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Grand Backyard Free Ranging Chicken plan (or scheme)

 
Rob Griffin
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I have been thinking about backyard chickens for awhile.  That is how I found the permies site through a google search.   My idea of "permaculture" comes from having read the Mollison book back in the late 70s.  That notion being: you set up self sustaining ecosystem of plants and animals that has enough surplus that you can harvest bits of it and it still self sustains with minimal or no effort.   That fits my notion for chickens and growing up we sort of had that system.  We had the small hard scrabble farm with a couple of horses, calves, 20 or so goats and sheep, some free ranging peafowl and guinea fowl.  Chickens were like the free add on as we never fed or watered them.   They just cleaned up after everything else (like the peafowl and guineas), and you rarely saw any bugs or rodents around.  We had Game chickens that my Dad had got from one of his good old boy connections, probably 8 or so on average in a given year.  A rooster, hens and a few young ones every year as there were nest boxes up in the barn loft they would lay in, but there was always some nests somewhere you would never find.  Every year my dad would catch last years rooster and horse trade him with his good old boy connections.  My Dad raised and fought roosters back in the day, when I guess it was a bit more legal.  I still have his fighting kit which was a box with a special saw for cutting off the spurs and the wicked looking steel spurs they would sew on for replacement.  There are even boxing gloves you could sew on for less lethal practice bouts.  Anyway he said the best fighters grew up never hearing another rooster crow.  He would always get some "boot"  in the swap (most of the time some clear liquid in a mason jar or some other barter) as our roosters were in that category.  We usually kept one young rooster around for a bit after the swap as those swapped roosters were sometimes not the most educated in the wiles of staying alive while free ranging.

My idea/plan/scheme would go something like this:  

My lot backs up to the wilder part of the Greenway that winds for a couple of miles around subdivisions, swamps, creeks, fields and school grounds.  So if I got some game chicken chicks (5- next Spring. I could start them out in a tractor like coop on my land behind the privacy fence next to the greenway forest.  Of course feeding to start and slowly wean them off during the fat time of the year.  I might even plant a chicken forage garden back there.  Maybe supplementing some food out in the forest during the really lean part of winter and spring.  But I would think I could stop that after the first year or so.    I would only want them to come back to lay in nest boxes in the tractor.  That could be tricky, but if I have a bit of forage around it, who knows.  The other tricky part would be I would want a rooster with them...a city no-no but there are no houses really closer to the greenway than say 200 feet.   I was thinking I could have plausible deniability...they would be free ranging and flighty...but if they want to use the nest boxes I have put out who am I to deny them.

Thoughts?  As this will be my Winter project to prepare for this.   
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Would they damage neighbor's gardens? And, would they get eaten by predators?
 
Rob Griffin
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It is a big greenway.   Probably a half mile straight back to the next house from mine, over a creek and it runs for miles behind subdivisions, schools and swamps.  There are deer running it (cut down on ticks too), and I have not seen any but I assume there are small predators.  I have seen hawks around but the forest is not the best hunting for them.   I don't see a lot of gardens around, but there may be some.  The idea is to have a flighty wilder free rangers that can at some point be self sustaining in the forest.  Them being too tame and coming up to houses would be their downfall.   
 
Ben Zukisian
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I sounds like you may benefit from a couple spanish cross turkeys (wilder and much more wily than their walking breasts of cousins).  I attribute my turkeys and my great pyrenees to my low loss rate of chickens and muscovy ducks (only a few chicks have been picked off) despite leaving my aviary open. They are also under fruit and maple trees and have brambles to escape into (where they would naturally nest). I theorize the turkey has been the main hawk deterrent while Wilson the dog has been whats kept the large local bear and cougar population away. Its also hard to overestimate how much the trees help to give them escape and hiding places. Anyhow, the turkeys eat a higher percentage of free ranged food and produce about 80-100/yr of the best eggs I've ever had.
 
Tyler Ludens
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The difficulty I see is getting the initial chickens who have the genes and knowledge for free living.  Just buying some chicks and raising them and letting them go won't work, in my opinion.  They will not have the behaviors to survive and will eventually all be eaten, probably by raccoons and foxes.  I have never seen feral chickens in my locale.  There were some feral peafowl in the neighborhood for a few months, and guinea fowl seem to survive for awhile in some places. But no chickens.  I think you need to obtain your initial chickens from a flock who already have the skills to survive.  Or run a huge experiment with 100 chickens to see WHO WILL SURVIVE (possibly nobody).

