Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hens And The Garden: A Tragedy

Why We Decided To Let Them Go, Part Two...

Beyond The Economics of Keeping Chickens (part one in this series) is the reality of chickens in the garden. Before starting this venture, I believed gardening and chicken farming went together perfectly: The chickens would eat the slugs and other pests, while providing natural fertilizer for the garden. It turned out our chickens would never eat a slug though, ever. It's the rare chicken that will- they don't seem to like the sticky texture.

backyard chickens
Chickens, not eating slugs.

This was a hard blow to my synergistic fantasy, but I maintained that the chickens were still providing valuable, nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden. Here's what would happen, though: Every time we let the chickens out, they would travel all over the yard, destroying every bit of garden and every tasty plant they could. They leveled my raised beds; they killed an entire bed of asparagus by repeatedly digging it out; they ate the beneficial worms and left the slugs to destroy any remaining tender plants; and literally every day they would kick all the mulch off the beds and onto the paths that I tried to keep clear.

backyard chickens
Hand feeding some fresh greens.

Some people, with better vision and perhaps better sense than myself, plot their garden beds all together so they can effectively be fenced off from maurading chickens and other garden pests. I, on the other hand, have planted food crops in every section of my yard, making fencing off the garden an impossibility.

Because of this garden destruction problem, for a couple of years we reluctantly kept our hens confined to their ample chicken run. They were still technically "free range" although their quality of life could not have been as high as whey they really got out into the yard every day. 

chicken coop
Our chicken shanty
Life in the chicken run was like this: In the rainy season (in Seattle, this means from October well into May) the chickens were living in mud. Every year we improved the roof on their chicken run, until now it looks like something you'd see in a shanty town, and still somehow the mud collects. 

This is not healthy for chickens- they need frequent dust baths in dry soil to clean themselves and keep the mites away, and they are more likely to contract other illness or parasites if they're constantly in wet conditions. We did our best to keep them dry, including adding wheelbarrows full of fresh woodchips to the run anytime it needed it, but it's been a constant battle that the mud always seems to be winning.

backyard chickens
We used to spend time in the run with the hens, before it was a mud pit...

In the dry season (July - September) the run would be the opposite extreme: dry and dusty, and we'd be adding woodchips to try to keep the dust down. Literally everything in the vicinity of the chicken run would get coated in a thick layer of light brown dust... until the rains returned. When I felt bad for the hens, I would let them roam free in the yard, where they would again destroy everything they could. 

I do love having chickens, for so many reasons, but this article is about why we've decided not to keep them anymore. Surely we'll be in a place sometime in the future where we can keep chickens again - some place where the yard is big enough to keep a rooster or two for fertilized eggs for a fresh supply of homegrown chicks, and a couple of runs that can be rotated out, allowing the plants and invertebrate life to return to the soil. Or maybe at the next place we live I'll be wise and plan a garden that can be fully fenced off, so the chickens can roam free with minimal damage...

keeping rabbits american chinchilla

For now, we'll stick with raising rabbits, and focus on growing vegetables in a way that we really haven't been able to do for the last several years, now that our attempts won't be foiled by a pack of ravaging, but well-intentioned, hens.  

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43 comments

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February 17, 2013 at 9:58 AM

LOL! My hens wont eat slugs either unless they are super small. One hen almost choked to death on a black slug because it slime all over her face - she could not breathe! Scary but she made it. I have my veggie garden deer fenced but the birds manage to squeeze in under the gate, then they ravage my foundation gardens if not supervised. I have 6 acres and still confine them to the run or tractor most of the time. I put a clear corrugated roof on the run this year to try and fight the rain but it still got wet in there:-( Although it wasn't a mud pit anymore). If you still want birds and eggs, try researching quail. I read they are better suited to confinement, need less space, and the eggs although small are super good for you in comparison to chicken. might be worth the research - just a thought. Good luck!

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February 17, 2013 at 10:06 AM

That's disappointing- it sounds like you have the same problems we do even with six acres. My idea for when we have more land would be to rotate chicken runs, so whey one gets gross we can let it go fallow and move the hens to the other one. Our 1/6th acre now is just not going to accomodate that though ;) Intersting idea about the quail- I wonder if the males are noisy? Maybe we could get away with having them in the city!

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February 17, 2013 at 12:27 PM

Sounds like you are making the right decision for this point in your life. I remember my mom telling me about a Chicken Tractor, which they would move around the gardens in the places that were tired, between plantings i think. sounded like mostly a collapsable chicken wire cage. And they may not eat slugs but i hear they are the best for eating ticks. but i'm just a country girl living in Philadelphia with nothing but a deck garden. so i'll keep dreaming.

