Chicken Run Soil Update

In December I wrote about testing the soil of my chicken run, to find out if any damage had been done by leaving the chickens on the same ground for longer than planned (4 years). When I built my chicken coop, I intended for it to be a mobile coop that I would move once per year, so that the chickens could help me expand my garden by fertilizing the new ground and removing weeds. Unfortunately the coop turned out too large and too heavy, and it’s now awkwardly stuck in the middle of my garden and completely immobile. I’ve tried all the ideas I could come up with to get it moving, but I now have resigned myself to building a new coop elsewhere and disassembling this one. I’ll be able to reuse most of the parts for future projects, but it’s a setback and a big task to add to an already overflowing to-do list. Oh well, live and learn.

Since I wasn’t able to move the coop, I wasn’t able to plant a big test garden in the soil of the chicken run this year as I had planned in my previous post. However, I did fence the hens out of a tiny patch of land in the run for just a few weeks. This was kind of accidental, but it did give me the information I sought. The small chicken-free area in the run sprouted a rich, healthy garden including a big blooming tomato plant! I feel confident now that my soil is good and I can garden here after the chickens have moved to the new coop.

A green patch of healthy plants inside the chicken run

Although there have been struggles in my journey with the chickens, I am so glad they’re here. They have taught me much about the world that I wouldn’t have learned without them. They have provided joy, companionship, laughter, exercise, a reason to go outside even on the tough days, and much more. The manure and compost they’ve made for the farm helps us to grow amazingly lush and healthy organic gardens, and their eggs have become an integral part of our family’s meals.

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A Soil Test For The Chicken Run

When I first decided to adopt the Strawberry Moon Chicks and began building the first coop, I intended for it to be a “chicken tractor”. That is, I intended to move the coop periodically so the chickens would have a steady supply of fresh pasture. This proved to be a more difficult a job than I anticipated. That coop has been in the same spot for three years, sitting on cinder blocks because the wheels buckled under the weight of the too-big coop. I think I have finally remedied that problem and if so, that coop is moving on Saturday. As soon as the hen coop is secure in its next location, I plan to annex the old chicken run into my garden.

Chickens have a long history as garden helpers. Their presence ads a great deal of fertility to land, and prominent growers such as Eliot Coleman include them as a successful part of organic crop rotation. However, three years is too long a rotation for optimal soil enhancement, and it occurred to me that their extended stay might have done some damage. A little googling revealed the following possibilities: the soil might be too salty, the soil might contain too much phosphorus (the ‘P’ in ‘NPK’), and the soil might be too low in organic matter. My chickens do have a large run, and I do add straw and pine chips to it sometimes, so I hoped the land would be fit to garden next summer. I ordered a soil test to find out.

A brief note about soil testing, because people ask me about this a lot. It’s common advice to “do a soil test” before starting a new garden. When people say this, they mean a standard fertility test, which might be free if your extension service offers it, or might cost about $10-$15. Either way, you find out where you can have this done by calling your county extension office.

In my case, free tests aren’t available, and so I took my soil sample to a local agricultural supply business. They called earlier this week to tell me everything is A-OK, and my garden expansion may proceed as planned. Yay! Upon my request, they also sent me the specific lab results. I went through each result individually to learn about the implications and optimal range for each test. This research process was very tedious, so I’m sharing all my notes here for your benefit. The hard work was worth doing though, because in the process, I learned that my celebration might have been premature. There are some soil imbalances, but it remains unclear whether or not they’ll have an impact on plant health next season.

These are the results I received from my standard $15 soil test.

