Chickens and Permaculture go so well together that some teachers treat them like a cliche. ‘The Permaculture Chicken’ has become so widely used as an example of permaculture techniques and principles, that it can be treated like a joke. That’s a shame, as chickens can make a huge contribution to any size of food production system. However, as I mention in my Chicken Scavenging System design, and my Chicken Scavenging/Forage post, to make best use of your chickens you need a system of housing and management that meets your individual needs. This post is all about the deep litter chicken house that I designed and built for my chickens. I’m going to include some of the the thinking behind the design, and a little about the construction and placement of the chicken house. It may be a bit radical for some permaculture practitioners, but it’s the best solution that I could design. More importantly, my chickens like it, and it is fulfilling the functions that I wanted it to. Whether it would be right for you, or not, depends on what you want your chickens to do for you.
Chickens: Inputs and Outputs
There is a really good animation in the ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ DVD, by Geoff Lawton, which looks at all of the things that chickens need, and all that they can do. Not all of them are relevant to me, so I’m going to concentrate on what I wanted to achieve.
Inputs or Needs
My Chicken house needed to do the following:
- Keep my chickens warm and dry whilst they are asleep.
- Protect the chickens from foxes and other predators.
- Provide shelter and space if my chickens needed to be confined during the day (Snow).
- Be free from mites and other parasites.
- Improve, rather than harm the health of my chickens.
- Be long lasting.
- Be easy to clean.
- Help with the recycling of weeds and waste.
- Aid in the building soil fertility.
- Make my life easier.
- Be useful as a template for other people with similar aims.
Chickens: Observations and thoughts
Feeding Scraps and Weeds to Chickens
My chickens have plenty of ground to range over, so have access to a wide wide of food to scavenge for. This Scavenging Food Resource Base (SFRB) is increasing with help from me. That means that my chickens are not that interested in food scraps and weeds, unless they offer something that they are not getting for themselves. So potato peelings (cooked) are eaten immediately for their high carbohydrate content, as is fruit. The same applies to high protein foods etc. When chickens are confined, their diet is restricted, and they eat more scraps, but their pest control function is reduced, and you would end up having to provide a higher proportion of their diet.
Keeping Chickens safe from Foxes
Chickens can be lost to foxes whilst out free ranging, or at night in their housing. I can do little about protecting my chickens when they are out, but I can make their housing safe. So many of the ‘chicken houses’ that I see are inadequate. Either they are not secure, or they are on the ground and have rats living underneath. Most are built with too many cracks, crevices, and joins, or use a roofing felt. All provide a great hiding place for red mite. Even with a secure house, many keepers of chickens fail to lock them away at last light, leaving them vulnerable.
Providing the right environment for Chickens
Given the opportunity chickens will roost in the branches of a tree. This provides them with protection from most of their predators, including foxes. This is instinctive. The hens in the picture below are commercial hybrids, that we bough last year. They were probably reared indoors, and may never have seen a perch. The first time that I went to put them away for the night, I waited until dusk, expecting to find them drowsy under the conventional hutch that was meant to be home. As I was opening the gate to the Chicken Scavenging area, I heard a noise above my head, and all eight of the hens were about eight foot above the ground, roosting in trees, having flown over a six foot fence to get there. It took three nights and some wing clipping, to get them to use the chicken house.
In my new chicken housing, I wanted to give the chickens really high perches. This would also allow me the luxury of cleaning it whilst standing up. It pretty much ruled out a moveable chicken house on the scale that I was looking at.
Chickens are descended from the Jungle Fowl, and do not do well in cold damp conditions. Ours have managed temperatures of -16 C, but wouldn’t cope with that if wet, or with a draught. They are also prone to respiratory problems if there isn’t enough air movement, or ventilation. Many poultry books also warn of illness through fungal spores in damp bedding material.
Analysis and Thinking
As I was thinking through all of the things that I wanted the chicken house to achieve, I started to put together a picture of what it would look like. It needed to be tall enough to allow high perching and easy cleaning. Raising the house up to prevent rats getting underneath would be difficult if that tall, so I would need a barrier of some kind to prevent rats and foxes from digging under the walls. I could use a concrete base instead. Both options would give a static house, not a moveable one. The chickens would need good ventilation, but no drafts, at least at perch level. If I was going to keep chickens confined for part of the day to process waste, I would need plenty of light, again without drafts.