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February 17, 2013 at 12:34 PM

We built a chicken tracter, of sorts, when we first got chicks, but it's not predator proof at all, so we can't leave the chickens in it overnight, and it's hard to usher them in and out of it. A larger, safer structure (with a coop and nest box attached) would be ideal, but we just don't have a big enough yard to move something like that around in. Definitely a good thing to dream about though!

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February 17, 2013 at 1:46 PM

Yep, that sounds about right on chickens...they do make a mess of those tidy beds and gardens, spreading mulch every where. They are great around my fruit trees though. If you had a larger yard you could make a chicken tractor and just move them where ever you need them to be that day. Maybe you can have a larger place some day.
Debbie

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February 18, 2013 at 7:39 AM

Get ducks. They eat slugs, snails, bugs, ants and chase away woodchucks. They do not scratch up the garden and the rainy season would make them very happy. You still get eggs. 3 ducks would be plenty for you. I have the rare Silver Appleyard ducks. Comical weapons of destruction against garden pests. Come meet them when you have a chance: www.tailgait.blogspot.com

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February 18, 2013 at 10:10 AM

Interesting idea! We'll have to consider that...

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February 18, 2013 at 12:52 PM

You might want to check out this book:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/listing/2688412987317?r=1&cm_mmca2=pla&cm_mmc=GooglePLA-_-Book-_-Q000000633-_-2688412987317

There are others like it but this is the one I have been reading. It might help you too. Good luck.

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February 19, 2013 at 8:04 AM

Thanks, I'll check it out.

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February 19, 2013 at 9:27 AM

Thank you for sharing this post with the Hearth and Soul hop. I was really interested to read about your experience with chickens, and it was wonderful of you to be so honest and open about the issues with keeping chickens. I can see where it could definitely be challenging. It sounds like keeping rabbits is definitely the safer choice!

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February 19, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Ah yes, the do destroy things, we have learned! Sounds like it was definitely not working for you guys! We lucked out on this as all our fruits & veggies are in the front yard (we did have to reinstate a high fence between front and back tho) so now we call the back yard the "chicken yard". It's really poopy and not fun to play in anymore, though :-( And they have destroyed some decorative plants. I am hoping to redo some of it back there (getting in some hardy things they cannot destroy, plus some yummy stuff for them to graze on occasionally) and will be limiting their free-ranging to fewer hours each day to control the poop/fly situation (hopefully that will work, we'll see!). There is definitely a balance/art to making this work, which is not always feasible in every location!

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February 19, 2013 at 9:54 PM

Your backyard was so great too! I'm sure you can find the balance. It seems like they can kill all the vegetation and cover everything with poop no matter how big their range is! We plan to do a dual-run next time (when we have a bigger yard!) so we can switch them out every month or so, giving the weeds and insects a chance to recover, and giving the chickens a relatively fresh area to live in. This way we can protect the garden and yard from them, while still giving the hens a healthy stomping ground to explore and dine in. I wonder if that would work in your yard?

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February 20, 2013 at 4:00 PM

I would love to have you link up to The HomeAcre Hop this evening!
http://www.theselfsufficienthomeacre.com/2013/02/the-homeacre-hop-7.html

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February 21, 2013 at 9:00 AM

I think it depends on just what you expect to achieve. Hens must be replaced regularly. I think your estimate of initial cost is high. My advice is to go together with other people who want to buy some chickens, and get the cheaper rate for chicks of a large order. Hens will generally produce an acceptable amount of eggs for 4 years or so. After that they should be butchered and stewed. This is also affected by what kind of chickens you are raising. Some chickens just aren't bred for heavy production. The other factor is just how much of your chicken feed you raise. It is possible to raise much of your feed. Some feed crops for chickens are: worms, grubs, milo, corn, sunflower seeds, and a variety of greens. Chickens ARE good garden helpers. However, not during the gardening season. Rather, they are good for cleaning up the garden in the winter, when it is finished. Their fertilizer is also valuable to the garden.
Even though all of the above is true, raising chickens in the city does have it's limits. Having a reproductive flock is not easy in city confinement. I believe it could be done, perhaps with bantams. Many bantam roosters just don't have a loud crow. Of course, one would need to learn about the various breeds to decide which one would serve, and experiment around. Bantams eat a LOT less as well. I personally think Silkies, are pretty good for confinement. The roosters tend to be on the quiet side. The hens set all the time. They are kind of popular, so their babies hold their value, and their eggs are certainly edible, though small. Production is reduced though, because the hens set a lot!
The ideal flock to my way of thinking has in the neighborhood of 40-50 hens, and 4 or 5 roosters. This produces enough eggs for a family + plenty for sale + enough hens so that some of them can be setting all the time, providing chicken to eat as well as eggs! This, of course could not be easily done on a city lot!

