Chicken Scavenging System

Background 

My Chicken Scavenging System came about after the first evaluation of the overall design of the project, and my own experience, identified that our chickens were not properly integrated into the design. Compiling my invoices for my tax return showed that the input costs of keeping chickens were higher than the value of the eggs that they produced. With the price that I was able to charge for my eggs ‘pegged’ by other local producers, the most suitable course of action was to reduce my input costs. My initial analysis of the problem suggested that what was needed was a series of linked designs:

A chicken scavenging system to provide most/all of the food for my chickens.

A type of chicken better suited to a low input/low output situation.

A system of housing and management that harnessed the additional outputs that chickens give.

A system to produce any additional food that my poultry required.

I kept the chicken project as four separate designs as I felt that each system/design/project would be able to stand alone. A chicken scavenging system could be used with any chicken, and any management system. A low input chicken would still be beneficial under a different management system. A food production system would benefit any type of chicken, and a housing and management system would provide useful outputs regardless of chicken type, or food system.

My first design was similar to any conventional poultry forage system, based on the information from Permaculture One, Two, The Designers Manual, and Tree Crops, by J Russell Smith. I even had some of the trees ordered for planting in the 2011/2012 planting session. Two events changed all of that. The most fundamental influence was reading ‘Meat: A benign extravagance‘, by Simon Fairlie. In it, Simon describes conventional poultry as competing for the same food that humans eat. He suggests that poultry keeping should be reduced to a level that fully utilises human waste streams, but doesn’t directly compete with food for people. This was a eureka moment for me in terms of this design. Almost all conventional chicken forage systems grow food for chickens that people could eat, or use land that could produce food for people. This seemed little different from growing soy/corn to feed to cows, whilst people are starving, and a direct contradiction of the ethical principles of permaculture. (A quick bit of mental arithmetic suggested that I was using more bought in grain to feed my poultry than it would take to feed a small family.) To me this is the opposite of people care, and increases consumption of food and land, rather than decreasing it. It therefore needs to use more land, which leaves less available for people care, or for wildlife.  My decision to redesign the system is an example of my use of the permaculture principle Creatively use and respond to change.

The second influence was a post on the Permaculture Research Institute website about poultry forage. Whilst the post was fairly conventional, the references for the post led me to articles on the Jungle fowl, and its feeding habits, and poultry scavenging systems in Asia. The information from that research, plus my own observations and intuition, created a whole new concept to design. A poultry scavenging system that produced food for chickens as an additional function of a human food production system.

Introduction

At the beginning of the design process I made a decision to use an area that currently had chickens in for the chicken scavenging system. I will cover the reasons for that in the text. I am writing this in the wet periods occurring whilst planting some of the plants in the system. That provides some interesting complications, as the implementation keeps on throwing up improvements to the design, which is consequently still evolving. Hopefully I can overcome that and keep the text coherent.

Establish Aims and Objectives

Initially I started the design in my usual way, by considering my aims and objectives. These are listed below:

Aim

To create a chicken scavenging system.

Must Do

The primary function to be food for people.

Provide a significant proportion of food for up to twelve hens.

Give protection to chickens from predators.

Should Do

Provide data for comparison with conventional systems

Have a research value

Could do

Be a good example of permaculture principles for demonstration purposes

Be innovative

The design process was undertaken in the normal way, but somewhere between the analysis and design it became obvious that what I was starting to do was to design a cool temperate segment of a jungle glade. This realisation was a real breakthrough, as it meant that I had a pattern to work towards, and led me to modify my aims, articulating my goal as follows:

‘I am creating a productive model of a jungle glade, to provide food for people, bees and chickens, whilst providing a safe and secure environment for my poultry’.

Gather Information

For this design I needed to concentrate on information about chicken habits, feeding, behaviour, and natural environment, along with a small amount of data about the site chosen.

Much of the survey information for this design is contained within the overall design for the project. This can be seen HERE.  I will include any pertinent information below, along with anything that is specific to this site.

The Site

The site chosen is shown on the air photographraph below, which helps to relate it to the overall design.

Permaculture Chicken Forage

Chicken Scavenging System

The site is a 24 metre by 24 metre square, surrounded by 2 metre high weldmesh security fencing, with a 5cm square mesh, supported by galvanised angle iron posts. The square was divided into two separate pens, each with its own double gates. The dividing fence is clearly visible in the picture above. The site was chosen to take advantage of the security provided by the existing fencing, which would take time and energy to move, and be expensive to buy new. It is also ideally located to allow the chickens access to the coppice and orchard, increasing the available forage considerably, and allowing them to collect nutrients from the wider landscape, depositing them as poop at night. This is an example of the permaculture principle catch and store energy.

Climate and Micro climate

The site is more sheltered than most of the project, as it is nestled up against the western hedge, and a belt of trees to the west of the property. It is in a deep frost pocket, although the swales and trees to the North do seem to be reducing the effects of the frost slightly. this should increase as the trees mature.

Landform

The site is at the bottom of a slope, and slopes very slightly itself from North East to South. The overall difference in height from high to low is about two feet. The pictures below give an idea of what the site looks like. The letters a-f refer to points from which the pictures were taken. These points are marked on the base map below.

Permaculture Base Map

Base map for Chicken Scavenging System

Permaculture design

View from point a to point b (North East)

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permaculture design

View from point b to point c (North)

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Permaculture design

View from point b to point d (East)

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permaculture design

View from point d to point a (North)

There is a slight ridge that slopes down from point e to point f. This is shown in the picture below.

permaculture design

View from point f to point e (North)

The position of the site at the bottom of a slope means that water drains down into it, and keeps the soil moisture level a little higher than the slope above.

Plants

There are a number of trees that I had already planted within the site, and some older (11 year old) trees outside of the  Southern fence. I had recently planted two hardy bamboo plants, both Phyllostachys Vivax f. Aureocaulis. These, and the two pagoda trees (Sophora Japonica), are not looking healthy. As they are all recently planted, it is too early to say whether this is temporary, or a problem with the site.

Soil

The only difference to the main survey information is that 20 tonnes of sand was laid both sides of a the line f – e, when the enclosure was used as an exercise pen for racing greyhounds. This, and the slight elevation along this line, give this segment improved drainage.

