How Permaculture Chickens Improve Sustainability
Chickens and Permaculture Go Hand in Hand
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Permaculture chickens are an important link to sustainability.
Chickens are one of the most versatile livestock for the small farmer, lending themselves to nearly any venture, from backyard to commercial. They also play a unique role in the exciting world of permaculture.
For those unfamiliar with permaculture, it’s a “whole systems” method of small-scale farming in which every component is interrelated and plays a part in the whole. Permanent plantings are encouraged for minimal maintenance, such as “food forests” with seven layers: High trees, smaller trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcover layers, root crops, and climbers. Food plants are planted in “zones” resembling concentric circles, with those requiring the highest maintenance closest to the house and lowest maintenance farther away.
Permaculture also has a philosophical component, demonstrating the environmental impact of everything and how interconnected everything is. The goal is to minimize the negative impact and return to a close-to-nature solution, but within the confines of a homestead — in other words, working with nature, not against it. Plants and animals are utilized for all their functions and abilities rather than treated as a single product system.
Permaculture also gives resilience. Unlike monocultures, in a permaculture scenario, if one component fails (let’s say a peach tree dies), the rest of the system is rarely affected. A diverse approach to gardening gives maximum resilience. Ideally, permaculture is a closed-loop system approximating what happens in nature.
Chickens are the easiest livestock to incorporate into permaculture. Most people who have enough space to keep chickens usually have enough space to practice at least some form of permaculture (even in suburban yards). Permaculture chickens contribute to the system by their instinctive habit of scratching, which mixes leaf litter and helps break down organic waste while uncovering pests for them to eat. In other words, this symbiotic relationship with chickens and permaculture harnesses the natural behavior of the birds. A key feature with permaculture chickens is decomposition, which feeds the soil and attracts biota (insects, worms, crickets, slugs, etc.), which the chickens eat. In turn, chickens speed the process of composing, which then attracts more biota. Their droppings also work to enrich the soil.
Chickens can also clear overgrown land and prepare the soil for planting. As one permaculturalist put it, there’s no sense in having chickens if you don’t make them work for a living. Movable chicken tractors, runs, tubes, and tunnels can direct the birds to precisely the area you want them to work over.
Never underestimate chickens as pest controllers. They’ll eat almost anything, including random rodents. By allowing them access to fallen fruit in an orchard, they’ll break the life cycle of fruit flies by eating maggots on the fruit. They’ll eat snails and slugs. This kind of natural pest control is an integral part of permaculture.
Chickens have even been used to contribute to aquaculture systems. For example, enterprising permaculturalists have built their chicken coops over a pond, so their droppings enrich the water with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which feeds phytoplankton and algae, which in turn feeds edible fish.
For even more self-sufficiency, with enough chickens (and an easy way to gather their manure), methane gas is given off during the decomposition process, which can be used as a gas for cooking or even powering vehicles.
In short, the sky’s the limit when it comes to working chickens into an integrated food production system. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
There are several factors to keep in mind to maximize permaculture chickens:
• Make sure chickens have access to the proper habitats. Chickens don’t want lawns; they want leaf litter, mulch, compost, and forest floor — in short, anything they can scratch up. Serious permaculturalists will try to recreate the original jungle habitat of chicken ancestors — a food forest of mixed perennial edibles. (The ability to provide this kind of environment clearly differs between northern and southern climates.)
• Bigger is not necessarily better. Unless you’re raising birds for commercial production (eggs or meat), as few as two to six chickens can do wonders.
• Working birds are happy birds. The more exercise they get — scratching, dust bathing, foraging — the healthier they are, both mentally and physically. Active birds are less likely to eat eggs, peck each other out of frustration or boredom, or go places they’re not supposed to go.
• The more foraged foods the chickens can eat, the better. Not only will this reduce the amount of commercial feed they need, but they’re happier when they’re getting their own food. So let them do the work!
If chickens and permaculture sound overwhelming, fear not. Even beginning — or partial — permaculture systems benefit from avian input.
Experienced permaculturalists exclude chickens from areas where annual food plants are grown. Giving chickens free rein in a vegetable garden is not the solution, as anyone who has had their veggies scratched up or their blueberries decimated will attest. Netting vulnerable plants, or directing chickens via strategically placed fences (permanent or temporary), tunnels, or cages will prevent damage. Alternately, letting chickens free-range in a garden space for limited periods under close supervision (“Shoo! Out of the blueberries!”) may be an option, perhaps an hour before nightfall when their natural roosting instincts will return them to the coop before dark. Most permaculturalists restrict chickens to the perennial food forests where their constant scratching benefits woody plants. It’s necessary to harness scratching to the garden’s benefit, not a detriment.
Mixed permaculture-type systems can also work. For example, one avid gardener excludes chickens from the productive garden spaces but dumps all farm debris (livestock manure, garden waste, kitchen scraps) onto a massive compost pile and encourages the birds to scratch it up. This keeps the birds happy and engaged while breaking down the organic material. The compost pile is flipped twice a summer to encourage decomposition, then applied to the garden beds in the fall to further break down over the winter. Essentially the compost pile is a soil manufacturing plant powered by both chickens and microorganisms.
For best results in using chickens as part of a permaculture system, select hardy “working” breeds 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. For additional self-sufficiency, think in terms of what breeds will go broody and hatch their own chicks, then add a rooster or two to the mix.
The bottom line with chickens and permaculture is to put the chickens to work, utilizing their natural and instinctive behaviors to benefit the system. Then sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.