Little Bit Farm

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February 21, 2013 at 9:43 AM

I agree with you on many points; it's just not possible, though, to have a garden AND keep free range chickens on our 1/6th acre lot. Perhaps in the future we'll be able to have the roosters and hens, and raise foods for them all...

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February 23, 2013 at 9:01 AM

Well, in my imaginary world of chicken raising, I too thought it would be ideal to have chickens in my garden for the very reasons you mention. Thanks for sharing a slice of reality! And thanks for sharing on Hearth & Soul Hop. :)

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February 23, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Ironic you're getting rid of chickens for rabbits. We fight them for every pepper, onion and tomato plant. They chew our soaker hoses to ribbon looking for water. We fight our dogs to keep them out of the nests under our shrub roots. It's terrible hearing a baby bunny in a dog's mouth. Rabbits are really a problem for us. One man's problem is another's solution, huh?

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February 23, 2013 at 11:13 AM

Ironic that rabbits are your chicken solution. We fight the rabbits for every pepper, onion, and tomato plant. They chew our soaker hoses to ribbons looking for water. We try to keep the dogs from getting the babies out of the nests under the shrub roots. The dogs also love rabbit poo. It gets so bad that rabbits often make me feel like Mrs. MacGregor. I guess one woman's problem is another's solution, huh?

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February 23, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Fortunately we don't have to deal with wild rabbits in the garden! Ours stay contained, just eating the weeds and clippings and making compost for the garden.

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February 23, 2013 at 11:47 PM

I have hens and limited garden area due to not being able to do the work. My hens love to find a flower or vegetable garden to dig up and kick the bulbs and potatoes all over! I inadvertantly put the hens' 10'x10' dog pen on a slope. Once the hens killed the grass, they had to stand in mud. I have a tarp over the secure-from-predator top. So, the water runs in.

I put bricks around the outside of the pen on the top/high side where the water flows from. As the water flowed on the really gentle slope, dirt and other stuff washed over the bricks, forming a barrier to the water getting into the pen. I use pine straw and leaves from my yard for a foot deep litter that keeps their feet dry. There is always a dry place in the pen where they can have a dust bath.

Hens hate the weeds I want them to destroy...sigh. They will jump into the buckets where I have plants!

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February 24, 2013 at 4:13 AM

Oh that's nice that you managed to create a really dry area for them! For some reason our run just never stayed dry enough, there were enough little leaks between the sections of roofing, and maybe it soaked moisture up from the ground.

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Kelly415
February 27, 2013 at 9:05 PM

Thank you for bringing to light the less fanciful side of owning backyard chickens. While it is wonderful that more and more individuals and families such as yourselves are taking the responsibility and care to engage in sustainable farming, gardening, and general living practices, it is unfortunate in the case of backyard chickens that the exciting fantasy often precedes a harsh reality. Most people don't realize that hens cease to lay after a few years, and don't want to butcher their old pet hens. Chicken populations in animal shelters are growing all over the country as a result, and this isn't the only ramification that this trend is eliciting. This article in the New York Times outlines some of the subsequent issues of novice backyard chicken farming:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/dining/23sfdine.html?_r=0

Thanks again for posting your experiences with your backyard chickens. I hope it will help people find the foresight to decide whether it is practical for them, so that they can avoid a potentially unpleasant experience, and ultimately, having to surrender their innocent animals.

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February 27, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Thanks for sharing that article! I can't believe how many people are abandoning chickens- that really surprises me. We have been given many roosters by people who raised them unintentionally, and while we would love to keep these beautiful birds, in our neighborhood they are destined for the soup pot. I can't even imagine roosters at an animal shelter, poor things!
As far as trends go, keeping chickens seems like a pretty good intentioned and healthy one, and hopefully for a lot of people it will work out! We've really enjoyed our hens over the years, for the most part, but they do create problems, and just were no longer working for us.

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March 6, 2013 at 10:05 AM

I am glad I read this because I have been thinking of doing exactly that. Having a few (2 or 3) chickens to run around the garden. Maybe have a few eggs as well. Now I realize I need to rethink that situation. I dont think I want to know what happened to your hens and I dont want to have to make that decision either. I love the bunnies......so cute. Again, could not raise them for food.
Janice

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March 6, 2013 at 2:09 PM

There are definitely ways of having a garden & chickens coexist, but it involves lots of fencing so you can control the chicken's access. Some people do keep their old hens long past egg-laying age- they would still be sweet garden companions, make fertilizer, and compost your kitchen scraps. They can live ten years, but you won't get too many eggs once they're older than four. Keeping animals often involves making some tough decisions!

