Not everybody likes the term ‘Chicken Scavenging System’. World renowned Permaculture author, Patrick Whitefield would prefer me to use something that sounds less desperate. Most permaculturalists use the term Chicken Forage, so what’s the difference, and what are the implications of using one system or another?
I don’t have a dictionary definition of either term, so failing that I thought that I would describe the two systems as as I see them. If you are a regular reader or subscriber to the blog, some of the ideas that I discuss here have been included in earlier posts. Before reading it might be worth reading the following Research Paper, Poultry Nutrition. In it there is a strong theme of insect eating running throuh the section on the Jungle Fowl, which is the ancestor of the domestic chicken.
Chicken Forage Systems
I understand a Chicken Forage System to be one where plants have been specifically planted to feed chickens. There may be other functions provided by a Chicken Forage System, but the primary function is to provide food for the chickens.
The earliest example that I have come across was in Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, by J Russell Smith. In it he recommends planting Mulberries for chickens. The fruit drops over a long period, especially the ‘everbearing’ varieties, and the chickens eat them happily. Amongst permaculture practitioners the plant that is talked about most as a chicken forage plant is Siberian Pea (Caragana arborescens). This is a Nitrogen fixing shrub that produces edible seeds. The seeds are relished by chickens. I have a related plant growing here. Bladder Senna (Colutea arborescens). The seeds of Bladder Senna are not meant to be edible for humans, but my chickens jump up to pull the dried pods off of the plant to get at the seeds. Chickens will eat most leafy greens, but as their key requirement for egg laying is protein, leaves with a higher protein content are most useful. My chickens love eating comfrey, which is particularly high in protein. They also eat chicory, clover, grass, and many other leaves. One that they have been eating a lot of lately is Pulmonaria. Unfortunately the plants belong to my neighbour. There is a good description of some useful Chicken Forage plants in a post on the Permaculture Research Institute Site. CHICKEN FORAGE
The following link describes observations of which plants chickens ate ‘avidly’. Upgrading the scavenging feed resource base. Many are not suitable for the UK climate, but some are (Spanish Broom and Mulberry), and others have relatives that grow here. The report also notes the preference of chickens for leaves that are known to have a high protein content.
Chicken Scavenging System
I came across the term Chicken Scavenging System whilst researching the references to the Chicken Forage post mentioned above. I use it as it more closely resembles the type of system that I want to develop. I take it to mean a system where the primary outputs are not chicken food, and the chickens eat food that humans do not.
In the developed world there is no research being done into low input/low output chicken systems, such as a Chicken Scavenging System. There’s no profit in it. As almost all research is paid for by businesses, the research focusses on Industrial style egg and meat production. In the developing world there is much more focus on improving the situation of rural people. There has been lots of research into ways to mprove the health and productivity of village flocks. When I was researching my Chicken Scavenging System Design, I looked at a lot of this research, and the design has links to many of the papers that I looked at. Reading through one those papers again, I spotted two facts that I had missed. Poultry as a Tool in Poverty Eradication
The domestic waste from a village household was sufficient to feed three hens. I didn’t notice that, and I’m guessing that this is as well as anything that the hens could scavenge from their environment. Just think about that a second. A poor household in Asia produces enough domestic waste to support three hens. How much more waste is coming from our Western houses? As so few of those households keep animals, how much food could we produce just using the stuff that we throw away. Add in all, of the waste from shops, restaurants, schools etc. and we could be saving tonnes of food that could be feeding people from being fed to chickens directly, or from going to landfill. I just looked at the label on our commercially produced chicken feed. It states that we should feed up to 150g of food per hen. So the three scavenging village chickens would eat 450 grams of human grade grains in the developed world. This amounts to about 1.500 calories, or about three quarters of the calories needed for an adult woman. So the food for four hens would feed a woman, and five would feed a man. Feeding my chickens doesn’t sit so comfortably as it once did. We do feed waste food, such as boiled peelings, but see below for availability of forage.
