Cover Crop and Chicken Tillers

WHEN IT COMES TO GROWING FOOD, I REALLY LIKE THE IDEA of having your animals or the microorganisms do the hard work for you. I was first favorably exposed to this idea when reading about Joe Salatin and his Polyface Farm. Since then, I’ve written related articles about encouraging beneficial insects to combat your insect pests and using microorganisms to make kefir — all in the spirit of aligning yourself with natural processes so you don’t have to fight nature.

I’m also a big believer in growing cover crop as a cheap and inexpensive way to improve the soil. At the same time, I’ve always thought that turning cover crop by shovel or power tiller damaged the soil structure and adversely affected the beneficial organisms in the dirt, but I didn’t know a better way to prepare the beds for planting.

So it’s no wonder that I was interested when I read about using chickens to “till” cover crop in Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

Ussery suggests that chickens are a better way to prepare your beds. He notes that “if you leave [chickens] in one place long enough, they will kill the sod. Ah, but if you leave them in one place long enough, they WILL kill the sod.” The result of chicken tilling is ground that has:

1. Been stripped of vegetation and the top inch or so of dirt has been loosened.
2. Cover crop roots left in place to provide organic matter for microorganisms and water retention.
3. Been fertilized with high nitrogen chicken manure.

You could save a lot of work by:

1. Using tiller chickens to prepare a bed of weeds for planting.
2. Planting cover crop and letting it grow.
3. Bringing back the tiller chickens to shred the cover crop.
4. Planting your crops.

cover crop and chicken tillers

Chickens can take the work out of turning cover crop. (photo credit: Jessica Reeder, Margie Burks)

How Many Chickens?

The big questions are how many chickens will it take and how long before you can plant? Obviously, the more chickens you use, the less time it will take. The good news is if you have a small garden a few chickens can take care of the task. My estimate, based on Ussery’s figures, is two birds could easily scratch up 100 square feet in about two to three weeks. It could be more or less depending on the chickens and the ground conditions.

Another thought is that chicken tillers aren’t just limited to cover crop. They can do the same with any organic matter, for example, compost, horse manure or grass clippings.

Of course, the downside is what it takes weeks for chickens to do what a man with a power tiller can do in a day or two of back breaking work (of course, there would be no chicken manure). But it turns out that a man armed with fossil fuels and heavy machinery can’t do it as well as tiller chickens. Ussery reports that “the rapid increase in [soil] quality is an order of magnitude beyond anything you can do with a power tiller.” That wouldn’t be the first time that the natural way of growing food has turned out to be better than the man-made way.

Related articles you might enjoy:

1. Making Compost in a Chicken Coop
2. Raising Chickens: How Many Do You Need?
3. Making Soil – Chop and Drop

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