Chickens are my favorite livestock, and I'm trying to figure out all the best ways they can help do work around the place while being healthier and happier. Currently I have chickens on composthttps://permies.com/t/55362/chickens/critters/Chickens-compost and soon I will be using a paddock shift system to clear an area for more garden experiments.
I'm raising Black Soldier Fly larvae for supplemental feed.
What are some other ideas for integrating chickens more effectively into the growing system?
Okay, okay - not all chickens, but a use for broody chickens- incubators! For quail, which mature in 7 weeks and are so tame and easy to clean. They also lay eggs. But, you have to have a light-weight chicken to not smash quail eggs, I hear.
Chickens are excellent under fruit tree bug cleaners, so if you can create your rotation and use fruit trees as fence posts, then I think the saying is: you feed two species with one plant.
At the moment, my hens produce eggs, feathers (which fly fishermen love), baby chickens, manure, entertainment, and an excessive enthusiasm for devouring weeds. I'm interested in learning how I can get more work out of my chooks while providing them with an environment that best suits their nature.
Land clearing seems to be something they do really well. I hope to take advantage of this more in the future. When we had a large flock, they had a large area, about 1/8th of an acre. Which after about a year, was completely devoid of anything green. Green grew back in the spring, but the chickens saw that the land was empty again by summer. It's the common way to keep hens here, but I looked at them, and I thought if I was a chicken, I would be sad just to have a big plot of empty earth. So we took that bit of land and transformed it into a garden/field where I'm experimenting with zero irrigation and plant breeding. The hens have less space now, but fewer hens, however, they get a wheelbarrow of weeds every day, often five or six barrowloads. The weeds arrive so fast, that the chickens have trouble keeping up with them, and some of the weeds are starting to grow. On the outside of the hen yard, I'm planting Mongolian giant sunflowers, these grow 12 foot tall. When the sunflowers are tall enough, I'll open up the area to the hens and they can have a little forest to play in. The sunflowers will produce seeds for the chickens to eat, and possibly cooking fuel. The sunflowers also provide shade and protection for the hens. I'm hoping to add some sort of ground cover plant they enjoy eating, or maybe just let the weeds grow up.
One of the things chickens (and ducks) seem to be really good at is parasite control for larger animals. They also eat ticks and other pests that can harm livestock and humans. When I have the chickens in with the sheep, the chickens need less food and the sheep are generally healthier.
I'm curious to learn more about keeping chickens in an orchard. Mine like to dig holes at the base of fruit trees, so I'm looking for a solution for this.
Do you know any good resources to learn more about feeding compost to chickens? It would be lovely to give them a diet they naturally like, and reduce the feed bill.
Also, I noticed different breeds have different habits. Some hunt and almost never touch commercial food, others just sit themselves down in front of the feed bowl all day. I was wondering if a landrace of chickens would perform better in a permaculture setting, just like many landrace plants do.
I think a large yard in which one can build several heaps to get the proper maturity to grow lots of bugs is the key. The very fresh pile, once the chickens have eaten all the weed parts they want, doesn't offer sufficient nutrition for egg production, but once the heap heats up and matures, worms and things flock to the area. I think if one has lots of fruit and vegetable scraps, and sufficiently mature heaps, no grains would be needed. I'm supplementing my chickens with a few sunflower seeds.
If you let them into an annual veggy bed after harvest, they will do a nice job of cleanup.
Then, let them back in there in the spring and they will wipe out any larva that has 'hatched'.
This greatly reduces the pest load for the coming summer crops.
