The Chicken Food Web

The Chicken Food Web
December 1, 2008

Mutual feeding is the most basic pattern of life.  In this inescapable pattern, all organisms are fed by the products of either the living or the dying processes of other beings, and often by both.  Chickens could be, and have been in the past, one species participating happily in this vital, seamless food-web.  Currently, chickens are victim to our society’s obsessive industrialized trance, characterized by our arrogant refusal to acknowledge that life is interconnected and that petroleum is finite.

My personal commitment is to ethical, low entropy agriculture and horticulture.  This approach will allow us to grow human ecosystems with extremely tight loops, in which nutrients and energy are cherished and carefully fed back into our living systems.  This approach minimizes resource intensive inputs from far away, eliminates pollution, as every “waste” becomes food for something else, and gradually initiates us into a sacred way of life in which our mutual feeding and the rituals we develop around it build a culture worth living in.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of “Permaculture”, developed their ideas based on observations of cultures that had successfully continued in one place for many centuries without destroying their ecosystems, and without sustained famine.  The greatest commonality they found was that these cultures relied primarily on tree crops and small animals for food.

Tree crops are so essential because trees only have to be planted once and then they require no soil disturbance (and subsequent erosion of topsoil); they actually build soil through self-mulching; their extensive root systems provide drought tolerance; they’re much more nutritionally self-sufficient than annual crops; they actually change weather patterns and create more rain; they provide additional yields such as lumber, fiber, and mushroom cultivation material; and they provide the habitat and back bone for complex ecosystems that avoid, through their diversity, plagues of pests and disease.

The benefits of small animals as food are not as obvious, but are just as critical.  Basically, small animals convert plants into animal protein and fat much more efficiently than large animals do (sometimes over 10x as efficiently), and they do it with less impact on ecosystems.  Small families can raise a few chickens, ducks, rabbits, groundhogs, turkeys, trout or tilapia without the much more intensive infrastructure needed for pigs, cows, or even goats.  These small animals will often actually improve soils where they forage, spreading seeds, churning and feeding their nitrogen rich manure to the soil microbes, whereas large animals usually compact the soil, cause erosion, and completely decimate vegetation.  Small animals can be killed for food when needed, whereas large animals require intensive, often nutrient-destroying preservation techniques.

To be clear, this explicit combination of tree crops and small animals is essential.  Either one alone or severely out of balance leads to deterioration of the food ecosystem, as we are seeing in conventional agriculture with the use of water soluble petroleum fertilizers instead of intensive manure composting and mulching.  Successful “vegan” agriculture will never exist.  The nutrient cycling reality is that plants harvest sunlight and turn it into carbohydrates, while feeding on decayed organic matter; animals eat plants and fungi and sometimes other animals and excrete nutrient dense feces; fungi, microarthropods, and other soil microbes digest these feces and other plant debris into soil that is available to plants; and the whole dynamic cycle continues.  Each biological kingdom contributes its own metabolic and ecological approach to the cycle, without which members of the other kingdoms would cease to exist. There is no way for nutrients to successfully cycle in the long-term without the direct involvement of plants, animals, and fungi.

So, how do chickens fit into this big picture?

Chickens are primarily insectivores and secondarily herbivores.  When it comes to plants, mostly what they want are the high protein, high oil seeds, which is why they go so crazy over corn.  The reason that conventional chicken feeding practices include nutrient pellets is that those operations don’t provide the range of plant and insect species that chickens should get in a more diverse habitat, which would supply them with a complete nutrient profile.

Chickens will also eat a few greens and they love sweet fruits.  But what they really want is to eat juicy grubs all day long.

So, at Dancing Springs Farm we’re working on systems for providing our 40 chicken flock with grubs, seeds, greens, and fruits to eat instead of the corn and pellets that provide 60-70% of their food right now.  Of course we want to do this with as little input of outside resources, labor, and money as possible.  If we had a quarter acre for every chicken to forage on, and, more saliently, the fencing to surround that huge area, they could probably forage everything they needed from that land.  But, in the reality that most landowners know, space is limited so we need more intensive methods.  Where will all these seeds and grubs come from?