Limiting Factors

There is a virulent strain of honey fungus that has killed willows planted along the Southern fence, and has started to affect some the willows shown on the base map. It has worked it’s way East, with the oaks planted seemingly better adapted to fighting it. This will affect the tree species used in the design.

On Site Resources

I have some seedling Italian Alders in a nursery bed, and a lot of young trees in pots.

Chickens

I have been keeping chickens for about five years now, and have learnt quite a bit about them. I concentrated my research on the chicken scavenging systems being researched and developed for developing countries, and on the habits, feeding, and environment of the Jungle Fowl, which is the ancestor of the domestic chicken. My rough notes, along with the links to the original documents, can be found by following the link below.

Poultry Forage Links and Notes

Analyse

Site

Other than the increased planting options offered by the sandy raised strip, and the constraints imposed by the honey fungus, there was little analysis needing to be done.

Chickens

The chicken analysis was very interesting.

Breeds

It was clear that commercial hybrids required too high a protein level for a chicken scavenging system, and needed artificial light to reach the high levels of egg laying that they are bred for. There was a clear emphasis on indigenous breeds being better suited to the type of system that I was aiming for.

Habitat

The Jungle fowl lives in forests/jungle, and forest edges, feeding in open areas early and late in the day, and keeping in cover during the bulk of the day. They like a tall understory to feed in. It, and domestic chickens, are ground feeders. I have never seen a chicken fly up into a tree/bush to feed. Therefore growing trees and shrubs for food requires me to intervene, and cut/harvest food for them. Leaving the fruit/seeds to drop naturally will mean that much of the potential food produced will be eaten by birds whose feeding habit is better suited to the canopy layer. This will leave less for chickens.

Feeding

Feeding concentrates on insects, tender shoots, fleshy leaves, and immature seeds. Chicks and laying hens eat more insects. The diet, and in particular the level of protein in the diet, has an effect on egg production. More insects are found in leaf litter, and especially areas with bamboo leaf litter. Domestic chickens in a scavenging system gain a significant amount of their diet from household scraps/waste.

Laying

Egg laying varies from 40 -100 eggs per hen per year. Factors include diet, breed, health care, and predators, including humans.

Design

Design Concept

In order to develop my design concept there were a number of essential points to incorporate.

Security/Infrastructure

The weldmesh has kept the chickens safe for three years, but it would be possible for foxes to dig under the fence. The 2 inch weldmesh allows young(ish) rabbits through. Using mesh at the base of the existing fencing, could solve both of those problems. In doing so, it would allow me to use this space to experiment with, and propagate the bamboo species that I am researching. This additional function is an example of the principle every element should perform more than one function.

Shade

The provision of areas of deep shade will provide the environment that chickens prefer, and help with ground cover (grass) suppression. There is more about this in the Ground Layer Succession  paragraph below.

Leaf Litter

Leaf litter appears to be a critical component of the design. It is the niche that will provide the highest number and variety of inverterbrates for chickens to eat, and be the most natural environment for them to forage in. In many ways, the success of this design will depend on my ability to direct the succession of the ground layer towards a forest/jungle floor habitat, or ecosystem. It also influences the composition of the above ground layer. Bamboo leaves were a good component of leaf litter for chickens, and so will be one of the desired species within the design.

Vegetation Architecture

The need for shade and shelter has to be balanced with my need to walk around the site erect. I’m getting on, and bending/crawling would not be a good example of people care. A design that had only low shrubs would be a poor example of stacking, which suggests that a canopy of trees casting dense shade, grown/pruned to above head height would need to be the dominant feature. The analysis suggested that tall perennials were liked by chickens, and that the leaf litter of bamboo was good. In a cool temperate climate I will need to use a significant proportion of evergreen trees/shrubs to provide adequate shelter during winter, when most leaves have dropped. Using deciduous species that retain their ‘brown’ leaves throughout the winter would be another option. As the site is quite small, using the evergreen shrubs/trees around the periphery will help to provide shelter and shade. Clumping bamboo would do the same but with less potential human yields.

With much of the ground layer composed of leaf litter, adding an overstory with an open canopy would increase the effect of stacking, and add to the potential yields of the system. The ground layer species would need to be chicken proof. Using species that provided overwintering habitat for insects would increase the total number of insects.

Overall Concept

When I stepped back from the detail of this section, it became clear that the ideal habitat to create was one that resembled the native habitat of the jungle fowl. A forest edge. That became the image that I aimed for. Having used a woodland glade pattern in most of the other elements of the project, and with False Acacia (Robinia Pseudoacacia) already planted around part of the periphery, it seemed like an appropriate pattern to use. The pattern naturally incorporates a lot of edge, and in this example more edge along the outside of the site, as well as the glade itself. Using the False Acacia as an overstory, adding evergreen shrubs and tall bamboo below the acacia, clumping bamboo and shrubs within the open part of the glade, and trees that cast deep shade for a layer above head height, gave me my Design Concept. The picture below shows this.

Permaculture Design Concept

Chicken Scavenging Area Design Concept

Design Schematic

The picture below gives an idea of the sort of effect that I was aiming for.

Design Schematic

Design Schematic

Perhaps I should add some drawing classes to my list of skills needed!!!!!! The picture just illustrates that I am aiming for a tall version of a Forest Garden. A very tall overstory composed of trees that cast very light shade. A lower canopy of trees that cast a much deeper shadow. Evergreen shrubs and clumping bamboo for Winter cover and protection. Tall, running bamboos to add to the shelter, for food, and for the sheer beauty that they provide.

Detailed Design

With a pattern to work towards, much of the rest of the design process concentrated on selecting plant species to obtain the most functions, and placement. However the key to the design was always going to be successional planning, to direct succession from a patch of grass to a woodland glade with a deep leaf litter floor. So I started the Detailed Design segment of the design by assessing what timeline that I was working towards, and the creation of that forest floor environment.

Set Timeline Horizon

With no pressure for a ‘quick’ soulution, I decided to work from a timeline horizon of twenty years. This seemed to be a reasonable period to allow the overstory layers to reach the heights that I was aiming for. Using this would inform the planting distances between the major trees.

