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using chickens to till?  RSS feed

 
Posts: 9
Location: Huntsville, AL
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Hello fellow permies. I hve what might be a fairly basic question. I have a sizable area, approx 2-3 acres worth, that I would like to start preparing the soil with a cover crop for the first few years while I decide on which plants, their arrangement and grow out the areas. The cover crop mix I have decided on is a mixture of sunflower, buckwheat, cowpea, and clovers. Now I also have a bunch of chickens (22 of them) and I would like to employ them if possible. I have looked, read and researched and it seems that Justin Rhodes has done this as has Geoff Lawton. The both have said and "shown" that if you put the chickens in an area they will devegetate and liightly till the surface and you can plant seed afterward. I believe the number Mr Rhodes gives is about 50 sqft per chicken if the chicken stays in the same area for a few weeks. Now I have tried this. I have built a 50 sqft chicken tractor and placed the chickens in the same area for several weeks the best they were able to do was to deveg the area and pack the clay a little harder. I tried to broadcast the seed and tried seedballs after the chickens were through neither took. I had to doubledig the area and reseed and things took and started growing after that. Am I missing something? The soil is pretty much clay where I live and I was hoping to avoid the use of a tiller even for a one time thing. On the other hand double digging 3 acres doesn't seem practical either. how can I or is it even possible to get the chickens to do this for me as does Geoff and Justin?
 
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geoff lawton one says 35 birds in 450 square feet

https://permaculturenews.org/2014/11/11/chicken-systems-of-zaytuna-farm/
 
pollinator
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Hello Nicholas!

Maybe I saw diffrent examples then you're reffering to, in comparison to your own attempt at chicken tilling. But with that said, I think an important overlooked factor for applying the chicken till methodology, is inderstanding soil types, your particular soil type as you've stated, the given moisture levels, and how those factors will effect that particular soil, as it applies to the effects chickens have, given their customary behaviors. As you've stated you have clay soil, and the chickens have done their job; however, the clay soil combined with the moisture levels, means every scratched up crumb of clay gets packed back down by trampling feet, leaving the soil more packed on the surface then before. Well as any fresh packed clay dries, it's resulting effects, doesn't offer a surface that creates enough seed contact to insure proper germination or root penetration when broadcast seeded, so seeding fails. If you study the examples closly and from my observations with Rhodes, the soil was rich organic matter, that almost regardless of moisture the soil stayed light and fluffy. Wihch means that soil offers better seed contact and root penetration to developing seedlings, without any additional imputs in cultivating. Good exampls of this would be take a wet handful of dirt, and squeeze it fairly hard; then see if it falls apart again. Good organic rich soil that's been scratched up will stay light and fluffy enough, rian and wind help settle the seed in for good contact. The more clay in the soil, the dryer the soil needs to be when the chickens work the till part, in order for the soil the stay in good seeding condition for success broadcast seeding. Even a rain would ruin a perfectly preped clay soil for broadcast seeding, if the job wasn't wetted and rolled after applying the seed. So to sum up that one potentially overlooked factor, would be quantifying the effects any tilling type action has, as it relates to soil moisture levels and soil type, when light compaction is applied.

That's just my take on things. Hope it helps!
 
gardener
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Yeah, I can't see chickens as "tilling" any soil.
Denude,yes, bur till,  no.
Mine come a running if I turn over the soil, and they will scratch up any mulch or pile if leaves they can find, but they aren't diggers.
I find them useful as weed suppressing nutrient cyclers.

They have absolutely suppressed bindweed in my yard,and I'm not even sure they eat it.
Of course, they have done the same to every other annual they can get to as well.

Tilling is supposed to be bad, right?
And soil should remain covered, more or less.
I suggest cover crops>broad fork>chickens>broadcast seeding.
The broad fork will open the soil up,  the chickens can quick cycle the cover crop into nutrients, that are deposited in the open soil, without compaction(don't run them as long),and the seeds can settle into the still open newly fertilized soil.
Thats my theory, anyway­čśĆ
 
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just an idea. we have clay soil, but it s moist nearly all the time. to break up grass and weeds i use a garden claw (the thing with the horizontal handle which you turn and claws that dig into the ground). it leaves lumps. i assume that the chicken would be able to break them up smoothly. maybe keeping the soil wet would help?

 
pollinator
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Nicholas Peshman wrote: Am I missing something? The soil is pretty much clay where I live and I was hoping to avoid the use of a tiller even for a one time thing. On the other hand double digging 3 acres doesn't seem practical either. how can I or is it even possible to get the chickens to do this for me as does Geoff and Justin?



