By Harvey Ussery, Photos By Bonnie Long – If you’re a reader of Backyard Poultry, likely it’s because you love your birds — because they’re fun; they’re great “therapy” for the stress of hectic days; they offer natural pest control for gardens and fields; and they bring us back into connection with the natural world if we get lost in the cocoon of our man-made environment. And then there are the bonuses for the table: chicken eggs and dressed poultry of a quality those dependent on supermarket imitations can only dream of.
The best benefit of poultry is we can “put them to work” as partners in the larger homesteading, self-sufficiency enterprise. Please note that I’m not proposing a high-stress exploitation of fowl species, such as we see in the poultry industry. Happily, putting the flock to work most often means allowing our birds maximum opportunity to do what they most want to do in any case, expressing natural behaviors and what Joel Salatin calls their inherent “chicken-ness” (or “duck-ness,” etc.). Our birds want to spend their time at work, preferably in the open air and sunshine, exercising and satisfying their curiosity while finding interesting things to eat. The healthiest, most contented flock is precisely the flock that is working hardest for us in useful homestead projects.
Another hint that “working” the flock is our best option: All the working-flock strategies I’ve tried are effective precisely because the birds are seeking out natural foods that are superior any chicken treats we can buy in a bag, the “reward” we offer in exchange for the work they do for us. So not only does the working flock spare us labor we’d otherwise have to do ourselves, the feed dollars they save are a welcome bonus indeed.
There are ecological pluses as well: The chicken poop feeds the soil food web and enhances soil fertility. And with a bunch of bug-eaters busy in the backyard, we’re unlikely to “go nuclear” with toxic responses to insect threats in the garden and orchard.
Truly, the working flock is a win-win proposition in every way.
Accessorizing the Working Flock
Some of the following strategies for putting the flock to work will not be appropriate at all scales. However, flocks at any scale can be used to do productive work. Success will depend on accessories appropriate to our scale and context—and on creative management. For “flocksters” without serious predation challenges or close neighbors, complete free-ranging of the flock may be the easiest way to put them to work. Some strategies, on the other hand, require a degree of confinement to make them work. Most of us will choose among the following options to accessorize the working flock.
Electric net fencing is the only thing approaching “high tech” in my poultry bag of tricks, but it is a fundamental management tool I use in all the strategies below. (See “Managing Poultry on Pasture with Electronet,” April/May, 2006 issue.) Initial investment in electronet and energizer is substantial, but with good care the system will last for many years. Rolls of netting (typically 165 feet long) are easy to set up and move, and can be clipped together to enclose larger areas. The larger the area, the more advisable the use of a charger connected to household current (rather than a battery). [I get all my electronet equipment from Premier, www.premier1supplies.com. Some friends I trust swear by Kencove, www.kencove.com.]
On a smaller scale, working flocks on pasture can be protected and contained using non-electric netting, or wire/frame panels that bolt together for ease of setting up and rotating to new sections. An especially ingenious system is that of my friend Cody Leeser of Orlean, Virginia, featuring a small shelter on a wagon chassis that “docks” into a separately moved, wheeled wire-on-frame pen. (See “Designing a Pasture Shelter,” Aug./Sept., 2007 issue.)
Andy Lee’s “chicken tractor design” (I call mine a “chicken cruiser”) is a great option for a working flock of 6 – 10 chickens or so, offering employment for the working flock in both garden and pasture. [Chicken Tractor: The Gardener’s Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, Andy Lee & Pat Forman, 1994, Good Earth Publications, available from Backyard Poultry bookstore, page 56.]
The Static Run:
I do not like the all-too-typical static backyard chicken run, but of course, many flocksters have no other option. In this case as well, however, the flock can do productive work for us in even the smallest attached run—a much better option than keeping them shut up in a coop. I can’t imagine any situation in which continual confinement inside a coop is our only choice, if we remember the option of building the coop as an “upstairs” over a small wire-enclosed run at ground level.
Pasturing the flock is an option even for those with limited pasture (or maybe even a lawn). Cody Leeser’s ingenious design features a small shelter, mounted on a landscaper’s wagon, which docks into a separately-moved wheeled wire-on-frame pen. Though the scale is small, Cody’s layer flock helps with pasture management and fertility.
