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Chickens in Permaculture

This is a guest post from Anne Hess. You can read her Simple Living blog at
Chickens are the ultimate permaculture tool.  After spending six years enjoying their scratching feet and delicious eggs on our farm, we’re still finding new ways to integrate them into the homestead ecosystem.  Here are my favorites:

Food for us.  Of course, the reason most of us bring home chickens is to enjoy eggs and/or meat with a quality much higher than you can find in any store.  In permaculture systems, I’ve found it’s handy to figure out your main purpose for any plant or animal before delving into multiple uses.

That way, you can decide whether it’s worth the tradeoff of lowering egg quality but getting more manure when you confine a bird inside all day.  For us, the answer is no — the food we eat is our top priority.

Food for the garden.  Eggs aren’t the only quality product that come out the back end of a chicken, and most permaculture systems do their best to capture that high-fertility manure.  Chicken tractors move the flock to fertilize a new patch of lawn each day, but I feel like I get better results from a stationary coop filled with deep bedding.

The chickens are rotated to a new pasture each week so they don’t get bored, but the manure all stays in one place, creating compost for the garden.

Garbage disposal.  Although most organic gardeners have a compost pile, I’ve chosen the faster method of passing food scraps through a chicken.  In go the melon rinds, out come eggs and compost — it’s a win-win.

Stacking.  Chickens don’t mix well with most active vegetable gardens, but they can share their space quite happily with many other food-producing operations.  Bee hives and mushroom logs are good additions to the chicken pasture, and once the trees are old enough not to mind getting their mulch scratched away, fruit trees can actually benefit from hungry chicken beaks snatching up insects around their roots.

I like to graze new chicks amidst our ever-bearing raspberries for their first two months of life — the berries can use the boost of fertilizer and the baby chickens feel safe in the thorny interior.

Weed removal.  Chickens won’t till your ground like pigs will, but the birds do munch on young sprouts and leaves repeatedly until most areas become bare.

While you don’t want this to happen in a permanent run (use tractors or rotational pastures to prevent moonscapes), you may choose to use chickens in this manner in an off-season garden to help prepare the soil.  Over the winter, when grazing is scarce, you can leave a tractor in one spot for several weeks, adding leaves to the ground every day so your flock stays out of the mud.  The result is a high quality raised bed.

Deer barrier.  We built chicken pastures encircling our core homestead to keep deer at bay.  After trying all of the deer repelling home remedies, many of our neighbors have given up on gardening since their plots would simply be munched bare, but for the last year, we haven’t seen a single deer in our strawberries.  We couldn’t afford the recommended ten foot tall fence to surround our acre homestead, but a cheap and easy five foot chicken wire fence does the same job if you keep the pasture narrow.

Deer are held back by one tall fence or by two small fences close together, so plan chicken moats to have no more than ten feet between fences.  If other types of pest animals are moving into your homestead, your chicken pastures could keep them at bay as well — just learn the animals’ migration patterns and choose your fencing strategy wisely.

I’d be curious to hear from other permies who’ve found ingenious niches for their chickens.  How do you put those busy birds to work on your homestead?

Anna Hess and her husband produce POOP-free chicken waterers on their southwest Virginia farm and spend the rest of their days growing their own fruits and vegetables, experimenting with permaculture, and writing about their adventures.

Anna’s new paperback, The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency, presents one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year to help beginners dip their toes into the vast ocean of homesteading without becoming overwhelmed.

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