You can incorporate your birds into your garden using wire tunnels, portable pens and uniformly sized permanent beds.
Illustration By Elayne Sears
Fresh, nutritious eggs and homegrown roast chicken dinners are reason enough to raise your own poultry. If you use your chickens in the garden, you can also harvest rich manure to create homemade fertilizer, and put your flock to work mixing organic wastes into superb compost. Plus, if you let your birds range on your property, get ready for a big bonus: They’ll provide terrific control of ticks and other pests.
The Cost of Raising Chickens
An adult standard hen eats about 84 pounds of feed per year, according to Ohio State University (she’ll need less commercial feed if she is free-range, penned on pasture or given lots of table scraps). Bagged feed at a retailer, such as Tractor Supply Co., currently costs about 35 cents per pound, so feeding one hen for a year will cost close to $30. This number will be higher if you pay a premium for organic feed, and lower if you buy your feed from a bulk supplier. How many eggs each bird lays will vary depending on her breed, age, and your management choices, but you should get 200 to 250 eggs per year. So, you’ll spend between $1.40 and $1.90 on feed per each dozen eggs. Not factoring in the other benefits we’ll discuss later on, comparable eggs from a supermarket would have cost you $2.50 to $5 per dozen. (The cost of raising a chick to adulthood would require some initial investment, but this expense is offset by the value of using the hen in soup after her egg-laying days have passed.) For a thorough discussion of the costs of raising meat birds, see Raising Chickens for Meat: Do-It-Yourself Pastured Poultry by Gwen Roland.
Bird Benefits: The Garden Factor
Now, what about benefits of raising chickens beyond eggs and meat? Some people keep chickens or guineas in the garden solely for tick control. MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers report year after year that free-range chickens are highly effective as a means of organic pest control. Read Chickens in the Garden: Organic Pest Control for their most recent reports.
Putting a value on lowering your risk of catching Lyme disease is pretty difficult — we can, however, estimate the value of the chicken manure fertilizer you can harvest from each bird. Chickens can use only a fraction of the energy from the grains they are fed; they excrete the rest in their manure. A backyard flock’s poop, if applied correctly and especially if combined with high-carbon matter — such as wood shavings, straw or leaves — adds nutrients to the soil and increases the soil’s organic matter content.
Each bird produces about 8 to 11 pounds of manure per month, as reported by Ohio State University and the Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service. Fresh chicken manure contains about 1.5 percent nitrogen along with good amounts of numerous other essential nutrients. Because nitrogen is the nutrient that’s most often in short supply, we’ll use it to estimate the value of chicken manure fertilizer.
The 8 to 11 pounds of fresh manure produced by one chicken in a month contains 0.12 to 0.17 pounds of nitrogen. Each season, most garden crops require a target range of 0.25 to 0.33 pounds of nitrogen per 100 square feet, according to Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers and Woods End Laboratory. One hen, then, ranging in a 100-square-foot plot would deposit enough nitrogen to support healthy growth of most crops in just eight to 10 weeks (assuming all of her manure, including from under her roosting area, is harvested). If you were keeping the hen in a portable pen on a 3-by-10-foot (30-square-foot) bed, then one bird would deposit the target amount of nitrogen in roughly three weeks. You’ll likely keep more than one bird at a time on your garden beds, which will require you to monitor the amount of time you leave them in one spot. You’ll only need to keep two birds on a 100-square-foot area for four to five weeks, or three hens in the same space for only two to three weeks.
Nitrogen is a challenging nutrient to manage in your garden — you can have too much of a good thing. If you apply excessive amounts of nitrogen, some crops — such as tomatoes — will not fruit well and will grow mostly leaves. Follow the guidelines previously discussed to ensure you keep your chickens in the garden long enough to add a good dose of plant-boosting nitrogen, but not so long as to cause unintentional damage.
Some fraction of the nitrogen in chicken manure is lost when it volatilizes into the air. You can prevent this by mixing the manure into the soil as soon as possible — watering it in if there hasn’t been much rain — or composting it. Some of the nitrogen present will be in a slow-release form, which soil microbes break down gradually, making it available later in the season or even the following year.
The Value of Chicken Manure Fertilizer
Your total potential savings from using your flock’s manure as homemade fertilizer depends largely on what you currently use to fertilize your garden. If you’re applying grass clippings, for example, then your fertilizer is already free, and using chicken manure may not save you money (although a diversity of fertilizer sources is always a good idea). If you are buying bagged organic fertilizers, then you’re probably paying anywhere from $10 to $35 for each pound of nitrogen. (Read more about the wide range of fertilizer prices in Build Better Soil With Free Organic Fertilizer!.) Applying those prices to chicken manure, each bird would then give you from about $20 to $70 of nitrogen fertilizer value every year. Ultimately, the value of your flock will vary based on the number of birds you keep, your management strategy, your garden size and your current fertilizer expenses. (For a full breakdown on the value of keeping chickens, see our Estimated Net Value of Keeping Chickens chart.)
Summary of the Benefits. Spend $30 per year to feed each hen, and you can get about 200 to 250 eggs; plus $20 to $70 worth of crop-boosting chicken manure; plus richer, faster compost (keep reading); plus organic pest control; plus great entertainment and the satisfaction of a more sustainable system.
Though the risk of contamination is small, fresh manures can contain pathogens that could contaminate your crops and cause food poisoning. To minimize this risk, you should either apply the manure in fall and let it overwinter in your garden beds, wait at least three months after adding it to your beds before you plant any root crops or leafy greens in the plot, or compost the manure before using it. Pathogens present in fresh chicken manure die off as the manure dries, or is exposed to sunlight, oxygen, freezing temperatures, or pH extremes.