Natural Pest Control for Gardens and Fields
How can it be that our great-grandparents raised abundant crops of fruits and vegetables without the use of toxins more appropriate to chemical warfare than to the home garden—yet vendors of such products would have us believe that their use is a necessity if we are to win the “war” with the insect world? I suspect the answer has much to do with the fact that every “small holding” had a flock of busy, free-ranging chickens who helped teach damaging insect populations a little respect. We can return to that sensible model, using the services of our own backyard flocks as natural pest control for gardens and fields.
It’s hard to imagine making this strategy work without use of either electronet or total free-ranging—the birds have to be unrestrained enough to perform natural pest control for gardens and fields, which they can’t do confined to a chicken tractor or pasture pen. But a single roll of electronet—at most two—should enclose most home orchards. In addition to catching perching and flying fruit-damaging insects—I’ve seen my guineas take coddling moths right out of the air—the birds help clean up dropped fruit, which may harbor the larval stage of competitor insects. Geese are especially fond of dropped fruit, and help break the life cycle not only of damaging insects but of diseases as well, the spores of which may overwinter in fallen fruit. (Do note that I don’t recommend leaving the flock on the orchard the entire season: Their droppings can contribute too much fertility, encouraging fireblight in apples and pears. Bug-patrol stints in the spring, when damaging insects are most active, and another in the fall, when many species head for winter sites underground, are a better choice.)
Chickens cannot be given free rein in the garden in the growing season: Their incessant scratching would wreak havoc, and they like many of our favorite crop plants as much as we do. However, I often net chickens onto the garden in the pre-season. They “sanitize” it of slugs and slug eggs so thoroughly, it takes the slug population months to recover to damaging levels. I net guineas onto a separate garden plot in which I grow squash (both vining winter and bush summer types), trellised cucumbers, corn, sorghum, and sunflowers. The guineas offer natural pest control for gardens with competitor insects—especially squash bug, the organic gardener’s bane—while leaving the plants themselves in peace. (Guineas provided a patch of soft soil near their shelter will not dust-bathe elsewhere in the garden.)
I have read that a pair of free-ranging guinea fowl can keep an acre entirely free of ticks. Now that’s impressive natural pest control for gardens. Ranging turkeys can feed themselves while foraging for ticks and other insects.
A “chicken tractor” is a small, mobile, self-contained coop. This one is sized to fit a single garden bed. The chickens are tilling in a heavy rye cover crop, while beds to either side remain undisturbed. Before being planted, many of these beds were heavily amended with chicken-powered compost.
I have a number of times used a power tiller to open up new garden ground in tough established sod over compacted clay. With even the best tillers, the vibration, noise, and stink make for high-stress, joyless work. Tackling this chore with the worst could mean a trip to the chiropractor—and perhaps a psychotherapist as well, to get over “shell shock.”
And I have at least three times turned more than 1,600 square feet of heavy sod into productive garden using a flock of chickens as my tillers. Chicken power wins, hands down.
At the larger scale, electronet is again just what is needed—a single roll of netting will enclose a square 41 feet per side, for a working area of almost 1,700 square feet. Of course, that’s a tillage chore beyond the scope of half a dozen layers, however determined—I’ve used several dozens for a plot this size.
Smaller groups of tiller chickens are more suited to employment in a chicken tractor. Mine is 4 feet by 10. With 8 to 10 birds inside, it’s surprising how quickly they dispose of the sod cover. (How long they actually take to do the job—whether in electronet or a “tractor”—depends not only on the number of birds, but on the nature of the sod, soil type and moisture level, etc.)
I do more cover cropping every year, and hope you do as well. For tilling in cover crops, we can again choose either the power tiller—ever tried tilling 36-inch rye, with the tines fouling every few minutes? —or chicken power. The chickens are happy tilling in even the tallest and toughest cover crops, or “fighting the jungle” in the most heavily weed-grown patches.
Of course, a weedy or cover-cropped area might be large enough to net for this work. But in the garden itself, the chicken tractor really comes into its own. If sized to fit one of your garden beds (you do grow in wide beds, I assume?), you can safely work one bed with your tiller chickens, while adjacent beds remain safely inaccessible to them.
And don’t forget additional advantages of tilling with chickens not available from a machine: Mechanical tillage breaks down the “crumb” structure of fine garden soil, and mixes together the layers that develop in a natural soil profile. Chickens scratch at the surface layer only, without disrupting soil structure. Tiller chickens boost soil life and fertility with the droppings they generously turn in as they work. And tillage offers a smorgasbord of free feed: fresh greenery; animal foods like earthworms and soil-line insects; and even an abundance of nutritious seeds if we allow cover crops like buckwheat, small grains, and cowpeas to mature before “sending in the chickens.”
