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The Integrated Homestead:
The Poultry Flock

Table of Contents for “The Integrated Homestead”

Industrial Food AlternativeTools and SpeciesSoil FertilitySoil CareInsectsGreenhouseForest GardenLivestockFungiFood StoragePoultryConclusion

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Seeking More Natural Paradigms

Let’s take a somewhat more detailed look at the homestead poultry flock, by way of illustrating many of the integrating patterns we have discussed.

Commercial poultry production in this country is a disaster. At every point we see the application of one-for-one solutions, in lieu of more natural, integrated practices. Industrial flocks are based on highly specialized hybrid strains, bred for fast growth and maximum production in artificial, high-input systems over all other considerations. Whether layer or broiler flocks, commerical chickens are crowded together by the tens of thousands, and are enormously stressed, requiring antibiotic feeds from day one to slaughter. Feeds are ultra-processed with high heat and pressure, starting with ingredients that in some cases are highly questionable to begin with (rancid oils from fast-food fryers; soy meal with possible residues of hexane, the potently carcinogenic solvent used in soy oil extraction). The thousands of tons of manure are trucked ever-greater distances to be spread on agricultural lands not already saturated. Unquestionably this concentrated manure is a source of pollution of natural water systems. Especially insidious pollutants are growth hormones, antibiotics, and even deliberately added toxins such as arsenic.

Certainly the homesteader is not going to raise tens of thousands of chickens in a single flock. In other ways, however, the general tendency is for the home flock to be managed as an analog in miniature of the big industrial flocks. In many cases, home “flocksters” are opting for the same “super-hybrids” as the poultry industry, rather than the “deeper,” more robust genetics of traditional breeds. Almost any commercial chick feed you can buy is “medicated” with antibiotics, though such medicated feeds are not needed in any well managed home flock. Commercial feeds for the home flock may not contain arsenic, but they are based on ingredients which are rancid (stale), extensively heat and pressure treated, with resultant destruction of many nutrients, especially fat-soluble vitamins. In many a home chicken coop, the manure simply accumulates in a noxious caked layer which draws flies and can be a vector for disease. If the birds are released onto a static run, it is quickly stripped of the last blade of grass, and thereafter festers as an accumulating slick of chicken poops eager to run for the sea with the next rain. What is wrong with this picture?

I will conclude this presentation with a brief overview of more creative and wholesome alternatives for the home flock, focusing especially on the ways our birds can be used to integrate with other needs and goals on the homestead.

Choice of Breeds—and Species

If we plan to use the flock to help weave integrated patterns in the homestead, it is better to avoid the one-dimensional super-hybrids of modern poultry breeding. We should hark back to the traditional small farm breeds, or even back to the historic breeds out of which all contemporary breeds were developed. Such breeds have more robust immune response and greater skill at foraging more of their food on their own, and thus offer greater indepenence of outside inputs like medication and purchased feeds. Such breeds should not be closely confined—they do better out in the open, foraging and enjoying the benefits of sunshine, exercise, and natural behaviors.

Historically, breeds were bred for local conditions and needs, and to serve specific functions on the homestead. I expect that in our changed energy future, more flock owners will choose breeds on the basis of appropriate “fit” to their particular conditions and goals. For example, those with harsh winters might do well to choose a breed such as the Chantecler, developed in Canada, because its minimalist comb and wattles are almost immune to frostbite. Without expensive supplemental heat in their winter housing, the larger combs and wattles of a Mediterranean class breed like Leghorns are more apt to freeze, increasing stress on the birds. Some owners might want a flock made up of both historic breeds (like Old English Game, Asil, and Dorking), who retain the broody instinct, and non-setting Mediterranean types (such as Hamburg, Minorca, Leghorn) to keep up egg production through the breeding season. We might also choose some breeds known to be good winter layers (such as Wyandotte, Sussex, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Reds, and New Hampshire Reds) to offset the scarce winter production of the older historic breeds. Whatever specific breeds we choose, we should try to get stock from breeders who emphasize homestead production traits, not the finer points of color or pattern typical of breeding for show.

The tendency is to focus on chickens when we speak of the backyard flock, because chickens are the most widely raised of domestic fowl, and are likely to be the ideal “starter poultry” on most homesteads. Remember, however, the usefulness of domestic avian species other than chickens. Each has its own contributions to make toward a more integrated homestead.

Heritage breed turkeys are able to feed themselves almost entirely if given enough biologically diverse ground on which to forage. Pigeons can be raised in pigeon lofts, but released to fly freely and self-feed. All forms of domestic fowl, especially geese, can help with orchard sanitation by cleaning up dropped fruit, breaking disease and insect cycles. Guineas are if anything even more skilled at insect control than chickens. Geese have long been used as weeders, and ducks for slug control, in compatible crops. Finally, put the waterfowl to work like I do—“mowing” the lawn and turning what would otherwise be a dead-end (and energy-intensive) chore for me into elegant winter meals and valuable cooking fats.

