Backyard Hens: More Than Eggs
When people think “backyard chickens” they often think “eggs”. We believe that with a little imagination and the right application of permaculture principles these wonderful birds can enhance your yard and life far beyond being a backyard source for your breakfast scramble.
Many permaculture principles come to mind when we think urban hens: “obtain a yield”, “use & value renewable resources & services”, “produce no waste”, “use edges & value the marginal”. The principle “integrate rather than segregate” however, gets to the core of our holistic approach of cohabiting with hens. We can achieve a balance between the needs and yields of the flock with the needs and yields of our lives that results in a symbiosis greatly exceeding the benefits of a conventional grain feed for eggs exchange.
One such yield is the “black gold” that is chicken manure compost, the best of any animal manure compost. Often viewed as a prime problem of urban hen husbandry, this “waste” product is an incredible source of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur for our gardens once properly composted.
Questions of mitigating smells and problem coli-form bacteria such as E. coli is solved by integrating another marvelous garden partner, the King Stropharia mushroom, to your habitat. Also known as Wine Caps, these ‘choice’ edible mushrooms have a remarkable ability to remediate soil by acting as a mycofilter. While many fungi consume bacteria and secrete antibacterial metabolites, experiments have shown that the mycelium of the King Stropharia can reduce fecal coliforms by 99%. To incorporate this partner organism in a chicken habitat one can use a coop designed without a floor and mulch the entire run with deciduous wood chips. These wood chips can be inoculated with King Stropharia spawn, which will grow all through the wood chips, using the chicken waste for nutrition, eventually fruiting outside the borders of the run where the hens cannot turn the chips or eat the fruiting bodies.
Not only can the waste hens produce me be tremendously useful to us, these backyard birds get a lot of value from the organic wastes we produce. Chickens are voracious but not incredibly picky eaters which means they will happily eat most table scraps (with some notable exceptions). Simply tossing appropriate scraps directly into their enclosure will result in happier hens, time saved from processing table scrap waste, and money saved with this supplemental food source. Those wanting to get the absolute highest yield from their organic waste can create a unique but simple compost system which yields Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL). Black Soldier Flies are small, harmless insects whose life cycle can be integrated into our garden systems effectively. Hens not only find them irresistible but feasting on them can improve their egg laying potential with a nutritional profile of 42.1% crude protein, 34.8% fat, 7.0% crude fiber, 5.0% calcium.
To further supplement the flock’s diet while they reciprocate with garden functionality, we can employ their hunting instinct and allow them to fight bothersome pests for the reward of a protein rich snack. Because hens are indiscriminate when it comes to eating plants and pests alike it is best to create separation between your hens and the garden. One excellent approach to doing so is by creating a chicken tunnel border from which they can get at some pests without disturbing the garden itself.
Another strategy to create separation is by using a chicken tractor. This movable coop lacks a floor, allowing hens to turn and weed the soil through their natural behaviors. A garden bed that has been freshly harvested or is soon to be seeded is an ideal place to set the chicken tractor. The flock can happily forage insect larvae & weed seeds, while gently tilling the earth, a process of mixing in organic matter, breaking up crusted soil, and loosening it up for the next planting.
In 2019 the City of Edmonton took a positive step for food security by lifting the 50 yard cap on backyard hen licenses in our city allowing residents to have a flock of their own. These changes could encourage local food hubs to sprout up around the city, reducing strain on our municipal waste management system and truly moving us closer toward a state of food sovereignty.
If you are inspired to have a backyard flock of your own we would love to be part of the process with you. Whether you are looking for someone to design & build your chicken habitat or tractor, or you’d like to optimize their integration with your landscape