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"Commercial" Hugelkultur beds to eliminate chicken feed costs/imports

 
Chris Stelzer
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Hello all,

My wife and I have started a farm raising cows and chickens in a very similar fashion to the Salatin Model. Recently I had an idea that might eliminate feed costs for our flock of laying hens. This concept could possibly apply to meat chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs... etc. Once we buy some of our own land, I was thinking of creating some Hugelkultur beds that were, say, 200 feet long. Yes, this would be a lot of wood, work and dirt to cover all of this, but it could become a source of food that the chickens could self harvest and fertilize. This would eliminate feed costs, and reduce labor. My thought is to rotate our chickens through these Hugelkultur beds like we are rotating them through the pasture right now. Please see my picture below, and I'd love to hear all of your thoughts on this idea. What would be some good annuals and perennials to plant for the chickens to self harvest? Would this even be feasible? One more note, we are in Colorado so we are pretty dry, this is why I was thinking of using Hugelkultur beds.
Hugel Beds w: Paddocks.jpg
[Thumbnail for Hugel Beds w: Paddocks.jpg]
 
Brenda Groth
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Location: North Central Michigan
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if you are going food forest you could put in things like mulberries, honeysuckle bushes, autumn or russian olive or goumi, you could allow woodbine vines and grapes to grow up over this area to provide more berries and maybe even kiwi.

you might also consider hazelnuts, serviceberries, juneberries, wild strawberries as a ground cover..

i have read that even with the greatest amount of wild food that they'll still need some supplemental..but i've not done chickens so I'm not a good one for judging.
 
Eric Thompson
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Location: Bothell, WA - USA
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My chicken forage centers around barley, peas, and sunflowers -- ok, maybe I can call this the "three distant cousins" planting 
In Seattle, we get plenty of spring rain so even with no irrigation these all get a good start in an area cultivated to 3-4 inches deep.  By the time it gets dry, the barley and peas are browning and bursting out and the sunflowers are established enough to survive a chicken invasion (these are all with weeds as well...  If I open up a section, it gets clobbered in 2-3 days!

By the way, if you calculate out how much grain comes from a 200x10' area, you probably come out to under 100# -- but it's really a "feel good" 100# 

Good luck and tell us what you decide on!

 
                                
Posts: 98
Location: Eastern Colorado, USA
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Looks like a cool idea!

Fortunately there are plenty of drought-hardy perennials around here that chickens like.
 
Travis Philp
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Funny, I've been contemplating pretty much the same idea for a hugelkultur garden here. I've got 50' X 100' of hugel mounds, with various fruit trees, and grape bushes planted throughout. The understory so far is white clover paths, small amounts of thyme, mint, chard, beans, and naturally present ragweed, aster, grass, dock, a tall type of clover,  and a plague of grasshoppers eating the beans!

To deal with the grasshoppers, I've thought about fencing the area off with two 'stories' of chicken wire, and then electrifying it, or some similar fencing, with a laying house. Anyone know the ballpark number of pastured chickens or ducks per unit area?
 
Chris Stelzer
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@Brenda, Thank you for the list of plants that the chickens would find attractive 

@Ootama, Would the chickens self-harvest these "three distant cousins"? (great name by the way, haha) That is a really surprising statistic about how much grain is produced on that amount of land. I wish my chickens ate nothing but grass, bugs and worms. I guess I could try feeding them nothing and monitor their health and laying production carefully. I'm sure they would produce fewer eggs, but the eggs might be superior nutritionally, however, my concern is how many eggs they would produce, to make it economically viable. Socially and environmentally, the best option would be to provide the hens with no off-farm feed. Economically, on one hand the eggs would cost me nothing (other than labor) to produce, while on the other hand, how many eggs would be produced by the hens? Enough to make this operation pull its weight economically and fit into the larger farm operation? I have some thinking to do... 

@Travis, I think turkeys or chickens might fit well into that operation. Possibly even rabbits. I would like to give you a word of caution about electrifying chicken wire. It seems very dangerous. I think you could use a product similar to this, http://www.kencove.com/fence/Electric+Net+Fencing_detail_NSPCG.php . This netting is designed to be electrified, and can be used alone, or combined with additional netting. best of all its temporary, so you can move it as often (or not) as you like. If your serious about this, also look at their Fence Chargers. I'd recommend getting a Stafix fence charger. They are New Zealand made, and send pulses of electricity, as opposed to a steady current. You can change the frequency of the current as well, say every 1-2 seconds, or every 10. I've also built my own power source for these chargers using a deep cycle marine battery, solar panel, and charge controller. I haven't needed to charge the battery all summer, and my fence is HOT 24/7. If you'd like more info let me know.

