Chickens can provide eggs, meat, fertilizer, pest control and more when incorporated into the garden. Not only will your garden benefit, but the chickens will, as well. With a little extra time and energy in setting up your garden, you’ll be reaping rewards from both coop and soil.
First of all, chickens offer a free and ready supply of organic fertilizer. Their excrement is particularly high in nitrogen, a nutrient plants need in ready supply. If you need to purchase fertilizer regularly for your garden, depending on garden size and needs, one chicken may save you between $40 and $70 a year on manure fertilizer.
There is one brief caution when it comes to using chicken manure. Pathogens can find their way into the manure and cause food poisoning, especially in leafy greens and root crops. Though the chances of a pathogen presence are small, it’s best to spread chicken manure on your garden in late fall and let it over-winter (at least three months). Another option is to allow the chicken manure to compost thoroughly before applying to the garden. Sunlight, oxygen, freezing temperatures and PH extremes kill pathogens.
There are several ways to capture chicken manure. Since half of a chicken’s manure is dropped during the night and early morning, you’ll want to focus on how to make use of that. Using a deep litter system in your coop is a great idea as you will be able to compost everything together. Three to four inches of grass clippings, leaves, straw or wood shavings spread out over the coop floor are perfect. Make sure underneath the roosts is adequately covered as this area will see the greatest deposits.
Another way to capture the night and early morning droppings is to use a poop hammock. This sling goes under the roosts and is easily removable so you can cart poop out often. It helps keep the smell from building up in the coop as well.
Using small portable chicken tractors in your garden can also be advantageous. You can put the chickens where you need them in particular portions of your garden, either in the fall or when you are growing cover crops. If your garden is already fenced in (i.e. predator proof), then you can probably get away with a few sturdy cages made from just welded wire and j-clips. You can make these to your size needs rather easily. If your garden is not already predator proof, you’ll want to invest a little more in your cages. Adding a frame to your wire cages can help make the cages studier. You can also set up wire tunnels and gates and connect them to portable pens to direct your chickens to the areas that need worked. If your chicken coop is nearby, you can have the tunnels connect to it as well. Or, for a cheap option, convert some plastic tubs or even a dog house into a mini chicken coop.
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Or you can free range your backyard chickens in your garden during the off-season. This may not allow you to target manure placement, but your garden will still reap the benefits, and will cut down on costs and maintenance of wire cages and tunnels.
While free organic fertilizer is one of the best reasons to have chickens in your garden, there are some less well-known benefits these farm fowl can deliver as well. Among these are insect control, tillage and even basic composting. Chickens can serve as a preliminary pest control squad first thing in the season. Before you plant any tender starter crops, let your chickens have free run of your garden. They will clean up any slug populations (slug eggs and all) so you won’t have to deal with the slimy creatures for several months. Chickens and other fowl also are great in the orchard for cleaning up unwanted insects as well as rotting fruit. Guineas especially, in addition to chickens, can also serve as a tick patrol force. With Lyme disease so prevalent today, having a natural way to stay on top of the little six-legged blood-suckers is a must. Additionally, if you let chickens run with livestock, they can help curb parasite infestations that might affect your other animals.
As chickens search for delicious bugs, greens and seeds, they cut down weeds and till up the soil. Their busy scratching will gently work the soil without severely disrupting the soil layers, like a power tiller will. (Chickens also don’t get hung up in long grasses like a power tiller might.) Chickens are especially priceless when working thick cover crops, but they can also help clear garden patches of weeds fairly quickly depending on how many chickens you have. Chickens get “free feed” and offer fertilizer in return, and they’ll naturally compost and till your soil as well. Put them to work.
You’ll soon learn: Your flock can do more than just supply eggs and meat.
Do you have any backyard chicken tips? Let us know in the comments section below.