Managing chickens in suburbia comes with different challenges than a rural environment; where the land is less scarce, and neighbours further away. Keeping a flock of layers or even meat birds will require a bit of management to avoid odours, keep the ladies on a varied diet and keep the predators at bay. Here I’m going to focus on what we’ve tried in our 5th of an acre block to control odour and diet; if predators are your problem I’ve talked a bit about that here.
Two key principles inform my chicken management regimes; one, give them a varied diet, full of greens as fresh as possible and all sorts of different bugs. And two, mix high-carbon materials with their manure to control odours and create perfect compost. I am finding too, that these two principles work quite well together, as a well maintained run, will help provide a varied diet as well.
Both of these ideas come from chicken-guru and all-round good-farmer, Joel Salatin. Joel has written a number of very easily accessible books on low-impact, organically-based farming, and how to apply these principles to different animals. I’ve read his chook book, and thoroughly recommend it for anyone keeping chickens, even if you’re not considering a commercial scale operation. Joel outlines the fundamentals of chicken husbandry, with a focus on continually improving the land you are working; I think this is a pretty sound principle to apply at any scale, and so have been seeing how it goes in a backyard.
Maintaining a varied diet for your chickens pays off in a number of ways. They will generally be healthier, getting the full range of nutrients required for complete health. Glossy feathers, good combs, disease resistance, that sort of thing. Chooks are mostly seed eaters, but love protein, particularly laying birds, and will eat almost anything that moves and will eventually fit in their mouth. However, as good as grain and snails are, chickens also require up to 10% of their food to be fresh greens; the chlorophyl performs an important function in removing toxins from the birds. Ideally, this will come from wide open pastures, with a wide range of grasses and weeds, like clover and seed baring grasses. But, as many long-term backyard chookers can attest, this is hard to manage, as constant use compacts soil in chicken runs and completely denudes any pasture. Also though, a good diet means tastier eggs and birds, if they’re headed for your table.
Access to Greens
We’ve tried a few things to maintain access to greens, some working better than others. Our run is biggish, so the first thing tried was fencing the run in half, and growing fast-growing green crops that we would then let the chooks run through later. Kale and rocket were the main plants and it… wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. The area was fenced off for 4 months or so, the chooks wrecking anything within beak reach (which was a lot), partially because I used low cost, large square dog mesh for the fence. Then, I took the fence down and let them in, and EVERYTHING was eaten or destroyed within 48 hours.
I think there might be something in this idea, but I haven’t got it yet. I suspect the all-or-nothing approach is the problem, as the birds kill the plants too quickly, so limiting access to the roots should keep the plants alive longer.
We have had some success growing rocket under a small bird cage, where the chooks can pick at any leaves they can reach, but can’t access the roots. This amount is too small to contribute much to their diet, but the principle might work with a larger area. Next I might try a small fence, 50cm out from the wall, the whole way along the long wall, with rocket or something similar. We’re only using rocket because it grows like a weed here, the chooks love it and it has a short turn around time. I’m sure many other plants would be suitable.
A larger scale test of this same idea has happened, somewhat accidentally in the duck annex at the back of the run. I built a small cage to overnight our ducks (which we only had for about 8 weeks, delicious duck) on the back of the chook run, and then cut a hole into the side so the chooks could also use it once the ducks had gone. Somewhere in between that time I scattered some seed in there, which sprouted vigorously. I suspect it’s sorghum from the scratch mix, but I’m really not sure. After a few wet summer months, it was gigantic, and poking out all around the cage. The hens could nip the edges off, but couldn’t access the roots, and it kept growing. Now that I’ve opened it up the plants are too strong and woody for the chooks to kill, so they are concentrating on nipping the seeds off and the odd leaf. The birds have had unrestricted access to this patch for a month or more now and the plants are still going, so I better find out what they are for next season.
The little duck house with possibly sorghum plants sprouting through the top
A better solution has been having two separate runs, one of which I manage to always have good grass. Then, we can just let the chooks in for a few days at a time to fill up on greens and not kill everything. I left them a little bit long near the end of summer, when I had a need to separate the flock in two and ran the grass down more than I wanted. I’ve locked them out again now and seeded the area with barley, which apparently will grow over winter. The seeds have been down for a couple of wet weeks now and are looking promising.
The second run is on the right, we were lucky that all we needed was to join the fence and the back of the chook run
Barley shoots in the back run
Another solution is a small chook tractor on the lawn that gets moved every day. I would never do this with my layers, as I don’t really think it gives older birds enough room, but when raising chicks I think it works quite well. We raised a brood of eggs in this house, then separated out the girls once we could split them. Now the remaining three boys are on a special feed mix designed for table birds, and get moved to fresh grass every day.
