Chickens In The Garden
During the last year or so I have seen many articles about using chickens in the Vegetable Garden for weeding and pest control. I just read another one from a popular magazine. I just had to shake my head and wonder how many enthusiastic beginners would lose their garden this year. The article begins by advising that the gardener would have peace of mind; their chickens would roam freely through their garden eliminating weeds and insects while softening the soil and fertilizing the ground.
Cool! If only it were true.
My experience has been that they will completely decimate the garden in a blink of an eye while you watch with unbridled panic. Then you will spend the next few hours sweating and panting as you try to round up your feathery friends and salvage something. Trust me next to impossible because as you retrieve one the rest are still on “demo duty.” I’ve been there, done that with just a dozen birds. It’s not pretty.
You will find many web sites that will tell you how many taste buds chickens have and try to guess what they will eat and suggest what they will eat at the varying stages of growth. In point of fact no one is sure how many taste buds they have (estimates vary from 30 to 450 perhaps it varies by the kind of bird). Additionally, not all chickens like the same things. I have over 75 chickens, across many varieties, and they all have their own personalities. They do not like the same things. Some chickens will eat whole corn, some will not. Some chickens will pull small plants out, some are not interested. And the age makes no difference.
What do chickens like to eat from the garden? Mine prefer to dine on the following: lettuce, greens, spinach, chard, tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, winter squash, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches, plums, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and cherries. Some even like cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli. As you will note – all things you would eat and grow in your garden. How do I know? We feed our birds the leftovers that we do not sell, eat, or have time to process. So to think you can turn your chickens loose in the garden is ludicrous. Perhaps as they age and you know their preferences, maybe….perhaps…. But keep in mind once a chicken reaches two or three years of age they will not be laying eggs any longer. Then you will have to decide to keep them or get rid of them in favor of younger birds. Just a side note, we keep ours for pest control. Chickens have great eye sight; they can see a grain or a bug from a distance of three feet.
Having said the above, there are times that chickens can be utilized in the garden. Like when harvest is done. Then, they do some clean up and fertilize the garden. This is a plus because your garden will benefit from the nitrogen in their manure.
The nitrogen is another reason that you do not want to leave your birds on the ground all year and every year. For example; if you are pasturing broilers (meat birds) and raise them on the same ground for two or three years in a row, you will get a nitrogen bloom and little will grow. I mention this because a dozen layers at the end of the season will help the garden; however, this philosophy of chicken manure making the soil fantastic has some limitations especially, if you are like us and try to practice sustainable agriculture.
Another way you could utilize chickens in the garden is through crop rotation. If you have space that would allow you to have two garden areas and you have your chickens in portable housing, then you could house your chickens in one garden area and plant in the other. The next year you would alternate. However, you should note that this would mean that you should plant a cover crop or rye grass in the area that the chickens would use so that you could till it in for your new garden area at the beginning of the next year. This will keep weed growth down and give you green manure in your new garden. Keep in mind that if chickens are eating weed seed, they will poop weed seed. Weed seed can lie dormant for 20 years. So as with all things you will need to be a good steward of your practices so as to avoid problems in the future.
I hope this will help you as you begin your gardening endeavors. I wish you good luck and I hope you have a bountiful year.