Chickens in Permaculture design

Many visitors to Chaitraban are very curious about how the smaller animal integrated systems are designed and work in a Permaculture system. This is an attempt to answer their queries and help them to design in the chickens in their own systems.

This article is a general guide for care and use of chickens in a permaculture garden/on a permaculture farm, in particular reference to Desi (native) chickens in Maharashtra and as used in a Permaculture Design. This is not meant for a facility used by commercial breeders.

The chickens, pecking at the kitchen scraps in the backyards of homes is a common sight in our villages. They have been there for generations. However, to place a chicken in a permaculture design requires one to analyse the chicken as an important element, most of the times, as an inevitable part of a sustainable farm design. By a conscious element analysis, we will realise that a chicken can be more useful to a farmer or a gardener than what it is used for, generally, in a conventional commercial farm. The analysis will also help a designer to decide on where chickens can be physically placed on the map so as to save on time, money and effort of the steward of the farm or a garden. 

“To fit any element in a permaculture design requires the designer to analyse each element in terms of its inputs and outputs to be able to determine the relationship of the element with other elements in the design, so that the output of one element becomes the input of some other/s to avoid wastage and in turn, pollution in a system”.

 

ANALYSIS OF A CHICKEN AS AN ELEMENT IN A PERMACULTURE DESIGN

As seen in the diagram, there are some inputs a chicken will require, it will give many outputs and will have typical behaviours. Also, a particular breed of chicken will have its intrinsic characteristics which we can put to good use and this will, in turn, help a designer to choose a particular breed for a design. A good example is the Kadaknath breed of chicken which is known for its black meat. The meat and eggs of this breed of chicken is used as medicine in tribal cultures.

It is necessary to analyse each input and output, with behaviours, in order to determine where in a design, a chicken system can be fitted physically and functionally in relation with other elements of a design. This will ensure that we can get the most out of a chicken and that the chicken can also benefit from the appropriate placement.

Let us see how we can analyse the chicken and use the information gathered from observation.

NEEDS

AIR

A chicken, like other living beings requires fresh air to breathe. Also, the shelter in which the chicken will brood for the night will have to have good ventilation for free flow of air which will ensure that the coop will not stink. Designing a well-ventilated safe coop will also ensure that no disease bearing critters breed in the coop. It is recommended to face the coop towards the east and to shade out the west and the south.

SHELTER

A chicken needs protection from its predators, mainly, on a farm, from mongooses, foxes, dogs and in case of chicks, crows and kites. It is recommended to have a coop that can be safe from these. For covering the walls of the shelter, except during monsoon, a green shade net or jute is recommended which will enable flow of air while providing shade. Alternatively, vinesand climbers can be grown on the wall and roof of the coop.
Also, as mentioned above, care needs to be taken to protect the chickens from the harsh sun from the west and south while letting in the sun from the east. North of the shelter should provide ample shade from the sun.

A coop with a skeleton (including the floor covered with thick mulch) of GI crimped mesh of half inch is highly recommended.

Chickens brood for the night. Desi chickens will return to their coop before dark and not much has to be done to guide them in. Do a regular head count every day to ensure that there have been no losses. They do not need much space to move in the night and with creative designs a lot of chickens can be accommodated in a single coop. They prefer to perch higher than the floor as an instinct to protect themselves from predators. This behavior can be used to house more chickens in a limited space by fitting in a ladder for the chickens to perch for the night.

Chickens will need additional area to move around, peck and scratch in the day and it is a must to have a chicken run attached to the coop (when chickens are not free range). It is recommended to have firm wire mesh on the sides and a fish net/ cover of vines to protect the small chicks from predators and also to keep the chickens in (desi chickens can easily fly out of the run to expose themselves to predators and also to destroy any vegetation growing there, especially in a vegetable garden).

WATER

Chickens need fresh water to drink, especially in the summer months. There are many waterers available in the market today. However, simple DIY designs can be explored and one can be made with available materials very easily to save on the money, effort and time of the steward of the farm.

The simplest way (not always recommended) is to fill water in a dish. In case of a simple dish for water, water needs to be refilled twice a day as there is a chance of chickens pooping in the same. Caution- In a coop and run with young chicks, it is a must that the dish is not more than an inch deep to ensure that chicks do not drown in it.

(A number of appropriate designs and links are available on the internet for DIY waterers)

GRIT

In case chickens are not free range, a chicken will need access to grit in their food/around their living space. To put it simply, grit is a mixture of small pebbles or crushed stones (other insoluble alternatives can also be used) that chickens eat in order to help them digest their food. They need this because chickens do not have teeth and are not able to chew their food to aid digestion. Instead, they pass the food through an internal organ called the gizzard where it is ground up with the help of the grit it has swallowed.

In case of chickens in a free range system or in case of chickens in a run with a floor with pebbles, no extra grit is required to be provided.

DUST

Dust baths for a chicken are a must as a natural prevention against many diseases. They prevent parasites such as mites and lice from breeding in the chicken’s feathers and legs. If the chickens are not in a free range system or their run does not have a dry patch of ground with soil, to provide an artificial dust bath is a must.

