Every bit helps — including chicken bits.
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The nationwide lockdowns in response to the pandemic — and the resulting interruptions in the supply chain — have highlighted the vulnerability of our food sources for many Americans. As a result, interest in homesteading has never been higher.
Within this homesteading movement, a phenomenon called closed-loop farming is gaining popularity. In a nutshell, this is small-scale farming that doesn’t utilize outside resources or produce any waste (it’s sometimes called “zero-waste farming”). In theory, the farmer never has to leave home. He or she can grow, raise, and produce everything needed for a comfortable lifestyle, and every component is recycled continuously. Summed up, nothing comes in and nothing goes out.
Historically, closed-loop farming used to be common. If you recall your Laura Ingalls Wilder books (specifically Farmer Boy) based in the 1860s, readers learn how the Wilder family raised all their own grain, dairy, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and meat. They harvested trees for firewood, sheared sheep for wool, spun their own cloth, used horsepower for heavy work, and made their own infrastructure components such as boards, rail fences, and wooden shingles. Just about the only “boughten” things were tin cookware, shoes, salt, and sugar.
Most modern homesteaders have no desire to emulate the nonstop work associated with this lifestyle, yet the interest in independence and self-sufficiency is gaining steam among those disenchanted with modern interdependency.
Poultry enthusiasts may be pleased to learn they are among the forefront of this movement. Chickens and other fowl are an integral part of closed-loop farming.
Output vs Input
One of the first steps toward closed-loop farming is to move as close to a zero-waste lifestyle as possible, both in the home and on the farm. Start by phasing out disposable products (paper towels, paper plates, facial tissue, etc.) and replacing them with reusable and washable alternatives. This will cut your garbage output by a tremendous amount. Sometimes reusable/washable versions cost a bit more in the beginning, but after that initial outlay, you will save a tremendous amount of money.
Next, take a look at what foods you buy. This includes people’s food (from the grocery store) and animal food (grain for chickens, hay for livestock). To achieve a closed-loop farm, it’s necessary to start weaning off store-bought anything, and instead think in terms of how the item can be made, grown, raised, or produced in-house. This includes honey, meat, milk, eggs, produce, and even wheat.
Closed-loop farming is just that — farming — and therefore cannot be practiced in a suburban backyard. Or can it? Some urban homesteads have small city lots deeply dedicated to food production complete with miniature goats, bees, chickens, aquaponics, and of course intensive gardening. Never say never.
The Industrious Chicken
In closed-loop farming, each component should have multiple functions. One of the reasons chickens are such an integral part of this process is they have so many uses beyond eggs and meat.
In nature, closed-loop cycles happen all the time. The key component is decomposition, something homesteaders can use to their advantage. Decomposition — as in, compost — feeds the soil and attracts biota (insects, worms, crickets, slugs, etc.) which the chickens eat. In this “chicken-powered compost,” chickens speed the process of composting, and compost helps feed the chickens. Win-win.
If chickens have access to enough compost, you can eliminate most or all store-bought feed and close that portion of the loop. Remember, store-bought chicken feed is a relatively new phenomenon. It the past, chickens were allowed to roam and scratch for their food, and their most productive sources of biota were midden piles which included kitchen scraps, livestock waste, garden waste, and any other organic material. (Obligatory warning: Avoid putting meat scraps, citrus, fats, dairy, or human, dog, or cat feces into a compost pile.)
Finished compost, of course, can be heaped on garden spaces to increase productivity. And here’s where another portion of the closed-loop takes place. Some items (such as corn or wheat) can be fed to the chickens, and the waste materials (cornstalks, wheat straw) added to the compost pile; but most of the benefits from compost come in the ancillary biota which feeds the chickens. The completed compost is fed to the garden, and the cycle continues.
To this end, chickens that do best in closed-loop homesteading are hardy breeds that are used to working for a living such as Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, etc. These traditional farm breeds may not be the best meat birds or the best egg layers, but they are good dual-purpose breeds that will thrive on their own efforts.
Additionally, think in term of breeds which are prone to broodiness. Chickens that can hatch their own chicks are a valuable part of any closed-loop homesteading endeavor. For example, Jersey Giant hens often go broody, and the roosters are large enough to make excellent table birds.
Ideally, closed-loop homesteading includes other livestock. The most useful animals are goats or cattle for milk, meat, and manure. Rabbits are easy to raise in small spaces and provide meat, fur, and manure. Horse droppings make excellent compost. Animal waste can be composted along with garden waste for a rich feast for the chickens.
Water can be recycled as well — rainwater can be captured, gray water can be used on gardens. Think in terms of channeling water into ponds or marshes. Into this equation, honeybees can provide pollination and honey.
In an idealized closed-loop homestead, outside components such as commercial fertilizers and pesticides are not needed. Pest control is achieved by using natural methods (ducks eat beetles, snail, and mosquito larvae; goats consume weeds from pastures and woodlots; crushed eggshells deter slugs). Fertilizer is supplied by compost. Again, all these components are in-house and sustainable.
It’s a Journey
Closed-loop farming is not something that can be accomplished in a month. It’s possible to achieve it within a year, with full-time dedication to the project. But even on a part-time basis, it’s a worthwhile goal, particularly during times when the need to bring food sources closer to home is more pressing.
Ultimately a homesteading balance is achieved where all food is grown/raised/produced on-site (no trips to the grocery store) and all waste is composted/recycled. Chickens are an integral part of this loop.
If a fully closed-loop is outside your ability at the moment, don’t fret. Just dive in wherever you can. Every bit helps — including chicken bits.
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.