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Barters With Chickens

July 20, 2011

I‘m not sure if Lehman’s still advertises their wares as good, better, or best, but that idea sure comes to mind with my laying hens.  There is never a black and white solution on how to produce the best egg.  Best for whom?  The chicken, the chicken keeper, the customer/egg eater?  Long time readers and people who know us personally, know we sold eggs for many years from a large pastured flock, that was over-wintered in hoophouses and rotationally pastured during the growing season.  It seems counter-intuitive that now I keep our chickens confined and bring greens to them.  It was easy to manage a large flock on pasture, a small flock not so much in my case.  We produced good eggs then, and I am producing good eggs now for my needs.  Not better, or best but good.  And consistent.  I can’t argue that an egg from a free ranging hen would be a great egg, if I could find the egg, keep the hen safe, keep the hen out of the garden (oh yeah that isn’t free ranging), keep her from perching on the tractor seat, and keep her from crapping on the hay in the barn.

Russell Crow and his harem.

I house my hens in a light and airy greenhouse instead of a dark building, and I provide shade for the summer months.  (Sorry about the blue tarp gals.)

A perch with a view.

The chickens “help”  me in the garden by utilizing produce that is over-ripe, eating weeds I pull and turning them into eggs.

But what I think is almost more important than good eggs or at least equally important is the manure that the chickens produce.  I eat more vegetables than I do eggs on any given day.  Growing vegetables requires ample amounts of fertilizer and amendments  and if my chickens were free ranging or out in a pastured setting I would not be able to utilize that manure for the garden.  If I had more hens, pasturing them would make sense, as they can do a bang up job of rejuvenating worn out and weak pastures if they are rotated properly.  But I don’t, so thinking of the hens in a holistic or permaculture way, opens up opportunities beyond just getting eggs from chickens and makes them more of an integral part of the farmstead.

The chickens break this down for me, all I have to do is provide bedding.  This is the product they turn out.  Broken down already, and smells like dirt.  You see an occasional fresh poop, but for the most part it’s almost soil.  Since it is so light and easy to move, I have side-dressed my berry patch, and any vegetables that are going to be harvested later in the season.  I don’t worry about the sporadic fresh turd since there are lots of wild birds frequenting my garden anyway, what’s one more bird poop?

Not worth it you say with a small flock?  My small flock of a dozen chickens provided a 10 yard dump truck load of excellent fertilizer in less than one year.   The bedding/compost is more than a foot deep, and the chicken living area is 15′ x 20′.  Figuring conservatively because you never get every last piece of compost while cleaning I did the math as follows:  square footage multiplied by the depth of bedding divided by 27 to arrive at a cubic yard amount.  Manure or compost around here is sold by the cubic yard and usually delivered by dump truck or trailer. I prefer making and gathering my own for more control of the ingredients.

My numbers:   15 x 20 =  300 sq ft.      300 x 1 = 300 cubic feet.    300/27=  11.1 cubic yards of material.

Many times slippage in a farmstead setting is the best way to make money or rather to save money.  With 20 bales of straw metered out over the course of a less than a year I have created something out of almost nothing.  The first goal is eggs for the farm kitchen of course, but since I have to care take the chickens everyday anyway, adding fresh bedding material over the ever-deepening bedding just makes sense.  Straight chicken manure for the garden scraped out a traditional hen house is too strong for the garden and is gross.  Chicken manure in bedding with the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio so there is no smell, is easy to work with.  Of course on a big scale like we used to do, my hubby cleaned out the big hoophouse with equipment, but in this small hoophouse, a wheelbarrow and shovel is all you need.   Carbon is the key to making an unpleasant task a pleasant one.  If you smell manure you need more carbon, it’s a pretty simple rule to follow, even children can handle the task and should be taught that the bedding component of husbandry is as important as the feeding and watering.