 
Rob Griffin
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There are no wild turkeys on the greenway so that is sort of the ecosystem niche I am looking to exploit.  But making it where I can exploit what ever I let go feral will be the hard part.  It seems to me exploiting turkeys or guineas may be harder than chickens, but I could be wrong.  Winters are not that bad here so the need for bigger body birds is not as great.  I have not seen any sign around but there are coyotes around (keep an eye on your cats).  I have heard they are living large off of the non migrating Canadian geese in some of the neighborhoods with lakes.   Tyler has pretty much hit on a big part of problem...waking up those feral instincts to survive...but without having to start with a 100 birds to be successful.  
 
Todd Parr
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In my opinion, when you get animals, you are now responsible for their care and well being.  To get them and just turn them loose in an area to fend for themselves is irresponsible and cruel.  Chickens are about as easy an animal to care for as any you will find, and to be unwilling to do the small amount of work they need to be healthy, happy, and protected seems unfair.  People that try to protect their chickens still have losses to predators.  To do next to nothing is to nearly guarantee all will be killed by predators, either wild or domestic, or run over by cars, or suffer other man-made deaths.  The way I understand permaculture, to simply exploit an area of land, a group of animals or any other asset without returning anything to it's care, is the direct opposite.
 
Glenn Herbert
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I didn't get any impression from the OP of "just turn them loose", but rather carefully introducing them to the wild with backup as long as they need it.
 
Rob Griffin
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Thanks Glenn that is my proposition and what is the best way to do it with the best chance of success. 

At the PDC this summer at Paul's place it seemed the majority of people (including Paul) attributed permaculture to establishing a system with a bunch of work up front, then reap the rewards with minimal effort for years to come.  They referred to it as something like " the lazy bastard's approach" or something similar.  Establish your water, your food forest, your symbiotic animal relationships and then reap the rewards.

I contend I have the water and food forest already in the greenway, how do I establish that symbiotic animal relationship.  Wild turkeys, while the native solution, would not be easy to "reap" or legal probably.  Thus I am thinking chickens (though not native but fairly legal)....but not those brainless egg factory wonders but ones that could survive and thrive.  That is why I said Game Chickens not Rhode Island Reds.

 
Todd Parr
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Thomas Griffin wrote: But I would think I could stop that after the first year or so.    I would only want them to come back to lay in nest boxes in the tractor.  That could be tricky, but if I have a bit of forage around it, who knows.  The other tricky part would be I would want a rooster with them...a city no-no but there are no houses really closer to the greenway than say 200 feet.   I was thinking I could have plausible deniability...they would be free ranging and flighty...but if they want to use the nest boxes I have put out who am I to deny them.



I guess I read this differently.  I read it as doing the absolute minimum for the first year and doing nothing after that, except denying they are mine if anyone asks because it's illegal to have them here.  As I said, it's only my opinion, but since it was asked for, I see this as irresponsible.

I agree that permaculture is doing a lot of work up front, and then reaping the rewards for minimal upkeep.  If you add animals to the equation,  the work to maintain the area in a healthy and happy fashion will necessarily be greater, unless the animals are simply native to the area and you are sharing your land with them.  Domestic chickens, even game chickens, are pretty far removed from their ancestral traits, as well as from the tropical environment they came from in the US.  I would argue that the amount and type of predation is different as well.
 
Anne Miller
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Is the Greenway behind you house undisturbed?  It is not mowed, has no trails and no one uses it?  Was it built by your HOA? Does the city have any long range plans for this greenway?
 
Jessica Milliner
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My cousin has  ton of different kinds of chickens including game chickens. They are pretty much as wild as pheasants- live in the woods, and he can't catch them at all. They're definitely amazing at surviving and reproducing,  i just don't know how much he's actually "reaping" from them as they lay eggs wherever they want and he couldn't catch them to eat unless I guess he hunted them with a .22? (plus they're very small, not a ton of meat on them).  It might end up that rather than exploiting this unused land for your gain, you are actually just introducing a self proliferating non native species.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Jessica Milliner wrote:It might end up that rather than exploiting this unused land for your gain, you are actually just introducing a self proliferating non native species.


That's what it seems like to me - if they are wild enough to survive, it will be very difficult to derive any benefit from them.  Eggs will be laid in hidden nests, birds for meat will have to be shot or trapped.  It seems like a very difficult and less humane method of raising chickens than some other such as the compost chickens or paddock shift systems.
 
