I’m honored to have Justin Rhodes from Abundant Permaculture guest posting today. Justin is a wealth of information when it comes to sustainable chicken-keeping, and you’re going to love his tips for putting your flock to work in the garden. He is also currently in the thick of producing a documentary all about Permaculture Chickens. I’ve NEVER seen anything like this– this information has been so hard to find up until now, but Justin is making it easy to access. I’ve already donated to the Kickstarter campaign— I hope you will too! This is the kind of information that has the potential to really make a splash!
I am continually blown away by the power of chickens in the garden! They’re such great workers, I would keep them even if couldn’t eat their eggs or meat. Plus, they reproduce themselves, unlike any man-made tool.
In this article, I’ll explore eight different ways you can use chickens in the garden. You’ll discover how you can put chickens to work by providing nitrogen for your compost pile, replacing machine tillers, fertilizing your garden, turning compost, spreading mulch, disposing of your garbage, controlling pests and sanitizing your orchard. Let’s go…
8 Ways to Use Chickens in the Garden
1. As a Nitrogen Source for a Compost Pile
One chicken can produce eight pounds of manure a month according to Ohio State University. That’s about enough to compost one cubic yard of leaves!
To make great compost, you need a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of about 30:1. Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen and is rated at about (10:1). This means you won’t need much to balance it out with its readily available counterpart; carbon materials like leaves, hay or straw. Leaves for example, are rated at (47:1), so for every 1 pound of chicken manure, you’ll use 45 pounds of leaves! A little goes a long way with chickens manure!
How to do it:
Harvest your flocks’ manure regularly and store it in a leach-proof container until you are ready to build your pile. If you don’t want to store poop, then you can apply the manure with the carbon material as you go. For more information about compost building check out my article on composting with chickens, “I Cut My Chicken Feed Bill 100%”
2. As Tillers
One chicken can till 50 square feet of established sod in just 4-6 weeks!
By scratching and eating practically all vegetation, chickens make great tillers. Although they take much longer than a machine tiller, they require no fossil fuel, they’re much quieter, and you don’t have to do any of the work. I sold my machine tiller years ago and have been using my chickens ever since. Based on my own experience, 1 chicken can till about 50 square feet of reasonably short sod within 6 weeks. (Jill: Keep in mind that chickens will also till areas you might want to keep, so consider fencing them out if you are wanting to preserve certain areas of vegetation or sod)
How to do it:
Simple leave your flock in one place long enough! For small jobs, like individual garden beds, I suggest a chickens tractor suited for your particular garden design. For larger projects, I suggest mobile housing and temporary electric netting. Feel free to estimate your timing based on the size of you flock and garden plot on the 50 square foot per chicken statistic.
You can see in the photo below how chickens can clear an area of vegetation:
3. As Automatic Fertilizers
One chicken can provide enough nitrogen fertilizer for a 50 square foot garden in a little more than a month.
The chickens nitrogen levels in manure isn’t just great for compost, it’s the key ingredient to fertilizing our gardens. Based on the eight pounds one chicken will poop in a month, the average chicken will extract about a quarter pound a day! There’s 1.5% nitrogen in their manure, so that’s .004 of nitrogen a day. If we’re shooting for a solid .30 pounds of nitrogen every 100 square feet, it will take one chicken 75 days to fertilize a 100 square feet. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly when you have multiple chickens. At this rate, 24 chickens could fertilize 1200 square feed of garden in just 6 weeks!
How to do it:
Confine your chickens to the area you want fertilized and figure their length of stay based on the size of the area and how many chickens you have. Be careful not to leave your chickens in one place too long (without mulching) as you can have too much of a good thing!
4. As Compost-Turners
One chicken can help do a quarter of the work of turning a compost pile!
In order for your compost to break down, it must get oxygen. The more air you give it, the quicker it will break down. Many gardeners make a habit of “turning” their entire compost pile regularly when they need some of the precious material quickly. Turning is a laborious job, but your chickens can do at least a quarter of the work for you. I estimate they’ll do a quarter of the work, because they won’t take down the entire pile and they certainly won’t re-stack it for you. However, they will take down a good chunk of it, and all you’ll have to do is turn what they left of the pile and re-assemble what they spread out.
