Episode 205. Regenerative Farming With Chickens

This is the World Organic News for the week ending 2nd of  March 2020.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Why Chooks?

This week I’m diving deeply into the humble chook. Known outside of Australasia as the chicken or hen, Here they are chooks. Get used to the word as it’s just what I use. Maybe you could spread this practice to where you live? A little linguistic trading.

So to the chooks. There has been a rediscovery of the humble chook in suburban areas over the last, say, twenty years. Local authorities have changed by-laws to allow the keeping of poultry, often without the rooster but that’s not too big of an issue as unfertilised eggs are just as delicious as the rooster boosted option.

Chooks in the Open

Housing requirements are minimal. Housing being more to keep predators out than to keep chooks in. We are fortunate in Tasmania that the fox was never introduced. We do have quolls and Devils but even the devils have been much reduced by the facial tumour disease that’s knocked out 90% in some areas. I haven’t spotted one round here in 15 months. Quolls will kill chooks as will any number of predators across the planet. So keeping the birds safe, especially at night is the goal. The other reason for housing is egg collection. If allowed to free range, eggs tend to be distributed across the landscape, eventually. 

So nest boxes, roosts for sleeping on and a predator proof container are the basics. I would advocate for a chicken tractor. This way the birds can be moved to fresh grass daily or every couple of days depending upon numbers.

Breeds are a matter of personal choice. We have a mixed heritage rooster, one hen with the same background and six Polish hens. (See pics in the show notes). I’ll do a blog post of choosing the right breed in the future. 

Eggs in the bush

Regenerative Chickens

To using chooks in a regenerative way. As I said, tractors are the go. Fresh feed, pasture, land chickened up and then left. They are great for running over empty garden beds to freshen them after harvest.

Nitrogen

I discussed manure make up in Episode 201 and poultry manure is high in nitrogen. There is some argument that it’s “too hot” to use directly but I find with the tractor method, the organic matter mixed with the droppings tends to cool off the material. With this in mind, regenerative chickens are great for adding a consistent, distributed nitrogen fertilizer across the growing space.

Soil Fertility

This has the effect of increasing soil fertility over time. By working with the tractor model, the surrounding land also benefits and balances to some extent the effect of a big droppings load. To get this right might mean moving the tractor twice a day or reducing the number of birds in the system. It’s all about observation and correction.

Eliminates Pests & Diseases

Chooks improve the health of the local ecosystem a few ways. They improve the health of the soil.Healthier soil grows healthier plants and these resist disease and pests better than those grown in artificially fertilized soils. The birds also eat the larval and adult stages of many insects. Running them loose in the orchard over winter seems to remove the codling moth from pome fruits. I assume they eat the caterpillars or dig them up from their resting places over winter. It works but the birds do need to be free ranging. Balance, adjustments, results is a thing to keep in mind.

Pasture/Garden Cleaning Services

As fairly non discriminate eaters, chooks will clean your pastures and garden beds over time. As no-dig gardeners we don’t really have much of an annual weed issue but the chooks help. The pigs tend to deal with the perennial weeds. If you can’t, don’t or won’t keep pigs I would refer you to Episode 203 Weeds, to meet that challenge in a non toxic manner.

Aerated Soils

Chickens will fluff up the top layers of your soil. This tends to aid in water infiltration. They will, through the action of scratching around and concentrated fertilizing and moving on, reduce and maybe even eliminate soil compaction. This is a terrible problem. Of all the ways to fix it, slowly and with the help of animals to incorporate water and organic matter into the soil is probably the best. Biomimicry is a theme on the World Organic News channels: podcast, blog and membership. So I’m, by nature, drawn to chooks for this process.

Eggs

This is one of the two food returns from chooks. Despite the horrors of the 1970s, 80s and 90s pseudo science of nutritionalism, eggs are perfectly healthy to eat. Yes yolks and all. It did seem odd that after millions of years of evolution in our lineage, we would suddenly be harmed by a food source we have consistently eaten over that time. These can be consumed at home or sold or better yet, bartered for other food. 

Meat

This may not be for everyone. I have no issues with killing, processing and eating my own chooks. Maybe if I only had a couple and they were named and pets the situation might be different. As a rule I either skin them, no market for chicken skins with the feathers still attached or simply remove the breasts and legs. All waste is buried at least 50 cm deep, that’s about two foot in the old money, and plant fruit trees over them in the Autumn. Use everything but the cluck.

I would urge you to consider chooks as part of your regenerative systems. From improved soil, to reduced pests and disease in gardens and pastures to the joy of home grown eggs and meat, chickens may well be the perfect animal for your local ecosystem.

It is also worth remembering that chooks are the gateway species for many people. I know once I got used to keeping chooks, I added, ducks, geese, peafowl, sheep, goats and even a poddy calf. They are dangerous animals to have around, you have been warned.

Chooks are also covered in the free ebook over at WorldOrganicNews.com, drop your email and first name into form on the front page to get a copy of the No-Dig Gardening eBook, for free. The techniques and examples there will  help you to feed yourself and your loved ones and to:

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.

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