Rob Griffin
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The Greenway is part of the cities utility easements and they snake all over the city.  I am off on one of the wilder spurs.  The main part probably a 1/2 mile away has a bike path on it and they maybe mow 8 ft on either side of it, so that part is mown, probably over where the utilities are.  On my spur that part is nothing but brambles, the rest is forest.  I would not call it "old growth" but it probably has not been logged in a hundred years.  It is designated greenway and probably will be for all foreseeable future. 

Jessica's experience is more in line with what I have seen in the past.  I have been kicking around how I could make this work to include making roost and nest boxes in the forest that hopefully I could train them to use.  If I can train a goldfish to ring a bell, maybe this will not be so hard.

Introducing a non-native specie noted, but at least is not pigs.   I would have to have success beyond my wildest dreams before I would think it was a problem.  If it came to that,  I could take them out, I am an excellent shot with a pellet gun.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thomas Griffin wrote: I have been kicking around how I could make this work to include making roost and nest boxes in the forest that hopefully I could train them to use.


Birds who learn to use those are likely to become sitting "ducks" for predators, in my opinion.
 
Rob Griffin
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Maybe Tyler.  Why would that be different from say wood duck boxes?
 
Jessica Milliner
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Yeah I'm not too worried about game hens taking over like pigs! The ones on our property that belong to my cousin keep to themselves (I'm guessing they roost in trees to avoid predators?) Just pointing out there could be unforseen knock on effects for insect life, native birds etc.

I guess my real main thought is that I just don't know how much if any benefit you'll really get. Also if you figure out how to train them to lay in nest boxes consistently  please share it! One of my leghorns has been laying away somewhere or other for weeks, to the point that I'm like...  Is this a freezer camp worthy offense?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Chickens can't fly as well as Wood Ducks. 

 
Tyler Ludens
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Jessica Milliner wrote: Also if you figure out how to train them to lay in nest boxes consistently  please share it! One of my leghorns has been laying away somewhere or other for weeks, to the point that I'm like...  Is this a freezer camp worthy offense?


When I've tried free ranging, eventually some hens would decide to start laying out in the wild world and eventually I would need to keep them in the run until they relearned how to use the nest box. 

I've largely given up free ranging because the chickens were eating so many frogs, which was in conflict with our wildlife management plan for amphibians.  Plus they would eat baby snakes and lizards.

 
Rob Griffin
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The game chickens I have seen fly are like what Jessica said "pheasant like".  I would think the vulnerability is when they are sitting in the box.   All the wood duck boxes I have seen have the predator flashing on them.  I was thinking I would have to do the same in my design.
 
Tyler Ludens
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That might work, but the design of the box will need to be more open, because chickens are not good fliers like ducks. They also can't fly very high, and low boxes will be more vulnerable to agile jumping predators such as foxes.

I think it's easy to see why the typical wood duck box wouldn't work for chickens.

 
Rob Griffin
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I would think they need a perch to land on, then go into the box.  Sort of like a bat box...but not.  I still contend game chickens can fly as high as a wild turkey to roost.
 
Ben Zukisian
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I don't know about Alabama but turkeys are native to much of eastern North America and have been considered naturalized in much of the west. Chickens are native to SE asia. I would strongly suggest diversity of species, breeds, habitats and on every level you can think of. I have been relatively successful in a scenario similar to what you describe with 21birds (12 muscovy, 1turkey, 7 hens and and a rooster) on 1/6acre of established fruit and maple trees that connect to a greenway that runs into the old growth redwoods of Jed Smith State Park. If you do not want to build a predator proof henhouse, you would need to have a bunch of trees and brambles to escape to or a simulation thereof. If your main predators are foxes and raccoons I would also again suggest a great pyrenees/anatolian shepherd (my mix thereof is the best dog ever!) if that is possible, but if you dont have a fence or space or other mammals for him to bond with it may not be responsible to have one. It is amazing though how he protects the whole property, but this does require prolific amounts of chest rattling barking. If you have the space and really big predators, having two is better. You will also have no burglars other than the deaf or insane.  But seriously, these dogs allow predators to exist and fulfill their ecosystem functions while reducing livestock losses by upwards of 92%. One of my turkeys flew off  after my dog helped me find her nest one too many times but was seen by neighbours for weeks and probably went to one of their toms. The remaining turkey, LaVerne, seems very attached to me and the other birds, even covering the ducks with her wing like a chick as they lay together in the same nest. She also dances for me, but alas I have to explain that while she's a pretty bird, I am not a tom. If you are really looking for low maintenance and a decent yield of eggs with minimal work, I think ducks and turkeys are lower maintenance than chickens and provide a rarer, more valuable and better product in their eggs. You just have to find them And if you are going to try a rooster, a female turkey will be quieter and better protection for the other birds. They even have calls for each predator and if you learn them you will see vastly more raptors and snakes.