How to do it:
Assemble your compost pile and allow it time to heat up. If contains only fresh ingredients your chickens won’t show much interest. Once it’s warmed up and had time to start to decompose it will be swarming with life! If you need to protect your pile while it heats up, you can put it in protected bin, temporarily fence it off, or keep it covered. Once it’s had time to heat, your chickens will show great interest in the live biota that now makes up the pile. Later, you’ll come back and re-assemble the pile. I re-assembly and turn the piles once a week and within 4 weeks I have finished compost.
5. As Mulch Spreaders
One chicken can level a large pile of leaf mulch within two days.
Chickens can level a pile in no time. If I want to spread mulch or compost, I just pile the material where I need it spread and fence in my chickens around it. My flock of 30 can easily spread a large pile of leaves in a half a day, and one cubic yard of compost within two weeks!
How to do it:
Confine your chickens around a pile of mulch or compost where you want it spread. Leave them until the work is done! Time to spread will depend on size of pile, material, and age of material. Older material will have more biota and the chickens will show more interest. If your chickens aren’t showing interest in a pile you need spread (like fresh wood chips), try spreading their feed on the pile, so they have to scratch for it.
6. As Garbage Disposals
One chicken can convert up to pounds of food “waste” a month into fresh eggs and meat!
17% of what Americans throw out as “trash” is food according to the Gossamer foundation. Chickens are omnivores, like us, and will eat practically everything we can and more! Why not give our food scraps to our chickens and save money on trash disposal and lessen the burden of our landfills? Based on my own experience, chickens will easily eat a 1/4 to a 1/3 pound of food in a single day. That means a small flock of six could eat up to 60 pounds of food “trash” a month! (Jill: This is also one of my favorite ways to save money on chicken feed!)
How to do it:
Collect your food scrap in a food grade container or bucket. Chickens will eat practically any type of food your throwing out, including meat. If your not sure it’s safe for you chicken, try it and see what they do. I believe they have the sense to know whether it’s good for them or bad. You can clean up what they won’t eat or let it decompose where it’s at.
7. As Insect Control
One chicken can easily de-bug up to 120 square feet a week!
Chickens will thrive on all kinds of insects, beetles and grubs. They’ll snap up pretty much any thing that moves above the surface and they’ll scratch down more than six inches in garden mulch for grubs! A couple of years ago, I moved a flock of 15 around the pasture in 1700 square feet of mobile electric netting. Those birds easily eliminated the bug population in that area within a weeks time.
How to do it:
There are several options here. Before you plant the garden, you could confine your chickens in a tractor or with electric net over the area, then move them out when you start your garden. You could also free range your birds, while protecting your garden and other areas you don’t want them. I’ve heard of folks fencing the chickens around the entire garden. This would work to protect the garden from any crawling insects and the chicken manure might attract harmful slugs out of the garden, to the chickens. You could also move the chickens around the garden or property with a tractor or mobile netting depending the size of your operation. Finally, you can allow them supervised time in the garden or give them in 30 minutes to an hour before dusk. That way they’ll have just enough time to get at the bugs, and they won’t have any time left for your goodies!
8. As Orchard Sanitation
One chicken can de-bug an entire fruit tree within an hour, breaking the life cycle of pests and disease.
Disease and insect problems plague your typical orchard, but it should come by no surprise that the that the chickens can help in this area too. With some strategic timing, chickens can significantly boost orchard production! Two years ago some of my friends ran their flock through my granny’s abandoned/low production orchard. That next summer, we harvested so many apples, we’re still enjoying the applesauce!
How to do it:
Typical fruit trees don’t need a lot of nitrogen so you’ll wanted to limit the birds time around them and use some strategically timed planning. I suggest running the chickens through during the spring when the adult worms are coming out to lay their eggs. I would run the flock through again in the Autumn to eat the fallen fruit that that insects might use as housing throughout the winter.
Don’t forget to head over and check out the upcoming Permaculture Chickens film— I’m stoked to be a part of this project by donating, and am counting down the days until it’s released. This is just the kind of information we need more of to empower more people towards homesteading and self-sufficient living.
Once Justin discovered self sustainable farming around 2004, he has enjoyed many years of practicing “beyond organic” and permaculture methods on his 4th generation, 75 acre, family farm near Asheville NC.Justin trained under the highly accredited Geoff Lawton of PRI Australia for his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) and has trained under popular authors Joel Salatin and Pat Foremen. He’s passionate about teaching from his own homestead on the chicken systems essential to more sustainable living.With a great combination of business and permaculture skills, Justin is well positioned to deliver high quality educational films of this nature.