Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 23: The Great Chicken Experiment


I keep a few chickens for food and fun. The birds add that idyllic farm-feel to my hilly 2.5 acres of graveled soil, thick underbrush, and timber. My homestead is a peaceful spot with a peek-a-boo view of the Olympic Mountains and frequent visits by blue heron, bald eagle, grouse, quail, coyotes, deer, and this stunning owl I have yet to identify.  A pretty place it is, but not much of a farm and certainly not situated on fertile farm land.

I wanted to raise my birds in a closed loop. I feed compost and garden waste to the chickens. The chickens turn the compost and garden waste into eggs and poop. We eat the eggs. The poop amends the poor soil. Nitrogen in chicken poop helps me grow more vegetables to yield more compost and garden waste to feed back to the birds. Kind of cool, huh?

My chicken loop isn’t perfect. I supplement their food with ground corn and layer crumbles purchased from the feed store. Coyotes crushed my dream of a true free-range operation where the birds scavenged the yards and forest for tasty bugs, grubs, slugs, grasses, roots, and seeds. My birds live a much better life than commercial chickens. Seven of them enjoy a warm and draft free 8 x 10 coop complete with, cozy nest boxes, skylights and a fenced yard. But they depend on me (or the boys) to deliver meals and scoop the poop. The hens are healthy and content, but they are not free to do what chickens were born to do.

Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm, brags that his animals do the work on his family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic dream in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I have yet to visit Polyface, but I reckon it must be like Disneyland for starry-eyed homesteaders looking for a better way. Via audio book, I heard a narrated description of Salatin’s chicken loop. His chickens are an integral part of systemic farming. I learned how his birds follow the pasture rotation of his cattle and eradicate pesky bugs, grubs, and fly larvae growing in cow flops. The birds spread the flops, illuminate the need for pesticides, aerate the soil, fertilize, reseed the grasses, and produce eggs and meat. Brilliant. You can learn more about Polyface farms here. http://www.polyfacefarms.com/ 

I don’t have that kind of system to employ the birds. But, I do have a 20’ x 40’ greenhouse that needs cleaned before spring planting. The greenhouse is a hobby. Okay, it’s a hobby gone wild. I’m a collector and cultivator of heirloom tomatoes. I accidently grow a couple hundred plants a year. I am fascinated by the varieties. I grew 15 types last year, producing way too many plants and way too many tomatoes for my family. My sons earned a decent wage unloading my hobby at farmers’ markets last spring and summer. Unfortunately, they show little interest in a repeat opportunity, so I have to show restraint this spring.

I digress, now back to the birds. Joel Salatin inspired what I hope is a great idea. I moved the seven girls from their coop into the greenhouse today. The greenhouse, although not heated, creates a false environment for garden pests. Without a freeze, cutworms, caterpillars, slugs, grubs, and bugs don’t seem to die. My greenhouse is overrun with vermin, and I’m not just talking about insects. I have mice and maybe even a rat or two.

What I am hoping will happen is that the birds will eat and trample rotting plants, speed up the composting process, gobble insects, amend soil with direct application of poop, reduce purchased feed intake, lay more eggs in the light and the warmth, work up the 8 raised beds with their scratching and pecking, and maybe chase away a mouse or two. It’s probably wishful thinking about the mice.

What I fear could happen is that coyotes will tear through the doubled 6 mil poly glazing and eat my birds. It’s a dicey risk, experiments often are. I set nest boxes up high and built tall roosting areas in hopes of providing my girls an escape route. Jasper (the black lab) and I’ll be listening for sounds of distress with shotgun readied.

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