Thinking about chickens

We all knew I’d end up with birds one day, right?  Well, I’m getting to the point where I am feeling a need for chickens.  Oddly, not for eggs or meat, but for garden help: digging, de-weeding, de-bugging, and fertilizing.  And given how little of my kitchen-scrap compost actually makes it into the garden, I’d rather feed that to hens and have them manure the garden beds.  I’m thinking about starting slow, with just a few Craigslist birds for a few weeks to turn the garden beds in the spring.  Then soup.

Oh great font of chicken wisdom (that would be you, readers), what do you think?  Am I nuts to think of chickens for such a short-term project?  Would it be more hassle than weeding by hand and dealing with whatever’s overwintered in the mulch?  What gear would 3 chooks need for a month or two in the garden? I’m envisioning some kind of shelter/coop and movable fence so I could set them on my various garden beds for a few days at a time.  How many days would it take 3 birds to work over a 4’x8′ garden bed?  Would mature hens lay any eggs in that time?

And yes, I am aware there may be no going back once I’ve experienced the wonder of backyard poultry.  But I may also decide I like my footloose and fancy free lifestyle and never want livestock again, so I’m not ready to invest a ton of time or money in finding out.

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12 Comments

  1. Heather said,

    November 30, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Honestly, I can’t imagine using the birds for just a few months for that purpose, mainly because of the cost effectiveness. A coup AND a watering system and the fence AND the cost of the birds versus a turned-over garden? I don’t know…I just can’t imagine you of all people going that route. 🙂

    • Emily said,

      December 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

      I was hoping a Freecycled dog house or something made out of packing crates would house them for a few weeks. Is that cruel? And how tall does the fencing need to be? I figure I only need 50′ at a time…chicken wire is cheap…motley birds on CL are $5-$10 each…

  2. November 30, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    I’m only surprised to realize you don’t already have chickens. Three birds will take care of (weed, aerate, and add a bit of poop) that much garden space in two days, three tops. Mature hens will certainly lay during that time, provided they’re not incredibly old, or entirely traumatized by their relocation. Stress will make them skip a day or two sometimes. But I agree with Heather. It’s a deal of work to arrange living quarters and feed for only a short time. If you really only want them to work over 28 square feet garden space, you’ll absolutely come out ahead to do the work yourself vs getting prepared to keep a few chickens. And do you want raw manure added to your bed in spring? Planting season? Is craigslist a common source of old laying hens in your area? Also, who is going to kill these birds when you’re done with them? If you’re prepared to go that route – really prepared – great. Otherwise…

    • Emily said,

      December 1, 2010 at 9:31 am

      Thanks for the input Kate! A couple clarifications – I have 8 raised beds (mostly 4’x8′) and three 250sf beds, plus the new 100sf mini-orchard…so more like 1200sf than 28. I’m planting from late April until June, so I don’t think raw manure will be a problem. CL has birds all the time, especially if I’m willing to take roosters (though my sweetie might draw the line at crowing). I’ve butchered a number of chickens before, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

  3. alan said,

    November 30, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    I think some of the issues have been brought up already, so I’ll focus on the HOW. Chickens don’t need nearly as much as small chicken keepers have been led to believe. My flock lives quite nicely in a coop that is basicly a tent. They have survived and thrived in 2 feet of snow, temps down to -23 degs F. and flooding 1 1/2 feet deep. You could pile up leaves, scraps, etc for the whole winter in your garden area, put half a dozen old hens in the space for a month or so in the early spring, and have pretty good results. Premier 1 has really good poulty fence you can fit to any space for not too much. It will last for years if you take care of it. Chickens are easy to process, so you could have a freezer full of stewing chickens, and a well manuered garden for very little if you do the same thing for several years. I’d say go for it (but beware of getting attached to your hen. What if you cant do the final step?)

    • Emily said,

      December 1, 2010 at 9:36 am

      Ok…so I’m not crazy thinking they’d be adequately housed in some “minimalist” temporary housing. There are feral cats and coyotes and raccoons about, so I’d do something that would keep them locked up safely at night, but for this first round, I wouldn’t worry about bells, whistles, or prettiness. (I probably would do up something nicer and easier to clean if I decided to do this on a yearly or ongoing basis.) How tall for the fencing? Is plain ol’ hexagonal chicken wire ok?

