​​​BEYOND EGGS:
How to Keep Chickens ​Happy ​​in Confinement

​Approximately a ​6 minute read | Part 3 of ​a Series

The best way to have healthy, happy chickens is to integrate them into a thriving, bustling ecosystem that benefits from their presence. T​he alternative is keeping them in an environment that cannot sustain them – as in the typical coop-and-run that starts out green and ends up bare and brown. 

In this article, I’ll share ideas for keeping chickens as busy and well fed in a deep litter system as they are when out foraging for themselves – while also contributing to the care of the garden or farm system that they are part of, rather than being a drain on it.

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​​"The problem is the solution"

A basic permaculture principle is that “the problem is the solution,” or, “the problem contains the solution.” In our case the problem, summed up, was that the environment our chickens were living in could not sustain them.

To find the solution, we needed to better design their place in their environment so that their behaviors and outputs could be absorbed and used as a contribution to the health of their surroundings, rather than being a drain on them.

That’s what led us to think of trailing confinement on deep litter. ​In the previous article in this Series, we discussed the list of benefits that we’ve experienced so far as a result. Now, it’s time to discuss the “cons.”

​The ancestors of the domestic chicken evolved on the forest floor in an environment thick with the plant litter from which all their food came. Their role was to break up this plant litter to help it decompose and feed the forest. A deep litter system mimics the forest floor.

The two main disadvantages to keeping chickens confined on deep litter

The more I learned about how a deep litter system works, the more I wondered why anybody would house chickens any other way, regardless of whether the chickens are let out to forage or not.

But in our case, we want to find out if we can successfully confine our chickens permanently in a deep litter area without any outside foraging at all. And while confining them solves a lot of problems, it also presents two obvious challenges.

The first is that we’re now responsible for providing the chickens with ALL the fresh greens and live, wriggly, hopping, flying food they need. (I consider this a small price for never having to chase a chicken out of a garden area again.)

The second is that unless the deep litter they’re living on is maintained as an actively decomposing, life-filled substrate, full of interesting things to scratch for, the chickens will have nothing to do.

So, to keep the litter topped up and healthy, we need a significant ongoing source of carbon to keep replenishing the bedding as it decomposes.

Since we’re always looking for ways to bring less inputs onto our farm, the thought of having to buy in carbon (such as mulch hay/straw/shavings) forever is daunting.

Here are our ideas so far, for addressing these issues of live food and a life-filled litter to scratch in.

​Providing live food 

​Our ideas (so far) for providing green and wriggly food sources are:

  • Azolla1 tanks in the chicken shed, possibly arranged so that the chickens can help themselves
  • A planting of arrowroot and comfrey2 right outside the chicken shed for on-the-spot, palatable, nutritious greens.
  • A black soldier fly larvae system3 that the chickens can harvest from.
  • Compost bins whose contents would be made accessible to the chickens4.
  • Worm farms with chicken proof covers that can be left open as appropriate.
  • A planting of trees that drop additional mulch and chicken treats ​along the open side of the shed.
  • Buckets (too narrow for a chicken to get into and scratch in) with grasses, comfrey, ​dandelion, and other chicken-friendly greens growing out the top for the chickens ​to graze off, with the buckets then removed ​or protected, for the plants to re-grow.
  • A banana-trunk worm-refuge (described below in the section on bananas).

(Obviously, each of these topics could make up an article on its own.  I do plan to address them one by one as we go about implementing them, and I will add these updates to this series as I go. Stay tuned!)

​Growing our own litter materials - bamboo 

​As part of beginning to address the need for a steady source of carbon, we’ve planted a row of bamboo along the outside of the chicken shed’s back wall5.

Once established, the bamboo will drop lots of litter that can be raked up and brought into the shed to contribute to the bedding. (Bamboo litter is high in silica, which supposedly helps control lice on chickens.)

