Free range chickens and caged vegetables

I read an interesting post the other day about chickens as protein harvesters and then my attention was drawn to another post about reducing the amount of brought-in feed for chickens, and yet another about creating a chicken foraging system. All of which set me thinking about my own hens and their inputs and outputs.

Aliss hard at work: cultivating and eating pests

Now, I’m quite clear about the outputs: eggs for us to eat and barter, fertiliser and compost activator, entertainment, pest control (slugs and snails), weed control, cultivation (particularly useful for incorporating new material into the “rubbish” beds) and consumers of left-overs (although few and far-between in reality). There are also a few minor things like feathers for craft projects. So, we get a great deal out of them Even if I just consider the saving on the cost of nematodes to control the slug population and the number of eggs now available to us as a protein source, I feel that they make a great contribution to our economy.

However, when I consider the inputs, I realise that we are buying quite a lot in for them – layer mash or pellets and corn are the main items, but we also use Poultry spice and Vermex to make sure they are healthy and worm free. When we first started keeping chickens they remained in a run and all the food, apart from the grass that they quickly ate, was bought in. As we have come to understand the value of hens in the garden, they are allowed free access to most of it for most of the time. This means that they consume less bought food and instead eat wild plants, slugs, snails, grubs and worms. As chickens that have been brought up outdoors, we find that they are eager to eat worms and molluscs (although they are not keen on the caterpillars of the white butterflies). We do, however find that they don’t like to be confined and they (as the descendents of jungle fowl) particularly like spending time foraging under the willow hedge and associated shrubs.

We started off with a chicken ‘coop’ that claimed to be big enough for four hens:

Our coop when we were building it.

Don’t be fooled by such claims! The house part has a perch that will accommodate three average-sized hens; the run itself barely has room for four of them to move around once there is a drinker and a feeder in there (even if they are suspended). The result is cramped hens and food and water either knocked flying or full of muck. We soon realised that this was no way to go on and started putting them in the fruit cage, with a net tunnel leading back to the coop so they could lay in the appropriate place. Of course, once the fruits started appearing we found ourselves in competition with the hens. I like raspberries way too much to want to feed them to chickens, so they were banished from the fruit cage. By this stage, they were all used to coming when called and happy to go in and out of an expanded run attached to the original coop, so since the garden was already terrier-proof we hoped it might also be chicken-proof and decided to let them roam free.

Gytha – the Houdini of chickens

I have some news: a terrier-proof garden is not, in fact, chicken-proof. The late lamented Gytha was particularly good at getting out. We used to get phone calls from our neighbours opposite to tell us she was sitting on our front doorstep! Once all escape routes had been blocked in that direction, she took to escaping into the field behind to run around with the sheep. At my age, you really don’t want to have to call round to the neighbouring farm to ask if you can please have your chicken back! Finally we worked out how she was getting out and blocked that egress. After that the only issue was protecting the vegetables. Unsurprisingly we have found that whilst chickens like to roam free, vegetables are quite happy to be caged! So, we have chicken exclosures rather than enclosures. This seems to work out well for the welfare of both hens and veggies.

Our next task is to focus on producing some crops specifically for chickens. I have yet to research what might keep them worm-free (any suggestions welcome, but I’m guessing at least garlic) and fully supplied with vitamins and minerals (comfrey perhaps?). But I have read somewhere that they like chokeberry (Aronia), so I have one of those on order from the Agroforestry Research Trust and I’m hoping that Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) might be a good source of food for them (some seeds are on their way from Lithuania as I write) as well as flint corn (as grown by Carol Deppe). In addition, I’m broadcasting wheat seed in the fruit cage in the hope that some will germinate and provide heads to be eaten directly by the chickens once the soft fruit season is over. I plan to turn the small overgrown area at the front of the house into a source of chicken feed since i don’t really like gardening out there as I’m not a sociable gardener! Finally, I hope to up my production of worms in the wormery… another great food for chickens. Although I don’t envision being self-sufficient in chicken feed, I would like to reduce external inputs without compromising our human food production. I’m hoping too, that the result will be healthy and happy hens.

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  1. I can’t speak from experience, but there’s been a lot of interest in using the perennial rye I’m working on in combination with chickens in permaculture. The basic idea is the perennial rye feeds the chickens, and the chicken poop feeds the rye. Not only does the rye provide grain, but the plant crowns are full of insects and worms, and the plants produce a lot of organic material.

    There’s an Austrian permaculture guy named Sepp Holtzer, and he apparently used something similar to my perennial rye with chickens very successfully.

    Do you ever visit the agroforestry research trust? If so, I sent Martin some seeds a few years ago, so I think he’s growing it. If you wanted to look at it you could ask him about it.

    Right now it’s a breeding project and experimental, but if you’re interested I can send some seeds. It’s fall planted (usually August), so I should send these soon or wait until next year. I would suggest starting it in pots first, because the germination is unpredictable and if you direct seed you might end up with holes. Starting it first will also give the plants a better chance to get established.


  2. Another good crop for chickens might be mangel beets.

    Sugar beets are a kind of mangel, although there are better varieties for fodder. There was a time when mangel beets were widely grown to be fed to livestock on small farms and homesteads, but the temptation of buying cheap sacks of grain is too tempting I guess. Nowadays many varieties of mangels are considered endangered because people don’t grow them anymore.

    When I was in Estonia a few years ago in the countryside, I saw many houses with a flock of chickens and a row of mangels in the garden. At a B&B I ate at, the host explained our breakfast eggs came from her grandmother’s chickens, who fed them mangels, and they were delicious!

    Another garden vegetable grown in this way used to be white carrots, which can grow huge, but don’t have a lot of flavor.


    • Interesting idea. The farmers round here grow mangels for their sheep, so they are quite readily available locally. I’ll have to try them out on the chickens.


  3. walrissa

     /  July 25, 2012

    Reblogged this on Green Momma Adventures.


  4. Wairissa, my next episode of “Late Bloomer” coming tomorrow, I visit Wild Farm in Woodside, CA, and her chickens have their own brassica garden that they can go in and eat fresh whenever they want. The high nitrogen compost they create for their brassica garden is made from the chicken manure and lots of greens. She says she gets great eggs, and the chickens love brassicas.


  5. Nice one. Any friend of chickens is a friend of mine…


    • Not sure how friendly I feel towards Aliss at the moment with her repeated assaults on the vegetables… I was looking forward to sampling root parsley, but it looks like I’ll just have to ask her what it tastes like!


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