The Chicken Workforce

Our flock of 35 mixed breed laying hens are a great source of entertainment, eggs, and a bunch of other good virtues.  As I gathered up ideas for this blog post in the last week or two my mind was full of fantastic things to say about all the chickens do for us, then one morning they got into our new greenhouse and destroyed all of our early spring salad plantings.  I have to take full responsibility though- they were just doing what chickens do best, scratching and finding the tastiest green and crawly morsels.  I’m the one that left the door open.

Cleaning up the sunflower shoots- any leaves are picked off in less than a minute and soon the whole thing disappears

Our chickens are well fed.  We are lucky to live 20 minutes away from Butterworks Farm, a great source of organic locally grown grains.  Our sprouting operation also contributes to their diet.  All of the harvested trays of sunflower shoots go to the chickens- feeding them and adding healthy soil and compost to the area they are grazing.  We also have sprouts to offer them from returns and culls.  Weeds and veggie scraps and culled plants also contribute to their diet.  We make enough money from egg sales to cover our costs and keep us in plenty of eggs to eat, but the real reason we keep chickens is not to make money.  For us what chickens do best is poop and scratch- the very activities that can ruin a bed of salad greens can be great when done in the right place.

Willow takes the protection of “her” eggs very seriously

We have utilized the chickens for creating garden space and adding fertility to the land in several ways.  The first year of this flock’s life we created 5 4×10 chicken tractors for them to live in.  We had read about the “deep mulch system” in Andy Lee’s book “Chicken Tractors”.

Here’s a view from the front of the chicken tractor brigade

The idea is that you can leave chickens in an open bottomed tractor for several weeks if you add bedding periodically.  In this way you are keeping the chickens out of their own poop and creating a compost pile in the shape of the chicken tractor.  In theory this will kill the sod underneath and leave a fertile mulch layer that can be planted into several months or a year later.  We lined up all 5 tractors so as to create 5 beds parallel to one another.  We moved the tractors every 1 ½ to 2 weeks for the better part of the summer.  We would then lay down cardboard and wood chips between the beds for the pathways.

Here you see the wake of the chicken tractors. As they are moved forward a matted layer of hay and chicken poop is left behind.

The end result of this summer of chicken tractor deep mulching was a lot of fantastic fertility, but not as much grass suppression as we would have liked.  We ended up kind of picking up the matted hay areas and laying cardboard down underneath them, adding more leaves or hay as needed.  This was a lot of work but did the trick.  The following summer we planted into this area and had a great garden.  The system doesn’t keep you from having to weed, but did allow us to plant and harvest a great garden in a space that was acidic sod the year before with no digging or tilling.

Chickens housed in our hoop house over winter

When winter came along we moved the chickens into our 14×48 hoop house that we had just moved and put up.  The ground in the hoop house was sod- there were even a few stumps and saplings.  The chickens enjoyed the sunny conditions and grazed the sod down.  We then added hay every week to make sure there was enough carbon to balance their manure and keep the space healthy for them to live in.  The chickens really enjoy scratching through hay and picking out all the tiny seeds- it gives them something to do all day.  We found that the natural light in a hoop house was sufficient to keep the chickens laying all winter, though the number of eggs was reduced. In the spring we removed some of the bedding for composting, but most of it stayed in the greenhouse and we planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons and tomatillos right through it.  This time the deep mulch system did work to kill the sod underneath; we had very little weeding to do.

Spring planting into the hoop house after the chicken residency

We were proud of ourselves for neatly stacking all of the chicken tractors out of the weather under a pole barn structure.  Too bad we had lots of snow in 2011 and the pole barn fell down crushing them all- back to square one for chicken housing.  The individual chicken tractors were sometimes challenging to move and service so we went with a new moveable structure that the chickens use for roosting and laying eggs.  Otherwise they are outside grazing in a portable electronet fenced area.  Our intention was to make the structure (we call it the chix mobile) moveable with human power only- it turned out too heavy to pull on anything but a steep slope though.  We ended up moving it with our truck (this summer we are adding wheels, hopefully that will make it easier to move by people power).  The chickens seemed much happier with more space to range in.  We moved them once a week on average depending upon the looks of the grass they were grazing down.  In this system the grass would grow back lush and green and we grazed our pigs behind the chickens a few weeks later.  The chicken manure spread evenly over the field is helping to transform a sandy acidic field that was previously covered with balsam trees into a more fertile and productive growing space.