Pasturing the Flock

If we assume that our poultry husbandry success will be the greater, the more we imitate how the Natural Chicken would choose to live, our first conclusion is that there is no place for close confinement of our flocks if we can possibly avoid it. Anyone with a bit of pasture—or indeed, even a lawn—would do well to get his flock out onto it, using movable shelters and electric net fencing to protect the flock and keep them where he wants them. Birds on pasture self-harvest food of a quality we cannot hope to match with anything purchased, and enjoy the benefits of sunshine, exercise, fresh air, and interesting natural behaviors.

Feeding

The key to feeding poultry is: maximizing their access to live, natural foods. We should strive to find ways in which other projects on the homestead provide, in addition, feed for the flock.

I have recommended growing “fertility patch” plants like comfrey “around the edges” for soil fertility applications. A bonus is that we can harvest comfrey as high mineral, high protein green forage for our birds. In my area, two dynamic accumulators—dandelion and yellow dock—stay green deep into winter’s chill, long after other plants have gone dormant. As long as I can get a spading fork into the ground, I dig up these nutritious and highly palatable plants by the roots, and throw them to the flock by the bucketful. (The chickens will eat some dandelion root, as well as the green tops.)

Around the edges I also like to grow plants like sunflower, sorghum, and amaranth, both for their beauty, their support of insect diversity, and their use for “people food.” The ripe seed heads of these plants can also be fed to the flock throughout the winter.

If you are “blessed” in your area with an abundance of Japanese beetles as we are, combine control of the beetles with lunch for the birds: In the cool of the morning or evening (when the beetles are less likely to fly), shake the clustered beetles into a bucket with a gallon of water in the bottom. Dump the bucket out among the birds—and get out of the way of the feeding frenzy.

There may be a few brave souls willing to do as I have been doing for three years now: Harvest protein from thin air! In the fly season, I use beaver carcasses (donated from a friend with a trapping service) to generate fly maggots as high quality live food for all my domestic fowl (with the exception of the vegetarian geese, who are appalled). I use buckets drilled with numerous holes (to permit access by egg-laying flies but keep the chickens out) into which I place chopped-up chunks of the carcasses, padded all around with loose organic litter such as straw or leaves (to almost eliminate odor). Once the maggots (it sounds less gross if we call them “fly larvae,” doesn’t it?) are ready to pupate, they have the instinct to leave the feeding medium and go to ground. Since the buckets are suspended (either by hanging, or placement on a stand), they “bail out.” The sharp-eyed birds see them in free-fall, often snapping them up before they hit the ground.

In the rest of this section we will encounter numerous other examples of ways to increase the flock’s access to foods grown right on the homestead.

A Role in the Forest Garden?

I used to run my flocks in the orchard to control fruit and leaf damaging insects. (It is a thrill to see a guinea take a coddling moth right out of the air!) They also—especially the geese—cleaned up dropped fruit, helping break the life cycle of disease organisms.

At present I am in the process of converting the former orchard to forest garden. Since I am trying so hard to establish a new ground cover (perennial polyculture) in the forest garden, I am keeping the flock out of that emergent ecology for the time being. Time will tell whether they can resume productive roles in the forest garden once the new ground covers are well established.

In the meantime, however, I have introduced the essence of the forest garden concept out on the pasture, where my flocks spend most of their time during the growing season. I have found that our single mulberry tree (now off limits in the forest garden) was a great benefit to the flock by providing shade on hot days, and abundant dropped fruit as an important source of vitamin-rich, self-foraged feed. I have planted two new mulberry trees out on the pasture, with close plantings of comfrey around their bases. As the trees grow, they will provide shade and fruit for the birds, who will benefit from grazing the comfrey as well.

I have also planted three chestnut trees on the pasture. One of the challenges to growing chestnuts—a productive and nutritious asset for the homesteader—is chestnut weevil. The chickens and guineas will help control the weevil as it emerges in the spring, or goes to ground in winter. Chestnuts grow big spreading crowns which will also provide shade. I have established comfrey as the ground cover under them as well.

