When it comes to animals, you need to be careful to choose what will be well suited to your site. Animals often require a lot of specific inputs such as time, money, space, food, etc. Larger animals like sheep and goats typically come with a steep learning curve and can cost a lot more than you may expect, with things such as vaccines and birth control taking up unexpected time and money. That’s why chickens can be such a great animal to start with. They don’t require as much time, effort, and money, plus their yields are in high demand. For example, it’s a lot easier to sell or traded a dozen eggs with your neighbors compared to the meat from a sheep!
Chickens are well suited to almost any permaculture project as they can be put to work in many ways. It is also possible to provide for most or all their food on site with a bit of effort and creativity. Chickens are well suited to small gardens and can become a key element in an urban design that will interact well with other elements.
In permaculture, we can analyze the needs, characteristics, behaviors, and yields from an animal to help us integrate them into our design.
The Needs of a Chicken
Chickens require several inputs, and by meeting their needs we can ensure a healthy flock. These include:
- Fresh Air
- Clean Water
- Shelter from the elements
- Dust baths
- Company (other chickens)
- Protection from predators
We can provide for some of these needs by cycling the outputs from other elements. For example, we can feed the chickens scraps from the kitchen, fallen fruit from the orchard, and worms from the worm bin. We can also breed larvae in buckets to provide the chickens with a free source of protein. Typically, we will need to spend more money when establishing a new flock, and then we can look to replace some expenditure with time and creativity as our permaculture system develops.
The Behaviours of a Chicken
All animals have typical behaviors; for example, chickens scratch, forage, fly, roost, and fight. Some of these behaviors need to be controlled and others can be encouraged.
We can control the roosting habit by ensuring they have a suitable place to roost each night. Typically, this would be within a coop with several perches provided at different heights. It may seem like a nice idea to let them free range and roost where they like, but from experience, they can cause a fair amount of damage in zones 1, 2 and 3 as they can break the branches of fruit trees and dig up crops if they are not adequately contained. In certain systems chickens can be free range, however, this will typically be on larger properties in zone 4 or in an established food forest where they are given access to a small and developed area of the site.
We can encourage beneficial habits such as scratching by letting the chickens into areas of our site in a controlled manner, putting them to work in a way that benefits us as well as providing for the needs of the chicken. For example, we can let the flock into our food forest, a fallow area of the kitchen garden or the orchard. The chickens will scratch in the soil, eat bugs and insects, and leave patches of fertility. They can also be put to work in the compost pile, a system developed by Geoff Lawton that produces incredibly high-quality compost.
Yields from a Chicken
Of course, chickens can provide us with meat and eggs, however, in permaculture we see chickens as much more than just a food source. They are one of our best workers, and with a bit of creativity, we can get dozens of outputs from recognizing the natural behaviors of chickens and by providing for their needs.
For example, chickens can be integrated into a small greenhouse to help keep the temperature above freezing. They can also provide carbon dioxide for plant growth and methane for germination. We need to be careful to keep the chickens separated from the seedlings, which can be easily achieved with good design.
In a food forest or an orchard, chickens provide pest control and fertilization, in return, they get a free food source, water, and shelter.
Permaculture design also looks at the way in which we build the chicken coop. A good example of maximizing yields, increasing diversity and strengthening the relationships within a system is to grow beneficial plants alongside a chicken run such as comfrey, lavender, fennel, nasturtiums, sage, wormwood, and rosemary. We can choose plants for shade, chicken food, aesthetics, and insect control.
By having handles and wheels, we can design the chicken coop to be movable. This is known as a chicken tractor and it allows us to provide fresh pasture for the birds every few days. On a larger scale, we can use electric netting to cycle the birds through a field to increase fertility. This is a great way of establishing new land for a food forest as we can increase soil fertility over large areas with little to no cost.
One fantastic design that is popular in the backyard is to fence the chickens under a trampoline. The kids can use the trampoline during the day, and then the chickens have a safe place to sleep at night. It goes to show that in most cases it is our creativity rather than the space we have to work with that limits our designs.