Chickens power Permaculture design by both the work they do and the yields they produce.
You will find a useful role for chickens at any scale, whether you are establishing extensive Permaculture farming, food forests, or a small backyard Permaculture garden.
So let’s look how chickens can power your Permaculture design, and how you can give them what they need in a sustainable way.
SO WHAT CAN CHICKENS DO FOR YOU?
Just through the actions of going about their normal life, happy chickens yield a myriad of useful work and products.
Eggs and/or Meat.
Breed aside, to be highly productive of eggs, meat or more chickens, all chickens require a good supply of protein in their diet. You can’t expect good yields, or healthy birds, if they are expected to subsist on only grain.
Feathers and guts are the natural by products of meat production.
Apart from feather dusters, I can’t think of any other uses for feathers, can you? They, and the guts, however, are a valuable high-protein additive to compost or to feed your earthworms. I chuck our in our composting toilet and believe it or not it doesn’t even smell. And if you have pigs, they’ll be quite happy to take the guts off your hands.
Manure, scratching and foraging.
Chickens tend to do these three activities simultaneously. So if you have land that requires fertilizing, weeding and the preparation of a nice soft fluffy soil bed for later planting or sowing then, given enough time or enough chickens, they will do it for you.
If you don’t have many chickens or are working at a backyard permaculture garden scale, a chicken tractor is a great option. You can buy excellent chicken tractor and chicken coop plans here.
The chickens roost and lay in a trailer mounted chicken house, and forage in a movable pen made with an electric net fence.
You can source an electric poultry net fence kit like this one, with its own built in solar power supply from our Australian online shop.
Foraging pest controllers.
Chickens will eat most things, which can be put to good use. In the orchard they will go for fallen fruit, and any fruit fly maggots inside, breaking the life cycle of the pest. In the garden they will eat snails. I have even seen them hunting and eating the mice that hang around chicken pens.
Manure powered aquaculture.
A simple chicken powered Permaculture design is to build your chicken house over a pond so their manure passively nourishes a productive aquaculture system. Like other organic fertilizers chicken manure provides nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium when it breaks down in water, all great food for algae and phytoplankton upon which many edible fish can thrive.
Manure methane power.
If you have enough chickens and an easy way of gathering their manure, the methane it gives off as it decomposes can be used as a gas for cooking or even for powering vehicles, as was common in Germany during WW2.
A rim section of old rainwater tank makes an effective chicken powered composter. Lay it on the ground in a shady spot and throw all your weeds, kitchen scraps and other organic matter in. Your chickens will just love turning it over to get the goodies, in the process making fast compost for you.
Chuck in the dirty water from their drinker to keep it moist. A large bit of mesh in the floor can make it into a dual purpose worm farm-composter by providing earthworms some refuge. And the odd unlucky earthworms make great chicken food.
Carbon dioxide and body heat.
You can Permaculture design your chicken house to be integrated into part of your greenhouse, providing chicken powered carbon dioxide and warmth to the benefit of your plants, particularly at night when the birds are roosting and temperatures dip.
Some hens get it into their head to stop laying and sit on whatever eggs they can find. And sit, and sit ... until they hatch or go rotten and explode! This is very annoying when you just want them to lay, but very handy if you have eggs you want hatched. Broody hens don't care where the eggs come from - they'll sit happily on duck, pheasant, guinea fowl or whatever!
My family bred pheasants when I as a kid and we always used Chinese Silky Bantams as "broodies" because they are good mothers and always went broody the same time the pheasants were laying.
CHICKEN BREEDS AINT CHICKEN BREEDS
Now we’ve explored the various yields that chickens provide, let’s look at the importance of breed. Chicken breeds vary enormously in their behavior, foraging ability, ability to fly, climate tolerance, temperament, vigor and productivity. For descriptions of many different breeds, check our page on chicken breeds here.
In my experience there is no such thing as a “dual purpose” pure chicken breed. At least, I have test driven a few and have come out disappointed.