I had already used sheet materials for making chicken housing. This reduced the amount of hiding places for red mite. Coupled with creosote, it would make life really hard for the mites. Using dimensions that suited the sheets would be most efficient. The house would also have to be big enough to act as a scratching area during any daytime confinement.
My Chicken House Design
Method and Materials
I was really interested to see if I could incorporate a deep litter system into the design. Having read ‘The Small Scale Poultry Flock‘ by Harvey Ussery, I felt a deep litter system would provide a great way of providing a scratching area for my chickens, catching and storing the chicken poop, and creating compost, and provide a bit of supplementary heat for the house in Winter. I also hoped that it would mean that I would only need to clean out the chickens once a year. This would save on bedding material and work. As the deep litter system works best in contact with the soil, it ruled out a concrete base, and so I would need a barrier of some kind. I had used a recycled plastic sheet (stokboard) to line the greyhound beds and doors when we still raced the dogs. Despite more than four years of full time use, no dog had ever chewed through it. (It’s also used for pig housing). I thought that it was unlikely that a fox could do in one night what a greyhound couldn’t do in years. The stokboard would need to be buried for at least two feet. it comes in 8 ft by 4 ft sheets, so laid longwise I could bury 2 feet, and still have 2 feet to contain the deep litter/compost. that was important, as the microbes in the litter would attack any wood, and it would rot pretty quickly. With eight foot sheets, and needing about 5 sq feet per chicken, an eight foot by eight foot footprint would give me enough space for about 12 hens and a cockerel, which was ideal. As I was not intending to keep the chickens permanently housed, I could probably house more, but would also need to occasionally rake the surface of the litter. For the above ground sections I would use marine ply, treated with creosote, a partial mesh front, and a corrugated, clear plastic roof.
I wanted to position the new chicken house to get the most benefit. I am putting up a polytunnel later this year, and decided that if I put the chicken house in front of the polytunnel entrance, each would shelter the other from the wind. It would also allow me to collect water from the chicken house roof for use in the tunnel. The house would be adjacent to my grain growing area. This allows me to take the surplus straw from the grain, to use as poultry bedding. The following year that would have collected a year’s worth of poultry poop, creating compost, which could be used in the polytunnel, and on the grain growing area. Rather than try to collect water from the polytunnel (which is harder), I could use the damp areas from the sides of the tunnel to grow comfrey, which would help to feed the chickens. There are other beneficial relationships that can be created here, such as comfrey to worms, worms to chickens, vermicompost to tunnel etc. For a full explanation you would need to see it in place.
Chicken House Construction
With the chicken house thought through, and the right site selected, I started to dig the trenches for the buried walls, and to remove some soil and weeds from where the deep litter would be. It was Summer, and my new chickens were growing fast. Then it rained.
This area gets wet when it rains, but this was the worst summer rain that i can remember. That’s a real bonus, as if it had stayed dry i would not have made any adjustments to the design, and my chickens would have been living on a sodden mass of organic matter. I added some stone to the bottom of the trenches, and raised the whole thing up by a foot. I dug a small drainage channel, and so far, after six months or so, it hasn’t ever got wet.
The picture above shows me putting in the first sheets of stokboard, and putting on some weight too 🙂 Less bread and wine for me I think.
The corner posts are 4 inch square fence posts. The wall space above would be covered in plywood, with an open mesh front. The roof would be corrugated plastic sheets, with the ridges left unblocked to increase ventilation.
Making the Chickens Comfortable
The picture above shows the front, from the inside. Once the weather got cold I added a sheet of corrugated plastic across most of the front mesh to reduce drafts, but put battens on first so that the air would still flow freely. The picture also shows the stokboard mostly hidden by the deep litter, as well as the plywood walls. The walls were treated with creosote, which protects it from rotting, as well as killing red mite. The picture was taken looking through the door, which is full height. No bending or stooping. (For me, not the chickens).
This picture shows the perches and roof. the perches are a fraction under 8 feet in length, and are of 2 inch square timber. I used a router to curve each of the corners around, to make them more comfortable for the chickens. The perches sit on some thinner battens, and the chickens used to perch on them, but have now stopped. Although my plan calls for a corrugated roof, I wanted a sheet of plywood over the perches. This was to reduce heat loss through drafts (convection), and radiation through the clear roof. With the chickens perched above the ground and therefore not losing heat through conduction, all three methods of heat loss were being combated.
