The best way to have healthy, happy chickens is to integrate them into a thriving, bustling ecosystem that is dependent on their presence. That’s as opposed to keeping them in an environment that cannot sustain them – as in the typical coop-and-run that starts out green and ends up bare and brown.
This article concludes this 3-Part Series about caring for chickens.
In it, I’ll share ideas for keeping chickens as busy and well fed in a deep litter system as they are when out foraging for themselves – while also contributing to the care of the garden or farm system that they are part of rather than being a drain on it.
“The problem is the solution”
In Part 2 of this series, I discussed how we’ve confined our previously free-ranging chicken flock to a deep litter run, and I shared the list of benefits, or pros, that we’ve experienced so far as a result.
Now, it’s time to discuss the “cons.”
A basic permaculture principle is that “the problem is the solution.” In our case, the problem, summed up, was that the environment our chickens were living in could not sustain them.
To find the solution, we needed to better design their environment and their place in it so that their outputs could be absorbed and used as a contribution to the health of their surroundings, rather than detracting from it. That’s what led us to think of trailing confinement on deep litter.
But that then led to two more problems.
The two big challenges we see with keeping chickens confined on deep litter
The more I learned about how a deep litter system works, the more I wondered why anybody would house chickens any other way, regardless of whether the chickens are let out to forage or not.
But in our case, we want to find out if we can successfully confine our chickens permanently in a deep litter area without any outside foraging at all. And while confining them solves a lot of problems, it also presents two obvious challenges.
The first is that we’re now responsible for providing the chickens with ALL the fresh greens and live, wriggly, hopping, flying food they need. (I consider this a small price for never having to chase a chicken out of a garden area again.)
The second is that unless the deep litter they’re living on is maintained as an actively decomposing, life-filled substrate, full of interesting things to scratch for, the chickens will have nothing to do.
So, to keep the litter topped up and healthy, we need a significant ongoing source of carbon to keep replenishing the bedding as it decomposes.
Providing live food
Our ideas (so far) for providing green and wriggly food sources are:
- Azolla[i] tanks in the chicken shed, arranged so that the chickens can help themselves.
- A planting of arrowroot and comfrey[ii] right outside the chicken shed for on-the-spot, palatable, nutritious greens.
- A black soldier fly larvae system[iii] that the chickens can harvest from
- Compost bins whose contents would be made accessible to the chickens[iv]
- Worm farms with chicken proof covers that can be left open as appropriate.
- A planting of trees that drop additional mulch and chicken treats (maybe mulberries) along the open side of the shed
- A banana-trunk worm-refuge (described below in the section on bananas).
(Obviously, each of these topics could make up an article on its own. I do plan to address them one by one as we go about implementing them, and I will update this series as I go. Stay tuned!)
Growing our own litter materials – bamboo
As part of beginning to address the need for a steady source of carbon, we’ve planted a row of bamboo along the outside of the chicken shed’s back wall[v].
Once established, the bamboo will drop lots of litter that can be raked up and brought into the shed to contribute to the bedding. (Bamboo litter is high in silica, which supposedly helps control lice on chickens.)
The bamboo will also shade that side of the shed, which will face the summer sun. And by extending its roots under the chicken shed, it will find plenty of nutrient to help it grow thick and abundant.
In addition to the bamboo planted outside the chicken shed, we have young bamboo plantations in other areas. When we reach a point that we have excess bamboo culms, we plan to find out if shredded/chipped bamboo culms make good chicken bedding.
(We had been wandering what we would do with all those culms, which will end up being far more than we can use in other ways.)
Using banana plants for wriggly food and chicken litter contributions
We’re also planning a banana patch beside the chicken shed.
Banana fronds can be a source of greens for the chickens, and what they don’t eat will contribute to the litter.
But more interestingly, banana trunks can be cut lengthwise and laid face down on the soil below the litter of the chicken pen. They’ll provide a sanctuary for earth worms and other forms of soil life which can breed in the layers of the banana trunks, where the chickens can’t get at them. When the piece of banana trunk is turned over – live, wriggly chicken feed!
And in the process of shredding the banana trunk to get at the worms, the chickens will be adding it to the litter of the bedding.
At the beginning of Part 1, I said that what makes a Permaculture system work is the relationships between the elements – the closing of multiple loops into a cohesive web of living things, all contributing to each other’s stability and well-being.
A behaviour (such as the scratching of chickens) or an output (such as manure) is either an asset or a liability—either strengthening the system or weakening it—depending on where it occurs and whether there are other well-placed elements nearby to make use of it.
We want healthy, happy chickens, and the best way to do that is to have them tightly integrated into a thriving, bustling ecosystem that is dependent on their presence, rather than allowing them to spread out in a sparse ecosystem that is barely able, or unable, to support them.
By confining our chickens to a relatively small area and refusing to compromise on the quality of life and the diet we make available to them, we’ve intentionally put ourselves in a position where we can no longer get away with sloppy management.
The new arrangement will require us to tighten all the loops that the chickens are involved in, and to create new, deliberate loops that were previously left to chance or did not exist at all – so that we end up with well cared-for chickens, comfortably nested in a much more tightly integrated system.
I’ll share what we learn as time goes by. Keep track of updates/additions to this and related topics by subscribing at ARealGreenLife.com.
Useful chicken feeding articles:
An outstanding book on integrating poultry into your small farm/garden system, including many chapters on putting chickens to work in the garden and compost heap and an entire chapter on deep litter: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery
[iv] In his book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, Harvey Ussery describes how Vermont Composting Company uses up to 1200 laying hens to help turn compost heaps. The hens are fed entirely from the compost; no other food is provided for them.