Responsible Manure Management: Deep Litter

If a new visitor to our poultry house has ever been in a chicken house before, inevitably she stops talking, looks around, sniffs, and asks, puzzled, “Hey, why doesn’t it stink in here?” I always point out that she’s standing on the answer. A deep organic litter over an earth floor is ideal for manure management in the poultry house. The busy chickens scratch their poops into the litter (made up of high-carbon materials like oak leaves), which becomes in effect a “slow burn” compost pile. Metabolites of the microbes driving the decomposition in the litter include Vitamins K and $\mathrm{B_{12}}$ and other substances that fine-tune the birds’ immune systems as they peck in it looking for little critters to eat. (And speaking of those little critters: Experiments by the Ohio Extension Service in the 1940’s found that chickens on a mature 12-inch litter apparently obtain a significant portion of their protein needs directly from the litter.)

Whenever we get a whiff of ammonia, we top off the litter with more high-carbon material. Once a year or so we clean out the thoroughly pulverized and colonized (by microbes beneficial to the soil as well as the flock) litter, and use it to boost soil fertility as a finished compost, without further processing.

And the real beauty of this marvelous deep litter system: The chooks do most of the work!

Stacking Species: Poultry with Other Livestock

I keep only poultry at present, so the only “stacking” of species I do is the mixing of different domestic fowl species in a common flock—chickens, guineas, ducks, and geese (who I have found help drive away aerial predators like hawks). However, poultry can be usefully combined with other livestock species such as beef cattle, as in the example from Joel given earlier. I would experiment with stacking poultry with any other livestock species, and would not assume “it won’t work” without proving it.

Julia Cronin, a small farmer in Connecticut, uses chickens to help control parasites of grazing animals:

Chickens serve as a dead end host for many common intestinal parasites of cows, sheep, and horses. As worm populations are generally propagated through manure (with larvae deposited in manure, maturing, and then being re-eaten by the host animal), chickens break that cycle by ingesting the larvae. On our farm, we don’t rely on it as the only way to keep parasites in check, but we have anecdotally seen a reduction in worms, especially in the sheep. [From private communication. What Julia means by “dead end host” is that the chickens utilize as food these worm parasites of other species, but are not themselves parasitized by them.]

Using Poultry for Soil Care

Chickens can help feed the soil by turning in cover crops and areas heavily grown up in weeds. In the process they find superior foods on their own (green plants, plus animal foods such as earthworms, slugs and snails, and insects), while “supercharging” the microbial populations in the most biologically active part of the soil profile, its surface layer, with their droppings. But note that the tillage done by the chickens is at that surface level only—their constant scratching does not disturb the soil deeper than a couple of inches, and doesn’t mix or invert the layers of the soil profile, as does power tillage.

Of course, if cover crops such as cowpeas, buckwheat, and small grains are allowed to mature their seeds, an additional benefit for tiller chickens is the abundant harvest of nutritious seeds.

Chickens can even be used to kill and till in a tough established sod over compacted soil, in preparation for developing new garden ground—no mean feat, even for someone armed with a power tiller. I simply net the birds onto the plot to be tilled using electric net fencing, and leave them on the plot until their work is done. Moving them elsewhere for a few weeks, I grow a mixed cover of small grains, crucifers, buckwheat, peas or cowpeas, etc. When I move the chooks back onto the mature stand of cover crop, they till it into the loosening soil much faster. After this second round of tillage, the plot still has a long way to go to become best garden soil, but it is well on its way.

The last time I developed new garden ground using this strategy, I began in mid-summer. By the following spring and summer, I grew fine crops of squash, cucumbers, amaranth, and sorghum in the new ground. This past season, I have used the same strategy to convert part of my pasture to a stand of pure alfalfa.

Another fertility project on which the chickens do the work for this lazy old gardener: Rather than laboriously assembling and turning conventional compost heaps, I dump into an electronet pen all the materials I would have used to make a heap. The chickens scratch through it nonstop, in the process shredding it and getting it ready for rapid breakdown in the soil. The result is something between a mulch and a finished compost. When I apply it like a mulch, the finer material ready to feed the soil sifts to the bottom, while the coarser material remains as a protective layer on top.

Controlling Insect Predation

I have mentioned the control of orchard insects by chickens and guineas, as well as their projected use for chestnut weevil control.

I also use the flock to “sanitize” the garden of slugs and slug eggs: I net them onto the garden for two to four weeks before the beginning of the garden season. It is months before the slug population can reconstitute sufficiently to do any noticeable damage.

I net guineas (only a few are needed, usually three or four) onto my winter squash plot for 100 percent control of squash bug. (Note that chickens will eat squash bugs as well, but would destroy the planting eventually with their constant scratching. Guineas are not great scratchers.) It is said that a pair of guineas allowed free range will keep an acre entirely free of ticks.

Free ranging turkeys are also great gleaners of insects. Ducks are “hit squads” for slugs.