Initially these perches and inner roof were about 2 feet lower. This was to make it easier for the chickens, who were only about 12 weeks old at the time, to get up to the perches. No need. That first night, half of them slept on top of the inner roof, and so I moved the perches up to about head height.
The two perches are just under 8 feet long. When you read about perch space, you’re normally told to allow 8 -16 inches depending on the type of bird. I have predominantly Old English game Chickens living in here, and they are at the lower end of the size range for chickens. A bit bigger than bantams, smaller than the dual purpose breeds, and similar in size to the commercial hybrid chickens. 11 of them perch comfortably on the same perch. The floor space is about right for 12 chickens kept confined, but as my chickens are only confined under exceptional circumstances, I could add more if I wished.
Deep Litter for Chickens
This picture shows the build up of organic material within the deep litter bed. The black stokboard is buried 2 feet into the ground, and the top two feet is almost hidden by the deep litter. That means that my chickens are living above around 90 cubic feet of compost. That will be enough to provide a three inch layer of compost for the whole of my polytunnel (when it arrives). Alternatively it can provide a thinner layer for some of the tunnel, and allow me to return some of the compost to the grain polyculture from which the straw came originally. The break between harvesting the straw, composting it for a year, and then returning it, should help to reduce disease problems that may occur if the straw is returned immediately.
The picture above shows the side and rear of the hutch. The one below is taken looking from the back towards the area in front of the chicken house. The carpets are down to suppress grass and weeds prior to putting up the polytunnel. The builders bags that you can see are filled with leaves, currently turning to leaf mould. This is for the initial improvement of the soil in the tunnel. Some of the chickens are laying eggs in the top of the bags, under the top flaps. I’ve now idea how they would get any chicks down to the ground and back again, were they to ever succeed in hatching a clutch of eggs.
The polytunnel will extend right to the hedge behind the bags.
Management of Chickens
The chickens are doing well in their new housing. In the Winter they don’t spend as much time scratching in the litter, as I’m able to let them out fairly close to daybreak. Last Summer was different, and it was then that the usefulness of the system was apparent. Chickens roost all night, happily dropping poop from the food that they have eaten the previous day. When I lock them away for the night, I throw weeds, bolted salad plants, comfrey, or anything else that I have to hand. They wake up before me with empty crops, with no other source of food available, the chickens eat whatever is to hand. Often, stuff that they would have ignored whilst free ranging. Any food left over is scratched into the litter by the chickens, becoming part of the compost. This gives me the benefit of free ranging, combined with the benefit of a deep litter chicken house.
How successful the design is will only become apparent over time. However it seems to be doing what I wanted it to do. Here is a Comparison with my original aims.
- Keep my chickens warm and dry whilst they are asleep. YES
- Protect the chickens from foxes and other predators. YES. So Far
- Provide shelter and space if my chickens needed to be confined during the day (Snow). YES
- Be free from mites and other parasites. So Far
- Improve, rather than harm the health of my chickens. YES
- Be long lasting. TBC
- Be easy to clean. YES
- Help with the recycling of weeds and waste. YES
- Aid in the building soil fertility. YES
- Make my life easier. YES
- Be useful as a template for other people with similar aims. Maybe
The deep litter did not seem to be giving off any heat during Winter, but it did remain unfrozen when the ground around the house, and the water within it all froze.
The volume of water that I will collect off of the roof will not be enough to water the plants in the polytunnel. One alternative would be to add a covered run alogside the deep litter chicken house. This would increase the area that the chickens could forage in when it snows, as well as the amount of water that could be collected from the roof. it would not need to be as wetherprooff or secure as the house, and so would be cheaper to build.
The Chicken house cost over £400 to build. Nearly half of that was the cost of the stokboard. Whilst expensive, this is not much more cash than a bought in poultry house for the same number of chickens, but has far more useable outputs. One way to reduce this would be to build it on top of a concrete base, or to use an existing building. This would not have the benefit of the litter being in contact with the earth (moisture and microbes), but could be overcome by using some soil as part of the litter system.