Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting the Livestock to Work

We love having fresh eggs from our own laying hens. The girls are very easy to care for and the eggs help us keep our grocery bills trimmed. But it occurred to me that I haven't really pointed out the other virtues of the domestic chicken. We use them as workers too.

Chickens love to scratch the earth, looking for tender green shoots, grubs, worms, and insects. They are natural scavengers, and their clawed toes are adapted to help them find these treats they so love. Though we knew this as an abstract fact before we got the hens, we were soon given a more concrete lesson when we started rotating their pen around our lawn. Even when moved every single day, they scratched right through the grass and into the turf, leaving sizable bare patches. So we started letting our grass grow longer before putting them on it. That helped it stand up the abuse from our energetic poultry.

But we soon realized that our girls could be put to work doing what they love to do, for our benefit. So after harvesting my garlic, we positioned their pen over the empty garlic beds. Within two days there was little greenery left in what had been the weedy rows between the different varieties of garlic. In a matter of days, they tore out every weed, scratched up the dirt to make holes for dust bathing, and generally had a great time.

After all the weeds were gone, I made sure they got plenty of extra greens from elsewhere. Like beaten up leaves of chard from the garden, or dandelions. Having hens gives me a good reason to pull dandelions, and makes me see them as assets to be managed, rather than enemies to be exterminated. I'm generally not fond of weeding, but knowing that the girl relish these weeds provides plenty of incentive. I also started pitching a few five-gallon buckets of compost into their pen each morning. The girls tore into this stuff delightedly. I was delighted too. I've composted for many years, but I am a very lazy composter. I don't enjoy turning the pile and rarely get around to that chore. Our girls were more than happy to turn it for me, breaking it down much faster than it would when left to its own devices, and working it into the soil. And at the same time they were adding manure to my garden beds.

In about ten days, our four hens had meticulously prepared a patch of the garden roughly 6'x12', twice the size of their mobile pen. I moved them off the garden and back on to the lawn. Then I followed the "lasagna method" of mulching. I laid down about 3" of free compost from the township yard waste center, covered that with heavy layers of newspaper, and then covered the newspaper with free mulch from the township too. The bed looks wonderful, and it took almost no effort on my part. The chickens enjoyed the change of scenery and the dustbathing.

Now that my squash crop is nearly ready, I am eyeing that larger patch of soil in our large garden bed. If all goes as planned, I will use the girls as before to clear the weeds and scratch up the earth. Then I'll sow a fast-growing fall or winter cover crop and let it grow while the girls work on other patches of the garden, each the exact size and shape of their mobile pen. The cover crop will grow somewhat this year, and continue in the spring. It will use its head start of this year's growth to outcompete any opportunistic spring weeds. As bonuses, the cover crop will: loosen the soil with its roots, add organic material, and feed our chickens in the spring. By putting the girls back on the same plot in the spring, they'll do the harvesting of the crop themselves, save me a few days' of feed, and loosen up the soil one more time before I plant. Having the chickens in the garden means they're working their own manure directly into the soil as well.

I offer this experience and these plans to those of you who might have been curious about keeping chickens. Maybe delicious eggs alone aren't quite enough to convince you to give it a try. Perhaps thinking of the hens as pieces of autonomous garden machinery might tip the balance. In any case, I've been well pleased with the contributions of our hens. They've saved me time and effort in the garden, which I appreciate a great deal. Eggs, manure, weeding, and soil preparation. They pull their weight, that's for sure.

Related Posts:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock
In Further Praise of Domestic Poultry
Meat Rabbits On Pasture


Anonymous said...

It makes absolute sense, but I think it's absolutely hysterical that your hens can do your soil preparation for you! Who would have thought they could do that too? Talk about ingenius...

Kate said...

It's a hoot, isn't it? I've wondered for a while now whether we could get a goat to use instead of a lawn mower. I once saw people using rabbits as lawn mowers. They had a little hutch that was open on the bottom. They just dragged it around the yard, which is what we do with the chickens. But the rabbits left the grass looking actually trimmed and neat. The chickens leave it looking like a frat party was there.