1) Plant foods:

a. Phase 1: Weeding seedy “weeds”, feeding to chickens – anytime we weed any lambs’ quarter, amarynths, plantains, grasses, etc. (not nightshades, polkweed), we haul them on a tarp to the chickens. They pick over them, assiduously removing all the seeds and leaving nice manured mulch that we then drag over to the veggie garden.

b.  Phase 2: Cultivation of high- mast native or acclimated plants around chicken areas, focusing on self seeding and perennial herbaceous  plants. These include the plants mentioned above as “weeds” (just gather seedheads in fall, lightly scuff soil in area temporarily protected from chickens, distribute and mulch seed… allow chickens back in after plants get 18 inches tall), plus sunflowers,  comfrey for greens, cilantro, sunchokes, etc.  These plants should be located around perimeter of chicken area or in patches inside chicken area, so they can simply be cut down and they’re right there for the chickens to harvest.

c.    Phase 3: Cultivation of high mast producing trees and shrubs adjacent to or inside chicken territory. These include all the nut trees normally planted for human consumption, such as oak, chestnut, hickory, pecan, walnut, filbert, plus smaller seeds such as beech and pine.  Also prolific fruit that falls to the ground by itself such as mulberry, wild cherry, eleagnus.

2) Insect foods:

a.       Phase 1: Piling of woody debris for cultivation of pillbugs, sowbugs, slugs, termites, ants, etc. On a farm, and even in an actively gardened urban backyard, there is a lot of woody debris left from pruning trees, or excess lumber from building raised beds.  Many people burn this debris, which creates unnecessary pollution instead of a valuable resource.  We take all this woody debris (as long as it has no paint or toxic sealant) and simply lay it in 2 or 3 layers deep in contact with the soil in the chicken pen. We call it stick mulching.  Let it sit for a couple weeks with any rain at all, then scuffle all that debris with a rake and look at all the little bugs squirming around! The chickens love scratching at the sticks all day long, and the sticks protect the ground from erosion. After a few months, there is a luscious accumulation of high-nitrogen, black, fibrous mulchey stuff that can be harvested for tree planting.

b.      Phase 2: Chicken/mushroom//insect/mulberry guild. In permaculture, a “guild” refers to a specific type of natural food-web whose functional aspects we emulate in order to create our own productive, self-supporting system.  “Three sisters”, or corn, beans, and squash, is a well-known guild.  In the chicken/stropharia/insect guild, a large woodchip bed inoculated with Stropharia and Hypszigycus (Elm Oyster) mushrooms is located downhill from the primary chicken territory.  This mushroom patch catches nutrient rich runoff from the chickens, the mycelial mat filtering out the nutrients and releasing only clean water to drain into streams.  Both fungal species fruit prolifically with delicious mushrooms twice each growing season.  The same insect species mentioned in (a) thrive on the sugary mycelium in the woodchip bed.  The chickens are allowed in to harvest insects on a rotational basis.  Both of these mushroom species actually thrive on disturbance, specifically mycelial fragmentation, so moderate chicken scratching actually helps the fungus reproduce.  The mulberry tree provides shade and moisture for the whole scene, as well as fruit for chickens and insects, and it is fertilized by the lowest layer of decomposed woodchips as the mycelium transforms those woodchips into topsoil.

c. Phase 3: Cultivation of black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae. Black soldier fly (BSF) is a non-pest fly species native to much of the temperate and tropical world, including the southeast U.S.  BSF larvae are one of the most efficient converters known of manure and agricultural waste into insect protein.  Huge amounts of any kind of manure can be exposed to BSF, and if sufficient eggs are present, the larvae will reduce the mass of the manure by 50% in 3-5 days, converting most of that mass into their own body mass. Chickens love these larvae, and several different researchers and companies have developed self-harvesting techniques that breed the larvae and then induce the pupae to crawl out of the breeding bin into a bucket, at which point they can be fed directly to chickens (or other birds or fish) or processed and stored for winter feed.  This technique provides the most reliable insect feed for chickens.  Humanure and manure from any farm animals, as well as fleshy garden waste and kitchen scraps (including meat) can all be fed to BSF, closing the whole loop considerably.

There are designs available for building large-scale cement breeding/self-harvesting systems,, and there is a company selling homescale, molded plastic bins online.  Since BSF are native, no inoculation is necessary, but there are a couple of tricks to increase egg availability..

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