Ground Layer Succession

There are two functions that need to be met. Creating a deep leaf litter, and suppressing the existing grass.

During the analysis phase I remembered reading a paragraph in Patrick Whitefield’s ‘The Earth Care Manual’ that described the use of trees with high tannin levels in their leaves to produce a deep mulch, which is what I am aiming for. Of the trees listed, Sweet Chestnut would provide the most beneficial outputs. I have grown some to see if it copes with my soil, drainage, and climate conditions, and so far they have coped. This is an example of the permaculture principle of observe and interact. This site will be slightly more challenging for them, as they are likely to have to cope with longer periods of immersion in water, which isn’t ideal. As production trees are expensive, using seedling trees would allow me to see how they cope, and give me the option of grafting scion wood onto them from trees in the Forest Garden. As the function that these trees are fulfilling is crucial to the design, I decided to add oak to the planting scheme, in case the chestnuts failed to thrive. The oaks have a different set of useful outputs, but have grown well outside the perimeter of this area. This is an example of the principle every important function should be provided by more than one element. With both trees casting deep shade, they will help both elements of the ground layer succession. In Edible Forest Gardens, Jacke and Toensmeir suggest that using a variety of leaf types provides the most fertility for the ground layer. This suggests using some species whose leaves decompose more rapidly. Nitrogen fixers and pioneer trees would do this, and would help to provide shade during the mid succession period. Sadly the honey fungus stops the use of willow, which I have in abundance, but most Nitrogen fixers do not seem to suffer, and Italian alder has grown well in the coppice area immediately North of the site.

Bamboo was highlighted by the research as a useful component. Making the space rabbit proof would allow me to use it in the planting scheme, and use the site for my bamboo research project, and as a propagation area. Chestnut and oak retain their dead leaves on the tree during winter. Nitrogen fixers drop them in Autumn, and bamboo shed their leaves throughout the season, as do evergreen shrubs. So the combination of them all will provide a staggered supply of leaves to the ground layer which mimics what would happen in tropical/sub tropical areas.

Even with quite a dense planting scheme, it will take some time for the system to need no input from me. In order to speed up the process, I would need to add woody material during the early successional period, and then ‘chop and drop’ the pioneer trees during mid succession, until canopy closure of the chestnuts at 20 years.

This gives me a plan for the ground layer succession, and parts of my implementation and maintenance plans. Plant canopy trees at 20 year spacings, with pioneer trees planted close together in between. Adding woody materials from outside the site in the early years, chopping and dropping branch materials from the pioneer trees until the canopy trees, bamboo, and shrubs allow the system to maintain itself.

Vegetation Architecture

The design concept calls for a high layer of trees with an open canopy. False Acacia (Robinia Pseudoacacia) is already planted around part of the perimeter, and has an open canopy. It also provides bee forage, fixes Nitrogen, and it’s seed can be eaten by humans or chickens. As I don’t fancy tree climbing, the seeds that are not eaten by other birds will help to supplement the chickens diet. Sweet Chestnut is my preferred species for the next layer down, as discussed above. Edible nuts, bee forage, deep shade, high tannins in leaves all make it a good choice. Both are deciduous. With a timeline of twenty years, and with the canopy tree species now selected, the canopy design can be carried out, and looks like this .

Forest Garden Canopy Design

Canopy Design

In the interim, pioneer trees will be planted at a much higher density, in order to assist in the ground layer succession. There is an initial planting plan in the Implementation section below. This is an example of the principles Use and value renewable resources, and Use small and slow solutions.

In order to add shelter for Winter, and diversity, evergreen shrubs will be beneficial. The size of the space, and the pattern that I am using, means that the Chestnuts will only be a planted in a single line around the West, North, and East of the site. Using the evergreens outisde of the chestnuts will add shelter to the chickens, and to the young trees as they grow, as well as adding to the shade, helping to suppress the grass.

My plan for the chestnuts are to keep them side pruned to above head height to make it easy to walk beneath them. This gives an opportunity to put a productive layer of small trees/large shrubs immediately under the sunside edge. This will also add to the variety of leaf litter. Of the many species that could do this, I feel that Hazel would provide the most outputs. With Hazel thriving all over the project, I can safely use a productive variety, and have chosen Kentish Cob to use here.There should be enough seedling trees to provide good pollination, but it may be worth adding a different variety of productive Hazel upwind (South West) of the Cobs.

Of the evergreen shrubs that I could use, my preferred option would be Eleagnus Ebbingei. It tolerates shade, fixes nitrogen, has edible fruits early in the year, and provides late bee forage when little else is in flower. The site may be too cold and wet for it, and I am currently waiting to see how three plants that I planted in the Forest Garden cope with the conditions. All was going well until the current (April 2012) wet period, but there are signs that the waterlogged conditions may be too much for it. This is another example of the permaculture principle observe and interact.

Eleagnus Ebbingei in Forest Garden

Eleagnus Ebbingei in Forest Garden

Alternatives include Mahonia and Viburnum tinus, both of which are growing well here. Portugese Laurel is also a possibility. The normal Cherry Laurel normally grows too large, but in doing so would provide the opportunity to use it as part of the ‘chop and drop’ regime. My decision is to wait for a year to see how the Eleagnus performs before choosing which species to use, and to use more than one species to increase diversity. Doing so is an example of the the design methods options and decisions, and design by increments.

Tall running bamboos will need to be planted to the North of the site, as they will reach their maximum height much more quickly than the trees, and might otherwise cast too much shade. This will provide vertical height (stacking) earlier than relying on trees alone. The picture below shows a mixed bamboo plantation that is less than eight years old. The picture is from one of my blog posts that you can read here.

hardy bamboo hedge

mixed hardy bamboo hedge

Clumping bamboos will not grow as tall as the running bamboo, so can be used in the open spaces inside the glade. This will add more shelter for the chickens, add variety to the appearance of the space, and make it more reminiscent of the type of habitat that I am trying to mimic. I have already bought and propagated Fargesia Rufa, Fargesia Robusta, and Fargesia Murielae to use in my bamboo experiment. So I will use those here.