The Local Environment
A Chicken Scavenging System relies on the local environment to provide some a significant proportion of poultry nutrition. When I was reading the research papers I had a a ‘fluffy’ image of lots of chickens scratching away around the village, uncovering insects everywhere. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The number of chickens looking for food in some of these villages means that insects and other food items are not common. This contrasts with my situation where my chickens have access to quite large areas, with little competition for the available food. That does present a problem in that they are not hungry enough to eat/process everything that I want them to eat. I have addressed this in the way that they are housed and managed, which will be the subject of a future post.
One thing that stood out in my research was the importance that insects played in the diet of the Jungle Fowl. Growing chicks, and laying hens ate more insects, presumably for growth and egg laying. Both of these are times of an increased need for protein. The studies of crop contents may have underplayed the importance of insects for scavenging chickens, and a potential chicken scavenging system. The studies measured the dry weight of the crop contents, which iin the case of insects is almost all the exoskeleton. Whilst the value of plant material may be in the dry weight, for insects it’s the ‘gloop’ inside. (Think ‘Men in Black’ or ‘Starship Troopers’ for a visual image 🙂 ) My own observations have corroborated that. No matter how much food my chickens have available, I’ve not seen them turn down a bug. In fact if presented with a worm and a wood louse, almost invariably it wil be the woodlouse that’s eaten first. I feel that Insects make the perfect food source for a chicken scavenging system. They are not eaten by many people in the developed world, so the chickens would not be competing with humans for food.
Where Systems Overlap
When I was thinking of examples of the different systems it was clear that there could be an overlap. One example would be planting a vegetable bed with plants to feed chickens. If the bed was producing chicken food instead of human food that would potentilly be a chicken forage system. If the plants were part of an over wintering green manure, and were grazed by chickens as part of that, would that be a chicken forage system or a chicken scavenging system? Planting Mulberries for feeding chickens would be chicken forage, whereas chickens eating unused fallen fruit is more like a chicken scavenging system. Clearly any system could have elements of both within it.
Creating a Chicken Scavenging System
I don’t think that there is any place where you can read how to create your own chicken scavenging system, especially for developed countries. I have read pretty much all of the books that there are relating to permaculture, forest gardens, and quite a few on chickens too. Some contain useful information, but this idea is still pretty new. What I did was to look at the type of environment that would grow insects, and decided that the best was the floor of a forest. My chicken scavenging system design focusses on creating a bed of leaf litter in which insects will thrive, and so will my chickens. On a smaller scale, look at ways that are recommended for promoting beetles, spiders, and bugs of any kind. Log piles, low growing shrubs and plants, and leaving gardens messy over winter, are all strategies for increasing insect numbers. Simple activities like having a large lump of wood, and turning it over every few days exposes some free protein for your chickens. There are also plants that are recommended for increasing insect numbers. One of these is yarrow, and I’ve been planting it in areas within my chicken scavenging area. The next link lists plants that can be used in the garden to attract beneficial insects. Sadly there is not much information on how to attract the sort of insects that we woudn’t normally be hoping to attract.
Chicken Housing and Management
Looking further afield than a chicken scavenging system, feeding weeds, or other plants that we do not want to eat to chickens is another strategy for reducing the competition for food between chickens and humans. For chickens with limited forage that’s really easy. You just throw the plants to the chickens, and they’ll eat them. If your chickens have unlimited access to plant food, there’s a good chance that what you want them to eat is not high on their ‘like’ list. To get them to eat this lower quality food either you need to turn it into something more attractive, like worms or soldier flies, or you have to control what food sources your chickens have access to. That’s the subject for my next post. A system of housing and management that obtains the most benefit from chickens. Later on I’ll write about the qualities that a chicken would need to thrive in a chicken scavenging system.
If you have any thoughts or comments about a chicken scavenging system, leave a comment.