Poultry in the Greenhouse

For three winters now, I have kept a mixed flock of poultry in the far end of my 20x48-foot greenhouse. Even though I have no way of measuring the effects precisely, I assume that the warm body mass (perhaps 250 pounds worth) moderates the chill in the greenhouse at night; and that the $\mathrm{CO_2}$ in their exhalations is a boost to the crops in the greenhouse. (Before you assume I’m nuts for factoring chicken breath into the winter gardening equation, know that in the Netherlands, growers pay good Dutch money to pump bottled $\mathrm{CO_2}$ into their greenhouses.)

I mentioned earlier my scaled-up vermicomposting operation. In addition to the benefits of responsible manure management (“pony poop” hauled by the truckload from a horse breeding and boarding operation) and added fertility for the landscape (worm castings), I also make regular harvests (in the winter, when other live animal food is not as available) of worms from the bins to feed the flock.

One of my winter practices I’m most excited about is the “mulched winter feeding yard” onto which I release the greenhouse flock. I always hated keeping the flock confined to the poultry house in winter, even though they had the benefits of deep litter, vastly more space per bird than in commercial models, and occasional short outings. But chickens cannot be constantly on a dormant sod—since it is not actively growing and repairing itself, the chickens’ scratching would seriously degrade it.

These days, however, I lay down a heavy mulch, deep enough to prevent freezing of the soil, in the area behind the greenhouse, enclosing it with electronet. Since this area is one of my garden plots, it benefits tremendously from the mulch. (Garden soil should never be left bare over winter.) The chickens are able to get out and enjoy themselves on this winter mulch almost every day, rather than being confined to the boredom of the winter house. Since the mulch prevents freezing at the soil surface, the chooks have continued access to live animal foods there (slugs, earthworms). Finally, the thick mulch absorbs the poops laid down, retaining their fertility for the coming growing season, and preventing their runoff in the winter rains.

Natural Breeding

Homestead “flocksters” seeking greater independence will rely more on breeding their own poultry stock. As we enter an era of rising energy costs and possibly more frequent disruptions of the electric grid, it will be wise to rely not on energy-intensive and expensive artificial incubators and brooders, but on real chicken mamas. The “broody instinct”—the inclination to hatch out and nurture a clutch of chicks—has been deliberately bred out of many modern breeds. If we raise hens of some of the older breeds, however, we may find that they “remember” the lore of incubation and rearing as the norm, not the exception. Whatever the contingencies with the electric grid, a good broody can be counted on to do what needs to be done.

Keep in mind the common-sense principles that have always guided selection and breeding of domesticated species. Choose those individuals as breeders who do best in your conditions and according to your own goals. Over time, you will select for offspring who do increasingly well in your specific paradigms. Cull potential breeders for structural defects (crooked beak or breastbone), but also cull against demonstrated weakness of any sort. If a hen becomes sick, when her sisters challenged with the same environmental issues remain healthy, cull her. This may seem cruel, but to my mind it is more cruel to future members of the flock to saddle them with weak genetics.

Culling for the Table, Year-Round

Chickens are ideal candidates for operating more out of “current account” throughout the year, allowing us to avoid dependence on increasingly expensive and perhaps unreliable energy for processing (freezing or canning), and production of plastic packaging waste.

We no longer raise big batches of “meat chickens” for the freezer—instead, we cull the flock through the entire year, based on both our own needs, and the needs of the flock as an ongoing entity. In the summer, we enjoy young, tender chicken for grilled, saut\’{e}ed, or baked dishes by culling this season’s hatch of cockerels. Fall is a time for braised dishes such as coq au vin, using the older cockerels, and pullets not kept for egg production, as we reduce flock size for the winter. Winter itself reveals deficiencies in rate of lay, suggesting that Henrietta might serve better in the stewpot, where long, slow cooking emphasizes the rich flavor of an old bird and produces a matchless broth. Indeed, it is entirely possible to eat chicken frequently throughout the year, enjoying culinary adventures unavailable to those dependent on supermarket chicken, and never once package a bird for freezing.

We still observe a season for the slaughter of our waterfowl—ducks and geese—and continue to freeze some of them in the fall. Even with them, however, Ellen is more and more relying on a traditional alternative: the making of confit. She cuts up the ducks (and sometimes junior geese) and cooks them slowly in their own fat. After the pieces are cooked, she covers them completely with fat. We keep confit in the refrigerator for convenience, but traditionally in France, it was stored in cool cellar conditions. The layer of fat protects the cooked meat from opportunistic microbes, preserving it effectively for a long time. When we want to eat confit, it is necessary only to remove a few pieces and heat. The homestead version of fast food!

And don’t forget the value of the high quality cooking fats from chickens, and (even better) from ducks and geese. Especially in the fall, there are large deposits of fat in the body cavity, which is easily rendered.