It’s funny how ideas, or inspiration, comes into us. This one relates to my Chicken Scavenging System. I have been using a shredded Miscanthus product for chicken bedding. It is about the same price as a bale of chopped straw, but is grown without chemicals, is a perennial, and most importantly works well. My long term aim is to house a single flock of chickens, and possibly another of ducks, on a deep litter system, with the raw materials coming from on site. Probably a combination of Common Reed harvested from gray/brown water systems and Swale, along with tree and shrub prunings, straw from my grain growing, and bamboo. In the medium term, I have two deep litter systems, along with two conventional poultry houses, and another house due to be used soon.
I have also planted up an experimental Chicken Scavenging system, which aims to feed chickens using insects and vegetation produced in a deep leaf litter, mimicking their natural environment. My recent experiences have led to a potential tweak to my system.
I recently took a detour around a local town, to avoid traffic, and passed a couple of fields of Miscanthus. What struck me was how similar it looked to clumps of bamboo, and how architecturally it might make a good environment for chickens. The Miscanthus was only about 5 foot tall, in small clumps, with about two feet/60 cm between each bundle/plant. I know little about Miscanthus growing, so did some superficial research.
The first thing that I found interesting was that the commercial growers do not add any nitrogen, and that there was little loss of nutrients. The plants withdraw nutrients to be stored in the rhizomes over Winter, ready for new growth in the Spring. The Miscanthus plants also drop their leaves, which adds to nutrient cycling and ‘Creates a deep litter over time’. This is interesting as it is a deep litter which provides the ideal habitat for insects, and therefore food for chickens. Apparently there is little loss of other nutrients when the dried stems are cut and removed. I can only guess that they are almost entirely carbon compounds. Another fact was that Miscanthus likes an alkaline soil. For me this was interesting as I produce a surplus of wood ash, which is alkaline, and might allow me to use it directly in a Miscanthus patch, which would also allow me to replace potash, and some phosphorous.
The commercial sites are claiming yields of up to 16 Tonnes of dried mass per hectare, which is 1.6 tonnes for a quarter of an acre. I currently have an unused patch of 1/20th of an acre set aside for chicken forage. My plan was to use bamboo in this space, but with the potential to grow up to 320kg of dried Miscanthus in the same space, I am having a rethink. It may be that a combination of the two would make a better combination, as the bamboo would retain its leaves during the Winter, providing shelter for the chickens after the Miscanthus loses its leaves. The same applies to the current Chicken Scavenging area. I am expecting to have to cut and carry tree prunings to build up the ground layer, until the trees and bamboo mature. This could take many years. Growing Miscanthus in the open areas, using the stems as bedding, and then tipping that bedding out around the trees, could really speed up the process.
The bedding from the deep litter systems is due to be used to feed my vegetable growing, and included the straw from my grain growing. Adding a large amount of carbon rich material from Miscanthus would create a significant boost in soil fertility.
There is still some research to be done. For example, I don’t know how vulnerable Miscanthus is to rabbit damage. If it is tolerant of it, I have a number of small areas that could grow some. My biggest concern is ethical. I would be using land that could be to grow food, to grow chicken bedding, which is not ideal. The counter argument is that it is producing food, in the form of eggs, and also vegetables, when the used bedding is added to the vegetable growing areas. I also have little idea how much the rhizomes would cost to buy.
All in all, another interesting avenue to explore.