The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Chicken incubation, broiler, and pasture experiments

Hen with one chickWe embarked on three chicken experiments in 2010 --- incubating our own homegrown chicks, raising broilers, and running chickens on a forest pasture.  Clearly, each of our experiments needs a bit more work.

Incubating chicks can be pretty simple, but I managed to do absolutely everything wrong.  In the spring of 2010, our flock was all girls, so we had to hunt down fertilized eggs and try to keep them alive on the long trip back to our farm.  We also thought we were going to use an incubator, then realized at the last minute that our house is not climate-controlled enough to make cheap incubators work.  By the time we tricked our broody hen into doing her job, most of the eggs had died, and we only hatched out one chick --- the rooster who will make 2011's experiments much easier.  I have high hopes that this coming year will see us hatching out a full nest of chicks, just in time since our old layers are producing ever smaller numbers of eggs.

Dark Cornish chickensOur broiler experiment was also problematic.  We opted to raise a heritage breed --- Dark Cornish --- rather than the traditional Cornish Cross, and soon realized that if you're raising them on storebought feed, heritage broilers just don't make fiscal sense.  (They sure are tasty, though!)  We may eventually just give in and raise Cornish Cross broilers like everyone else does, but for our 2011 experiment, I want to veer off in the exact opposite direction.  My goal will be to raise chicks with good foraging genes (the offspring of our best laying hens) on the theory that even though they will gain weight even slower than the Dark Cornish, they will eat much less storebought food in the process.  Since we now have the ability to reproduce our own flock at will, we'll also raise two or three small batches of broilers rather than 25 at once, which will make our farm scraps go further toward feeding the flock (and will make it less stressful to kill them all at once.)  Or at least, that's what I hope will happen if everything goes as planned....

Chicken eating chickweed on pastureOur final chicken experiment of the year is the forest pasture, and it's such a long term project that I can't really say whether it was a success or failure after less than one year.  We started out by putting our broilers on pasture, but they were ill-suited to the habitat and barely browsed.  On the other hand, once we turned our wilely old hens onto the pasture, we could really see the potential --- they quickly became more healthy and were clearly getting quite a bit of their food from the combination of wild forage and kitchen scraps.  (In fact, I didn't feed two of the chickens at all for six weeks in late summer.)  Now that we've trained the chickens to perch in the coop, we're also capturing at least half of their fertility in a deep bedding system, which I figure is as much as made it into the garden with my old method of running the chickens in tractors in the aisles and then cutting the grass to put on the garden.  Finally, chickens scratching and pooping on piles of wood chips and garden debris expedited compost action, turning the chicken pasture into a compost machine.

Chickens on a wheelbarrow of weedsIn a few years, we'll have mulberries and Nanking cherries producing for the chickens, and this year I also plan to add persimmons and bamboo to the pasture, but until the woody crops mature, it's clear that we need a much larger pasture for our birds.  I'm currently envisioning a couple of winter pastures in the sunniest part of the yard (currently unused, but slated for a planting of grapes and almonds) and additional summer pastures made by fencing in the main forest garden and more of the powerline cut.  It's a lot of fencing, but I can feel the permaculture potential of a healthy flock that nearly feeds itself while cutting down insect pests around tree crops, making compost, and depositing their waste into a deep bedding pile.  This is definitely the 2010 experiment that had the most potential and will be top of my mind all through 2011.

Our homemade chicken waterer was enjoyed by our broody hen, our day old chick, our broilers, and our layers.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Have you thought about creating an Avian A.M. ad / card? You could send out a couple with each chicken waterer that you sell and then people could pass them out to other chicken raisers. I was thinking about it the other day -- I was at a flea market and people were selling chickens with pans of water and I thought "If only I had a card with Anna and Mark's product info. I could give it to these people with their dirty chicken water." Or something like that. You could put all the relevant info. on a pretty small card -- business card sized. Just a thought!
Comment by Heather Thu Dec 30 13:06:41 2010
I won't have nearly this much room when I get chickens (at least for a while) but I love the idea of planting foraging food for the birds. I might be able to do this at least a little bit on a smaller scale. I'm thinking small berry bushes. Is the bamboo for you or the chickens? I can't think what they'd do with it.
Comment by Eliza @ Appalachian Feet Thu Dec 30 13:30:26 2010

Heather --- Good idea on the card! We do put a little folded ad in our orders --- I could print you out some if you'd like them. How's life in Texas treating you?

Eliza --- The bamboo is mostly for us, but is kinda for the chickens. When I read up on their natural diet, I discovered that in the wild they live among bamboo plants and bamboo seeds make up a significant part of their diet. Granted, the bamboo we're planting only goes to seed once in a blue moon, and then dies, so I probably don't want it to go to seed. But, still, I figure they might get something out of the homey touch. :-) Meanwhile, the bamboo will give us strong canes and edible shoots.