The bamboo will also shade that side of the shed, which will face the summer sun. And by extending its roots under the chicken shed, it will find plenty of nutrient to help it grow thick and abundant.

​New bamboo planting along the back side of the chicken shed


In addition to the bamboo planted outside the chicken shed, we have young bamboo plantations in other areas. When we reach a point that we have excess bamboo culms, we plan to find out if shredded/chipped bamboo culms make good chicken bedding.

(We had been wandering what we would do with all those culms, which will end up being far more than we can use in other ways.)


​Using banana plants for wriggly food and chicken litter contributions

We’re also planning a banana patch beside the chicken shed.

Banana fronds can be a source of greens for the chickens, and what they don’t eat will contribute to the litter.

But more interestingly, banana trunks can be cut lengthwise and laid face down on the soil below the litter of the chicken pen. They’ll provide a sanctuary for earth worms and other forms of soil life which can breed in the layers of the banana trunks, where the chickens can’t get at them. When the piece of banana trunk is turned over – live, wriggly chicken feed! 

And in the process of shredding the banana trunk to get at the worms, the chickens will be adding it to the litter of the bedding.

​Bananas are great providers of mulch material,and earthworms love to creep between the layers of the trunks.

​Conclusion 

​At the beginning of this Series, I said that what makes a Permaculture system work is the relationships between the elements – the closing of multiple loops into a cohesive web of living things, all contributing to each other’s stability and well-being.

A behavior (such as the scratching of chickens) or an output (such as manure) is either an asset or a liability—either strengthening the system or weakening it—depending on ​whether there are other well-placed elements nearby to make use of it.

We want healthy, happy chickens, and the best way to do that is to have them tightly integrated into a thriving, bustling ecosystem that benefits from their presence, rather than allowing them to spread out in a sparse ecosystem that they steadily ​degrade because it is unable to support them.

By confining our chickens to a relatively small area and refusing to compromise on the quality of life and the diet we make available to them, we’ve ​put ourselves in a position where we can no longer get away with sloppy management.

The new arrangement will require us to tighten all the loops that the chickens are involved in, and to create new, deliberate loops that were previously left to chance or did not exist at all – so that we end up with well cared-for chickens, comfortably nested in a much more tightly integrated system. 

​I’ll share the results of our efforts and the things we learn, by updating/adding to this ​Series as time goes by.


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Please leave me a comment

​What was most useful for you in this post? What would you have liked ​more ​clarity or detail about? What have been your experiences with chicken keeping in general or deep litter in particular?

​Please scroll down below the Endnotes and leave a comment​ ​ thank you!


Endnotes 

  1. See info about azolla​ here
  2. See info about feeding comfrey to animals here ​and here
  3. See info about black soldier fly larvae herehere and here
  4. In his book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, Harvey Ussery describes how Vermont Composting Company uses up to 1200 laying hens to help turn compost heaps. The hens are fed entirely from the compost; no other food is provided for them. There is also a video about it, here.
  5. This article has good ideas about using bamboo to enhance chicken living areas
  • This is a great informative discussion on chicken management! Thank you for sharing your experiences and I look forward to learning more as your bamboo and compost elements come into play! I was thinking as I read that a well placed compost pile accessible (maybe in a controlled way…) to the chickens makes sense. Best wishes for continued success and thank you again for taking the time to share!

    • Thanks for your comment, Anthony 🙂

      We haven’t started on the compost bin idea yet as we’ve been focusing on reducing the size of the flock (its amazing how chicken numbers can creep up on you when they’re free-ranging all over the place; having them all contained has given us a much clearer picture of how many there are and how many there should be).

      Also I’ve been chipping away at the smaller projects like the buckets of greens and the planting of greens right outside for “cut and carry” use.

      But we will eventually get to the bigger ideas like the compost bins, and I’ll be sure to keep the updates coming whenever I have more worth sharing.

  • Was there anything in this post you would have liked more clarity or detail about? What have been your experiences with chickens in general or deep litter in particular?

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