So in this case I am settling for Good eggs, and lots of fertilizer for the garden, and that is good enough.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 8:09 am

    I think free range only sounds good to the ones that never tried it. I had always dreamed of having free range chickens….until I had some. The poop on the porch got old pretty fast along with gardens being pecked clean, and stray dogs being fed gourmet chicken. I think my hens prefer the safety of their fence better anywho.. 🙂

    • July 20, 2011 11:11 am

      Kristen, I agree, nothing worse than poop of any kind where it doesn’t belong 😦 I know my chickens don’t have a choice, but at least they are still alive instead being bobcat scat on the trail somewhere!

    • October 20, 2011 11:31 am

      I’m pretty happy with our free range setup and it fits our philosophy, values and desires; however, I don’t disdain this solution either. It meets your philosophy, values and desires. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, so to speak.

      We’ve got horses and goats that supply us with plenty of fertilizer, and having the chickens and especially our ducks take out a good number of the barnyard bugs is a plus to me. It comes at the cost of cleaning up bird poop where we don’t want it, but it’s worth it to us.

      Right now I’m trying to decide how we’ll pasture turkeys next year, and a hybrid of these approaches is sounding like a possibility (turkey tractor).

      Thanks for the read!

      • October 20, 2011 11:56 am

        Flying T, yep it has to work for all involved. We’ve had good luck with turkeys in tractors and in electronet. They are pretty agressive grazers.

  2. July 20, 2011 8:37 am

    I’m following in your path, Nita. Have decided I really NEED chickens, as opposed to wanting some. And it’s all about the manure, and the help clearing out garden beds. Right now my 5 chickens are clearing out a long bed I tilled for shrubs this spring. Tilled it 3 times and it’s still a mess – but I’ve finally got a big supply of hay mulch. So now asking the chickens to clear it again, then giving them the hay to shred and settle w/ some more manure, then will move them to the back garden. Hopefully will soon have many more. Am working in that direction now. And hopefully will finally order my hoop house by the end of the week. Everyone around me tells me I’m crazy, that none of this makes any sense – I just keep re-reading Andy Lee’s books, and your blog and smiling and ignoring them. Oh, yeah – I’m getting an earful about how much they’ll stink, too. I tried to explain, but folks get excitable and angry, so I just smile and nod and ignore them.

    • July 20, 2011 11:10 am

      Hayden, good for you! You’ll never regret the hoophouse, even if you just use it for meditation on a dreary day. You’re neighbors will be surprised when they don’t get a whiff of your chickens! My husband stopped by a friends house the other night, and they were cleaning their stinky chicken area and adding it to their newly built garden beds. It was so offensive it was unbelievable, too much green and not enough brown. But they have a nice looking chicken house and bamboo fenced yard, they always make fun of our lowly plastic chicken house! Oh well, good luck with that shit – their new garden project won’t be so nice and I am reminded not to eat salad at their house for a while… 😦

  3. July 20, 2011 8:39 am

    You convinced me, Nita. My chickens spend the winter on deep bedding and the spring, summer, fall in small pens my children can move. The pastures are already improving from the confined range and the garden from the winter bedding. Brilliant, really.

    • July 20, 2011 11:04 am

      Kristin, isn’t great when you start seeing results? Amazing really what one can accomplish in a short time with just a little change in management. I figure the hens are here anyway for eggs, I may as well glean as much as I can from them.

  4. July 20, 2011 8:40 am

    This is my first flock so I’m sure that things will change with time, but I have tried to make the most of both worlds. My coop is movable with a large self under the roost that I’m doing a deep bedding system in. That was I get all the night droppings but the chickens still free “free range” in an electro-net during the day building my soils in the orchards.

    I have just decided that I want to add a floor to the portable coop to sequester all the indoor manure. I had intended for the hens to have access to fresh grass if for some reason I had to keep them confined all day, but I have quickly realized that they trample and poop on the grass under their coop far too quickly for it to provide forage unless I move the coop everyday-not doing that. So, I think I’ll add a floor to the coop, plus bedding, and save all the manure they leave while they are milling around in the coop.

    I plan to mimic your system for the winter months in my hoop house to build the soil over the winter and clean out all the remaining plant waste-probably in November or December.

    Thanks for giving me access to all your years of trial and error so I can get started ahead of the curve.