Nope, your not missing anything. I agree with all previous comments, and would summarize this way: chickens don't till the soil. Whatever they do, they're only doing it to the top couple inches.

You need to create soil on top of your clay by means of compost and mulch. That is precisely what Geoff Lawton's "chicken tractor on steroids" does.

I would haul in loads of whatever you can get cheap: leaves, straw, manures, food waste, etc. Lay it down as thick as you can on your property, and repeat what you just did with your chickens.

It beats double digging for sure.
 
gardener
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Nicholas Peshman wrote:Hello fellow permies. I have what might be a fairly basic question. I have a sizable area, approx 2-3 acres worth, that I would like to start preparing the soil with a cover crop for the first few years while I decide on which plants, their arrangement and grow out the areas. The cover crop mix I have decided on is a mixture of sunflower, buckwheat, cowpea, and clovers. Now I also have a bunch of chickens (22 of them) and I would like to employ them if possible. I have looked, read and researched and it seems that Justin Rhodes has done this as has Geoff Lawton. The both have said and "shown" that if you put the chickens in an area they will devegetate and liightly till the surface and you can plant seed afterward. I believe the number Mr Rhodes gives is about 50 sqft per chicken if the chicken stays in the same area for a few weeks. Now I have tried this. I have built a 50 sqft chicken tractor and placed the chickens in the same area for several weeks the best they were able to do was to deveg the area and pack the clay a little harder. I tried to broadcast the seed and tried seedballs after the chickens were through neither took. I had to doubledig the area and reseed and things took and started growing after that. Am I missing something? The soil is pretty much clay where I live and I was hoping to avoid the use of a tiller even for a one time thing. On the other hand double digging 3 acres doesn't seem practical either. how can I or is it even possible to get the chickens to do this for me as does Geoff and Justin?



hau Nicholas, 2 -3 acres is a lot of land to try non mechanical means on in a single season.
Others here have already mentioned the fact that chickens are not deep scratchers of soil, that means the are not natures tillers.
They have also mentioned the necessity of understanding your soil type to come up with the best method for your land.

For getting done what you want to be done by animals: The overall best choice would be; Hogs, natural rooters, they dig a lot deeper than chickens can and they fertilize at the same time.

It sounds like your clay soil does suffer from some compaction since you mention double digging making a huge difference in plants ability to grow well.
Instead of thinking Tillage, try to think more along the lines of opening the clay, not turning it over.
A yeoman's type plow (also called a sub soiler) would be a far better choice, it rips channels and lifts soil without turning it over.
This keeps any living organisms in your soil alive as well as allowing deeper water and air penetration, it will also let compost and other organic material to seep into the soil so the microorganism counts can grow and further help the land become more friable.

Most of the time it is organic material that is needed, along with soil biology, this is how to improve soil.
The larger the plot of land, the longer it will take if you only use animals or hand power, to improve the soil for plant growth, water infiltration and air circulation.

In the world of soil improvement, chickens tend to be the last step in preparing for planting seeds.

Redhawk
 
pollinator
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Just to echo what others have said above, chickens will not uniformally till the soil the way a pig might.  They tend to find a soft spot and dig down so that they have a hollow spot to dust themselves.  But they don't root out plants.  They'll trample them down and occasionally scratch some of them up.  You'll need to go into that area afterward with a rake to pull the plants out of the soil.

Young birds (six months old or younger) really aren't strong enough to move soil.  Older birds have stronger muscles and a more well-developed spur on the back of their feet that assists them in digging down a bit further.  So if you are using year-old layers, yes, you'll see a much deeper "till" from them.  But if you are hoping to achieve the same level of soil disturbance with a bunch of 7 week old Freedom Rangers or Cornish Cross, you'll be disappointed.  They just don't get strong enough to dig and move the soil around before they are ready to be harvested.  A three-year-old rooster, with a big old wicked spur on the back of his foot . . . that guy will be a roto-tiller.  But little chickey fuzzy butt . . . not so much.

Lawton and others combine their chicken run with heavy composting.  All that biomass is scratched at by the birds and spread around.  In a way, it "tills" the soil, although I think it would be more accurate to say that it's a active mulching rather than a one-and-done tilling.  

My own chicken tractor tends to be moved across areas of the garden/orchard that ware already heavily mulched and planted.  That soil is much easer for them to dig.  The primary thing they do to help the soil is poop.  Moving the tractor once a week allows me to concentrate their beneficial contribution in a area that then gets planted a week or two later.
 
