Keeping backyard chickens around your food gardens is an important part of widening the living system that supports your soil fertility process. Its very possible in urban environments to have chickens and for the most part, they are a pleasure to be part of the “garden family”.
But I have to say that in keeping backyard chickens at our home, I am very challenged at times by how they interact with our vegetable garden. I wanted to share my insights from the last 20 years.
Our chicken population has ranged from 8 down to the current 2. We always have their beautiful eggs and we feed them some of our food scraps (all organic of course) and also buy layer mix which is certified organic. Nothing but the best for our chickies!
Keeping backyard chickens – living arrangements
This was a reasonably large fenced space with a safe chicken structure for roosting inside the space for up to 8 chickens. The area had shady trees (very important in a warm climate) and the grass soon disappeared from chicken scratching.
We let them out of the fenced space later in the afternoon to roam in the grassy area nearby. Sometimes they got through fences and reached the vegetable garden but because the vegetable gardens were quite a distance from their space, they rarely went to the vegetable gardens.
I used their manure and old hay bedding within my composting system. If I had any plastic compost bins that had gone anaerobic, these would be dumped just outside the fenced space and the chickens loved it. Pumpkins would soon be growing in this grassy space.
This fixed pen system worked well and because we let them out in the afternoons, they had variety, but they did sneak into the food gardens at times but due to distance, not so often.
This metal device on rollers is 3 x 2m and can be moved with relative ease. Its snake and other animal proof and we have kept 2-3 chickens in that pen. It has a heavy wire base so they can scratch the dirt. We moved it around every few weeks to another place in our orchard.
We keep them in the pen until late afternoon and let them out to roam close to the house.
They would often visit the vegetable garden. They always made their way back to the pen as the sun was going down and if I had forgotten to close their pen for the night and they were not visited by creatures at night, then by the time I was out of bed in the morning, they had often turned the vegetable garden into a dirt mound with all mulch moved, all new seeds gone and all seedlings demolished.
Managing chickens with this system was OK for the chickens except for them being locked up on the small pen until late afternoon. Unfortunately it was horrendous for the vegetable garden. Once the chickens know the best place to find worms (my fertile biodynamic vegetable garden), they always make a beeline for it.
Chicken tractor with fence
This method of keeping backyard chickens includes the metal chicken tractor within a wire fenced area of about 30m2 in our orchard. The fence is chicken wire of 1.5m high and held in place with star pickets. We can move the fence and pen relatively easily, but due to the size of the space they have, it takes quite sometime before the chickens have severely demolished all the organic matter in the soil.
They have a good shade tree from a big mulberry in our orchard and space for their dirt baths (very important for their health). The chicken tractor is opened in the morning and closed in the evening and they cannot reach our vegetable garden unless they dig under the fence. We have trimmed feathers on one of their wings so they can’t fly out.
This method gives them diversity of space and sufficient area to roam. We could increase the population to 4 from 2 but this depletes the grass organic matter much faster. We throw grass clippings and garden scraps (old plants and weeds) into the pen. The orchard seems happy and the veg garden has not been visited by our chickens for sometime. Once we move the pen to the next space, after about 6 months, the soil in the old space will be used to help with new vegetable garden beds and over a few years, we can have a complete rotation of the space.
Keeping backyard chickens has many positives. They provide food for us via the eggs, they recycle some of our food and garden waste and their manure is part of our soil management process. Our children interact with them and they have become pets.
I always remember saving one of our hens for the third time from a python and the chicken had not laid eggs for a year. The last time I saved the chicken (which seemed indestructible), I looked at the python and apologised for taking its evening meal. A “real farmer” would not have been so sentimental in keeping backyard chickens!
PS: Consider our 2 day introduction to biodynamic food growing workshop in March 2018 as a Christmas gift or our mentoring package. Very green gifts!
Authored by Peter Kearney – www.myfoodgarden.com.au