In our growing attempt to produce much of our own food from our ¾ acre lot, I branched out from vegetable gardening into the realm of small livestock around this time last year – chickens were the obvious first choice. We eat at least a dozen eggs per week so what better way to become more self-reliant than by having a backyard flock. Keeping chickens has definitely become a growing trend, and ordinances in various cities around the country allow residents to keep domestic chickens in their backyards.
We don't have chickens just for their eggs, however. Permaculture teaches that 'every element performs multiple functions'. In other words, in addition to giving us eggs every day, we have chickens because they produce manure that can be used in the garden, they scratch the ground and eat bugs and their feathers are good additions to our compost pile. We haven't yet thought about keeping them for meat but that may be in our future.
We started out with 10 chickens mid-March 2013 and kept them indoors, in a cardboard box with a heat lamp, before 'hardening them off' in the garage and then moving them outside in May. The chickens helped us prepare the ground for our new garden beds last spring. We kept them in one area for a couple of weeks at a time so that they could scratch up the ground and deposit their poop. Raised garden beds were then built on top of these areas using a technique called sheet mulching. The chickens were then moved to a new location where they would repeat the same process.
A common reason people don't want to get chickens is that they are so destructive. It is true that given the chance, chickens would decimate a spring garden bed of greens in no time. However, it is important to understand that timing is key to keeping chickens and having them work for you. It is a question of when and where you put them and for how long throughout the growing season.
Although I won't allow them in my garden in the spring, we'll use the chickens to clean up the garden in the fall by building a temporary enclosure, built with chicken wire and moveable t-posts that encircles the area. The chickens get the benefit of the bugs and leftover garden goodies; the garden benefits from their manure which will be a great nutrient boost the following spring and we benefit by eating their delicious eggs!
This spring's project is a moveable chicken tractor that we will use to prepare some of the ground for our food forest of fruit trees and berry bushes. The tractor will allow us to keep the chickens in one spot for a limited amount of time, just enough for them to scratch and clear much of the grass and deposit their manure but before compacting the ground too much.
After the initial infrastructure, keeping chickens is a fairly low maintenance endeavor. What a wonderful gift to get eggs every day!
Do you have chicken stories, recommendations or questions? Share them in the comments below!