Nicholas Peshman
Posts: 9
Location: Huntsville, AL
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Thank you for all the responses. It's good to know the density of chickens that Geoff uses. It's also good to know what kind of soil Justin was putting his on. I had a feeling thats what was happening when he said the can go up to 6 inches. In any case I have an unlimited access to horse manure and of course my chickens are producing a bit of their own from the coop. I can put some of the horse manure in for the chickens to spread out they are really good at that. But I'm thinking I might want to compost it all first. Is that something yall would agree with?

I am not necessarily trying to get all this area done this season was hoping I could do it incrementally with the chickens and just go as far as they could take me. I was just hoping that there was enough tillage for the covercrops to get started so that I could even start the cycle that was mentioned by William above. Can't do that if the covercrops won't grow.
 
Nathanael Szobody
pollinator
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Nicholas Peshman wrote:I can put some of the horse manure in for the chickens to spread out they are really good at that. But I'm thinking I might want to compost it all first. Is that something yall would agree with?



For soil creation you want more diversity than just manure. Add leaves, straw, grass clippings, whatever you can get your hands on. Essentially you are creating a cold compost that your chickens are helping to process.
 
R. Steele
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Hello Nicholas!

Horse manure will help, and hot composting it first will be wise to reduce weed seeds and pathogens. I would suggest windrow composting for horse manure, if you have enough manure, and remember. Horse manure already has the perfect ratio of green to brown for composting, so you can just pile up the manure and maintain your temperature till it cools down.  DIY Gardener channel on YouTube, has a Playlist on windrow composting, if your interested to learn more about that style for bulk compost production.

Hope that helps!
 
pollinator
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Nicholas,  my plan this year is to mix fall seeds into my aged horse manure and apply in one application. Its something new for me so cant say it works ,but hoping it will create instant soil contact.

My manure spreader is small, but getting a 2 for 1 helps. One pass and i am done.  
 
pollinator
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Below is my opinion based on my observation of my flock of 32 free-range laying hens.

If I want to leverage the behavior of chickens, I need to be sure I know WHY they do what they do. Or in other words, I must think like a chicken. To think like a chicken I must carefully observe them or accept other people's observation of chickens. In my observation, have I assuredly answered the question why chickens scratch? Primarily foraging for food, secondarily, creating a dust bath and for cooling. Will they scratch in areas where there isn't much food? I'd say not for very long. In my experience, a chicken will focus its efforts until depleting the supply of food in that area and then move on.  But, there is also another factor ...

My chickens have access to 15 acres comprised of 3 acres of lawn, 12 acres of pasture, limestone gravel driveway, and the activity of a modern homestead. They flat out refuse to go into the pasture where the grass and forbs are taller than they are. They have self selected to stay within a three-acre area that I mow regularly (lawn). That leaves them 12 acres of goodness they could be accessing, but they do not. Why? I believe it's a security issue. My observation is that they do not feel secure or have the ability to get to security quickly if they venture into the tall-grass pasture. I know there is forage for them in the pasture because I've verified it personally. So, my conclusion is they don't feel safe from predation out in the pasture which is wide open.

What's this got to do with using chickens for our purposes? They need to feel secure and they need to know they will find forage in that area. Knowing this, you might confine them in an area, but they could quickly deplete that area if the confinement is too small for the size of the flock. If the confinement is mobile, then you can spread their effect over a larger area. Confinement can also provide protection from predation. Should I expect a chicken to scratch in an area where they don't have food? Probably not to the degree I want if I am wanting them to "till" an area. Should I expect a chicken to scratch in an area where they don't feel secure? Maybe not. I would unscientifically add that if a chicken is confined in an area where they don't feel safe, they may experience a host of other problems.

Again, these are just my observations.

 
Nicholas Peshman
Posts: 9
Location: Huntsville, AL
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Hi Dan,
I fully agree with you. My flock will only go from shade spot to shade spot due to the coverage from above (so hawks etc don't get them) and they move as quickly as possibly between spots. generally but particularly when I put them in the tractor I spread their food on the ground as well to encourage the digging and searching.

R. Steele Thank you for that channel I am watching it now this should help greatly.
 
Hey, sticks and stones baby. And maybe a wee mention of my stuff:
Soil Testing: Genius or Snapshot of the ever-changing?
https://permies.com/t/113090/Soil-Testing-Genius-Snapshot-changing
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