Chickens – The Permaculture Gateway Animal

Originally published by Food Forest Abundance on 9/14/23 – by Graham Towerton.

I completed my permaculture design course with Geoff Lawton and distinctly remembered him calling chickens “the gateway animal of permaculture”, that is the first livestock animal that people will try and get hooked. So, certainly I’m hooked on chickens. On my parents’ farm in Australia we had chickens and ducks and I’ve had chickens here in the US whenever we’ve lived on a large enough property to have them. Here in Michigan we have a flock of over 70, with four roosters and the rest as hens of varying ages.

This article covers how to incorporate chickens as part of a permaculture property, the design of “chicken gardens” and how to provide as much food as possible from your farm or garden for your chickens. I’ll also touch on a few factors that affect the egg production of hens.

Benefits of Chickens in a Permaculture Designed Property

I aim to provide my chickens with a safe, healthy and peaceful place to live on my property. In exchange, I receive so many benefits in return:

  • Eggs – enough for our family and an excess to share, barter or sell. We share with family and friends, we barter for other inputs we need on our property and we sell eggs to cover the cost of supplemental feed and to pay the family members that care for the chickens each day
  • Processing chickens to become part of our food supply. We’ve usually only processed excess roosters to put in our freezer, but in the next 1-2 years we will incubate eggs, hatch and raise the chicks to add more food production of chicken as our most popular meat choice.
  • Fertilizer in the form of manure that is rich in nitrogen and has good quantities of phosphorus, potassium and calcium; organic matter and a range of micronutrients. A premium plant fertilizer if managed well and also abundant as one chicken will produce about 1 cubic foot of manure over six months.
  • Insect, grub and caterpillar control. The insect pressure on my plants and trees is greatly reduced as chickens will eat a wide variety of insects and insect larvae (grubs and caterpillars).
  • Weed and vegetation control. Chickens won’t eat every plant that I have on my property but they are great at keeping grass levels down and consume much of the seed produced by weedy plants.
  • Composting activities. I creatively use the chicken’s natural habits to turn over my compost piles, by piling up all my compost materials and letting them scratch and dig through it. I repeat this process 2-3 times per pile and end up with premium compost that is also already fertilized with their manure. I also have them perform the same work to spread piles of woodchips.
  • Garden clean-up. Our chickens are introduced into the garden areas at various times of the year to perform clean-up. Eating any berries or plant fruit that spoiled and dropped to the ground, cleaning up excess vegetation at the end of the year, digging and manuring the soil in the process.

With this list of benefits, it is hard to go past the chicken as being a very high “return on investment” as an addition to the permaculture farm or garden.

Factors Affecting Egg Production

Hens will produce an egg at a rate of one egg every 1-2 days. The world record production is over 350 eggs in one year, held by the Australorp breed. So what are the factors that affect egg production?

First and foremost is the amount of daylight each day. According to Dr. Jacquie Jacob of the University of Kentucky extension service (

”The total time a hen’s body takes to transform a yolk into a fully developed egg and lay that egg is about 25 to 26 hours. Typically, about 30 to 75 minutes after a hen lays an egg, the ovary releases the next ovum. However, the female chicken reproductive system is sensitive to light exposure, especially the number of hours of light in a day. In chicken hens, ovulation usually occurs under normal daylight conditions and almost never after 3:00 p.m. So, when a hen lays an egg too late in the day, the next ovulation occurs the following day, and the hen has a day when it does not lay an egg.”

It should be understood then, with the much shorter and darker days of winter, that egg production will naturally decline compared to summer. We’ve certainly noticed this decline with hens producing an egg every two days in winter (or about half the summer amount of total eggs from our flock).

Usually coinciding with winter is when a chicken moults, losing a majority of its feathers and then growing back new feathers. When moulting occurs, chickens put essentially all of their energy into feather growth and egg production may stop entirely.

The second most important factor affecting egg production, is the quantity and quality of food available for the chickens. Chickens are omnivores with their natural diet consisting of insects, grubs, larvae, plant seeds and green leafy plants (including grass). A chicken’s natural diet does not include the highly-processed grain feeds that are part of store-bought packaged feeds. These feeds should really only be seen as supplemental feeds to a diet which is gained from free ranging chickens on your property. There is obviously less naturally available food during winter, but I still free range my chickens through winter so they can find as much of their natural diet as possible and eat the supplemental feed only as needed.

