Chickens are egg-producing, garden-aerating, composting, fertilizing, little machines, i.e. the natural workhorses within a holistic system. Yet their multiple benefits for the homesteader are often overlooked. When designers plan an all-inclusive or permaculture property, they often “stack functions” by looking at… well… how to kill two birds with one stone. Or how to turn uni-tasker elements into multi-taskers.
For example, a privacy hedge can serve as visual barrier along a boundary line, but with the right choice of hedge plant, it could also work as a wind buffer, berry producer, wildlife habitat, living fence, and/or forage provider for penned animals. When a single element, such as a hedge, can serve multiple purposes like this, its value to the whole system increases, but usually the effort to care for both the individual hedge and the overall system decreases. Chickens are excellent multi-taskers by nature. A well-functioning homestead can supply chicken food needs with organic surpluses while chickens, in turn, produce eggs and more chickens, help with gardens, cycle waste, and are simply delightful creatures. Chickens are a “stacked function” by design, and permaculture homesteaders soon realize that chickens require less capital for care because of their returns.
A Whole Lot of Function
This holistic functionality is at the crux of explaining how permaculture is much more than just a technique for organic gardening. It’s a method for designing our homes, nutrition, and energy systems to be efficient, effective, and environmentally friendly by linking them in logical ways. Paying attention to and utilizing these essential connections between plants, animals, and humans not only provides for all their needs but does so without harming the planet. Chickens are often a “gateway” animal for new backyard homesteaders. At first, you may keep a few chickens so that you can enjoy fresh eggs and augment your food sources. But as you spend more time with them, and integrate them more deeply into your homesteading practice, you’ll see that they are a wonderful (and critical) puzzle piece in a well-connected system.
A Flock of Abundance
Chickens generously produce a lot of manure which is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, essential compost ingredients. However, the dung must be allowed to decompose in order to avoid “burning” crops or spreading pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Cryptosporidium. Having a waste-cycling plan for chicken manure, such as fertilizing the garden or creating fertilizer to sell, benefits the whole homestead.
Waste Not, Want Not
Chickens can help out with the organic waste that a homestead, an urban yard, or an average kitchen produces. There are many ways to stack functions with a chicken run and what might seem like a pile of trash.
Chicken manure works great in composts as a nitrogen element, but chickens have more function to offer the compost pile. When compost heaps are made in chicken runs, the birds mix and shred the material while searching for insects, worms, and seeds. In other words, chickens provide the manure, weed control, and labor needed for well-turned compost. The kitchen or garden waste you add to the heap provides feed for the chickens.
Really industrious homesteaders can convert their coops into composting factories, churning out a completely processed pile every week. Again, this could be yet one more chicken-based product to sell, or the high-quality compost could be added to the farm’s own gardens,
Using the chicken run to produce compost also helps with waste processing. Kitchen scraps, pulled weeds, spoiled veggies, pruning scraps, raked leaves, and grass clippings are often viewed as “waste” items that need to be thrown away. Backyard chicken owners can add another layer of function by letting their birds root through the “waste” for greens, seeds, bugs, larvae, and worms. They are provided with excellent nutrients and process it all into manure and/or compost.
Bedding needn’t be purchased hay bales; rather, it could be autumn leaves, dried lawn clippings, and dried weeds. This carbon-rich bedding is put into laying boxes, beneath roosting perches, and in the chicken yard. The chickens will peck through the bedding looking for seeds and bugs for snacks, they’ll add a little manure, and they’ll shred up the leaves, clippings, and weeds while searching through them. This enriched bedding makes fantastic mulch for orchards and trees.
A Cheap Gardening Crew
Chickens have the reputation of being banes to the garden, ripping up seedlings and pecking at produce, but introduced at the right time, chickens will perform many tasks that make the gardener’s life easier.
In the autumn, once the vegetables have been harvested, chickens can be introduced to wage war on the weed-lings that have been popping up. They’ll pull them out, just as they would have seedlings, and they’ll happily hunt out weed seeds to eat. In the spring, before the beds are planted, the chickens can come in for a second round.
