The Chicken Food Forest

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

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.

Paddocks

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.

Fencing

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.

Plantings

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)

Compost

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.

Rotation

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. [NOTE – there are access issues with some of the original Geoff Lawton videos. I tried to update links where I can but wasn’t able to find this one again. My apologies. Try searching for it – it may become available again]

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 the Geoff Lawton video series 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. [NOTE – I had to update this link to Geoff’s new website due to issues with the old site and access to the original videos discussed in this post, so not all are available at this time but I hope they will be soon. Regardless there is a lot of wonderful info available on the new site]

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!

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
This entry was posted in Chickens, Compost, Farming, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture, Preparing the land, Sustainability and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Chicken Food Forest

  1. DM says:

    you guys are light years ahead of me in terms of specific plans for chickens. I learned a couple of lessons the hard way a couple of years ago. #1 Do not buy heritage breed chickens to raise for meat, they take 3 times longer to mature than the breeds bred for meat. #2 do not buy organic chicken feed if you are trying to raise heritage breed chickens for meat. you will have triple the amount of $ tied up in some scrawny roosters. 🙂

    • Actually, heritage meat birds is one of my next research projects! If we are successful with growing our own feed that should help us be able to afford to grow the birds out longer. We’ve been harvesting any cockerels our layers hatch out at about 16 weeks and although in comparison to the Cornish X birds they look “scrawny” – the flavor is unbelievable. Then there’s the marketing part – trying to convince folks that “good things can come in smaller packages”! That’s an uphill battle I’m sure, but just think about the Slow Food movement. I think it is possible. I know – we have a lot of experimenting to do.

      • DM says:

        my problem was I had given people a ball park cost per bird going into it, based on previous experiences, (we had 5 or 6 other families each getting 10 birds each, besides ourselves) ended up costing triple what I’d projected, and some of them were on tight budgets, so I was conflicted in terms of how much to absorb, and how much to pass on. It did not leave me with pleasant memories.. You are so right about educated consumers, being willing to pay more. They are out there…there are also still a lot who think you are ripping them off, when chicken is $.49 a pound @ the grocery store and your actual cost w/ a heritage breed and organic food is 12 times that. I am very intrigued by your food forest for chickens. I’m wondering how much of that I can duplicate w/ our harsher winters, or maybe just be able to pull it off 8 months out of the year…went to bed thinking about it actually.

  2. Pingback: The Chicken Food Forest | Le Petit Canard Farm | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  3. I love the chicken food forest idea, and you’ve given me some great ideas – like double fencing to protect plants from vigorous scratching. Life is getting ahead of me just now, so my own plans for hops and fruit trees are on hold for the chicken runs, but I haven’t given up on them.

    The multiple run system – I use a four run system too, as you know, complete with scratching yard. I’m trying to be better this year about moving with the seasons so that I can sustain healthier forage, but it’s a losing battle, really – 50 birds in 1000-1200 sq ft runs is just too many. I would like to cut the number of birds in the runs in half, and put half in tractors, like you, but, as Mrs Beeton might say – first build your tractor. If you ever build one of those fancy Coleman type ones – be sure to show us “how to” pictures – they look amazing. The original Balfour method (which I worked from to get to to my 4 run system) calls for keeping the chickens in the scratching yard most of the day, and letting them out on the pasture run for only part of the day. I think this would work well to save the pastures, but I hate to keep the birds in the smaller space. It will be interesting to see how things work for you. You’ll really just have to do it to figure out how to make it work best for you.

    You hooked me on Geoff Lawton’s videos some time ago, and I’m so grateful. Even when they’re not on a topic that I find terribly fascinating, his passion for whatever it is always draws me in.

  4. Yep – we won’t really know until we get out there and just start doing it. Someday soon I hope….
    Glad you’ve become a Geoff Lawton fan – he is a pretty phenomenal guy. His passion is what hooked me too! He was at the Permaculture Voices conference I went to last year and hearing him speak live is even better.
    Thanks for your feedback on the run size and number of birds – it confirms what I was thinking – we should probably just go ahead and include that fifth paddock now – unless of course, I can get that chicken taxi put together sooner rather than later!
    Good hearing from you – hope things ease up a bit soon.