    • July 20, 2011 11:03 am

      Anna, you’re welcome! All your plans sound good. Sometimes what sounds good on paper or in a magazine, doesn’t work out so well when you take into consideration the factors you personally have to deal with. Once you start thinking of the manure, you’ll realize you can never gather enough if you’re trying to grow ;your own food with a low input system. It’s much easier to implement systems like this when you don’t have to – than when things get tough. 🙂

  5. Chris permalink
    July 20, 2011 9:33 am

    Makes perfect good sense to me!! Just curious…if you don’t raise your own chicks and have your chickens in a safe, secure place…why do you have Russell? Just because he’s handsome? 🙂

    • July 20, 2011 10:59 am

      Chris, ahh he is a cutie, and one of those “pullet” purchases. As long as he behaves he can stay. He is one handsome dude though, as he ages his feathers are getting more and more golden. I should change his name to Hugh Hefner though, since he gets a bevy of new beauties each year! 😉

  6. July 20, 2011 9:46 am

    Excellent as usual, the Nordells do a similar thing in the winter to turn horse manure/straw compost into the base for their soil mix using the chickens. Do you use any Nitrogen in your gardens beside your composted manure?

    • July 20, 2011 10:56 am

      Ben, Anne and Eric also use the pigs first with the chickens doing the finish work. Our pigs are always separate but it all works.

      I only add lime or Azomite or rock dust, (not scientifically either, just what I have on hand) and just use the composted manure, usually cow for the main fertilization and chicken for side dressing. Using good minerals for the stock makes a good end product.

  7. CarolG. permalink
    July 20, 2011 5:51 pm

    A bit off topic but I haven’t seen you mentioning putting down wood chips, sawdust, straw or something of the sort in the mud lot for cattle in the winter. Do you do so or is this a not very good idea? Just wondering at this point but it is nice to learn from generous folks like you!

  8. Cherie permalink
    July 21, 2011 4:47 pm

    I just discovered your blog and will enjoy reading past posts,and dreaming about one day… We currently live in the city with a small yard that manages to sustain a small garden and 3 hens in an igloo type structure that is similar in idea to yours. I only let them out sometimes, and when I will be in the garden to make sure they don’t go near the vegie patch. I know it’s not technically free range, but it’s so far from battery hens that I am happy anyway.
    One question, where in the structure do yours lay eggs? Ours have one wooden straw filled box to lay in, but they have given up the roost and now sleep in the box too (all squashed up), which has brought back the hay with fresh poop problem. I tip it onto the ground where it gets ‘manured’ better, but it makes for dirty eggs sometimes. Any tips? All my chooks in the past have loved to roost, but these girls don’t seem to like heights 🙂

    • July 22, 2011 6:39 am

      Cherie, I love hearing about urban food gardens!

      I use a metal nest box, it’s big for my hens (but what we had on hand from our egg business.) The nest box has a perch for allowing the chickens to fly up to the nest but we close those at night and I don’t let the chickens sleep in their nest boxes. Once the habit gets started, it ‘s hard to break, and chickens poop in their sleep so sleeping in the nest box is a no-no. People balk at the money but it’s worth it in my opinion to have cleaner eggs. Here is an old post about clean eggs.

      A two hole nest box with a perches that close would work well.

      • Cherie permalink
        July 23, 2011 5:01 am

        Closing the nest box…simple, but genius! Now why didn’t i think of that!
        Thanks heaps, Cherie

  9. July 28, 2011 3:45 am

    I don’t free range my chicken either. They have nice spacious ventilated coops and large runs to do their thing all day. We live in a very wooded area and predators would be a real problem. They get treats from the garden daily and lead a very stress free life. Egg gathering is very simple when the eggs are laid in the same place each day. Free ranging would make this impossible and frustrating. Our 14 chickens couldn’t be happier.

  10. August 4, 2011 5:12 am

    Hi, I love the site! Beautiful pictures and stories. I’ve been trying to capture the litter my chickens make in their roosting area for compost, but the little brawksticks tend to kick the hay right out the front door of the coop and into their run. My fault for building on a gentle slope I suppose… but you have good words of wisdom in hitting that balance between egg and compost production. Thanks for the post =)


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