Saturday, June 18, 2016

Suburban Permaculture Project: Chickens

Big chick, little chick;  both boys

Having chickens has added another level of security to our personal food system. They provide so many benefits besides eggs!  

Soil Enrichment

Chicken manure has been been the number one soil amendment in my garden, and has transformed my compacted clay into beautiful rich soil. When I first began composting my garden and kitchen waste, I was frustrated at the time it took to make, and the small amount of compost produced at the end of the process. I wanted to enrich my beds, but there just wasn't enough compost to go around. Now my chickens compost all those things for me daily, and I have an excess of it!  I can spread it thickly and generously.

Garden Waste Recycling

Chickens eat many things I can't or don't want to eat, like weeds, grass, and bugs.  They turn these into eggs for us, and into the abovementioned lovely manure.  Quite a large portion of my garden is in full shade for most of the day, due to two mature trees.  I can't grow vegetables here.  I've grown a few mushrooms, which is an option I'd like to explore again, but the best food I grow in this location is chicken and eggs.

Along with their favorite weeds and bugs, we do supplement with high quality layers pellets, to ensure they get full nutrition.  Let it be stated that they love their pellets;  but truthfully, they love eating.  Who cares what it is?  They just want tasty things to shovel down their beaks.

Weed and Pest Management

If left permanently on one spot, chickens will destroy all greenery down to bare earth with their scratching, pecking, and constant supply of manure.  We therefore rotate our flock around the lawn and garden, using chicken wire fencing.  They get a fresh patch every week or ten days, and unless it's the dead of winter, there is always plenty of greenery for them to eat.  Right now they can't keep up with the growth!  They aren't allowed onto the vegetable patch until winter, but they get all the weeds I pull from it, plus any extra bits like flowering sorrel stems--which they love.  When they're allowed on during winter, the scratch it over and eat any slugs and bugs still lingering.

They have a stationary coop and a small permanent yard adjoining it, which borders all their paddocks.  And since they have access to it permanently, the yard is devoid of plants except a stinging nettle or two.  I try to keep the bare earth covered with mulch;  they like to scratch it up searching for bugs, and it's less slippery/muddy for us to walk on.  The only problem is the mulch breaks down so quickly!  I use garden trimmings, weeds (including the stinging nettles), grass clippings, or sometimes lightly soiled chicken bedding as mulch, and top it up as often as possible.  

Entertainment Value

Our chickens do so much work for us, yet this kind of work is natural to them and they enjoy it.  They are always happy to be scratching away, pecking at tasty weeds or searching for bugs.  When it's sunny they all like to stretch out on the grass and catch some rays--we say a chicken bomb must have gone off!  Chickens are so much fun to watch and interact with;  sometimes we take our garden chairs and just hang out with them.
Food Production

Our ten hens lay between five and nine eggs a day.  Four hens are a year old and still laying daily.  The other six are between three and four years old, and aren't as prolific;  they are adopted from the British Hen Welfare Trust and are allowed to live out their natural lifespan with us (our oldest was about six when she died;  most have been around four) and many of their forerunners are buried in our garden.  The year old hens were given to us as ten day old chicks, and we may eat them when their egg laying days are over.  

We currently have five spring chicks in the garden, two of which are hens, to add to our laying flock.  The cockerels, which we can't keep once they are crowing, will be destined for the pot if we can't find other homes for them.  It's difficult to raise a bird from tiny chick and then kill it, but we know that everything that lives must die;  and in order for us to live, other things must die, be it plants or animals.  We give our chicks a good life and a quick humane death, and we go on living because of them.

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