Chickens have long been some of the most widely raised “farm” animals. While chickens have been valued for providing an easily obtainable source of protein, when put out to “pasture”, chickens can also help to improve the land and landscape. Your grandmother may very well have complained to you about chickens eating her garden greens or the recently germinated corn and beans. However, with the right design, you can easily utilize the innate habits of chickens for your overall land use purposes.
The Traditional Benefits of Raising Chickens
Chickens should belong on every farm, every backyard, and every urban rooftop. Instead of caging chickens in pestilent CAFO housing where they’re pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, if every family would keep just a couple of chicken, they would receive more than enough eggs and meat every year.
Chickens are a descendant of a jungle fowl that humans domesticated thousands of years ago. They are omnivores and traditionally survived by scratching the soil in search for insects, seeds, and other small animals. They also feed on the leaves and roots of certain plants. Chickens, when given the right conditions, can feed themselves on the land where they live.
The white meat of chickens is significantly healthier for people than red meat while providing the same amount of protein our bodies need. The American Heart Association advises people to include more white meat in their diets because red meats are almost universally higher in cholesterol and saturated fats.
Eggs are another by-product of raising chickens, and constitute another source of abundant protein. One serving of eggs also offers you 15% of your daily need of Vitamin B2 and 9% of B12. While eggs are high in cholesterol, they don’t necessarily contribute to raising cholesterol levels in your blood. 70% of people who eat eggs don’t suffer from increased cholesterol levels at all.
Raising your chickens at home, then, is one of the easiest ways to provide you and your family with an abundant source of nutrition. Since the commercial chicken industry has come under scrutiny for pumping the chickens we buy at the grocery store full of antibiotics, raising your own flock will also give you access to a source of healthy, organic meat.
There are thousands of different breeds of chickens. While some are more bred for their egg laying capacity, others are prioritized for their meat. Some free range chickens also can be raised for dual purposes, both offering quality egg-laying capacity and quality meat.
Chickens on Pasture?
While commercial chicken feed is made from grain that farmers dedicate millions of acres to growing, if every suburban family simply fenced in their backyards, they could raise a large flock of chicken without any sort of outside inputs.
The current “organic” movement specializes in free range chickens. Instead of being caged, this husbandry technique allows chickens to freely roam to gather a large amount of their own nutrients from the natural world around them. As we mentioned above, chickens are descendants of jungle fowl and have an innate tendency to dig and search for their own food. When given enough space, a flock of chickens will spend the entire day foraging throughout the land for their sustenance.
Free range chickens and eggs are almost always much more nutritious since they gather a wider array of nutrients from their natural surroundings. While commercially raised chickens are almost entirely raised on feed that is mass produced from genetically modified corn, wheat, soybeans and other grain crops, free range chickens receive a much more varied diet that is higher in protein and other essential vitamins and nutrients.
A healthier diet for your flock of chickens will produce healthier meat and eggs for you. When you compare the color of egg yolks between a free range hen and a commercially raised hen, the organic option will be a much deeper shade of yellow-orange which is due to the concentration of important nutrients in the egg itself.
Okay, you may say, free range chickens definitely provide better nutrition, but how do I keep them away from vegetable gardens or stop them from digging up my newly transplanted flowers?
The Experience of Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin is an innovative farmer that advocates for raising animals on pasture as a sustainable, healthy way to raise meat products. His farm, Polyface Farm, raises a number of different animals on pasture with minimum dependence on outside feed or other inputs.
While many of us may consider the idea of pasture to be for larger livestock like cows, sheep and goats, Salatin has developed his idea of a pastured poultry pen to show that chickens can also be raised on pasture together with larger animals.
By keeping chickens on pasture, Salatin has found that his soil quality has improved through the fertility provided by chicken poop. At the same time, he has increased the profitability of his farm and animal raising system. Since the chickens he raised need almost no investment after the initial purchase, he can drastically lower the costs while still selling the meat and eggs at a premium price because they are raised free-range and organic.
Salatin’s pastured poultry pen, also known as a “chicken tractor”, basically takes any model of chicken coop, takes off the flooring of the coop itself and places the entire structure on wheels so that it can be moved around the farm system.
One of the best, sustainable strategies for keeping chickens is with the aid of a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is designed to make the most of the natural habits of chickens while minimizing dependence on outside inputs. There are many different models and designs for different chicken habits, but basically it is a floorless structure built on wheels that allows you to move your flock of chickens around your land.
A chicken tractor thus provides shelter and safety for your chickens while also allowing for them to scratch on the ground for bugs, insects, seeds, and other edibles. They act as a mini plow in a sense and you can decide how long you want to leave them on a certain patch of land. If you want to clear a small patch of land for a garden bed, leaving the chickens for several days will result in a piece of land cleared of almost all vegetation and well fertilized with chicken manure.
Chickens do need significant protection from wild animals, so the structure, often enclosed by thick chicken wire, also comes with a small “house” where chickens can go at night. By taking the floor off of the chicken pen and putting it on wheels, you are able to move your flock of chickens around your property so that they can forage/root for their nutrition.
As you move your chicken tractor around your property, your chickens will be fed, your land will be fertilized and larger pests will be exterminated, and your chickens will even “till” your soil as their incessant scratching and clawing at the ground will slightly upturn the soil itself.
A Simple Chicken Tractor Design
The size of your chicken tractor will largely depend on the number of chickens you want to raise. This, in turn, will be dependent on how much land you have. Even if you have a small back yard, a simple chicken tractor can be built to pasture your chickens throughout a series of garden beds.
Let’s say that you have 15 or 20 small, raised garden beds spread throughout your yard. These garden beds can be 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and you can build a chicken tractor the same size. When it comes to planting out your garden beds, you can intersperse the timing on your planting so that you can have a staggered harvest throughout the growing season.
Your cold weather vegetables like broccoli and spinach can be planted early in the spring while warmer weather crops can wait until summer warmth arrives. As you begin harvesting the different crops from your garden beds, you can move your 4×8 foot chicken tractor (placed on wheels) over the different garden beds.
Your flock of chickens will feast on the left-over garden waste, the fallen vegetables on the soil, and the bugs that have been buzzing around your now exhausted tomato plants. Once they finish with the plant material, your chickens will begin to scratch at the soil itself. When you are ready to move your chickens over to the next garden bed that has been recently harvested, you should find a garden bed that has been tilled and fertilized and that is ready for you to plant a winter cover crop or cold weather crop like garlic.
Whether you live on a several acre farm or a small urban townhouse, raising chickens with the help of a chicken tractor offers a sustainable path to receiving the nutrition you need. Harvey Ussery’s book “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers” is a fantastic resource that covers more in depth some of the ideas presented here regarding raising chickens on pasture and using chicken tractors.