How would you like to raise chickens in such a way that doesn’t require you to clean out their stinky, poop filled coop?  How about drastically reducing your feed bill and possibly eliminate it all together?  Or how about not having to worry about regular chicken health problems like mites and the like?  If those reasons don’t sound good enough for you, how about the possibility of being able to leave the chickens for a week at a time and them not dying?  Now that sounds sweet to me!

But everyone I know who has chickens has to deal with all of those problems.  Well, it’s time everyone raising chickens started doing it the permaculture way; that is, with excellent design!  Good design can greatly reduce the labour, time, and money involved in raising chickens (along with most things 🙂 ).  So let’s have a look at how we can apply good design to raising chickens.

The main idea is generally referred to as the paddock shift system, whereby the chickens are rotated through a number of different fenced off areas called paddocks.  In these paddocks a diversity of plants are planted for the chickens to eat.  The chickens also have a movable shelter where they sleep, or different shelters in each paddock.  Let’s examine why rotating chickens through a number of different paddocks is (as far as I know of right now) the best way to raise them.

We will start off with the shelter.  The standard way to start raising chickens is to fence off an area, build a coop and let them live in there.  You end up building the coop in such a way that no critters can get in, which generally means there is hardly any ventilation.  Every morning you come out to let the birds out of the coop and every night you come back to close the coop up.  It doesn’t take long for that coop to start filling up with poop and smelling really bad with the lack of ventilation.  You only have to go out there twice a day and the smell is bad, imagine how the chickens feel having to spend every night in there smelling their own feces.  Not only does it smell bad, but it is also unhealthy for the birds to not have fresh, clean air to breath.  Eventually you decide there is too much poop in the coop and you now have to clean it.  This job sucks a lot!

Don’t do this!

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Let’s apply some good design to the chicken shelter and see what we can come up with.  First things first, manually cleaning the accumulated poop needs to be eliminated.  In order for this to happen, you need to make the coop movable and without a floor.  Being without a floor in the coop allows the chickens to poop directly onto the ground where the coop is.  Being movable allows you to move the coop to a new, poop free location, while just leaving the previously accumulated poop in place on the ground where the coop used to be.    No more poop to clean up.  Jackpot!

Now for the ventilation issue.  Chickens need fresh air.  Without fresh air, their living quarters get humidity and smell issues, which lead to other health related problems.  By designing the coop to be movable and have no floor, you get a real head start on the ventilation issue.  The key things to make sure you don’t have too much ventilation are, a good roof to keep the precipitation off the birds and some walls to keep the main prevailing winds off them.  Other than that, make the coop super drafty.  As long as they can stay dry, out of the main cold winds, and well fed, the chickens will be fine; even in the cold Ontario winters.

Here is the movable coop I built.  You can see in the second picture there is no floor and it is small enough to be carried around by two people.

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Once a nice little movable coop has been built, you will want to accompany that with a movable area for your chickens to forage from.  Keeping chickens penned up in the same area for extended periods of time leads to an area devoid of any greenery and insects for the chickens to eat. as well as an over fertilization of that area from all the pooping that goes on there.  That is a serious waste of precious nitrogen rich fertilizer that could be put to a better use of fertilizing the green forage the chickens are eating.  If there are no insects or greenery to eat, then you must supply all the chicken’s feed, which costs and is of questionable quality.  So moving the birds is better.

To start things off and get the birds moving around in a controlled manner, a movable electric net fence (shown in the above picture) is a great way to start.  This allows you to fence the chickens in a particular area with their coop for a period of time and then move both the fence and the coop after about thirty percent of the vegetation is consumed in the fenced off area.  This gives the chickens constant access to fresh greenery and insects to eat, thereby reducing the feed bill you have to pay.  After the chickens have left a particular area, there is a major boost in the regrowth of fresh vegetation from the added chicken poop fertilizer.  So when the chickens eventually make it back to this spot in the future, it is extra lush.

This is all well and good, the chickens are no longer pooping in the same place all the time, you don’t have to clean poop, and the feed bill is slightly reduced by having the chickens eating some grass and insects.  But it can get way better.  You still have to go out on a regular basis to water the chickens and make sure they have adequate supplemental feed, which you are still paying a pretty penny for.  That fence and coop also needs to be moved by you.  So we need to shift the design into a space where water is provided, chicken forage is greatly increased and the fence doesn’t need to be moved.