    • Mother’s day treat today included a visit to the local fruit tree nursery, where hubby got me a fig tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin apple tree, a mulberry and a grape vine (Suffolk seedless red). All for my chicken run plans….and us, of course 🙂

      • what a lovely Mother’s Day treat! One of my favorite birthday treats was going for High Tea and then spending the afternoon at a huge nursery. M pushed the cart around letting me fill it it with whatever my heart desired. That’s my kind of shopping!

  5. Bill says:

    Awesome post. I’m greatly impressed at you carefully and thoughtfully y’all are planning things. As I’ve said many times now, I wish I’d had principles like these in mind when we were setting up our farm. We just dove in and reacted to issues as they arose. And that shows!

    I love the idea of stones at the base of a plant to protect it from chickens. So simple yet I hadn’t thought of it before.

    I highly recommend brambles for your chicken food forest. After we set up our main coop I used to keep the area around it clear from “weeds” (because I was a dummy). Eventually I quit mowing around it and lots of wild blackberries came up. The chickens eat the berries they can reach, and we eat the rest. But the primary advantage of them is shelter from hawks. The chickens run under the blackberry vines when there’s a hawk about and they’re safe there.

    Giving your chickens access to the compost pile is a great idea. Ours free-range so they can reach the compost (and some do) but it isn’t convenient for them. A friend who is doing something similar to your idea (keeping the compost inside a chicken run) showed me his and I was amazed at how quickly it broke down into beautiful compost. Just keep in mind that you won’t want to apply compost with fresh chicken manure in it to gardens within 120 days of producing food. So you’ll need to be able to let the compost rest from chickens for that long.

    Harvey Ussery has written and spoken a lot about transitioning to raising chickens without buying feed. He rightly notes that our grandmothers never bought chicken feed. Chickens lived off table scraps, a handful of cracked corn at times (to keep them trained) and what they could forage for themselves. Their egg production was less, but without the cost of feed he says the cost per egg is less too.

    Thanks for all this great food for thought. This post will be a real benefit to homesteaders.

    • Thanks Bill! Kind of you to say.
      There is something to be said for just diving in and getting things going! I feel like we run into “analysis paralysis” a lot and not being out there to just dive in forces us to think things through more than is probably necessary. Also – when we started it was just pasture and woodlot so we didn’t have to live with any existing systems – although I’m wishing the former owners had fenced it! I’m itching to get out there full-time so we can get some traction on the myriad projects we have started on the weekends out there.
      We have wild blackberry growing EVERYWHERE, so it will probably invite itself into the chicken’s forest without my help plus we will be planting currants, raspberries, and all sorts of shrubs and vines for them to seek shelter (and snackage) from.
      I have a 3 bin compost set up here at home made from old wooden pallets. I moved the poultrynet around it and let the chickens have at what I thought was a pretty rough pile with kazillions of worms in it. Within a couple of hours it was beautiful compost and nary a worm in sight! I hope a lot of them were able to crawl to the bottom of the pile though – I wasn’t expecting a worm massacre. Anyhow – I was shocked at how quickly they turned that 4 x 6 pile!
      I have a dog-eared copy of Harvey Ussery’s book and consider it to be my Chicken Bible – I now regret not referencing him in this post as a lot of his advice is weaved in here as well.

  6. Pingback: Chicken Planning « Practicing Resurrection

  7. Predators don’t like change and become wary when things move around. Moving your birds on a monthly basis may expose your birds to risks that can be avoided by moving them weekly. Please don’t take that as criticism, just something you might consider.

    • Thanks for the feedback HFS – appreciate the visit! I hear what you are saying and it makes sense – certainly for the meat birds and the egg mobiles we will be rotating throughout the farm. They will be rotated on a much more accelerated schedule. The laying chickens in the “food forest” paddocks will be completely fenced and there will be a hot wire around the perimeter as well. It is also in close proximity to what will be a high traffic area. On top of that, the birds will be locked up in their coop at night which is attached to the barn. I think they will be pretty safe. My rotation cycle concerns are more about giving the plants a chance to regrow before the birds return to a paddock. I think I’ll just have to experiment to see how long is too long!

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