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Chooks in the backyard

Intro

RB: Hello, I’m co-host Rich Bowden, welcome to a (delayed)season 3 episode 1 of RegenEarth. We’re back and delighted to be so. It’s too early to say “after the pandemic crisis” because that’s still very much around and listeners in many countries, including ours here in Oz, are experiencing a second outbreak as restrictions are lifted. Wherever you are, please follow social distancing guidelines and the advice of medical experts.

We also tweaked the format of the podcast a little in our absence and here to tell you more is co-host, friend, podcaster, farmer and author Jon Moore. I can hear Jon getting ready for the show there at Highclere Farm in North-Western Tassie, hello Jon and welcome to the RE reboot!

JM: Hello one and all. RE-boot indeed. We’ve all been through some ….. interesting times and this has pointed the podcast into a slight course correction. 

RB: Just to go through our goals. Quite simply, we aim at creating a regenerative lifestyle, in a backyard setting. What you can do to improve your diet, your health and be less reliant on chemical-laden food by growing your own organic food.

JM: The food system is the one area I find we can all make a difference. There are calls for vegetarian/vegan choices to “save” the planet. I’m more inclined to think we can do more by growing more of our own food. If you want to go to a plant based diet, great, growing your own will help. I come from a position where I identify that plants and animals evolved together, need each other and that we humans are also a part of nature. So reducing the distances/energies in the food system, growing our own food with animals integrated into our systems will have a greater effect on planetary systems than eating plant based foods provided by the current system. Obviously not everyone can grow out a steer in their backyard. But we can keep smaller animals and introduce them into our systems to bolster and strengthen them. We’ll explore this much more deeply in our sister program Permaculture Plus when that kicks back off. 

RB: OK, let’s relaunch the RegenEarth ship with a look at backyard chooks…

Chooks in the backyard

RB: As we outlined in the introduction, one of the handiest animals for backyard sustainable living are chickens…or chooks as we know them in the Australian vernacular. Not sure if that’s a ref to their homely clucking sound Jon?

JM: Who knows Rich, the Kiwis and South Africans use the word too. It’s as good an etymology as any other.

RB: Now I know my co-host has got a number of interesting, even unusual breeds down there in North Western Tasmania. I know when I interviewed Kate Willoughby for the RE seminar, she took us out into the backyard and showed me her chooks [riff a bit here about the suitability for a cold climate] But Jon what type of chicken would you recommend for listeners looking to set up a backyard organic regen project who live in temperate or even tropical climate zones?

JM: We can divide chooks into two types: light and heavy. The warmer the climate, the lighter the chook breed, sort of. The heavy breeds, RIR, Australorp, that style of beast are reasonable for winter eggs, more so than light breeds. Light breeds include: light sussex, dorking, polish, silkies. Then we have the ubiquitous Isa Browns. 

Of course there’s also cross breeds and bantams.

It’s worth remembering chooks are a hardy species. Provided they have good housing, food and access to water they will thrive in most locales.

RB: Of course most people would think of eggs when they consider chooks and getting breeds that lay well and are suited for your climate is vital. But they are so much more… Importantly, for backyard regen earthers, looking to grow their own organic food, they can form the apex of the system…controlling pests, creating manure, fertilising the garden as well as producing eggs.

JM: This is where my animals and plants working together idea comes in. We can organise systems from simple to more complex around the chooks. The simplest form would be a fixed house. All excess vegetables, household kitchen waste and so on is thrown to the chooks. They eat what they want, manure it and it builds up over a period of time. Once a year or twice a year or every season, the material is cleaned out, tossed into the compost or onto the garden beds and the system rolls along. 

Alternatively the birds can be left to free range across the yard during the day and housed at night for protection.

A more complex system has the chooks in mobile housing that rotates across the garden beds. There they scratch up the beds, eat leftover greens, manure and so on. This is more the system I prefer because it doesn’t involve any shovelling. There’s a section in the World Organic News No-Dig gardening book on the mechanics of this.

RB: And you can download a copy of Jon’s book at ….worldorganicnews.com (we’ll have that link in the show notes). 

I know you’ve always used chicken tractors on your farms. What are they? And how do they work in a backyard setting?

JM: So enclosing the chooks and moving them is what we mean by a chicken tractor. It’s limited to the size of the housing you can move. In a backyard you could have a couple with different breeds in them and this stops cross breeding. But as I said, they just rotate across the beds. Say 12 beds, two or three feet wide (60-90cm) with a one foot, 30 cm path between them would work. With this many beds something will always be coming to an end, if you plan ahead. The soil is always being chooked and revitalised, your getting manures and eggs and possibly chicks if your council allows roosters. And your vegies will thrive.

I’d be inclined to keep bantams and rather than 3 full sized birds, I keep 5 or 6 bantams. The eggs would be smaller but the flock structure would be more complex and healthier for the birds.

RB: And finally, the all-important question of keeping your chooks healthy and happy. Any tips?

JM: With animal husbandry it’s a matter of observation. You’ll know fairly quickly once you start keeping chooks if something is off. Usually this comes down to feed, living space and cleanliness. Feed is a matter of choice. You can use pellets if that works with your life, a good grain mix works too. Avoid too much lettuce, especially iceberg as it’s just water. You can grow grains for your birds or better yet, sow a parrot mix into a newly cleared bed and then rotate the chooks over it after most of the seeds have sprouted. They’ll clean up the unsprouted and devour the sprouts. Snails and slugs are real treats for chooks too. 

Living space is about social hierarchy and henpecking. Any sign of the latter and you need to reduce your numbers in the chook tractor or build a bigger one. As I said, you’ll know it when you see it. 

Cleanliness refers to both the birds and their housing. They need a dust bath to clean their feathers. Easy enough in a fixed house and run but doable in a tractor. A container of ash from the fireplace is good. You can put this in upcycled plastic containers. Wooden or metal boxes or trays work too.

Chooks have very simple needs but they must be met.

Finish

RB:  Fan-tastic advice Jon. Thanks yet again for your time and expertise. And that’s it! Thanks for joining us for our first episode after the hiatus. We’ll be back next month when we’ll stay on poultry species and review them in a backyard context. In the meantime catch up on Jon’s organic podcast at WON (link in show notes).

JM: Other species of poultry that may be a way to introduce a little more diversity into your backyard ecosystem. And don’t forget you can grab the No-Dig Gardening eBook at worldorganicnews.com

We’ll let you know in this feed when we relaunch PermaculturePlus, our show where we’ll take an in-depth look at issues loosely related to permaculture ethics.

RB: Yes, I’m looking forward to that. Bye for now…

JM: Bye.

FREE No-Dig gardening eBook: HERE

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