Test NameMy ResultExplanation
CEC13.7CEC stands for “Cation Exchange Capacity”. This metric indicates the capacity of the soil to absorb and retain nutrients, and is related to the components of the soil (sand, clay, loam). Our 13.7 is a fine number. This article by Spectrum Analytic provides a detailed explanation of CEC.
OM %2.7OM stands for Organic Matter. According to Cornel University, most agriculturally productive soils have between 3-6% Organic Matter. So it looks like we’re a little low, but not by much.
pH6.8pH is a measurement that almost everyone will recognize. It stands for “potential of hydrogen”, and it’s the scale we all use to measure how acidic or alkaline something is. Lemon juice is acidic, and has a pH of 2. Household bleach is alkaline with a pH of 11. Neutral pH is 7. Most common garden plants prefer soil with a pH between 6-7, so we are right on the money.
Lime Index69.15This measurement tells us how difficult it would be to raise the pH of our soil. Since our soil does not need to be any more alkaline, this particular measurement isn’t very useful in our case. However, you can read more about this indicator in this great article from Michigan State University
P(Bray) lbs/ac222This test measures the amount of phosphorus in the soil. According to Penn State, the optimal range is 30-50 lbs/acre. Our 222 is a very high phosphorus number.
K lbs/ac209K stands for Potassium (it’s the K in NPK). According to Purdue University, this number is in the optimal range.
Ca lbs/ac3782This test is for calcium. According to Ohio State University, the desirable amount of calcium in pounds per acre is 800–16,000. Our test result is within this desirable range.
Mg lbs/ac3782This test is for magnesium. According to the same article by Ohio State University, the desirable amount of magnesium in pounds per acre is 150–2,000. Our result is above the desirable range.
K sat’n %2.0This test measures potassium saturation in the soil. The desirable range is dependent upon the CEC value (ours is 13.7) so according to the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC, our desirable range for potassium saturation would be between 3-4%. Looks like ours is a little low.
Ca sat’n %69%This test measures calcium saturation in the soil. The ideal range is 50-70, so it looks like we passed this test! See the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC for more info about calcium saturation.
Mg sat’n %22This test measures magnesium saturation. Based on our CEC, our ideal range would be 8-20. Looks like we are a little high. More info can be found in the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC.
Base sat’n %93Base saturation. This appears to be the sum of the previous three numbers.
H sat’n %7.4Hydrogen saturation. Ideal value is less than 10%. This result looks fine. More info on Hydrogen saturation is available here
Ca/Mg3.2Calcium to Magnesium ratio. According to Michigan State University, values between 2-8 are fine, as long as the soil has enough calcium and enough magnesium.
Mg/K11.1This is the magnesium to potassium ratio. I tried, but I haven’t been able to find out the desirable range for the number. I’m told it’s not very important, anyway.

In summary, our chicken run soil has elevated levels of phosphorus and magnesium, and low organic matter. The low organic matter may indicate that some erosion has occurred (due to the chickens scratching). This is the easiest problem to remedy, and I will do so by spreading a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. I’ll prevent this from occurring in the future by keeping a thick layer of mulch on the new chicken run. Sodium and nitrogen tests were unfortunately not included in our basic soil test package. I spoke with the specialist at the local agricultural supply company, and he feels confident that a sodium test isn’t necessary, since our local soils all contain very low levels to start. He also said that since nitrogen leaves the soil so quickly, even if the soil has elevated nitrogen levels now, they should normalize by spring. He does not believe our elevated phosphorus and magnesium levels will cause any problems in the garden. I also discussed these results with my county extension agent. She agrees that the elevated phosphorus and magnesium aren’t likely to cause problems in the garden by themselves, but suggested that we might need to add higher than usual amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and calcium to bring the nutrients into balance with each other. She is unsure whether the garden will grow well or not, but reminded me that all gardening is really an experiment.

Inspired by my county extension agent, I think I’ll grow an experiment garden on the old chicken run. I’ll plant a wide variety of species and see which ones grow well post-chicken, and which ones struggle. I will not plant any precious seeds (ones that need to be saved and preserved for future growing seasons) or any expensive transplants in the experiment garden. As always, I’ll report my findings here. Meanwhile I hope you’re all warm, cozy, and well.

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The Quest For The Cruelty-Free Egg: Five Easy Steps To Happy Chickens

As a lifelong animal lover, I try to be a kind, respectful farmer.  And while I once thought it would be easy to identify the most compassionate farming practices, some choices prove to be more complex than they seem.  Case in point: welcoming chickens into the farm ecosystem.  While you might have some preconceived ideas about how chickens should be housed, raised, and fed, there may be more to consider if you’re truly invested in raising cruelty-free food.  Here’s a list of five things to think about before adopting your next flock of chicks.

