How a ‘chicken tractor’ can clear and improve soil, as well as getting rid of pests
My vegetable field has some problems. It’s not that vegetables don’t grow there; over two seasons I’ve had some notable successes, it’s just that there’s verdant weed growth throughout, more slugs than you can shake a stick at, and the soil needs improving if I am going to grow the range of crops I want to, on what can be a challenging site.
Of course, chicken tractoring is one of the staples of Permaculture gardening, and the first time I saw chickens used to help in the garden was at Ragman’s Lane Farm years and years ago. Since then I’ve had chickens in most of my gardens, but it’s always a good idea to refine and reconsider how we design our food growing systems.
Chickens enclosed in a pen will till, scratching and clearing away weeds. They won’t necessarily knock-out perennial weeds, but they will keep all kinds of plant growth under control. In so doing of course, they will also provide quite a lot of their own food.When I cleared ground in my mountain garden in France, I went in first with the brush-cutter, and then penned the chickens on the opened ground; they couldn’t clear brambles unaided, but once I’d started the work, they quickly made ground good enough to be turned into beds. Here in Wales, my birds will face less of a challenge, more greenery and less thorns.
In their scratching and searching, chickens effectively control slugs, eating both the adults and uncovering their eggs. Slugs are considered by many people to be the single biggest limiting factor on veg production in this climate, controlling them can make the difference between a viable garden and no garden at all. I know quite a few people here in the wet West who use Indian Runner ducks or Khaki Campbells to eat slugs, they are breeds which much prefer to eat slug flesh than your vegetables, but whilst you’d never let chickens roam amongst your veg, carefully penned on ground being prepared for gardening, they can at least clear the way a little, and keep a lid on the slug population prior to planting or sowing.
As chickens weed and gobble up invertebrates, they can also improve your garden soil. They fertilise as they go. Of course if chickens are left too long on one piece of land the ground will become very acidic and unpleasant; in that sense, just as with all sorts of animals used in mixed systems, you definitely can get too much of a good thing. As long as the chicken run is moved regularly though, even just feeding the chickens will lead, by virtue of their bodily functions, to the ground being richly fertilised. If you deep mulch the runs, or even compost, not only do you supplement the birds’ diets because of the upsurge in the invertebrate population present, you also create a marvellously improved topsoil.
A lot of work has been done on this by Geoff Lawton, and by the authors of the very helpful book Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andrew Lee and Patricia Foreman.
As the chickens improve the soil, make compost, eat slugs and till the ground, they also lay eggs – or grow into bigger birds for the table if that’s your aim – and so provide a little bit of extra income or food for you as well. For me this means that the process of improving the vegetable field actually pays for itself.
When chicken tractoring, you can either build mobile runs or arks, these might be on wheels or skids and with an integral run, or you can use easily moved electric netting around the chicken house. The last system I had, and the one I’m going to use here, was solar powered, with its own little panel.
Lee and Foreman use bale houses for their tractoring birds, and I have found this to be an excellent option because once the houses have been used for a while, they can be dismantled and used as mulch or composted; this avoids the possibility of a buildup of parasites in the chicken house. Either straw or hay bales will work as long as they are good and compact.
Chickens themselves can be expensive of course, and eventually I do want to build up my own flock of laying birds, but the economics of chicken keeping change when the birds, as well as producing eggs, are working the land for you. In commercial egg production chickens are rarely kept beyond 72 weeks old, but when a bird is a gardener, the fact that it’s laying less eggs is not so much of a problem. So, it seems to me that what are called ex-flock birds make sense as chickens for tractoring: they are older than point of lay birds of course, usually at least a year and a half old; they don’t lay as many eggs as younger birds (although bigger ones usually); but they are considerably less expensive (between a couple of quid and a fiver a bird, instead of anything from £10 to £20 a bird for the younger pure breeds or hybrids).
A hen will normally receive around 100g-150g of feed a day, but in well managed chicken-tractoring systems a lot of food will be provided by the forage. In Geoff Lawton’s system, no supplementary grain is given at all: the chickens benefit from on-site composting and enjoy a more varied and healthier diet than would be conceivable in modern commercial systems.
So chicken tractoring is an interesting and effective way to use livestock to manage and improve our gardens and fields. As part of a rotation, I know that chickens will provide a whole host of services which otherwise would require machinery, increased labour, and treatments like nematodes or (organic approved) slug pellets. Older birds will have a pleasant retirement helping me in the veg field, and the eggs they do lay will provide a useful boost to garden income. Even the chicken houses will be compostable, and the electric fences will be solar powered.
When tractors were pushing horses out of agriculture someone remarked that the new machines were all very well, but you couldn’t breed off a tractor. In fact, even then the economics of tractor farming were not entirely cut-and-dried. In small-scale veg growing systems even light machinery like two-wheel tractors costs thousands of pounds; they are often very effective and economical bits of kit, but much like their larger mechanical cousins they don’t breed, whereas chickens,like horses, definitely do. The older birds laying larger eggs, are ready for raising chicks, and so I hope that my chicken tractor will become not only a boon to the soil and all the life of the garden, but self-sustaining in chickens as well.
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1John Harrison October 30th, 2015
That’s a very good and interesting article. It’s self-evident that chickens are a useful addition to small scale growing right down to modern back garden level.
Unfortunately for us (and in many cities) foxes are a big problem, free ranging birds don’t last long. Constructing moveable protective cages that keep the foxes out is the answer.
One point on feeding, modern hybrids particularly are bred to produce huge amounts of eggs – 300 a year plus. To do this they need to be fed carefully balanced, high value feed. Older pure breeds may produce less eggs but can be maintained in good condition on natural feed as a higher proportion of the diet.
For larger than garden scale growing, don’t forget pigs. They’re especially good at turning pasture into good growing soil and for clearing things like bracken.
I’ve not looked into horses viability nowadays but suspect there could be a bigger place for them in farming in the future as oil will inevitably rise in price in the future. Certainly small and 2 wheel tractors are economical and useful. I certainly couldn’t handle my land without my 1976 Merry Tiller. It’s noisy and relatively gas-guzzling but it’s simple to maintain and as robust as a tank.