Comment by anna Thu Dec 30 20:45:15 2010

I thought i would share our vision for the chickens this year as we seem to both be seeking ways of maximizing efficiency while cutting down work load.

We are planning to implement something like this...

The plan at the link had two sections we will have three separated areas with direct access to the coop and easy accessibility to the goats shed and rabbit hutches. The first year will find chickens in one section, with the periodic addition of the rabbit, goat and chicken bedding and other clean compost materials. The second section will be a green manure and the third our kitchen garden.

The following year will find the kitchen garden placed on the previous years green manure using a low till method, the green manure (particularly a nitrogen fixer)will be placed on the previous year's chicken run and the chickens will be let loose into the old garden section to clean up old crop waste, devour insect pest and their larvae and eggs, scratch newly added waste bedding and yard compost into the soil and add their own special brand of manure.

We would keep the chickens in the run daily through the summer letting them out in the late afternoon to free range before returning to the coop in the evening. This system should significantly cut down the labor and time of hauling bedding to first a compost area to age and then to a garden area before being spread.

We have even been thinking that pigs and a winter manure crop could be added to this system as well but we're still trying to figure out all the details to get the maximum benefit out of the system.

Thanks for the site BTW, there are never really enough resources for those of us taking this step and every word of experience is greatly appreciated.

Comment by Shannon Fri Dec 31 03:44:18 2010

I love chicken rotations like that! I've considered rotations that work the vegetable garden in, but chickens just aren't compatible with my garden --- mostly, I just never have a portion of the garden that's completely dormant, but I also like to use mulch and permanent beds, which they scratch up. If I completely redesigned my garden, I could probably have a winter, spring, and summer garden, and run the chickens on each one in the off-season, but I think that with just a few chickens, it's probably more worthwhile to use the chicken scratched paddocks for growing the simpler grains. Also, I think that the design in the article you linked to would be much healthier for the chickens if there were more paddocks that the chickens were rotated through more frequently --- I suspect there isn't much greenery for them to eat after the first few weeks of the year.

Are you going to train your dogs not to eat the chickens? :-)

Comment by anna Fri Dec 31 14:19:24 2010

Well we already keep a small flock and none of the "neighborhood dogs" bother them in the slightest. We also have a friend who will be supplying us with one of their livestock guardian pups from the litter this summer. The parents are already chicken trained and the pup will remain with them and go through rudimentary training around chickens, as well as goats, for its first few months.

Last summer we kept our four hens and rooster in a run that is around 25x25 throughout the summer (our planned garden area should be closer to 35x60) with frequent free range outings and the area, in spite of the fact that it was mostly all shade, still had some green by the end of the season. We also placed all of our old goat, rabbit and coop bedding into their run and over the course of the summer they chopped it up into a very fine dark material while they searched it for insects.

The used up garden area, which we'd be running through with chickens the following year, will likely have some green manure left from the previous year as we would be doing very low till (basically only flipping over the direct area where we will be planting and leaving the remaining green manure untouched so that it works as a living mulch cover of sorts, helping the soil to retain moisture, limiting weeds, promoting sub soil biodiversity and regulating soil temperature) in addition to the garden waste. The old bedding and lawn compost should also provide broad access to insects and the birds will also have sufficient time to forage free range in the late afternoon/early evening. It would even be possible to cut out the third year and just plant the living mulch just before setting out the garden and rotating in the chickens in the alternate years.

Two years ago we used a type of lasagna method in raised beds and had a happy amount of success. I suspect we will still plant raised beds in a similar fashion for some of the crops. For those we have screen covered frames that set over the beds for seedling development. We also use old plastic milk jugs as makeshift cloches.

This will be our first garden on our 50 acre property and we are hoping to have it run as efficiently and low maintenance as possible. :) We need most of our time clear to throw up the first section of our future straw bale home.

I wish you well with your projects and plans this coming New Year and hope you had a wonderful holiday season.

Comment by Shannon Mon Jan 3 04:18:12 2011

You are a different Shannon than the one we've met in person, aren't you? Boy, the internet can be confusing! :-) (That Shannon has had trouble with the neighbors chickens flying into the jaws of his dogs...) In general, dogs with chickens aren't a problem if you train your dog, and I wouldn't have mentioned it if I knew who I was talking to...

I love hearing more about your projects! It sounds wonderful!

Comment by anna Mon Jan 3 08:19:00 2011
Oh, i was a little confused by the dog reference. ; ) No, different Shannon. But pleased to meet you just the same. Thank you for the wonderful blog. We are always thrilled when we find resources from people who live similarly.
Comment by Anonymous Mon Jan 3 13:58:02 2011
And to know I'm not going crazy, once I figured out there could be two Shannons. :-)
Comment by anna Mon Jan 3 15:42:13 2011

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