New old-fashioned chicken theory

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Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are full of innovators and experimenters, and some of them have found ways to do things – to do with raising food – that are vastly more efficient in their use of human resources, waste reduction, and building up nature than mainstream practices.  I mean, not marginal improvements on our current ways of doing things, but paradigm shifting revolutions.

Take chickens.

Back in the day, farmers and poor people used to keep chickens around the house, letting them eat scraps from the kitchen or scratch around on the manure pile.   The biggest care was to get them inside a coop at night (Here a Chick).  They absolutely did not buy food for them.   Today it’s the opposite.  If you’re trying to get your game on for a home-flock of chickens (like me), you’ll go to some workshops, read some books or websites.  Everywhere, the basic assumption is that you will buy feed for your chickens.  You will buy grains and scratch for them plus minerals and maybe you might give them some nice greens from the garden or scraps from the kitchen as treats.   Industrial as well as local farm-raised chickens are similarly fed grains and the high cost of feeding chickens is one reason it is so difficult to make money on them.

Chickens eating grain – photo from internet.

Some math: A laying, fed chicken eats 1/4 lb of grain per day so you need about 100 lbs of feed per year.  For the home-flock, a 50 lb bag of basic layer feed costs about $15 at Tractor Supply, or, about $30 per chicken per year.   Figure a chicken lays about 200 eggs per year, that computes to about $2 feeding costs per dozen eggs – about the cost of conventional eggs do in the supermarket.  But what if you’re trying to stay away from chemically farmed grains? Now you’re looking at $140 for your 100 lbs of organic feed per chicken.  Unless your organically-fed chickens produce more than 200 eggs per year (which they don’t), you’re going to pay more than $8 per dozen for your home-flock eggs!  Blimey!

There is a different way.

A few years ago, Mark and I visited Karl Hammer at the Vermont Composting Company   If you can’t visit, here’s a fun, short video.   Karl says the only reason we got into this crazy chicken-feeding regimen is because machine-farming made grains so darn cheap.  Back in the day when we harvested our grain by hand with a scythe, we did not feed it to chickens.  So here’s what Karl and his team do.  Local restaurants tip 1100 tons of food waste at VCC, where it gets mixed with barn manure, wood shaving waste and leaves into giant piles.  A flock of 600-1400 chickens works all day on the piles feeding themselves and turning the waste into superior chicken compost that Karl sells to local farmers.  As it happens, the United States produces enough food waste to feed all of our chickens in this way!  Imagine — so many problems solved!

In 2017, Black Dirt Farm researched the finances of Karl’s system with a USDA grant.  Their study included two flocks of 50 chickens, one conventionally grain-fed, the other using the composting system.  The results are an eye-opener to say the least. Between the tipping fees from restaurants to take care of the food waste, selling eggs, and selling the compost, the 50 compost chickens were earned the farm $10,000 in 6 months, compared to the 50 grain chickens losing the farm $1,600!   People, why do it any other way?!

But, who will heed my preaching the “new old-fashioned chicken theory” gospel from my armchair?  We need to try it out ourselves!

I did some math based on VCC and some other research (Edible Acres, James McSweeny) to scale the compost system down to a home-flock of 6 chickens and here’s what I came up with:

  • Kitchen scraps: 2 lbs per chicken per day   For a flock of 6 chickens, that is 12 lbs per day, which fills approximately half of a 5-gallon bucket.  That is about as much as 5 households produce, meaning I need to find 4 neighbors who will let me pick up their kitchen scraps.
  • Carbon materials: 110 leaf bags per year.  That’s about as many leaves as 5 households in the suburbs produce. Easy to pick up in a couple of weeks in the fall just on our block.  I would also throw in one truckload of horse manure bedding for the manure and the wood shavings.

The scraps and carbon need to go in big piles for the chickens to rummage around in, and that stay warm during the winter.  A person may need to keep piling as the chickens will flatten things out, and needs to make sure there is enough carbon to keep the scraps+chicken poop from getting smelly.  Plus water.  Will this work?  I don’t know, but I am super excited to try this out, and we’re building a big chicken hoop-house to get started!


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