As part of our Grand Plan permaculture design, each function of the farm will be as close to a self-sustaining system as we can reasonably muster, and this includes our laying flock. We want to create a chicken-centric woodland filled with foods they love. The idea was inspired by the chapter on chickens in Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture.
Food forests mimic woodlands in that plants are grouped together in mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships where plants share nutrients, provide mulch, attract beneficial insects, etc… as well as provide a wide variety of food (fruit, seeds, nuts, herbs, berries, vegetables, etc…) for animals and humans.
In our Chicken Food Forest the birds will literally eat the “low hanging fruit”. We would harvest the rest for them or if there’s an abundance – share it with other livestock and/or eat it ourselves. The more of their food we can grow on the farm the less, if any, feed we will have to buy in. We also plan to grow grains so we hopefully won’t have to buy feed at all.
Zone 1 from our permaculture farm design prepared before the barn was built. The Chicken Food Forest is to the right of the barn. This drawing is not to scale and the details are a little bit different than depicted here, but it gives you an idea of what we are envisioning.
We staked out four paddocks that are roughly 1300 sf each and have planted the black locusts that will run along the fence lines eventually becoming living fence posts. The chickens will move through one paddock at a time allowing for the plantings to recover and regrow just like in a pasture rotation system. The laying flock will be housed in a coop adjacent to the greenhouse which is attached to the barn. There will be a fairly large strawyard as well as a covered area just outside the coop entrance with a series of gates accessing each paddock.
The perimeter fencing will be woven wire field fencing with posts made from the cedar we recently had taken down at home. By the time these cedar posts have served their time, the black locusts we have planted all along the proposed fence lines will be in place to take over fence post duty. We will keep the black locusts pollarded in the meantime, using the prunings as chop and drop mulch. Since we have so many trees in a limited area, pollarding will help keep them at a manageable height.
At the bottom of the field fencing we will run a two foot section of hardware cloth or chicken wire to keep the baby chicks from getting out and two strands of hot wire will be added to keep predators out. The interior fencing won’t have to be as secure as the perimeter, so will be either be leftover field fencing or chicken wire – just high enough to keep the chickens from getting into the other paddocks.
In addition to the black locusts planted along the fence lines, we will plant fruiting trees, vines and shrubs, herbaceous plants and ground covers that chickens like to eat. Comfrey, grapes, amaranth, rye grass, flax, currants, raspberries, clovers, figs, mulberry, chickweed, oats, millet, sunflowers, etc…. We will double up the fencing in between the paddocks to create a narrow corridor so that some of the plantings (i.e. grapes that will run along the fencing) will be better protected from the chicken’s scratching. Other ways to protect plantings from too much damage is to place stones, bricks, etc… at the base of plants that might suffer from the scratching about by the chickens.
This golden hops plant next to the coop has survived the chicken scratching for three years now.
The trees and shrubs will also provide the chickens with protection from raptors and summer heat.
My weeping mulberries aren’t this big yet but pretty soon they will provide a great shelter for the chickens. (photo courtesy of landscapingworkshop.com)
We may run something over the top of the paddocks to help with this until the tree canopy is large enough to do the job. I’m thinking something fun along the lines of a may pole.
(photo courtesy of cowcard.com)
Although they provide us with delicious and nutritious eggs for which we are extremely grateful for, the chickens will still need to earn their keep in exchange for living in this paradise. In the paddocks not currently in use we will build compost piles so that when the birds move back in the piles will be chock full of worms, pill bugs, cutworms, etc… ready for the chickens to employ their shredding and mixing abilities as well as adding in fresh nitrogen deposits.
The Chicken Food Forest is adjacent to [what will be] the main Greenhouse and the Kitchen Garden. In early spring and late fall we will let them free range through the greenhouse and the gardens to till the cover crops in, manage pests and apply fertilizer.
I read on The Walden Effect that he rotates his birds on pasture every 28 days through four paddocks and allows about 270 square feet per bird. He also says if you are running your birds through the paddocks year round, which we will do, you would need six paddocks. The difference is he’s talking about pasture and broilers and he’s located in Virginia. I’m talking about a densely planted food forest in a more temperate climate (no harsh winter) and a laying flock.