Manure Management Methods
If you decide to tap the fertilizer value of chicken manure, you have several options for how to manage and house your birds. Weigh the pros and cons of each setup and decide the best choice for your situation based on the predator pressures in your area, how much time you have to care for your birds and the size of your garden. Here are several different strategies to consider.
Deep Litter. Nearly half of a chicken’s manure is deposited during the night and early morning, so setting up deep litter bedding where your flock roosts can capture the bulk of your future fertilizer. This method takes advantage of a stationary coop with a protected chicken run setup. Plus, the deep litter strategy makes collecting the manure for your garden beds easier.
Layer 3 to 4 inches of bedding, such as fall leaves, grass clippings, straw or wood shavings in the chicken house, especially directly beneath the perches. Every few months you’ll need to move the manure and litter to your beds, as your birds won’t be depositing the manure directly in your garden for you. Read more in Save Work and Time With the Deep Litter Method.
Portable Poultry Pens. You can make portable wire pens (sometimes called tractors) that fit over your garden beds, and then move your birds into the beds to apply manure in fall or when cover crops are growing. Use welded-wire fencing to make the lightweight pens. (Chicken wire, also called poultry netting, is cheaper, but some predators can chew through it.) Sections of the wire can be clipped together with the J clips used for rabbit pens. If the pens will be inside a fenced garden, you can make them without frames, but if the garden isn’t fenced or you’ll use the pens on pasture, you need a strong frame to protect your birds from dogs and coyotes. (Build Mother’s Mighty Chicken-Mobile. Get these free plans for a portable coop in the article Build an Affordable, Portable and Predator-Proof Chicken Coop.) You can use large plastic storage tubs for housing your feathered companions, and make a wire floor that flips up when you want the birds to work the soil and flips down for added predator protection.
Pens Plus Tunnels and Gates. Use tunnels and gates made from welded-wire fencing to direct chickens from a main coop into garden beds covered with portable pens. See “Use Portable Pens and Tunnels to Manage Chicken Manure” at the end of this article for an example.
Free-Range. While this method doesn’t capture chicken manure, it’s a good option if you want your birds to eat ticks and other pests. Your flock will provide pest control in addition to having access to a better diet that supplements the feed you provide, saving you money. You’ll likely suffer a larger toll due to predator attacks, as even mobile electric fencing can’t protect your birds from hawks. A good farm dog can lessen predatory pressures, or you can let your birds out only while you’re outside or just before it gets dark, when the flock will naturally return to roost.
Use Portable Pens and Tunnels to Manage Chicken Manure
To run chickens in your garden, install long, permanent chicken tunnels along one or more sides of the garden, connected to a coop where the birds sleep. Lay out dedicated garden beds using a standard width so that portable wire pens can be moved from bed to bed. Your chickens will be able to enter from the permanent tunnel into pen-covered garden beds via small gates you can open and close as needed. The tunnel system allows you to give your chickens a large, protected area in which to range and distribute manure while staying safe from predators.
- To exclude deer and other critters, and to provide additional security for chickens, install perimeter fencing using livestock panels, 16 feet long, with 2-by-4-inch openings. These panels are durable, secure and easy to install — just pound in steel fence posts and tie the panels to the posts. To exclude rabbits and groundhogs, add a 2-foot strip of 1-inch chicken wire, bent so that 1 foot extends out from the bottom of the stock panels.
- Create a quick, low-cost gate by folding a long section of 2-by-4-inch welded-wire fencing in half to make it stiffer, and then clip one side of it to the stock panel.
- Install tunnels along the inside of the perimeter fencing, made from 4- or 5-foot-wide 2-by-4-inch welded wire fencing (see detailed illustrations in the Image Gallery), and bent to form a 3-foot-wide by 1- to 2-foot-tall tunnel when attached to the stock panels. The tunnels can be placed in overlapping 10-foot sections, which can be folded up and clipped to the stock panels in order to rake out manure and litter.
- Make dedicated garden beds that are all 3 feet wide so that portable pens (made using 5- to 6-foot-wide 2-by-4-inch mesh fencing, bent to 3 feet wide with 1- to 2-foot-tall sides) can be placed on beds to allow chickens to move from the perimeter tunnels to forage in garden beds as needed. If your garden beds are 6 feet long, a portable, 8-foot-long pen can be placed on a bed, spanning a 2-foot path and attaching to the perimeter tunnel. Install a simple flap of wire fencing as a gate between the perimeter tunnel and the portable pen covering the bed (see an illustration in the Image Gallery).
- Your coop can be a custom building including an optional toolshed or, if you’re keeping only a few birds, a couple of plastic doghouses or large storage tubs will do. (Chickens are very cold-hardy as long as they are able to stay dry and out of the wind.)
- The permanent tunnels and selected beds can be sown to cover crops and managed to provide year-round pasture for your birds. You can toss fall leaves or wood chips into any of the tunnels, and the chickens will mix them with their manure and make rich compost. Your portable pens can do double duty to support clear plastic or row covers for built-in season extension.
- Roosters can be kept in the end section of a permanent tunnel — with a large plastic tub for shelter — and allowed to mingle with hens as desired. (Areas for housing roosters should be at least 2 feet tall.)
— Cheryl Long
Read more: Want to enjoy a reduction in insect pest populations by keeping chickens? Learn how from our readers in Chickens in the Garden: Organic Pest Control.
Patricia Foreman and her hen, Oprah Hen-Free, present workshops on the many ways chickens can help save the world in Welcome to Chickens and YOU. Learn about chickens becoming the mascot of the local food movement in her book, City Chicks. Cheryl Long is the Editor-in-Chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. After losing too many free-range hens to hawks, she now uses tunnels to protect her birds, grazing them on cover crops in her garden beds.