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March 7, 2013 at 2:56 AM

Sounds like it was the best decision for you guys and your garden. I would love to have chickens, but we would be in the same boat with them destroying our garden. I'd love to have you link up with my Tuesday Greens linky on www.craftygardenmama.com. Have a great week!

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March 7, 2013 at 7:12 AM

Thanks Becky, I'll check it out!

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March 11, 2013 at 7:30 PM

Oh my - I'm glad I read this! Here we've been transforming a shed into a coop to get our little flock of hens, and now this - ha! I really have heard good things about ducks...maybe I should be looking more into it. :)

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March 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM

I've heard good things about ducks too! It sounds like they are less destructive in the garden. But chickens might still work for you, if you have a garden that can be fenced off, or if you use something like a chicken tractor to keep them contained as they scratch and peck.

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March 12, 2013 at 8:05 PM

I have a covered bed (though I am not thrilled with my covering, it does work), and another bed under construction. I am trying a different cover this time. My poor little pomegranate bush (15" tall) is protected by a 12" cheap wire fence that the hens can't figure out LOL.

But yes--these hens have killed bermuda grass! I though nothing could. They leave my oregano, lavender, and rosemary alone though. Here I was hoping for some oregano-flavored eggs!

They also jump and grab the lowest-hanging figs on our tree. Which is a fair trade, given how many fig beetles they eat! We have one hen in particular who chases them around the yard til they go over the fence or she catches them. It's hysterical. And a little amazing to see her gulp them down, they're so big.

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March 12, 2013 at 9:29 PM

Oh, that sounds cute! What do you cover your beds with? Wire fencing?

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May 16, 2013 at 12:15 AM

Yes, fortunately we've never had WILD rabbits!

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May 28, 2013 at 4:23 PM

Great info and sounds like you made the right decision for your garden and your conditions. I don't blame them for not eating slugs ;) Thanks for sharing this on Waste Not Want Not, I'm featuring it this week.

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May 31, 2013 at 6:48 AM

Thank you so much for the feature!

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June 15, 2013 at 12:26 PM

I'm so glad a friend recommended your Blog, it's right up my alley! It's too bad about your chickens. I think your major issue is really how small of an area you have. we have kept banties full time in a large garden with no problems we have also had full size chickens with access to the garden on acreage that didn't cause damage as long as we kept them out during spring when everything was tender. Distance between their home-roost and the garden is also important, if it's far away they will have foraged the whole distance there and not be as hungry or stay as long. Ducks would probably be just as bad or worse. they poop twice as much as chickens and the consistency is like tar, try stepping in that for a change! I'd wait on the ducks if I were you. Plus, rabbits are a great adventure instead!

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June 17, 2013 at 6:43 AM

You are totally right- if we don't have room for chickens, we don't have room for ducks. And a much bigger yard (with garden fencing!) would make all the difference.

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June 22, 2013 at 5:29 AM

Great post. I admire your honesty and decision to do what was best for all involved. Backyard chickens can be tricky, will be descructive etc. and I think many aren't up for that - or realize that before diving in. Your article might make others stop and think a bit more first. I enjoyed your economics post as well.

I would love for you to come share both at our weekly blog hop:
http://www.fresh-eggs-daily.com/2013/06/from-farm-blog-hop-38.html

Lisa
Fresh Eggs Daily

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July 10, 2013 at 9:16 PM

I want a small homestead, but this makes me reconsider my plan. haha
Good luck!

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July 23, 2013 at 2:06 PM

Good luck with your rabbits! Glad you linked part two of your chicken story to the Home Acre Hop. Do come back again this week!
Nancy http://homefront.prudentliving.com

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October 28, 2013 at 5:24 PM

Good luck with the rabbits. We can't keep chickens in our town, but it is always interesting to read about different people's experiences with them. Thanks for sharing on Tuesday Greens!

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February 3, 2014 at 4:27 PM

"Chickens, not eating slugs." HA HA! Thanks for writing this post. I'm in obsessive research mode right now and deciding between chickens and rabbits. I've been leaning towards rabbits for all of the reasons you mentioned so it was helpful to read your experience. I'm in a different climate than you are (southern California so hot and dusty all the time) and I know three families who keep chickens...yet they have no eggs. I mean, they have eggs, but never many at one time and certainly not enough to sell or share. I'm interested in backyard sustainability as you are and your point about being unable to have roosters in an urban/suburban space and thus having to replenish the chickens is an excellent point. I've been mostly researching the cost effectiveness between the two, comparing the work involved, but I hand't thought about the actual sustainability between the two. Thanks for that!

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Anonymous
February 27, 2014 at 7:25 PM

Yes you have to put up with a lot of sh*t in the cities. The cities are full of rabbits. (vermin) Maybe you should consider moving.

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