 
George Lee
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Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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That should work splendid. Let us know post-transformation.

Peace -
 
Jordan Lowery
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i see the chickens trying to scratch down the hugel bed to flat earth. they love piles of rotting stuff to scratch through.
 
Hugh Hawk
Posts: 225
Location: Adelaide, South Australia (Mediterranean climate)
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This idea raises some interesting questions about stocking density and rotation periods.  I often wonder what sort of rate chickens can be stocked at on pasture, and whether this rate differs significantly for different types of landscape.

For example, Mulloon Creek Natural Farms (http://www.mcnf.com.au/), from what I can gather, stocks 1000 birds per 20 acres, and moves them within this space twice a week.  That is 100 moves per year, but how often do they revisit the same area?  This also assumes that grain feed is brought in.

I am interested in how this sort of system could be done in a woodland setting, e.g. with acacia and other trees providing much of the seed requirements rather than bringing that in.  Would more land be necessary?

Chickens, like all animals, can be pretty destructive if left in a small area for too long.  geoff lawton, from what I recall, suggests bringing animals onto a food forest only after years of establishment.  Anyone know what stocking rate he uses, and whether he rotates or just lets them roam?
 
Travis Philp
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Chris Stelzer wrote:
@Travis, I think turkeys or chickens might fit well into that operation. Possibly even rabbits. I would like to give you a word of caution about electrifying chicken wire. It seems very dangerous. I think you could use a product similar to this, http://www.kencove.com/fence/Electric+Net+Fencing_detail_NSPCG.php . This netting is designed to be electrified, and can be used alone, or combined with additional netting. best of all its temporary, so you can move it as often (or not) as you like. If your serious about this, also look at their Fence Chargers. I'd recommend getting a Stafix fence charger. They are New Zealand made, and send pulses of electricity, as opposed to a steady current. You can change the frequency of the current as well, say every 1-2 seconds, or every 10. I've also built my own power source for these chargers using a deep cycle marine battery, solar panel, and charge controller. I haven't needed to charge the battery all summer, and my fence is HOT 24/7. If you'd like more info let me know.


Thanks for the suggestions and link. I wouldn't have thought that a 40" high fence is tall enough to keep chickens in, and predators out.



Hughbert: What about keeping them in one spot for the year? I realize that would mean a lot less chickens per unit area but my priority is to have a setup that's relatively hands free, since my main reason for this system would be to address the droves of grasshoppers and crickets in the space. Going by Mulloon Creek, would 50 birds in an acre be too much? Does Mulloon give grain to the chickens in their systems.

Maybe I need to just grow crops that grasshoppers don't like instead.
 
John Polk
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Like everything else in permaculture, as Paul would say, it depends.

I have often heard that the maximum stocking rate for chickens sustainably is 40 birds per acre. (I have personally rounded that up to 43.56 per acre to make math simple...1,000 square feet per chook...or 100/hectare if we're keeping it metric)

If your land is semi arid, extremely rocky, covered by snow much of the year, or other limiting factor, the number would need to be lower animals/acre.

Letting the chooks loose on an open field will not have the same benefit as rotational paddocks.  Firstly, like most critters, they will not walk 100 yards to get a beneficial plant if harmful plants are right at their feet.  You will end up with a 100 foot radius 'dead zone' around their coop, with lush pasture beyond.

Secondly, parasites that can compromise/kill your flock, like all other life forms, have life cycles.  If the chooks stay in one spot continuously, their parasites can complete their life cycles endlessly, and ultimately destroy your flock.  If your flock is rotated to the point that they never revisit the same paddock within a 3 month period, your chances of maintaining a healthy flock (and land) are greatly increased.

Most livestock losses through disease are either directly, or indirectly related to greed.  Besides having enough land to healthily maintain your flock/herd, you also have to have enough land to serve as quarantine for new, or sick stock before (re)introduction to your existing flock.

The more suitable land you have available for your flock/herd, the less feed you will need to buy (input) for your system.
 
