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Integrating Chickens into a Suburban Habitat
Chickens are a good first species to work with for building a closed loop, integrated production system within a suburban habitat. That is because they are quiet, they will eat almost anything, and we can use their behaviors and byproducts to enhance the fertility in the habitat. As with other activities we want to integrate, chickens are easier when produced by a team. The different aspects of the closed loop production can be allocated to different team members and the day to day activities shared out at a level that fits in with a suburban life style.
Many municipalities have ordinances restricting farm animals, so start there. One of the common restrictions, even when laying hens are allowed, is that cocks (who will crow) are prohibited. In that case, in order to produce your own chickens from fertile eggs, you will need a team member with property with a less restrictive zoning such as an agricultural zone. If you are going to hatch your own fertile eggs, you will also need to be prepared to deal with the excess cockerels you will produce. We are planning to hatch out sufficient chickens to meet the team's need for hens every spring and then feed out the cockerels to about 4 months old, when they have enough meat to make butchering worthwhile and when they start to learn to crow. That means we can raise them on pasture over the summer and not worry about housing and feeding them over the winter.
Feeding the chickens is the next challenge. We like the idea of a few hens at many homes because, the 40% of food wasted in the typical household can become chicken food instead of being ground up and sent down to the river. Even if you have been composting your kitchen scraps, it is a better use it to feed the chickens and then use the chicken byproducts to feed your soil organisms. The next easiest source of chicken food is the plants growing in your yard (we hope you have not poisoned the dandelions and bindweed) and the trimmings from your produce. Finally, we can think of growing crops as chicken food such as amaranth, corn, sunflowers, and sorgum.
There are four methods to deal with chicken waste. Each method has its pros and cons.
1) You can raise your chickens inside a building with a solid floor and periodically clean up the manure.
2) You can raise your chickens on a deep litter such as hay on a solid floor.
3) You can raise your chickens on a deep litter within a structure with a dirt floor.
4) You can free range your chickens.
As you move from one to four, you have less work and create a more natural environment for your chickens. You also increase the risk to your chickens from predators and reduce the amount of manure you have for other purposes. At LSI we use a combination of 2), 3) and 4). The deep litter on the solid floor is periodically piled up and what is left on the floor is essentially dried poultry waste that can be used directly in the garden or fed to worms. The deep litter in the outdoor run, with a dirt floor, will grow worms and grubs that the chickens will eat as they scratch through the litter. There is less opportunity to access the manure, although you can periodically rake up the litter and pull out the fully decomposed material under it. Those of our team who have fenced yards (and a separate fence around their gardens) are free ranging their chickens. That will maximise the amount of natural feed they get but there is no opportunity to collect the manure spread across the lawn.
With chickens, we can process the food scraps generated by our family, produce meat and eggs for human consumption, and produce fertilizer for our garden. Then we can think about additional production loops, such as feeding the chicken manure to worms and the worms back to the chickens and using the worm castings as planting medium in the deep mulch garden. We are also considering the integration of fish grown in our greenhouses.
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