I have found the pure breeds were no match for the “Steggles” hybrids and their like for meat production, not even close! My Steggles were lumbering around at over 2kg dressed weight by 6 weeks old, 4 times that of Australorps the same age.
And it’s a similar story with the hybrid commercial egg layers like the ISA browns and Hylines. When it comes to laying eggs, they have been superior in every way (including not sneaking off to go broody somewhere like my Australorps were prone to do). There is nothing worse than forking out for feed every week, and still having to buy eggs from the shop!
So decide what you want from chickens in your Permaculture designed system and choose the breed to suit. And please feel free to share your own experiences with different breeds on our Homesteading Forum!
GIVING CHICKENS WHAT THEY NEED
Chickens are healthy, happy and most productive when all their needs are being met:
Kitchen scraps can be supplemented with grown or purchased feed and the chickens’ own foraging activity around the homestead. The provision of fresh greens all year-round is essential to good health and is worth growing specially for your birds. I like comfrey and dandelion, as well as garden weeds, kitchen scraps and the like. Check our article “What do chickens eat?” for more information.
Chickens are prone to many diseases, some of which can be brought in by wild birds, especially in overcrowded and dirty conditions.
Intestinal parasites (“worms”).
Providing fresh bedding, removing buildup of poo, and giving chickens a big area to range on during the day all reduce their exposure to worms. I always grow a few wormwood plants around my chicken pen too, and notice that both chickens and sheep will self medicate. Garlic is good for this too.
If you need to use a commercial wormer, reserve it for the hottest, driest (or coldest, most snowy) time of the year, when environmental conditions are harsh and the survival of parasites outside the chicken’s body is poor. That way, when you worm, you’ll get nearly all of the worm population in one hit.
Lice is the most problematic in my area, especially in winter. If it strikes, I dust every bird thoroughly with diatomaceous earth. Lice don’t survive long off the bird, so there is little need to treat the environment, but you can remove old bedding just to be sure. Aromatic herbs for nesting boxes that repel pests include lavender, rose geranium and dried neem leaves.
That’s the easy stuff.
As a survival mechanism, chickens and other birds are notorious for not showing they are ill until they are at death’s door, when it is often too late to save them.
I have tried many times to turn sick chickens around and now prefer to supplement them with a heavy dose of iron in the form of an axe at the chopping block! That way you remove the source of infection for your other birds. In any case, isolation away from the flock is the first step.
You can prevent some of the infectious diseases via vaccination, but it is not an easy DIY for the small flock owner as the vaccine is hard to get in a small number of doses (in Australia at least).
General nursing can help ie keep them comfortable and warm, force feed if necessary, and administer antibiotics if you go for that sort of thing. Disease often occurs in outbreaks, so at the first sign it is wise to boost your flock’s immunity by adding tumeric or garlic to the feed, and perhaps colloidal silver to the water (adding coriander to colloidal silver increases its absorption from the gut). Chamomile tea is good for diarrhoea.
Selection of birds that have been bred locally for several generations will ensure you start with strong stock that is naturally resistant to the infectious diseases in your area.
Grow a Medicinal Herb Garden for Your Chickens
Box up an area accessible to your chickens and plant with:
Secure some netting over the top to prevent the chickens from scratching in the garden or eating your plants down to the root. They can help themselves to whatever grows past the netting.
Provide clean water at all times. If you keep ducks and chickens together, make the water bucket only accessible from a low stand placed on a clean sheet of iron or a paving slab to make it harder for the ducks to soil it.
Chickens need exercise, space for foraging and scratching, fresh air, grit to swallow for grinding their food, dust to bathe in, and shelter from the elements. And of course, as social animals they also need other chickens. Allow 10 square feet or 1 square meter of yard space for each adult, full-sized chicken to prevent feather-pecking and bullying between your birds.
Aren’t chickens great? No Permaculture design would be complete without them.
If you are new to chickens and would like a crash course in how to raise and care for them, I recommend Chickens4Wealth which you can get here.