Fargesia Rufa

Three pots of Fargesia Rufa

The two Specimens of Fargesia Rufa on the white table, are both divisions from a single plant, which is on the floor. All three are showing good growth, and should be ready to plant out in late Summer, or Spring 2013.

I would like to add some climbers. I am retaining the False Acacia trees in the centre strip of the design. These would make a good climbing frame, and feed the climber with the surplus nitrogen that they fix. Rosa Felipes ‘Kifstgate’ is a rampant climber, which flowers in a single flush, making it better for bees. It also flowers in August which is a time of year for which I am trying to increase the amount of bee forage. I will use these here once the False acacia has gained some height. In the interim, planting some to cover the North, West, and Eastern fencing would be another way of increasing vertical height (stacking) quickly.

The final shrub layer design is dependent on the performance of the Eleagnus, but as many of the potential plants have a similar growth habit, it is possible to produce a detailed design which is shown below. Note that climbers have not been included in the picture.

Forest Garden Design

Tree and Shrub layer design

As the leaf litter is so important to the success of the design, the plants for the ground layer are less important, and a detailed patch/guild design can wait. I have a smaller area adjacent to this site, which is going to be used for the chicken breeding strand of my poultry project. The confined space gives less forage, increasing the likelihood that chickens will eat a plant that they might otherwise ignore.This will allow me to plant species that may be left alone by chickens, and observe what happens (observe and interact again). The results of this experiment will help to plan the ground vegetation. Many of the plants that are reputed to be left by chickens are aromatics. According to Martin Crawford, these may have a beneficial effect on the health of nearby plants by releasing essential oils as vapour, protecting against bacterial and fungal infection.

There are some obvious plants to include. Wormwood is a powerful wormer that the chickens will use for this purpose. Yarrow is a plant that provides overwintering shelter for spiders and beetles, as does Musk mallow. Both of these are part of the potential food resource for the chooks, both as plants, and as a shelter for insects.

I want to give myself more time to propagate/experiment with smaller bamboos, which may be suitable for the ground layer. I am already working with Pleioblastus fortunei, and Pleioblastus pygmaeus, but there are a number of low growing bamboos that might be suitable. Many could be planted quite close to the canopy trees, and will push out towards the light as the canopy fills in.

Pleioblastus Fortunei

Pleioblastus Fortunei

Leaving the detailed patch/guild design is an example of the design process design by increments, and helps to spread the design workload. It also allows me to react to the way that the site evolves, which is another example of the principles observe and interact, and apply self regulation and accept feedback.

Ecosystem Diversity

Already the design uses two varieties of canopy tree, more than five bamboo species, an understory tree species, and two or more evergreen shrubs. Combined with a groundlayer of herbaceous perennials, and dwarf bamboo, this will provide a high level of ecosystem diversity.

Vegetation Dynamics

The plan for the ground layer succession, and the overall concept has already shaped much of the vegetational succession. The process described is a very linear succession with an endpoint/horizon set at 20 years. The reality is that the site may not develop in the way that I am planning for. One possibility is that the bamboo will grow and expand much more rapidly, suppressing the growth of some of the canopy trees. If that starts to happen I have the option of reducing the bamboo by dividing it. This will give me bamboo to sell adding another function to the design. Another option is to allow the bamboo to become the dominant species, turning the site into a bamboo glade. This will be really nice to look at, and provide a larger harvest of edible shoots, but would lose the bee forage, and nut harvest. As nuts can be stored for the Winter, this is a significant disadvantage. This is still a linear succession, but an alternative succession to that planned.

If the chestnut fails to thrive, the oak planted could be used to create a small section of coppice. The management of this, cutting sections for fuel or mushroom logs, would create a rotational mosaic of habitats within the site. It would also mean that the central ‘glade’ could be planted into, as the cut sections would provide sufficient open space, which would change year by year. This option will mean that I will need to increase the numbers of oak planted. Red Oak grows much more quickly than Common Oak, so a combination of the two would be useful to add diversity of species, and height.


Implementation

Implementation plan

The  order of implementation is relatively straightforward.

Use mesh to prevent the ingress of rabbits, and to make the site more resistant to foxes.

Plant canopy trees, including the Oak options, followed by hazel, then the pioneer/support trees.

The bamboo would need to wait until it was big enough to cope, probably the following year.

Start the process of adding woody materials to speed up the ground layer succession as early as possible.

Implementation to date

All of this was possible in a single planting season, and was carried out in Spring 2012. However the order of implementation had to be changed as the canopy trees arrived before I had finished putting in the fencing, so I planted them first. I used some spare plastic spiral tree guards to protect them from rabbit damage. These trees/spirals can be seen in some of the pictures below and comprised of 10 Sweet Chestnut, 10 Common Oak, and 10 Red Oak. I also planted out the three Kentish Cob trees which arrived in the same batch. Prior to that I had spread wood ash and charcoal on the surface of the soil in the areas where the canopy trees would be planted, to start the process of adding woody material to the site. This can be clearly seen in the first picture below, as I deliberately chose a day with snow to make the process visible.

wood ash and biochar

Soil amended with wood ash and biochar

Two 50 metre rolls of mesh were used for the fencing improvements. This was dug in to a depth of 1/2 metre, along the inside of the existing fencing on the West and Northern boundaries. This was hard going in the wet clay.

Permaculture Design

Trench along Western Boundary

The picture above shows the work in progress. The trees closest to the trench are the False Acacia that were planted the previous year. Those to the right of the mound of soil are the canopy trees that had been recently planted. The picture below is of the finished job.

