You are hereHome > Technologies > Raising Chicken without Grain: the Integrated Compost and Poultry System >
Raising Chicken without Grain: the Integrated Compost and Poultry System
The system is a modified trailer. The components are a mobile chicken coop with nesting boxes and perches, a movable exterior fence, an automatic waterer, and a dust bath.
The chicken coop is a converted utility trailer, still on its wheels. The trailer is therefore mobile. Surrounding the trailer is a simple, movable fence to keep the chickens confined. Within this confine are four piles of compost. A new pile of compost is built every week. Each week the trailer and mobile fencing are moved forward by four meters, and a new pile of compost is built. Every week, each pile of compost is turned once using a pitchfork or shovel; therefore, each pile is turned a total of four times over a span of four weeks. Between turnings, the chickens are active in scratching and feeding on the food scraps and insects in the compost pile. The total time of creating the compost is 4-5 weeks. Figure 1 gives an overview of the system.
This diet of chickens is different from that of chickens on many modern farms which have a diet consisting largely of grains, vitamin supplements, and mineral supplements. Pellets are also often used and are synthetically made. Many farmers, especially in developing countries, do not have access to buy these pellets or any commercial feed for their chickens and the cost can be prohibitive, even if such resources are available. In contrast, the approach described here uses materials that may otherwise be discarded as waste. The integrated chicken and compost system is a method both low in cost and environmentally sustainable. Food scraps, manure, and mulch are used for feed and can all be obtained from the farm. Alternatively, if not enough food scraps are generated by the farm, they may be cheaply bought from restaurants or markets.
Figure 1. Overview of the system. By the fifth week (4 turns total), the compost can be used back into the garden.
The integrated chicken and compost system allows the chickens to run freely within the fence surrounding the trailer and the four piles of compost. In the evening, the chickens return to the trailer to roost and are locked in for their protection from predators. Following is the step-by-step description on how to build this system to your farm.
The first step is to build the trailer that houses the hens and contains the nesting boxes. The trailer can be any utility trailer that is worn out or is no longer suitable for the road. A frame is built around the trailer to form the walls of the housing unit, and a roof is constructed over the top. Inside the trailer, an additional movable frame of perches is built. This perch frame can be folded up to the roof to create more space inside to facilitate the cleaning of the trailer. The floor of the trailer, under the perches, is lined with mulch as a bedding and to collect the chicken manure. Mulch is any chopped grassy or herbaceous material that can be found; common mulches include straw, weedy grasses, wood chips and old leaves. New mulch is put in the trailer every week, and the old mulch is put into the compost piles, which will be described later in this article.
Figure 2. The foldable perch can be pushed up to make more space in the trailer and to facilitate the cleaning of the trailer. The frame consists of 6 perches.
Figure 3. The view of inside the trailer from the back.
The perches give the chickens a place to roost and sleep. The perches need to give the chickens adequate space, and should be spaced apart by the stretch of a man’s hand, from thumb to pinky, in order for the chickens to perch comfortably. This is usually around 20x20 cm to 25x25 cm per bird, but can vary depending on the breed. Depending on the size of the trailer, the number of perches and the length of each perch may vary.
Nesting boxes are where the chickens lay their eggs. In this case they are built on both sides of the trailer. This gives the chicken the freedom to choose which sides she wants to lay her eggs for maximal comfort. The box should have a removable lid so that the farmer can reach in to clean the box and take the eggs out. The bottom of the nesting box needs to be lined with straw, pine shavings, or similar materials for the comfort of the chickens and to keep the eggs laid in place.
The size of the nesting boxes should be just enough space for one chicken to prevent the hens from stepping over each other and potentially breaking the eggs. Generally, a nesting box is a cube with dimensions of 30×30×30 cm. This will ensure enough space for one bird to comfortably lay her egg without interruption.
There is a wide range of watering systems. Here we propose 2 ways to build your own automatic water system for the birds. One is the called the PVC (plastic) Waterer and the other is the Glass Jar Waterer. Both of these methods will work well for any chicken but depending on resources available, one may be easier than the other to make.
1. Glass Jar Waterer
- Glass canning jar with airtight lid (approximately 15-25 cm in diameter)
- Glass or plastic bowl
o Diameter of bowl should be 10-15 cm wider than diameter of jar to ensure space for the chickens’ heads
o 5-10 cm inches in height
- Electric drill to make hole in glass jar
The first step in creating the glass waterer is to set the jar in the bowl and make a mark on the glass jar at the height of the bowl top. With a ½ inch (13 mm) drill bit, carefully drill one hole on the side of the glass jar below the marked height. When drilling the hole, make sure you wear long sleeves, protective glasses and other protective clothing as necessary as the glass in rare cases may break when drilling.
Once a hole has successfully been made, rinse and clean the jar to get rid of any glass residue. This will make sure that the chickens won’t be harmed by glass shards or sharp edges.
While you fill the canning jar with water, put a thumb where the hole is to prevent water from flowing out. Put the lid on the jar and transport the entire jar to the glass bowl. Once the jar is inside the bowl and set on the bottom, you can release your thumb and water will flow out until the hole is covered.
To clean or refill the bowl, you can simply take the jar directly out of the bowl and tilt it back with the hole facing up to prevent spillage of water. Once the cleaning and refill is done, just put it back into the bowl and it is ready for reuse!
