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Chicken Systems of Zaytuna Farm, home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Chickens are sometimes described as a gateway domestic animal. Meaning the first domestic animal that people, new to keeping domestic animals, start with. Once successful and satisfied with the results they then feel more confident to move onto other domestic animal systems. Chickens have been intensively and extensively integrated into most human cultures from their wild origin ancestors in the tropical forests of the South East, where the wild jungle fowl still roam, out to the driest hot deserts, to the deep snows of the cold temperate regions. Where ever there are people with some remnants of food self reliance there are roosters crowing at dawn. In fact, if you wake at dawn to the sound of a whole capital city of garden chicken flock roosters crowing, you are in an interesting place and you can be sure there is also quite at lot of good local food being grown there too.

As we give up our chickens we give up some of our identity. We are nearly always giving up on our best intentions of growing most of our food; our self-reliance and we have usually already given up on most of our other domestic animals. To quote Karl Hammer from Vermont in the video Feed Chickens Without Grain – “Chickens eggs are a foundation stone in a food security wall, you don’t need teeth to eat them both babies and old people can eat them”.

Chickens are versatile and they come in many breeds with just as many breed characteristics, so you can select one that suits your climate, your site conditions and your own personal production requirements. Chickens do not just produce excellent eggs and meat. They eat insects and insect larvae, break pest cycles, eat seeds, and weeds breaking weed cycles, all very useful. The one thing they do exceptionally well is scratch in and shred organic matter into a great diversity of sizes, shapes and forms, while continually adding their manure and this greatly assists the decomposition cycles while increasing beneficial soil microbiology. The diversity of shapes and forms of the organic matter they process through scratching seems to be impossible to imitate any other way and is a great advantage for beneficial microorganisms requirement for habitat. By good design placements, connections and strategic moves we can greatly increase the beneficial functions of our chickens. All we have to do is make the classic permaculture arrangements. As much as possible, the needs of an element are supplied by our system and the products of an element can be used by our system. Every element performs more than one function and every function is backed up by many elements.

We have noticed at Zaytuna Farm, the home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia, that people know less and less about the basics of keeping and breeding chickens. We have over the last few years had an average of 30 people on the farm everyday of the year as students, interns, WWOOFer’s and staff and we feed everyone breakfast, lunch, diner and two tea breaks a day, which is at least 30,000 meals a year. Eggs and chicken meat are a large part of that produce. Not only do we want to keep healthy happy chickens and breed healthy happy chickens but we also want to grow most if not all of their food and put them into full function as an asset to our permaculture design systems. This is what this article is about, “The Chicken Systems of Zaytuna Farm”, so we can help to increase the understanding of this wonderful permaculture element; the chicken.

We have six separate chicken systems at Zaytuna Farm and we name the different chicken tractors for ease of description for WWOOFer’s.

  • The Deep Litter Straw Yard
  • Our 1-acre fenced chicken food forest
  • Chicken tractors for vegetables systems (name Fatima) and preparing food forest (name Conswaler) systems
  • Mobile compost creating chickens with no off farm outside purchased feed (name Lance). Check out the video Chicken Tractor on Steroids for a more detailed look at this system.
  • Mother and baby safe cages on open runs of grass systems
  • Broody rearing box cagesOk lets take them on, one at a time.

The Deep Litter Straw Yard is a very traditional system of filling the poultry yard (open high fenced area, sometimes top wire caged) next to the poultry house both full of deep straw, hay or general mulch, often 0.5m/18”+ deep. This can be any organic material that is not too rough so the poultry are able to move it around, scratch, break it up, dig and peck through it. Usually this is a high carbon material and after a week or two it is well manured, has de-seeded weeds (which break down all weed seed cycles), and all insects and their larvae have been consumed breaking pest cycles. This material will have been shredded into a variety of small sized particulates with a large variety of shapes and forms (I can’t emphasise that enough), with manure mixed evenly right through its total volume. This is a high quality fertilising mulch or ideal as a main component for a fast aerobic compost pile. It will need to be forked and raked out and replaced when it is at its optimum point of break down, it will start to look quite uniform in colour and be quite compacted and the chickens will have lost interest in it mostly. A stocking rate of around one bird to 1.5m2/ 16 square feet will usually process the material in 10 days to two weeks, producing a greatly enhanced growing resource. We give the chickens a day scratching the yard without mulch, which they will enjoy and benefit from then replace it with fresh new material, which they adore.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Our 1-acre fenced chicken food forest free ranging system is accessible to the chickens from the deep litter straw yard and poultry house with their roost and egg laying boxes, through a small chicken sized open or close control gate. This system has a great variety of food for the birds as long as they are prepared to range far enough through all the mixed fruit trees and support trees. In the centre of the food forest we have built a large black soldier fly larvae farm which looks like a large above ground compost worm farm (see here) we add fresh fruit and vegetable scraps everyday and it is designed so that the black soldier fly larvae that are continuously maturing crawl out and drop to the ground and feed the chickens. There are always birds near by to quickly consume these high protein high fat content fresh chicken food morsels. We also feed the birds some grain and we throw grain out around different areas each day so that over a period of time the whole acre gets worked over with chickens scratching and manuring and most weeds get scratch out and deseeded. We particularly concentrate their grain feed around fruit trees that are flowering to help with their need for extra fertilising before setting fruit and at the end of the fruit period when the spoiled fallen fruit can be eaten with any fruit fly larvae it might be carrying as a control measure to break that nasty pest cycle.