Permaculture Fence

Fencing Detail

The Southern boundary had too many tree roots to allow me to dig the wire in, so I removed a layer of turf, folded the wire into an ‘L’ shape, and then laid the turf back on top. This was much easier than the digging, and I would use it again if it keeps the rabbits out. (Apply self regulation and accept feedback). As the same process had to be carried out for the adjacent breeding pen, I was able to use less wire by wiring both pens as a single unit. It also gave me a space between both pens that was protected from rabbits, and from the chickens themselves. This would make a good space to grow plants to feed to the chickens, and throw them over both fences. This is a good example of creating beneficial relationships by relative location. The most obvious candidate for this planting would be comfrey, as it has a high protein content which would help with egg laying. Lawrence Hills, the founder of the HDRA, now Garden Organic, wrote a book called ‘Russian Comfrey’ which suggests that comfrey could provide poultry with a significant proportion of their diet. Where I have ducks, they have destroyed comfrey through over eating it. To try and get around that problem, but still allow the chickens to get to plants within the site, I have used a mesh guard shaped like a long cloche. Comfrey protected by it will grow through the mesh, where it can be eaten, but the crown of the plant is protected. By locating these close to the rear of the hutch, the comfrey plants benefit from the water running off of the roof of the hutch, and the excess of Nitrogen in poultry manure, and are close to the chickens. This is another example of establishing beneficial relationships by relative location.

Chicken forage experiment

Chicken forage experiment

The picture above shows one of two of these guards. The one above also contains lovage, to assess its suitability as chicken food. I plan to add Horse Mint, Wild Strawberry, and Sweet Woodruff. These are all potential future components of a ground layer, and easy to propagate.

With the fencing finished, and the canopy trees planted, I dug up my Italian alder seedlings. About half were too small to use, and were spaced out and put back into their nursery bed, to wait for another year. There were enough to put a single line of trees between the Sweet Chestnuts at 1 metre intervals, and one in front of and behind each Chestnut. More will be needed.

The Diagram below shows the planting up to this point.

Permaculture Tree Planting

Initial Planting Diagram

The digging in of the wire mesh created a major disturbance to the soil, and left it bare. I knew from other areas of digging that if I did not manage the disturbance, and the plants that went into those areas, I would be left with plants that may not be as welcome. I used a series of surplus woody plants, predominantly Cotoneaster, to plant along the Northern boundary. These will eventually be shaded by the running bamboo, and the Chestnut, but would fill the space in the early successional period, add to the woody biomass, and provide crops of nectar for bees, and berries for birds and chickens. An additional yield was that the Cotoneaster seedlings were growing in a large pot, and were overdue potting on. Planting them out saved pots, compost, and effort. I will need to sow seeds into the space soon, to fill in the gaps with useful plants. Initially I had planned to do the same thing along the Western Boundary, but then realised that I could add some additional research functions to the design by planting some surplus perennial rye seedlings there. I had planned to use chickens in my vegetable/grain experiments, to eat and weaken the clover ground cover, but had read a forum post that suggested that chickens foraged hard enough to kill rye planted as a green manure. By planting it here, behind protection, I could give my chickens controlled access to it, and monitor the effects. I have also read about Pasture Cropping, where grains are planted directly into pasture, and grown amongst grass. Observing this at close hand with a perennial grain may lead to the development of better ways of growing grain, and may end up as the most useful yield of the whole system. Ironic as it was purely the result of having a surplus of plants.

Rye has an allelopathic effect on neighbouring plants, especially other grasses, so may inhibit the ingress of grass from outside of the fence. To enhance this potential benefit, I have planted comfrey, and creeping comfrey into the space. The plantings were protected with some recycled mesh. The pictures below show this planting.

Perennial Grain

Barrier Planting of Perennial Rye and Comfrey

Barrier Planting of Perennial Rye and Comfrey

Barrier Planting of Perennial Rye and Comfrey

This area still needs some seed sowing, probably Chicory, Phacelia, and Crimson clover, to improve the suppression of weeds.These will eventually be crowded out by the Creeping Comfrey, which is a further example of the use of succession in the design.

Ground Layer Implementation

To start the change of the ground layer I have added shredded paper from the house, and softwood shavings from the chicken house, as mulch around the trees. The site is 576 sq metres, which is about 1/7 th of an acre. Spreading small quantities of woody material across the whole site will have little effect. I decided to do two things. Firstly to utilise all of the surplus kindling sized wood from processing firewood in the site. This is an example of linking the outputs of one system/process with and using it as an input of another (Design by Analysis).

Within the site I decided to concentrate this material in patches. This is called ‘chunking’ by Toby Hemenway, in his book Gaia’s Garden, and ‘expanding nuclei’, in Edible Forest Gardens. Both books are using the term in relation to plants and guilds, but I have taken that pattern, and used it with mulch materials. These chunks will create little areas of woody material, to stimulate the growth and spread of the type of insects that I want to attract as poultry food. By surrounding them with mesh guards, and piling the material high, I have protected these ‘seed’ colonies’of insects and added some shelter for the chickens. Another example of the benefits of ‘stacking‘. With this idea foremost, I have also collected most of the scrap wood lying around the property, and piled it in chunks around the chicken scavenging area, giving an additional yield of tidying the place up a fraction, and pleasing my wife by an even smaller fraction. Whilst removing the dividing mesh, I had to dig the bottom of the fencing out. This left a shallow trench. I have put some of the larger logs and stumps from my surplus wood into this trench, and will bury them. This technique is known as ‘HugelKultur‘ and helps to improve the soil, and to retain moisture during dry periods.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur

The picture below shows one of the chunks in the foreground, and the use of shavings as mulch close to the chicken hutch.

Permaculture Technique Chunking

Permaculture Technique: Chunking

The picture below shows the site from the South West, and more of the ‘chunks’ are visible in it.

Permaculture Chicken Scavenging System

View from South West

Whilst creating these nuclei, it occurred to me that the Chicken Scavenging System was itself a ‘chunk’ of the overall design, which in turn is a ‘chunk’  in my plan to increase the amount of trees in the wider landscape’. That plan is currently being implemented by guerilla tree planting, and giving surplus trees to my neighbours. Not only is this an example of the the ethical principle redistribute surplus, but I get the additional yields of extending my bee forage, and the gratitude of the people around me.

Other than the planting of some herbaceous plants, and seed sowing into the bare soil along the West and North boundaries, only some more movement of woody material is scheduled for this year.

Maintainance

With this design it is hard to decide where the implementation ends and the maintenance, begins. The maintenance tasks of adding woody materials, chop and drop of plants in the mid successional period, and the need to remove pioneer trees deliberately planted at a close spacing, are all part of the implementation of the design. Additional maintenance functions will be to mow sections of grass, until they are shaded out, or replaced by the as yet undesigned ground layer vegetation. In the interim, leaving some of the grass for chicken forage, but allowing some to become tussocky (more cover for insects) will need to be carried out. Some side pruning of the canopy trees may be needed. Some ground cover bamboos can be mown each Winter, once established. This will add to the leaf litter layer.