FOOD

In a permaculture system, the chickens are fitted in the design in such a way that they will receive inputs from other elements, especially,

Kitchen scraps from the house
Vegetable leftovers from the harvests
Fallen fruit in the orchard

Weeds from the garden
Grubs and insects from the compost and dirt

In case of domesticated fowl now, we need to provide them with some grain (whichever available). It is recommended to provide as much mix of different grains as possible.

IMPORTANT – Please DO NOT feed the ready mixes and foods available in the market.

OTHER CHICKENS

A chicken will need other chickens for company and to feel safe in an environment. A hen will lay eggs irrespective of whether there is a rooster or not. However, the eggs will not be fertilized and there will be no chicks. There is a controversy whether a fertilized egg for consumption of humans is better or not. It is for the individual consuming it as food, to decide.

In a chicken system in a permaculture design, it is recommended to have one rooster every six/seven hens to have a good proportion of fertilized eggs. More than one rooster in such a mix might end up in fighting and bloodshed!

Roosters also fiercely guard their flock against predators and unwanted visitors.

 

PRODUCTS

EGGS

Other than the fact that eggs provide the much needed protein for humans, in a permaculture design, they are the source of food for other animals on the farm in general. The shells of eggs are an amazing source of calcium for the compost and other homemade brews for fertilizing, as a direct soil amendment and can also be fed to the poultry (I prefer chicken eggs to the ducks and vice versa) as a calcium tonic.

MEAT (also blood and bones)

As above, meat of healthy birds is food for humans and other animals on the farm. Leftovers can be added to supervised compost piles (with care) and is a great activator for starting a compost pile.

HEAT

A number of chickens housed with a common wall to the house can provide an amazing amount of heat and warmth to the house in places of severe winters. Also, in such places, the same idea can be used to heat up a green house.
This also means that in climates where there is no severe winter, as in our case, and the climate is moderate with ample sun, it is preferred to keep the chicken coop a little away from a direct wall of the house.

FEATHERS

Chicken feathers provide material for pillows cushions and mattresses. They are also a great source of nitrogen in the compost pile. It is also an added resource for wild birds nesting on the site. Other crafts can also be made from the feathers of chickens.

BEHAVIOURS

SCRATCHING

In case of chickens not controlled by a run, this behavior can be quite devastating to a gardener or a farmer. However, the same trait can be invaluable if put to use intelligently in a design.

A chicken can help keep a particular area free of weeds by scratching, while fertilizing the area with its manure at the same time. A chicken tractor can be used for this purpose.

A chicken can greatly replace labour required to mix the different materials used to make compost. Compost will be ready for use in much lesser time with the fine job done by a chicken. An added advantage of using chickens for this purpose is that it also adds manure while doing the wonderful job of mixing and eradicating the unwanted seeds in the compost. Check out ‘Chicken-integrated systems at Chaitraban‘.

FORAGING

A chicken is a great element to receive and process kitchen leftovers, unwanted/surplus  harvests from the veggie garden and weeds. The chickens can be free range in an orchard or a food forest. They keep the floor free of unwanted diseased fruits and other material and in a way act as a natural pest control especially because they eat the larvae of insects in the fallen fruit to break the breeding cycle of unwanted pests. This is also an invaluable trait in case of commercial orchards.
While doing so, they also fertilise the orchard or the forest garden with their manure, a great source of nitrogen.

FLYING AND FIGHTING

These behaviours can be a problem sometimes in a chicken system. But as one of the principles of Permaculture says, Problem is the solution. With creative and intelligent thinking, these can also be put to an advantage in a design!

Now, once the chicken is analysed as an element, it is easy to relate other elements in the design, to the chicken. All or almost all the related elements can be physically placed close to each other to form a smaller system in the larger system. This will reduce the time wasted in moving between the elements and help one to determine the number/quantity of chickens/the other elements that can fit in in the system.

Example

If the chickens are to be fed kitchen scraps from the kitchen, and the eggs will be collected and carried to the kitchen once or twice a day, it is beneficial to place the chickens close to the house. At the same time, the chickens are also fed weeds from the annual vegetable garden so the annual vegetable garden can also be close to the chickens, who in turn will work on the compost to be used in that garden. It goes without saying that the kitchen will benefit from the veggies being close to be harvested fresh, for meals! Likewise, many other elements can be connected and can be placed appropriately in the design.

In this example, the number of chickens will be determined by the food- growing area and the need for eggs and meat (also the need for veggies grown by using manure) of the household for self consumption or for sale.

A point to remember!

Animals are an integral part of a sustainable system. In a farm or a garden scenario they perform invaluable functions. However, if the gardener/farmer is a vegetarian, it is recommended to keep only a moderate number of animals, necessary to run a system. Even otherwise, the number of chickens, and for that matter, any animal should be kept only to the optimum and not in excess. Any output of an element which remains unutilized or underutilized becomes pollution.

A polluted system, over time, is unsustainable.

Check out how we integrate chickens in our systems at Chaitraban, in the blog Chicken-integrated systems at Chaitraban.

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