Reading the labels of store-bought packaged feeds can reveal why these feeds may not be the optimum nutrition for your chickens. Chickens need a minimum of 18% protein in their diet and it must come from a variety of sources in order to ensure that their essential amino acid requirements are met. Some dietary recommendations for chickens include higher amounts of protein (20%+) for broiler chickens, new chicks or to improve overall health of the birds for optimum egg production. So, when a feed label states 12% crude protein, that’s not enough to be the sole dietary input for a chicken and their health and egg production will decline. Very few store bought chicken feeds have crude protein above 15-16% and some may only contain grain proteins (soy, corn, wheat) which might not balance a chicken’s amino acid requirements. Feeds with supplemental animal proteins (e.g. fish meal) are better for this reason. But the best diet is clearly free ranged on your property.

It is also a common practice to feed chickens crushed egg shells as a rich calcium supplement. I do not find a need to roast these first and our chickens will greedily eat the shell fragments when they are offered.

Designing a Chicken Garden

From a permaculture perspective, the incorporation of any livestock brings into consideration of how to provide food and forage for the animals in addition to the food requirements of the human population on the property. A good chicken garden will provide the following aspects:

  • Access to water – an essential need as chickens lose a lot of moisture in their manure.
    Access to a source of small stones or grit that chickens use in their gizzards to grind up shells, seeds and grains.
  • Night time shelter – a predator secure coop at night and safe locations to hide from aerial predators while free ranging during the day. Typical nocturnal predators include raccoons, possums, weasels and ferrets, so it is important that the coop has no small holes to allow these animals in. Windy drafts are the main problem for chickens, so while my flock survives well in an unheated building all through our Michigan winters, it is secure against cold drafts. We do keep our waterer heated so that the flock has water available in the coop at night time.
  • Day time shelter – most of the day-time predators are aerial. Hawks, eagles etc. I’ve not lost a chicken to aerial predators as my chicken garden has lots of tree canopy which allows a place to hide and restricts the easy flight access of aerial predators. The main chicken yard has a chicken wire cover combined with a canopy of grape vines.
  • Shade – in the heat of summer this is important as the chickens feathers can be quite warm!
  • Dirt/dust – chickens will give themselves a dust bath to help get rid of fleas and mites so having an area available for this is important.
  • Roosters – some cities and HOAs will allow hens but not roosters and I think this is a shame. In my close observation of our flock, roosters play a very important part of protecting and caring for the flock. Roosters will signal alerts when predators are present, will sometimes fight predators and will also identify to hens where food has been found – making very distinctly different clucking sounds for these different circumstances. Chickens have a very distinct verbal language and body language and roosters especially so. Roosters are not essential for having eggs, but are essential if you wish to fertilize the eggs for breeding new chicks.
  • A diversity of food plants – chickens know what they can eat and what they cannot if left to free-range in an open landscape. Motherwort is an example of a plant that chickens simply do not eat and it’s always the last plant left standing in any area that the chickens are working over. Access to seedy plants (grasses) and grains, leafy greens (dandelions, comfrey, chicory), tree leaves (chickens will eat fresh mulberry and locust leaves if chopped and dropped) and any other “weeds” are all sources of nutrition for chickens in a “free choice” diet. No doubt that my chickens also will clean up every single berry that drops from a tree or bramble bush and I have to exclude them from my strawberries or they will eat them all!
  • Other sources of food – our chickens receive the majority of our kitchen scraps that I used to compost. We have found very few things that they will not eat, with dried citrus peels being one example (though they will eat the white pithy part). I also provide my chickens with free access to all of my compost and wood chip piles. They will tear these apart in a matter of days and if I simply pile everything back up, they will keep doing it over and over. They are hunting for seeds, grubs, small insects, mycelium, chopped leaves and any other edible organic matter.
  • Fencing – I use this in the form of portable fences just so I can exclude the chickens from my active vegetable gardens during the growing season. Otherwise they will eat all the small seedlings, leafy greens and anything else that would be destined for my kitchen.
The coop for night time shelter with supplemental feed, waterers and roosting perches.
The front yard of our coop area in late fall with wood chips and smashed pumpkins for a treat.
Chickens working over a compost and woodchip pile. Roosters standing guard.
Chickens working over a mulched area, fertilizing, weeding and aerating the soil.
Chickens in coop under the shade of the grapevine cover.
Summer time shade under the walnut, elderberry, mulberry and brambles guild.

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