Obviously this is much more difficult to accomplish than taking the leap from standard fenced in coop and run to movable fence and coop with no floor.  But like most things in permaculture, there is an initial investment of time, energy, and money to give an awesome gift to your future self, who will be laughing at those future folks who didn’t want to make the investment.  It pays to do things right, and in this case, doing it right will lead to an incredibly indestructible, integrated chicken/food forest forage system.  If set up properly you could spend less than five minutes of work each week letting the chickens from one paddock to the next.  That’s it!

In order for this to happen though, you will need a permanent fencing setup.  I suggest planting hedgerows of tight, spiky, edible plants outlining the paddocks.  This is probably the most permanent setup which fulfills multiple functions.  First it acts as an impenetrable barrier, keeping your chickens in and unwanted predators out.  Secondly it is a living system which can fix nitrogen in the ground, provide shelter/shade, and produce edible forage for the chickens.  Being a living system means it will evolve and get better with time, instead of degrading and needing of replacement, like nonliving systems do.

It should grow into something along the lines of this.  A dense wall of greenery.

http://www.norfolkbiodiversity.org/images/Habitat/Ancient%20hedgerow%20Briston%20(S%20%20Perkin).JPG

Before, after, or during (it depends 🙂 ) planting your hedgerow, you will want to begin transforming the actual paddock areas to a forager’s feast of fresh greens, fruits, seeds, and insects.  To do this you will want to follow similar methods I outlined in my articles on guilds and polyculture.  When choosing what to plant, you will want to keep in mind how useful the plants are relative to raising chickens.  It isn’t necessary that all plants are edible for chickens though.  By adding plants that you enjoy eating as well, you can reap some of the benefits that come with shifting chickens between paddocks and harvest what you want to eat before letting the chickens in to the next paddock.

The more things you have in each paddock for chickens to eat, the less money you have to spend on supplemental feed.  A high plant diversity also leads to healthier chickens, as they now have the ability to pick and choose what they would like to eat and when.  It also makes for excellent insect habitat, which might be a chickens favourite food.  Maybe they don’t feel well one day and by instinct they get the urge to take a few nibbles of some plant that they wouldn’t normally eat, but it just happens to cure what ails them.  A healthy bird makes healthy meat and eggs, which in turn makes for a healthy you!  Just what we want.

Something along these lines.

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With a high plant diversity, in a relatively mature system, there is the opportunity to make shelters that are even more portable than the original movable shelter.  Using the trees and shrubbery as most of the cover, you could fashion up some pretty crude shelters to just keep them dry and give them a place to lay some eggs.  They could be ultra portable and you could have one or more per paddock, making your job even easier.  Many chickens like to roost in dense trees and shrubs over night out of reach from predators.

While on the subject of predators, they won’t hardly be problem with the excellent hedgerow fencing you installed, the dense foliage and by continuously moving the chickens between paddocks, the predators will be even less likely to get them.  If you live in an area with serious predator pressure, then I recommend getting a livestock guardian dog or two.  These dogs will risk it all to keep your chickens alive and just by having a dog presence will deter most predators anyway.

The chicken’s shelter and food have been looked after now, so let’s see what we can do about their water situation.  Ideally you could have a stream running through your property which  you could divert water from to run through each of your paddocks, giving the birds access to clean running water all the time.  Since most people don’t have a stream running through their property, we’ll have to come up with an alternative.  With enough land and good design, I think you should be able to build a water harvesting system which will have at least one pond that continuously overflows.  This overflow can be directed through pipes to supply each paddock with clean, running water.  In lieu of a stream and excellent water harvesting system that flows, I am thinking a water storage tank that harvests clean roof water and is piped with gravity feed to each paddock.  Or each paddock has a storage tank with water harvesting hardware to fill it.  This part has a pretty big ‘it depends’ variable with it, but the idea is to make it so you can go as long as possible without refilling water and to have that water stay clean by moving.

I think that about covers it.  To summarize, you want a system where your chickens regularly move to fresh greenery and have a coop that requires no cleaning and has lots of ventilation.  The more vegetation you make available to them, the less you have to pay for feed.  To make a super sweet system, plant hedge row fencing and turn the paddocks into a chicken food forest.  To learn more head over to Paul Wheaton’s site and read his chicken article.  After that come out to the forums at permies.com and keep the learning going.