Sunday, July 27, 2014

How To Raise Chickens WITHOUT Buying Feed, and Get Excellent Compost and Eggs Too

Now that I am back home in the country and and have begun rebuilding my flock, I am dedicated to using permaculture and sustainability concepts more than ever.
Someone cut this tall corner of poke and brambles out before, and left their slingblade.

My husband and I have been pulling a five acre pasture and woods farm out of a jungle of bittersweet and even less lovely weeds, like greenbriar and poke as big as my arm, and the time it's taken has given us a chance to think like homesteaders about our plans.

The entire ground of new-cleared land (we mostly used machete) looks just awful.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture's core concepts are: (from Wikipedia
  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.
It's the third concept that got me thinking.  I create kitchen waste (food, tea bags, coffee grounds, etc.) which I have always fed to my birds, seeing it as a supplementary nutrition source.  But I noted that IF one chooses to feed scraps to birds, one can't compost them, so one had to choose one way to use the resource (waste) over another.  Over time, I began to wonder whether it was a false assumption on my part--if indeed, one couldn't combine chickens into composting, and actaully have a synergistic effect, creating more energy which could be added to my entire "system" on the homestead.  

I think of it like solar energy--get the panels and plug them up right, and suddenly, you are an energy PRODUCER, selling wattage back to the grid!  If you combine things correctly, you can get the same effect with chickens, saving money instead of making it.  Which is basically the same thing in my world. As a matter of fact, I prefer saving money to making it because when I make money I usually have to leave the house.  Saving money lets me do that less often, staying close to the people (and projects!) that I love.

Because I'd rather stand around and watch my chickens work, than work.
Here's how it works.  Start with your regular compost pile.  Does it have a fence or pallet structure around it?  Excellent--you want it to be contained somehow.  You can learn elsewhere about the right ratios of "green" and "brown", but suffice to say if you put in all your yard clippings/waste, dead leaves, coffee grounds, and food scraps (minus meat or citrus, if you want to be careful), and have a pile of hay to add to the top of the pile every time you pour in new scraps, it'll be pretty great.

Big hit.
 Now comes the fun part.  Start letting your chickens into this area.  Every day if you want!  Compost of the sort we have described usually contains the normal things chickens would get from your fresh kitchen scraps, with an added protein bonus of bugs, worms, and other insects that are attracted to the compost and laying their eggs, etc. into it.  Sound gross?  Well, get over it.  In this method you simply put into one spot the perfect environment to support your chicken's natural nutritional needs.

Starting the compost with greenery we removed from run area.

Got more than a few birds in your flock? Get creative.  Buy several small buckets with lids and ask your neighbors for THEIR food scraps--maybe you can work out a scraps-for-eggs trade arrangement! Got a friend working at the local cafe or coffee bar?  Those scraps are good too! Got a fruit tree that drops windfall fruit you don't or won't use?  Lots of larvae get laid in those fruits.  Why not add to the compost pile?

Here's what I'm doing.  I have 21 birds and another 24 in the incubator.  I figure when it all shakes out I'll have 25-30 total, in three pens. That's a lot of birds and a lot of feed to buy.  And I can't afford organic bird feed.  I hate feeding my flock GMO corn-based feed and that's what non-organic is. I'd prefer to know (and be able to sell) my eggs as natural, whole-foods based, non-GMO.  

The resources in my system include a large old barn with a ton of old hay and manure.  It also includes all the stuff (green weeds and plants) we are whacking out of our property to make room for us.  And finally we found a semi-enclosed pallet structure under all those weeds in one corner of the property--right where I had thought about putting the first chicken coop.

Pallet structure appeared as we cut back the chicken run area...
We sited the coop there and included the pallet structure inside the run.  We began dumping scraps + hay + manure + yard clippings right in there, and lo and behold the birds LOVED IT.  I could see they were eating a lot of food from the scraps, but I also saw they were eating tons of creepy crawlies from the old manure/hay combo.  And as I watched, I saw them taking out the FLIES that were coming over to investigate the scraps.  In all, I saw them consuming a lot of protein.  Combine this with their normal free ranging time each day and I began to think they might not need any more processed feed from the sack.

I decided to do a little research.  Not only has it been done successfully (and with lots of bells and whistles I hadn't considered) BUT ALSO measured....and found to maintain or increase the numbers of eggs birds lay (which is a primary indicator of their nutritional health).

Back to the compost.  I read that the compost they produce from this kind of setup can be of a very high quality.  One compost producer uses this method, in fact, to create the compost he sells--in LARGE quantities. THIS GUY.  I even saw a video that uses a tractor approach with compost that ends with the birds having left a nice long row of high quality (humus) compost right along the ends of your planned garden rows. WOW,  In this scenario, you "employ" chickens to create compost (AND EGGS) for you and "pay them" by letting them eat what they find while doing so.  Then at the end of this transaction you have excellent compost you can put back into your food production sites, again and again.

Elegant, isn't it? 

I've been observing my birds and noting health vigor (and grossly enough, but understandably: how much they poop) and reducing their feed accordingly.  I think the best approach is to feed only supplementary basis at night which encourages them to get out and hustle through the day.  I'll give an update as we go along and note any changes I've needed to make in order to maintain optimal health and all the systems working together.

Have you tried this?  Are you considering it now?  If you watch the videos let me know what you think about what some of these permaculture heroes are doing with this approach.