2. PVC Waterer
- PVC bucket with lid
- Flower pot base (bowl)
o 7-8 cm wider than bucket diameter
o 7-10 cm inches in height
- Electric drill (1/2 inch (13 mm) drill bit)
The steps to make a PVC waterer is similar to making a glass waterer, but the bucket (with the lid) is upside down. First, flip the bucket upside down and put the bucket into the flower pot base and make a mark on the bucket at the flower pot base height. Below the line, drill a hole on the side. Once the hole is drilled, rinse the bucket to get rid of any plastic residue.
Take the bucket and fill it up with water before putting the lid on. When the lid is put on tightly, flip the bucket upside down and put it in the flower pot base. The water should fill up and stop once the drilled hole is covered.
When the water level becomes low in the bucket, un-flip the bucket, remove the lid, and refill the bucket again. Once it has been refilled, put the bucket back into the base and it is ready to be used again.
Figure 4. Automatic watering system hanging off the roof of the trailer.
Figure 5. Small gravity pressure keeps the water supply full for the birds.
Shell grit is an important supplement for all chickens. They use it to help grind their food which improves their digestion. It has a similar function as teeth (which chickens do not have). As the chickens get older, the grit can be coarser. Place a small container of grit near their water. There are many types of grit available, and can be: baked and crushed eggshells, crushed snail or oyster shells or even limestone.
The dust bath is important for the wellbeing of the animal because it reduces parasites such as mites and lice from living in the chickens' feathers and on their legs. A dust bath is a container, crate, or tray with the dust bath inside, and placed just underneath the trailer for the chickens to have access to it when they want. Keep it out of the rain so that it is clean and dry.
Paddock mulch is used at the Permaculture Research Institute but there are also other ways to make a dust bath for the chickens. For instance, one method of making a dust bath is by combining builder’s sand, wood ash, soil (make sure it is fertilizer, chemical and vermiculite free), and diatomaceous earth (FOOD-GRADE and not for use in pools). If diatomaceous earth is difficult to obtain, you can mix sand, peat, and wood ashes (optional) to create a dust bath as well.
A fence surrounds the trailer and the four heaps of compost. It prevents the chickens from running into the field, attacking vulnerable vegetable crops and offers limited protection from predators. The fence needs to be easily removable since the trailer is moved once a week. Every week, the last pile of compost (4 weeks old) will be left outside the fence for use as a source of organic matter and fertilizer. Just like the movement of the trailer, the fence moves forward by 4 meters every week.
Behind the trailer is where the compost is made. A detachable metal cage (2 m x 2 m) with an open top and bottom is used to hold the compost together. The bottom layer is mulch taken from the trailer that has been defecated on by the birds from the week prior. The middle layer is manure, which can be obtained from the farm as well. Finally, food scraps are added to the top to feed the chickens. Each layer should be 0.5 cubic meters in volume to reach a result of 1.5 cubic meters of compost. Every day, food scraps are to be added to the top of the active heap in order to feed the chickens. Below is a photo of how the compost is layered.
Figure 6. The layers of the compost. Mulch on the bottom, manure in the middle, and food scraps on the top. Food scraps are added on top of the active pile each morning.
One week later, the cage is disassembled, the trailer moves forward by 4 meters, and the cage is reassembled again between the trailer and the newest compost pile. Then each of the 4 compost piles behind the trailer is turned, including the very last pile that is now outside the fence and ready for use. The average time for a turn is around 20-45 minutes for each pile depending on physical abilities and experience in turning. In total, four piles are turned every week, and the last pile is ready to go back into the garden after the last turn.
The process of the composting event repeats itself week by week. With this system, new compost is made weekly and materials within the farm are continuously being recycled.
Note that the compost for the chicken feed needs to be adequately moistened. In wet climates, roofing may be needed to prevent too much moisture, whereas in dryer climates, it would require regular watering as the decomposition process slows down or can even stop if the pile gets too dry.
No additional feed is required for the chicken as the compost pile provides enough food for the birds in the system. However, it is important to ensure that the food scraps are diverse so they receive the necessary vitamins and minerals.
By checking on your chickens every day to make sure that they are getting their food and water and turning the compost piles once a week, there is not much work required to maintain this system. The chickens will continue to grow and produce eggs. Once they are old enough (4 weeks or more depending on the breed), you can continue to keep them in the system to produce more eggs or choose to slaughter them for food.
OTHER THINGS TO NOTE
- It may take five weeks to complete the composting process depending on how quickly everything is decomposing and on weather conditions.
- Some fruits and vegetables are better for chickens than others so it is important to know what kind of food scraps to include in the feed. Examples below:
Foods to feed your chicken:
- Corn or other locally available grains
- Bread (in moderation)
- Most cooked or raw vegetables including broccoli, carrots, cabbage, chard, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, pumpkins, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes
Foods to avoid feeding your chickens
- Avocado pits and skin (flesh ok)
- Raw potato peels
- Anything too salty
- Raw eggs
- Dry or undercooked beans
- Plants from the nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants
The Mission of the Permaculture Research Institute is to work with individuals and communities worldwide, to expand the knowledge and practice of integrated, sustainable agriculture and culture using the whole-systems approach of permaculture design. This will provide solutions for permanent abundance by training local people to become leaders of sustainable development in their communities and countries.