And another thing, if the Chinese were right (and they've fed more people for longer than anyone),  the first harvest off any animal should be the manure. Chicken manure is great for green growth and turkeys are similar but more prolific producers. Ducks however, have the highest Phosphorus % of any common livestock manure (1.4%), and their pond water is god's gift to almost any flowering plant, straight or in a tea. Phosphorus is key to animal health (see Solomon and others), and is going to be mined to extreme rarity in the next few decades, so duck manure may become even more valuable. That shit is gold!
 
Rob Griffin
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I agree that chickens are like little "Velociraptors", anything smaller is fair game.  I have said before if a chicken was the size of an ostrich I would be scared to death of it.  For sure keep kids and small pets away from it.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I've seen wild turkeys (and my chickens) sort of "climb" trees by flying to a low limb and then successively higher limbs, so they aren't actually flying onto a high perch.  Not sure how to arrange these successive perches to avoid them being used by predators.  I don't know how the wild turkeys here avoid all the predators.  Safety in numbers maybe.  We have so many predators who love to eat birds!

It seems plausible to me that a small agile chicken could fly onto a perch about six feet tall.  If that were protected by a predator barrier, it seems like it would be too high for a jumping predator such as a fox to get into.  I think a nest box with an open front, on a pole with a predator collar, and in the open so predators can't use nearby trees or shrubs to climb, might work.
 
Rob Griffin
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I am thinking I could build the boxes and use a rope and pulley to suspend them off the ground (predator shield coming down the other way).  Easy to lower and check out.
 
Todd Parr
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Isn't trying to figure all this out and implement it a lot more work and risk for a lot less gain than a more traditional permaculture approach to raising poultry? 
 
Rob Griffin
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Maybe it is a lot of work and risk, but sometimes that is what it makes it worth it if you can come up with an elegant design that works. 

To tell you the truth I am not sure what is the permaculture way of raising chickens.  Paul did a pretty funny brief on free ranging birds at the PDC but it was really not presented as a permaculture way.  I did make them play every chicken video Howard had the PDC, but again no real permaculture way was presented.  There was one interesting one about compost and chickens at some small town.   But I also admit I have not purchased the DVD set with that name on it.   But from what I have seen they always seem to be on a larger scale than I need.   Maybe if you were going to be the chicken and egg guy for the ant village it would make more sense on that scale.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I don't think there is just one "permaculture way" to raise chickens.  The two ways I've found most promising are the paddock shift system advocated by Paul Wheaton and the chickens on compost variants practiced by geoff lawton and others.
 
Rob Griffin
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I like the paddock shift method where they follow larger animals like pigs or sheep.  But paddock raising can have its risks too.  Raptor predation risk is higher, as so is the chance of a catastrophic large scale predator attack (how many times have you heard dogs or what ever killed most of the flock...doesn't help when you have to trim their wings to keep them from flying out of the paddock). 

I am not sure where I would ever get enough compost to make that system work.  But....

I do have a design that goes:   human manure -> worms -> soldier fly larvae -> chickens -> human consumption (required three specie conversion to prevent harmful vector transmission).  Would work for a small community like the ant village.
 
Todd Parr
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I agree that there isn't "a way".  Different methods will work under different conditions for people with a different way of looking at things.  My way isn't really a permaculture method at all when it comes down to it.  I can't feed my chickens year round without store-purchased feed at this point. Our very long and cold winters make it impossible (or nearly so) at this point.  The way that works best for me right now is to free range when I am working outside on the weekends and to keep them in their pretty large run on days when I'm not.  I lock them in their coop for safe-keeping at night.  I am looking at a larger place right now, the chickens will be free range at that point, but still locked up at night.  I have lost too many birds trying to free range full time.  Raccoons and possums have killed quite a few of my free range birds, including the 7 babies I hatched this year that were living outside in the trees with mom until they were large enough to put into the coop at night.  Overhead predators have never been a problem for me, in spite of having quite a lot of hawks and eagles.  My chicken run has some very large white pines and they hide under there pretty effectively.

I may use the paddock shift method part-time when I have the larger place so the chickens can help me build and clean up garden areas.
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/cards
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