  4. December 1, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Emily, $10 is outrageous for an old hen. A year ago I paid $11 per for pastured pullets fully grown, about ready to lay, and previously $3 for *healthy and productive* two-year-old hens, who continued laying for another 18 months.

    As for predators, grown hens have absolutely nothing to fear from housecats. Scratch that concern off your list. Raccoons are a far more serious problem. They can reach through chicken wire, and if they get hold of a hen, can pull her through the mesh bite by bite. They can’t reach through half-inch hardware cloth however. I agree you needn’t worry about pretty, and they don’t need much headroom – two feet is adequate. But if you have raccoon pressures, take care; they are strong, dexterous, clever and persistent predators. Dogs too. However sweet and well behaved they are in the home, most breeds are still geared to hunt, and they will do it in packs (to devastating effect) if the opportunity presents itself. A fenced yard or a reasonably secure pen should suffice to handle them however. Chickens are the easiest meal out there for most predators.

    • Emily said,

      December 1, 2010 at 9:57 am

      Ok. Great points. I will keep this in mind – we have raccoons galore and no extant fencing to speak of. (Oh, and it looks like prices are all over the place – I know I’ve seen $10 per hen before, but I’m also seeing $3 each and 3 for $15. Looks like the more expensive ones are being sold “to good homes only” or for show….)

  5. EdgeWiseInAnnArbor said,

    December 1, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Heck, if they get eaten by coyote, that’s probably fine too if they get a little digging in beforehand. Sounds cool. If they’re secure from predators, maybe you could even borrow a few chickens from a local flock. Like a slumber party. I’m tickled by this idea!

    Sadly, I live adjacent to rental properties, who’d never consent to outdoor chickens for any time. I was thinking about raising Quail (japanese variety) as they out lay chickens and feeding them worms from a vermicompost bin.

    -Steve

    • Emily said,

      December 1, 2010 at 1:29 pm

      Rent-a-chicken! I’m telling ya, it’s a great idea! Someone near Traverse City is doing it, but it’s crazy expensive…

  6. ecofarmer said,

    December 9, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Great Gardening Chickens!
    This is a fabulous idea, and many different approaches would work. For short term housing, you should be able to build an A-frame style house from 1 sheet of plywood that would easily house 3-5 chickens. Cut it in half and make is into a right angle with a bit of 2×4 and then lay it down to have a house that is 4feet long by 5 1/2 feet wide. You could make up solid ends and cover the “floor” with hardware cloth and you would have a predator proof house. Predators (other than dogs) are only typically a problem in the evenings, so just make something safe you can lock the chickens into. They naturally go in their house as it gets dark. Provide a roost (piece of closet rod or 2×2 dowel about a foot down from the roof peak, running from end to end and they are happy) If they are laying hens, they’ll find a place to lay, about one egg per hen, every other day.
    If you get the Premier1.com electric netting that Alan mentioned, you can move that around various parts of your garden to create their yard for the day. That is basically the same thing Joel Salatin is doing, just on a different scale.
    Using chickens is such an awesome idea, that here at the homestead we are building raised garden boxes that fit the exact size of the chicken house, so that we can literally just move their house from one box to the next and have them enrich/build soil where we want to put our next garden bed.
    Good luck, and email if you want any more specifics.
    Richard

  7. Sarah said,

    December 12, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    I have four laying hens that live in a converted Craigslist rabbit hutch. This summer my husband made a chicken “playpen” out of 2x2s and chicken wire. Total cost was about $40, and it’s 8 ft by 8ft and 5 ft tall or so, and the chickens can’t fly/jump over it. It’s lightweight so we move it to fresh grass daily and this fall put it over the garden beds we wanted dug out. The major problem that I encountered was that the chickens will not dig/scratch consistently. They will dig large holes for dust baths and scratch in some areas, but they will also refuse to touch some areas of the garden bed. Who knows why?


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