Evaluation

It is far too early to evaluate the success of the implemented design, as it will take twenty years to grow into the pattern that I have aimed it at, or an alternative. All that I can do at this stage is to evaluate the design as I see it now, the design process, the implementation, and my own ideas.

The Design

The design evolved throughout the whole process, including whilst planting out trees. The realisation that the site is 1/7th of an acre, and a Forest Garden, means that I can use this smaller space to join the Forest Garden research that is currently going on. Measuring the outputs of a site this size is much easier than the 1 acre Forest Garden. The size is also similar to that which the Grow Bio intensive people say will feed a person. This means that I can use it to compare the output of a Forest Garden with an intensively managed garden. Particularly easy as I do both on site. The planting of rye, the comfrey feeding trial, and use of differing groundcovers have all given added value and yields to the site, many of which were not apparent at the outset. Considering the different types of succession allowed me to ‘discover’ the option of planting additional oak, to give an alternative outcome to any of those that I had planned for.

This is the first design for which I have no strong attachment to the final outcome. Any of the possibilities that I have thought of are acceptable, and I’m curious to see how the design and the designer co eveolve over the 20 year horizon.

Design Process

This design has felt right all of the way through. Realising that I was mimicking a real ecosystem allowed me to visualise what I wanted to create, and then plan a structure that fulfilled that. That applies both to the vegetation, and the design process itself. With the final outcome heading towards a Forest Garden, I was able to mix bits of the Forest Garden design process, with my own methods, and with the image of what I was aiming to create, to create a design structure that worked better than I could have imagined.

The Implementation

As some of the Italian Alder seedlings were too small, they will need to be planted next year. The idea to increase the quantity of oak came too late to implement this year, and will have to wait until next year Other than that, the implementation went to plan, and I was able to add some Roses, and woody shrubs that were surplus. I have some potted trees that I can add to the planting, simply to add to the biomass, in order to help speed up the shading of grass, and the creation of the leaf litter layer. Some may be a little too tender for this site, but I intend to try a small quantity to see how they perform. If I were doing this again, I would get the fencing done much earlier in the process, and avoid the need to use plastic tree guards.

The Eleagnus planted in the Forest Garden recovered during the Summer of 2012, and so I intend to try a small planting within the Chicken Scavenging Area next year.

2nd Evaluation November 2012

We put eight chickens and a cockerel into this area back in September, and by late October I noticed a loss of yellow colour in the egg yolks. This coincided with a slowdown of grass growth and consequent loss of forage. As the ground layer will take years to develop, it was clear that at this time of year, the chickens needed access to a larger area. I have started toleave the gate open for them. As a result, the yolks have regained their colour, and the chickens are eating less commercial food. What isn’t clear is whether the gates will need to be left open when the grass is actively growing, and how the gradual change from grass to forest floor will impact on this.

26 thoughts on “Chicken Scavenging System

  1. dariusnamdaran

    Again, another really well explained design. Thank you. You are going to have 12 very happy chickens!
    So, to clarify, is the goal to feed 12 chickens, that produce 60-100 eggs a year each, Total egg production 700-1200 eggs a year?
    What would be interesting to know is how much land would normally be used to produce the feed needed for that egg production in conventional systems. Would it be 1000kg of pellets?
    Came across this post that tries to work out the footprint of a chicken.
    http://apostrophe-now.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/how-big-is-chickens-footprint.html
    Whats your take?

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      I can only look at our feed bill, but that is skewed by the amount of food that our ducks eat. They are really high input/high output. Doing something for them is long overdue. I don’t think that your guesstimate is far out. I’m looking forward to getting the site developed, and then properly measuring the inputs and outputs, and making them available to others to use,.
      Wishing you well
      Deano

      Reply
  2. Louise

    I’ll be really interested in how this works out. I’ve been thinking a lot how we can better integrate our hens into our pemaculture/forest garden system. Everything I’ve read on chicken forage systems seems to be theoretical. I haven’t read your whole design yet but I’m sure I can learn from it. Thanks for putting it all on your website
    Louise

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Louise.
      it will be some time before the system gets to the point where it is meeting some or all of the food needs of the chickens. This design is only a part of the system that i’m working towards. I hope to present the whole package at this year’s diploma gathering in early December, as part of my accreditation.
      You will see when you read it that it differs markedly from others in that the primary output is designed to be human food,with the chickens benefitting from the environment created.
      I hope that it gives you some ideas that you can adapt for yourself.
      Allof the best
      Deano

      Reply
  3. Ute

    What a superb post! Thank you for this detailed description. I have gone through a somewhat similar design and thought process, though not as structured – more of an ongoing process, struggling with the issue of sustainability. I’m in the West of Ireland and keep about 50 layers plus breeding roosters plus offspring during the season in several groups on our property in small orchards and copses, and also fatten some cockerels in my polytunnels (where they clear and fertilize the ground). My feedbill is massive too; it’s a zero-sum game. By rights I should keep less birds but our neighbours have come to rely on our egg production and I simply like breeding them and having them around (and eating them too…).
    Some thoughts and observations:
    *They don’t fancy comfrey much and I found I did not have to protect it once established. Even if there is no other ground vegetation around they only nibble a bit here and there.
    *They do love both fresh and fallen leaves of willow (the smaller elongated ones at least; pity you have a problem with your willows), sea buckthorn (also N-fixer and yields berries; I’m surprised it’s not part of your design), and Elaeagnus (I have E. commutata and E. multiflora). They also love fallen petals from fruit tree blossom, rose petals… you name it. If I was starting from scratch, I’d integrate some dog roses and such.
    *One of my small orchard runs contains a large Medlar bush. They hang out under it much of the time as it offers good shelter from the elements when in leaf, has low and often horizontal branches great for perching, and they also gobble up the fallen fruit.
    *Due to the high N input from the chicken’s faeces (and I suppose their scratching and turning of it), leaf litter in their runs breaks down much faster than outside.
    *They go mad for duckweed which is high protein and when freshly skimmed off a pond surface also includes a variety of bugs.
    *I have read, though not tried yet, that chickens eat the lower leaves of Jerusalem artichokes with gusto (quite nutritious).
    In order to make at least a small dent in the feed bill I have decided to dig an additional pond (which will also serve many other functions) to produce a lot more duckweed for all the flocks and to grow a good amount of Jerusalem artichokes, with some leaves for the chickens, the majority of the top growth as a late autumn feed supplement for our goats, and the tubers (cooked; the kitchen stove is going anyway in the winter) as a supplement for fattening cockerels. Jerusalem artichokes also take up a lot of nitrogen (up to 200 kg/ha) and thus aid in cycling nutrients if planted in a vacated chicken run. If planted in the run I imagine they need protection.

