I just about quit homesteading (after 10 years).
After living the good life on my family farm near Asheville, NC, I was near done.
A chronic illness like Lyme disease will do that to a person. I was broke, physically and financially. I needed to be more efficient with my operation, or I’d go bust.
Then I stumbled across this video on Youtube where a guy name Geoff Lawton was giving a tour of his flat-out amazing farm. I’d never seen anything like it. EVERYTHING was working together, and it seemed so abundant and easy. And, I mean everything: Cows, goats, ducks, chickens, gardens, interns etc…
Turns out Geoff is pretty much the “grandson” of a design concept called Permaculture.
Geoff ended up being my teacher. (Yes, I flew all the way from NC to Australia to see his farm and train under him. If you dug a hole through the earth from my farm you’d end up in Australia. Can’t get any further than that.)
Back to my story.
Whether you already have chickens or you’re just thinking about getting started, it’s crucial — it’s key — to look as some of the Permaculture Design Conepts to increase your abundance without all that labor.
Design Concept #1: Location, Location, Location. It’s so dead simple, you might ignore it.
“The core of permaculture is design, and design is a connection between things … It’s the very opposite of what we’re taught in school. Education takes everything and pulls it apart and makes no connections at all. Permaculture makes the connections, because as soon as you’ve got the connection, you can feed the chicken from the tree.” – Bill Mollison, Granddaddy of Permaculture
The key to a prime location is placing elements of your system based on how they might interact and meet each other’s needs. Your elements are stuff like a garden, chicken run, orchard, wood pile, pond, cow field, etc…
Let’s take the case of the chicken and the tree that good ol’ Bill mentioned. You would place those elements (fruit tree and chicken run) within close proximity so they can easily provide for each other’s needs.
The tree needs debugging, sanitation, fertilizer, and the chicken needs food.
The two elements meet each other’s needs with minimal work from you. That’s permaculture!
4 Steps to Making Connections and Discovering Prime Location!
Step #1: Identify your elements.
Remember, elements are the “things” or systems of your property. Common examples include: the house, chicken run, garden, barn, woodpile, compost pile, pond, shed, pasture, etc.
Step #2: Make a list of the needs and outputs of each element.
(Ex: the garden needs compost, fertilizer, bug control, etc, and outputs vegetables, fruits, compost material, etc.)
Understand that each element should perform as many functions as possible. Just look at all the functions a chicken can do: Till, compost, spread materials, debug, sanitize, produce eggs/meat, etc. And, if you don’t know EVERYTHING that each element can do, don’t worry about it. Just do your best, continue to observe, study and improve. Look, if all you figured out was that chickens would like the shade of a fruit tree and that a fruit tree can give chickens some food then you’re off to a great start.
Step #3: Review each element and ask, “What are some needs of this element that can be met by the output of another element?” You might notice that the garden needs fertilizer and the chicken gives manure. Congrats, you’ve made a connection.
Step #4: Draw your elements, cut them out, and begin arranging them in various ways to explore how you could best place them to meet each other’s needs.
Not an artist? My buddy (Ben Capozzi) has created a PDF of some popular elements for you to cut out and arrange! You can get that here! Or grab an old copy of Mother Earth News or something like that and cut out those elements and play around with it.
Here’s a sample of one of Ben’s amazing illustrations!
As you begin to place your elements be sure to ask yourself, “Are there any places where this element would be incompatible with other systems?” If you live close to a public road, you probably don’t want to put your chicken system there.
A Closer Look at What a Chicken Gives (and needs):
Here is an infograph I created to help you make connections between your chickens and common farm elements.
Design Concept #2: Basic Needs are Supported by Many Things.
As my first permaculture instructor, Chuck Marsh, would always say, “redundancy is key.” He always emphasized the importance of having basic needs (such as water, food, energy, and fire protection) served in two or more ways.
In the winter, I primarily heat my home with a wood stove, but I also have a furnace for backup. With chickens, we’re gonna want as much redundancy as we can get.
To create redundancy in your chicken feeding program, for instance, you could plan on rotating your chickens through the yard/pasture, getting food scraps at the grocery store, having your chickens near the garden (during and after the growing season), creating worm bins, and the list could go on and on.
Design Concept #3: Efficiency Planning
This is the concept that got me interested in permaculture in the first place. If you only learn one concept, this is it.
Permaculture helps us harness efficient energy by considering 3 different aspects called zoning, sector, and slope.
Energy Planning Aspect #1: Zone Planning
Zoning is the idea of placing elements according to how often you use them or how often you need to service them. Each element receives a zoning score. Zoning scores are based on how often you need to visit a particular element, ranging from 1-5. High frequency areas such as a kitchen garden, greenhouse, or chicken run are zoned low (1-2) and would be placed close by. Less frequently visited places like orchards, pastures, and woodlots are zoned higher (3-4), and are placed further away.