Chickens are very good at scratching a patch of land almost bare, which is exactly what gardeners want when the vegetables aren’t growing. In the process, the birds will fertilize the garden beds with manure, and they’ll leave some plant detritus to start mulching the bed.
I’ve mentioned that chickens will be eating bugs from compost heaps and as they help prep garden beds. They’ll also be eating the grubs, larvae, and eggs of bugs that could harm your plants, such as the anasa family of squash beetles. Chickens will also eat ticks and fleas that can spread disease (and annoyance) to you and your other animals. Your birds benefit from the balanced diet, and the garden emerges much better for it. Again, done in the autumn and the early spring, this will do wonders for prepping the beds for resting and planting, respectively.
This same idea can be used periodically throughout the year in established orchards. Once the trees are big enough that chickens can’t threaten them, the birds can be introduced into the orchard to feed on the pests. They will adore the windfall fruits on the ground.
Conventional gardening often requires a tiller to turn the soil. It’s a hog of a machine and needs strength to push it around your plot. An alternative that your chickens can help with is no-dig gardening, which avoids deep turning of soil. No-dig gardening was a technique pioneered by Masanobu Fukuoka in the 1930s and really developed in southern England throughout the 1940s. The key idea is that the micro- and macro-organisms in the soil constitute a “food web” necessary for bushes, plants and trees to survive. Disturbing that web with deep tilling damages the soil’s symbiotic interactions. Rather than ploughing up an area for your garden, the no-dig method layers well-rotted manure, compost, leaves or straw on top of the soil as a 2- to 6-inch deep mulch. In this type of gardening, only the surface of the soil gets scratched up and mixed in with the mulch layer. Chickens, as we’ve already noted, are masters of scratching the surface. They will mix up the first couple of inches of soil and fertilize it to boot.
More Good Deeds
Believe it or not, there is even more to be gained from the natural attributes of chickens. They can play a pivotal role in grazing cycles with large mammals, help with the cost of heating, and provide fuel for making the morning tea.
Chickens can play two roles in rotational grazing. On a small scale, such as a suburban lot, they can be used as the lone grazing animals, but for homesteads with more space and livestock, they can be strategically mixed in with other animals. By themselves, chickens can keep a lawn trimmed back and fertilized. With other animals, they can help to spread manure and keep pests down by picking through the deposits those animals have left.
When chicken spaces are discussed, if often seems as if there are only two options: housing them in a limited-space coop (maybe with a run) and free-ranging them. But there is a middle ground that lets chickens help with grazing rotation and livestock management. Chickens can be released into an animal paddock, where they will graze intensively for a short amount of time. Then, they are cycled to the next paddock, which has plenty of fresh food. Incorporating chickens into your rotational grazing practice adds another layer of functionality for the birds who will eat bugs (such as ticks and fleas) and seeds other animals don’t. By moving all of the animals frequently, the land has time to recover rather than being overgrazed.
Chickens need a safe, warm place to live; in the winter, greenhouses can help with that. Just like with plants, greenhouses can house chicken coops to provide a heated place for the chickens when it’s too cold outside. This means that the building is serving double-duty rather than requiring one system for plants and another for birds. By moving a coop or chicken-run into your greenhouse, you can double the efficiency of both systems. The chickens add body heat to the greenhouse space, helping to keep the temperature up. Their compost-y bedding is a system that adds heat to the ambient temperature. Moreover, chickens breathe, which means they exhale carbon dioxide for the plants to suck in.
Fueling the System
If you enjoy getting a bit more technical, a biodigester might make a lot of sense. The decomposition of chicken manure, as well as other manures, and food scraps, create methane gas. A biodigester concentrates this decomposition and captures that gas, which can be used for cooking and heating. Ultimately, the material that has been decomposed can be used as fertilizer. While the technology for biodigesters is mostly geared towards large-scale inputs (hundreds of animals), small-scale systems can be built by average folks right at home and make use of backyard birds and personal gardens.
[Jonathon Engels will be writing more about using chicken manure to create hot water in an up-coming article. Stay tuned.]
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he’s lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.