Travis Philp
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John Polk wrote:
If your land is semi arid, extremely rocky, covered by snow much of the year, or other limiting factor, the number would need to be lower animals/acre.


The land in question is sandy, with a high water table that is 'spongy' until mid june. I would consider the vegetation level to be moderately lush.

John Polk wrote:
Letting the chooks loose on an open field will not have the same benefit as rotational paddocks.  Firstly, like most critters, they will not walk 100 yards to get a beneficial plant if harmful plants are right at their feet.  You will end up with a 100 foot radius 'dead zone' around their coop, with lush pasture beyond.


Would having a mobile house or houses (which they could freely enter or exit) within the area solve this, and the disease/parasite problem?

In terms of number of chickens, I'm more interested in enough to deal with grasshoppers.

I just had a thought that maybe the 3' high electric fence might keep out enough of the grasshoppers to solve the 'plague' issue I'm having. Anybody know how high they jump?

Chris: I hope I'm not hijacking your thread. I figured that your and my idea are so similar, that this information would be helpful to your situation as well.






 
Kay Bee
Posts: 471
Location: Jackson County, OR (Zone 7)
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If I understand the initial post correctly, I think our long hugel row beds that I created this past Feb are evolving in to what you may be looking for...

After creating the long (100-120' beds roughly on contour, the trees and bushes were planted, then a soil builder mix was broadcast onto the beds.  This mix has field peas, vetch, crimson clover, wheat and rye in it.  I inoculated the mix before broadcasting to help establish the nitrogen fixing bacteria.

I figured we wouldn't get too much growth from the mix since we were seeding it so late as compared to when the typical over-winter green manure crops are sown around here (Sept/Oct). 

It has worked out very well so far.  I was able to harvest enough of the early growth of peas, rye and wheat to provide me with a thick straw mulch around the trees and bushes, while still leaving the majority left over to re-seed.  The clover and vetch were too short for much chop-n-drop this year, but has generated a lot of ground cover and seed.

The wheat and rye have been the most impressive.  Our summer has been pretty cool this year, but despite virtually no rain since Spring, the wheat and rye keeps on coming.  Most of the beds in between the fruit and nut plants are waves of ripe and ripening seed heads.

I certainly didn't expect to grow grains in the hugel beds, but there they are with no added fertility other than the wood laid down in the beds construction and what is coming from the green manure crops. 

I only water around the fruit and nut plants to allow them to get established, so I think the grains and nitrogen fixers would do well in a non-irrigated hugel bed for you.

hard to say how many chickens you could feed from this... I haven't raised any yet.  I am determined to enable the food to be here before we bring in the livestock.  Then I will start with low numbers and see how it goes.
 
Kathleen Sanderson
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I don't think any fence with holes in it will stop the grasshoppers, if that's what you are trying to do.  It would have to be a solid fence, and quite high, higher than the insects normally fly.  Could be plastic, or sheets, or whatever (or small-mesh netting, like window screen).

Kathleen
 
Hugh Hawk
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Location: Adelaide, South Australia (Mediterranean climate)
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Travis: Have a look at this video to get an idea of the Mulloon system:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI-ORdjY9P4

They provide organic grain in feeders.  I'm sure there is a way to design this out of the system but perhaps it takes more land i.e. lower stocking rate.

Moving a mobile chook house on a pasture twice a week is pretty minimal in terms of workload.  Make sure you design it with this in mind, and depending on what sort of pulling machinery you have at hand.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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I'm in western Colorado too, I wonder if we are anywhere close to one another.  I have been growing broom corn for the chickens to graze on.  Alfalfa, flax, corn, white clover, amaranth, orach.  In the spring they love the seedlings of what we call "little blue mustard", which seems to germinate under the snow.  I try to keep them from decimating that because I want it to reseed. 
The flax did not reseed, but that might be because it was planted with the alfalfa, and after the first year there was no bare soil, as the alfalfa came back thick. 

Whatever greens are good for us, I think are good to plant for\feed the chickens:  kale, peas, collards.

Things they seem to never eat:  hops, sunflowers.
 
Lisa Niermann
Posts: 37
Location: Colorado, ~5700', Zone 5b, ~11" ann. precip
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Hi Chris, so now it's about a year later, and I'm wondering if you followed through with this plan, and how did it work out?
I live on Colorado's Western slope, near Paonia, and I'm hoping to get some beds going soon as well.
 
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