These chickens are specifically chosen as larger breeds and a few different breeds of the hens, all good meat birds but they also lay good eggs too and we always keep a breed of rooster that is as large as possible, which needs to be a different breed to all the hens. This means that the eggs, when they hatch produce a first cross hybrid chick between two large breeds. These first cross hybrid birds will produce the biggest and fastest growing farm yard organic table meats, often full size in 16 weeks and good quality tender meat. These birds we do not breed on and we buy in quality stock birds from our local specialist poultry breeder (there is usually one around) to maintain the flocks ability to produce first cross hybrids for good meat. If we kept these first cross hybrid birds the breed stains would start to mix and dilute losing that ability to produce fast large high quality farm yard meat birds.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Chicken tractors for vegetables systems (name Fatima) and preparing food forest systems to be planted (name Conswaler). These are egg-laying birds that specialise in bulk egg production but can be fine to eat when they are young and tender too, just not as big food forest birds. We try and keep 8 to 10 hens to each rooster in the flock and have 50 birds in the vegetable garden tractor system with at least six roosters in the flock and 35 birds in the food forest tractor system with at least four roosters in the flock. With this ratio of roosters to hens we know the eggs are all fertile and these eggs will always hatch under any hen from any flock on the farm that goes broody. We keep the hens as new recruits to the tractor flocks and we eat the young roosters at about 16 to 18 weeks when their leg spur is starting to become well formed. Because we are always recruiting from our own eggs we have to change the roosters ever second year and buy in new roosters to keep the fertility up in the eggs. After two years the mix of roosters and their daughters and granddaughters starts to effect egg fertility. These flocks are fenced by mobile solar electric nets, two 50 meter solar electric nets for the vegetable system making an area of 300 m2 which is moved every two weeks over 12 main crop gardens making a 24 week return cycle and two circuits a year. They love their two-week move onto fresh ground and a 24-week-old crop garden to pick through.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

The food forest system is fenced by one 50 meter solar electric net making a total area of 150 m2 that also moves every two-weeks but does not return until the food forest trees planted behind them are well establish with some reasonable size. These birds also love their two-week move, as they are moving onto rough ground with a lot of food diversity for them. We will go into the area, dig out any persistent weeds at about the 10-day stage. This is very beneficial for the birds giving them a big food boost as they get into the bare soil holes left by the weeds extraction.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

The housing for these two tractor flocks are recycled from un-roadworthy car trailers that have been repurposed in the farm workshop to become very robust practical poultry houses. They have exterior protruding egg laying boxes, perches that hinge up and clip to make it easy to rake out the deep manured house mulch, gravity auto watering systems, auto grain feed containers and doors that allow us to easily remove deep stacked two cubic meters of manured mulch every 2 weeks, every time they move. This mulch goes to compost or directly as high quality fertilising mulch on the system they have prepared. These birds are preparing ground and preparing mulch, manuring, scratching, de-seeding weeds, and breaking pest cycles, either for main crop gardens or new food forest establishment.

Mobile compost creating chickens with no off farm outside purchased feed (name Lance). There are 35 birds in this flock on a chicken tractor, inside a 50m mobile solar electric fence. The chicken tractor and mobile solar electric fence is exactly the same as the flock that prepares ground for food forest planting. This flock produces eggs and compost; all the compost needed for the 12 gardens each 300m2 that are prepared by the 50 chickens in the tractor named Fatima. Every two-weeks there is 3 to 4m3 of compost ready to be distributed on a 300m2 garden, which is actually 200m2 of growing bed if you take out the footpath area. That is 3 to 4m3 of compost on 200m3 every 24 weeks between 1m3 onto between 25 cubic meters to 33 cubic meters every year. This is between 160 cubic meters to 121 cubic meters to the acre a year. They are the fuel for the growth engine of the main crop and are moving around the outside of the main crop garden.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

