Chickens as part of a sustainable system.
Raising chickens has become an activity of growing importance within permaculture/sustainability movements. Most backyard chicken owners raise their birds for eggs, meat, companionship, manure, happiness, and natural pest control. Chickens can form one piece of a larger sustainable system–and I want to stress that when thinking about sustainable transitions, we need to think in systems, not in solitary activity. Its all about how the pieces fit together as a whole and how each piece fits together (for more information on how to think in this way, see Thinking in Systems or Gaia’s Garden).
Chickens can serve a lot of functions in a backyard homestead – their manure is excellent for your garden. You need to compost it down first; it is too nitrogen rich when it first comes out of the chicken and will burn plants if directly applied. I especially enjoy the fact that chickens are like “living composters”; I throw my food scraps to them and they break down that food in a matter of hours, leaving wonderful droppings (and they are wonderful–wait till you see your plants growing in composted chicken manure!)
Chickens also provide excellent pest control. I let my chickens roam free in the garden during a lot of the year to scratch and eat bugs. They eat slugs, squash beetles, potato beetles, earwigs, Japanese beetles, and many more. And what do they do next? Turn it into glorious manure!
Chickens can also be used to turn soil and till the ground. Place them in an area that has been planted with green manure like winter rye, and watch them scratch and peck! In less than a week, they will have mowed down your green manure and you’ll be ready to plant (this is seriously exciting stuff, especially if you work 1600+ square feet of garden by hand like I do!)
Chickens are wonderful companions and bring happiness to your life. I have had chickens throughout my life, and I have always found them to be wonderful companions. Their gentle spirits and calm natures bring peace and tranquility as you watch them go about their chicken-ey business. I have found few things as peaceful as sitting nearby while my peeps scratch in the dirt in my organic garden and take dust baths! Free ranging chickens are so happy with life–give them a few slugs and you’ll watch them experience bliss.
Perhaps the most obvious uses of chickens are for eggs and meat. And certainly, they can provide either in abundance! Our current flock is a laying flock, so we won’t be eating them. But they will faithfully lay about 200 eggs each, per year, once they start laying (which is around 26 weeks old).
The Lessons of the Chicken
Chickens have many lessons for us, if only we heed them. Chickens spend much of their time observing and interacting with nature–they miss very little. Yet their focus isn’t always on survival, a good dust bath, nap in the sun, or simply jumping up on a lap to be given attention is all things that they enjoy. We, too, need to focus not only on our survival, but also remember the simple pleasures in life. Chickens aren’t waste-oriented creatures; everything that they produce is useful, from their droppings to their eggs to their feathers. So too, should we strive to live in harmony with nature and be producers, not just consumers.
The Story of Our Current Flock
We ordered our four baby peeps way back in January of last year to be delivered in mid-July. I had chickens as a child, and I wanted to make sure I got some of the breeds I wanted. Because we wanted layers, I also wanted to have my peeps sexed. You can get peeps locally at your feed supply store, but they aren’t always sexed, and often are quite a bit older (and not always very well socialized). A lot of mail order chicken places ship chickens in lots of 25 or more, which is way too many for the typical homeowner. We could easily have a flock of 25 on our land, but we have no need for so many! So I ordered chickens from mypetchicken.com, who had a wonderful selection of peeps and could ship as few as 3 standard-sized peeps (or 5 bantams). I ended up with 2 standard sized chickens and 2 bantams.
In the days leading up to the peeps’ arrival, I built a cardboard brooder in my garage. This included making an enclosure from some salvaged cardboard boxes, several small food dishes made from paper egg cartons, a small waterer, pine shavings to keep them sanitary, and a heat lamp to keep them warm. There are lots of great directions online for how to build such a brooder and keep your peeps warm and happy. And nearly all of this can be made from repurposed/salvaged materials.
The day before the peeps arrived, I contacted my post office to let them know that they would be coming so that I could go and pick them up. The peeps came in a small hay nest box which kept them warm and safe. Since day-old peeps need to be kept at 95 degrees, the hot days of July were perfect for this!
Its been amazing to watch them grow as the weeks and months go by–they were scared and unsure when they first arrived and huddled together in your hands. Now they are bold, friendly, roaming and free! I’m ending this blog post with some photos week by week so you can get a sense of how fast they grow. They have become a flock of lovely ladies, pecking and scratching, each one with her own personality. They are friendly and active, and have already, in their 11 or so short weeks of life, made such a positive impact on our lives.
Here are some more photos of the peeps as they grow up!