Food & Water featured

Chickens in Our Small-Scale Food Production System

January 28, 2020

Chickens are all the rage lately, and for good reason. They’re hilarious to watch, come in many fetching colors, and make delicious eggs. Around here, we have a goal of producing 80% of our veg, fruit, meat and dairy within a couple of years. To be realistic, we’re assuming we’ll continue to eat a banana once in a while (which, at 80 g carbon dioxide equivalent, isn’t anywhere near as bad for the atmosphere as it’s usually made out to be). Some years (like this year) the tomatoes will fail to produce and have to be purchased, and we’ll still eat some wild-caught fish, for the nutrition and flavor. Keeping some chickens helps us meet our goal.

Chickens, goats and geese on pasture

Chickens typically mesh well with mixed herds. Those two geese in the background are chicken guards. I haven’t lost a bird to a raccoon since I got them last summer.

Judging by the number of backyard chickens that end up at animal shelters, there seems to be some confusion about whether chickens are pets or not. To be clear, our chickens are not pets, even though we get a lot of joy out of them and carefully guard their welfare. I have no problem with people keeping pet chickens, as long as they observe salmonella-avoidance protocol. Because they eat grain rather than meat, a few chickens are definitely less impactful on the planet than a big dog or a collection of cats. Our chickens also are not meat that’s just taking a vacation in the barn before moving to the freezer, although they do end up there.

Chickens in a small-scale food production system, whether that’s a suburban backyard or a bit of acreage, are valuable first for the services they provide. In nature, scavenging omnivorous birds form a symbiosis with large mammals. Cows, horses and pigs produce a lot of poo, which breeds a lot of flies. Chickens come along behind, scratching out the pies and eating the fly larvae. Their ancestors the red jungle fowl did the same for the excrement of tapirs and other animals in the Amazon. Without chickens (or something like them) the world would be drowning in flies, far more than airborne predators can control.

How do I know? Because all my neighbors have cows but no chickens. There is an endless supply of flies from their properties onto mine, and inevitably into my house. Some years hundreds, some years thousands. This can be a disaster, or it can be a boon.

We utilize a fly bucket, which is just a five gallon bucket with little holes drilled around the bottom hung in the chicken stall. I put a bit of slaughter waste inside every time I have some. The flies crawl in through the holes, lay eggs, and because their instinct is to fly up rather than down, they can’t get out so they die. When the larvae are ready to pupate into adults, they crawl out the holes. The chickens get every single one, providing free protein while reducing a serious pest issue. No harmful bacteria transfers to the chickens.

I could pay about a hundred dollars a year for traps at the hardware store and achieve almost as good fly control. However, those traps have to go in the trash when they’re full and they also catch carrion beetles, a very cool species that I don’t want to kill. The commercial traps also do nothing for fruit flies, while the fly bucket has at least some impact on that non-native nuisance. Not enough, but some. I also use fly paper and homemade kombucha traps in the house for the fruit flies. They don’t breed inside, but come in continually from outside.

Chicken automatic waterer with nipples

These two Speckled Sussex chickens are having a drink. I drilled holes in the bottom of the bucket and installed inexpensive nipples from Tractor Supply. I refill every four or five days. It works well on all but a few very cold days, when they get an open bucket. In the top right you can see the end of their round-wood roost, made out of a tree we had to cut. That’s the thinner end that no chicken prefers- they seem to like a roost about 1 1/2″ to 2″ in diameter.

Another essential chicken service is the production of very high-quality compost. We utilize sheet mulch, which builds soil fertility while reducing weeding and watering in our large garden. The chicken stall has about eight inches of bedding, which is called a “deep litter” arrangement. We use planer shavings, an inexpensive waste product from the lumber mill just up the street. It’s between sawdust and wood chips in texture. The bedding sits in the stall for a year while the chickens turn it repeatedly, adding their droppings. I empty small amounts of water from dirty water buckets into the stall because the barn’s catchment tank is right by the door. When we bring the bedding to the garden, composting is well under way.

We apply chicken bedding to a few garden beds in the fall, giving it several months out in the weather. Pathogens are outcompeted, and soil microorganisms take up the nitrogen so it doesn’t burn delicate plant roots. Along with bedding from the goat and goose stalls, ash from the wood stove and diluted fresh urine, this forms a pretty complete fertilization scheme, entirely local, entirely free and therefore extremely low in impact. In contrast synthetic nitrogen is made with natural gas. The impacts are complex, but we certainly don’t want to leak any more methane than necessary.

Another service for which I’m testing chickens is pest and weed control directly in the garden. Scratching chickens are hard on the pasture in the coldest months when it’s not growing, so mine are going to take a little vacation to the garden. I put deep straw over perennials I’d prefer not get eaten, such as strawberries and French sorrel. I pulled the last of the exposed carrots and turnips. There’s still some arugula and mustard spinach growing under row cover. We’ll see if it survives being chicken-trampled. Hopefully, the chickens will discover insects in their overwintering stage, and reduce the spring pressure of squash bug and bean beetle. They’ll definitely eat the dead nettle and other weeds. I’m sure I’ll have to re-form the beds after they rake them apart, but I don’t mind because that’s more fun than weeding.