Here’s How to Zone Your Property:
Estimate the number of visits for each element over a certain period of time. (How often do you need to visit the chickens per week or per year? The garden? The woodlot?)
Obviously, the elements with the most frequent visits will need to be as close to the house as possible. Here’s an example of a zone breakdown by the man himself, Bill Mollison. Notice the kitchen garden in zone one, and intensive chicken (and tree systems) in zone two, and lower intensity systems further out.
General Breakdown of the Zones:
Zone 0 – House
Zone 1 – Close to the house. These are the most controlled elements which are quickly used once harvested. This includes things like the garden, workshop, greenhouse, cold frames, small animal systems, wood piles, compost, clotheslines, etc.
Zone 2 – Chickens and animals with frequent care (rabbits), ponds, hedges, small orchards, pruned orchards, etc.
Zone 3 – Unpruned orchards, large pastures, main crop, water sources, etc.
Zone 4 – Semi managed/semi wild elements. Unpruned trees, hardy foods, wildlife/forest management, timber, etc.
Zone 5 – Unmanaged “wild” system. This is our classroom where we observe and learn only! No alterations!
The Chicken Zone “Sweet Spot”!
In many cases, out of all your elements, chickens might get THE most visits per year. If that’s the case (and it’s socially acceptable for you), put them in the front yard! I do.
In general, the zoning sweet spot for chickens is somewhere between zones 1 and 2! Ideally, the chickens should be next to the kitchen garden with access to zone 2’s orchards, crop gardens, and animal runs.
Planning for Zones …
1) List the elements of your system and include how many times you visit each one throughout the year.
2) Create a new map of your property similar to the one you’ve already drawn (or laid out) for “Relative Location.” (If possible, place your paper elements over a larger piece of paper.) Now, see if you can draw your zone lines based on how often you visit each element.
3) Place your cut out elements in the zones of your property.
Energy Planning Aspect #2: Sector Planning
Sector planning is the consideration of the wild energies like the sun, wind, wildlife and natural waters. These are the natural resources you can find on your property.
When placing elements into your system, it’s good to consider fire danger areas; cold and damaging winds; hot, salty, dusty winds; and winter/summer sun angles.
Take chickens, for example: In a cold climate, you’d want to face their housing towards the sunny side and block off the windy side. You might also want to install some natural tree shrubs on the windy side to keep them protected in the winter.
Planning for Sectors …
Take a look at your map and sketch in the relevant wild energies that affect your property and adjust as needed.
Energy Planning Aspect #3: Slope Planning
Analyzing the slope of the land can be critical in placing your chickens. You may want to place your chickens below water and material sources to take advantage of gravity. I’ve taken advantage of slope by having the local public works dump their leaves off the side of my road onto a bank. I can easily move the material downhill where I make compost for the chickens, or where I need mulch for a garden.
Another really cool thing I’ve done is place the chickens downhill from the pond. Then, I use gravity to create an “everflow” watering system that’s always cold, always clean, and NEVER freezes.
Here’re two of my Vlogs where I set up the waterer and explain it:
Planning for Slope …
Take a good look at your land to discover any slope that you could take advantage of, and adjust your layout accordingly.
Design Concept #4: Using Biological Resources (Plants and Animals)
In permaculture, we use biological systems, when possible, to do the work on our property! It’s important to understand that plants and animals can provide fuel, fertilizer, tillage, insect control, weed control, nutrient recycling, habitat enhancement, soil aeration, and fire control.
Chickens, for example, can replace…
- Pesticides by eating bugs and grubs.
- Machine tillers by scratching.
- Fertilizers by applying their manures.
- Herbicides by eating weeds.
Here’s a poster I made to show the working power of ONE chicken:
With chickens, we’ll want to consider what they have to offer and plan accordingly.
We may want to place them in a central location so that we can take advantage of their working abilities. Or you could keep their system flexible and mobile so that they can be moved around from job to job.
You may want them on your garden plot in the early spring to fertilize and till, and you could then move them out to the orchard for a week of sanitizing, and then follow the cattle during fly season! (They eat the fly larva and spread the cow manure).
Keep in mind that with biological resources, it’s all about timing.
Tiller chickens, for example, are much slower than a machine tiller. With “tiller chickens,” you’d need to give them ample time before you plant. But, if you have the time to spare, it’s much easier and cheaper to let the chickens do your work for you.
Planning for biological resources.
Take a look at your farm and make sure that your chickens are placed to take the most advantage of the work they can do. Consider having a “home base” for your birds, then plan on moving them around as workers of your property.
