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This week's Book of the Week feature is Backyard Poultry Naturallyby Alanna Moore.

From Section 4: Housing Backyard Poultry

Which system?

There are several management systems you can use for poultry. Select one that best suits both you and the site, and be well organized before poultry arrive. 

Poultry are creatures of habit and, once settled into a system, they hate to be changed around or moved suddenly. If birds happen to be laying when moved, for instance, they'll do anything to get back to their old nest. So design well first.

The poultry system will need to take into account the following:

  • How much area is available?
  • How much access to your garden do you want the birds to have?
  • What predators do you expect?
  • What type of climate and seasons are experienced?
  • What are the hottest and coldest temperatures?
  • From which directions do the worst winds come?
  • Will you be breeding birds?

You will also need to consider some of the possible problems that can develop from the impact of poultry in the garden. 

Which is best: a fixed or mobile home? There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems, and it depends on your situation. I think a combination is ideal, especially if you intend to breed birds.

Permanent houses and pens

Many people inherent an old backyard shed, which can easily be converted into a birds' night house with a few sheets of corrugated iron and some perches. Make sure you plug up all gaps and holes that predators might get in.

Perches should be at a convenient height in relation to the breed of bird. Silkies, for instance, cannot jump up too high to perch, so their perches should be low.

Building with "petrified hessian"

A good, old-fashioned method for wall making and hole plugging is to use "petrified hessian", which is more flexible and aesthetically pleasing than sheet iron. 

To make a wall of petrified hessian, attached hessian (burlap) or a similar material (potato bags are good) to a solidly built frame and dampen it half an hour before beginning to coat it with cement. Do the job on a cool day or in the late afternoon when it is cool. 

The formula calls for:

1.3 gals (5 L) water

12 lbs (5.5 kg) cement

32 oz (900 g) lime

16 oz (450 g) salt

8 oz (225 g) alum

Sift the salt and lime through a fine sieve. Add the water and then the cement, stirring constantly, until the mixture is well blended. Then, stir in the alum.

Apply the concrete mix to the hessian immediately with a stiff brush, first on the outside, then on the inside. After the initial wetness disappears, but before the mixture sets, apply a second coat to the outside. When this final coat sets, the material will be quite hard and strong. The mixture should cover about 26 square feet.

Keep the surface damp for 3 days by spraying it with water. 

Soil Problems

Permanent housing or pen systems can result in soil problems. Land over-grazed by birds becomes unproductive. Fowl manure has a high fertilizer value, and too much fertilizer pollutes the soil. The manure is also very acidic, giving the soil a sour smell. Acidity frees up toxic elements, such as aluminum in the soil. (Sprinkle lime or dolomite on the soil to help counteract acidity.) Few plants can survive over-manuring and most die.

An ideal yard design: fowl can be given access to rotational yards to clean them up after vegetables are harvested.                    

Land over-grazed by birds also becomes eroded and compacted. Hard-packed soil has low fertility because it cannot absorb air. Healthy soil is dependent on its teeming microorganisms (4 billion in every teaspoonful!), which need oxygen to breathe. Lively soil grows the best food and such organically grown produce has recently been proven by American scientists to have the best food value, compared with chemically produced foods. 

To avoid soil problems, you might have to temporarily exclude birds from over-grazed areas by erecting fences; placing cages, wire or shade-cloth over some spots; or by resting fowl yards entirely. Carefully monitor the birds' environmental impact. Remove droppings before they build up and, ideally, add them to compost to make an excellent plant food (instructions for making compost are provided in "Backyard Poultry Produce"). 

Free-range poultry

Permanent night sheds can house birds that are allowed to free range through orchards or vegetable yards by day. This way you make positive use of their scratching and foraging to clear out spent vegetables, weeds and insect pests. But watch birds carefully, because after too much scratching, compaction will eventually occur. The heavier the breed, the worse it will be. 

As long as you are not overstocking, a free-range poultry system with a permanent night house can work well. (A sustainable stocking rate on pasture is about 50 birds to the acre, but this number may not intensive enough for vegetable bed tractoring.)

Areas immediately around the permanent shed will suffer the most wear and tear. A straw yard around the shed will greatly help, provided that the straw is regularly topped up.

With free-ranging fowl scratching around permanent plants, root zones can become exposed and young leaves pecked off. Ducks will dabble their beaks deep into compost and straw mulch. Design for prevention in this case. 

Valuable plants may have to be caged or their mulch zones secured. A heavy mulch of sticks, branches, bark or rocks will provide useful protection around the root zone. A tire or tree guard (such as a hessian bag) placed around plants will also help protect them. First work out just what you want to cage--the birds, or the plants?

About the Author:

Alanna Moore is an Australian eco-journalist, organic farmer, master dowser, author of the books Stone Age Farming and Divining Earth Spirit, and editor of the online magazine Geomantica. 

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