Poultry Husbandry in a Changed Energy Future
This article was published in the Dec 2007/January 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
Please note that, at the time I wrote this piece, the price of gasoline had topped $4 a gallon. At the moment, prices have dropped to a third of that. Far too many of our fellow citizens take that drop as a signal to return to our profligate energy habits. I hope the visitor to this site is not so naÏve.
Whether brought on by energy shortages and high prices, the mortgage market collapse, or failure of sectors of our complex industrial food system—we are entering a time of greater economic constriction for almost all citizens. We are well advised to give serious thought to the issue of food security. Maybe a backyard flock is part of your food future. ~Harvey, December 27, 2008
“Peak Oil” Comes Home to Roost
Have you filled your tank at the gas pump lately? Is the fact that gasoline prices have doubled in just a few years simply a momentary irritation? Or is filling the tank an occasion for sober reflection on the future?
Pumping that gas should remind us just how much energy we use to fuel a high-octane global economy, and how much that economy is dependent at every point on cheap, abundant, readily available hydrocarbon fuels. Nowhere is this dependence more obvious than in the systems we use to grow, process, and distribute our food.
And while the rapid increase in fuel prices has complex economic and geopolitical causes, it is a symptom first and foremost of a simple fact of geology: Extractable fossil fuel deposits are limited. Their extraction to fuel an economy on steroids is a one-time event in human history. Globally, we are at, or very near, the point at which we are withdrawing the maximum amount of oil and natural gas that will ever be extracted; and supplies of these resources—however considerable at that moment—will inexorably decline from that point. (And this in an era of rapidly increasing demand from major new players in the global economy like China and India.)
If you key “peak oil” into an online search engine, you may find yourself catapulted into some pretty scary scenarios that could play out as petroleum supplies—the very lifeblood of the economy—start to shrink. But it is not my intention to sketch doom-and-gloom scenarios. I will focus instead on outcomes we can expect simply as a result of rising fuel and energy costs. If cheap and abundant fuels have led to centralized, mechanized agriculture—dependent on fertilizers from natural gas and pesticides from petroleum—and the transportation of food (and feeds for our livestock) great distances, will expensive energy and scarce fuels dictate a reversal of these historic trends? What will be the implications for poultry husbandry on the homestead? How might we change our approach to caring for our home flocks in a changed energy future?
Any readers who have raised Cornish Cross as a fast-growing meat bird know how quickly they can reach freezer-filling size. But they also know how dependent Cornish Cross is on purchased inputs, sometimes from far away. They require large quantities of high-protein growing mashes, since they are not skilled at foraging their food on their own. Because their immune systems are weak, it is typical to start them on feeds medicated with antibiotics through the brooder phase (or, indeed, their whole lives, in industrial broiler operations). Finally, such birds are more suited to intensive, confined production models—requiring a greater investment in housing or other shelter, even at the homestead level.
More traditional breeds have much more robust immune systems than a modern hybrid like the Cornish Cross, and are more likely to thrive in the absence of expensive medicated feeds. They have more instinct to seek out beneficial foods on their own. And they do better out in the open, foraging and enjoying the benefits of sunshine and exercise, than in closely confined conditions.
Historically, breeds were bred for local conditions and needs, and to serve specific functions on the homestead. I expect that in the future more flock owners will choose breeds on the basis of appropriate “fit” to their particular conditions and goals. For example, those with harsh winters might do well to choose a breed such as the Chantecler, developed in Canada, because its minimalist comb and wattles are almost immune to frostbite. Without expensive supplemental heat in their winter housing, the larger combs and wattles of a Mediterranean class breed like Leghorns are more apt to freeze, increasing stress on the birds. Some owners might want a flock made up of both historic breeds (like Old English Game, Asil, and Dorking), who retain the broody instinct, and non-setting Mediterranean types (such as Hamburg, Minorca, Leghorn) to keep up egg production through the breeding season. We might also choose some breeds known to be good winter layers (such as Wyandotte, Sussex, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds) to offset the scarce winter production of the older historic breeds. Whatever specific breeds we choose, we should try to get stock from breeders who emphasize homestead production traits, not the finer points of color or pattern typical of breeding for show.
Hatching New Stock with Natural Mothers
There are many who expect that in our changed energy future, the grid is likely to be less reliable. If we cannot count on having uninterrupted access to electricity for the weeks needed to operate an artificial incubator, or to raise hatchlings in an artificial brooder until feathered, I expect we will gain a new appreciation of the hen who remembers the rituals of incubation and chick nurture—as opposed to those more modern hens who have been strongly encouraged through selective breeding to “forget” this essential lore.
Most of the historic breeds like the Old English Game and Asil retain the broody instinct as the norm, not the exception. It is good to remember as well an observation by Charles Darwin in one of his works: When two decidedly non-broody breeds were crossed, many of the resulting daughter hens expressed the broody trait. It is comforting to think that, should we suddenly conclude that we need hens with the instinct to mother, after all, that deep chicken wisdom might re-emerge with a single roll of the genetic dice.
