There really is nothing nearly as pleasing as watching hens sharpen their beaks, and roosters do their morning strut on newly revealed fresh lush pasture. It is a very affirming thing to see them moon-walking all over the ground as they uproot the groundcover and pick out the seeds. One immediately gains a sense of sweet harmony looking from one nicely fertilized and scratched piece of ground to the one they have just been rotated into. Usually, as the chickens are released into their new paddock a group of us will gather and lean on the fence for a while, watching the excitement, and submitting commentary as the enthusiasm mounts in the field.
I have always appreciated chickens in agriculture, especially in perennial systems where they seem at home, scratching amidst the shrubs and eating any windfall fruit. Based on the premise that integrating animals into agriculture is key to closing energy and fertility loops on the farm, I set out to involve the poultry as deeply as possible in the gardens here at Aprovecho. The following is a report on some of the systems that have been designed toward this end out here at the end of the road.
There is a mixed batch of poultry in our garden. We have wyandottes, barred rocks, buff orpingtons, brahmas, black australorps, auracaunas, partridge rocks, and white cochins. We also have a few duck mutts whose descent is unknown. Altogether, we have fifty of them. For the most part, in addition to their beauty, these chickens were selected for their versatility; versatility in egg production and meat production, ability to sustain a portion of their diet on wild plants and insects without damaging their egg output, and ability to produce eggs through cold winter weather. In other words, they were selected for wildness and closeness to their forest ancestors in their habits, while producing the egg and meat output we need for our community.
Our birds fulfill a series of functions. They provide eggs and occasional meat to our community, they patrol the garden for slugs and insects, they manage perennial and annual beds by tilling and consuming vegetation and eating weed seeds while depositing fertilizer, they provide a steady stream of mulch material from their coop to be used as mulch in the garden, and they consume and compost all the plants we can throw over to them.
All of our garden beds are about four feet wide by fifty feet long. We have built a few four by eight foot chicken tractors in which four chickens at a time are temporarily housed. In the spring, after chopping the cover crop or removing a layer of straw, we will spread compost on the beds. At this point, the beds will often still have a layer of hardy cold-season plants like chickweed, vetch, dead nettle, clover, and grasses. We can toss the compost right on top. Then out come the chickens in the tractor. They set to work scratching and eating the vegetation, digging the compost into the soil, pooping, and picking out the remaining weed seeds from the compost. Within a day or two, after a four by eight foot bed has been cleared and fertilized by our four chickens, we scoot them forward to the next patch. In this way, with a few troops of chickens, we can greatly reduce the work involved in bed preparation every spring.
We apply this same principle on a larger scale by using a movable solar-powered electric fence to pasture the whole lot of the chickens and ducks on different sections of ground. This keeps any one pasture free of complete degradation, provides continual wild forage for the birds, and allows us to utilize their immense capacity to disturb ground to the land’s advantage.
Their coop is situated where it is for two reasons. The first, for its proximity to a spring-fed pond for the ducks to swim in and the chickens to drink from, and the second for its location, which places it at the center of multiple pastures. These pastures, each accessed by their own hatch in the walls of the coop, radiate out from all sides allowing the chickens to be moved from a raspberry and tayberry patch (see picture) to various sections of forest garden, to a series of grasslands. Each in their way draws benefit from the chickens’ occasional presence.
We are in the process of converting some orchards to forest gardens by planting them with edible and multifunctional shrubs, groundcovers, vines, and root crops. This perennial food forest is being established around the entire perimeter of our one acre vegetable garden. Among its many plants lie trees and shrubs whose fruit is shared by humans and chickens alike. Some old ornamental plums are scattered about in there, as well as red currants, elderberries, rosehips, sea buckthorns, golden currants, goumis, and autumn olives. It is fenced off from the outside by a tall deer-proof fence. There is about twenty feet between the outer fence and an interior fence. The interior fence is tall enough to prevent chickens from flying over, but low enough to allow us to throw material in from the garden. The end result is what we call a chicken moat. Ultimately, the garden is surrounded by a twenty-foot-wide perimeter food forest full of slug-eating birds. This system, in addition to the chicken tractors within the garden proper (and occasional spring sprees by the ducks throughout the garden) has seemed to really reduce the slug presence.
A few other things worthy of mention- The chickens have a covered dry area outside to take dust baths during the wet winter months. This helps to keep them free of mites. Their coop has an earthen floor which is piled with cheap seedy straw. The poultry eat the seeds out of the straw before it is moved into planting beds or placed around trees and shrubs as mulch. A few inches of soil are removed from the floor every spring and incorporated into the compost piles. This helps keep the coop clean. Besides the insects, forage, and seeds they get by free ranging, and the supplement of cracked corn and layer pellets we feed them every morning, the chickens get a diet of farmed worms and insects. A simple wet blanket over exposed soil brings worms to the surface, and when the blanket is removed the chickens and ducks zero in. A barrel full of dirty straw mulch (and open on both ends) draws decomposers from the ground and air and can be spilled over to provide the birds with an occasional smorgasbord gorge fest. Growing grains and starches like winter squash for the birds is a great supplement as well. It is nice that no processing is involved whatsoever before feeding the birds quinoa, wheat, sunflowers, or amaranth.
So, as I write, our shiny-feathered flock is exploring the ground of an entirely new pasture at the bottom of the garden. May their beaks never grow dull and their feathers never grow thin.