Step #1: Selecting A Breed
Although you could choose a breed based on which chick is cutest, you’ll have more success if you carefully select a breed that suits your climate, lifestyle, and goals.  A chicken who was born for life in the tropics will not be happy or healthy in a climate with harsh winters.  Likewise, a cold hardy breed may not thrive in a region with sweltering summers.  Next, think about how you will interact with your chickens.  Are eggs your only goal, or are you willing to sacrifice a couple of eggs per week in exchange for friendlier personalities and beautiful feathers?  Are you willing to choose a healthy, strong, all purpose heritage breed, even if they eat more than some of the less hearty breeds?  If free range chickens are important to you, look for a breed that knows how to forage, fight, and hide.  If your chickens will have less free space, look for one that bears confinement well.  Selecting the right breed for your situation gives you and your chickens every chance of a successful partnership.

Step #2: Placing An Order
After you choose your breed, you’ll need to find a place to buy chicks.  Mail order hatcheries seem to be the most common choice, and for good reason.  Hatcheries are cheap, convenient, and offer a wide selection of many different poultry breeds.  They’ll even ship the chicks to your door.  However, despite the convenience, hatcheries may not be the kindest source of chicks.  Some hatcheries are factory operations, which employ some of the very same cruel practices you may be trying to avoid by raising your own chickens.  Hatcheries also favor volume over quality, so you may not receive the strongest, healthiest birds when ordering this way.  If you choose to breed your chickens, the offspring from hatchery birds may sell for a lower price than those from a top quality breeder.  I chose to order my chicks from a well respected home breeder, who breeds show quality chickens.  Although I don’t intend to show my birds, I love supporting small farmers with ethically sound practices.  Plus, since I selected a heritage breed in threatened status, it is important to me to support those who are working to preserve and improve the breed, and for me to pass on the best possible traits to future generations of chicks born at Strawberry Moon Farm.

Hatcheries offer a choice between sexed chicks (all male or all female) or “straight run” (a random mix of male and female chicks).  Most people will order only female chicks, since they’re all that’s necessary to harvest backyard eggs. However, if you don’t take the male chicks, no one else will either.  More information on this here:  Where Do All The Roosters Go.

Step #3: Adoption Day
It is a common practice to ship chicks through the mail.  However, chicks sometimes die, or are lost in the shipping process. Even if they arrive safely, I wonder whether this is a kind and respectful way to treat a newborn living being.  The breeder I chose agreed to let me adopt my chicks in person, rather than sending them on a harrowing journey through the postal service in a dark, cold box.   This spring, I plan to take a road trip to a neighboring state, equipped with a heater, food, and water for the chicks to enjoy during the five hour journey home.

Step #4: Living Space
I had always taken it as a given that when I had chickens, I would allow them to free range.  I believe it’s important for chickens to engage freely in their natural behaviors, to soak up the sunshine and forage for insects and fresh plants.  They also benefit the land in many ways. But after hearing all-too-common stories of entire flocks being massacred in a single day by a single stray dog, I began to have second thoughts.  We live on the edge of a woods, in the company of many predators from foxes to dogs to bald eagles.  I have also learned that chickens find fruits and vegetables even more delicious than bugs, so it may also be advantageous to limit their access to the food crops.  My revised plan is to build an extra large mobile chicken coop, connected to a movable covered aviary and totally surrounded by a very spacious portable electric fence.  The entire setup can be moved as needed to circulate the chickens around the property, and will provide ample space for the chickens to play.  This system will provide good protection for the flock, while still offering most of the benefits of free ranging.  If you do choose to contain your flock, keep in mind that tight spaces encourage pecking, fighting, and other nervous behaviors.  Each full size chicken will require four square feet of coop space to stay happy, plus a spacious outdoor run.

Step #5: The Retirement Plan
After 2-3 years, a hen’s egg production will begin to decline.  Since I choose not to slaughter my chickens (except in cases when it is the only humane choice), I am committed to caring for them even in their old age.  This will reduce profits, but even old hens are good partners.  They will probably continue lay an egg from time to time, and they can still turn food scraps into wonderful fertilizer, prepare new vegetable beds, and serve on the insect control squad.  Not to mention the value of their wonderful company!

Though the quest for the cruelty-free egg is proving to be more nuanced than I once thought, I look forward to this challenge.  It is an opportunity to become more connected to our food, to learn more about our world, and to enhance the land and the lives of a few lucky birds.

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Where Do All The Roosters Go?

