• Emily

Earning Their Keep

Updated: Mar 24, 2021


chickens in the cow pen

They say that chickens are a gateway drug. You start out thinking "Wouldn't eggs be nice?," and the next thing you know, you have a cow, some goats, or who-knows-what-else. But on our homestead journey, chickens were a late addition; they followed gardens, ducks, a greenhouse, fruit trees, and cows. When they did join our system, it was for several very specific reasons that defied the usual goal.


By the time we added chickens to our homestead, we were focused on production, efficiency, and making the systems of our land work together. The first group of hens and their guardian rooster (Henny, Penny, Beatrice, Bernadette, Brigitta, and Bertram) were introduced for two main reasons: pest control and manure management.

a welsummer pullet


We have had laying ducks for a number of years as our primary egg providers. Ducks were the first animals on our homestead and--for a number of reasons--they were our preferred egg source. This meant that we weren't concerned with whether the chickens laid or not. We had other plans for them.

After getting my milk cow, Lissy (read about her here: Thank You for the Milk, Sweet Lissy), we were researching the best organic methods of pest and parasite control. We found two reoccurring themes in our research:

  • Flies and parasites get past most treatments in their larval stage, but nothing gets past a chicken.

  • Chickens love cow poop.

a brahma hen and rooster

These two facts inspired me to embark on a foray into chicken keeping. Truth be told, I didn't know much about chickens. I bought two not-so-young Buff Orpington hens from someone who "needed to downsize." (Note to newbies: No one is going to downsize-out their best hens. They'll sell you one that isn't laying well. Or that has the personality of Jezebel.)

I found three beautiful Brahmas from a local poultry keeper at a good price. On the way home, Sam and I kept remarking "What is that funny smell?" (Another note to newbies: Look up gleet. Yech. Know what symptoms to check for when you're buying a chicken!)

A year into chicken keeping, I had learned a lot about chicken care and what I could do better. I'd also learned about the value of good hen personalities and which birds are worth keeping. I'd found they do a great job tilling cow manure, and that I liked getting eggs from them. I'd also learned how sweet a rooster could be (Bertram Roo). I decided to give it another shot.

our brahma rooster, Bertram


One of the most important features of a resilient permaculture system is that the different facets of the system work in sync. There are numerous examples of this on our homestead; the relationship between cows and chickens is one of them. Pest problems are inherent with having animals that leave manure piles everywhere. Chickens spend their entire day on a search-and-destroy mission for those pests.

While they aren't able to eradicate every fly in the pen (wouldn't that be nice!) they break the cycle by catching a large percentage of the flies in the larval stage. They also hunt down ants, ticks, and countless other insects in and around animal enclosures.

brahma and orpington chickens


Another way that chickens are a effective tool on the homestead is their rototiller power. Chickens are able to move an incredible amount of soil, mulch, or manure with their feet during the course of each day. By incorporating them in the animals' paddock, the manure gets spread and broken down more quickly. For our milk cows' enclosure, the manure is scooped daily (weather permitting) and put into a separate enclosure where the chickens can dig to their hearts' content.

Aeration and tilling provided by their scratching activity breaks down the manure and moves it forward in its progression toward the compost tumbler. During the unfrozen months, I often scatter chicken scratch in the manure pen, encouraging them to congregate and work the pile.

a chicken scratching in the straw


Although the initial round of chickens weren't purchased for their egg-laying potential, we found ourselves thinking how much nicer it would be if they did do more to earn their keep. The most recent flock is comprised of young egg layers, most of whom lay 3-5 times each week. The bountiful eggs have been a blessing, especially during uncertain times. This young, active flock is semi free ranging. They have access to the cow and bull pens, as well as the manure pile and some of the surrounding area. Allowing them to free range has its benefits and drawbacks. They don't stay in the cow pens as much, which means that they don't process manure as quickly. If they get out, they think the gardens are a salad bar. On the other hand, they get almost all of their food from their habitat (when the ground isn't frozen) and are by far the happiest and healthiest flock I've had.

a chicken perched in a tree


All of the animals on this homestead have to "pull their weight" in some way--either by the food they produce or a service they provide. The chicken flock has earned its keep in both of those areas. They provide the service of working the manure pile and exterminating pests. They produce bountiful brown eggs. I will continue to search for what works best as I incorporate chickens into our resilient homestead.

shades of brown chicken eggs


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