Top 6 reasons to keep chickens
If you have the room, it is worth considering including chickens in your productive food garden. Chickens are one of my favourite additions to my vegetable plot. Chickens can do a lot of work for you and provide great resources to help you produce higher food yields in your garden as well as help you to manage your garden without the use of pesticides, artificial fertilisers or neonicotonoids.
Food production: eggs
The most obvious benefit of having chickens is that they will produce eggs for you to eat. Eggs laid by your backyard chickens will be fresher than anything you can buy at the shops, or even a farmers’ market and will have minimal food miles associated with them. Eggs from well-raised backyard chickens will have lovely bright yolks and be full of nutrition and goodness for you. Chickens take green and dry organic carbohydrates, as well as a few tasty morsels of protein, in the form of bugs and worms, and turn them into around 6 grams of high quality protein, nine essential amino acids, with just 77 calories, or 322 kilojoules if you prefer metric. Eggs are high in carotenoid, lutein and zeaxanthin which are all good for your eyes, helping to prevent macular degeneration and lowering the risks of developing cataracts.
Egg yolks contain choline, a nutrient which keeps the brain, nervous system and cardiovascular system healthy – yes it keeps your cardiovascular system healthy. New research shows that moderate consumption of eggs does not have a negative impact on cholesterol, as was once thought. More recent studies have shown that regular consumption of two eggs per day may, improve a person’s lipid profile. Eggs are one of the only foods that contain vitamin D. Generally we try to get our vitamin D from the sun, but of course that can have adverse effects like skin cancer and benign growths forming on our skin. So far, no-one has linked eggs to skin cancer – so getting your vitamin D in the form of eggs may be a safer option.
One study showed that women who ate at least 6 eggs per week lowered their risk of breast cancer by 44%, so if you are female there are even more reasons to eat eggs. Eggs also help keep your hair and nails healthy. Eaten as part of a healthy breakfast, eggs help sustain your energy levels, keeping you satisfied for longer and reducing the need for a mid-morning snack. If you’re watching your weight, studies [hyperlink = http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-08/epr-awe080408.php] have shown that people who eat eggs for breakfast are more likely to lose weight than those who ate bagels.
Food production: meat
You can also keep chickens in your back yard for meat production. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, then stop reading this section and move down the page … for the rest of us, take a moment to consider how most chicken meat is raised.
A lot of chickens which end up as meat on the supermarket shelves have been raised in sheds where they never see the light of day. They are grown up in a space which is not big enough for them to even stretch their wings, they have no opportunity to scratch or roost or peck at the ground or forage for natural food sources. There has been a lot of media coverage in the last few years about the conditions in which chickens are raised and as the demand for chicken meat increases in the western world, there is pressure on farmers to produce more and more. But the price of cheap, readily available chicken meat is often paid by the chicken itself and its short life, sometimes as short as 6 weeks, is a cramped, dark, concrete and steel existence. Chickens kept in confined spaces like this are often de-beaked – that is the tip of their beak is removed so that they can’t peck at the other birds around them. Some chickens don’t even grow feathers any more – as they are not necessary and they are considered a by-product of the meat industry which is time consuming and difficult for the farmers to deal with! By growing your own chicken meat, you can ensure that the chicken has a great life, living life the way it was designed with fresh air, sunshine, dust baths, dirt to scratch and forage amongst. With a great life comes a tasty meal, so it is worth putting in the effort. You may not be able to change the whole chicken meat industry, but, if what you do in your back yard can have a positive impact on at least a few creatures, then it is worth it.
Chickens are natural foragers and, left to free range in your garden, will scratch around looking for insects such as aphids, grasshoppers, beetles, ticks and slugs and gobble them up like it’s Christmas, Thanksgiving or Hanukah! Once they have cleaned up the top layer of soil of tasty adult pests, they will scratch down looking for larvae too. In this way, chickens can be used to clean up a finished vegetable bed, before you plant your next crop. I don’t recommend putting chickens in amongst your vegetable seedlings or growing crops as they will scratch the soil from the roots, exposing the roots and drying them out, or worse, scratching the complete seedling out from its bed, leaving it to dry out and die or become chicken fodder. Chickens love the green leaves of silverbeet, lettuces and beans and will peck at tomatoes while they are still on the bush, so make sure, if you are using chickens to control insects, that you contain them in one part of the garden without access to your active food gardens or favourite ornamentals – they will scratch at those too.
If you build a run for them on the perimeter of your veggie beds, they will scout around the edges, picking up pests and insects entering your food growing zone. You can throw weeds into their run and not only will the chickens eat any pests they find residing amongst the weeds, they may well eat the weeds too (don’t feed them spent tomato plants as they can be poisonous to some animals).
Chickens as garden tractors
If you let your chickens onto your finished vegetable beds to gobble up the pests, they will also pick up weed seeds and process them so that they can’t re-germinate in your garden beds, keeping next season’s weeds at bay too. Chickens scratch. As soon as they are on a nice piece of soil (and not in one of those terrible concrete sheds) they will scratch at the soil constantly. They will pull up weeds or any other plants that are left in the bed and eat them, dig over the top layer of soil so you don’t have to dig over your bed before your next planting and generally aerate your beds. This light turning over of the soil brings pathogens to the surface exposing them to potentially life threatening sunshine, helping to keep your soil healthy.
If your soil is particularly sandy or has a high proportion of clay, this light tilling over, together with pest removal and the addition of organic matter will help to improve the structure of your soil over time. Getting chickens to do the work of kicking the soil over saves your back and your arms from doing the work too.
Free Fertiliser and compost makers
Chickens will provide you with plenty of free fertiliser which should be composted and aged before applying it to your garden beds. Manure contains the major nutrients most gardens need - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but using it fresh may not provide the balance of those nutrients your plants require.
Try adding hay or straw to their bedding – they will fertilise it for you then you can add it to your compost heap to really get things cooking along. Change the bedding at least once a week to make sure they chickens have a clean place to sleep and roost and keep adding that bedding to your compost pile. That manured straw along with your other compost materials will eventually create a substance that is fantastic for your garden and your plants will love it. Adding some manure to your grass clippings will help them to break down quickly too.
Always remember to handle it with care and wear gloves to ensure any pathogens are not passed onto you from the manure.
If you allow chickens to free range and clean up your veggie beds, make sure you give the bed a good watering before planting to dilute the strength of this fertiliser though as it will be too strong for small seedlings and may burn the plants. Don’t let your chickens free range near acid loving plants as they simply don’t like chook poo!
Chooks are great company
One of the things I love most about having chickens in my food garden is the lovely clucky company they provide when I am working in the garden. When I am out planting, or staking, or harvesting my food, they are softly clucking away in the background. If they are free roaming, they will come over and inspect my work to see what I am up to – and probably to see if there are any insect morsels available for them! They will run around scratching and entertaining you while you work.