When people talk about backyard chickens, they almost always mean backyard hens.  Many people think of their hens as pets, and enjoy watching them scratch around their back yards, turning weeds and grubs into cruelty-free fresh eggs.  Home-grown food is a beautiful thing, and providing a happy life for any living being is a kind and worthy endeavor, so I am not here to dissuade anyone from welcoming a few hens into their lives.  But have you ever considered, where do all the roosters go?

Roosters are one of the most unwanted, unloved, and unappreciated creatures on our planet. They don’t lay eggs, so it is hard to justify the cost of their upkeep.  They can also be noisy, aggressive, and even destructive, so some city ordinances and homeowners associations prohibit roosters. Since male chicks are unlikely to be adopted, most are killed soon after they hatch.  The others are usually slaughtered for meat before they reach adulthood.  If I wasn’t such an animal loving vegetarian, I might be okay with raising roosters for meat.  But since I am, I much prefer not to kill my animals if there’s any other choice about it.  While some people will keep one or two roosters in their flock, it is nearly unheard of to keep them all. In fact, it is so uncommon that I have only been able to find one non-rooster-killing homesteader in the whole wide web.

They may be hard to love, but roosters are far from worthless.  They are exceptionally beautiful, often possessing showy, multi-colored feathers.  Roosters are also valiant protectors of the flock. If kept with hens, they will raise the alarm when a predator is near, warning the hens to take cover. If push comes to shove, a good rooster will do battle with a predator, often sacrificing his own life to protect his hens.

The general consensus is that if you do decide to keep a few roosters with your hens, there should be no more than one rooster per twelve hens.  Otherwise, the hens may be injured from too much mating, and the roosters may fight (think: cock fights).  However, I don’t want to keep just one rooster for every 12 hens.  I prefer to keep all of my roosters, and statistically that means about one rooster for every one hen!  Although this is a very uncommon practice (almost nonexistent), I have developed a plan that just might work.  Maybe it will be successful, or maybe not, but either way I expect to learn valuable lessons, which I can then share with you.

I will define success based on three markers:

  1. No rooster should become overly aggressive towards other animals, such that the life or emotional welfare of another animal is threatened.
  2. No rooster should attempt serious harm towards a human being.
  3. Rooster upkeep must be affordable, or offset by products and services received from the roosters.

My plan to achieve these goals is as follows:

  1. House roosters in their own coop and run, apart from the hens.  Preliminary discussions with experienced chicken keepers indicate that roosters will be less inclined to fight if there are no girls to fight over.
  2. Provide ample space, food, and entertainment.  Chickens are less likely to engage in shenanigans if they are happy, healthy, and busy doing something more interesting than pecking each other.  I’m starting out with a much larger coop and run than they need, and I will move it every couple weeks to provide a continuous source of fresh plants and bugs.
  3. Select a docile breed, and certainly not one that was bred for cock fighting.  Rather than choosing the best egg layer or the breed I found most beautiful, I tried to choose the friendliest chickens.  Luckily, the Faverolles breed appears to possess very good egg laying skills, excellent winter hardiness, and beautiful feathers to go with their calm temperment.  Many people say this is the only breed of rooster they trust with their children.  I also love this because it is a rare heritage breed in threatened status.  I hope to play a role in preserving them for future generations by starting my own small breeding program.
  4. Let no talent be wasted.  Although they don’t lay eggs, roosters can still provide great fertilizer, work shifts on pest control duty, clear new vegetable garden beds, and clean up dropped fruits from the orchards.  Many roosters, including Faverolles, grow long, colorful feathers which fall out naturally during the annual molting period.  I plan to make art and jewelry out of these feathers, which can be sold to help pay for the cost of rooster food.  Most jewelry feathers aren’t obtained in such a patient manner, so I look forward to offering a kinder product.

I’ve been told that even if I do everything perfectly, there may come a time when one or more of my roosters becomes unacceptably aggressive. If the health and safety of the other animals are threatened, then I will make the kindest possible choice.  Maybe I can find a new home for the problem rooster, or rework his living situation.  Even if all else fails and a life must be taken, at least it will have been a good life. Unlike the day old male chicks thoughtlessly massacred at hatcheries, or the adolescent cockerels slaughtered while their meat is still tender, these birds will have lived a long, full life.

I am in the process of building two movable coops in anticipation of the 12 baby chicks who are scheduled to arrive in the spring.  Stay tuned for more chicken news!

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