    Very interested to see how your project progresses.
    Best, Ute

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Ute
      Thanks for your comment.
      My chooks eat comfrey as I introduced it to them when they were really young. It’s their preferred food,along with borage and other similar plants.
      My soil makes growing Sea Buckthorn more problematic. I have it on my swale banks, where it is doing OK.
      The underlying aim of this particular design is to feed them through insects, rather than plants.
      Nice to hear about your own plans.
      keep in touch
      Deano

      Reply
  4. Nicolas M.

    Inspiring and brilliant,

    For your honey fungus problem, you can search on PFAF using google.

    What about elderberries ? Berries are good for chicken, it can be coppiced, fruits and flowers are edible, tolerate some shade, are resistant to honey fungus and rabbits, tolerate wet soils … seems to be a winner.
    I am surprised of the lack of persimmon or mulberries, or maybe i’ve missed it ?
    Do you plan to grow black soldier fly larvae or just let the chicken eat what they found on the ground ?

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Nicolas
      I didn’t realise that PFAF had a honey fungus search option. I’ll take a look at it later.
      I left out Mulberries and persimmons as I have plenty of fruiting trees elsewhere, and wanted to beef up the Nut production, using the high tannin levels in the chestnut leaves to help build up the leaf litter layer in the Chicken Scavenging System. The hazels will sit nicely tucked under the Southern edge of these.
      No soldier fly larvae. I’m just going to provide as much insect habitat as I can.
      It’s really nice that your article helped to send me in this direction, and now this design may help you in return. keep in touch.
      DEano

      Reply
  5. Joy

    Hi Deano,
    Thankyou very much for sharing your knowledge and experiences with us.
    I’ve been thinking along those lines myself but my brain works in a much less structured manner! Chickens (or their predesessors) seem to have managed quite well prior to mans’ intervention and found food for themselves quite happily.
    I was wondering if you looked any further into breeds more suitable to foraging in this manner or have any knowledge as to the closest breed to the original jungle fowl?
    I was also wondering if the ammount of guano produced in this area would be naturally absorbed or do you think you would have to clean the area?
    It’s refreshing to find information in this format rather than just bombard you with some information but not enough to really learn from so thankyou once again.
    Best wishes,
    Joy.

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Joy
      My optimum breed for a chicken scavenging system would be Old English Game (Oxford Type), and there are pictures of some of mine in the Galleries page which you can get to from the bar at the top of the page. You will get less eggs, but each one will be costing you very little. Harvey Ussery recommends them in his book, writing that if he could only keep one breed of chicken, the Old English Game would be the one.
      I think that the poop question depends on the space that is available, your climate, and the vegetation present. I don’t know enough to be able to give you a definite answer.
      Glad that you found it useful.
      Deano

      Reply
  6. Linnea Sophie

    Hello Deano.

    Very inspired and inspiring design process!
    Thank you also for all of your informative literature references and reviews.
    I was surprised to see you use the Robinias in your chicken scavenging design.

    I sure can see their value as super fast growing pioneer trees for speed-forest building,
    and how -beyond their sheer beauty- their huge amounts of leaf and twig litter will
    certainly supercharge your endeavours towards the creation of an insect laden
    temperate “jungle glade”.
    Seeing their reported strong toxicity for chickens, however, I wonder what your plan is
    on how to prevent your flock from eating the leaves and seeds of the False Acacias?
    Do you plan on letting the chickens into that area only after chopping & dropping the
    Black Locust? Or have you experienced that your Old English Game leave them alone,
    or that they seem to have developed an ability to somehow deal with the toxic constituents
    without noticeable harm?

    I believe, animals have generally an amazing ability to figure out what is good to eat
    and when they eat things that are not, it is most probably due to a severe shortage of
    available alternatives. – For that reason alone it would be very interesting to know
    from first hand observation, like yours, what happens when they are exposed to
    Robinia greens and seeds under the low input conditions of a true scavenging system.

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Linnea

      The false Acacis is there primarily as a nitrogen fixer, for bee forage, and for it’s quickly decomposing leaves. I’m not concerned about any toxicity. Plenty of legumes that have some toxicity to humans seem to have no effect on birds, so I’m going to see what happens. Bladder Senna is a good example. I have read that the seeds are toxic yet my chickens jump up to strip the seed pods off of the bushes.I also suspect that the seeds will eventually be quite well hidden in the leaf litter, but will become more visible when sprouting, and therefore safer to eat.
      There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I agree with your comment about animals being aware what is harmful, and what isn’t.
      Like you I can’t wait to see how the site develops, but there isn’t any choice. I just hope that it gives others some ideas that they can use for themselves.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  7. Natasha

    Very useful article and research you are doing. We are preparing (planning/designing) a self-feed type system for our chickens just now. Great timing that a classmate posted your article to Facebook.

    Do you have any recent updates/observations/pictures? How are your birds faring? If relying on eggs as a human food/protein source, would you consider it worth adding a rotational grain/legume planting for the chickens to self-harvest and intensifying the worm/larvae production to support a heavier laying breed?