I like to create a long narrow alley through the landscape about 12 feet wide and connect the alley to a permanently placed chicken coop. The chickens permanently reside inside the alley which has a permanent fence. I then loop off the alley with a moveable electronet to create the paddocks for the chickens. With a long narrow alley extending through the landscape I can get 12 different rotations for the chickens from a stationary coop and move them every week by just moving the electronet. To stack functions I make sure the alley slopes between .5% and 2% with a top and bottom. Weeds, mulch and debris goes into the top of the alley and then nutrient rich weed seedfree mulch comes out the bottom where I've supplied an entrance gate to collect. I planted Opuntia lindhiemerii (A spiny prickly pear that gets 5' x 5') all around the alley fence to create a permanent living fence to replace the poultry netting as it decomposes. Before the cacti were mature I would place a bucket with the bottom cut off under the poultry netting making the alley fence to provide a tunnel for the chickens to go through to enter the electronet paddock. Now that the cacti are mature I need a bridge to get the chickens over them in some places so they can access the paddocks. I've connected the alley to the deck of our house so I can easily throw compost over the deck and into the alley to feed the chickens. I also placed the coop downwind of predominant winds to keep smells away allowing me to place the coop close to the house for efficient gathering of eggs.
The chickens don't have access to the area under the coop and soldier fly larva grow in the manure. The pre-pupa crawl uphill into the alley to self feed the chickens. I've also placed the coop over a diversion channel and connected it to my rainwater harvesting system. You can turn a valve and flush the manure out from under the coop and through the diversion channel in the landscape to irrigate and fertilize shrubs and plants. In some of the channels I grow sun chokes and feed them back to the chickens. In the paddocks I'm growing a variety of forage including clover, grasses, millet, buckwheat, cereal rye, sunflowers, sorghum etc. I also have logs and debris to attract insects and dump vegetable waste from the farm into paddocks a few weeks prior to bringing the chickens in to grow maggots for them. Some of the paddocks include the vegetable garden so the chickens can control insect pests and weed seeds or till the soil if left in place long enough. Another paddock includes a small pond that I grow minnows, tadpoles and aquatic vegetation to feed the chickens. You can either scoop them out or drain the pond for irrigation and let the chickens feed on everything on the bottom. By using the chickens to control the minnow population you can affect the production of tadpoles (some are toxic to chickens so be careful) and generate frogs and toads that are more likely to migrate into the landscape and control pests. Without minnow control I get mainly bull frogs that hang out by the pond. More detail and pics in my book. I also have a chapter on my attempt to integrate chickens with greenhouses (which I don't think I would do again).
Like Shawn, I think paddocks have been the thing that we have worked on the most. The stacking functions of chickens in our paddock system allows us to rotate the chickens throughout the system without a tractor (not that using a tractor is bad). Of course, the benefits of bug control, manure scattering, etc are then moved throughout the system and the paddocks are not overused by the chickens as we move them every 5 days. We currently have 5 paddocks for a total for a total of 30 chickens. Our 5 day rotation means that we give plenty of rest inn the landscape between rotations. I imagine that increasing the numbers of chickens would mean either an increase in the amount of land being used as paddocks or the separation of the current land into more sections so that they don't become overused.
We have 4 hens fenced in our orchard (375' of fence surrounds it, not sure of the exact size as it's somewhat oddly shaped). With that much space we still mow once or twice a year, however under the closely spaced hazelnut portion of the orchard, they keep the soil more bare, partly because of the dense shade for the plants and the hens like to hang out there during the heat of summer (also a good place to hide away from aerial predators). With so much space to run around in, they really don't like to be put in the chicken tractor to do garden work and I can't blame them. They do eat lots of bugs in the orchard, besides greens. At one time we had 5 hens, and that was too many. Three was OK but 4 seems to be the max for our space.
I find a stocking density of around 1 chicken / 43 square feet of pasture creates a nice even eating pattern over the entire area. I move the chickens every 6-7 days. If the forage stops growing from drought or cold I then keep the chickens in the alley or park them in a paddock in the woods to let the pasture recover.
That number came from observations of the flock on forage around my house and is anecdotal. I've talked with and read about other growers with a similar number. I'm getting ready to build another coop system so I'll have to run some comparisons once I do. Seems like someone must have done this research already. Let me know if you find anything. I've learned it's best to move based on forage height. Seems like if they stay on too long it favors the grasses at the expense of the legumes.