In an era of increased costs for the energy required to process our food (as in freezing or canning), we will likely adopt a more seasonal approach to food production. Think again of the idea of filling the freezer with big “batches” of Cornish Cross broilers for the freezer. A less energy-intensive alternative is to cull birds successively throughout the year, as needed (both with reference to our own needs for the table, and to the needs of the flock itself as it progresses through the four seasons). In the summer, we can enjoy young, tender chicken for grilled, sauteed, or baked dishes by culling this season’s hatch of cockerels. Fall is a time for braised dishes such as coq au vin, using the older cockerels, and pullets not kept for egg production, as we reduce flock size for the winter. Winter itself reveals deficiencies in rate of lay, suggesting that Henrietta might serve better in the stewpot, where long, slow cooking emphasizes the rich flavor of an old bird and produces a matchless broth. Indeed, it is entirely possible to eat chicken frequently throughout the year, enjoying culinary adventures unavailable to those dependent on supermarket chicken, and never once package a bird for freezing.
Protecting the Flock
Regular readers of Backyard Poultry know that I like electric net fencing as the ideal management tool for protecting my flocks from any predator on the ground, while allowing them free range on pasture within the limits I impose. In an age of rising costs for all energy- and resource-intensive manufactured products (and remember that the plastic, a major component of electronet, is a product of petroleum), I’m afraid that electronet will be more expensive and less readily available. Homesteaders such as myself who came to rely on electronet may have to experiment with other solutions.
Many flock owners find they do not have serious predation problems if they practice “day ranging”—that is, allow the birds to range freely during the day, and confine them inside protective shelter at night. Such a practice can be effective against most natural predators, who are more often nocturnal. The major predation threat during the day is the neighbor’s dogs (or even our own). I would expect, however, that—in a time when food production is centering more on the backyard than in the past—communal attitudes toward dogs “running at large” and threatening livestock will approach zero tolerance.
But dogs themselves might be an important solution to the problems of predation. I hear from more and more keepers of poultry, some of whom produce for a market, that guardian dogs work very well to protect poultry, as well as other forms of livestock such as sheep.
I have even heard of folks using donkeys and llamas to protect their livestock, even from formidable predators like coyotes. One thing is for sure: In a time of need, human ingenuity tends to discover novel solutions pretty quickly.
A final thought about protection from predators: In the previous era, people established “living fences” to confine and protect livestock. In the case of “pleaching,” suitable trees were planted in a line, then woven into a dense hedge by tying branches together in crossing positions. In the species preferred for pleaching—such as linden, hornbeam, and hawthorn—the points where the branches cross abrade and actually grow together, in a sort of natural graft. Another approach is to plant suitable trees or shrubs tightly spaced and prune them hard, to shape a stout, impenetrable hedge. If the plants in the hedge have thorns (hawthorn, Osage orange, Rugosa rose), so much the better. Though such a hedge can pose a barrier even to cats and other climbing predators, it will also serve double duty as a windbreak, and provide food and habitat for insects and birds. Some species might also provide fodder for livestock, or vitamin-rich foods for our own needs (hawthorn, Rugosa rose).
Poultry and Soil Fertility
In an era in which we will no longer assume that fertilizers in a bag, made from natural gas, are the obvious choice for nurturing our garden, we will have a new appreciation of the contribution livestock manures can make to our soil fertility program. Poultry in the henhouse should be kept on deep litter (preferably over an earth floor), which—once it is finely broken down and aged—can be used directly in the garden like finished compost.
When our birds are allowed to range over pasture sod, they boost its fertility. I remember well the first time I saw proof of this phenomenon: I was raising 50 young broilers in a Joel Salatin style floorless pen, which I moved by its own length once a day. After a week of such moves, we got a good soaking rain. Two days later, we could see the difference between the pasture that had been under the pen, and that which had not—the swath of lush, vibrant green could have been laid out with a ruler.
It has been estimated that the average bite of food on the American plate has been moved 1500 miles from field to fork. Livestock feeds are perhaps not moved such distances, but typically they do come from widely dispersed sources, in some cases quite distant from the point of final use. As fuel for such extravagant transport of materials becomes more scarce, it will be essential to find sources of feedstocks more locally. Most local of all, of course, are those feeds we are able to supply on the homestead itself.
If there are farmers in your neighborhood willing to grow for your feed needs, encourage them to do so. Perhaps you can form a buying group with other flock owners in your area, guaranteeing the grower an assured market close to home, and perhaps sharing in the required transportation, distribution, and storage.
As for what we can provide on the homestead, I remember that my grandmother gave her flock almost no purchased feeds—just a couple of handfuls of scratch grains each day to keep them fixed on the coop as “home”—and they virtually fed themselves, free-ranging over her small farm. That memory convinces me that, if we choose the sturdier, more self-reliant breeds, and can give them the space to forage their own foods, poultry keeping can become a low-input enterprise indeed.