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Natasha
      No pictures yet. A bit busy. The birds are doing well, but they have access to a much larger area to forage in though. That area has trees that are a little older, so the ground layer is starting change from grass to woodland.
      I wouldn’t be inluding anything that wasn’t directly producing food for humans. That was part of the point of designing something that fed the chickens whilst still producing human food. Using a heavier breed would just mean giving more land per bird.
      It should be entirely possible to feed the chickens using stuff that you produce, but I want to avoid having to work to do so.
      let me know what you come up with. I’m always interested in the ideas of other people.
      All of the best
      DEano

      Reply
  8. Nicolas M.

    Hi Deano,

    i’m a bit confused, could you be more precise on your view of an ethical fodder system for poultry ?

    As i understand your point of view (simplication) :

    * growing/buying wheat/corn to feed the poultry is wrong because people could eat this
    * growing caragana for poultry in place of wheat is wrong because its take place of a place that could grow wheat
    * growing fruit trees for human and fallen fruits eaten by birds is ok because no food is wasted
    * growing blacklocust or bamboo to provide insects for poultry is good, because … ?

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Nicolas
      Not a bad summary.
      Firstly it’s wrong for me, but that shouldn’t stop anybody else from doing whatever they think is OK. My thoughts on ethics should only restrict my actions, nobody else.
      The bamboo is primarily for human food. bamboo shoots, plus poles and construction materials. The smaller plants are for soil fertility.
      The black locust is for fuel and bee forage. Human use primarily.
      Both of these, and all of the other plants in the chicken scavenging system are primarily intended for use by humans, with the byproducts/waste designed to produce food for chickens, primarily insects, but potentially seeds etc.
      The intent was classic permaculture. Producing a space with multiple outputs, linked to my overall goals of providing food, fuel and bee forage. The difference for this space was that i was actively designing for a ground layer succession that would relatively quickly provide poultry food as well.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  9. Joe Cody

    Hi,

    If you want to generate a habitat that will be rich in insect life, would it not be more effective to use primarily native species and variants, as these tend to support a wider range of indigenous invertebrates, rather than trying to recreate a jungle habitat? Having gardened in the UK for over 20 years, the leaf litter created by bamboos has always struck me as supporting a significantly narrower range of species than one might expect to find in temperate woodland leaf litter. I’d also be concerned about the often aggressive rhizomes of bamboo, which tend to have scant regard for planting plans!

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Joe
      In addition to the leaf litter, the bamboo provides shelter for the chickens, especially in winter when most of the trees that I would use have lost their leaves. It will also provide food, biomass, construction materials, and poles. In that respect it is of far more use to me than any equivalent evergreen tree or shrub.
      The stuff that i read doing my research indicated that bamboo was a preferred habitat for the jungle fowl, so I’m happy with my choice.
      What would you use instead?
      Deano

      Reply
      1. Joe Cody

        Hi Deano,

        I take your point about the other uses of bamboo; I work on a training farm on the Isle of Wight where we have a 1 acre chicken enclosure which we are planning to develop in a similar way to your project, so I’d be interested to compare notes as we begin planting. What we want to do is combine some woodland edge style planting, using hazel coppice and thorns, with an over story of ash and alder a the north end of the site, with a mixed orchard at the south end. I’m planning on using a mix of evergreens like Butcher’s Broom and Box with Dogwood and some native roses to provide the protection that you will get from bamboo. I can see how they are less productive than your model. I was concerned about the chickens damaging the young fruit trees as they establish, do you have a view on this?

        Joe

        Reply
        1. Deano Martin Post author

          Hi Joe
          Mine haven’t created any damage to planted trees. Occasionaly they will make a hole to dustbath around the roots when the soil is bare, but it doesn’t seem to create a problem. If the trees are particularly valuable use a simple wire guard, which works well.
          All of the best
          Deano

          Reply
  10. Kevin Mascarenhas

    Hello Deano,

    I’m interested in your thinking about running vs clumping bamboo. I can see from your reasoning why you have selected a running bamboo. But how will you manage and control its naturally invasive habit?

    Could there be unintended consequences here? Not likely! I’m sure you’ve thought this through and I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Best wishes
    Kevin

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Kevin
      The bamboo is in a space where it can run for quite some way before it becomes a nuisance. It normally runs excessively if it is in need of something, light, water, nutrients. Only water is likely to be a slight limitation, but with a swale not far above (North), I’m hoping that is going to be less of a problem. So right plant/right space. Were I planning a planting in a more restrictive space, I would have to use something less likely to spread, but would lose the edible conmponent. Most of the clumpers are edible, but too small to be worth the effort. Chusquea coleou is probably the most useful species in that situation.
      Inside the Chicken Scavenging area it’s spread will be restricted by harvesting shoots for food, and mature canes for a heap of other purposes. It is possible to encourage it to shoot from within it’s own spread by pruning to allow light inside the area in which it is already growing. The light encourages shoots from resting buds on the rhizomes.
      Any shoots that go outside of the fenced area will be fair game for rabbits and deer. Anything left will be cut back for fuel.
      Finally I’ll return to my original point. The bamboo has to run for 30 – 40 meters to reach the closest property boundary, which has a road to act as a barrier. It’s a hundred meters to the next closest boundary. Nothing to fear in my lifetime.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  11. Diane

    Hi Deano,
    Thanks so much for posting up your thoughts, ideas and findings, it’s all really interesting. I’m curious to know how your eleagnus got on being that it’s two years planted now? I’ve a similar site I’d like to plant up with similar constrants such as wetness and would love to know if you think that particular shrub worth the effort.
    Thanks for reading,
    Diane

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi diane
      Sorry for not replying sooner.
      The eleqagnus planted on a slight rise/slope have done Ok.
      Those on the flat, and therefore more prone to waterlogging are alive, but struggling.
      I’ve planted some lower growing running bamboo to fill that niche instead.

      Reply
  12. Rick Cross

    Many Thanks for your detailed research and exaplanations of your chicken forage system design and developments .
    I was also inspired by John Seymoor and have returned to this path later in life!
    On my 2 acre site in Cumbria I am developing a similar smaller system.
    I have a problem with Juncus reeds invading my lower meadow and have found it provides a good deep mulch that is slow to break down and rich in invertebrates to help to feed my Marsh Daisy Chickens. Also holly hedging provides both winter cover and leaves that are slow to decompose in the litter layer.
    I am keen to share ideas and experiences and will keep in touch.

    Reply

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