For working flocks confined to a static run, it is possible to turn the entire run into a giant compost heap. The hard-working chickens benefit in many ways as they turn organic “wastes” into black gold for the garden.
What is the best way to deal with “incoming” from our poultry flocks—their droppings? Laboriously scrape them off the floor of the coop and compost them? I get tired just thinking about it. Why not let the birds do the work of proper manure management themselves?
Even a flock completely confined in a coop can do most of the work of manure management. A deep organic litter, constantly turned by the chickens, absorbs the droppings, their nitrogen content serving as “fuel” for the microbes breaking down the litter’s carbon content, readying the result for return to earth (a.k.a our gardens) to power fertility cycles. Sounds a lot like composting, which I thought was a lot of work.
If the litter is over a wood or concrete floor, we will still have to complete the process ourselves, using a variation on Sir Albert Howard’s compost heap. I much prefer saving additional labor with a deep litter over an earth floor. In this case, by the time the chickens have completely pulverized the manure-enriched litter, it has “mellowed” sufficiently to be used directly in the garden as a finished compost. Additional benefits accrue in this model, which is much more conducive for microbes driving the litter’s breakdown. As the litter becomes more bioactive, the chickens get more and more intrigued with interesting things to eat in it—I’ve never been quite sure what. But studies have proven that chickens reap positive feeding and health-promoting benefits (vitamins B12 and K, immune-enhancing compounds, and more) out of whatever it is they find to eat in a “ripening” deep litter.
But there is so much more our composting chickens can do for us, and for the soil fertility project, if we take the deep litter concept outside. Last year I experimented with throwing every last shred of what I would normally use to make classic compost heaps into an enclosed chicken yard—spent crop plants, prunings from flower beds, manure and “stable sweepings” from a neighbor’s horse operation, spoiled hay, straw, etc. No balancing of “browns” and “greens” (carbon and nitrogen) and calibrating moisture content in a carefully assembled heap—and no laborious shredding and turning—I simply threw the flock all organic debris looking for a good home, and let them do the work. After a couple of months, “the girls” became more interested in working that heap than hanging around the feeder. And this fall I “harvested” countless wheelbarrow loads of chicken-powered compost for fall crops, and for enhancing overwinter cover crops in preparation for crops next spring. I haven’t had such a gracious plenty of compost for years.
Compost-making is also good work for the winter flock. I keep the same mixed debris on a winter exercise yard. Again, the chickens enjoy being outside in all but the nastiest weather, turning that deep organic duff into compost, finding good stuff to eat, and tidily taking care of their own manure reclamation. Since my winter flock yard is on a garden plot, come spring, I don’t even have to haul the compost—it’s already applied to soil that has been cozy under its protection through the winter—and spring planting is off to an easy start.
An Expanding Picture
Should your backyard enterprise expand to include other livestock, perhaps to serve small local markets, you may find ways to employ the services of the flock in the care and management of other species.
Poultry allied with grazing ruminants on pasture—cows, sheep, goats—eat internal parasites and their eggs and larvae in the manure, breaking the life cycles. Muscovy ducks and guineas can be especially useful in the control of liver fluke, by eating the snails that serve as a vector in the complex life cycle of this potentially fatal parasite. Since avian biology is so different from that of ruminants, the fowl serve as “dead-end hosts.” That is, they utilize as valuable food the parasites of other livestock, but are not themselves parasitized by them.
Joel Salatin has promulgated this “stacking” of species. At his Polyface Farm, the layer flock follows beef cattle in an intensive grazing rotation. The hens do good work scattering the “cow pies,” dispersing their fertility in a wider circle; exposing any pathogens to nature’s sanitizers, oxygen and sunlight; and in the process meeting a good portion of their protein needs by picking out the maggots and keeping a lid on the fly population.
Did someone say win-win?
Originally published in Backyard Poultry December 2008 / January 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Text © Harvey Ussery, 2009; themodernhomestead.us, Photos ©Bonnie Long, 2009
Harvey Ussery and his wife Ellen live on 2-1/2 acres near the Blue Ridge in Northern Virginia. They produce much of their own food—including all their eggs and dressed poultry from a mixed pastured flock—and offer their homestead as model and inspiration to others aspiring to the homesteading life. Harvey has written for Mother Earth News, Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and publications of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. Visit his website at www.themodernhomestead.us.