I am thinking about the rotation schedule before I plant so I will know [roughly] which paddock they would be in at any give time in an attempt to make sure the fruits are ripe when they are in a particular paddock or it’s the warmest/driest during the winter, etc….
I started out playing around with a monthly rotation schedule which gives each paddock a 16 week recovery period but I’m already doubting it’s effectiveness as I look out my window at our little flock of 12 birds and how quickly they rip stuff up.
Paddock 1 – January, May, September
Paddock 2 – February, June, October
Paddock 3 – March, July, November
Paddock 4 – April, August, December
As an example of my thought process – the mulberries I am planning to plant in paddocks 1 and 4 start to fruit here in mid to late August, so the birds will have access to the ripe fruit when they are moved into those paddocks. Paddocks 1 and 2 are south-facing and therefore warmer in the winter which is where they will be during the coldest months. Paddocks 3 and 4 are shaded from the hot western sun by the barn when they are in there during the hotter months. I’m sure I won’t be able to work everything out perfectly, but a little bit of planning should help to make these birds pretty self-sufficient.
If I go with a bi-monthly rotation it won’t work quite as well with them being in the warmer paddocks during the coldest months, but the plants will probably be a whole lot better off. Each paddock would have an 8 week recovery period.
Paddock 1 – early January, March, May, July, September, November
Paddock 2 – late January, March, May, July, September, November
Paddock 3 – early February, April, June, August, October, December
Paddock 4 – late February, April, June, August, October, December
I’m hoping I can run 30 – 40 birds through this system. I may have to eat those words later, but we won’t be starting out with 40 birds from the get go. It is an experiment that we will monitor as we go along and make adjustments as needed. There is room to add a fifth paddock if needed and we have a few more permaculture tricks up our sleeve so read on…
Keeping the Chickens Employed
If we need to take pressure off of the Chicken Food Forest should we reach our maximum capacity and want to expand our flock, or should we have a lot of older layers needing gainful employment as something other than bone broth, we’ve come across a couple of unique “tractoring” systems we want to try out.
As we break new ground for “people” food forests or convert pasture to broad acre crops, etc…, we will use a small flock of birds (around 10-12 I’d imagine) to help prepare the land. Using an egg mobile and some electronet fencing, the chickens will be moved through an area a section at a time to scratch up the sod, clean out the bugs and fertilize the soil. Geoff Lawton demonstrates this system in his Designing a Food Forest with Chickens video.
After a broad acre garden area is planted out and in full production, the chickens can be moved about in the general vicinity turning kitchen scraps and garden waste into compost to mulch the beds with – another great idea and video (also from my permaculture hero Geoff Lawton) demonstrates how this works. I really love this and think it would be a great job for older hens who are slowing down their egg production – assuming we have all of the bone broth and chicken & dumplings makings we need in the freezer. We do plan on having our flock hatch out chicks so we expect to have a fair number of roosters to meet those needs.
I highly recommend signing up for the Geoff Lawton videos to see the full videos – well worth it and I promise there is no spam, plus you’ll have access to many more free videos he’s produced. They are all quite brilliant.
I’ve been bugging M about making me a chicken taxi so I can easily move my hens about our property at home. Since it is so heavily wooded and sloped, it is hard for me to move the poultrynet around while still giving them access to their coop. Through Sailors Small Farm, I heard about Eliot Coleman’s Chickshaw – which is exactly what I envisioned my chicken taxi to be. We can easily deploy chickens or ducks to any area of the farm that would benefit from their attention.
You say chickshaw and I say chicken taxi… (photo courtesy of smallfarmtools.com)
This post is all about our laying flock. We plan to also raise meat birds and tractor them in the lanes between our fruit and nut trees – but most of you are already familiar with that concept.
It’s all theory at this point, so I am humbly soliciting feedback from all chicken-keepers out there. Thanks!