Chickens came to Chaitraban without any planning! On one of the many exciting weekends on the farm, we saw a man carrying a very mysterious looking bamboo basket on his head with a netted umbrella on top. As usual, unable to overcome our curiosity at everything new which was not ‘urban’, we decided to explore. He was carrying, what looked like a hundred tiny balls of fur, all of different colours. They were going cheep-cheep-cheep and our daughter exclaimed, ‘Mamma! They are baby chicks!’.
It didn’t take too much of convincing and all the hundred babies stayed. Before an hour passed with all the excitement of the kids taking each baby out and we marvelled at the perfectly cute ‘tinyness’. And then, when they started cheeping really loudly, we realised they were hungry and we didn’t know how to take care of them! With no internet for help, we put on our thinking caps and came up with a few ideas. I powdered some grain and put in the cage. The chicks were really really hungry and they pecked hungrily with their little beaks. For water, we cut a very thin pipe in half horizontally and tied it with wire on the side of the cage at a height the chicks would reach. This ensured that the chicks didn’t drown in a dish of water. Finally, we hung a light bulb which would keep the chicks warm in the night. The whole set up looked promising indeed.
When the chicks grew into adults, we built a coop and a run for them, and since then, we got addicted to keeping chickens. They required very little care, provided us with plenty of steroid-free and poison-free eggs and meat and were wonderful at replacing human labour at many tasks at the farm. As we went on to retrofit Chaitraban to a permaculture design, chickens became more and more valuable and are now an inseparable element in the whole sustainable system. We have a batch of brooders and hens with chicks working at the compost, a flock working at pest control in the forest garden and a few work in the chicken tractor (they are always in rotation) to do the weeding job after the monsoon.
These are few of the chicken-integrated systems that work at Chaitraban…
CHICKEN-COMPOST INTEGRATED SYSTEM
This system is for the lazy gardener like me who does not make any special mixes and concoctions and believes that nature looks after herself if left mostly alone, with little help from our side.
This system is extremely useful in places where additional labour is not available to work on the compost. Also, it can be tweaked as per requirement.
Tip- As far as possible, set up this system at the highest point possible in the landscape. The nutrients produced in this system will leach to the lower slopes, over time, and will benefit the growing space designed in the area.
• A secure chicken run. We house our goats and chickens in a common animal housing area, between Permaculture Zone 1 and Zone 2. It is very easy to chuck in all the hay and manure cleaned out from the goat shed, into the compost being worked by the chickens. Much time and effort saved!
• Hand shovel and other tools required
• Any locally available material (we have plenty of rock) to line the compost beds
• A secure chicken coop with food and clean water
• Kitchen scraps, brown and green biomass every day from the farm/garden
• Chickens. The number depends upon other factors. Refer ‘Chickens in Permaculture design‘)
How the system works
We made four sections and lined them with stacked rocks/stones upto a height of about a foot. (Purpose was to keep the biomass and then, the compost, in)
1. In Section 1, we start putting in the brown biomass available along with weeds/greens available every day. Our experience has been more of chopped browns and dried leaves (we keep the system simple and do not count). We put in all the material got from cleaning of sheds of other animals (goats).
2. Water this a little
3. Now, we let the chickens in this section and happily saw them scratching about and already starting to mix this. Added the kitchen scraps. They really loved us then! While they enjoyed their meals and mixed up the biomass for us, they also added their manure to make the mixture even richer.
4. We repeated this every day.
5. Over some time (depending upon the material put in), the section was full with coarse material on top and fine darker material at the bottom of the pile (this is compost!)
6. We separated the upper layer of the coarse material and simply chucked it in the next section. We saw a beautiful layer of dark soil which had an earthy heavenly smell. Turned and loosened this a little. This fine material is compost! Watered this a little and covered it with palm leaves (any thick material available can be used) so that chickens did not disturb it and no additional manure entered it. This was kept moist and rested for around 15-30 days (will depend on the climate). A rich compost was now ready to be used on the veggie beds and trees. (Important- Remember to mix it with soil and not use it as is).
Tip- If we need a ready potting mix, we keep adding soil to the section along with biomass added every day.
7. We start the same process in section 2, then section 3 and then section 4. By the time the fourth section is full, the first is used up and harvested so as to keep the process running in rotation.
This system is extremely easy to use and maintain. The whole area gets extremely fertile over time and the whole setup now can be moved, like a chicken tractor, to grow wonderful crops here.
With creative thinking, the area around this run, especially the lower slopes can be used to grow highly productive trees. (We have grown papayas which sometimes also grow from seeds thrown in the compost sections. We only protect the seedlings with a wire mesh so that the chickens cannot get to them)
All in all, this is a great system because
• Kitchen scraps and unwanted weeds are put to better use
• Quick good quality compost is produced as compared to other passive systems
• No human labour is required what-so-ever except for tending to the animals
• Cost of feeding the chickens is reduced as they get all the protein required from the biomass and critters breeding in the compost as it matures.
• Chickens are happy and healthy
• Nutritious eggs and meat (also feathers) are the bi-products
CHICKENS IN THE FOREST GARDEN
Our forest garden is only a few years old and has gone through all the teething troubles of a developing ecosystem. With a little patience and perseverance, it now yields great guavas, mangoes, amlas, bhokars while providing shade for the campers. The permanent residents in this area (except in the monsoon) is a very happy batch of free range chickens. They peck about all day, eating the fallen fruit, devouring the occasional larvae of the fruit flies (we had an infestation in the second year), fresh weeds and weed seeds after the monsoon, and sometimes, a mouse or two. Wonderfully, they provide nutrients to the trees as they go about their business quietly (they can be really noisy when they see a stranger in the garden). They lay beautiful eggs more regularly and are a healthy batch.
The only problem we have encountered till today with chickens in the forest garden is that there is never enough mulch to cover the ground. The chickens enjoy scratching and foraging under the trees and disturb the soil. However, with a routine ‘chop and mulch’, we see the situation improving over time, as mulch builds up over the soil and even though the chickens still scratch about, the soil remains covered. Now, we will concentrate on a mixed mulch of greens and browns and let the chickens make compost in place to cover bare soil and benefit the trees!
Problem becomes the solution!
CHICKENS IN THE CHICKEN TRACTOR
In the initial years, while developing Chaitraban, we used the chicken tractor in plenty. The ground was still not covered with thick mulch that covers the whole three acres today and weeds kept popping their head up everywhere. Chickens did a wonderful job of weeding and eating up weed seeds, while building up a regular supply of nutrients and lightly tilled the soil. At one time, we connected two tractors to accommodate more chickens to quickly get the paddy field ready before the monsoon. And it did wonders!
Now the chickens are relieved from their job and enjoy being free range in the forest garden. Their job is done!
Chickens make a great addition to a farm system, are a multi-functional element, require almost no maintenance and are a great replacement to labour, especially where human intervention is not preferred, like at Chaitraban.