Poultry Forage Systems" he writes,
Whenever possible, Zone II should include a range of some high manurial animals like chickens, and they should be housed at the edge of Zone I, or very close to it. Here we can exploit a larger system (zone II) to enrich a smaller one (zone I), through the use of an animal converter.


If the chickens are left in zone II to range and sleep then the only direct enrichment coming back into zone I is the eggs, which being in zone II would require more time and energy to collect. To me it Seems like missing a great opportunity to use an edge.
Although it is kind of a choice, if your zone I is not in need of fertility (lucky you) than you probably don't want to move the manure to your garden just for fun, and a paddock system in zone II would be ideal. However, my zone I garden needs fertility, even with hugel, legumes, dynamic accumulators, the manure is a good boost.

Mollison goes on to show combo systems that include a strawyard with openings directly into zone II/zone III paddocks, and also access to chicken tractor garden beds (zone I). The strawyard is covered with rough mulch from an outer zone which is processed into a finer mulch which can be pushed out into zone II (or I) plantings as needed. Moving this organic matter through the system is maybe too much work for some people, but it creates mulch, fertilizer, eggs, possibly heat if you use a greenhouse coop design, all right there on the border of zone I. And really the chickens went out all through zone II and III picking up bugs for you, and fertilizing, so they saved you a lot of work for you already. Also Mollison includes a field roost structure that can be moved around in the deeper part of zone III that I am envisioning as something a lot like your moveable structure.

Maybe talking permaculture zones is not what you had in mind for your article, and I totally get that (its a snooze for normal folks). But I would like to know how your paddocks fit into the larger scheme of your entire system? If you did want to make your article more in depth than addressing zones and functions may be a good way to do it.


 
Simon Johnson
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Zach Muller wrote:
Whenever possible, Zone II should include a range of some high manurial animals like chickens, and they should be housed at the edge of Zone I, or very close to it. Here we can exploit a larger system (zone II) to enrich a smaller one (zone I), through the use of an animal converter.


If the chickens are left in zone II to range and sleep then the only direct enrichment coming back into zone I is the eggs, which being in zone II would require more time and energy to collect. To me it Seems like missing a great opportunity to use an edge.
Although it is kind of a choice, if your zone I is not in need of fertility (lucky you) than you probably don't want to move the manure to your garden just for fun, and a paddock system in zone II would be ideal. However, my zone I garden needs fertility, even with hugel, legumes, dynamic accumulators, the manure is a good boost.

Mollison goes on to show combo systems that include a strawyard with openings directly into zone II/zone III paddocks, and also access to chicken tractor garden beds (zone I). The strawyard is covered with rough mulch from an outer zone which is processed into a finer mulch which can be pushed out into zone II (or I) plantings as needed. Moving this organic matter through the system is maybe too much work for some people, but it creates mulch, fertilizer, eggs, possibly heat if you use a greenhouse coop design, all right there on the border of zone I. And really the chickens went out all through zone II and III picking up bugs for you, and fertilizing, so they saved you a lot of work for you already. Also Mollison includes a field roost structure that can be moved around in the deeper part of zone III that I am envisioning as something a lot like your moveable structure.

Maybe talking permaculture zones is not what you had in mind for your article, and I totally get that (its a snooze for normal folks). But I would like to know how your paddocks fit into the larger scheme of your entire system? If you did want to make your article more in depth than addressing zones and functions may be a good way to do it.


Nice find and good question Zach. Thanks for your feedback and I will take into consideration adding more detail to talk about zones. Maybe a whole `nother article.

First things first, I just want say that I don't have this fully implemented. I am still in the beginning stages of a movable fence through a field with a bottomless coop. No food forests and dense hedge rows for me yet, but this is the road I am moving towards.

So I think the lines between zone I and zone II could be blurred more. Maybe zone I, or a decent sized section of it, become a paddock for the chickens to visit once in a while. Maybe they don`t visit this paddock during their regular rotation, but maybe a couple times a year, like spring and or fall. Now the chickens are doing all the excellent work they were doing in zone II, but now it`s in zone I and you don`t have to do any shovelling. The zone I set up could be much less formalized than the standard zone I. Think larger hugelkulturs with some fruit trees and lots of greenery, but the greenery is a lot of seed scatter, mixed up stuff. So it would look a lot like zone II, only the plants selection would be more human food based and more formal paths. The chickens would love it and it gives a nice disturbance to the garden for extra growth with the nitrogen added. You wouldn`t need to have this zone I paddock all hedge rowed in either, you could just use the portable electric fence on this one.

My thoughts anyway. Keep the good chicken talk comin`
 
Zach Muller
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Simon Johnson wrote:
So I think the lines between zone I and zone II could be blurred more. Maybe zone I, or a decent sized section of it, become a paddock for the chickens to visit once in a while. Maybe they don`t visit this paddock during their regular rotation, but maybe a couple times a year, like spring and or fall. Now the chickens are doing all the excellent work they were doing in zone II, but now it`s in zone I and you don`t have to do any shovelling. The zone I set up could be much less formalized than the standard zone I. )


Yeah I see what you mean there. On an urban lot like mine zone 1 and 2 are mostly theories in my head and the reality is just all mixed together. Out the back door is one paddock, out the front door is another paddock. My forest garden is really more of a zone 2 in placement, but I plant in it and sometimes pay attention to it like its intensive zone 1. Good luck moving toward having your setup and making your chickens happy.
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