Young Plymouth Rock roosters in the chook tractor
Many references I have read on composting talk about ratios of high carbon : nitrogen materials being important for healthy compost, usually around 20 or 30:1, carbon to nitrogen. This link gives you an idea of the carbon to nitrogen ratios of some common organic materials. In a chook run and house, the nitrogen is provided by chook manure, and in quite high concentrations. Measuring the mass of the manure and adding appropriate carbon materials would be tiresome, and fortunately there is an easier way. In your run, house and compost heap, your nose will let you know pretty quickly if there is too much nitrogen or not enough oxygen in your compost.
High nitrogen conditions smell like ammonia; mouse pee I guess is the closest thing I can think of, I know ammonia from chemistry days. It’s a bit bleachy I suppose. This will occur where there is too much poo, and is pretty easily solved; add loads of high carbon material. The best for this purpose is wood shavings, by some distance it seems. Also good are rice husks, straw, dry leaves, anything dry and brown essentially. Sugar cane mulch is quite good too. I prefer wood shavings for their carbon ratio, which is incredibly high, but also as a means of deterring mites, which like to live inside the hollow stalks of straw.
Just throwing wood shavings onto a pile of chook poo won’t fix it though, it needs to be very well mixed. Here is where we put the chooks to work, in the house and in the run. In the house, I scatter a handful of scratch mix, seeds mostly, on the litter, then kick a bit on top of it. If you keep this to a handful a day, the girls will then enthusiastically turn over the whole house looking for seeds, creating a beautifully mixed material which can just about go straight onto the garden. I dump a block of wood shavings in about once every 6 months, which gives a depth of about 15cm in the house. Then at the end of 6 months I clean almost everything out and mix it into a garden bed. Leaving some of the bedding material in place helps the “good” bacteria get started again with a fresh batch. So in the house; wood shavings, scratch mix daily, change it when it smells.
The ladies going to work in their house
Abandoning Compost Heaps
In the run there’s a bit more freedom as there is more room and the birds don’t have to sleep in there. We’ve given up on proper, formalised compost in Canberra, struggling to manage it properly through the cold winter and dry summer. Instead, everything, even remotely compostable goes straight into the chook run now. All the kitchen scraps, even the stuff they don’t eat like onion skins goes in, and the birds take what they want and leave the rest for the bugs. All garden waste goes in too, with very minimal effort. We grew about 100 tomato plants this year, and another 50 tomatillos and curcubits, which meant a lot of green waste was left over at the end of the season. All of it went into the chook run, in a glorious pile of unripe fruit, vines and leaves. The chooks are still digging it over 2 months later, but there’s not much left.
What remains of the tomato vines
I chuck everything I’ve got in there, but do keep an eye on it and add some specific things from time to time. If it’s been wet for a while I’ll add a bale or two of some sort of straw, what ever is available, something cheap and drying. If the girls have been down on greens for a while, I mow the lawn in sections and give them the clippings over a couple of weeks. At the start of autumn the liquidamba leaves are an excellent resource; last year my neighbours gave me trailer loads of leave and I filled the run to a depth of almost 30cm. I think they eat the seeds from the pods and so they spent a lot of time poking through the leaves, which is great because it gives them something to do, enriches their lives a bit. Also though, where the leaves collect in piles animals like beetles and worms move in, and then the chooks eat those as well. So you can solve the odour problem, and give the girls a more varied diet in the same move.
Using the run as an automated compost system works best if you get some benefit back from the magnificent compost you are making. We’re trying to do that by growing fruit trees in the run; figs, pears cherries and feijoa so far. There have been a few hiccups along the way – the chooks really enjoyed my cherry crop this year – but I think the theory is sound. I’ve got a concern that the soil might be too high in nitrogen and encourage overly leafy growth, but that can be corrected later with blood and bone or similar, and it’s not much of a problem while the trees are young and establishing themselves.
A young fig tree bursting from its root protecting enclosure
I have wondered if there is some way of creating specific environments to breed bugs for the chooks. Some chook owners breed crickets and meal worms, but I’ve never been diligent enough and really want a solution that doesn’t require constant attention. Something like a piece of wood on the ground with some food under it. This idea has been seeded after watching Rosie, our best and oldest chook deal with an incredible number of earwigs which had moved in under a piece of ply in the chook shed. I grabbed Rosie, picked up the wood then plonked her down next to them. I then spent a couple of minutes both shocked and awed as she stuffed earwigs into her mouth as fast as she could, live ones crawling back out of her mouth as she went. Shocking and amazing. Anyway, the moral is that chooks like eating things that move.
I’ve only included this one because it’s a problem we should all avoid. Firstly, no flat surfaces in your chook house. I would like to fix that, but also, don’t let the poo pile up as mites live under it. I put that mesh there to discourage roosting and it actually encouraged it.
I hope there are some ideas for you in this; I’m certainly not claiming any of these are perfect solutions and are mostly intended to get you thinking about how to solve some of the problems you have. The deep litter method in the house is worth pursuing, but I still think my system needs tweaking. Composting in the run will probably continue as well, but perhaps with more active choice of what goes in there. See how you go, and I’d be interested to hear about other options you’ve tried in the comments below.