Pastured poultry is certainly a buzzword in today’s culture and economy. Its sister terms (grass-fed & free-range) are not any less popular. In the marketplace, pastured poultry, grass-fed, and free-range are often synonymous with overpriced grocery items; in popular agricultural literature, such “marketing” is often akin to ecology’s biggest nightmare.
We cannot feed the world if the “farming few” don’t mass-produce for the “urban many” and we cannot protect the world if chickens devour its prairies.
But what if this was not true?
What if sustainable agriculture, full bellies, and pastured poultry not only could co-exist, but exist symbiotically? What if the coupling of nature and culture could produce a superior nature inhabited by an exceptional culture?
Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire) described the American novelist, poet and cultural critic Wendell Berry as the person who “helped me solve my Thoreau problem.” Pollan continued, Berry provided “a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture.”
In his essay, Bringing It To The Table, Berry wrote, “The singular demand for production has been unable to acknowledge the importance of the sources of production in nature and in human culture. Of course agriculture must be productive; that is a requirement as urgent as it is obvious. But urgent as it is, it is not the first requirement.”
What is the first requirement?
The requirements for agricultural productivity, Berry concluded, was that “it must preserve the land and the fertility and ecological health of the land” as well as “the people who use it must know it well.” Wendell Berry ultimately understood that, by observing the patterns of nature and by returning to the “nature of the place,” both nature and culture would ultimately thrive.
Enter the high density, short duration grazing pattern of pastured poultry.
Key #1: Go Mobile and Think “Outside of the Coop”
Chickens are the great-grandchildren of junglefowl. They eat almost anything: bugs, grass, clover, worms, weeds, rocks, table scraps, garden produce, and soil organisms, to name but a few. They are nature’s true workhorses, spreading manure and mulch and consuming undesirables in return for eggs and meat. For our mathematicians, they are the optimal function. They require a minimal input for an optimal output.
The mobile “Chicken Tractor” system captures their productivity, maximizes their health and reduces their stress. The father of Permaculture, Bill Mollison coined the term “Chicken Tractor” and it is most easily defined as a bottomless and portable pen moved daily to fresh pasture.
Going mobile has many beneficial components, called “stacking” in Permaculture, which produce happy hens, healthy soil and a fruitful garden.
1. It is one solution for numerous problems.
Going mobile is scalable. You can custom build a chicken tractor for your needs, time, or space. If you have access to 1 acre or 500, the chicken tractor system can work for you. You can start with 5 chickens in your backyard or 5,000 in your paddock. It is also practical. If you want to produce enough eggs or meat for your family and have limited space, running a chicken tractor in your backyard is a very easy solution – no barn necessary.
2. It prepares gardens for optimal yields.
Chickens naturally turn soil and spread manure. Running your chicken tractor through your garden fertilizes the soil with living, and humus-rich compost.
More on this point later…
3. Chickens are not good free-rangers.
Chickens are low on the animal food chain. They require shelter and somewhat adept predator protection. Living in The Blue Ridge Mountains and the James River, we've actually witnessed an Osprey swoop down into our fields and carry off a live chicken...
A chickens foraging habits typically start with consuming the crown of green plants, which is optimal for short periods, and then they scratch for soil organisms such as bugs and worms. Their manure also contains a high amount of soluble nitrogen. If kept stationary, in a place for more than a day, they run out of nutrient-dense food and their “hot” manure can cause nitrate toxicity. In other words, stationary chickens and hurt the animals and the land...
In his book, Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin wrote:“All of these problems came together for us with a single solution.”
Enter the Chicken Tractor solution.
“By breaking up the flock of birds into many small units, absolute control over pasture, feed and water can be maintained. The small groups mimic natural flock-numbers, reducing stress and increasing efficiency.”
Key #2: The Sheet Mulch Chicken Tractor
Every farmer knows that compost is key. How does compost help soil fertility?
Soil is formed by decomposing organic matter (compost) into humus. The major load of the decomposing work is done when earthworms, fungi, and bacteria “eat” organic matter. Ironically, such a process “uppens” the soil through biomass cycling: humus is created by decaying organic matter and contains the minerals, vitamins and nutrients necessary for organic growth. Compost is nature’s self-sustaining practice.
Mobile chicken tractors can be compost-producing machines.
In his book, Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, Andy Lee described the Chicken Tractor system as the ideal solution for happy birds and healthy soil. He wrote, “If you use the chicken tractor system to raise chickens in your garden you can expect soil fertility and organic matter content to increase in your garden beds practically overnight.” Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and their manure is free. Lee continues, “If we start viewing chickens as biped, feathered, backyard oil wells – then we will realize how valuable they are to local, sustainable agriculture.”
Here is the take away…
Employ the sheet mulch method in your chicken tractor to increase compost yield and decrease your flock’s supplemental feed costs.
Employ a high density, short duration system. Instead of moving your chicken tractors daily to fresh pasture, rotate the tractors every 3 to 5 days. The first day your pastured poultry will deposit a layer of manure and consume the “choice” pasture. Then, between days 2 and 5, deposit organic mulch (we have found that straw is best) until a 4 inch sheet is constructed. Once obtained, move the tractor to fresh pasture and repeat.
During the interlude from fresh pasture, the Chickens will scratch through the composting layer of mulch for bugs and pasture, thereby “uppening” the soil and mixing the deposited manure with the mulch for optimal humus creation. Additionally, the sheet layer of mulch fosters a damp and dark environment for soil biology to thrive.
One more thing…
There are three important notes to consider before you begin your wonderful composting and garden-building endeavor:
1. Design roosts into your Chicken Tractor.
The only danger of the Sheet Mulch Chicken Tractor System is ammonia toxicity and standing water. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and, if you keep your pastured poultry in one area for too long, ammonia toxicity will build up and reduce the health of your flock. Additionally, Chickens cannot slog around in standing water and live.
The fix is very simple: maximize the vertical space in your Chicken Tractor by adding roosts for the chickens to fly up to. Although they are workhorses, chickens are still birds. Roosts give the chickens an alternative option than standing on the ground all day and an outlet for their “chickenness.” Roosts help during the wet season as well.
You can also combat inclement weather by adding a fresh layer of straw down immediately after the deluge so that the chickens have fresh and dry mulch to stand on.
2. The source of your straw matters.
As the straw and manure will eventually break down into humus, it is important to obtain your straw from Roundup-FREE sources. This is a must. Roundup kills life. That is what it was designed to accomplish. The Sheet Mulch Chicken Tractor System is designed to foster life abundantly. Roundup is adverse to this system and ALL sustainable and ecological farming endeavors, period.
If you are unsure, here is how you test your straw…
After soaking the straw for 2 – 3 days in pure water, pour the tea on a living plant (we use our Bush Beans) and wait and see. If the bush beans are still living a day or two later, your straw is clear of Roundup and good to use. If the bush beans start to show signs of decay, wilting, or outright death, discard the straw and find a new source.
3. Your Chickens health is still the most important.
At the end of the day, the Sheet Mulch Chicken Tractor System’s main purpose is to raise happy, healthy, and foraging chickens. The wake of beautiful compost behind your tractors is secondary.
The key is this…
The secret behind this system is the tilling abilities of your pastured poultry. Chickens are not hard to please but if they are not happy the system will fail. Read the weather and understand that this system is not mathematical.
This sequence creates happy hens and adds loads of organic matter to the soil. Moreover, as Andy Lee writes, “the chickens drop manure where you need it, and the mulch holds the nitrogen and other nutrients in a stable condition while the mulch slowly decays.”