Design Concept #5: Energy Cycling
Permaculture strives for a local community that can provide all nutritional requirements while not sacrificing quality or destroying the land that feeds it. This is true self sustainability.
When we can meet all of our own needs locally, we save in costly transports and packaging. Permaculture systems seek to stop the flow of nutrients and energy off the site and turn them into cycles. For example, kitchen scraps can be fed to chickens instead of being thrown away. We can collect leaves in the fall and use them for mulch or compost in the garden. In Australia, they not only collect rain water for their gardens, they use it for their drinking water.
Planning for energy cycling.
When considering chickens, we want to think about how to use them to keep energy on our homestead. Double check your element placement to take the most advantage of energy cycling.
Design Concept #6: Small Scale Intensive Systems
Permaculture teaches us that it’s best to start small and intensive and go from there. Going small means using land efficiently, and the site stays under control.
Bill Mollison gives wise advice to those wanting to know where to start in managing their property: “If you want to know how to control your site, start at your doorstep.”
Stay close to the house and work towards developing a small, intensive system. Don’t worry about doing everything at once.
As for starting small with chickens, allow me to suggest the following…
Starting Small with Chickens…
- Start with just 6-12 layer chickens.
- Buy them from a local breeder if possible; as you’ll have more support.
- Buy a hardy and common breed that lays eggs (Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, Buff Orpington, Black Australorp or similar)
- Buy or build a chicken tractor for their housing (this type of housing has access to the ground and is mobile).
- Use temporary electric net.
- Buy GMO free or organic feed and let them eat “free choice”.
Need help getting started with chicken? Read my “Ultimate Guide to Getting Started with Chickens” article.
Notes on Permanency:
I say to use mobile housing and temporary netting because you want to be flexible.
You’re probably new to this and you might think one place is a great location, but the next year realize it should be different. A good rule of thumb is to use temporary fencing and housing until they’ve stayed in one place for at least 3 years. Then, you can build something more permanent.
Planning for Small Scale Intensity
Take into consideration your minimum operation and go from there.
Design Concept #7: Diversify
Permaculture values diversity of species for the benefit of a more secure food system all year long. When planning your chicken operation, you’ll want to be as diverse as possible to successfully extend your seasons and enjoy their products year round.
Ways to Diversify Your Chickens:
- Select early, mid, and late season breeds. For example, you may want to have a few chickens that lay well in the winter and some that do better in summer’s heat.
- You could use the same breed of chicken, but spread out your hatching times, or buy new chicks at different times instead of all at once.
- Select breeds that give the most of what you’re looking for naturally.
- Select multi-purpose birds that are good for meat, laying eggs, and for working.
- Use techniques of preserving for year round food: freezing, canning, and cool storage (eggs).
- Consider regional trade at different altitudes or latitudes for a variety of food.
Planning for Diversity!
Take a moment and consider how you might diversify your flock based on the suggestions above.
Design Concept #8: Edge Effect
Edges are the boundaries between two ecologies: land/water; forest/grassland; crop/orchard, etc. Edges are more productive areas because they can tap the resources of both systems. Permaculture design seeks to take advantage of this edge effect whenever possible. Look at the historic placement of our settlements. Often, settlements lie between foothills, forests and plains. In our overall homestead design, we want to place our homes (and our chickens) in these sweet spots.
Consider how you might take advantage of an edge with your chickens. Could you place part of their run in your woods, and the other part of their run in your yard? If you have a larger homestead, you could run your chickens in paddocks along the woods’ edge. If you’re in town and beside the road, could you run the chickens next to the road?
Take Advantage of the Edge Effect.
Take a minute and identify some possible edge effects.
Design Concept #9: The Problem Can Be a Solution
Selah, the farm manager at Geoff Lawton’s Zaytuna Farm in Australia, taught us: “The core of the problem is the seed for a solution.”
Permaculture loves to take a problem and turn it into a solution. Often, it boils down to how we look at things. Everything works both ways. Every resource is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how we look at it.
Let’s look at the “problem” of weeds and slugs in the garden. These “pests” can be detrimental for our garden harvest, but when you start looking at those weeds and bugs as a food source for your chickens, everything changes. Suddenly, those weeds and bugs are a blessing, not a curse.
Planning to turn problems into solutions.
Identify the “problems” of your homestead and think about how those problems may be a solution for something else.
Got boggy land? Then build a pond or plant water crescent!
Got a shady backyard? Install shade loving plants!
Now it’s time to get some chickens!
If you need info on how to get started with chickens, check out my article, “Ultimate Guide for Getting Started With Chickens”.
Now that you have some basic design principles, I hope that you can move forward with your chicken operation with confidence.
Don’t forget to grab Ben’s Permaculture Design cut-outs here.