Safety, clean water, and food are the three main things you want for your livestock. My chickens have secure coops and covered runs. I carry water and check the feeders daily, and I try to give them the greens and weeds and bugs they crave.
The latter is a problem if they aren’t in a pasture. So, how do we balance safety and a chicken’s need to forage?
Last month, before the frogs were tucked away for winter, I opened the run gate and a frog hopped away into the crack where the gate meets the fence. As I tried to get him free, one of my bantam hens ran between my legs. I tried to grab her, but my Lab/Border Collie got her first. Nike thought she was helping.
I chased Nike across the creek bed and through the trees. The chicken was crying the whole time. Until she wasn’t. I finally caught up, carried the little girl in my arms back to the pen. She was alive, missing feathers from her back, so I decided to make her a nest of hay to stay comfortable for as long as she had to live.
I set her down and she immediately hopped up, climbed the steps into the coop, and inspected all the walls. A month and a half later, she still greets me every day when I go out to the pen. I’ve forgiven Nike, but I won’t give her another chance. Instead, I imagine the permaculture pen setup I would like to build.
Imagine four fenced garden areas, a coop in the center. Also imagine moveable roofing, some of it solid to keep out the rain and some of it wired to let in the elements but keep out the hawks. Year one, the roof covers Garden 1, and I plant in Garden 2. Year two, the roof covers Garden 2, chickens cleaning up the bugs and weeds and fertilizing the garden while Garden 1 reseeds. I plant in Garden 3. The rotation continues, the chickens doing their work while I do mine.
It would be a no-till garden. I’d have to keep the grass mowed, as I do now in the yard, collecting the clippings for my penned chickens. I plant in piles of soil, leaf mold and compost. I’m imagining permanent beds around the perimeter of the four gardens where I grow flowers for the bees and butterflies mixed in with perennial herbs and bed-contained blackberries.
It would take a lot of work to set this up. You’d need a nearby barn to hold feed barrels and hay. You’d also need centralized access to water, for the chickens and the garden. But once the system was in place, it would cut the amount of chicken feed I’d need to buy, the amount of weeding I’d have to do, and would make my poison-free pest control easier.
Most important of all, it would allow my chickens to forage while keeping them safe.