Even on a small space, there is much we can grow to supplement our birds’ diets. Cover crops like cowpeas and buckwheat can be grown to benefit our soil. Once they have ripened their seeds, we can turn in the chickens to self-harvest them, saving the additional labor of harvesting, threshing, and storage. Jerusalem artichoke plantings have been used as thickets in which chickens graze, feasting on the abundant earthworms in the sheltered soil, as well as the lower leaves of the plants. (At the end of the season, the high-energy Jerusalem artichoke tubers can be dug as feed for pigs or people.) Flowering species that we plant for beauty, and as habitat and food for insects and wild birds (and possibly supplemental foods for ourselves)—such as amaranth, sunflowers, and sorghum—can also provide additional foods for our flocks. Some garden crops such as pumpkins and mangels (fodder beets) provide fresh feeds that store naturally through the winter. “Fertility patches”—plants such as comfrey, grown to contribute to soil fertility—can be sources of poultry feed as well, either cut and fed fresh, dried as a sort of “hay”—or the flock can simply be turned into the patch itself for some gorging for a limited time. Unless the birds are confined to the patch for a long time, comfrey will re-grow even if eaten down to the crowns.
Mulberries provide shade and dropped fruit. Poultry also benefit from the shade of chestnut trees, and can help keep them free from chestnut weevil.
Most homesteads in this country are blessed with wild plants highly palatable to poultry such as chickweed, which we can gather and feed. Some cold hardy plants like dandelion and yellow dock survive deep into winter’s chill, providing palatable, vitamin-rich green feed until the ground freezes.
Of course, free-ranging poultry will eat a lot of nutrient-dense insects on their own. If you get swarmed with an insect-like Japanese beetles, though, try hand-gathering them (in the cool of the morning or evening, into a bucket with a gallon of water in the bottom) and instigating a feeding frenzy in the flock.
If you set up the bins for a large enough vermicomposting operation (composting with earthworms), you will reap not only enhanced fertility for the garden (earthworm castings), but will be able to take harvests of worms to feed the flock.
In the winter, you can ensure continued access to live animal foods (slugs, earthworms, grubs) by releasing the flock onto a yard which is heavily enough mulched to keep the ground from freezing.
Homesteaders who milk cows or goats will find that excess milk, skimmed milk, and buttermilk make high-quality feed for the flock in any amounts.
Recruiting the Services of the Flock
Most keepers of poultry adopt other strategies as well for becoming more food self-sufficient on the homestead. Fortunately, there are many ways that our flocks can assist with other food production projects, decreasing our dependence on purchased inputs. All too often, for example, we simply assume that the solution to problems of insect predation in our crops is the purchase of something stinky in a bottle. But poultry can once again (as they did in our grandparents’ day, before the era of Monsanto and Cargill) help establish insect balance in the garden and orchard. They can also be used to “sanitize” the pre-season garden of slugs and snails.
Tillage is another garden project for which gardeners too often assume the solution is an expensive outside purchase—a power tiller. I expect in our changed energy future the home garden tiller will be a less common option, both because of the “embodied energy” inherent in its energy-intensive manufacture, and its ongoing requirement of fossil fuels to operate. How fortunate that we can engage the natural behaviors of our chickens (how they love to scratch, non-stop, all day) to accomplish tillage chores on the homestead (tilling in cover crops, or areas heavily grown up in weeds). I have even used them to till in tough, established pasture sod over compacted soil, the first step in developing new garden ground. Just fence the birds onto the plot to be tilled, and set them to their work. Indeed, the results for the soil are actually superior to that of the power tiller: The chickens do not break down soil structure or invert its natural layers, and they “supercharge” the top few inches with fertility via their dispersed droppings, a bonus not provided by the tiller.
Remember the usefulness of domestic avian species other than chickens in the creation of a more self-sufficient homestead. Heritage breed turkeys are able to feed themselves almost entirely if given enough biologically diverse ground on which to forage. Pigeons can be raised in pigeon lofts, but released to fly freely and self-feed. All forms of domestic fowl, especially geese, can help with orchard sanitation by cleaning up dropped fruit. Guineas control squash bug in my winter squash plot—a pair of guineas will keep an acre entirely free of ticks if allowed to range—and it is a thrill to see a guinea take a coddling moth right out of the air. Geese have long been used as weeders, and ducks for slug control, in compatible crops. Finally, put the waterfowl to work like I do—“mowing” the lawn and turning what would otherwise be a dead-end (and energy-intensive) chore for me into elegant winter meals and valuable cooking fats.
The Bigger Picture
Given the dependence of the economy, national and global, on lavish use of fossil fuels, a decline in their availability will certainly bring on profound adjustments, some of them sudden and wrenching. Yes, that’s a scary thought. But you know what is said about the silver lining in every cloud, the opportunity at the heart of every crisis. The coming changes in energy use could also usher in a more nurturing, ecologically sound agriculture, and a renewal of community and vitality in the wasteland that some of our rural areas have become.
They will bring as well a new appreciation of the backyard flock as essential to the home economy. We flock owners who have learned to manage our flocks in more integrated, self-sustaining ways will enjoy their many benefits with a minimum of purchased inputs. Equally important will be the opportunity to be of service to the majority of our neighbors, who will need help re-learning this priceless lore.