One of the elements I lean on perhaps more than any other in my homesteading efforts is my small flock of chickens. Over the past couple of years I have raised chickens both for eggs and for meat, but those might even be secondary benefits that they provide. The biggest benefit that my chooks provide is that they can help bring an incredible amount of fertility into the landscape.
In a previous post, I shared the prime inspiration for my model of managing a chicken flock. Here, I’m going to get into some of the basics of my present setup, and how I leverage the natural behavior and products of the chicken, along with capturing “waste” streams in my area, for increasing the fertility of my land several times over.
It’s always important to understand what the inputs and outputs/behaviors are for every element we place in a design, if we want to leverage it to the greatest advantage. In the case of a chicken, a basic outline goes as follows:
- Clean water
- Shelter from weather, cold winds
- Protection from predators (ground and air)
- Physical space
- Dust (for bathing)
- Nesting boxes
- Grit (for digestion)
- Calcium (for eggshells)
- Clucking, squawking, crowing
- Flying and running
Since I live on a small rural lot (1.3 acres) and have neighbors nearby, I made sure to check with them before I purchased my chickens in order to avoid any disputes. I also refrained from keeping a rooster with my egg layers, as the crowing had the potential to cause problems. I decided that any potential problems could be smoothed over by proactively sharing excess eggs, as well as a dressed meat chicken or two. I’m closing in on two full years of keeping chickens, and to date there have been zero problems with neighbors, I’ve only lost two birds to predators, and none to illness. My current flock is 19 birds, which could be pretty large if I was doing a simple coop-and-run or free range setup, but works perfectly for my current setup. People who see my birds in action and have experience with chickens remark on how healthy my girls look. And every time I’m out around them, their singing to me as they go about their business tells me that they’re pretty happy with their situation here.
Without further ado, I’m going to go into a few of the basics surrounding my current winter setup. The setup I use during the spring, summer and fall months is different, and I’ll revisit those through the upcoming seasons. Right now, however, the chickens are kept in a stationary greenhouse-style coop on the south face of my storage shed. Their yard is enclosed by 200′ of electronet fencing (more on this in a little bit) that keeps predators at bay. Compost piles are built up through the winter, providing a source of entertainment and food for the chickens.
The place we’ll start is their coop. As I said above, it’s basically a greenhouse with a corrugated metal roof and polycarbonate panels on the sides to allow the light in. Since it faces south, it gets a lot of sunlight on a clear winter’s day, making a warm space for the birds to hang out as well as protecting them from the cold northerly winds. Windows under the eave are propped open to provide ventilation. There is no floor in the coop. Rather, the soil was removed and it is kept filled with a deep litter of leaves, which I gather from town every year when residents bag them up and put them on the curb (a “waste” product seized and put to good use for free). I dig trenches through the coop litter about every other day or so, turning it over to allow the chickens to better scratch through it, and aerating it in the process. When I feed the birds, I just throw it down on top of the litter — further encouraging them to scratch and peck like they were born to do.
Didn’t I say something at the beginning of this piece about the chickens adding fertility to the landscape? We’re getting to that part. Each week, I start a new batch of compost in a simple bin that I constructed out of six shipping pallets. I take several Rubbermaid totes full of bedding from under the chickens’ roost — leaves that have been scratched and manured thoroughly, already starting to break down — and put it into the bottom of this bin. On top of that, I add a truck bed full of horse manure from a local horse farm (another “waste” product intercepted and put to good use at no cost). After the manure, I add a tote or two of shredded leaves, and then top it off with food scraps. I have a deal with a local restaurant where I drop off a bucket every day, and they deposit their food scraps into it for me to pick up. I also keep a Rubbermaid compostables bin at my office in which my co-workers put their food scraps and coffee grounds. It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone: food waste is kept out of the landfill, and instead put it to work feeding chickens. I do have some other supplemental food sources for my girls, but they get a good portion of their caloric intake from the food scraps, reducing my feed bill considerably. Each time I show up with the bucket, they come running to see what kind of goodies are on offer!
After the bedding, manure and food scraps spend a week in the bin, I turn them out into a pile in the chicken yard. Even though low temperatures regularly plunge into the teens, the center of the bin is always hot and steaming from the hard-working thermophilic bacteria inside. Compost-turning day is probably my chickens’ favorite day of the week. They furiously scratch through the new piles for bits of fermented food, sprouted seeds (more on that in a future post), and even some worms and soil bugs in the winter months. The chicken yard turns into a sea of “fluffy butts” sticking up in the air as they scratch, peck, and sing to their hearts’ content. In the process, they aerate and add manure to the pile, increasing the microbiology in the finished compost and helping to keep it aerobic.
Every week I’ll also take the previous week’s turned-out bin and throw it on top of the accumulating pile. It is also usually hot and steaming from the thermophilic bacteria at work, breaking down the ingredients into compost. This winter has been a rather mild one to date, and the compost pile has grown quite large over this time.
The chickens also work over the rest of their yard, scratching and pecking at all the existing vegetation, tilling the soil and dropping their manure as they go.
Come springtime, I’ll move the chickens to a mobile coop on a different area of the property so they can get access to fresh vegetation and a smorgasbord of bugs on a regular basis. I’ll put a length of welded wire fencing around their winter yard and spread out the compost pile over the ground. Into it, I’ll plant sunflowers, popcorn, dry beans, and winter squash. These will all be crops that will require minimal maintenance on my part — only some watering during the dry part of the year. The soil here will be charged with all kinds of microbial activity from the chickens, and the compost will hold in moisture. Once we reach that point, I’ll return with updates throughout the growing season.
This is meant simply as a basic overview of my winter setup and how I leverage the chickens’ natural behavior — behavior which can be quite destructive in the wrong context — into adding fertility to my homestead through the creation of amazing compost. This model can be scaled up or down quite easily, so even if you’re not interested in keeping 19-20 hens like I do, there is no reason you can’t do something along these same lines with as few as 5-6 birds. I hope it inspires you to discover the endless possibilities that such an amazing animal can offer, and if you have specific questions about these processes, please reach out with a comment or send me an email to email@example.com.
My setup is a modification of the “Chicken Tractor on Steroids” by Geoff Lawton, which is based upon the work of Karl Hammer at Vermont Compost Company. Although Geoff’s model is a fantastic setup for a small farm, I found that it was not sufficient for my relatively small lot, and I made some significant modifications to it while trying to remain true to the basic principles. I highly recommend watching the video Geoff put together on this topic, which is linked above, and here.