In addition to their services, chickens also provide a lot of nutrition. For the first six months of its life a hen only consumes feed (fly larvae and kitchen scraps, but also some grain), and produces nothing. Then she lays eggs like mad, with only brief breaks to molt – loose and regrow all her feathers. Sometime in her second or third year, she tapers off laying significantly, and will eventually quit completely. If she hasn’t learned to be a good mother by then (most laying chickens have had this broody instinct bred out of them), from year three until year ten she’s a services-only creature, while still consuming just as much food. It’s probably at this point that most of those animal shelter chickens get dumped.

Chicken automatic no-waste feeder and no-poop nest box

This scrap-wood nest box is mounted below the roosts and has no comfy place to stand, so the chickens don’t sleep and poop on it. Some of those are eggs and some are golf balls, to remind the chickens were to lay. The feeder is a bucket with holes cut in it, and 90-degree pvc elbows inserted. The chicken must stick her head inside, preventing wasted grain. It’s not goat-proof, so it’s only deployed when the chickens are locked in. It makes farm sitting much easier for the poor souls I sucker into watching my place while I go to the beach.

To keep the birds that are still laying and turn only those that have quit into delicious soup, it’s necessary to decipher exactly which ones are laying. I learned from this post by Amy of The Vomiting Chicken, an incredibly useful blog for anyone chicken-curious. First, observe your birds in the light. Laying hens are fertile, and therefore coursing with hen sex hormones. Her comb will be fat and red, while her feathers may look worn unless she’s just finished molting. Non-laying hens have a smaller, paler comb.

Then, go to the coop after dark, when the birds are asleep and easy to handle. Pick one out and turn her over. She will protest, so tuck her wings against her body under your arm, so she doesn’t flap you. If she’s laying, her vent or cloaca, the single hole that chickens use for all matters reproductive and eliminatory, will be big and loose-looking. If she’s not, it’ll be smaller, tighter and drier. Next, lay your fingers between her butt bones. A laying hen will have space for three of your fingers, while a non-laying hen may have space for just one. Using Amy’s method, I’ve never butchered a bird with eggs in progress.

I have some vegetarian friends who keep chickens just for the fly control in their horse pasture, letting them live until a hawk or fox gets them. But given that chickens can’t survive completely on kitchen scraps and fly larvae, and must eat some grain, I prefer that grain ultimately make its way onto my plate. We don’t raise meat birds, only layers, and they certainly do not provide as much meat, which is fine because we don’t need much. We eat tender spare roosters at six months old, and slow-cook old laying hens.

We highly value the products that usually get completely wasted, making broth from the bones, gizzards and feet, and enjoying the organs in special favorite recipes like Cajun dirty rice. Using as much of the animal as possible greatly increases the nutrition available, because the broth and organs have more vitamins and minerals than the muscle meat. It also reduces the environmental impact of eating meat, since so much less is necessary to get the same or better flavor and nutrition.

Feathers make their way to the garden as slow-release nitrogen fertilizer. Heads and anything soft leftover from broth-making (VERY carefully picked over to remove EVERY splintery cooked bone) replace some store-bought pet food for our carnivorous partners. Bones are burned in the wood stove and then become garden fertilizer. Lungs and a few other undesirables go in the fly bucket. Every part is utilized for the highest use I can think of.

Could we lower our environmental impact marginally by no longer keeping chickens? Yes, some. Though I’m working toward it, learning more all the time, I haven’t brought the chicken system completely on-farm, and I don’t expect to be able to this year. This winter our flock is a little large for my taste at 17 birds, and they are eating about 2.7 lbs of grain per day (less in the summer). Unlike ruminants, birds don’t burp methane so their environmental impact is almost entirely from the production of their feed, which is why you’ve probably seen suggestions to switch from eating beef to chicken to lower your own impact.

With our health constraints, if we gave up chicken I would have to replace it with things I have no hope of producing on-farm. That doesn’t move me toward knowledge, competence and local production, and it doesn’t address our pest situation or garden fertility. Given the many different benefits, I’m keeping the chickens.

The following recipe isn’t as farm-centered as we’re aiming to be, with the lime, mushrooms and coconut milk, but it’s been such a favorite for so long I still make it on cold winter days and when everyone is sick. My children have always loved it, even as picky toddlers, and several friends have said their toddlers feel the same.

Favorite Chicken Soup

– A quart of homemade chicken broth

– Pickings from a roasted chicken, or a couple diced thighs, or forget it if the freezer is empty because it’ll taste plenty chickeny enough with just the both

– 8 oz button or baby bella mushrooms, or some fancy ones from the Asian market

– Half a cup of rice or a handful of rice noodles or a handful of angel hair pasta or leave this out if you’re low-carb, whatever does your gut best

– Zest and juice of one lime

– An inch of grated ginger (did you know you can keep your citrus peels and ginger in the freezer, so it never goes bad languishing in the fridge? It grates better frozen!)

– 4 or 8 cloves of garlic

– One onion, diced, and oil or butter to fry it in

– As much of your favorite spice as you want. We like homemade pickled hot peppers.

– Soy sauce or fish sauce or both, to taste

– A can or two of coconut milk

Fry the onion and other aromatics in the oil until just cooked. Add your chicken, mushrooms, broth, coconut and rice or noodles, and simmer until children and spouses start to gather around the heavenly smell. Add soy and spice to suit everyone’s individual taste. Enjoy.

Do you keep chickens? What services do they provide for you? More importantly, do you have a favorite old hen recipe? Tell me about it in the comments! I love new recipes.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, chickens, mixed small-scale farming