Sharing the work with your chickens

In his book, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers” (Chelsea Green), Harvey Ussery outlines how to use your chickens to help you with work on the land while giving them extra food that result in less manufactured feed being eatenDSCF2195

It’s a great concept, though it might seem a little daunting to those who have their farm in a city or suburban backyard. The kind of feed you need differs depending on what kind of chickens you are raising. Some are raised for broilers, others for egg layers. And, some people have large amounts of pasture, some just have a backyard. But there are many places to start, depending on your own situation and what your motives are. Some want want to improve their yards and gardens and some just want to let their chickens do what they were meant to do: peck and scratch for a good part of their nutrition.

And will you save money? Possibly. If you have enough land, your birds can forage around for food, which can lower the amount of chicken feed they will eat. But that this doesn’t mean you should use cheap food. In fact, the opposite is true, according to Ussery’s advice. Sure, eggs at the grocery store will be cheaper than what it will cost you to get them from your backyard birds, but remember the commercial egg industry–like so much of commercial agriculture–is subsidized.

So how do you go about getting started with adding new foods to your chickens’ diet? Here are a few suggestions from Ussery’s book.

Get them out of the pen when you can

Letting your chickens forage around outside the pen gives them added nutrition in the form of greens and insects. Ussery suggests letting them out for a few hours just before sunset so they won’t tear up your yard or garden. But what they will do is eat worms and other insects. By the time they are ready to tear into the lettuce or kale, it will be dark and they will be off to the coop.DSCF2303

Let them do some of the work for you

Using your chickens as fellow composters is another easy way to provide feed while letting them do a fair amount of work in scratching and turning over the decomposing material.

After reading Ussery’s book, I realize we need to look for creative ways to set up the compost operation. He suggests changing the way most people compost–that is, setting up a compost pile far away from where the chickens are. So instead of doing the composting far away from the chickens, set it up next to the chicken run and make a little door with access to the compost pile.

There is a lot of nutrition and protein in the crickets and worms that your birds will go after.

On top of that, the chickens can do what they do most naturally–scratch and turn earth over. This can save you the trouble of turning the compost heap on a regular basis as well as add additional chicken droppings for further breakdown before being used in the garden.

Waste not, want not

Chickens can be the perfect way to use up extra greens, pasta or fruit that you may have grown or purchased but couldn’t eat. For example, you can let your chickens out in the fall to clean up any extra vegetables that may not have been harvested. But even in the spring you can let the birds finish up any lettuce, kale, spinach or other cold-weather crops before starting in with the summer garden.

2013-10-04 16.43.15After reading this book, I’m convinced we should all look at our own situation and try to figure out ways to let your chickens eat more naturally, something farmers and other poultry raisers have done for hundreds of years.

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