The chix mobile in action. In the pictured location the chickens had access to grass as well as a large heap of composting goat manure. They loved finding bugs in the compost and kept the surface free of weeds.

Our pigs (Dot and Gert) following several weeks behind the chickens

Our chickens are currently back in the greenhouse for a second winter- they are looking forward to getting out once there is some green grass to graze.  This year two changes we made to the greenhouse system were a moveable roost, and the addition of some rabbits.  The moveable roost gets moved to different locations in the greenhouse to spread manure evenly instead of all in the corner.  The rabbits are in cages at the back end of the greenhouse.  The chickens enjoy scratching up the manure and food tidbits that fall out of the rabbit cages- helping turn it into some primo compost.

I feel like this entry has gone on plenty long, so I’ll sign off for now.  If anyone wants to know more details please feel free to comment with your questions.

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7 Responses to The Chicken Workforce

  1. Allen Guntz says:

    Interesting and thanks for sharing. I’m writing this from AZ but it sounds like winter is over in VT early this year. Last year when we returned to VT in early April there was lots of snow still on the ground. This year I may have to mow the lawn.

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  2. Mary McGrath says:

    You two are working hard and learning a lot! Wonderful photos. Your chickens look so healthy, as healthy as your soil sounds. You know how important soil enrichment is. Keep it up.

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  3. David Beidler says:

    Hi Bec & Free I enjoyed seeing your chickens and reading your blog post. I am registered now so I will get all the updates now. keep posting Dave

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  4. I have lots of questions. I am friends with Kim in NY and she has told me about you guys in the past, but I hadn’t checked out your blog much until now. I’m wondering whether you had to supply supplemental heat to your chickens in the hoophouse. We are zone 4 (same as you perhaps) and while we don’t have chickens yet, it’s nice to think about a good way for us to house them when we do. Also, I am wondering about the “deep mulch system” from Andy Lee’s book (I don’t have the book, nor does the library) and I’m curious if there is a short answer to what he was doing. We have no-till gardens at present, where we have used leaves, grass clippings and compost/food scraps, but have not had animal manures to add to this. We have been doing this on a small scale in our backyard, and now we are looking to ramp this up and make new beds on our land we are going to move onto.

    Also interested if you all have made Hugelkulture swales on your land. I am looking into doing this (or at least starting to work on it this spring), and it would be nice to talk to someone who had some experience with it.

    Thanks for the info,
    Denise

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    • HI Denise, Lucky you to live close to Kim! I’ll try to answer your questions. We do not add supplemental heat to the greenhouse for chickens and they have been fine. The greenhouse gets nice and sunny during the day, and I bet it is not much colder than your average thin walled wooden coop at night. The deep mulch system is basically leaving chickens in one place and adding a lot of carbon material daily/weekly so their manure gets layered into the hay or woodchips or leaves like a compost pile. This is basically what happens in our greenhouse and it works great, we do remove any excess compost in the spring, but a lot stays in there for the next year’s crops. It didn’t work that well for us in the chicken tractors outside because it didn’t kill the grass underneath, perhaps some of the rhizomes crept in from the pathways between the chicken tractors. If you want to try using this method to create garden space I might recommend fencing in a space and doing the deep mulch thing for a longer period, maybe a month of two, then let that deep mulch decompose until the next spring before planting into it.
      To make garden beds we generally sheet mulch by laying down cardboard, then composted manure and topped with thick layer of hay.

      We have created terraced beds that are filled with brush and wood, then covered with compost. We haven’t done hugel swales, but may try that out with some of the swales we hope to dig/plant this summer. Keep in touch and feel free to ask more questions!
      Rebecca

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