What information can you give me on integrating poultry into a garden?

C.J.West VirginiaAnswer: I am pleased to provide you with information on integrating poultry into a garden.A “chicken tractor” is a way to integrate poultry production with vegetable production. Andy Lee described his system in a popular book called Chicken Tractor (1). Birds are kept in small pens in a garden to provide fertility, tillage, and insect control. Lee uses a small floorless pen so the birds can forage and scratch. The pen is covered with wire and usually has a covered top or a small attached house. The pen is moved daily on fallow beds to add fertility and increase garden yields. The chickens also weed and till the beds and help control insects. Garden wastes are useful feed supplements. In addition to rotating the pen daily to a fresh spot, Lee suggests keeping the pen in one spot and adding fresh straw bedding daily to create a raised garden bed. Moving the pen after one month will leave a sheet-mulch on top of the beds to kill grass and weeds. According to producer Jean Nick, heavy broilers don’t really till the soil. “They just poop and stomp on it.” Layers are better at clearing weeds and bulbs and scratching the ground.You can download plans for chicken tractors from Washington State University at http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/soilmgmt/SusAg_PoultryCages.htm.Scientific studies have examined the impact of poultry on fertility, integrating birds with vegetable and forage production. Jim McNitt, PhD, (2) at Southern University and University of Illinois graduate student Ben Lubchansky (3) have conducted such examinations. See the References for the full report.Poultry can also be kept in gardens, fenced with portable electro-netting. Chickens help prepare the ground for vegetable planting by tilling. After harvest, birds clean crop residues in market gardens in the fall? turkeys are especially useful for this purpose. According to Andy Lee, “from October through Thanksgiving the turkeys can clean every bit of weeds and spent plants from the garden and leave a rich load of manure behind.” “Fold” houses in the United Kingdom allow flocks of chickens to help glean fields after crops are harvested. (4) Chickens are not generally appropriate for a producing garden, because they scratch up seeds or eat crops. According to Vermont producer Walter Jefferies, “I don’t let them in early in the season when the seedlings are getting started or late in the year when they’ll peck ripe veggies. Chickens, guineas, and ducks all work with some plants such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes at the right states.”References:(1) Lee, Andy. 1998. Chicken Tractor. Straw Bale Edition. Good Earth Publications. Buena Vista, VA. 320 p(2) Dr. Jim McNitt Small Farm Family Resource Development Center Southern University and A&M College Box 11170 Baton Rouge, LA 70813-0401 504-771-2262 504-771-5134 FAX jmcnitt@subr.edu(3) Lubchansky, Benjamin. 2005. The Agricultural and Ecological Functioning of a System Integrating Pastured Poultry and Raised-bed Vegetable Production. NC SARE Graduate Student Grant. GNC04-028.(4) Thear, Katie. 1997. Free-Range Poultry. Published by Farming Press Books, Ipswich, U.K. Distributed by Diamond Farm Enterprises, Alexandria Bay, NY. 181 p.