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Chickens in the garden: possibilities in pest control.

"Hurry up! Ya'll run those hens out of the garden or we won't have any garden left!"

I had left the chicken yard gate open again. But my grandma was very patient with us. After herding them back in and assessing the damage, all was forgiven.

Years later after several more mass escapes into my garden, I began to notice that maybe chickens were getting a reputation as thieves that they didn't quite deserve. I sat by the edge of my garden and watched a few bantam hens who had managed to fly over the fence. They would happily cluck through the bean row scratching and pecking. After some time it became evident that the hens were virtually ignoring the vegetables. Every scratch and peck was deliberately aimed at some insect or an unidentifiable fragment in the soil. After a day of this foraging I checked my crops carefully and failed to see any significant damage.

Since then I have experimented with many aspects of using poultry for garden pest control. Birds are natural enemies of insects and are experts at searching out and destroying them. Few caterpillars or beetles can escape a hungry hen foraging from row to row. Admittedly, some people have had poultry raids in their gardens that resulted in crop disaster. There are a few problems associated with having chickens in the garden, but good management can make this technique a viable method of biological pest eradication.

Another benefit is that insects are a good source of protein for poultry. This can drastically cut commercial feed costs and improve your flock's health if monitored properly.

If you plan to try introducing your birds to the garden, here are a few basic guidelines I have learned:

1. Never use pesticides before or during foraging. Not only will it harm the birds, but their eggs and meat may be contaminated.

2. Make sure there aren't too many birds for the size of the garden plot.

3. Feed birds a little before turning them into the garden. Very hungry chickens sometimes will damage crops.

4. If possible use smaller breeds if you plan to allow regular foraging. Some crop damage is inevitable, but the smaller the bird, the smaller the,damage. I have found bantams (specifically Dutch bantams) to be ideal. Temperament is important also. Some breeds are naturally more "vegetarian" than others and will peck at foliage.

5. Keep birds out when young plants are first sprouting.

6. Don't give up. Experiment until the procedure works for you. The advantages usually outweigh any damages.

Your particular situation will dictate just how you will accomplish the task of managing your pest control army. The idea is to make things simpler, healthier, and more productive. As with most operations, a little organization and pre-planning is invaluable. If you are starting from scratch or are serious about having a highly manageable system, consider one of these methods:

Plan A - This arrangement is probably the ideal situation for integrating poultry and gardening. If space and finances allow, it should provide the easiest and most versatile management system possible. The exact dimensions can vary to accommodate your needs; just remember space requirements for the birds are important. Each bird needs at least four square feet of sheltered area and about 100 square feet of garden area. You may have to experiment with these numbers as breeds can differ in temperament and foraging. A safe method would be to start with half the number of birds.

In the diagram for plan A the housed area is 16 x 16 feet with a 8 x 16 mesh covered run. This allows inside space for storage of feed and supplies, a roost area, and a brood pen for young chicks.

Although your actual operating procedures may vary considerably, here is a typical plan to start with:

1. Early spring. Plow garden plots as soon as ground can be worked. Turn chickens immediately into both areas to eat grubs and other overwintering pests.

2. If you are reproducing your flock by incubator, begin collecting eggs. Begin incubation three weeks before your brood pen temperature can be maintained at a consistent 95 degrees.

3. Close off garden 1 and plant early crops such as potatoes, onions, cabbage family, and peas. (Fences may be used as trellises for vining crops if cultivation is still possible.)

4. Late spring. Place newly hatched chicks in brood pen after about four-to-five days of indoor love and care. Clean roost area and brood pen regularly and pile in a selected area to compost.

5. If plants in, garden 1 are growing well, turn in adult fowl to eat caterpillars and other early pests. Watch to make sure they aren't devouring young plants. If so, keep them in ran pen until plants are more mature.

6. Close off garden 2 and plant warm season crops. When these crops are mature turn in birds.

7. Summer. As soon as early crops are harvested, close garden 1 and replant with mid-season crops. (Late beans, corn, etc.) Cut back on grain when in run pens. Birds may be fed garden wastes while in run pens to supplement diet. Try feeding anything. They will decide what they don't want to eat.

8. Release chickens as needed in either garden to control pests. Alternate releasing young fowl periodically, but not with older ones yet. Cull young fowl down to a manageable number.

9. Harvest garden 2, close, and plant fall crops. (Note: this allows rotation of cabbage family crops needed for disease control.) If possible plant a few rows of turnips or mustard so there will be a winter crop of greens to supplement grain feeding.

10. As harvests dwindle and insect populations rise, allow all birds open access to both gardens. Cut back on grain feed and let birds forage freely.

11. Late fall. Mow garden areas and spread composted manure collected all summer. Plow under and allow birds to roam. You may want to leave a few rows on one side for winter foraging of hardy crops such as turnips or even a patch of winter rye, etc.

12. Winter. Allow birds to forage both areas for weed seeds, grubs, etc.

Plan B - If you don't choose to use the rotation plan you can still use some of the same methods in a single space garden. As with plan A this layout can vary considerably and still achieve good results. The only limitation is the amount of time the birds can have access to the garden area. This is due to the fact that most gardeners are constantly replanting and the young sprouts can be very appealing to hungry hens. Here is one possible schedule to follow:

1. Early spring. Plow garden plots as soon as ground can be worked and allow birds to eat grubs and other soil pests.

2. Plant potatoes and onions. Chickens usually will not bother these crops.

3. Late spring. Confine birds to run pens and plant other crops. If possible plant everything you intend to grow so that it matures together.

4. When all crops are up and growing release chickens into the garden area. Observe them for the first day to make sure they aren't destroying certain plants. Decrease grain feed gradually.

5. Chicks can't be mixed with the adults until mid-summer, so keep them in a separate coop or run area.

6. Summer. If fall crops are to be planted, the birds must be penned again for a couple of weeks. It is useful to plant a green crop such as turnips or mustard just for winter foraging.

7. Chickens may remain in garden area through fall and winter.
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Author:McWilliams, John
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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