Chicken greens and some energy cycling
So although the chooks forage over quite a large area for bugs and whatever else they think they need to supplement their daily feed, in order to maintain some plants in our forest understory we need to plant a lot of greens for them. For instance, a while ago I saw Fluffball (our Buff Sussex rooster) totally obliterate a strong horseradish pretty quickly… Besides, they need a lot of greens (amongst other nutrients) to produce good strong healthy eggs. So instead of rotating the chickens through different areas, our plan is to rotate mini-crops of chicken greens “around” the chickens.
Our first batch of chicken greens was a mixed packed of seeds we got from Eden seeds. They sprouted really well and the young chickens loved it – in fact, they totally demolished it with a few days! But at $80 a kilogram, it was a bit dear – frankly, that is not a sustainable investment.
So with a bit of assistance from our friendly search engine and the helpful people on the Ballarat poultry buy swop and sell facebook page, I quickly realised we can make up our own chicken greens at a fraction of the price. From the same supplier I got wheat, oats, barley, rye, beans, peas, etc. at around $20 for 4kg of each. So I can make about 16-20 times as much chicken greens seed mix for the same price, obviously depending on what I include. That, in my book, is a massive difference!
So, using some old trellis mesh as temporary fencing, we’ve set up mini-camps for chicken greens at various places where the chooks can easily get to them, but where they are not in the way of any people movement. Actually, I think having these little pockets of food at various places will help us naturally circulate the chooks all over the property. That is a good thing, because at this stage our approach is still, if we can get them to move around enough, they will not do severe damage to any particular area. (And we have to make their favourite hangout places a bit more resilient… but more about that in a later post.)
So in the first two areas, we planted a mix of wheat, oats, radish sprouts, lettuce and spinach seeds that we had left over in the seed box. Close to $0 input cost, how’s that?
First area growing nicely – almost chook-ready
In the third area, inside the renovated coop, I fenced off half of the run and put it under wheat only, simply because my other seeds hadn’t arrived yet. There also used to be a lot of parsley in that area, which may also re-sprout if given a break from the chooks.
Coop area sprouting
In the fourth area, which is behind the pool, among three young citrus trees, I sowed a mix of wheat, oats and barley. When I prepared this area – which entailed pulling out a mix of kikuyu and couch grass – the big roosters and the four ducks were there to see what insects and bugs they could scratch out in the process. I don’t think they found much under the grass, but they had a lot of fun when I dumped a few loads of our own compost in there. They literally spread the heaps out for me and I had very little raking to do to level it off. However, when I started sowing, they of course thought the wheat, oats and barley seeds were being strewn out for their exclusive dining pleasure! So I had to put up the temporary fencing first and try and do everything from outside the fencing. Sowing over the fence was still quite easy, as it isn’t a very big area, but covering the seeds with a thin layer of soil was a bit challenging, especially, spurred on by a bunch of angry murmuring chooks who wanted to get to the seeds.
In the fifth area – which actually lies between the first two areas, where the first batch of the Eden Seeds chicken greens mix used to grow – I also planted a mix of wheat, oats and barley. It was interesting, when I prepared this area for sowing, the three little Buff pullets and the three little Light Sussex pullets (we’ve nicknamed them “the princesses”) were doing most the scrubbing, with little interference from the bigger chickens. Mind you, that was probably because the bigger ones were working the compost in the back area. That is, until I started sowing, of course. Suddenly, all of them were interested, and I had to do the same “over the fence” sowing, covering and watering.
This “fifth area” was particularly interesting as it was a second generation sowing of chicken greens. The soil already looked a lot darker and damper, with a lot more life in it, than when it was couch grass only. So there is definitely some regeneration taking place.
Resource and energy cycling
So what about the interesting resource cycling exercise? In some of these areas we plant over the existing couch grass. So first we place a thick layer of cardboard, then a layer of our own compost – whether it is fully decomposed or not – mixed with some of the dead soil from the renewed vegetable boxes. After sowing, I cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil, again from the heaps of old soil taken from the vegetable boxes.
As a result, we get a multi-function benefit:
- we get to smother some of the couch grass without physically having to remove it,
- the chooks and ducks get fresh organic greens at quite a low cost,
- the chooks work the leftover greens and any weeds that do come up back into the compost/soil mix,
- we also get to revitalise the dead vegetable box soil, and
- with all this happening among the citrus trees, we should hopefully see some long range benefit there too.
So in this way, we not only feed the chooks and ducks better, but we get a rich and well-turned compost mix, with some good old chicken-generated nitrogen worked into it too. So in effect, the patches of chicken greens become re-fertilised areas themselves.
I didn’t realise that birds needed greens until I saw a pigeon chomping on a dandelion. Do you have these in Australia? Maybe there are some weeds you could priced for your chickens – then you wouldn’t have to purchase seeds and they would probably be easy to cultivate.
Hi Helen, we had one of dormant beds produce so much dandelion early in the summer – the chickens LOVED it! You’re right – one needs this lot to and the edible weeds to self-seed.
I’m glad chickens like dandelion, too! I’ve not tried the leaves but have drunk coffee and eaten dandelion syrup, which are both tasty, so I can imagine it being palatable for birds.
Helen we haven’t tried the leaves either (by the way the neglected horse next door also love them!) but likewise we used to drink the grounded root coffee a lot – it’s apparently good for a condition I’ve got. We haven’t done it for a while – guess we need to re-cultivate that habit!
Yes, recultivate that habit!
I just love your articles Martin, they’re always so practical
Thank you, Karen, great to hear – I try and make it useful 🙂