We arrange the event with a 2m by 1.5m by 1m high strong wire cage that is held together as 4 sides with solid steel slip pins, that if pulled out the cage falls apart. We assemble this cage so that it is outside of the mobile chicken house and the birds have to cross the cage to leave and enter. We fill the mobile chicken house up with 2 cubic meters of mulch collected from some of our lower grazing fields and the birds scratch through it and manure into it with the night perches just above. After one week we put the manured mulch into the cage than add an equal amount of cow and horse manure collected from our animals over the week and an equal amount of food scraps as the top layer in the cage. We then replace the mulch in their house with fresh mulch and the birds also get the open topped cage to scratch through for the rest of the week. We empty the cage by collapsing the sides (pulling out the solid slip pins) and turn the material up into a gravity fall pile and reassemble the cage again next to the birds mobile house after moving it along 4m plus. Every week we move the solar electric fence along too and each week one pile of compost gets left outside the fence. Once a week we empty the mobile house and re-fill the cage and turn five piles of compost. Three are inside the net fence and two are outside. It is a five-week process from when the cage is filled to when the compost is ready. The birds lose more and more interest in the older piles and are most interested in the caged material. No purchased outside feed is added and the egg production is very similar to the birds that we feed grain. The ground these birds leave behind is very clean and fertile and we follow them with a grain crop of winter wheat and barley and summer sorghum and amaranth, which feeds the other two tractors Fatima and Conswaler.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Mother and baby safe cages on open runs of grass systems are fully secure steel cages. They are big, wide and flat with wire on the bottom so there is no way any kind of predator can get to our mother birds and baby chicks. These cages are 3m/10’ by 2m/6.5’ by 0.5m/18” high and they can be continuously moved onto new ground for fresh pick. As soon as all the chicks hatch in a clutch of eggs we put the mother babies in a safe cage and when they are six weeks old they move onto the deep litter straw yard and 1-acre fenced chicken food forest system to grow out to maturity.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Broody rearing box cages are very solid steel cages. We make them ourselves and they are completely safe from predators being 1m/39” by 1m/39” by 0.5m/18” high. Inside we have a box, which is often a re-cycle lawn mower catcher, a small pot of grain and water and of course a broody hen sitting on eggs. We watch for birds that do not want to leave the egg boxes in any of our flocks and peck if you try and remove them. Then we check their breastplate to see if it feels hot if it does we have a broody hen ready to sit on eggs. We then collect fertile eggs from the birds we want to hatch; we can keep fertile eggs for 30 days by turning them and storing them at room temperature. Once we have enough eggs that we think the broody hen will sit on and keep warm, which is eight to 10 on the average bird (eight for a smaller hen and 10 for a big hen on average), we then set the broody hen on the eggs in a broody cage. We have to have the broody box ready with a nice clean dry nest of straw and position the fertile eggs, the food and water in the cage just outside the box. We have to quickly and smoothly lift the broody hen out of the egg-laying box (I usually cuddle her under my arm while gently covering her eyes which usually calms her down). Then swiftly deliver her into the broody box and lock her in with a cover over the entrance. She usually clucks over the eggs and settles down on them. If she is still sitting 24 hours later we can take the cover off the entrance and she will sit for 21 days until the chicks hatch.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

We have broody hens sitting most of the year even in winter. Early and late summer is the busiest periods when we often have eight or more broody hens sitting on eggs. We sometimes get hens that sneak into the duck yard and decide to sit on a cluck of duck eggs, which take 28 days to hatch, but they sit the extra 7 days. Broody hens will rear baby ducks no problem, they do look an unusual mob in the mother and baby safe cage and we often tease tour visitors that they are “chicklings”. The only time the mother hen gets stressed with her family of baby ducks, is when they go for their first swim.

Photo: Ingrid Pullen

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.


  1. i have 26 chicken in closed system because snakes some off them 2 meters long but i love chicken tractor on steroids i do it without tractor

  2. Conswaler….someone is funny. My old box trailer rescued and refurbished from a paddock in Bellingen is about to get it’s third incarnation as Conswaler :-)

  3. This such good information. I loved the chicken tractor on steroids video when it came out and have been working towards that system for a while. Getting there but still using some wheat. Got the protein ok though because they are laying. Thanks Geoff.

  4. Wonderful systems. I hope I can have some solar fencing soon. Thanks for sharing and explaining it step by step. It is a system to admire and replicate in accordance to the challenges that every climate has. Love the broody boxes, very secure :)

    1. Awesome system. I am doing some consulting and would love to know where you got the fencing system from, my first search hasn’t resulted a similar type of fencing for chickens. Keep up the good work.

  5. Great article – very inspirational and interesting to see how Geoff and crew’s chicken systems have evolved and been refined in the (many!) years since I worked for him at the old PRI site, where we were just starting to play with some of these ideas. I’d love to get an idea of how many person-hours of labor are involved in running the compost chicken system. Obviously a lot of the work is done by the chooks, but it would be useful to have an idea of how many hours work is involved in collecting the bedding and the additional composting materials, in order to evaluate how easily or appropriately this system might be replicated in other settings. I’m guessing that most traditional households won’t generate the necessary volume of food scraps per week either, so if an individual family were to attempt to do something on this scale, they would need to find a regular outside supply of food scraps. Not that this should be too hard given the current volumes of food waste in most “developed” societies ;)

  6. I’ve taken some ideas from you (getting chickens to help with the composting, and rotating them through different areas) and others (e.g. Linda Woodrow’s chook dome mandala system), and have come up with a fully-enclosed system of 6 vegetable garden beds, with the chickens rotated into a new bed each month:

    I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has done something similar!

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