Permaculture Chicken Keeping
Raising chickens sustainably and following the principles of Permaculture allow us to utilize every part of the animals scratching instinct, their waste and ability to control pests.
Integrate your flock into a healthy growing system that is self-supporting.
When I picked out my first, fluffy chicks from the local feed-supply store, I assumed—like most new chicken keepers—that the main reward would be fresh, backyard eggs. After 5 years of incorporating poultry into my suburban homestead, I now know that the benefits of keeping chickens go far beyond that delicious breakfast scramble.
Chickens, perhaps more than any other animal, can help the thoughtful gardener create systems of bounty through their natural behaviors: scratching, pecking, hunting bugs, eating and manuring. As such, they are the ideal livestock companion for small- or large-scalepermaculture design.
What Is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an ecological design method that allows you to get more from your garden or landscape with less work and less resource use. Using permaculture techniques, a gardener can design a space which is bountiful and productive without requiring hours of ongoing labor or applications of toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Bill Mollison, one of the founders of modern permaculture, sums it up: "Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
Chickens For More Than Eggs
Chickens have functions far beyond just eggs, and by properly harnessing the natural behaviors of our feathered friends, we can create productive systems that expand our bounty and enjoyment for our flock.
Jessi Bloom, bestselling author of Free Range Chicken Gardens (Timber Press, 2012) andPractical Permaculture (Timber Press, 2015), says the key to successfully incorporating chickens into a thriving edible landscape is to first consider the needs and behaviors of your chickens.
"If we look at the natural behaviors of the chicken, and how it survives in the wild, it’s not dependent on us to feed it or house it or protect it,” Bloom says. "Chickens have survived in the wild as jungle birds for thousands of years. So if we look at where the chicken would thrive naturally, we can design habitat that’s as natural for the chickens as much as possible.
"In permaculture, we try to build habitat that will address the needs of the animal while providing a yield for people, too. And what we find is that a food forest of mixed, perennial edibles that mimics that original jungle habitat is an ideal place for them, allowing the chickens to get their needs met, like jungle birds do, with less grain and commercial inputs from us.”
Paul Wheaton, permaculture teacher and founder of Permies.com, agrees with Bloom, to an extent. "A jungle comes complete with polyculture foods chickens love, all year long, including fresh greens, bugs, fruits, grains and more,” he says. "However, if you live in a northern climate, winter makes it difficult to truly replicate this jungle-type environment.”
Wheaton advocates for pastured poultry paddocks as the healthiest way to maintain a flock of chickens. In this system, multiple areas of diverse pasture are grown, and the chicken flock is rotated through each area in turn. As the vegetation and insect population of one paddock is eaten down, the flock is shifted on to the next paddock and the first paddock is allowed to recover.
Bloom cautions that a pasture-based system is dependent on living in an area with abundant rainfall and so is not universally appropriate. In contrast, she says, nearly every region can support appropriate food forest plants.
The takeaway for the average chicken keeper looking to maintain a happier, healthier flock of chickens in accordance with permaculture principles and with far fewer inputs is that there isn’t one ideal system. All permaculture design starts with careful observation. An honest assessment of your land, climate, time and personality is the first step to designing an optimum productive system using chickens.
Urban gardeners may find it impossible to work either a free-range food forest or lush paddock shift design into their property, but this doesn’t mean small space properties can’t benefit from chickens, too.
The key to working naturally with chickens on a small or urban lot is to consider the carrying capacity of the land you have available. Bloom emphasizes that contrary to what many chicken fanciers feel, it’s possible to simply have too many birds.
"There are only so many animals the land can support in a regenerative manner,” Bloom says. "Fifty chickens kept in 50 square feet will destroy the soil, but 50 chickens kept on 50 acres aren’t going to make a dent. So you have to find that balance.”